Energy price cap for four million – but have 'big six' been let off the hook?
Customers using key meters could be up to £90 a year better off under watchdog's proposals
Four million homes could see the price of their energy bills fall under regulators' proposals for a price cap, along with measures to allow suppliers to poach overpaying customers from rivals.
The recommendations are contained within an interim report from the Competition and Markets Authority into the failure of shopping around in the energy market.
Under the plans, households forced to use pre-payment key meters, typically fitted for low-earners and those who have had previous payment issues, would have their charges capped while more structural reforms were undertaken. The Daily Mail notes it would be expected to save the average affected customer around £90 a year.
The CMA said too many households were on pre-paid options that make it difficult to switch supplier and trap them into charges around £300 a year above standard tariffs. Under the new scheme, the majority would be offered the chance to move onto contracts, with only the most vulnerable who would struggle with retrospective billing left paying up front.
Other proposals include an opt-out database for those moving from key meters or on expensive standard variable rate tariffs for at least two years. It would be operated by Ofgem, the energy watchdog, based on submissions from suppliers and would allow other operators to contact customers to offer better rates to encourage more to switch.
Overall, the reforms could benefit around seven in ten households who are currently overpaying by a collective £1.7bn a year relative to the best deals available.
But there was criticism over the dropping of a more radical price cap put forward last September, which would have applied across all standard tariffs for a temporary period. There are also no plans to break up the so-called "big six", which both generate and supply energy and are accused of using profits from retail units to subsidise production losses.
"This investigation has confirmed that millions of families and businesses have been overcharged for their energy bills to the tune of billions of pounds, yet energy companies are still being let off the hook," Labour's energy and climate change spokeswoman, Lisa Nandy, told The Guardian.
Nandy also complained of government intervention, after ministers last year hinted a blanket price cap "may not be compatible" with efforts to improve competition. "This looks like a dangerous abuse of ministerial power which risks compromising the inquiry's independence," she said.
Another energy price 'cap' is on the table – is it a good idea?
Capping energy prices, once a cornerstone policy for Labour under Ed Miliband, was ultimately seen as a flop after the crash in oil prices took the heat out of the market. But it might be coming in after all.
Last month, in a 55-page paper packed with potential remedies to fix what regulators see as a broken market, the Competition and Markets Authority proposed a price cap for customers who do not shop around. It would be a "transitional" measure while more thorough reforms were undertaken, which could include new reporting rules to "ringfence" big supplier's retail sales arms and expose their profit margins.
The measure appears similar to the temporary price cap proposed by Miliband, which was intended to provide respite for the duration of a major review into energy competition. It reset the political landscape on the issue, but ultimately looked clumsy when prices fell of their own accord, thanks to the great oil slump. It ended up being blamed for relatively shallow cuts to bills relative to the fall in wholesale prices, as suppliers kept prices high in case a future Labour government froze prices on coming to power.
The CMA policy is different from Labour's proposal, in that it would only apply to households that failed to shop around for energy. They typically revert from cheaper fixed price deals to "suppliers' expensive 'standard variable' tariffs", the Daily Telegraph reports, but under the new proposals they would be "rolled on to a new, cheaper 'safeguard' tariff".
The CBI has objected to the idea, arguing that an "interventionist" policy to protect non-switching customers runs counter to the message that people should look for the best energy deals. It instead urges the CMA to concentrate on measures that would increase the number of tariffs.
Whatever happens with the capping options, big changes are coming. The simplified four-tariff structure, on which the 'big six' companies have blamed for the removal of green energy options, is almost certain to be ditched.
The Independent reported last week that, in the absence of a simple way to support renewables, tens of thousands of families have signed up to a 'clean energy switch' initiative that offers collective bargaining power with smaller green energy suppliers.
Energy prices: how are the big firms making so much money?
Gas and electricity firms are expected to double their profit margins, according to the industry regulator Ofgem. It has estimated that energy companies will make an average £106 from each customer over the next 12 months, which is up from £53 last year and up from £9 five years ago. The Big Six – British Gas, EDF, E.ON, SSE, Npower and Scottish Power – are under pressure to cut prices after millions of households struggled to heat their homes last winter. So why are their profit margins so big?
Failure to pass on savings to customers
The estimated hike in profits comes as wholesale prices, paid by the big firms for electricity and gas, have fallen to a near four-year low. "Given the rise in margins and that wholesale costs haven't exploded over the past four months as some expected, we would expect some companies to be offering lower prices," Dermot Nolan, chief executive of Ofgem, told the Financial Times. "But when we look at margins, we see them broadening even though there is scope for greater competition, leading to price cuts."
Fear of Miliband's bill freeze
Some energy executives have blamed their reluctance to cut prices on Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze bills for 20 months if he wins the next general election. Peter Lilley, a Tory MP who sits on the Energy Select Committee, told the Daily Mail that Miliband's plan has "backfired". With the shadow of a possible Labour government, bills are likely to be artificially inflated all through next winter, says the Mail. Some firms are also said to be spending money on stockpiling gas and power now to protect them against the possible impact of a price freeze.
Government failing to confront energy firms
In turn, Labour blames the Government for failing to stop energy companies from ripping off customers. John Robertson, a Labour MP who also sits on the energy select committee, described energy firms as "a law unto themselves" and said they were hiding behind the general election. "This is something that Ofgem and the Government should be looking at, but they seem to be absolutely inept," he told The Times. "The rest of us are paying through the nose for it and a lot of people can't afford to."
Consumers failing to switch
Trevor Sikorski, from consultants Energy Aspects, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that consumers are as responsible for the state of the market as the energy firms themselves. Consumers "generally don't switch very much", he said, and "we're not sensitive to price changes when they happen, which isn't encouraging competition".
Ofgem figures 'inaccurate'
Angela Knight, chief executive of Energy UK, the industry trade body, has described Ofgem's £106 profit margin prediction as "inaccurate" and "misleading". She told the Daily Telegraph that Ofgem has drastically revised previous estimates, raising "big questions" about those published this week. For example, in January last year, the regulator initially predicted that firms would make a £120 annual profit, but then revised down the forecast to £28 after changing its methodology. Companies made a £53 profit margin that year, half Ofgem's original estimate. The regulator has admitted that it has significantly changed the way it compiles the numbers, but stands by its latest figures.