The poor are still paying more for basic utilities and financial services

Payment structures and price plans in utilities and financial services continue to inflict higher costs on the poorest in society. Regulators and the government need to do more.

The poor pay more. It is a well-worn phrase but we must not let that undermine the impact of what it means in real life for real people.
A new report, published today, calculates the premium paid by poor people on essential utilities and access to financial services is as much as 10p in the pound - a significant extra cost for those that are already struggling to make ends meet.

This has a hugely detrimental impact on people's living standards, risking hardship and poverty. Taking what the public determine as an acceptable minimum standard of living in the UK today as its basis, the research shows a single person working full-time earning the minimum wage already falls £52 a week short of having a sufficient income to reach an adequate standard of living. If they're living in a house with high energy needs and subject to a poverty premium, this shortfall increases to £77 per week.

The gap is even greater still for those out of work and in receipt of benefits. If they live in a house with high energy needs, their low-income and the poverty premium combines to leave them some £135 per week short of a socially acceptable standard of living.

These additional costs are driven by a number of factors. For example, in some instances general market failures result in uncompetitive or unfair practices that hit low income consumers particularly hard, as they are less likely to have access to good information and more likely to be risk averse. In particular, worse off consumers are often unable to access the best deals obtained by the most "active" consumers that suppliers are keen to attract. This generates a cross subsidy in favour of better-off groups that is hard to justify.

Specific market failures and lack of competition can also result in the failure to supply products to meet the needs of low income groups at competitive prices. Low-income households can find themselves disadvantaged by the payment methods they tend to favour, different patterns of usage or different credit needs. In some instances cost-reflective premiums - where there is an additional cost of supplying low-income families - result in them facing higher prices, but it is not always clear that the additional price is justified by the additional cost.

So while regulation aims generally to protect consumers by ensuring that markets work in a fair and transparent way, this report begs the question: do low-income consumers need additional protection? And if so, what should regulators and government do?

One response is to ensure fair trading and promote competition, with adequate information for the consumer: this is the central role of regulators. However, it cannot be assumed that this alone will provide sufficient protection to consumers in a weak market position.

At the very least, regulators should monitor the position of low income consumers, looking closely at the products they disproportionately use and whether they are fairly priced. Where problems are identified in the supply of essential services, regulators should have a remit to investigate the structure and level of pricing. In these instances regulators and the government should look together at the case for intervention to ensure basic products are available at affordable prices.

With the cost of living uppermost in many minds, and at a time when many incomes - whether from earnings or benefits - are either static or shrinking, regulators may find themselves with an increasingly important role to play in seeking out and removing poverty premiums. Tentative steps in this direction are already being taken in the financial services and energy markets. Where they are leading, others should follow.

Katie Schmuecker is a Policy and Research Manager for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).

New research shows many already falling £52 short of an adequate standard of living. When in a house with high energy needs, this increases to £77. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change