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.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.