Labour leader Ed Miliband dismisses energy 'scares'
Energy company warnings that Britain could face blackouts if they are forced to freeze prices were dismissed as "scare stories" by Labour leader Ed Miliband today.
Mr Miliband wrote to the "Big Six" companies warning that they would face a consumer backlash if they fought his plans for a 20-month freeze following the next general election in May 2015.
His surprise announcement at the Labour conference in Brighton yesterday was greeted with horror by gas and electricity suppliers, with predictions that firms deprived of the power to set their own prices would be in danger of "economic ruin".
Shares in Centrica - British Gas's holding company - were down almost 4pc in early trading, while shares in Southern Electric and Swalec owner SSE fell 3.6pc.
Centrica chairman Sir Roger Carr said: "We are all concerned about rising prices and the impact on consumers, but we also have a very real responsibility that we find supplies to make sure the lights stay on."
And Angela Knight, chief executive of trade body Energy UK, said that while the price freeze was "superficially attractive", it would "also freeze the money to build and renew power stations, freeze the jobs and livelihoods of the 600,000-plus people dependent on the energy industry and make the prospect of energy shortages a reality, pushing up the prices for everyone".
But Mr Miliband left no doubt in his letter that he was ready to take on the energy giants, whom he accused of "overcharging" millions of consumers while failing to use their massive profits to invest in infrastructure.
The Labour leader wrote: "You and I know that the public have lost faith in this market. There is a crisis of confidence.
"We face a stark choice. We can work together on the basis of this price freeze to make the market work in the future. Or you can reinforce in the public mind that you are part of the problem not the solution."
Labour said yesterday that Mr Miliband's plans would save the typical household £120 and an average business £1,800 between May 2015 and January 2017, at an estimated cost to the energy companies of £4.5bn.
The party is planning radical reform of the gas and electricity market to bring down prices, but the necessary legislation cannot be in place before 2017, with the freeze intended to protect consumers up to that date.
Mr Miliband said a Labour government would be ready to use taxpayer guarantees to support investment, but told the companies: "It is my firm view that without resetting the market we are not going to see the public consent that is required to underpin the scale of taxpayer-backed guarantees for which you have argued.
"I am prepared to make the case for sharing the risks of such investment, but that must be against the backdrop of a market that customers believe works for them."
Challenged over industry claims that his policy could lead to the lights going out, the Labour leader told ITV1's Daybreak: "I would say that they are pretty unreliable witnesses, because these are people who are overcharging people, so of course they are going to say when someone calls time on it that they are not very happy.
"Then we have got the Government taking their side and saying the same thing, supporting the energy companies.
"That's fine, they can do that, but I am determined to make this change."
Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Ed Davey warned that the Labour policy could result in a repeat of California's attempted restructuring of the energy industry in 2000.
"When they tried to fix prices in California it resulted in an electricity crisis and widespread blackouts," said Mr Davey. "We can't risk the lights going out here too.
"Fixing prices in this way risks blackouts, jeopardises jobs and puts investment in clean, green technology in doubt."
But Mr Miliband retorted: "There are bound to be people coming up with scare stories... California was a totally different approach. It was a deregulated approach, not the kind of approach we are talking about.
The Labour leader told BBC Radio 5 Live: "Unless you have public confidence in the system, public consent for the way the system works, it's never going to work. I think the energy companies should wake up to this, frankly. And I'm determined that if they don't, then we will put in place the right system."
And he added: "Less than half the profits the companies make go into investment. They are going into dividends rather than investment.
"We have seen the increase in profits over the last few years but a collapse in investment, so the notion that higher profits are leading to greater investment is wrong."
He warned that energy companies would be breaking the law if they agreed between themselves to raise prices ahead of the election to ensure they escaped a financial hit if Labour wins.
The energy freeze policy, along with plans unveiled in Brighton for compulsory purchase of land being hoarded by developers, a hike in corporation tax and new requirements for employers recruiting foreign workers to also offer apprenticeships to jobless Britons, have led Conservative MPs to revive the "Red Ed" tag they have previously used to attack Mr Miliband.
But the Labour leader sought to shrug off the label as inaccurate, telling BBC Breakfast: "We are cutting taxes for small businesses... I don't think there's very much that's red about that.
"It's about one nation, it's about everybody playing their part, including giving the opportunity for the great small businesses of our country to get some help from government and be able to do that."
Meanwhile, Cabinet minister Jeremy Hunt joked that Labour's new energy policy had already had an impact on power supplies in his neighbourhood.
Writing on Twitter, the Health Secretary said: "Power cut in my street this morning. Early reaction to Ed Miliband speech?"
CBI director-general John Cridland told BBC2's Daily Politics that Mr Miliband's speech represented "a real setback for Labour's pro-enterprise credentials".
Mr Cridland said: "I think business as a whole will say we look to the Labour Party to speak for all business, not to beat us up and then say it's speaking for small business, not large business. Speak for all business, Ed, and do it in a way which takes businesses with you.
"Government is there to set minimum standards. You begin interfering price and property and wages, as well as in tax, and you put business taxes up, how do you expect that to have a positive impact on wealth creation, job creation and more jobs on the high street?"