Yes, my energy company makes a profit. So what?

Time for a more objective debate.

Last week the Labour Party released figures highlighting that the major energy companies collectively had made increased profit levels from their generation and supply businesses since the last general election.  This theme is one that requires an objective public debate as the UK faces up to the energy challenges that lie ahead.

I understand that some people, many of whom may be Labour Party members, believe that utilities – like the company I lead – should never have been privatised and so any level of profit is unacceptable.  That’s a perfectly legitimate view to hold, but it is not the policy of any leading political party.  For as long as energy companies are privatised and shareholder-owned companies we are required to pay our shareholders a return on their investment.

That being so, surely the real question – if I may be so bold – is: what level of profit is reasonable for a publically listed energy company to make? Clearly we provide a vital service and so we cannot make unfettered profits.  But we have been very clear for some time now that in domestic energy supply we target a profit margin that averages just five per cent over the medium term.  Recent polling suggests that most people think that is a reasonable amount to make. Indeed, it’s a smaller margin than most food retailers and in recent years our Energy Supply business has made less than that. The overall profits might seem high, but they come from almost ten million customer accounts.

Labour looked beyond supply and also examined the generation side of our businesses.  It’s true that profit margins here can be higher but they are absolutely necessary to support inherently riskier, more complex investments like power stations. And why do we need that investment? To deliver on the energy policy commitments of this government and the ones before it.

For years now energy policy has been aimed at decarbonising the UK’s energy system. The Climate Change Act of 2008, supported across the political spectrum, requires slashing carbon emissions by 80 per cent on 1990 levels by 2050. To do this without drastic changes to all of our lifestyles, most of the burden of this will fall on the electricity generation sector, where highly polluting power stations will have to close and be replaced with more expensive, low-carbon alternatives. I don’t disagree with this aim – quite the opposite – but politicians, the media and indeed the general public must all confront the fact that these policies come with a price tag.

Once you bring in necessary upgrades in the regulated transportation infrastructure, oft-quoted government estimates put the amount of private sector investment needed by 2020 at as much as £110bn. Whatever the final sum, it will require an awful lot of investment decisions to be made. And if each individual investment does not stand alone economically, it cannot be undertaken. Therefore the sheer increase in volumes of this investment will mean that, even if profit margins per investment are not increasing, the absolute level of profit will have to increase. It is a simple fact of economics.

Where the profit then goes is also critical. At SSE we are proud to invest only in the UK and Ireland, and we use the British supply chain where we can too, such as the £500m we put into it when developing our Greater Gabbard wind farm off the Suffolk coast. As a UK-listed company we pay tax on our profits here in the UK (£369m last year), we employ around 20,000 people across the UK and Ireland – many in remote areas where such jobs are invaluable to the local economy – and we also invest in R&D, skills, training and apprenticeships.  

I accept we have a unique role in the UK society and with that privilege comes responsibility. I have also been around long enough to know that Labour’s focus on the big energy companies is a fact of political life in a functioning democracy, but this over-simplification of profits failed to take account of how this profit underpins vital investment and services that help the country to function.  I am not pretending SSE or other companies are perfect, but that must not stop us from having a genuine debate around the future of energy in the UK and how we are going to pay for it through proper economic investment.

For customers, higher group profits will clearly be difficult to reconcile with the increases they have seen in prices in recent years. But this debate is too important to be reduced to just prices versus profits. For all the investment we make, we estimate that only 15 per cent of a typical bill is within our direct control. It’s time for government, opposition and industry alike to have an open, objective conversation about how to meet the challenges ahead of us while protecting customers from rising costs.
 

Photograph: Getty Images

Alistair Phillips-Davies is Chief Executive of SSE plc

Getty
Show Hide image

Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.