Big six energy companies make the poor pay more

From The Times, via the Campaign for Public Ownership:

Energy ‘tax’on the poor
Steve Hawkes and Philip Webster

The big six energy companies are charging the poorest customers up to £330 a year more for gas and electricity, it emerged last night.

Tariffs for prepayment meters, used typically by pensioners and the less well-off, are up to 45 per cent higher than for internet customers. The industry watchdog branded the practice a £400 million rip-off.

The details came as the Government plans a crackdown on energy companies that take advantage of their poorer customers. Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, is ready to deliver an ultimatum to E.ON, npower, British Gas and other companies in his Budget next week.

The gap between the tariffs has grown after a round of inflation-beating price rises across the sector, despite Mr Darling urging companies to do more to help people on low incomes. The Chancellor will stop short of imposing a windfall tax on their £9 billion profits.

A Treasury source said: “There are other ways of tackling this.” Mr Darling expects the companies to tackle the “inequity” of consumers who use prepayment meters being charged more than people who pay by direct debit – or face “the big stick of intervention”.

More than 4.5 million people are in fuel poverty – spending more than 10 per cent of income on heating their home.

Figures compiled by Energy-watch, the watchdog, show that on average prepayment customers are charged £255 a year more than online customers for power, compared with £190 before Christmas.

E.ON’s prepayment charge is an average of £1,097 – 45 per cent higher than its internet tariff of £769. British Gas charges its prepayment customers 30 per cent more.

Graham Kerr, of Energywatch, said: “We have hard evidence of £400 million of excess profits being taken off the poorest members of society just at a time when fuel poverty is continuing to rise. Instead of taking from the rich to give to the poor, it seems that energy companies are taking from the poor to give to the rich.”

Energywatch’s figures come amid increasing expectation that the Chancellor will address the issue of fuel poverty in the Budget and could “shame” companies into taking more action.

Yvette Cooper, Chief Secretary, and Malcolm Wickes, the Energy Minister, are understood to have held a series of talks with industry leaders this week. The Times has been told that the ministers are urging the companies to give more information to customers about their ability to switch from company to company.

A new system of vouchers for cheap electricity and gas for people on low incomes has also been proposed.

Gordon Brown hinted yesterday that he expected the energy companies to do more to help people on low incomes. He backed the inquiry by Ofgem into the energy and electricity markets. “It is right that he [the head of Ofgem] pursues an investigation to see whether competition is working effectively in the industry,” he said. It was also true that windfall profits had been made by the energy companies because of the European emissions trading scheme.

The Prime Minister said in the Commons yesterday that while energy companies had made extra money available for the poorest, “that is a small amount in relation to what the Government are doing through the winter allowance”.

The current allowance is £200 for the over-60s and £300 for the over-80s. “This winter, when people are experiencing high utility bills, the winter allowance that we are giving is crucial”, he said.

One in five prepayment customers is classified as fuel-poor. A third of single parents with dependent children use gas prepayment meters.

A spokeswoman for E.ON said last night: “The cost of the prepayment meters are more expensive and we are currently looking at a major meter replacement programme. I don’t think it’s 100 per cent fair to compare prepayment with online.”

Coastguards strike for the first time!

Another historic first strike, another what-does-that-tell-you-about-New-Labour moment…

From The Morning Star:

Coastguards stage first ever strike
(Thursday 06 March 2008)

DETERMINED Maritime and Coastguard Agency workers mounted picket lines outside centres across Britain on Thursday in their first ever strike over poverty pay.

Around half of Britain’s 19 rescue centres were closed and management were drafted in to other sites to handle emergency and Mayday calls.

Hundreds of PCS and Prospect union members took part in the strike – the first in the agency’s history – over below-inflation wage rises.

The union said that pay levels at the agency were “way below” those in other emergency services, leaving staff furious.

Many workers, including coastguard watch assistants, are only earning the national minimum wage.

Pay rises last year averaged 2.5 per cent and starting salaries were just over £12,000.

Around a dozen coastguards protested outside the Dover Coastguard Rescue Co-ordination Centre, one of the busiest in the country.

Senior watch manager Trevor Doyle, who is believed to be one of the agency’s longest-serving members with more than 36 years service behind him, said that he and his team had been forced to go on strike as “past negotiations have been fruitless.

“We have been pursuing alternatives to industrial action for just short of a year, but it has had no effect,” said Mr Doyle.

“We don’t want to strike, but there is nothing else we can do,” he complained.

Dover and Deal Labour MP Gwyn Prosser attended the picket to lend his support.

He said that he planned to raise the coastguards’ cause in Parliament.

“I’ve spoken to some people who work in this station who turn in barely £14,000 a year. That’s just not fair,” said Mr Prosser.

“If you compare them with the other emergency services, they have had a very bad time.”

A picket outside the coastguard base in Lee-on-the-Solent received regular beeps of support from passing motorists.

Coastguard watch officer Geoff Matthews said of the action: “This is frustration that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has organised three job evaluations in the past few years and all of them have been ignored.

“All the coastguard grades are undergraded for a job which is technically difficult, demanding and requires a lot of training. The public have been showing their support a lot this morning.”

Scottish workers took action at the Aberdeen, Forth, Clyde and Stornoway rescue centres.

PCS Scotland official Steve Quinn said that “pay rates for watch assistance are a disgrace.”

Maritime union Nautilus UK also gave its full support for the strike, urging its members serving with the agency not to scab.

Nautilus UK assistant general secretary Mark Dickinson said: “Maritime and Coastguard Agency coastguards and surveyors do work that is vital to the safety of shipping and the lives of our members at sea.

“There is a clear need for experienced seafarers in these positions, but our information shows how out of kilter their salaries are,” said Mr Dickinson.

The agency said that contingency plans had been put in place during the strike and that coverage was not “wholly inadequate.”

UK government wants to deport gay Iranian youth

Mehdi Kazemi came to England to study in 2004 with the intention of returning to his homeland of Iran. In 2006 he learned that his boyfriend had been arrested and had named him as his partner before being hanged for sodomy.

An appeal to the UK government for asylum was turned down and he was detained at Tinsley House removal centre, near Gatwick Airport, to be deported to Iran. Faced with a possible death sentence, he travelled to Holland, where is now detailed and awaiting an appeal court decision on whether he will be allowed to stay there or be deported to the UK.

The Independent notes:

Last year, the Foreign Office released correspondence sent between embassies throughout the EU dating back to May 2005. They refer specifically to the case of two gay youths, Mahmoud Asqari, under 18 at the time of his execution, and Ayad Marhouni, who were hanged in public.

The Home Office’s own guidance issued to immigration officers concedes that Iran executes homosexual men but, unaccountably, rejects the claim that there is a systematic repression of gay men and lesbians.

If he is brought back to England, he should be allowed to stay. Sign the online petition. (Thanks to Stroppybird for blogging on this, and hence, reminding me to do the same.)

No doubt this story is being reported because of the need to build support for a war against Iran and cases of LGBT refugees being deported to other homophobic states will not get as much attention.

Note how a government minister hypocritically hijacked a solidarity protest for an imprisoned trade union leader in Iran:

Unsavoury elements
(Thursday 06 March 2008)
BRITISH trade unionists demonstrated the international solidarity that underpins the labour movement on Thursday when they turned out in support of jailed Iranian busworkers’ leader Mansour Osanloo.

Rail workers leafleted commuters at major railway stations and other union members joined left colleagues at the Iranian embassy to voice their anger at the reactionary regime’s repression of Iran’s trade unionists – and in particular the horrific imprisonment and torture of Mr Osanloo, who has been savagely beaten in prison to the extent that he may lose the sight in one eye.

Trade unionists mobilised in Britain as part of a worldwide action day for Mr Osanloo, organised by the International Transport Workers Federation.

As RMT general secretary Bob Crow pointed out, “trade union rights are human rights.”

Unfortunately, as happens occasionally with campaigns organised by the left, some unsavoury extremist elements attached themselves to the protest – namely the vile Foreign Office Minister “Dr” Kim Howells.

In a self-important press release from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Mr Howells claimed to “share the international concerns about the growing repression and severity of action taken against labour rights activists who work tirelessly to defend the rights of workers in Iran.”

He urged Iran to “respect fully the right to form or join trade unions, in accordance with its commitments as a member of the International Labour Organisation and the international human rights conventions it has ratified.”

Oh dear. Would this be the same Kim Howells who was pictured on the FCO website in February grinning all over his face alongside Colombia’s High Mountain Brigades – a particularly nasty bunch of state-backed paramilitaries notorious for the rape, murder and torture of Colombian trade unionists?

At the time, Unite joint general secretary Tony Woodley pointed out that “Colombia is the world’s leading slaughterhouse for trade unionists and it defies belief that British ministers should be cuddling up – literally, judging by the photographs – with the perpetrators.”

Would this be the same Kim Howells whose government persists in handing over no-strings military aid to Colombia’s far-right Uribe government, which then uses its ordnance to slaughter labour rights activists who “work tirelessly to defend the rights of workers” and ensures that Colombia remains the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist?

And would this be the same Kim Howells who nauseatingly sucked up to Saudi despot King Abdullah during his shameful state visit in October 2007, making the incredible claim that Britain and the medieval Islamist autocracy enjoy “shared values”?

Presumably those values also include the repression of trade unions, since they are banned in Saudi Arabia by “royal decree” and Britain persists in refusing to grant unions rights in accordance with International Labour Organisation standards.

With this, as with so many other things, Howells and his cronies seem to take Margaret Thatcher and her retrograde attitudes as a template for their own foul behaviour.

After all, Thatcher was deeply enthusiastic about free trade unions back in the 1980s – just so long as those unions were in Poland.

Prescription charges go up in England as Department of Health finally reveals hidden costs of private contractors

You’ve heard of the postcode lottery for healthcare, here’s a national lottery…

The cost of prescription charges is to rise in England by 25 pence from the 1st of April.

Currently English patients pay £7.10, Scottish patients £5 and Welsh patients pay nothing.

Public health minister Dawn Primarolo said the 25p increase from April 1 will raise £435m of “valuable income” that will be ploughed back into the NHS.

Right – so the NHS can hand out corporate welfare to independent treatment centres that do less than half of what they are paid for, and reorganise the GPs system in England to the benefit of multinational corporations, such as the ones already taking over medical centres.

The raise in prescription charges will cover this hidden cost of the “independent” treatment centres…

Deals with private contractors have left the NHS facing a hidden £187m bill to buy back some of the controversial independent sector treatment centres.

The so-called “residual value guarantees” were included in the contracts for 14 of the 27 ISTC schemes in wave one of the programme, but the Department of Health has only just released the sums involved.

The deals oblige the NHS to buy back the buildings used by the schemes at the end of the five-year contracts, to minimise the risk to the private investors.

The first contracts are due to expire in two years.

The millions of pounds that are guaranteed include payments to four contractors whose schemes have been treating less than 75% of the expected number of patients. […]

The guarantees to buy back buildings and other expensive facilities such as dialysis units are in addition to revenue guarantees that mean the contractors are paid regardless of the number of patients seen.

[from the Health Service Journal, via Keep Our NHS Public]

So how come Scotland and Wales have lower (in the latter case, non-existent) prescription charges?

Well, there’s the fact that England is without a devolved parliament