The Price of Energy and Morality

Marlyn Glen

1 November 2013

The intervention of religious institutions into the controversy surrounding the huge hike in prices that the top energy companies have announced for consumers adds another feature to this “People versus Profits” debate.

Confined to exchanges between political parties, attempts would be made to explain away the issue as "another argument dividing along party lines".

However, the Archbishop of Canterbury has examined the activities of energy companies and has passed judgement on them.

Churches no longer have the authority they once had.

They may exhort but they cannot legislate.

Nonetheless, when the head of a national religious organisation scrutinises secular matters such as energy price increases to take the side of those faced with truly agonisisng choices when these price increases take effect, ethical support is most welcome because that support cannot be disregarded as part of routine political attack-and-respond.

Archbishop Justin Welby has told the big energy companies that they have an obligation “to behave morally rather than to simply maximise profit.”

He told the Mail on Sunday   :

"The impact on people, particularly on low incomes, is going to be really severe .

" I do understand when people feel that this is inexplicable, and I can understand people being angry about it, because having spent years on a low income as a clergyman I know what it is like when your household budget is blown apart by a significant extra fuel bill and your anxiety levels become very high.

"They ( the energy companies) have control because they sell something everyone has to buy. We have no choice about buying it.

"With that amount of power comes huge responsibility to serve society.”

That power is monopoly power over the supply and price of personal necessities – heating and warmth.

"The Tablet" has looked at the current round of party conferences and has delved deeper into fundamental causes of despair of :

 " the common people who might welcome a change in the economic weather" and who " might prefer an alternative to a system where pursuit of profit comes first and last "

“The Tablet” quotes Pope Francis : “During his visit to Sardinia he lambasted “an economic system that has at its centre an idol called money” and it continued,

"In this he is consistent with Pope Benedict XVI, who declared in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate:

“Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty."

Whereas politicians seeking to control the energy companies will be accused by their political opponents of “interference” in the workings of the market, this is not the case for church leaders.

Both religious and humanist organisations can raise the issue of the moral compass that questions the  belief that the chief business of business is to maximise short-term gains such as profits for shareholders. 

They can appeal for a display of self-restraint from the energy companies.

As they know, ultimately the power to enact greater regulation and accountability of the energy companies lies with politicians.

Nonetheless it is vital to have on our side non-party political organisations making the case that free markets do solve economic problems; they create them.


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