Five questions answered on the wholesale gas price fixing allegations

Regulators are investigating claims wholesale gas prices have been manipulated by major gas companies. We answer five questions on the gas pricing fiasco.

What exactly are the allegations being made? 

Major energy companies are being accused of manipulating the wholesale price of gas in the same way banks have manipulated libor. 

Energy companies buy gas at wholesale price then sell it onto to homes and businesses. On the 26 September gas companies are alleged to have made unrealistic bids at a time when data was being collected to set the wholesale price, they area alleged to have done this in order to suit their own situation rather than making a realistic bid.

Who discovered this alleged price-fixing? 

The whistle was blown by Seth Freedman, who worked at ICIS Heren, a financial information company that publishes energy price reports.

The Guardian report that Freeman flagged up a set of suspiciously low trades he believed were designed to depress ICIS Heron’s ‘day ahead’ price on the 28th September. One trader told Freeman in regards to the range of prices quoted on the 28th September:

There's a feeling among some people that somebody's taking the piss a bit on the day-ahead index.

ICIS Heren also told the BBC it had:

Detected some unusual trading activity on the British wholesale gas market on 28 September 2012, which it reported to energy regulator Ofgem in October.

Does wholesale price manipulation affect consumer prices?

Not directly as the price is being manipulated to be lowered. Wholesale gas price makes up an average of 45 per cent of consumers bills so lowering it shouldn’t affect bills. However, it is still a damaging discovery as Freeman has explained: 

There's certainly a link. They [the power companies] are telling you: Look, in order to make our profits and cover our costs and so on, we have to give a price to retail customers which reflects the cost to us.

But if you can't trust the market at a wholesale level, it becomes a crisis of confidence. People at retail level are just thinking, "I don't trust these companies" - and it needs to be scrutinised.

What has been the response of energy providers?

The big six energy providers have all released statements denying the claims. However, some of these ‘big six’ are currently being investigated by the Financial Services Authority and Ofgem. 

What has government said?

Energy Secretary Ed Davey will make a statement in the House of Commons today, but he has already said he is extremely concerned about the allegations. 

The Treasury Secretary, Greg Clark, spoke of the seriousness of the allegations to the BBC, saying:

Any scintilla of doubt that the participants cannot be trusted has a tremendously important effect.

I think it's very straightforward. When someone breaks the law, they should be punished, and when it's as serious as this, they should be punished very severely. And it's as true for stealing through financial manipulation as it is, frankly, for breaking and entering.

Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear