The problem with Cameron's energy plan

A tariff is not "the lowest" if it's the only one available.

When David Cameron boldly declared, to the surprise of his ministers, that the government would force energy companies to put all their customers on the lowest tariff available, few expected his proposal to last. But the coalition will today attempt to fulfil the Prime Minister's pledge. Energy Secretary Ed Davey is expected to announce that suppliers will be required to offer no more than four core tariffs (including fixed and variable rates) and to automatically move customers on to the cheapest one in each case.

Yet if companies are forced to offer consumers the lowest tariff in each category (be it fixed rate or variable), this won't be the lowest tariff available - it will be the only one. It would be as accurate to call it "the highest" tariff as it would be to call it "the lowest". And why should we assume that this single tariff will be set at the lowest rate currently available? The danger is that that the "Big Six" will simply raise the level of the lowest tariff, so that consumers pay no less, or even more, than at present. Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at uSwitch, has warned that the unintended consequence of the move will be "to kill competition". She told the Guardian: "Consumers will be left with Hobson's choice – there will be no spur, no choice, no innovation and no reason for consumers to engage any more."

Labour too is sceptical. Shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint notes that "the cheapest deal in an uncompetitive market will still not be a good deal. Unless David Cameron stands up to vested interests in the energy market and creates a tough new watchdog with powers to force energy companies to pass on price cuts his warm words will be cold comfort to people worried about paying their fuel bill this winter. "

In promising to win a better deal for consumers and denouncing the last Labour government for its failure to do so, Cameron has raised significant expectations. If he proves unable to fulfil them, it is his government that will pay the price.

David Cameron with Energy Secretary Ed Davey. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.