Energy price revolt grows in Northern Ireland
The watchdog tasked with regulating Northern Ireland's energy industry has been told it must take a tougher stand against the big power companies.
The challenge comes amid growing anger over a huge hike in electricity prices by Power NI, which has left consumers facing an 18.6% increase in bills this autumn.
Utility Regulator Shane Lynch - who is obliged by law to scrutinise the company's prices - has said it was "a direct result of rising wholesale energy costs".
However, as anger grows over the hike, there have been calls for the Regulator to do more to shield consumers from soaring bills.
The chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, Glyn Roberts, said that he intends to meet the Regulator in the near future over the price hike, and believes a tougher stance must be taken.
"I will be saying how disappointed we are that the Regulator appears to be just signing off these big hikes," he said.
"We need to see a Regulator that is championing the consumer and business customer and ensuring they get a fair deal."
Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson, who also plans to meet Mr Lynch next week, said that the public needed to be reassured that the price rises had been robustly examined.
"He has to be able to wholly convince the community that he is doing his best to ensure that we are getting value for money from the utilities that he has the power to regulate," he said.
"I'm not saying that he is not, but Mr Lynch needs to demonstrate it to gain community confidence."
John French, who is head of energy at the Consumer Council, warned that there was an "inequitable distribution" of risk and costs between energy consumers and energy companies, with too much risk sitting with the consumer.
"With winter coming and with such high levels of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland, it is essential that both energy policy and regulation are urgently examined to ensure every possible opportunity is being taken to drive down costs and provide consumers with the best possible price," he said.
However, a spokeswoman for the Utility Regulator insisted that the watchdog's scrutiny of Northern Ireland's electricity, gas and water companies had resulted in over £300m of savings for consumers and taxpayers in the past five years.
"Consumer bills would be significantly higher in the absence of regulation.
"The extent of the Regulator's scrutiny and challenge of electricity tariffs was also the subject of an independent external review in 2008 and that review endorsed the rigour of the approach adopted by the Regulator," she said.
"It is widely acknowledged that the main reason for the Power NI tariff increase was the substantial increase in international wholesale fuel costs."