A debate has raged for some months about the Conservative response to ripoffs and abusive practices by large companies. Personally, I tend to think competition and the free market is the best response – as I believe crony capitalism, protectionism and uncompetitive practices are the source of most of the problems.
ConservativeHome’s longstanding friend Rob Halfon MP is a strong supporter of the market, but is also of the view that some firms are now so over-mighty that well-targeted regulation is required to rein in their excesses.
He’s an experienced and effective campaigner, as his victory on fuel duty showed, and now he’s turned his attention to the way energy firms penalise those who don’t (and often can’t) pay by direct debit.
His research has revealed that some companies charge up to £390 extra for those who pay by cash – an amount way above the administrative cost of taking cash, and often unfairly making all non-direct debit customers pay the costs of those who are late with payments.
It’s a measure of Rob’s campaigning abilities that the backbench business debate he has secured on the topic has the support of 177 MPs from 9 different parties – more support than any such debate has ever gathered before. He’s also got consumer group Which? on board, which has recently become much more combative in its approach to consumer issues. Combine that with a reputation for tenacity and you’d be unwise to bet against his eventual victory.
Agree with his proposal for government to cap such charges or not, the campaign is a sign of the direction in which politics is moving – and of his position as a leading figure in that shift. Just as more old school MPs (like Tim Yeo) are departing, we will see more and more backbenchers like Rob who choose to crusade on political issues with a consumer angle. It offers opportunities to both left and right, and the race to try out new tactics will change the way Westminster works in a fundamental way.