Jayne Dowle: Government shows it’s powerless to stand up for us to the energy firms

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I DISTINCTLY remember the industry regulator Ofgem promising to drag the “Big Six” energy providers, including British Gas, into line if they didn’t stop confusing customers with complicated tariffs and locking them into expensive deals they couldn’t get out of.

And then I remember being told by Tim Yeo, chairman of the energy and climate change select committee, that if these energy companies kept on pumping their customers for money, the Government would bare its teeth and force Ofgem to hold them to account.

With the news that suppliers are now making an average £125 profit from each standard tariff, dual fuel customer – a staggering eight times more than in June, when it was only £15 – you would think that there was no need for further justification or procrastination. Get them in and give them what for.

But guess what? Instead of lining them up against the wall, the Prime Minister, the Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, Ofgem and various consumer groups held a “crunch energy summit” with the energy companies to tackle the issue of the massive fuel bills we all face this winter.

Well, if you ask me, it was a waste of the tea and coffee. David Cameron kicked off proceedings by telling us that our gas bills were going up. Big news. Then he told us that people wanted to know what the Government was going to do about it.

We could have answered that we want the Government to find the power – literally – to tackle the energy companies and force them to stop ripping us off. Simple. Then he blamed world energy prices. That’s like blaming the sun for coming up every morning. We know about world energy prices. We also know about the huge profits that the energy companies make.

So what was the momentous announcement, the grand response so important that it superseded Libya and the euro crisis on the PM’s schedule? It was… wait for it… Get down to B&Q and fill your trolley with a couple of rolls of loft insulation.

Now, not for a moment am I abdicating my responsibility as a homeowner. I won’t bore you with our domestic arrangements and the fact we don’t technically have cavity walls or an accessible loft to fill with insulation.

Let’s just say we live in an old house, and we have done our best to stop the draughts. But even if we wrap the entire building in cling-film for the winter, it’s not going to stop the gas bill from climbing ever higher. Believe me. We’ve been trying our best to tackle this problem since we moved in eight years ago. It’s no fun waking up to frost inside the bedroom windows.

We even had a man round from British Gas, promising us the world in window sealant and thermal wool. The poor chap spent two frustrated hours poking every crevice before he finally admitted that “nothing more could be done within our remit”.

So, personally, I find this government-issued edict to insulate, insulate, insulate, quite insulting. And I was – within reason – prepared to pay out my own money to do whatever it took.

But don’t Ministers realise that there are millions of people in this country who can’t afford to replace their dodgy cooker, never mind start shelling out non-existent cash on their cavity walls?

A couple of hundred pounds to do out the loft might not sound a lot to someone in government, but to a hard-pressed young family, it’s the food bill for a fortnight.

I know, I know, there are all sorts of schemes to help. Apparently, next year, the government are going to introduce a “Green Deal” to offer improved insulation to all home-owners at no upfront cost. We’ll pay back the outlay via our energy bills, but save money on fuel.

I’m not convinced. It sounds like a complex set of sums to me. And from what I have experienced, these government-backed schemes – for this is not the first – often have long waiting lists and byzantine forms to fill in and terms and conditions that make you question your will to live, never mind whether it is worth the hassle.

That said, I hope that the energy suppliers stand by their promise to write to four million of their most “vulnerable” customers with an offer to install free or heavily-discounted insulation.

But seeing as they are not going to be sending out the letters until December, it’s not going to benefit many people this winter.

By next year half of those it could help might have already frozen to death. You think I’m making a cheap joke? Well, I’m not. There are 27,000 extra deaths in the UK each winter compared to other times of year, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics, and this has been proved to be due to cold weather.

This toll is one of the highest in Europe, worse than Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Norway and France. A roll of loft insulation and a tube of window sealant isn’t going to save all those lives this year.

It is an outrage to even suggest it.