The Fair Trading Commission’s (FTC) sometimes competing roles of regulator on one hand and advocate on the other, have come sharply into focus during the on-going application by the Barbados Light & Power Company (BL&P) for an increase in electricity rates.
Much to the chagrin of consumers, the FTC has already granted the Canadian-owned power supplier an interim increase, until a final decision is made on the substantive request.
Any business will try to extract the highest level of returns for its products or services, but a utility company is a special animal because the good that it is selling is a necessity for the proper functioning of a modern society such as ours.
Importantly, any further increases in the cost of electricity will have a negative ripple effect throughout the economy as this recurring cost will be passed on by most enterprises and will likely result in increased costs across the board.
That it comes at a time when most households are already facing difficult financial times, is even more vexing.
As consumers, we are relying on the FTC to be cognizant of the first word in its title “Fair”. And though the FTC is a quasi-judicial body, its establishment has emerged from a need not only to regulate but to ensure that consumers’ rights are not trampled and that they get an equal voice in such deliberations.
Observing the tumultuous start to the proceedings this week, consumers must be scratching their heads and wondering whether this process is a David versus Goliath fight. The BL&P, of course, is well “armed” with a battery of legal and other experts, while the consumers of Barbados must rely on the charity and goodwill of intervenors such as Attorney-at-Law Tricia Watson, David Simpson and perennial objector Ricky Went.
However, it is the miserably unprepared Public Counsel, though not of her own doing, that makes us shake our collective heads in resignation that this is a wholly unbalanced fight.
The Office of Public Counsel has been an intriguing addition to the mix. Represented by Miss Sharon Deane, the attorney is so fresh on the job that she admitted she is yet to read all of the thousands of documents submitted as part of the process, far less devise a proper response for the Barbados Association of Retired Persons (BARP) whom she represents.
As an onlooker, one has to ask some questions and hope that the answers are forthcoming. Why is the Office of Public Counsel so sparsely staffed with legal experts that illness of one attorney will upend the entire office? Should not the office have been better prepared with additional resources since early last year when the BL&P first signalled its intention to seek a rate hike?
We empathise with Miss Deane and support her efforts to seek some kind of relief from the High Courts through an adjournment to allow the Public Counsel’s Office to be better prepared for what appears to be a process tipped in favour of the utility company.
So far, BL&P has got half of what it wanted. It has the experts on its side, it also has the fear factor looming over the island. For when homeowners and businesses repeatedly hear that without the increase, the BL&P cannot guarantee a “reliable” service, they understand the subtext.
Attorney for the BL&P, Ramon Alleyne, has contended that the Office of the Public Counsel had no locus standi (right or capacity to bring an action) in the hearings.
To add to the fears of many consumers was the position taken by the BL&P that the Public Counsel was essentially not a party to the proceedings and that the only person who could request a review is a party to the proceedings.
Furthermore, the BL&P side gutted the position of the 30,000 strong BARP by arguing that as an incorporated body, BARP did not have a right to be represented by the Public Counsel.
We eagerly await the outcome of the current process, but one cannot help but be concerned about the representation of domestic electricity consumers. It must be pellucid to Government that consumers are not pleased with the current mechanisms, laws and regulations for the protection of consumers’ interests when it comes to complex and weighty examinations such as a rate increase application.
Consumers have stated clearly, they do not want to pay more and cannot afford to pay higher prices for electricity.