Labour's plan to reform our broken energy market deserves cross-party support

Lack of competition and transparency has created an unfair market that consumers don’t trust, says former Conservative special adviser Tom Burke.

Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze met with a predictable, if not always credible, response from the energy industries. Led by Angela Knight, who was last heard from a few years ago asking us to stop being nasty to bankers, we were warned that this would halt investment and turn out the lights.

The current energy market doesn’t work either for consumers or for all the non-energy businesses in Britain. Lack of competition and transparency has created an unfair market that consumers don’t trust. The only lights going out now belong to households that can’t afford the electricity.

But what about investors? Will they really go on strike? Is it true that only ever larger profits must be made in order to to deliver investment , even if it is at the cost of consumers?

Keep two key points in mind as you listen to this argument. First, when you drill down into company accounts you see that some of the companies with the highest profits are investing the least in new plants. Rather than plough returns into a broken energy market they have opted to pay out dividends. Centrica has made the highest profits but 74% of this has gone back to shareholders.

Across the "Big Six", an average of 56% of their profits are going into dividend payments. This is a perfectly legitimate business strategy if there is no urgent need for investment. But it certainly questions the link between higher profits and investment. If there are no value-creating projects to invest in, you cannot argue that the lights will go out if you don’t invest.

Second, profits have grown over the last three years but investment has slumped. Large scale clean energy investment went from £7.2bn in 2009 to £3bn in 2012. And this takes us to the fundamental point. The market isn’t working any better for investors than for consumers.

The reality is that what investors need is long-term certainty. And the complex and incoherent measures in the Energy Bill are simply adding to the uncertainty. And this is why it was so encouraging to hear what Labour had to say on reforming the market. Commitment to the 2030 power sector decarbonisation target will help convince investors that there will be long-term demand for clean energy.

Combined with the proposals to revitalise the investment in energy efficiency, the contracts for difference for new generation and an Energy Security Board that will mean one body charged with doing everything necessary to meet the country’s energy needs, this will create a market that will offer investors much more stability than they have at present.

Tom Burke CBE was formerly a special adviser to three Conservative secretaries of state for the environment, and director of Friends of the Earth and the Green Alliance. He is currently a Founding Director of E3G

Ed Miliband gives an early morning radio interview next to a giant ice cube representing Labour's energy price freeze at the Labour Party conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA