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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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.