The energy price freeze is a means - market reform is the end

Long after the price freeze has been lifted, Labour's market reforms will go on delivering a more transparent and more competitive deal for consumers and businesses.

In Parliament today, every MP will have the opportunity to back their constituents and local businesses in voting for Labour’s 20 month energy price freeze. For every hyperbolic statement from those lined up by the Tories to stand in the corner of the large energy companies, and the Edinburgh SNP’s energy spokesman Fergus Ewing ridiculously repeating the comparison to the Enron manipulated experience in California in Holyrood, thousands of individuals in every part of the country want to see their bills frozen and real reform of the broken energy market.

While the price freeze has attracted – and sustained – headlines for several weeks, it is far from being the only element of Labour’s agenda for the retail energy market. The price freeze enables us to take volatility out of bills while we get on with the vital task of reforming the retail energy market.

They may not draw as much attention, but these measures to overhaul the market are needed. They are the Xabi Alonso to the price freeze’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Long after the price freeze has lifted, these will go on delivering a more transparent and more competitive deal for consumers and businesses alike.

Sift through the responses to Labour’s energy policy with a little more care and you’ll find that behind some of the (obvious, predictable, wrong-headed) opposition, there is a recognition that these policies are desperately needed. From arch-Tories, such as John Major or Peter Lilly, through the Telegraph, the FT and the Guardian, to organisations such as Which? and the Committee on Energy and Climate Change, there is a growing chorus that calls for widespread reform of a market that is broken. 

Labour have been quietly setting out such policies for the past two years. We’ll begin by scrapping Ofgem. This is a regulator that has proved time and again that it is simply not up to the job of protecting consumers. Its replacement will be established with a clear commitment to to make sure that wholesale price decreases are registered on the bills of our households and businesses, not just in the profit margins of the Big Six.

We will end the practice of shady over-the-counter deals by requiring that all energy is traded through an open exchange. At present, some estimates suggest that the equivalent of just 6% of electricity consumption volume is traded this way, damaging transparency and liquidity. By ring-fencing generation businesses from supply operations, we will end the practice of vertical integration that can allow big utility companies to sell energy to themselves at an inflated price, passing profit back along their supply chain.

The reason that these proposals have drawn support from right across the political spectrum is because what drives them is fairness and transparency to provide competition and liquidity in the market. These are practical, common sense proposals. But the Conservatives have nothing comparable to offer. They defend the Big Six to the hilt, making the classic mistake of assuming that the less-regulated market is always the more effective market. In truth, the large companies have the energy sector stitched up. It is only by pushing the reset button that that we can repair the failing market.

Increasingly, the public debate is beginning to reflect these deeper concerns. This is a real problem for the Tories. They’ve taken more than a month to start putting together a response to Labour’s price freeze. Even those of us who hold the competence of the Conservatives in fairly low regard have been surprised by their sluggishness.

But just as they're beginning to formulate a policy on retail prices – shifting some costs from consumers’ bills onto their taxes and pretending that those costs have vanished – the public debate is moving ahead. Newspapers and commentators have begun to ask more fundamental questions about the adequacy of the energy market that sets such prices.

Throughout the progress of the Energy Bill through Parliament, Labour warned that it was a serious mistake not to include any measures to reform the clearly defunct retail market. By failing to head those warnings and signalling that they were content with the status quo, the coalition made a grave oversight. What the Tories are discovering is just how cavernous this hole in their policy is, and the lack of public and business support for a broken market which works against the consumer.

The longer this debate goes on, the starker the contrast will become between a Labour Party that will freeze prices, get tough with the Big Six and bring much-needed reform to the market and a Tory Party that is content to defend the status quo. 

Tom Greatex is shadow energy minister and Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West

British Gas branding adorns the entrance to Leicester's Aylestone Road British Gas Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tom Greatrex is shadow energy minister and Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.