The shamelessness of the energy companies shows why we need a price freeze

British Gas's suggestion that households should simply use less energy is blackly humorous. But customers won't see the funny side.

Following last week’s announcement that SSE, the biggest supplier of energy to Welsh households, is to increase prices by 8.2%, yesterday came the announcement that Britain’s second biggest supplier, Centrica (AKA British Gas) is to follow suit with a 9.2% hike. Though customers will not see the funny side, the press release from British Gas, defending its decision, is a blackly humorous read. It begins with an acknowledgement that Ed Miliband is right: "the cost of living is rising faster than incomes". Then there’s a passage of hand-wringing regret that despite these tough times for customers, our bills have to go up by almost 10% to maintain their profitability. Before, finally, in a statement almost beyond parody, the company’s managing director, Ian Peters, reassures us: "A price rise doesn’t necessarily mean energy bills have to go up too. The amount you pay depends not just on the price, but on how much gas and electricity you use."
 
And he’s right, of course. You could just not turn on the boiler or the cooker and save a fortune. Why didn’t we think of that earlier? It would certainly make life easier for David Cameron, who, having so spectacularly failed to stand up to the energy companies in the interests of ordinary families, looks like a man who would give anything to make the problem go away.
 
Since I was having such fun reading the press release, I thought I’d take a look the Annual Accounts and Report for British Gas’s parent company, Centrica, to see if they were as much of a laugh. I was not disappointed.
 
Sam Laidlaw, the group’s chief executive, concludes his introductory remarks with the cool observation that "Centrica has a robust balance sheet and generates strong cashflows". He’s not kidding. British Gas – the bit putting up their prices today – made a post-tax profit of £1.09bn last year, up from the £1.01bn it made in 2011, though not as much as the £1.22bn it made in 2010. Within that consistent £1bn-plus profit, the sales to residential customers have been looking good too: up to £606m from the £544m posted in 2011.
 
The bit of the company generating the energy to sell to British Gas (i.e. itself) is called Centrica Energy, and its numbers are even better. In 2012, the energy generation arm made a post-tax profit of £1.2bn, £200m better than the year before and £500m better than 2009, the last year a Labour government was in charge. Little wonder the smiles are so broad on the faces of the board members’ pen-pictures, when share prices have risen by a third since May 2010 and top managers’ salaries with them: Mr Laidlaw’s total remuneration was almost £5m in 2012, his understrapper at British Gas making do with £3m.
 
What the accounts don’t tell us, of course, is the real amount it costs Centrica to generate the energy which it then sells on to British Gas at the going market rate – a market rate that itself reflects the wholesale prices set by the big six companies. It’s a circular process - in which the only real loser appears to be the paying customer at the end of the pipeline or the power cable, watching nervously as the wheel spins ever faster in the black-box under the stairs. Labour can’t stop the wheel turning, but we can freeze the price of each revolution and therefore your overall bill. And we will.
The entrance to Leicester's British Gas Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump