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. 

Photo: Getty
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Time to start fixing the broken safety net that no longer catches struggling families

We are failing to ensure we look after the children of families both in and out of work.

Families on low incomes are once again bearing the brunt of a tough economic environment. Over the past decade, rising costs of items such as food, energy and childcare, combined with stagnating wages and cuts in benefits, have repeatedly put a squeeze on family budgets.

Between 2014 and 2016, some of these pressures eased, as inflation sank to zero and pay started to grow again. But now that inflation has returned, for the first time in postwar history the increasing cost of a child is being combined with a freeze in all financial support for children. The failure to uprate either benefits, tax credits or the wage levels at which tax credits are withdrawn means that inflation is bound to erode modest family incomes both in and out of work.

The gradual fall in living standards that this produces will be worsened by other benefit cuts that come in over the next few years, for different families at different times. For a start, the phasing out of the “family element” of Child Tax Credit (and its equivalent in Universal Credit) will eventually result in all low-income families getting more than £500 a year less from the state than at present.

Since this only applies to families whose oldest child was born in April 2017 or later, it hits families with the youngest children first, with the effect spreading gradually through the population. The restriction of tax credit entitlements to a maximum of two children is also being phased in, affecting only third children born from this year on, but will clobber families much more severely, with a loss of nearly £2,800 a year per child.

Some existing larger families who escape this cut have nevertheless had their income severely reduced this year (by anything up to £6,000) by the reduction in the benefit cap.

My latest report on the cost of a child, for Child Poverty Action Group, takes stock of these trends and the effects they will have on parents’ ability to provide for their families effectively. For some families in work, improved support for childcare and a higher minimum wage partially offsets the losses incurred as a result of the above cuts. But for those relying on benefits as a “safety net” when they are not working, the level of this net is being progressively lowered over time. On present policies, the support that it provides will sink below half of what families need as a minimum sometime early in the 2020s – having in contrast provided about two thirds of their requirements at the start of the present decade.

There comes a point when a “safety net” stops being worthy of its name because it is no longer enough to provide even the bare essentials of modern life. The evidence shows that when income sinks this low, most families can only escape severe material hardship either by going into debt or by getting help from extended family members.

We are about to enter a new parliamentary season, led by a government that survived by the skin of its teeth after a disgruntled electorate failed to give it the clear majority that it sought. Raising family living standards has been at the heart of the political promise to improve people’s lives. The benefits freeze alone seems to contradict this promise by creating a downward escalator for the half of families relying on some kind of means-tested benefit or tax credit, in combination with child benefit.

For those  who are “just about managing”, and particularly for others who are not managing at all, the clearest signal that Philip Hammond could give in his Autumn Budget that he is starting  to reverse the direction of that escalator would be to restore a system of benefit upratings. This would at least allow incomes to keep up with living costs, stopping things from getting systematically worse, and giving a stable foundation on which measures to improve living standards could build.

Professor Donald Hirsch is director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University