The government's Energy Statement was an Annual Excuses Statement

We have an out-of-touch Prime Minister who would rather announce endless reviews and consultations than stand up to the big energy companies.

Today’s Annual Energy Statement could not have come at a more important time. Energy prices are rising three times faster under this government than the last, bills are up by £300, and the latest price rises will add another £100 this winter. For people in fuel poverty, the gap between their bills and what they can afford is at an all-time high.  But for the companies, the mark-up between wholesale costs and the prices they charge grows ever-wider.

Soaring energy bills are contributing to a cost-of-living crisis which urgently needs tackling. Today’s Energy Statement gave the government the chance to set out what they would do to stand up for hard-working families. But what we heard today would be better described as the Annual Excuses Statement. There were excuses for why people’s bills are going up, excuses for why they’re doing nothing about it and excuses for why each and every time it happens, the government backs the big energy companies rather than standing up for consumers.

There’s a pattern emerging here. The energy companies blame social and environmental obligations for their price rises – so the Prime Minister promises to roll them back.  Threatened by Labour’s price freeze plans, the energy companies clamour for yet another review to kick the issue into the long grass – and lo and behold, the government announces a review.  

Only three weeks ago, energy Greg Barker told the BBC that idea that government levies were responsible for bill rises was "nonsense". But now, boxed in by a Prime Minister who’s not willing to stand up to the energy companies and a Chancellor who actively courts climate change deniers in his own party, the government says they’re to blame. 

As for the announcement of yet another review of the market – it’s not going to tell us anything we don’t already know. We know the market is broken. The last review by Ofgem - fully backed by the government - only concluded in June. This review is nothing more than a smokescreen, designed to disguise the fact that we have a Prime Minister who stands up for the big energy companies, rather than for ordinary families.

There was one further announcement from the government today - encouraging people to switch from one company to another. But no amount of tinkering with tariffs, telling people to shop around, or, as David Cameron suggested, wearing another jumper, will solve the real problem with Britain’s energy market. Because even the cheapest tariff in a rigged market will still not be a good deal. If people switch anything, they should switch Prime Minister, to somebody who will stand up against the energy companies.

Today’s Energy Statement gave ministers yet another chance to tell us what real action they would take to reform the energy market and help hard-pressed consumers with sky-high bills. But once again, they have shown they have no answers. We have an out-of-touch Prime Minister who would rather announce endless reviews and consultations than stand up to the big energy companies.

Consumers need real action now to tackle the soaring cost of living.  That’s why we need a Labour government to deliver Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze promise, which would save money for 27 million households. And, because the market is broken, Labour would take real action to reset it, and create a tough new regulator to stop the public being ripped off and deliver fairer prices in the future.

Families and businesses are being overcharged but we have a Prime Minister more interested in standing up for the big energy companies than standing up for consumers. We need to freeze bills and totally reset the market so it's working for consumers. And that's what a Labour government will do.

Caroline Flint is shadow energy and climate change secretary

David Cameron with Energy Secretary Ed Davey at the Clean Energy Ministerial conference in London on April 26, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.