Thursday, 16 May 2013

Are some oil companies driving up prices for consumers?

Yesterday in parliament we confronted one of the issues that many of us having been arguing about for some time in Westminster and in the pubs / workplaces of Northumberland. The offices of several firms involved in the oil market have been raided by EU Officials. BP, Shell and Statoil were all raided. It is early days but the investigation relates to possible price fixing of oil, refined products and biofuels. As yet, it is important to say, nothing is proven. But, I welcome the investigation.
All companies are cooperating but there was an ugly atmosphere in the House of Commons yesterday. On a day when a Europe vote dominated the headlines it was ironic, but good, to see EU investigators taking up the cause of the motorist, the tractor driver and the parent trying to heat their home.
I have long campaigned that something is amiss in the state of the oil market - whether it is heating oil or the domestic petrol / diesel market; but I remain frustrated that the Office of Fair Trading seem unable to do anything, despite frequent investigations.
My question to the Lib Dem Secretary of State Ed Davey conveys some of that frustration:

Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
People in the north-east welcome the three-year fuel duty freeze, but we have concerns that the OFT, despite having had repeated evidence, particularly in rural Northumberland, of a lack of competition, has still failed to act. Does the Secretary of State agree that a way forward would be to summon the OFT to the House so that all MPs can make representations in his presence and get some action from it? No one has any faith in the OFT.
Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton, Liberal Democrat)
I am sorry to hear that my hon. Friend does not have faith in the independent competition authorities. According to the empirical evidence of how they compare to other competition authorities around the world, they actually score extremely highly. Nevertheless, even though I saw those findings when I was competition Minister, I wanted to strengthen them still further, because there is no room for complacency. I hope he realises that the Government will ensure that the competition authorities have the powers they need.
Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 15 May 2013, c652)

The newspapers feature extensive gossip about the mythical "tea room" in the House of Commons. In reality it is a 65 foot by 18 foot room where you get a cup of tea or a light meal. But only MPs are allowed there. After the Commons statement on this issue I again raised the ineffectiveness of the OFT with Ed Davey; Ed is, to be fair, a decent man doing a tough job, and was only trying to eat his lunch. I am going to try and invite the OFT in to the House so that Ministers can hear just how bad it is. If individual constituents want to make the case send their representations to me at the House of Commons and I will pass on to the OFT.

On a final point my colleague, Rob Halfon, the MP for Harlow, who has long fought the cause of the motorist, came up with one key recommendation:
Rob called on the government to change the law so that people could be jailed "for fixing oil prices" and for any cash recovered in fines, if the companies are found guilty, to be returned to motorists.
That would be a very popular policy....

UPDATE: this just spotted on this story: