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John Penrose MP: How to fight back against the gas bill and water rates rip-off

Penrose JohnJohn Penrose is the Member of Parliament for Weston-super-Mare.  Follow John on Twitter.

Groaning about your gas bill? Wailing over your water rates? You aren’t alone. Most of us feel ripped off by our energy suppliers (and by our water firms, our banks and our phone companies too, for that matter). Worse still, we feel powerless to fix the problem. Partly because all those special tariffs are horribly confusing, so it’s impossible to be sure whether switching to a different tariff or another supplier would really be better or cheaper. And partly because switching is tricky, slow and might leave you in the lurch if something goes wrong halfway through.

Which means we’re all pretty fed up, and many families are struggling with the ever-rising cost of living. And the impact of high prices for power, water or transport on Britain’s employers is horribly damaging too. It raises costs, puts jobs at risk and slows growth; economists say we could grow by an extra 15% over the next ten years if we fix the problem. And, since economic growth and the cost of living are going to be central election issues after five tough years of austerity, the political stakes are sky high as well. Put simply, whoever owns this piece of economic turf by 2015, wins. It’s going to be where the battle is hottest.

So what’s the answer to making our gas, electricity or water more affordable in future? Well, a few consumer-friendly changes would be a good start. We should put power back into the hands of customers like you and me by making it much, much easier, quicker and safer to switch our accounts to a different bank, gas firm, or electricity or water company, so we can take our business elsewhere if we’re fed up. And we should blow away the fog around all the different tariffs and deals, so we don’t need a PhD to choose the one that’s best for us too.

The effect would be dramatic, because the utility firms would have to run a lot faster to hang on to their customers. At the moment, they don’t have to worry because they know that, no matter how bad they are, most of us won’t vote with our feet and leave. But if they did, we’d see some pretty radical changes.

And we wouldn’t have to rely on regulators like Ofgem or Ofwat to look after us either. In fact they’re part of the problem, because they’re trying to stick up for customers instead of giving us the tools to stick up for ourselves. But because no-one knows us better than we know ourselves, they’re a bit like that uncle who keeps giving you the wrong present at Christmas; kindly and well-meaning, but always missing the point.   

These ideas (plus a few others along the same lines) are all in a new policy paper called ‘We Deserve Better’, which I launched at an unsuspecting audience of heavyweight regulators, economists and academics at a conference last week. But expert approval isn’t the only thing that counts, of course, and nor is persuading enough Ministers and their advisors to make it Government policy either (although they’d both be a big help).

We’re a democracy after all, so public opinion is, ultimately, what counts. We have to show people that Conservatives are sticking up for the man (or woman) in the street against the big energy companies and banks, and giving people a way to fight back when they feel ripped off. If we do, then we’ll command that key piece of economic turf I mentioned earlier, and David Cameron’s grip on the keys to 10 Downing Street will be significantly stronger.

So we need to make these ideas a key part of the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2015 election. If you want a closer look at “We deserve better” in a bit more detail (it’s not very long, I promise, and there’s even a handy summary too) – it’s available on my website at And the next time you open that gas, electricity or water bill, just remember: it doesn’t have to be this way!


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