One of the unnoticed offsets from the Huhne resignation is that the grip on the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) held by the Big Six energy companies may intensify in the hiatus created before a new minister is sufficiently in harness to take effective charge. Already, even under the firm control of a strong minister like Huhne, the official declaration of ministerial meetings shows that in the 18 months since the election there have been no less than 195 meetings between DECC ministers and the energy industry. Even more telling, over 50 personnel from oil, gas and nuclear companies such as EDF, npower and Centrica have been working on energy issues within government over the last 4 years. Companies only second their senior staff to government if they are likely to get a good return in terms of insider knowledge, preferential treatment and the general benefits of influence.
This is made all the more worrying by the government’s delay in introducing a proper register of lobbyists and by the revelation that, even when finally broached, it can be easily circumvented by declaring that the meeting was ‘private’ and therefore not requiring to be registered. But what is openly acknowledged is that DECC has hosted 36 senior staff from business or consultancies, and the companies involved include Centrica (parent of British Gas), EDF (French major supplier of electricity), ConocoPhillips (oil), the UK Petroleum Association, and Energy Solutions (US nuclear company). Consultancies with major energy practices, including KPMG and Ernst & Young, also lent staff.
There must be a real fear that this corporate incursion could mushroom further in this intermission between ministers. What it all adds up to is that the over-powerful position of the Big Six, already entrenched by the lack of transparency in the EU energy market, the bewildering confusion over tariffs which stifles competition, and the weakness of Ofgem regulation, will be buttressed still further by insider access to key government decision-making, hidden from any direct accountability. It is highly disturbing that at a time of sharply rising energy prices, steadily falling real incomes, and risks to the elderly from a lengthy cold freeze and hypothermia, it is the energy companies regularly reporting quarterly profits in billions which now increasingly have their finger on the DECC windpipe.
Is DECC, is the government indeed, the regulator of the big corporations or their facilitator?