Mary Dejevsky: Consumer choice won't help with high gas bills

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The Independent Online

It's a funny thing, isn't it? Whenever higher prices threatened in the past, the powers-that-be offered one fail-safe remedy. You have a choice, they said. Shop around, they said. Switch – that magic word – your supplier. But where is this universal remedy when you really need it?

How many ministers did you hear this week recommending that you "switch", when British Gas announced its unprecedented 35 per cent rise in prices? And last week, when it was calculated that price rises at EDF had brought an average family's combined monthly fuel bill above £100 for the first time, who was out there directing consumers to the multitude of comparison websites? No one that I could detect.

It turns out that a remedy sold by the evangelists of deregulation as a way of moderating prices generally is no solution at all when the chips are really down. You might shave a few pounds off your annual bill – as you might by buying your petrol at a supermarket rather than at the local BP garage – but when the rises are substantial, they are across the board, and there is really nowhere else to go.

Nor, for the really poor or improvident, was there ever. The utilities companies required them not only to fit pre-pay meters, but to pre-pay their usage at a higher tariff than the rest of us. Not much shopping around there, then.

All the talk now is of "targeted" government (ie taxpayer) help for those who need it, or perhaps a "windfall tax" levied on suppliers' record profits, which would doubtless be funded ultimately by the consumer or taxpayer, too. The Government, which has set more and more distance between itself and our utilities in the past decade, now finds itself with no choice but to come storming back in by other routes.

For myself, I take pride in being a hold-out to the switching culture. Of course, devoted switchers hint, with pity, how much I will have lost over the years. But I wonder. So much that involves an account or a subscription – telephone landlines and mobile phones, broadband internet, even your current account with the bank – turns out to have hidden liabilities. You can switch to your heart's content, but invariably what you gain, you lose in other ways.

Either the advertised lower tariff is more restricted than you need, so upping your use of higher rates, or you are "locked in" to a particular deal for longer than is advantageous to you. On the rare occasion that consumers have turned the tables – as with those who specialised in moving from one 0 per cent credit card deal to another – the system is summarily revised to exclude it.

In fact, there are more of us non-switchers out there than you might expect. With gas and electricity, 70 per cent of households – according to the regulator, Ofgem – have switched their supplier. Which means that, despite all the proselytising, 30 per cent have not. What is more, the number of people who stubbornly behave in ways that appear to conflict with their obvious interests has become something that so perplexes economists that a new branch of the discipline – neuro- or behavioural economics – has been developed to find an explanation.

I am not at all sure that a new discipline is needed. It is not just that the longer-term rewards, as opposed to immediate incentives, are dubious. Nor is it only that when the big rises hit, as we now learn, they hit across the board. It is the hassle. A recent survey extolling the advantages of changing your bank found that 75 per cent of switches are smooth. Or rather, one in four goes wrong, necessitating hours of listening to switchboard options, abortive phone conversations, and the perpetual risk that one or other account will be overdrawn, with dire effects on your credit rating. If you have any sort of paid employment, time and general aggro have a cost. They might call it neuro-economics, but – so far as switching is concerned – I call it common sense.

In olden days a glimpse of stocking...

The single biggest sartorial difference between our generation and my daughter's, a friend remarked the other day, is the unapologetic visibility of underwear. Look around, and I challenge you – male or female – not to notice, along with the acres of naked flesh, the bra straps that brazenly fail to line up with shoulder straps; the tops of knickers and thongs that cheekily rise above the jean-belt; the filigree camisoles that masquerade as fully paid-up tops.

Go back another generation and these are the sort of garments that our mothers might have described as "very pretty, dear", on the mutual understanding that they remained hidden for the rest of their useful life.

Do you remember the pesky admonition, "Your bra strap is showing", as you went out of the door? Well, forget it, fast. The new answer is not a rush to the mirror and a risky fumble with the safety pin, but the confident retort that this is how it is meant to be.

Underwear as outerwear is not the only change to have insinuated itself into decency. American fashion writers this season have discussed the demise of leg-covering – "hose" to them, "tights" to us – as required office wear year-round. Whatever their managers say, under 35s are simply not wearing them, full stop.

And if tights are in decline, they tell us, the petticoat, or slip, is practically extinct. Which is where, I trust, we Europeans will hold the line. I am agnostic on legwear, but a skirt doesn't hang properly without a slip; as the late Princess Diana neglectfully showed, it may even be transparent. Let's hope lingerie departments keep slips in stock a while yet – even it is only because the young folk treat them as skirts.

* Relaxed was never an adjective that could be applied to the prim and proper US Secretary of State, whose staff always insisted that she be referred to as Dr Rice. But the scent of freedom just a few months down the line seems to have given Condi – as we can now surely call her – a new air of laid-back cheerfulness.

Not only did she take time out from her packed travel schedule to meet Australian schoolgirls, but she dared to mention the S-word – S for shopping – a subject that has been off limits since she was caught buying stratospherically expensive shoes in Manhattan even as the poor of New Orleans drowned in the waters whipped up by Hurricane Katrina. Shopping, Dr Rice told the girls of Mercedes College in Perth, was "a great pastime" and she looked forward to getting back to it after public life.

To give Condi her due, she will have earned her shopping, come 20 January, when the new president is sworn in. In the past seven months, she has tirelessly circled the world, notching up as many miles, countries and days away as in any full year since she took the job, and many more than her travel-averse predecessor, Colin Powell. Her Australia trip also included the UAE, Singapore, New Zealand and Samoa; she returned to Washington to host the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian talks the very next day. If this is not hard graft, what is?

And a postscript: at a time when the world is agog at the prospect of the first black American president, it is worth noting that the US has had a black Secretary of State for eight years, and a black woman for the past four, and news reports have long stopped remarking on either fact. We may not be there yet, but Colin and Condi have surely brought a colour-blind world that bit closer.

* Is the BBC going tone deaf? I only ask because breathless radio trailers for a recent documentary series about terrorism made it sound more like an adventure thriller. Now, a report that "65 milk teeth" had been found beneath the children's home in Jersey was delivered as though this was something quite normal. More sensitivity to humble listeners, please.

Deborah Orr is away

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