Consumer rights advocate Malcolm Gibbs-Taitt wants Government to justify the increase in the price of national gas, saying it was not good enough for the authorities to tell Barbadians the additional funds would be used to expand the natural gas network.
The National Petroleum Corporation (NPC) announced via a media notice at the weekend that both domestic and commercial rates had increased effective July 6.
It said the rate for domestic use had risen from $1.48 per cubic metre to $1.70 per cubic metre; the metre rental fee for domestic customers went up to $5 from $3; the deposit on metre testing increased from $5 to $25; the installation fee jumped from $100 to $150 and the reconnection fee double to $50 from $25.
The NPC said in the long-term the rate increases would result in further expansion of the network, as it planned to increase output by the laying of pipes to allow more customers access to natural gas.
However, Gibbs-Taitt, the director general of the Barbados Consumer Research Association told Barbados TODAY Government needed to make public what it would cost to expand the service and for the gas company to carry out its mandate.
“We need to know, don’t just do it. We cannot rely on our Government anymore to do the right thing. The Government has been doing one thing constantly and that is to take taxes from us and we cannot see where the taxes are going quite frankly, except in a few cases they are paying a number of people to stay at home,” Gibbs-Taitt said in an apparent reference to reports that Government had paid more than $1 million to two senior public officers who had been sent on special leave up to seven years ago, but continued to receive their full salaries.
Gibbs-Taitt said he was concerned about the increase in the metre rental fee, charging that the natural gas distributor had been hauling in a significant profit on the metre rental.
The consumer rights advocate claimed the metres could cost anywhere between US$50 and US$150, and could last for up to 40 years.
He argued that the NPC would have purchased them at a bulk price and therefore “it is one hell of a profit that the company is making off of us”.
“Even when you were paying $3 a month it was one ridiculous profit base that they were making. So to move it from $3 to $5 does not bear a lot a common sense to me; but then they said commons sense isn’t too common around here. The fee structure gives them a massive profit and there is no rationale for such high increase as we have just got,” Gibbs-Taitt contended.
It was back in May of this year that Prime Minister Freundel Stuart had warned that “some kind of rate increase” would be coming to help the NPC meet its financial obligations and effectively carry out its mandate.
He said at the time the state-run entity was projecting a loss of about $4.7 million next year.
Gibbs-Taitt Tuesday said it was high time that price rises by the NPC be regulated by the Fair Trading Commission. The general functions of the NPC are permitted by statute and carried out by an associate company, the Barbados National Oil Company (BNOCL).
“I am disappointed . . . and surprised that natural gas, unlike some of the other [utilities] is able to do an increase without going through the regulatory body for this to happen. The [Barbados] Light and Power cannot increase its prices, Cable and Wireless cannot increase its landline prices unless it first gets the okay from the Fair Trading Commission, and I feel similarly that a body like the NPC should have to go through that process too. I don’t know why it hasn’t happened yet, but I feel it should,” he said.
Agreeing though that natural gas prices were still relatively low, Gibbs-Taitt said, “so should it be”.
When Minister of Commerce Donville Inniss first put Barbadians on notice about the pending increase back in April, Gibbs-Taitt had opposed the idea, saying a price hike made no sense if wages remained stagnant.
“The people who receive salaries and wages are the people who buy these things . . . I am opposed to any price increases of anything, especially if it is led by Government. I definitely oppose to it unless they are going to give some across-the-board wage and salary increase to people,” he said then.
Natural gas is currently available in parts of eight parishes to just over 16,000 householders, as well as several commercial entities, with some residents paying as little as $12 a month.