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 Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.