Five questions answered on British Gas’s 2012 profit rise

"So no, I don't think customers will be celebrating."

British Gas today announced a profit rise for 2012. We answer five questions on the energy company’s rising profits.

By how much exactly did British Gas’s profits rise in 2012?

The company said it profits rose 11 per cent, with gas usage up 16 per cent.  

British Gas’s parent company, Centrica, also reported an adjusted operating profit of £2.7bn for 2012, up 14 per cent from 2011.

Where does British Gas say this rise comes from?

The company attributed the profit rise to customers turning up their heating in the cold weather and not to the 6 per cent gas and electricity prices rise it enforced in November of last year.

Chief Executive of Centrica Sam Laidlaw speaking to the BBC said that the firm’s profit margins per household were actually down and that the company had made just under £50 profit per customer household.

Have Centrica’s dividends to shareholders risen?

Yes, by 6 per cent. The company is also returning £500m to them.

What are the company’s critics saying?

Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at the price comparison website Uswitch, told the BBC: "Seven out of 10 of us actually went without heating at some point during this winter and over a third of us have reported that we feel it's actually affected the quality of our life and also our health.

"So no, I don't think customers will be celebrating. I think they'll be wondering why on earth British Gas had to take this move in November when they are making such high profits."

What is Centrica’s saying in response to this criticism?

Also speaking to the BBC Chief Executive Sam Laidlaw said he recognized that times were “difficult” for UK households but insisted British Gas couldn’t have done any more to shield customers from price rises.

He added that "a 5pc margin on the business is the sort of margin we require,” and that Centrica provided a “vital source of energy to the UK.”

"Centrica is one of the UK’s most important companies, employing around 40,000 people, keeping homes warm and well lit, securing future energy supplies, innovating and investing and paying substantial amounts of tax to the Treasury each year," Mr Laidlaw said.

"We also have over 700,000 individual shareholders, all of whom benefit from the dividends the Company pays. Through our larger shareholders, many of them pension funds, our dividends also feed into the retirement savings of millions of people. It is important therefore that the group continues to grow and invest." Laidlaw said.

Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.