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The Government energy gaff: anything but funny

By Angela Harbutt
October 20th, 2012 at 10:00 am | 1 Comment | Posted in Uncategorized

I might be the only person in the country actually feeling a bit sorry for the energy companies. I am not saying that they are the good guys – I complain like the rest of us when I see the bill. But I do look at what has happened over the past few months and I have to feel a bit of sympathy for their situation and a large amount of dread for the rest of us. Of course bankers will already know about confusing government messages – being told simultaneously to hold larger reserves and lend more. But if anything the energy companies plight is worse – and if we don’t want brown outs in the next few years we really need to get a grip on this now.

Good job the impressive Angela Knight has moved from banks to energy in recent months – she must feel right at home.

First a quick rewind to April 2011. Back then the government introduced a scheme called “midata”, as part of the Government’s “consumer empowerment strategy” ,  “Better Choices: Better Deals”. Midata was created as a “partnership” between the UK government, consumer groups and major businesses, aimed at giving consumers access to the data created through their household utility use, banking, internet transactions and high street loyalty cards. (I always read “partnership” as “government says play with us and if you don’t we will clobber you with legislation”. I am usually right too).

I wont go into the complexities, or rights and wrongs of the Government decision this summer to move from “playing nicely”, to forcing companies to join the Orwellian-sounding “midata vision” – suffice it to say it is yet another wet dream for all those huge IT giants, rubbing their hands at the prospect of all that lovely lolly (just like IDS smart cards).  Another disproportionate technological answer to a problem that almost certainly doesn’t exist and will probably be met with total public apathy.

The consultation closed last month – but in reviewing it , I noticed at that it was the energy companies that were said to have “led the way in the midata initiative“, “with a number of suppliers already giving their customers access to transaction data”.

So in August the energy companies were being praised or their boldness in embracing “the midata vision”, they were indeed responding to the governments desire to “empower the consumer” with more information.

Roll onto October (and presumably the latest set of focus group reports showing the price of gas and electricity is high on the list of concerns of would-be voters) and David Cameron has a eureka moment – force all companies to offer everyone the cheap fuel!

Yet another ill-conceived, knee jerk idea that has more holes in it than a swiss cheese. Not least the fact that would if companies are forced to offer everyone their lowest tariff then companies will simply raise the price of the lowest tariff.  Why would people pay more ? And if everyone elects to pay the lowest price, where is the profit for the developments that the Government and Ofgem say are needed, unless erm, the lowest price is higher than currently offered.

Another policy that benefits the idle that do nothing and penalises the financially prudent who have taken the effort to seek out the better deal. A deal that doubtless will no longer be available to them if Mr Cameron’s scheme comes into play. No worries people, you sit on your sofa and scoff your pies, Government will do everything for you.

If Mr Cameron really wants to see lower energy prices, how about cutting the accelerating social and environmental charges (5-10%) on our bills for useless green energies that all too often just don’t work. Or cutting back costly hyper regulation costs or dubious government initiatives such as “midata” that simply ad to company overheads.  Energy company profits are between 5 – 9% depending on who you listen to. That is not excessive. Government profits from energy are as high as 15% (5% VAT, 5-10% green charges).

It is all too clear that Cameron’s announcement on legislation to force energy companies to give the lowest tariff to all their customers’ came as surprise to everyone.

Junior minister John Hayes admitted in the Commons he had no idea how the PM’s promise might work in practice, then seemed to later backtrack on Cameron’s pledge, saying the government was only considering introducing such a law. Meanwhile Energy Secretary Ed Davey was talking about a totally different approach to cutting bills yesterday morning – promoting competition between energy companies.

It’s like the Thick of It – but not as funny.

Ofgems timely announcement may just have saved Mr Cameron’s bacon with an announcement that tariff complexity, poor supplier behaviour and a lack of transparency and competition in a market  are the main issues in need of addressing. We almost certainly do need simplifcation of the tariff system encouraging savvier customers to switch supplier to get the best deal. That in turn will encourage much-needed competition (something Ed Davey is clear he wants to see).

So what the energy companies might expect from the upcoming energy bill is anybody’s guess but I reckon they are hoping for no more unhelpful off-the-cuff remarks from the PM any time soon. The energy market is in enough turmoil already. I will sign off with wise words from Angela Knight

“As Ofgem’s proposals and the Energy Bill are debated, clarity of plans and certainty of proposals will be essential, as well as open consultation and decision-making that is grounded in facts and evidence”. 

Listen up Mr Cameron, that “clarity of plans” and “certainty of proposals” bit is aimed at you.

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What do we want “LAWS”.. When do we want him “NOW”

By Angela Harbutt
February 4th, 2012 at 9:52 pm | 11 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats

Lib Dems overwhelming want David Laws back in the mix – big time. A Lib Dem Voice survey of members , released today, suggests that an overwhelming  72% of Lib Dem members in the LDV sample want to see David Laws return to a ministerial post in the Coalition government, with most wanting to see him return to the cabinet.

There are some Lib Dems who think that he is better placed to stay behind the scenes and mastermind the next election strategy. I have some sympathy with that. We do need someone who knows what they are doing, this time around, running that. But what we need, just  as importantly right now, is to be able to show we are competent in government.With ideas that work and a positive message for what we can achieve rather than prevent. Getting Ed Davey (who has been phenomenal in  Business)  into the Climate job and  Norman Lamb (who has spent too much time behind the scenes) to take up Ed’s post are both excellent moves. But if there was the chance of adding David Laws to the line up who wouldn’t think that was a pretty impressive team to field in the all-important run up to the next general election.

If David Cameron is serious about this partnership – and if Nick Clegg really does have the balls to do what’s necessary – then it surely can’t be long before David Laws is off the subs bench and back in the game?

UPDATE – Sunday Telegraph reporting that Laws may be in for a big job… GET IN.

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Does Snoutgate mean that Tatton is the future of British politics?

By Mark Littlewood
May 17th, 2009 at 3:05 pm | 7 Comments | Posted in UK Politics

neil-hamilton-and-martin-bell1If the fallout from Snoutgate is a long-term breakdown of trust of politicians, does this mean that your electoral prospects could now better as a mere PPC rather than as an MP? In other words, is incumbency now potentially electoral poison. 

I’m more interested in the lower-grade stuff. The occassional item of soft furnishing. The odd electric toothbrush or lightbulb. A Kenwood mixer here or a new kettle there.

It’s not hard to see how the political opponents of such MPs could run their local campaigns.

If you remember back to June 2006, the LibDems nearly snatched the safe seat of Bromley from the Tories with a swing of 14% in a Parliamentary by-election. Cameron was flying high in the polls at the time. There were no enormous policy issues dominating the campaign.

The LibDem machine focused relentlessly on the professional record of hapless Tory candidate Bob Neil – “Three Jobs Bob” as he was dubbed. And it came within a whisker of shifting a safe Conservative seat from the blue to the yellow column.

The allegation against Bob Neil was that he would be unable to dilligently carry out his duties as a local MP. He didn’t live in the area and had numerous other serious professional and political commitments. Fair enough points to make against your opponent in the rough and tumble of a by-election campaign, for sure. But nowhere near as electorally poisonous as the stuff that is coming out about a whole swathe of MPs. If Bob Neil had also charged the taxpayer £2,000 to have his moat dredged or £800 for a widescreen TV, he would have been annihilated.

So – unless like David Howarth – you have a record so squeaky clean you may even be able to turn it to your electoral advantage, what will the impact be on siting MPs? Perhaps the present anger will dissipate. But if it doesn’t, incumbency now strikes me as – all things being equal – an electoral disadvantage.

If you were a LibDem candidate, would you prefer to have a majority of a couple of thousand, but a few minor embarrassments on your expenses claims? Or would you prefer to be the main challenger? A few thousand votes behind, but against a Tory or Labour opponent who has bought a DVD player, rewired his electrics and purchased some flashy new curtains. I think I’d be more confident as the LibDem challenger, rather than as the LibDem incumbent

This could have some profound implications for the party’s electoral strategy. A central pillar of LibDem thinking has always been that Liberals can “dig in”. Once you’ve won the seat, you are dilligent in handling casework and building your local profile. This insulates you against a national swing. It helps you build a sizeable personal vote. Norman Lamb’s victory in 2005 and Ed Davey’s in 2001 are striking examples of this.

But has Snoutgate just driven a coach and horses through this approach? Have hundreds of hours of local campaigning, thousands of personalised letters and an all-round-the-year diary of campaigning just been made to look like small electoral beer when compared to what you have – or have not – claimed on the second home allowance? Is the list of winnable LibDem seats now unrecognisable from what it would have been just a fortnight ago? Are there now a tranche of seats which have suddenly become more winnable than a good number of seats that we presently hold?

Will we see a massively enhanced role for local campaigning, where the record of the sitting MP out-trumps any other issue on campaign literature? Could we witness the delicious oddity of a party making hay out of expenses claim in one seat, while simultaneously trying to defend itself against almost identical allegations in the neighbouring constituency?

Might the General Election even feel a bit like a ton of simultaneous by-elections? Back in 1997, the Tories suffered badly across the board because of the stench of sleaze – but in Tatton, the downfall of Neil Hamilton (with a humungous 39% swing against him) at the hands of white knight Martin Bell was simply stunning. Might the next election contain a helluva lot of Tattons?

We’re still in the midst of a devastating political crisis. And the Telegraph has so far only printed the expense claims of about 100 MPs. It’s hard to even begin to guess what the eventual electoral fallout will be. But it seems safe to say that a lot of the established electoral rulebook will need to be thrown out of the window.

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