THE decision by bosses of some of Britain’s biggest energy firms to send relatively junior executives to face MPs at yesterday’s select committee inquiry into utility bills simply beggars belief.
What on earth do these bosses think they get paid their big-buck salaries for? Those who failed to turn up yesterday should not be surprised if they find a white feather in their in-tray this morning.
Their absence goes to the heart of important issues of power, responsibility and accountability in this country. And it also suggests the energy firms have learned little from recent history about the relationship between big consumer businesses and the consumers they profess to serve.
Perhaps the missing bosses had in mind the grilling endured by bank chiefs – including Fred Goodwin of RBS – by MPs in the wake of the government bailout of two of Britain’s major banks. Mr Goodwin – or Sir Fred as he was then known – and his colleagues had to make humbling apologies for their actions as MPs held them to account, and while the cameras captured every “sorry” in unforgiving close-up.
If energy bosses had hoped to body-swerve a similar scenario yesterday as they were held to account for inflation-busting price hikes, then they have fundamentally misunderstood their position in British society, and their responsibilities in relation to parliament.
The energy firms cannot take the view that their business is a private matter between them, their shareholders and their customers. If that was ever the case – and the apparent powerlessness of the Ofgem regulator has sometimes made it seem so – it is certainly not the case now.
Energy bills now stand at the nexus between industry, politics and austerity. The cost of living is the key voter concern – and hence the key political concern. Ever since Ed Miliband threw down the gauntlet at Labour party conference, promising a price freeze if he made it into Downing Street, cutting electricity and gas bills has been the main topic of political discourse.
The Tories – using former prime minister Sir John Major as an outrider – have floated the notion of a windfall tax on the energy firms, should a particularly cold winter produce bumper profits. The SNP produced its own riposte, with a promise that energy bills would be 5 per cent cheaper in an independent Scotland. The battle is well and truly joined.
With the cost of living set to continue to be the most pressing political concern of the day at least until the next UK general election in 2015, Britain’s energy bosses need to accept they can run, but they cannot hide.
They need to engage with this process – listening, explaining and being open to reform – or they will end up on the receiving end of both political and public rage. And that is not a place any customer-facing business wants to be.
Price of policing can be cut only so far
When Police Scotland was being created earlier this year, Sir Stephen House fought hard to ensure key financial decisions about the new single national force would be his responsibility. The old adage “be careful what you wish for” may now be ringing in his ears.
The chief constable now faces the difficult prospect of having to make substantial budget cuts, and has proposed a raft of measures including the selling off of police stations. This has led to concerns about whether in future the Scottish public will be afforded the same level of protection.
The introduction of new technology will undoubtedly cut back on the amount of paperwork frontline officers are burdened with, freeing them up to be on the streets. And the final stages of administrative rationalistion in the merger of the eight regional forces will undoubtedly help save money.
But there is only so far such cost-cutting can go without an impact on the effectiveness of policing. At some stage a trade-off will have to take place between public spending and public protection.
Ministers expect Sir Stephen to keep the same number of police officers on the beat as was promised in the manifesto that brought the SNP Government to power. These politicians also expect him to continue his success in reducing crime rates. And yet the same politicians also expect him to make substantial savings in his budget.
At some point soon it may be shown that these are not realistic expectations. There will be choices to be made as money is saved, and they should be made after honest and open debate about what kind of policing we can now afford.