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

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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