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Supermarkets defend fuel prices
Tesco and Asda chiefs insisted they had helped push petrol prices down in areas where they set up pumps
Supermarket giants have refuted claims they are playing games with customers over fuel prices in Northern Ireland.
Under scrutiny from Stormont's Enterprise committee, Tesco and Asda chiefs also insisted they had helped push prices down in areas where they set up pumps.
Aodhan Connolly from the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said: "Where supermarkets have opened forecourts across Northern Ireland one thing that has been certain is that they have driven down prices."
The two major fuel retailers were questioned about pricing policies after concerns were raised about regional price variances in a report by the Consumer Council .
During the hour-long briefing the supermarkets claimed regional differences of between three and five pence a litre were not influenced by transportation costs but were based on local competition. Economies of scale were also given as a reason for the disparity.
They said petrol and diesel prices were higher in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK because there were fewer supermarkets.
Andy Peake from Asda, which has nine local petrol stations, told the committee the average household spent £36 a week on fuel in Northern Ireland compared with £25 a week in other areas of Great Britain.
Mr Peake said Asda strived to keep their prices as low as possible because fuel was a major concern for consumers in the region.
Having heard from independent fuel retailers last week, the DETI committee voiced concerns that competition from the major outlets put their livelihoods at risk.
But Mr Connollly told members that the larger supermarkets were not trying to put small outlets out of business.
"We believe that for a healthy economy in Northern Ireland there has to be an eclectic mix, from the local baker to the large supermarkets, to give Northern Ireland consumers choice, competition and the ability to get what they need.
"We are not here to wipe people off the floor. That's not what we are here for."
Tesco employs 9,000 staff and operates 18 petrol stations in Northern Ireland.
Gary Mills, the company's managing director in Northern Ireland and the Republic, said he believed customers were getting the best deal.
"We believe that we drive the best overall offer on fuel in the local market," he said.
Committee chairman SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone commended Asda for displaying all of its fuel prices on its website but questioned why Tesco did not do the same.
Mr Mills said if customers called individual stores, the prices would be confirmed over the phone.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein MLA Maeve McLaughlin said: "There is a perception that the fuel prices in the north of Ireland, that consumers pay more."
The committee is due to question Sainsbury's supermarket next week.
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