The taxpayer faces a £4bn bill if a "big six" energy company goes under

5 questions answered.

Under newly proposed plans by Ed Davey the tax payer could foot the bill if one of the big six energy companies goes bust. We answer five questions on the proposed contingency plans.

What is Ed Davey proposing?

Energy Secretary Ed Davey is proposing to intervene quickly should one of the big six companies - EDF of France, E.ON and npower of Germany and Scottish Power, owned by Iberdrola of Spain, Centrica and Scottish & Southern Electric – go bust.

The "worst case scenario" plans, outlined in an Energy Department consultation paper open for comments until March 15, could result in household bills rising by between £7 and £32 a year on average over the period, equivalent to a maximum contribution of £4bn on the basis of 25.5m households in the UK, according to The Telegraph.

The provisions would enable the Government to intervene and continue to fund any company about to go bust and control the cost passed onto the consumer and maintain market sustainability. The rest of the industry would be expected to maintain supplies should this happen.

What is the likely-hood one of the big six companies could going bust?

It is not thought to be very likely that one of these companies would go bust any time soon and their commitment to the UK is not being questioned. It is thought the government is brining in these extra precautions because it does not want to have a repeat of the banking fiasco in the energy sector.

Does the government not already have provisions in place?

It does in the form of the 2011 2011 Energy Act which has already introduced a special administration regime to provide protection for the National Grid and the electricity and gas distribution networks it operates, as well as for the rail and water industries. However, Davey feels these provisions are not robust enough to cope with the mayhem that would ensue in the market if one of the big energy providers went bust.

What has the Department of Energy said?

An Energy Department official told The Telegraph: “It is extremely unlikely that any of the large energy suppliers in the UK would become insolvent. None the less, the Government believes that it is prudent to have in place a framework that will ensure the continued operation of a major supplier until its customers can be transferred to other partners.”

What do the energy companies think about these new provisions?

EDF has said it is broadly supportive of the proposals, while others are yet to comment

Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.