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.

Getty.
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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.