While the Tories stand up for the energy companies, Labour stands up to them

Our pledge to freeze energy prices isn't a "gimmick" to customers being squeezed by corporate profiteers.

What confusing times we live in if you’re a Conservative. A fortnight ago, your leader, David Cameron, was attacking his Labour counterpart as akin to Stalin for promising an energy price freeze in Britain. A few days ago he changed tack and conceded that Ed Miliband might have "struck a chord" with the nation for pointing out that energy bills are outstripping wages for average families in our country. Then yesterday, another volte-face, at PMQs, when the Prime Minister seemed keener to defend the energy companies’ profits than concede that the British people might need their government to freeze prices on their behalf. Blinded by faith in the market – no matter how broken it might be – Mr Cameron appears to have permanently misplaced his Tory instinct that the customer should be king. Tell Sid about that.

I wonder if the Prime Minister knew yesterday, when he described Labour’s pro-customer stance as a "socialist gimmick" from a "Marxist universe", that this morning the energy company SSE planned to announce an inflation-busting 8.2% price rise for their customers across Britain – a million of whom live in Wales. He may not have done, but he might have anticipated it was coming given that SSE hiked their prices by 9% last year too. And even through the fog of confusion, he must surely have seen the injustice of such increases being imposed on customers in places like Wales where energy bills are already among the highest and the wages to pay them lower than elsewhere.

Of course the company would have us believe that these prices rises are necessary to allow reasonable returns to shareholders who are investing in infrastructure improvements, complying with decarbonisation targets and facing increased wholesale costs. And those claims might carry more force were the truth not that SSE announced in March an operating profit for its retail arm of £410m, as part of an overall pre-tax profit of £1.4bn for the group’s network, generating and retail arms as a whole. No wonder they can afford to pay their chief executive a £755,000 basic salary and their finance director a mere £610,000, when those profits rose 18.9% in the particularly lucrativenNetworks arm (the wires and pipes which constitute part of their £6.36bn 'Natural Monopoly Business') and a whopping 27.5% in the retail arm which is milking its customers. No wonder, too, they could afford to pay the £10.5m fine imposed by Ofgem earlier this year for mis-selling to those same customers by misleading them about the savings they might make by switching to SSE tariffs.

In Wales, where energy prices, according to the Department for Energy and Climate Change, are already the highest in Britain, at an average of £1,310 per annum versus £1,279 across the rest of the UK, the news that SSE intends turn the screw in order to deliver above-inflation dividends next year will land with the force of an SSE bill on the doormat. Wages in Wales have fallen by an average of £1,700 per household since the Tory-led coalition came to power and disposable incomes have traditionally always been lower in our post-industrial economy. The cost of living crisis is felt at its sharpest here.

Wales needs a government in Westminster to stand up to these companies and demand that they desist from the profiteering in which they are clearly engaged. Ed Miliband is asking for the opportunity to lead such a government and his words of warning to SSE and their five fellow companies have rung out across the country. When looking for comparators for Ed, David Cameron might do well to well to drop the McCarthyite rhetoric of reds under the bed, and reflect instead on the relevance of another figure from US politics: Theodore Roosevelt and the 'trust-busting' policies which carried him to power. Mr Cameron has a choice to make: does he want to stand up for the energy companies or stand up to them? We already know the choice Ed Miliband has made: we will speak for the people and freeze that bill.

David Cameron speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last week. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

Photo: Getty
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The government needs more on airports than just Chris Grayling's hunch

This disastrous plan to expand Heathrow will fail, vows Tom Brake. 

I ought to stop being surprised by Theresa May’s decision making. After all, in her short time as Prime Minister she has made a series of terrible decisions. First, we had Chief Buffoon, Boris Johnson appointed as Foreign Secretary to represent the United Kingdom around the world. Then May, announced full steam ahead with the most extreme version of Brexit, causing mass economic uncertainty before we’ve even begun negotiations with the EU. And now we have the announcement that expansion of Heathrow Airport, in the form of a third runway, will go ahead: a colossally expensive, environmentally disastrous, and ill-advised decision.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I asked Transport Secretary Chris Grayling why the government is “disregarding widespread hostility and bulldozing through a third runway, which will inflict crippling noise, significant climate change effects, health-damaging air pollution and catastrophic congestion on a million Londoners.” His response was nothing more than “because we don’t believe it’s going to do those things.”

I find this astonishing. It appears that the government is proceeding with a multi-billion pound project with Grayling’s beliefs as evidence. Why does the government believe that a country of our size should focus on one major airport in an already overcrowded South East? Germany has multiple major airports, Spain three, the French, Italians, and Japanese have at least two. And I find it astonishing that the government is paying such little heed to our legal and moral environmental obligations.

One of my first acts as an MP nineteen years ago was to set out the Liberal Democrat opposition to the expansion of Heathrow or any airport in southeast England. The United Kingdom has a huge imbalance between the London and the South East, and the rest of the country. This imbalance is a serious issue which our government must get to work remedying. Unfortunately, the expansion of Heathrow does just the opposite - it further concentrates government spending and private investment on this overcrowded corner of the country.

Transport for London estimates that to make the necessary upgrades to transport links around Heathrow will be £10-£20 billion pounds. Heathrow airport is reportedly willing to pay only £1billion of those costs. Without upgrades to the Tube and rail links, the impact on London’s already clogged roads will be substantial. Any diversion of investment from improving TfL’s wider network to lines serving Heathrow would be catastrophic for the capital. And it will not be welcomed by Londoners who already face a daily ordeal of crowded tubes and traffic-delayed buses. In the unlikely event that the government agrees to fund this shortfall, this would be salt in the wound for the South-West, the North, and other parts of the country already deprived of funding for improved rail and road links.

Increased congestion in the capital will not only raise the collective blood pressure of Londoners, but will have severe detrimental effects on our already dire levels of air pollution. During each of the last ten years, air pollution levels have been breached at multiple sites around Heathrow. While a large proportion of this air pollution is caused by surface transport serving Heathrow, a third more planes arriving and departing adds yet more particulates to the air. Even without expansion, it is imperative that we work out how to clean this toxic air. Barrelling ahead without doing so is irresponsible, doing nothing but harm our planet and shorten the lives of those living in west London.

We need an innovative, forward-looking strategy. We need to make transferring to a train to Cardiff after a flight from Dubai as straightforward and simple as transferring to another flight is now. We need to invest in better rail links so travelling by train to the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh is quicker than flying. Expanding Heathrow means missing our climate change targets is a certainty; it makes life a misery for those who live around the airport and it diverts precious Government spending from other more worthy projects.

The Prime Minister would be wise to heed her own advice to the 2008 government and “recognise widespread hostility to Heathrow expansion.” The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is the wrong one and if she refuses to U-turn she will soon discover the true extent of the opposition to these plans.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.