Poor and vulnerable consumers need immediate financial support to heat their homes and cannot afford to wait for the outcome of government probes into business electricity and household energy companies.
Energy companies should be forced to offer immediate discounts to the most vulnerable, who faced the choice of heating or eating this winter.
Energy Minister Ed Davey last week announced a probe into energy suppliers' accounts, increased penalties for market manipulation and moves to make switching supplier simpler and quicker. OFGEM will also carry out an annual assessment of the energy market, working with the Office of Fair Trading and the new Competition and Market Authority, the first of which will be completed by next spring.
Every day we at Energy Advice Line talk to consumers deeply worried about they will afford to keep warm this winter. The announcement of these business electricity probes is very welcome but little use to those who are afraid to put the heating on now.
We are calling on the government to immediately implement special measures to help the least well-off, including the elderly. Energy companies should be required to offer discounts to this vulnerable group now, not spring 2014 when OFGEM's assessment is done.
This is a quick fix but these vulnerable customers need protection now, not next year. We can then get on with the debate about how to fix this broken market for the benefit of all consumers in the long term.
It cannot be too much to ask for all sides of the debate to agree to this measure. Labour leader Ed Milliband's proposed 20-month price freeze if he wins the 2015 election looked superficially appealing but was unconvincing in its lack of detail. In any event, such a price freeze would come too late for those families feeling the cold now.
Energy policy has been at the centre of heated political debate in recent weeks after four of the Big Six energy firms announced average prices increases of more than 9%.
Mr Davey announced a package of measures including:
- The possible introduction of criminal sanctions for anyone manipulating the energy markets
- Reducing switching times from the current six weeks to 24 hours
- Annual assessments to ensure the energy market
- Forcing suppliers to be more transparent about how they report their finances