Ending the energy rip-off means breaking the big six deadlock

Nick Clegg’s direct mail initiative for cheaper tariffs is welcome, but only a complete rethink of t

There are few more demoralising sensations in life than the feeling of being ripped off. And when the product or service is something that you simply cannot live without, the sense of futility and frustration is all the more acute.

Public anger over skyrocketing consumer bills running parallel with the huge profits and executive bonuses of the Big Six energy companies – EDF, E.ON, British Gas, Southern, Scottish Power and npower – is growing.

The amount we pay for our power seems set on a never ending trajectory upwards. Average annual household bills for gas and electricity rose from £600 in 2004 to around £1,200 in 2011. USwitch has predicted that by 2020, this could rise to a massive £3,202.

For many people hit by the perfect storm of job losses, frozen wages and rising living costs, the situation is becoming desperate. As many as 6 million British households are now thought to be living in fuel poverty, with around 3,000 premature winter deaths attributed to the impact of living in damp, cold and leaky homes.

OFGEM and DECC figures show that the driving factor behind the price hikes has been the rising wholesale cost of gas and the fluctuating costs of other fossil fuels, underscoring the urgent need for a move towards renewable energy and ambitious energy efficiency.

But to add insult to injury, the Big Six actually appear to be increasing their profit margins on each bill. Last October, OFGEM warned that profits on dual fuel deals had increased by 733%, from £15 per household to £125.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Public Policy Research has found as many as 5.6 million people may be being overcharged as a result of Big Six pricing policies which also, it believes, prevent new companies from gaining a foothold in the market.

Indeed, despite OFGEM’s mandate to create a truly competitive energy market, nearly two decades after privatisation, the profiteering Big Six still control more than 99% of the retail market.  

To my mind, this is now about completely changing the behaviour of those operators and making it easier for new actors to enter the market. It is also about rethinking the way we produce energy in order to secure a more affordable and sustainable power supply.

So when the Deputy Prime Minister announced this week that he had struck a deal with the energy companies requiring them to send a once yearly letter to consumers with information about the cheapest tariffs, it felt like a monumental anti climax.

That’s not to say it isn’t a welcome development. Government proposals to simplify the confusing and complex range of tariffs which have often resulted in customers switching to a worse deal – and for customers to be offered the best tariff if their contract comes to an end – are well overdue, as are plans to give OFGEM powers to direct the energy companies to compensate overcharged consumers.

But reading this, I was struck by the fact that energy companies were not already obliged to do those things. With an estimated seven out of 10 people still not on the best available tariff, it seems the Big Six have been ripping customers off for far too long.

In February, I joined with Compass to help launch a campaign to End the Big Six Energy Fix – nearly 9,000 people have since signed the online petition calling for change.

We are appealing for an independent public inquiry into the energy industry, in the same way that that we had an Independent Commission on Banking led by Sir John Vickers and an investigation into the media by Lord Leveson, to get to the root causes of the problem.

In order to address the market failure and ensure that the energy companies pay a premium for their privileged market position, the campaign is also calling for a windfall levy on profits – with the money raised, together with revenues from environmental taxes, being channelled into energy efficiency programmes and demand reduction initiatives.

Because although the Government seems finally to be waking up to the potential of measures such as cavity wall insulation, loft lagging and condensing boilers, the Green Deal policies that are supposed to make these happen are weak and underfunded. Serious initiatives to reduce overall energy demand are still worryingly thin on the ground.

Furthermore, rather than tinkering around the edges with mail outs and barcodes on bills, we should be making it easy for communities and councils up and down the UK to generate their own energy – reducing consumer dependence on the Big Six.

The forthcoming Electricity Market Reform, albeit deeply flawed and overly complex, should in theory make it easier for smaller operators to enter the energy market. But this is far from certain, and the current proposals largely ignore the vast potential of community energy.

The Government should be doing far more to localise and decentralise the sector, drawing from best practice in countries like Germany where community ownership of the grid has played a pivotal role in allowing renewables and energy efficiency to flourish.

Here in Britain, where the grid is privately owned and controlled, people are far removed from energy generation and have little knowledge of where our energy comes from. Yet in Germany, citizens see themselves more as owners and generators of their energy, not just consumers.

With the right political will and ambition, we can create an energy sector which genuinely serves the interests of the people and protects the planet. But only by curbing the power of the Big Six, increasing transparency around bills, and investing in renewables, efficiency measures and demand management that will ultimately help wean us off fossil fuel addiction, can this become a reality.

Caroline Lucas is MP for Brighton Pavilion and Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fuel Poverty

Energy: the rising costs, Getty images.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.