An energy windfall tax would show that the Tories are on the side of the poorest

It is not sufficient for Conservatives just to focus on reducing green taxes. We need to stop the corporate juggernaut and tax companies' excessive profits.

Ed Miliband's proposed energy price freeze is seductive for two reasons. First, it shows a real attempt to alleviate financial pain because of high utility bills, and second, it taps into a deep unease about the actions of big corporations. The public instinctively know that many large multinationals are behaving unfairly, charging more than they need for essential services, while their directors give themselves huge pay rises or bonuses.
 
However, seduction is not the same as a long­-term solution.  The price freeze is flawed because it will push up prices in the short-­term and long-­term.  It is not clear how the freeze would work in the event of large increases in the world­wide energy markets. It could also put badly-needed investment in infrastructure at risk, threatening our long-term energy security.
 
But just because there are problems with Labour's solution, this doesn't mean, to use a broken train analogy, that Conservatives can simply pull up the blinds of the railway carriage and say "the train isn't working, the train isn't working".
 
First, we have to recognise and condemn the behaviour of the big corporate utility companies. Not just energy, but across the board: water corporates and oil behemoths act just as badly. This is clear when we look at recent announcements regarding energy bill increases. For example, the energy company SSE are going to increase bills by 8.2%, despite awarding four of their senior directors over £5m in bonuses. Water companies have a similarly poor record. In a study I did of water companies in the east of England, I found that they were hiking up both their customers' bills and their own bonuses. One company’s average bill increased by 33% and, ­strangely, their directors’ pay also increased by 33%.
 
Oil companies also behave anti­-competitively, operating de facto cartels, pushing up the wholesale price and allegedly manipulating the oil market. Why is it that prices at the pumps continue to rise even when the cost of international oil has fallen? In December last year, the AA showed that from October 2012, the wholesale price of oil had fallen by at least 10p, but only 4p of this saving had been passed on to motorists.
 
Part of the problem with the big corporates is that the regulators tend to act as company secretaries rather than as powerful consumer bodies (in the Which? Consumer Association mould) OFWAT sets weak targets for water leaks, OFGEM has also been criticised for being powerless and failing to protect the consumer (the recent £8.5m fine they awarded to Scottish Power for giving misleading pitches was a rare example of tough action), and the OFT acts as if it is a lobby group for oil bosses rather than on the side of the consumer.
 
So how can Conservatives deal with this? First, by reforming regulators so that they have the power to impose massive fines and real powers to look out for the best interests of the consumer. Second, by getting rid of unnecessary burdens, like the non-social­ related elements of green taxes and lowering VAT (after an EU renegotiation), and third, by doing everything possible to increase competition.
 
Finally­, and perhaps most significantly of all, by imposing a windfall tax on utility companies. This tax would be handed back to the public through lower utility bills. A windfall tax would also make an important statement to the energy companies: "enough is enough, government can no longer stand­by and see the public being ripped off". It would send out a very powerful signal that the Conservatives want to stop the corporate juggernaut and are on the side of the poorest who are suffering the most because of high bills.
 
It is not sufficient for Tories just to focus on reducing green taxes, however important. If we are to argue that we won't save the planet on the backs of the poor, we also have to prove that we can help the poor by getting on the backs of the big corporates. As a party we have always been successful at the ballot box when we have 'elevated the condition of the people' and been the party of small business. A windfall tax would cement our place on the side of those who are doing the right thing, rather than those who are doing such wrong.
The EDF coal-fired plant, in Blenod-les-Pont-a-Mousson, eastern France. Photograph: Getty Images.

Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow. He tweets at @halfon4harlowMP

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On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:


“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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