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The claims green policies will add £150 to your energy bill don't stack up

Figures from British Gas have a whiff of corporate spin and media hysteria.

Just when you thought the debate over energy bills, which was such a feature of the recent general election campaign, had died down, along comes British Gas.

The energy firm sparked media outrage this week with the news that it is hiking electricity prices for over three million households by an inflation-busting 12.5 per cent, adding around £76 pounds to the average bill.

Predictably, the accusations flew. Many papers rounded on the "greed" of British Gas, noting the firm’s healthy profit margins, the highest in the sector – its average pre-tax profit margin over the last eight years is 7.0 per cent, twice the 3.4 per cent aggregate average of all big six energy firms – and the hefty salary enjoyed by Centrica boss Iain Conn.

The Government and Ofgem were also a target of anger. Ministers were criticised after backing away from pledges to cap energy bills post-election, and passing the responsibility to the regulator. Ofgem for its part batted the responsibility back, arguing that it’s not the job of the "unelected regulator" to do this, and cap would need legislation.

British Gas itself, like other big six firms that raised prices before it, sought to blame factors outside its control, notably "policy and transmission costs", it said in a press release, explaining to journalists that "green energy subsidies" and the costs of energy networks were to blame.

"Green tax"

But amid all the claim and counter-claim, one report stood out: a front-page article in the Daily Telegraph, which led with the assertion from British Gas that "green tax" - funding for renewable forms of energy like wind and solar power - will add £150 to home energy bills next year.

The figure caught the eye of energy experts and journalists from other outlets; where had it come from? Admittedly, British Gas doesn’t have an unblemished record on being straight on costs (the £76 increase this week, for example, also includes the scrapping of a £15 dual fuel discount, something the firm didn’t mention in either its press release or explanatory blog), but the £150 figure seemed to have come out of the blue.

It also seemed to surprise the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) too, which put out a statement saying that it "did not recognise" the numbers, citing independent reports that said the true figure was lower.

A report in March by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), for example, gave a much clearer breakdown of policy costs on bills, putting the cost of all climate policies, which might be labelled "green taxes", at £104 in 2016, and expected to rise to £110 this year. This figure, however, excludes other policy costs, such as the costs of helping people in fuel poverty or the rollout of smart meters.

So, if you were being charitable, you might say that British Gas was rolling all policy costs into their £150 figure – but the Telegraph was clear that it referred to clean energy subsidies, and journalistic pleas to British Gas for an explanation of how they arrived at the number yielded little clarity.

Informed debate

For long-term watchers of the UK energy sector like myself, the argument over the £150 figure had the familiar whiff of corporate spin and media hysteria, which regularly combine to form a toxic cloud on energy issues, obscuring the facts and ignoring the important issues.

For example, one vital fact left out of much of the media coverage, and certainly ignored by the Daily Telegraph, was detailed analysis earlier this year by the CCC of the long-term impact of climate policies on energy bills.

The Committee found that, although support for low-carbon policies does add costs to bills, these have been more than offset by savings delivered by those same policies. Overall, said the CCC, improvements in energy efficiency and cutting energy waste has saved households an average of £290 a year since 2008.

In other words, Britain’s efforts to decarbonise, which enjoy cross-party political support, have been very successful at both cutting emissions and saving people money. They also enjoy strong popular support too; a regular Government survey, published this week, showed that support for renewable forms of energy remains high, with around 75-80 per cent of people saying that they support its use, with very few opposed.

In other words; politicians and the public want to see the development of a cleaner, more efficient energy system and, although there remain differences of opinion over specific aspects of energy policy, the direction of travel is clear.

But resolving those differences of opinion is made much more challenging by efforts to muddy the debate. Investing in the energy system of the future, while keeping bills manageable, maintaining energy security and cutting carbon emissions, is a complex task which in a democracy deserves and needs a public debate.

But this debate most be informed by clear and honest evidence; when energy market incumbents like British Gas play fast and loose with the facts for their own advantage, and journalists fail to properly question them, their customers are misled and the job of managing the energy transition becomes that much harder.

Catherine Mitchell is Professor of Energy Policy at Exeter University 

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“Grooming rings are the biggest recruiter for the far right”: Rochdale and Telford prosecutor

Senior lawyer Nazir Afzal warns the government, and communities implicated in street grooming, to do more – or the situation will get worse.

Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor who led prosecutions against a child sex abuse ring in Telford, and oversaw similar street grooming cases in Rochdale, tells Anoosh Chakelian why these crimes go under the radar, and how to tackle them.

How widespread are these street grooming cases?

My involvement started with Operation Span, which is the Rochdale prosecution, in 2011. And prior to that, when I was in London as chief prosecutor, I was aware it was an issue bubbling but wasn’t getting any attention.

Obviously we’ve now got Telford, Newcastle, Peterborough, Sheffield, Rotherham, Oxford, Bristol. If anybody watched the BBC’s film Three Girls, at the very end, they list I think 16 towns and cities where prosecution had taken place.

We know that it is extraordinarily widespread. Wherever you look, if you turn over the stone, you’ll find this kind of behaviour. 

What do each of these cases have in common?

What we discovered, ten years ago nearly, were groups of men working invariably in the night-time economy, either in taxi services or takeaways or that kind of business, hiding amongst whom were these predators. They’re not gangs in the way organised crime gangs are. They’re very loose networks.

There are vulnerable young girls in so many parts of this country, who nobody else seems to care about. And what these victims need is warmth, transport, mind-numbing substances, food. And where are they going to find that? You’re invariably going to find that in the night-time economy.

I used to describe them as easy prey for evil men. They’re easy to identify, and what tends to happen is that once they’ve identified one victim, through her networks very often they’ll find others.

These men are just taking advantage of the dysfunctional nature of children’s services and young people’s services that have existed now for some time. If anything, it’s got worse, because while there is tremendous learning, the resources have been reduced.

So really good practices – like one council would have a van that would go round fast food premises in the evening to identify young girls at risk and talk to them – are cancelled because they don’t have the money to do it anymore.

People work in silence. Information was available and wasn’t shared. That style of working is part of the problem. So time and again, people are just keeping things to themselves. It’s a lack of competence on their part. It’s competence, it’s not conspiracy. Easier to blame a conspiracy than say “you were rubbish at your job”. And that is constantly something that I have come across.

The victims don’t even see themselves as victims very often. Because of the poverty of relationship education and sex education in schools, these men make them believe that they love them. I remember in the Rochdale case, one of the girls kept calling one of the defendants throughout the trial her “boyfriend”. She doesn’t know any different; nobody has taught her what’s a good relationship, what’s a bad relationship.

Time and time again, survivors have the answers. What the authorities should be doing is listening to their local survivors, and building their response and their interventions on what the survivors tell them: “This is a journey I took, this is where you could’ve intervened. This is where you could’ve prevented my abuse or somebody else’s abuse.”

There are some very, very courageous, extraordinarily strong women now more than willing to share their experiences. And we do so little of that [talking to them].

How can the situation be improved for victims and potential victims?

A lot of these victims have criminal records as a result of behaviours they were made to do – we should be erasing those criminal records. That’s the way we can rehabilitate them. I think victims need compensation for what they’ve been through. And they also need lifelong support, and that’s not being produced.

Taxi drivers in Coventry are trained in local signs of abuse; it’s part of their licensing arrangement and I work with them actually on delivering that. Why is that not happening everywhere else in the country? Why are we not licensing and training takeaway establishments in the same way?

I discovered recently that in Newcastle, they’re delivering this kind of training. Sadly, it’s voluntary. The people you need to engage with are not coming. So unless you have mandatory training for people working in the night-time economy, it’s not going to happen.

Additionally in the hotel trade, one or two large chains are doing some good work in identifying young people at risk, and sharing intelligence. Why is that not everywhere? We know that predators use cheap hotels and places like that for the abuse they carry out.

The intelligence is there, it’s just not being used. And we’re not using community intelligence either. The vast majority of victims in this type of sex offending are white girls. There are Asian girl victims too.

When I prosecuted the Rochdale gang, immediately afterwards, I prosecuted the ringleader again for his abuse of a girl of the same ethnicity as him. That didn’t get any publicity and he got 21 years for that. So there are victims from the Asian community but because of issues such as honour, shame, and the fact that very often they’re told by their families that it’s “your fault”, they’re not coming forward.

So we need to understand that there are victims out there who are even less likely to report their concerns because of familial and community pressures.

We are scratching the surface, and it really irks me that each and every time it gets in the news, it’s two things.

Number one is that it’s the biggest recruiter for the far right in this country. If you go on any far right website, they use the grooming gangs more so than Isis or terror attacks as the means by which they recruit far right activists.

So we should be tackling this, and by “we” I mean everybody, including the communities most impacted, and most implicated.

Number two is we need to intervene much earlier, but we also need to do some perpetrator programmes. There are perpetrators involved who are still in denial about their activities. There are still people out there who think “well, it’s fair game”.

How can it be prevented from happening in future?

Much more work has to happen in terms of the perpetrators and perpetrators of the future – and that, of course, involves early education.

Too often, we wait until high school to start talking about gender equality and relationship education. We should be starting to talk to them about these types of behaviours and what they should be looking out for when they’re five, six and seven. We’re just building up a problem for the future by not doing any of this.

We should have mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. If you see someone being abused, or you perceive to be being abused, then it should be your duty to report. What the government has said recently is that social workers have come out against it. And my response would be: “Well they would, wouldn’t they?”

NGOs are doing phenomenal work in its field, so there are lots of charities and groups up and down the country trying to identify victims and potential perpetrators. They don’t get enough funding. They’re working on a shoestring.

What do you say to those suggesting ethnicity plays a part?

The vast majority of children and young people are abused within the family. We must not lose sight of that. The second largest group of victims are online. Today, you can pay pennies to watch a child being abused in real-time, somewhere in the world. The third largest group is institutional; we know about places of worship – churches, mosques – we also know about the FA and football and judo and sporting clubs, and the BBC.

Street grooming is the smallest – significant nonetheless, we’re still talking about thousands of victims. It’s smallest comparatively to the other three areas.

More than 80 per cent of child sexual offenders are British white men.

When I’ve prosecuted Stuart Hall or Max Clifford, or whatever, people never said “oh, his religion, his ethnicity”, as if that was important. It wasn’t in their cases, and they remain the vast majority of offenders.

I’ve always said the ethnicity of street groomers is an issue. We can’t pretend that’s not what’s happening.

The night-time economy is one issue. But it’s not the issue.The issue is the availability and vulnerability of young girls. The issue is the fact that they are unwanted and unloved. They get no support: the NGOs that support them aren’t properly funded, neither are children’s services. That is the issue.

But ethnicity is an issue, and I don’t think the community is doing enough. I was really pleased to see, some months ago, I was invited to the launch of the Greater Manchester Muslim community organisation, and one of their four priorities is tackling grooming. And that is rare. Most communities would rather not talk about the subject, would beat me up [verbally] quite regularly for mentioning it, and unless we tackle it, bigots don’t need an excuse to hate you, so why do we give them an excuse? Why are we not tackling an issue that can be tackled?

You can’t just generalise about what it is that might be driving these men. We need to do a great deal more research into background, why perpetrators become perpetrators, in the same way we’re trying to identify why victims become victims.

Authorities are often accused of being scared to act because of political correctness. How do you feel about that?

I’ve not come across anybody who’s scared. I get bored of this going unchallenged. These are difficult cases to prosecute. Very often, the victim treats the prosecutor or the investigator as the bad guy for trying to destroy their “relationships”. Competence was the issue – people not understanding how to bring these cases. They had to leave their tick-boxes and their normal pro formas aside.

Some people, no doubt, may not want to offend a certain community, but I would imagine they’re in the minority. The large majority fail to engage because it’s really difficult.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.