The shamelessness of the energy companies shows why we need a price freeze

British Gas's suggestion that households should simply use less energy is blackly humorous. But customers won't see the funny side.

Following last week’s announcement that SSE, the biggest supplier of energy to Welsh households, is to increase prices by 8.2%, yesterday came the announcement that Britain’s second biggest supplier, Centrica (AKA British Gas) is to follow suit with a 9.2% hike. Though customers will not see the funny side, the press release from British Gas, defending its decision, is a blackly humorous read. It begins with an acknowledgement that Ed Miliband is right: "the cost of living is rising faster than incomes". Then there’s a passage of hand-wringing regret that despite these tough times for customers, our bills have to go up by almost 10% to maintain their profitability. Before, finally, in a statement almost beyond parody, the company’s managing director, Ian Peters, reassures us: "A price rise doesn’t necessarily mean energy bills have to go up too. The amount you pay depends not just on the price, but on how much gas and electricity you use."
And he’s right, of course. You could just not turn on the boiler or the cooker and save a fortune. Why didn’t we think of that earlier? It would certainly make life easier for David Cameron, who, having so spectacularly failed to stand up to the energy companies in the interests of ordinary families, looks like a man who would give anything to make the problem go away.
Since I was having such fun reading the press release, I thought I’d take a look the Annual Accounts and Report for British Gas’s parent company, Centrica, to see if they were as much of a laugh. I was not disappointed.
Sam Laidlaw, the group’s chief executive, concludes his introductory remarks with the cool observation that "Centrica has a robust balance sheet and generates strong cashflows". He’s not kidding. British Gas – the bit putting up their prices today – made a post-tax profit of £1.09bn last year, up from the £1.01bn it made in 2011, though not as much as the £1.22bn it made in 2010. Within that consistent £1bn-plus profit, the sales to residential customers have been looking good too: up to £606m from the £544m posted in 2011.
The bit of the company generating the energy to sell to British Gas (i.e. itself) is called Centrica Energy, and its numbers are even better. In 2012, the energy generation arm made a post-tax profit of £1.2bn, £200m better than the year before and £500m better than 2009, the last year a Labour government was in charge. Little wonder the smiles are so broad on the faces of the board members’ pen-pictures, when share prices have risen by a third since May 2010 and top managers’ salaries with them: Mr Laidlaw’s total remuneration was almost £5m in 2012, his understrapper at British Gas making do with £3m.
What the accounts don’t tell us, of course, is the real amount it costs Centrica to generate the energy which it then sells on to British Gas at the going market rate – a market rate that itself reflects the wholesale prices set by the big six companies. It’s a circular process - in which the only real loser appears to be the paying customer at the end of the pipeline or the power cable, watching nervously as the wheel spins ever faster in the black-box under the stairs. Labour can’t stop the wheel turning, but we can freeze the price of each revolution and therefore your overall bill. And we will.
The entrance to Leicester's British Gas Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is shadow welsh secretary and Labour MP for Pontypridd.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.