Cut bills 'as soon as possible', minister tells utility firms

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The Independent Online

Power firms like British Gas were under more pressure from the Government today to pass on price cuts to households as wholesale energy prices tumble.

With oil prices now less than a third of the highs in the summer, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband urged companies needed to pass on consequent cuts in gas bills "as soon as possible".

Millions of homeowners have been hit with two inflation-busting bill hikes this year as the cost of wholesale electricity and gas soared on the back of oil's rise.

Mr Miliband told an audience at London's Imperial College last night: "We've recently seen big falls in wholesale gas and electricity prices, but I understand that because energy companies tend to buy in advance they won't be passed on immediately.

"But they must be passed on as soon as possible."

The minister also criticised the treatment of some customers forced to pay higher charges because they use pre-payment meters or can only be served by a single supplier, warning that the Government would take action to stamp out unfair charging.

He said: "There can be no excuse for the unfair treatment of the most vulnerable. If someone is forced to use a pre-payment meter, that's no excuse to overcharge them.

"If someone happens to live off the gas grid, that is no excuse to overcharge them.

"If someone lives in an area where a company used to have a monopoly, that's no excuse for overcharging them.

"There can be no excuse for these practices, and unless all energy companies accept their responsibility for ending them, we will use our powers to do so."

Energy market regulator Ofgem said last month that consumers should expect to see energy prices starting to drop early in the New Year.

Ofgem chief executive Alistair Buchanan said the regulator was putting "as much pressure as we can" on suppliers to announce their plans.

Mr Miliband went on to signal that greater state intervention in the energy markets "for the public good" is under consideration.

He said the UK's greater dependence on imported fuels due to dwindling North Sea supplies posed "challenges on sustainability, security and affordability which markets on their own cannot be guaranteed to solve".

"And all individual companies will compete to provide energy at lower prices, but there is a role for the public interest in improving energy efficiency and protecting the most vulnerable," he said.

"In a world where carbon didn't seem an issue, Britain had excess supply, and prices were low, it was easier for these market failures to be assumed away. Today, we don't have that luxury.

"That is why we need both dynamic markets and a strategic role for government."