Quick fixes won’t stop rip-off Britain

Profiteering by the Big Six isn't to blame for the huge rise in energy prices.

It is cheap to reform, could help bring down inflation, increase household income and it's a vote winner. So reforming the energy market should be a no-brainer for the government, right? Wrong.

Energy bills are the number one financial concern for the public, ahead of the cost of food and housing. The average dual fuel energy bill has increased by 75 per cent since 2004, energy companies received four million complaints last year and overcharging of loyal (often poor and old) customers is still widespread. But as with that other current target of public anger, corporate excess, the political debate is failing to make much headway with public opinion.

David Cameron's attempt to make the running on this was an energy summit held back in October last year. The only tangible outcome from the summit was action to make it easier for people to switch suppliers to get cheaper bills. Yet despite the hard times, even less people are switching now than five years ago. Over 60 per cent of people have never switched, many have no intention of doing so and those who most need to - the elderly and those on low incomes - are least able to. The coalition and now new Energy Secretary Ed Davey need to have an answer beyond simply trying and failing to increase consumer engagement in the market.

Right-wing think tanks continue to lay the blame for price rises on policies to develop renewable energy, while failing to compare this with the cost of replacing our ageing high carbon power stations, as well as the high costs of doing nothing at all. But there are blind spots on the left too.

A campaign to end energy profiteering was launched yesterday by Compass in the Independent backed by a host of leading political figures. It rightly calls for action but puts forward quick fix solutions rather than a basis for lasting reform. A windfall tax is called for by the campaign as the way to claw back excessive profits from the Big Six and price caps to prevent the costs of this being passed onto customers. But it is not clear what, if anything, a one-off regulatory intervention like a windfall tax will do to prevent underlying problems in the market.

The blame for the huge rise in prices is pinned solely on the Big Six's profits, when we know that wholesale and distribution costs have driven over 80 per cent of the price increase since 2004 and social and environmental obligations seven per cent of this. The real issue is where the profits are being made. Regulator Ofgem's own research shows that between 2005 and 2008 the Big Six's total net profits came from just 48 per cent of their customer base - largely those still with the same supplier since before market liberalisation. These customers are being overcharged to subsidise cheap offers for customers who switch suppliers in the more competitive end of the market. Though some suppliers have stopped this, others continue.

IPPR analysis to be published this spring will show how removing some of the more inequitable and anti-competitive practices in the energy market could remove barriers to new entrants, extend competition and improve market efficiency to help exert downward pressure on prices. If after this the market is still failing to deliver the benefits of competition to the vast majority of the public, there would be a strong case for more fundamental review of the market.

The London mayoral elections show how quickly the electorate can respond on cost of living issues. Ed Miliband's Rip-Off Britain campaign may not be original but it could be effective if it can set out a clear route to reform that cuts through to the public. Above all the opposition should establish a strong pro-competition stance that it would be hard for the government not to follow. The 1 in 4 households who can't pay their energy bills need action soon. Until then, they'll believe it when they see it.

Clare McNeil is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

Clare McNeil is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

Twitter: @claremcneil1

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation