James Ashton: Energy bosses' failure to show up for parliamentary grilling may haunt them

  • @mrjamesashton

Outlook It used to be that the main business of politics took place in the chambers and meeting rooms of the Houses of Parliament. Take a look at yesterday's agenda if proof were required that the power wielded by our elected members has crossed the road to Portcullis House. This is where the big issues of the day are being addressed: rising power bills, struggling banks and the ailing high street.

Before the Big Six energy bosses were grilled, the hapless Co-op banking boss Barry Tootell was forced to explain to the Treasury Select Committee how the ethical lender found itself so short of capital as it attempted to buy the Verde branches from Lloyds. To blame, in part, the payment protection insurance scandal for the balance sheet black hole is a bit rich. If the Co-op hadn't mis-sold to customers in the first place, it wouldn't have had to carry the cost of repaying them, now would it?

For the early risers, there was also former Iceland boss and self-appointed retail guru Bill Grimsey passing judgement on how to save our shopping thoroughfares for the benefit of the Business, Innovation and Skills committee.

To dismiss the workings of these committees as generating plenty of heat but not much light is an outmoded view. The timely review from Margaret Hodge's public accounts committee into the Thameslink upgrade, a fiasco that once again questions whether government has the skills to manage major infrastructure projects, provides plenty of evidence to support that.

The select committees have long ago moved on from kangaroo courts where ill-briefed politicians compete to deliver soundbites. Andrew Tyrie and Jesse Norman on the Treasury committee are landing more than punches these days. Peter Lilley and Tim Yeo on Energy are similarly clued up to investigate whether the narrow range of this latest round of price rises is tantamount to collusion.

Over several years of inquiries, the banking industry has learnt to take select committees seriously. Bob Diamond's car-crash performance spelled the premature end to his career at Barclays. Some lay blame for Paul Tucker failing to succeed Lord King as Governor of the Bank of England on his appearance as part of the Libor investigation.

All of which makes it even more inexplicable that most energy companies treated yesterday's hearing so casually. The fact is, they may have represented the Big Six, but the so-called bosses that turned up to give evidence were distinctly medium-sized.

Where was Vincent de Rivaz, EDF Energy's real boss? Presumably still counting the profit the company will make from striking a deal to build a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point.

From Centrica, Sam Laidlaw and the newly promoted Chris Weston were both absent, instead dispatching Ian Peters, British Gas's newest whipping boy, to take the bullets.

But the biggest surprise was the absence of Npower's Paul Massara, the rising anti-hero of the energy sector. He finds the time to pen columns for Sunday newspapers and tweet about his rivals' price increases, but not to face the music when government representatives ask him to do so.

The broader point is that, other than the odd soundbite captured on TV news bulletins, here is the forum through which bosses can be seen explaining themselves, warts and all, to their customers. Not even showing up shows a greater disregard than hiking prices in tandem in the first place.