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.
Getty
Show Hide image

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.