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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.