Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Never mind the customers, pity the poor executives

Despite differences, the committee was united in its disdain for the companies

Putting up your energy prices hurts us more than it hurts you. That was the shock revelation during the testimony of Britain’s “Big Six” utility companies. SSE “regrets profoundly” having to raise customer costs by 10 per cent, said William Morris, its managing director. “None of us want prices to rise.”

British Gas “thought deeply” before whacking 9.2 per cent on to bills, explained its managing director Ian Peters. It’s “the hardest decision we take”, insisted Neil Clitheroe, chief executive of Scottish Power, which is raising charges to 2.2 million customers by 8.6 per cent.

Our sympathies immediately switched to the boardrooms of the energy giants, where sweating, grim-faced directors had sensitively agonised about the suffering they were inflicting on their customers. It was tough for them too. Clitheroe explained that 60,000 customers called in with their worries “virtually straight away” after the rise, adding that the company continued to “manage each one of them”. He did not elaborate on how – but this presumably at least involves a Clintonian affirmation that “we feel your pain”.

Asked by the less-than-sympathetic Labour MP Albert Owen how his annual bonus had fared in this period of rising prices, Clitheroe explained it had remained “flat” and was based on “customer and employee satisfaction, cost controls and profits”. You have to hope for his sake that the Scottish Power remuneration committee is well satisfied with performance in the last three categories since “customer satisfaction” seems unlikely to soar this year.

SSE’s Morris was also “profoundly worried” about loose talk of people (like, though for some reason Morris did not mention this, the crazed anti-capitalist eco-warriors Sir John Major) having to choose between “eating and heating” this winter. This was quite unnecessary because “the systems are in place to prevent that”. This played to a wider Morris theme, that the Big Six’s problem was their failure to get their message across. The message was largely their use of (some of) their huge profits for investment, and that green subsidies – currently a “poll tax” as Eon’s Tony Cocker described it – should be switched to general taxation.

Certainly, it was hard to penetrate the Big Six’s reasoning, despite their repeated boasts of “transparency”. Maybe there are answers to the question from John Robertson, the abrasive Labour star on the committee, about why the dividends reflected the 23 per cent profits of the companies’ generating arms, while the price rises only reflected retail profits. But as the Tory MP Dan Byles pointed out, the companies’ structure and profits remained a mystery. “Would you accept that your accounting and reporting practices fail the basic tests of transparency?” he asked.

Despite its differences on a solution, the committee was united in its disdain for the companies. This was bolstered by the cuckoo in the industry line-up, Stephen Fitzpatrick, the volubly persuasive managing director of smaller independent firm Ovo Energy, who said he simply “can’t explain” the price rises and declared that “a lot of energy companies … are charging the maximum price they feel they can get away with.”

As the Tory Philip Lee put it: “There is a suspicion that you are a chorus line acting in concert.” Nobody used it, but it was hard to look at the Big Six without thinking of a good old fashioned word: cartel.

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home