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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.