The energy companies can't avoid the blame for rising prices

While shifting the debate towards green levies, the Big Six have remained much quieter about their healthy profits.

They may be public enemy number one but you can't accuse the energy companies of being inept at public relations. Since their appearance in front of the energy select committee two weeks ago, the Big Six have successfully moved the conversation about energy bills away from their own profits and practices and on to so-called green levies. But by promising to "roll back" these charges, the Prime Minister is marching to their tune and failing to get the best deal for consumers.

Energy companies like to blame anyone but themselves for rising energy prices. In announcing their inflation-busting price rises, energy companies were quick to focus on wholesale gas prices and the levies on bills for low carbon energy and fuel poverty reduction.

They were much quieter about their own rising profits and operating costs. Energy firms make a healthy 5 or 6 per cent from their supply arms. They claim this is needed to make necessary investments but their own generation businesses report profits as high as 20 per cent.

Instead of scrutinising the acceptability of this level of profits in the energy supply industry, or questioning why operating costs appear to be spiralling upwards, the media have lapped up energy bosses describing green levies as a "stealth poll tax".

The only obfuscation, however, is by the energy companies themselves. New figures from Ofgem, released following a freedom of information request by IPPR, show that the two companies performing least well are those that have jacked up their energy prices the most. British Gas added £50 to consumers' bills for these charges but has delivered just 4, 6 and 9 per cent of its obligations. Scottish Power, by contrast, have delivered 24, 48 and 31 per cent and only raised green charges by £20.

If the money can be found, there is something to be said for moving green charges off energy bills and onto general taxation. That would make them more progressive. But a higher priority should be moving subsidies for low carbon generation off bills and onto taxation, because landowners and big companies are currently the big beneficiaries of this subsidy. Moving measures to improve fuel poverty should come second because these are at least partly progressive.

Regardless, the government now looks all but certain to do this at the oddly-named Autumn Statement on 5 December. If this is the case, it must ensure that this goes hand in hand with reform of its fuel poverty policy. The current policy is failing to get help to the intended recipients. As IPPR has shown, around 80 per cent of the policy budget, £434m of £540m, is being spent on homes that are not fuel poor. And 1.3 million fuel poor households are not eligible for any form or support.

Instead, we need a much more targeted approach to fuel poverty. The best approach is for local organisations to give out free assessments to work out who is fuel poor so that support reaches those who really need it. And to help everyone who is struggling with high energy bills, low interest loans for making energy efficiency improvements should be made widely available.

The EDF coal-fired plant, in Blenod-les-Pont-a-Mousson, eastern France. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Straw was Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage