They lost the argument, now they must pay the price of their profligacy

Windfall Tax: ROAD TO THE TAX

The privatised utilities can say what they like about the windfall tax and indeed they do, all of it unflattering, but the one thing they cannot argue is that they did not see it coming. Labour first hinted at the imposition of such a levy in its 1992 election manifesto. John Smith, the then Labour leader and Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, turned it into a firm commitment a year later.

Since then, the utilities have been on a war footing. They have squirmed and wriggled, they have complained and cajoled, they have whined and they have dined in an attempt to persuade opinion-formers what an arbitrary, retrospective and unfair tax it is. And finally they have threatened. Tax us and we will see you in court. But their every act has merely brought them, Oedipus-like, closer to their fate.

However hard the utilities have lobbied, Labour has always been one step ahead, impervious to their pleas and implacable in its determination to introduce the tax.

The intellectual basis for the tax is shaky. Labour sometimes refers to the special levy Sir Geoffrey Howe imposed on the high street banks in 1981 as a precedent for what it is doing now. The then chancellor imposed a one-off tax of 2.5 per cent on the banks' non-interest bearing sterling deposits. But there was a specific reason for it. In 1981 interest rates were high - a reflection of the Conservative government's monetary policy - but banks were prevented by law from paying interest on deposits held in current accounts with the result that they began accumulating super profits.

The tax had the merit of being well-defined, coherent and timely; it was levied when the windfall profits were being earned, not years later.

The windfall utilities tax can boast none of these things. But it has popular support, since the money it raises will be used to get the young unemployed into work. The utilities thought they could win the argument by depicting the levy as a tax on 12 million shareholders and 25 million consumers. Labour's landslide election victory put paid to that. The campaign against the tax was also undermined by a series of spectacular own-goals. First there were the "fat cat" headlines that greeted bumper annual pay rises culminating in the public humiliation of Cedric Brown at British Gas over his 75 per cent pay increase, and Sir Desmond Pitcher at United Utilities. The two men had a pig and a pantomime cat named after them respectively.

Then there were the huge share option windfalls directors of the National Grid and privatised electricity companies collected as they were floated on the market or scooped out of it during the frenzy of takeover bids in 1995 and 1996.

Finally, there was the apparently remorseless decline in standards that accompanied ever rising profits, most obviously in the water industry where the drought of 1995 reduced Yorkshire Water to the status of most hated company in the land as the standpipes sprang up and road tankers struggled to maintain supplies.

Now they are under attack for the lack of adequate investment in their infrastructure - whether it be Railtrack's failure to maintain the rail network or the water industry's failure to plug the leaks. Yesterday the privatised utilities, and their shareholders, discovered the cost of all that profligacy.

Suggested Topics
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Finacial products from our partners
Property search

Scottish independence: How will kilt-edged stocks fare?

Scottish companies were caned when the separatists surged in the polls. Is this the future, asks Simon Read, and would they be any better together?

Two million first-time buyers are locked out

The drought in lending to people with low deposits has created legions of frustrated buyers, writes Emma Lunn

Leaving money to charity in your will could help reduce the tax bill for your loved ones

Next week has been designated "remember a charity in your will week", to put the focus squarely on the subject
Money is slipping through our fingers: the UK is falling behind other countries in the amount we put away

How to save money: UK is crashing down the European league table for putting money away

The UK has slipped to 11th in the latest European league table of savers. Rob Griffin checks out the best options

Energy firms found guilty of bad practice could have licences revoked under Labour government

Caroline Flint, the shadow energy secretary, says a Labour government would create a new energy regulator

A student's guide to financial survival: You don't have to drown in debt at university

Fresh from A-level delight, the moment does not have to be soured by students resigning themselves to thousands of pounds worth of debt in three years' time. Rob Griffin sees how to pass the university challenge

'Dismal' eurozone data sparks concerns

European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi is under pressure to launch promised stimulus before the EU slides further
Love but not marriage: property is one area where cohabiting couples are in danger of losing out

How couples can protect their financial interests when cohabiting

People who simply live together cannot assume they have the same rights to each other's assets as spouses or civil partners. Michelle McGagh sees how they can protect their financial interests
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    IT Project manager - Web E-commerce

    £65000 Per Annum Benefits + bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: If you are...

    Trainee / Experienced Recruitment Consultants

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Soho

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40000: SThree: As a Recruitment Consultant, y...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits