Amol Rajan: The Big Six make profits while the elderly shiver

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The Independent Online

So, gas and electricity prices are going up again. This morning, we're expecting the announcement of a rise in the "high single digits", close to the nine per cent increase from rival Scottish & Southern Energy that comes into being on Monday.

Three bits of context make this unpalatable. First, parent company Centrica's first-half profit was up 15 per cent to £1.45bn, including £345m – a 23 per cent rise – from supplying power and heating to homes. So the profits of the six big energy companies are not being passed on to consumers.

Second, winter fuel poverty is an appalling and worsening problem. The latest research suggests around 7,800 people died through cold last year. A society in which the poor are forced to choose between heating and eating is uncivilised and unjust.

Third, we are in recession, jobs are scarce, wages are depressed and food inflation is rising sharply. It turns out both heating and eating are getting dearer.

Raging at this injustice is often mere howling against the wind. No government, says Energy Secretary Ed Davey, can control world energy prices. That's obvious. It's also the case that respectable profits are needed to fund the research these big companies undertake, as well as the infrastructure of a modern energy marketplace.

But you and I live in a country where grandmothers in Bolton and Bristol will die this Christmas because of the chill in their chest. What is to be done? Martin Hickman, this newspaper's peerless Consumer Affairs Correspondent, has written brilliantly on this subject for years.

He makes the point that the finite supply of fossil fuels and increased demand from emerging economies means prices are bound to rise in the long-term. But supermarket giants make a lower relative profit, and do better by their consumers, because there are more of them. Competition is good. Smashing the energy monopoly is an urgent task.

Better insulation, clearer bills that aren't designed to confuse, and less doorstep mis-selling would all help too. So would means-testing the winter fuel allowance.

Finally, there is this thing called politics. We cannot expect it to solve all our problems; but we can expect not to be left to die in a civilised country. If you find it hard to read about the profits of Centrica while keeping an image of the shivering elderly in your mind, remember that thousands of those very people will die in our country before Christmas. If that's not a spur to political action, what is?