Are energy companies switching us off?

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Since the Labour Party Conference in September, the issue of increasing energy prices has been the main subject of political debate. In his conference speech, Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, announced that a future Labour government would freeze energy prices for 20 months in an effort to restructure what he considers to be a broken competitive system. Even former Prime Minister John Major has called on the government to consider introducing a ‘windfall tax’ at a time when the Conservative Party is seeking to review the cost of green levies on consumer bills. Are these price rises necessary in order for energy companies to reinvest? Or is Ed Miliband’s freeze, as David Cameron described it, a ‘con’?

In the last few weeks, four out of the big six energy companies have announced rises in their electricity and gas bills. Recently, British Gas has raised its prices by an average of 9.2%, SSE by 8.2% and Npower by 10.4%. These increases are astonishing, particularly at a time when some families are already struggling to pay their energy bills. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped these companies from justifying their actions as resulting from rising wholesale prices, which make up 46% of the consumer energy bill.

At a recent meeting with the Energy and Climate Change Committee, William Morris, the managing director of SSE, claimed that his company had seen a 4% increase in wholesale costs over the last year, and that the cost of transporting energy to homes had risen by 10%. These figures, however, were not recognised by the regulator Ofgem, which argued that the wholesale price of electricity and gas has on average only increased by 1.7%, which would add only £10 to the average £600 consumer bill. This apparent difference in figures is yet another setback for the big six, who are already suffering from a loss of public confidence. The issue of competition within the market has also come under scrutiny, with suggestions of anti-competitive behaviour as a result of cartels between the major energy companies. While these accusations have never been proven by previous inquiries into the energy market, the recent surge in consumer bills has done little to alter the public’s perception of energy companies’ motives.

To try to bring some credibility to their own companies, the big six have continually attacked Miliband’s proposal. Their main argument against any prize freeze stems from the fact that the market for energy is global, meaning that the government is unable to control certain costs such as the cost of global supply and any foreign levies imposed on the energy companies. However, the recent price hikes are not linked to any rise in these costs, and as Ofgem has stated, wholesale prices have only slightly risen in the last year, whereas the profit margins made by the energy firms have doubled from £45 to £95 per customer.

Ed Miliband’s proposal is therefore a very appealing concept to the ordinary voter. However, it has sparked criticism from the coalition which claims that the risk of a price freeze is forcing energy firms to increase prices before the next election, discouraging future investments in the UK’s energy infrastructure. Cameron has therefore proposed that the government should review the green levies that make up only 9% of consumer energy bills. However, green levies are needed in order for there to be investment in new and renewable forms of energy for the future. Furthermore, these levies are used to provide deductions on bills for low-income individuals and families, as well as free loft insulation, thus reducing the amount of energy households require.

In short, neither proposal is sufficient to address the issues of rising energy prices and securing the UK’s energy future. What is most definitely needed is a complete reform of the structure of the energy market. The problem at present is that the big six energy companies control the entire supply chain. Labour’s idea of ring-fencing energy companies’ generation company from their supply side is certainly more credible than their price freeze proposal, but we also need a tough new watchdog that has the power to penalise energy companies who raise their prices when there is a reduction in wholesale costs. Our energy market needs a major restructuring before any huge policy shift can take place.

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