Ed Davey suggested British Gas had charged one of the highest prices to domestic customers in the last three years. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Six questions answered on Centrica's share price fall after suggestions British Gas could be broken-up

Why is Ed Davey investigating British Gas’s profit margins?

British Gas owner, Centrica, suffered a fall in share price today after the UK energy secretary investigated its profit margins and suggested the company may have to be broken up. We answer five questions on the potential break-up of British Gas.

By how much has Centrica’s share price fallen?

The share price fell by 3 per cent today after energy minister Ed Davey questioned the company’s dominance in the market. British Gas currently has 41 per cent of the domestic gas supply market in the UK, the largest share of any of the so-called "big six".

Why is Ed Davey investigating British Gas’s profit margins?

Davey said in a letter that profit margins made by the "big six" energy suppliers when supplying gas were actually higher than previously thought. In particular, he highlighted the high profit margin of British Gas and its large market share. He added that British Gas had charged one of the highest prices to domestic customers in the last three years.

He estimated that if gas margins were similar to electricity households would save on average up to £40 a year. Davey also provided information that showed Centrica saw profit margins of 11.2 per cent for its gas business in 2012. He suggested a market investigation.

Why has Davey said British Gas may have to be broken-up?

If an investigation found evidence of a monopoly this could result in the company being broken-up. As well as asking the competition authorities to investigate the profit margins as part of an ongoing review, he has written to energy regulator Ofgem and the Competition and Markets Authority asking them to consider all possible avenues "including a break-up of any companies found to have monopoly power to the detriment of the consumer".

What else has Davey said?

Mr Davey told the BBC: "This is a significant issue for consumers out there who are struggling with their energy bills."

In his letter he says: "Analysis of the profit margins of the energy companies shows that the average profit margin for gas is around three times that of electricity.

"There is also evidence that British Gas, the company with the largest share of the gas domestic supply market, has tended to charge one of the highest prices over the past three years, and has been on average the most profitable."

What has British Gas said about Davey’s comments?

In its statement, British Gas said: "We welcome this and have complied with all the requests for data which we have received.

"The data referred to in the Secretary of State's letter has already been fully disclosed and in the public domain for a number of weeks."

What have the independent experts said?

Some have queried why this publicly available information hasn’t been investigated by Ofgem already.

However, Richard Lloyd, the executive director of the consumer rights group Which?, told the BBC the intervention was hugely significant and suggested Davey agreed with Which? that the structure of the biggest energy companies is partly to blame for the price hikes.

"It will now put huge pressure on the regulators, in a matter of weeks, to announce that they're taking the first steps towards potentially breaking up the very biggest of the big energy companies," he added.

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.