Ed Davey suggested British Gas had charged one of the highest prices to domestic customers in the last three years. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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

Flickr/Zappys Technology Solutions
Show Hide image

Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.