Mark Steel: Don't die of hypothermia until March

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The Independent Online

The government tells us it wouldn't make sense to impose a one-off tax on the energy companies, as this would be a short-term measure that fails to address the long-term problem. And, to be fair, there's a logic to this. So, a decent compromise that might get round this difficulty would be to impose a tax on the pigs EVERY year, or if that still didn't sort it, every week – or maybe every 25 minutes.

The energy companies have objected that if they have to pay any more tax, they won't have enough money to invest in new projects. That's because the £1.64bn they've paid to shareholders in dividends this year has all gone on investment, hasn't it. The odd chairman may have suggested he was tempted to spend a bit of his money on a treat, such as a packet of biscuits, but then his conscience would return and it would be "invest, invest, invest".

The previous year, when they only paid out £1.38bn in dividends, there was no money for investment at all. And yet, while Macmillan cancer nurses and paraplegic sportsmen are revered for their selfless fighting spirit, how many of us stop to spare a thought for these brave energy executives, as they somehow stretch £1.38bn to last the whole year?

Another of their arguments is that a "windfall" tax would have to be passed on to customers in rising prices. But it's rising prices, in the case of EDF by 22 per cent, that brought their increased profits. So their logic is: "The more we put up prices, the more profit we make, which means we won't have to pass the need for higher profits on to the customer in the form of increased prices. So, the higher the price you pay, the better off you are. If you want to pay really low prices, then next time you get a gas bill, why not send us double the amount charged, along with all your belongings?"

One piece of evidence that they've had no money to invest is that, whereas they once employed enough staff to be vaguely contactable, now you're forced to spend four hours listening to the same six bars of ambient backing while they assure you they're doing all they can to answer your call.

And yet one of Labour's slogans is still: "For the many, not the few". Maybe they've got the words the wrong way round and need to see an episode of Sesame Street that goes: "Many. Few. Here are millions of people struggling to pay higher fuel bills. They are Many. Many. Here is an oil company boardroom. Are there millions? No, there are nine. Few. Few. Many people pay bills, Few people run off with the money. Many. Few."

So, instead of short-term useless money, we're getting "advice" instead, which will be a little note with each bill saying: "Feeling the cold this winter? Then EDF have kindly given you permission to keep warm by doing extra press-ups. And we'll only charge you 80 pence per hundred, or 60 pence if they're during off-peak hours! And if you are going to die of hypothermia, wait until March so you can pay us for the next six months, otherwise the loss of revenue to us will force us to put up prices – and it will all be YOUR fault."

And the decision to reject the windfall tax, we're told, came after "discussions" with the companies. Well, what a turn-up: the millionaires thought they shouldn't pay it, so they don't have to. But even that's probably a lie, as it's more likely the energy companies told Brown they'd discuss it, but when he rang them they left him listening to a voice message saying: "As Prime Minister, you ARE important to us, and we should be with you as soon as possible," but then didn't answer for three hours.

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