UK meets energy firms but no help yet for hard-hit consumers
London(UK)- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and senior ministers held inconclusive talks Thursday with energy companies amid mounting pressure to help residents cope with soaring gas and electricity prices.
Johnson, who is in his final weeks as prime minister, joined Treasury chief Nadhim Zahawi and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng at the meeting with firms including Scottish Power, EDF and Centrica. But with Johnson insisting that “significant fiscal decisions” must be left to his successor, the talks produced no relief for Britons struggling with a cost-of-living crisis.
Johnson said the government would “keep urging the electricity sector to continue working on ways we can ease the cost of living pressures and to invest further and faster in British energy security.”
There was a hint that the Conservative government could take action at some point. It said it “continues to evaluate the extraordinary profits seen in certain parts of the electricity generation sector and the appropriate and proportionate steps to take.”
Energy bills around the world have soared this year as the war in Ukraine squeezes global oil and gas supplies. The problem is especially acute in Britain, where the bills that people pay are governed by a regulator-set price cap linked to wholesale prices.
The average U.K. household fuel bill has risen more than 50% this year, and another increase is due in October. Consulting firm Cornwall Insight forecast this week that the average bill will top 3,500 pounds ($4,300) a year in the fall, and rise above 4,000 pounds ($4,900) in the new year.
Energy suppliers say the price increases are not their fault.
“This is not in the hands of energy retailers,” Dale Vince, founder of the energy firm Ecotricity, told Sky News. “The problem is the crazy price of gas on global commodity markets.”
Anti-poverty campaigners say Britain is facing financial time bomb that could leave millions of people unable to heat their homes this winter.
Johnson resigned as Conservative Party leader last month, and remains in office for a few more weeks as caretaker prime minister. The two candidates to replace him — Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak — can’t act until one of them takes over as prime minister in September.
Sunak — who earlier this year signed off on a 400 pound ($490) payment to offset fuel bills that all households will get this fall — has said he will offer more help, but has not given specifics. Truss says she prefers tax cuts to give “handouts,” but also is facing intense pressure to help poor households.
Opponents say by the time the new leader is announced on Sept. 5 and takes office the next day, it will be too late to avert an autumn crisis.
Some want the U.K. to emulate France, where the government announced the nationalization of electricity giant EDF last month.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who led the U.K. during the global financial crisis of 2008, said Britain was now in “the eye of a cost-of-living storm”, and action couldn’t wait. Brown, a member of the opposition Labour Party, said the Conservative government should negotiate lower prices with energy firms and suggested those that resisted could be temporarily nationalized.
In The Guardian, he said that crises “don’t take holidays, and don’t politely hang fire – certainly not to suit the convenience of a departing PM and the whims of two potential successors.”