Regulation can't fix the energy industry

Let's stop pretending it can.

Last week's changes to the energy billing regulations, represent the biggest regulatory change experienced by the industry since privatisation. In fact, they are some of the biggest changes to any regulation, in any industry, and are all the more ground-breaking for directly affecting the way that energy companies sell their products to the consumer. At first glance , this was a simple case of victory for consumers over the corporate world, but the situation is more complex. After all, there's something inherently wrong with the idea of a predominantly consumer "victory" - the right balance of market forces and regulation ought to result in a capitalism that works equally in the interests of producer and consumer. If that is not the case, then it's a clear indicator that something has gone wrong, and that the balance needs to be restored.

These new regulations will go some way towards achieving  that, but they certainly shouldn't be seen as a happy outcome. The costs of any regulation are commonly passed to the consumer, and these changes will be no exception. No regulation is ever set in stone, however, and business leaders in the utilities industry should not give up trying to make theirs the sort of industry that requires less regulation, and not more. Leaders in other regulated industries should also take note. There will be much to learn from how the industry deal with its new regulatory environment, but there is also much to learn from the circumstances that led to such drastic action.

Therefore, it makes sense to examine why the regulator felt compelled to act in such drastic fashion. Regulation may seem to be the lesser of two evils, but the point is that the industry's relationship with its customers should never have deteriorated to the point where that was the case. For business leaders in the utilities industry, the lesser evil really ought to be an investment in building a productive relationship - fuelled by more in-depth insights - with their customers. Indeed, businesses in any regulated industry ought to take this attitude. A more proactive approach to soliciting customer opinion means that management are aware of the strength of customer demand say, for simpler pricing.  The investment required to do so, and the potential losses incurred, will almost always be offset in the long term; if industry practices can produce satisfied customers, then they will have a satisfied regulator as well.

At first glance, it may appear that energy companies have simply played by the letter of the law, but it's really more a case of them forgetting that their fight is with each other, and not with the regulator. There's a lack of competition,  but that's not to say that there are too few energy companies for market forces to be effective - the UK telecoms industry is one of the best in the world, and has fewer major players than the energy market. Rather, energy industry leaders have come to focus on the regulator, and not their competitors. Accordingly, regulators should see promoting competition as a priority, and a huge part of that comes from seeing the voice of the customer as a business resource, not just a matter for the customer complaints department. In a sector with an ethic of genuine competition,  those companies that do not heed the wishes of their customers do not last long. For example, the OFT rarely chastises retailers for unreasonable pricing - consumers do a very good job of that themselves.

I have written previously for this magazine of how we as a public have a vital part to play in building better businesses, and the energy industry is no exception. While it may form a relatively mundane part of our consumer experience, it is nonetheless a costly one, and we shouldn't allow ourselves to be distracted from making our voices heard. Energy companies for their part ought to make a  greater effort to listen, and to act upon what they hear; not only might they find advantages for their business, but the regulators would no longer have to interfere so strongly in the industry. It is right that  the state should step in when business practices within an industry leave consumers with few good options. However, it is the proper function of businesses to provide consumers with as many good options as possible, and that is the case in regulated industries as much as it is in those elsewhere in the economy. If customers are not forthcoming with their opinions then business leaders should do more to obtain their input - surely companies would rather meet the demands of their customers, rather than leaving it to the regulator to do so?

Photograph: Getty Images

Claire Richardson is VP at Verint

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.