British Gas came under fire from consumer groups yesterday after announcing a 500 per cent increase in annual profits at its residential arm just weeks after hitting customers with double-digit price hikes.
The Centrica-owned supplier revealed that underlying operating profits last year leapt to £571 million from £95 million in 2006, contributing to a 40 per cent surge in group-wide profits.
The record haul sparked anger among consumer groups coming so soon after last month's energy bill increases.
British Gas customers have seen their gas and electricity tariffs rise by 15 per cent on average after the move, which came amid soaring wholesale energy costs.
And there may be more bill misery to come as Centrica said wholesale prices remained high and were rising. Adam Scorer, director of campaigns for consumer group energywatch, said: "British Gas customers will want to tear their hair out when they hear the scale of these profits and compare them with their own rising bills."
He added: "It is perfectly true that there is volatility in wholesale energy markets. But it seems equally true that such volatility hits consumers not shareholders. Consumers will feel justified in claiming that they are being taken for a very rough ride by energy companies."
Centrica defended it decision to increase British Gas bills, saying the division would be loss-making by now if it had not made the move.
Wholesale gas prices saw steep increases in the last six months of the year after falls in the first half, with second half profits far short of the £533 million seen in the first six months.
British Gas last month became the third major supplier to increase tariffs, after npower and French-owned EDF.
It has since been followed by similar rises from E.ON and Scottish Power.
British Gas claimed, on making the decision, that wholesale costs had risen by 51 per cent for gas and 61 per cent for electricity.
But online price comparison service uSwitch.com attacked British Gas for putting investors before customers.
Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at uSwitch, said: "Consumers have a right to feel like Britain's biggest energy company is taking them for a ride. Revealing huge profits only a month after hitting customers with an inflation busting price hike is like having a £571 million elephant in the living room - it was never going to go unnoticed.
"British Gas was clearly hoping that consumers' memories are short, but their pockets deep."
Centrica said strong performances at its other businesses also helped lift group underlying operating profits, at £1.95 billion last year.
The company's British Gas services operation, which installs gas and central heating systems, saw operating profits rise by 48 per cent to £151 million while Centrica's Storage business posted a record £240 million in profits, up from £228 million in 2006.
A spokesman for white collar union Unite said: "British Gas are taking greed to new heights. If the Government needs any further proof of the need to levy a windfall tax on energy companies then this is it."