EDITOR'S BLOG: Let's all beat up the energy companies

It's all very well trying to lynch two-pools Laidlaw of British Gas but the current antipathy shown towards business by cynical, vote-hungry politicians is very unhelpful

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 26 Nov 2014

I’m old enough to remember 1986’s immensely irritating ‘Tell Sid’ ad campaign, which invited the public to invest in the soon to be privatised British Gas. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive etc etc. We were all going to be freed from the hideous nationalised Gas Board and have a party being supplied by the private sector.

Being a junior hack on about seven grand a year I was far too poor to fill my boots with BG shares. (Like the mug I was I put my twenty spare pounds annually into an Equitable Life pension.) 28 years later Sam Laidlaw, the current boss of Centrica, British Gas’s corporate mothership, is an unlikely figure for public enemy number one. But energy suppliers have endured a rough reputational winter as bills have risen and consumers go wild. Now they are going to be investigated for price-fixing. Cue cheers all round.

There isn’t really a proper market in energy for consumers and nobody appears to know how to create one - the whole thing appears to angry consumers like a long, risk-free gravy pipe.

The whole debate about energy is disappointingly juvenile. The current face-off is such a mess you couldn’t make it up. With an election next year the Coalition clearly believes beating up Laidlaw is a sure-fire vote winner. But while the bickering and investigating goes on, the lights will go out in Britain if we don’t persuade someone to invest in our future energy supply. And this is a serious matter.  

It’s not just ‘two-pools’ Laidlaw – he just had to be an old Etonian - who is receiving it in the neck. He’s an intelligent and reasonable man who in the last few days has put his case clearly and is obviously fed up with perfidious politicians.

The relationship between government and business, the public and private sector is particularly tortured at the moment. This applies especially where the two do business together. Yesterday Atos, the French consultancy - so fed up with its deal to provide ‘fit to work’ tests and being derided as ‘murdering scumbags’ and Nazis – has backed out of its contract early. MT has a really good feature about this here.

If you talk to people in the outsourcing game – and not just those like G4S and Serco who have had their collars felt by the SFO – their distaste for the political class is comprehensive. Because they are such a convenient whipping boy for a careworn public suffering under falling living standards and real incomes, the outsourcers have taken six of the best from HMG recently.  

It’s a hopeful sign, however, that the government appears determined to make civil servants better at the procurement game and is sending many back to school to learn how to do and spend out money more wisely.

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