It used to be that panto season was the only occasion when you would hear mention of ‘robber barons’.
Nowadays it seems to be a year-round role for Britain’s energy giants, at least that’s according to regulator Ofgem.
They estimate that suppliers are pocketing an extra £2.5 billion every year at the expense of unsuspecting customers.
The reason is that millions of people are on standard variable tariffs – which happens to be the most expensive way to pay for gas and electricity.
Ofgem has published its first energy company league table, comparing the most expensive standard tariffs with the cheapest deals on the market.
An examination across the board shows that almost 20 million people – that equates to two-thirds of households – are paying excessive prices and could save hundreds of pounds a year just by sticking with their existing supplier.
Indeed, the watchdog reckons some 1.7 million Npower customers could save £261 a year while 6.6 million British Gas customers could save £129.
Of the so-called Big Six energy suppliers, SSE which includes Welsh outfit Swalec, has the worst record. Around 91% of its customers (almost 4 million people) are on its expensive variable tariff.
Energy secretary Greg Clark claimed credit for the published table, stating: “As the government has made clear, where markets are not working for consumers – in energy or otherwise – we are prepared to act.”
The government’s critics have responded saying that ministers have only reacted to what backbench MPs, including many Conservatives, have been demanding for some considerable time.
Unsurprisingly, consumer groups express similar sentiments although the action has been widely welcomed nonetheless.
Clark also announced government plans to allow customers get access to accurate energy consumption data which they can share securely with price comparison websites in return for individual quotes.
Some senior industry analysts have voiced doubt about the value of this move given that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has already questioned whether the sites themselves are entirely trustworthy.
Purely by coincidence, the suppliers’ trade association, Energy UK, released their own figures last week highlighting how 4 million customers “seamlessly” switched electricity provider this year. This has failed to impress those who think it’s basically a rigged market without any real lasting competition.
Of course, the announcement also runs contrary to the Ofgem message that consumers should be getting a better price with their current supplier anyway.
A positive sign is that the latest tranche of bills from major suppliers reportedly contain advice on how to qualify for cheaper energy charges.
This is not just a consumer issue. A household is in severe fuel poverty if they have to spend 20% or more of their income on energy costs. The latest estimate is that there are 291,000 households (23%) living in fuel poverty in Wales.
You can find out more about the energy comparison table by visiting the Ofgem website - https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/consumers/
A special kind of leadership
I was sad to read that Labour stalwart Alun (Ali) Thomas is to step down as Neath Port Talbot council leader next year.
Having picked up the mantle nearly eight years ago from his predecessor Noel Crowley, Ali has presided over some tough if not tempestuous times for the local authority.
Even so he has ensured that Neath Port Talbot is widely regarded as a council. More importantly, people know that the ambition to promote business investment and local improvement comes from the top – and specifically from the Leader’s office.
Ali represents a caring and thoughtful generation of local politicians who came into local government with a passion for the community.
In typical non-presumptuous style, when asked why he was stepping down as a councillor, Ali stated, "There comes a time in everybody's career when you've got to realise you've given it your best shot”.
An object lesson in leadership if ever there was.
Gift of life at Christmas
Christmas can be a hard time. For the homeless, the heart-broken and the lonely, it can be desperate. It is no less challenging for those who are there to help.
I have a friend who is involved with Samaritans. She tells me that someone contacts the charity every six seconds. That number increases significantly over the Christmas period.
All of us feel the pressure around this time of year and it’s only natural that we reach out to help those struggling to cope.
I’m not suggesting you go out and organise a soup run, well, not this year anyway. All I ask is that you remember the vital work of charities like the Samaritans and MIND and how easy it is to make a donation online via http://www.samaritans.org/ and http://www.mind.org.uk/
As my friend puts it, the most worthwhile gift always goes to the person you don’t know.
Merry Christmas everyone.