John Penrose is the Member of Parliament for Weston-super-Mare. Follow John on Twitter.
Groaning about your gas bill? Wailing over your water
rates? You aren’t alone. Most of us feel ripped off by our energy suppliers
(and by our water firms, our banks and our phone companies too, for that
matter). Worse still, we feel powerless to fix the problem. Partly because all
those special tariffs are horribly confusing, so it’s impossible to be sure
whether switching to a different tariff or another supplier would really be
better or cheaper. And partly because switching is tricky, slow and might leave
you in the lurch if something goes wrong halfway through.
Which means we’re all pretty fed up, and many families are
struggling with the ever-rising cost of living. And the impact of high prices
for power, water or transport on Britain’s employers is horribly damaging too.
It raises costs, puts jobs at risk and slows growth; economists say we could
grow by an extra 15% over the next ten years if we fix the problem. And, since
economic growth and the cost of living are going to be central election issues after
five tough years of austerity, the political stakes are sky high as well. Put
simply, whoever owns this piece of economic turf by 2015, wins. It’s going to
be where the battle is hottest.
So what’s the answer to making our gas, electricity or
water more affordable in future? Well, a few consumer-friendly changes would be
a good start. We should put power back into the hands of customers like you and
me by making it much, much easier, quicker and safer to switch our accounts to
a different bank, gas firm, or electricity or water company, so we can take our
business elsewhere if we’re fed up. And we should blow away the fog around all
the different tariffs and deals, so we don’t need a PhD to choose the one
that’s best for us too.
The effect would be dramatic, because the utility firms
would have to run a lot faster to hang on to their customers. At the moment,
they don’t have to worry because they know that, no matter how bad they are,
most of us won’t vote with our feet and leave. But if they did, we’d see some
pretty radical changes.
And we wouldn’t have to rely on regulators like Ofgem or
Ofwat to look after us either. In fact they’re part of the problem, because
they’re trying to stick up for customers instead of giving us the tools to
stick up for ourselves. But because no-one knows us better than we know
ourselves, they’re a bit like that uncle who keeps giving you the wrong present
at Christmas; kindly and well-meaning, but always missing the
These ideas (plus a few others along the same lines) are
all in a new policy paper called ‘We Deserve Better’, which I launched at an
unsuspecting audience of heavyweight regulators, economists and academics at a
conference last week. But expert approval isn’t the only thing that counts, of
course, and nor is persuading enough Ministers and their advisors to make it
Government policy either (although they’d both be a big help).
democracy after all, so public opinion is, ultimately, what counts. We have to
show people that Conservatives are sticking up for the man (or woman) in the
street against the big energy companies and banks, and giving people a way to
fight back when they feel ripped off. If we do, then we’ll command that key
piece of economic turf I mentioned earlier, and David Cameron’s grip on the
keys to 10 Downing Street will be significantly stronger.
So we need to make these ideas a key part of the
Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2015 election. If you want a closer look
at “We deserve better” in a bit more detail (it’s not very long, I promise, and
there’s even a handy summary too) – it’s available on my website at www.johnpenrose.org. And the next time you open that gas, electricity
or water bill, just remember: it doesn’t have to be this way!