After the energy shambles, Cameron needs to restore certainty

The timing of this week’s confusion could not have been worse.

The last three days have seen government policy on energy tariffs and decarbonisation in flux. Conflicting statements from the Prime Minister, the Energy Secretary and the new energy minister have caused confusion. While an announcement from Ofgem today has helped provide clarity, confidence in the government has already been undermined. With a group of major energy companies already threatening to withdraw hundreds of millions of pounds of planned new investment in the UK due to policy uncertainty, this week's events will only make matters worse.

At Prime Minster’s Questions on Wednesday, Cameron said, “I can announce that we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers”. The sector was shocked and confused. Not only would this be incredibly difficult to implement, it would also mark the single greatest act of intervention in the energy retail market since liberalisation – not the type of light touch regulation to be expected from a Conservative Prime Minister.

Today, thanks to the release of Ofgem’s Retail Market Review, it has become clear what the Prime Minister should have said. He should have announced that suppliers will be required to tell customers if there is a cheaper tariff, rather than automatically putting customers on the cheapest tariff.

One of Ofgem’s better proposals in the review is for suppliers to only be able to offer four tariffs for each fuel type. This policy was recommended by IPPR in our recent investigation of the retail energy market. This reform will simplify the market and encourage people to switch thereby improving competition, which will help keep bills low.

It should also help to ensure that tariffs are reflective of suppliers’ costs — a major problem since ‘loss leading’ tariffs act as a barrier for new suppliers to enter in to the market and vulnerable and low income people who don’t switch regularly can often be overcharged.

The timing of this week’s confusion could not have been worse. It is only three weeks since Ofgem announced that the spare electricity generation capacity in Britain will fall to a critically low level in 2015/16, raising the prospect of blackouts. With Twitter quick to dub this episode a "combishambles", the government needs to restore certainty and predictably before they publish their upcoming Energy Bill.

Reg Platt is Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets as @regplatt.

David Cameron speaks with Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi at the start of the second day of an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets as @regplatt.

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.