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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.