A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Labour's rip-off of the poor must end

There are many misnomers in capitalist liberal democracies such as our own. Phrases and titles such as "Ministry of Defence," "communications unit" or "government consultation" abound. Much of the time, this tactic is designed to conceal the true nature of the institution in question. Thus the Ministry of Defence concerns itself largely with perpetuating war - with the only "defence" noticeable being the defence of corporate interests overseas - and the government's "communications units" are primarily about hiding the true nature of policy pronouncements behind a blizzard of spin. Another such misnomer is "government regulator" - and never more so than when these so-called regulators are charged with regulating the privatised utilities or big business. Over the past thirteen years, the new Labour government has sat back and allowed the ever-shifting sharks who now own Britain's gas, electricity and water supplies to drastically increase prices for essential utilities while turning the screw on Britain's poorest people through such methods as the widespread use of prepayment meters. Such meters are now present in over five million households and cost them some £400 a year more than better-off households which can afford to pay by direct debit. Not only are they paying more, these five million households are also forking out a substantially larger proportion of their income - often with dire effects on their monthly budgets.

A 2008 study by the National Housing Federation found that, over the last few years, some 640,000 households with prepayment meters had to go without power because they could not afford it. The so-called energy regulator Ofgem's response to this mass rip-off has been supine, to say the least. Not only has the "regulator" refused to rein in the superprofits of the energy privateers, it has even parroted their specious claim that, as "prepay meters cost more, retailers are entitled to charge a premium for their use." Instead of the decisive action needed, the toothless watchdog has, after the usual meeting with energy bosses to seek their agreement, published its long awaited fuel poverty action programme, in the wake of mounting anger from pensioners, disability campaigners, housing groups and unions. This "action programme" - another misnomer - proposes allowing the privateers to share information on low-income households so that they can better "target" the poor for means-tested grants and tariffs. The threadbare scheme will work alongside the promotion of government-backed fuel efficiency schemes and has been vacuously described by Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks as providing "sustainable solutions." But those at the sharp end have begged to differ. The National Pensioners Convention has derided it as a mere "sticking plaster" and the National Housing Federation has pointed out that it would do more good to force the privateers to bring meter charges in line with other payment methods. "It's time the government intervened to prevent the energy companies making profits at the expense of vulnerable pensioners," National Pensioners Convention president Dot Gibson has said - and we are right behind her. But it is also time for this "Labour government" - another misnomer? - to intervene and prevent these insatiably greedy privateers making vast profits at the expense of all of us.

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