Ofgem's move on the "big six" is very welcome

Finally breaking the stranglehold.

Energy regulator Ofgem has today announced plans designed to shake-up the market for British consumers by forcing the "big six" utility companies to publish the prices at which they buy and sell electricity up to two years in advance.

Together, British Gas, E.ON, SSE, Npower, EDF and ScottishPower account for 80 per cent of the electricity generated in the UK, giving them an extremely dominant position in the market.

"Ofgem's proposals will break the stranglehold of the big six in the retail market and create a more level playing field for independent suppliers," said Andrew Wright, senior partner for markets at Ofgem, “…who will get a fair deal when they want to buy and sell power up to two years ahead."

The proposals are the regulator’s attempts to provide more price transparency in the long term futures market, which has traditionally limited sales to smaller energy suppliers, only allowing them to purchase energy in the near-term spot market.

By requiring the "big six" to publish their long term prices and not allowing them to refuse reasonable requests by smaller suppliers to buy energy, it is hoped that the proposals will make it easier for new entrants to take on the established players and ultimately improve price transparency for customers.

“An increased role ...for independent suppliers and generators is precisely what will help drive the competition that delivers better value for consumers and businesses," said energy secretary Ed Davey.

This latest move follows other recent measures by Ofgem to improve the energy market, such as its efforts to reduce the number of complex offers advertised by utility companies and forcing them to offer consumers the best available tariff.

Often accused by the British public of charging inflated prices and being responsible for appalling customer service, the "big six" have long been a source of much rancor for consumers, when in fact a recent study has found that British households pay below-average prices for their electricity compared with other consumers elsewhere in the EU.

Despite this, once a reputation has taken hold among the population, it is very hard to shake, so these reforms will undoubtedly be welcomed by householders up and down the country.

Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Brierley is a group editor at Global Trade Media

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.