The tide has taken a decisive turn against the big six energy providers, with British Gas conceding it has lost almost half a million customers in the past 15 months following much-criticised price rises.
The company admitted yesterday that it lost 362,000 accounts last year, after a 9.2 per cent rise in prices in November accelerated an exodus of financially-struggling customers. A further 100,000 have left so far this year.
Together with lower-than-normal energy use due to the mild winter, the exodus pushed down profits at British Gas’s owner, Centrica, by six per cent to £571m for 2013.
Campaigners arguing against increasing energy bills said even this reduced profit level was far too high and demonstrated the need to shake up the energy market to make it more competitive.
Adam Scorer, director of Consumer Futures, said: “The announcement of Centrica’s profits will inevitably cause anger at a time when so many customers are struggling to pay their bills. But anger won’t help customers, only action to reduce their exposure to rising prices will.”
He said the energy regulator Ofgem “needs to deliver vigorous competition in the market”, and that customers should channel their anger into finding a cheaper provider.
Centrica fought back, however, claiming customer switching was now “stabilising” after it scaled back its price rise by 3.2 per cent last month following a shake-up of the government’s so-called green levies on bills.
Rick Haythornthwaite, Centrica’s chairman, also launched a tirade against the Energy Secretary Ed Davey and the Labour leader Ed Miliband for “immensely damaging” political interference.
He said these interventions – chiefly Mr Miliband’s pledge last September to freeze energy bills for two years, and Mr Davey’s suggestion last week that British Gas could need to be broken up because of its large market share and high profit margins – increased the chance of the “lights going out”.
The damage was not only being done to Centrica – which had lost about £4bn of its stock market value since Mr Miliband made his price freeze pledge – but to the country as a whole, he said.
“I think it [the current political debate] is immensely damaging, not just for Centrica, but for the nation,” he said. “I think the reputation of Britain as a place in which to invest is under threat and the time to correct that is now, not after the 2015 election.
Mr Haythornthwaite admitted “there are issues around customers trust and service levels”, but insisted its reputation “in the eyes of our customers is vastly better than one would be led to believe from the media and political commentary.”