Martin Hickman: It's a start, but much more is still needed

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The Independent Online

Finally, the Government has made an unequivocal statement about what should happen to energy prices: they should come down.

In his wide-ranging interview, Ed Miliband supported The Independent's campaign, but fell short of backing our demands for a 10 per cent cut and new powers against deviant suppliers.

In pledging his support, he laid bare his personal and his department's dissatisfaction, even astonishment, at the formerly supine behaviour of the regulator, Ofgem.

Railing against a "dogma" which holds that markets always act in the best interests of consumers, Mr Miliband remarked tartly that Ofgem's investigation which found overcharging of £500m had been "a long time coming, frankly".

He also confirmed that it was political pressure from the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, which forced it to launch its market probe last February. In the weeks before, Ofgem had insisted the market was working properly, and then when announcing its launch, denied it was responding to a Downing Street thrashing.

But its grudging language gave the game away: it had, it said, used a magnifying glass to check the health of the market and would now pull out a "microscope". It found what had been staring it in the face: a blatant swindle of pre-payment customers as well as other scams that netted hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

By recognising that Ofgem's belief that a market, any market, must be working, and that customers require good information to be able to shop around (rather than confusing bills) Mr Miliband is breathing down the regulator's neck. His willingness to trust its analysis of what is happening in the market, though, has spared E.ON, EDF, British Gas, Npower, ScottishPower and Scottish & Southern an icy blast.

Industry figures suspect they don't want to cut bills because they don't wish to raise them again next winter, when wholesale prices may rise once more. But the temperature for suppliers is chilling. This winter, will they ignore a ministerial diktat?

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