This week (Wednesday) the Labour front bench launched an attack on the cost of living crisis facing the country. Their two topics for their Opposition Day Debate (a chance for the Opposition to choose the topic of discussion usually to attack Government policy) were 'living standards' and 'energy prices and profits'. Linking these two is unlikely to be a coincidence as the Shadow Energy Team continue to argue that they are the ones campaigning for fair prices for consumers. We can expect their attacks on rising fuel prices to be a key part of setting out their stall as the party that will work for those struggling with their day-to-day outgoings.
In a debate that saw comments and questions from across all parties in the Commons from the front to back benches, criticisms were levelled at both the current and previous governments for why the energy market is structured how it is. The front bench arguments focused around market intervention, the regulator's powers and dealing with fuel poverty, whereas a number of backbench Conservative MPs used the opportunity to attack green levies and support for renewable energy.
Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary Caroline Flint opened the debate criticising three main areas: the rise in bills, since the General Election, by £300 compared with the rise in energy company profits of £3.3bn, the cuts to fuel poverty support while very few people had signed up to the flagship scheme Green Deal and, quoting the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, that Ofgem was failing consumers by not acting quicker and more firmly against the so-called Big Six.
Flint commented on the consensus across the House and in the industry that the “proliferation of tariffs in the past few years has hindered, rather than helped, consumer choice and competition”. This poses a concern for the future if the industry is to empower consumers to take control of their energy consumption with the development of a smart grid.
Concluding, Flint said "millions of people are facing real hardship because of a cost-of-living crisis reinforced, I am afraid, by the government's complacency over soaring energy prices, incompetence in helping the public to insulate their homes and indifference to the plight of our oldest citizens paying over the odds for the energy that they use".
Secretary of State Ed Davey attacked Labour's record on energy saying that, "the coalition is delivering for people in difficult times. Labour failed to deliver in easy times." He said that it was under the last government that investment decisions were left unmade. Davey also criticised Labour's plan of "abolishing Ofgem and replacing it with Ofgem 2" and disagreed that Government wasn't doing enough to ensure it used its powers citing the retail market review and their proposals for the wholesale market.
What is clear from the debate is that energy will continue to be a hot topic into the General Election but while it becomes increasingly political it will also become very difficult for the trust that will be needed. 2015 is the election year, it is also the year of the smart meter roll-out, the start of explaining a smart grid and the benefits to consumers as well as the need for them to engage more with their energy use. A big question of trust will remain over the industry and without a change that it is going to make delivering our energy future much more challenging. Can an honest discussion be had and can trust be rebuilt while energy is used as a political stick to beat each other with?