Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's energy watchdog comes under fire

By Adrian Rutherford

It is the body tasked with monitoring our energy industry, and it claims to promote the interests of Northern Ireland's consumers.

With a 66-strong staff earning an average salary of £43,000, the Utility Regulator is also one of the most expensive quangos per employee here.

The watchdog examines competition, price and quality of service in the electricity, gas, water and sewage markets.

It also issues and maintains licences for gas, electricity and water companies and makes sure they meet relevant legislation obligations.

On its website it also pledges to "promote the short and long-term interests of consumers".

Now, however, the Regulator is firmly under the spotlight and feeling the heat.

The controversial decision to approve a huge hike in electricity prices in recent days has sparked debate over its effectiveness and what exactly its numerous staff do, amid claims it needs to take a stronger stance against the big power firms.

Glyn Roberts from NIIRTA, the representative body for the independent retail sector in Northern Ireland, is among those asking serious questions.

"The Utility Regulator has virtually rubber-stamped a huge hike in electricity and we need to ask what is the Regulator actually doing?" he said.

"While we're aware of the limitations of the energy market in Northern Ireland, surely the adjudicator should be doing more to provide a fair deal for consumers and businesses."

Nor is it the first time the Regulator has come in for criticism.

In early January, at the height of the burst pipes crisis, senior members, including its director of water, Jo Aston, kept a low profile while thousands of people were left high and dry.

The Utility Regulator comprises 59 employees with seven others seconded from the Civil Service.

The current average salary is £42,866 - making it one of the costliest bodies per head in Northern Ireland.

According to the Regulator's latest annual accounts, total staff costs during the 2010/11 financial year amounted to £4,351,000. Some £3.5m went on wages, with the remainder being spent on national insurance and pension contributions.

Its chief executive is Shane Lynch, who replaced Iain Osborne in January.

This year he will be paid a salary ranging between £125,000 and £130,000.

Mr Lynch leads a management team of directors representing each of the key functional areas in the organisation.

Tanya Wishart took over Mr Lynch's previous position as director of electricity and will receive a salary of £70,000 to £75,000, similar to Brian McHugh, the director of gas, and Kevin Shiels, acting director of retail.

Donald Henry, who is director of corporate affairs, and Jo Aston both take home a salary of between £90,000 and £95,000.

The board is made up of Mr Lynch, non-executive chairman Peter Matthews, who earns between £30,000 and £35,000 each year, and eight non-executive directors.

According to the Regulator's accounts, five non-executive directors - Etain Doyle, Philip Johnson, Christopher LeFevre, Richard Rodgers and William Cargo - receive an annual salary of between £5,000 and £10,000.

Two others, Jim Oatridge and Alan Rainey, receive between £15,000 and £20,000, while the eighth member, Clive Elphick, gets £10,000 to £15,000 annually. In addition, they received a combined £30,000 in expenses in the last 12 months.

Mr Oatridge had the highest claim - his £6,949 bill included £4,834 on flights and £1,250 for hotels. Meanwhile, Mr Matthews' expenses consisted of £2,316 for flights and £1,726 in hotel charges. Mr Rodgers did not claim expenses.

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