Workers' Fight workplace bulletin editorials, 14 April 2008

14 April 2008

 The fuel companies fuel poverty

Last week the government announced that it was going to tackle "fuel poverty" - and end it by 2010, which sounds a bit like the undertaking to end child poverty by 2020. In other words, it is not going to happen.

Of course the government should be tackling this rather shocking problem. It is estimated that as many as 4.5 million households are "fuel poor" - which means that they spend 10% or more of their income on heating their homes.

So industry minister, John Hutton, came up with a pledge that "up to" 100,000 of the poorest families will be given help to pay their fuel bills.

But then he explained how this help was to be financed! Apparently the fat cat power companies have signed an agreement, so that, collectively, they pledge to pay 225m towards these costs.

Yet these 6 companies together, managed to make a clear profit of 6 billion in the last year alone! What is more, they are not even being compelled to stump up the cash. It is all voluntary.

Hutton has also explained that he does not feel it is necessary to pass any laws to control the way that the energy companies treat the poor. No, he has only made one mild threat towards these unbelievably greedy sharks - and that is, that he might "look into" the possibility that the companies may be overcharging the very poorest customers - those who are forced to use pre-pay meters. And if this is eventually found to be so, he says he might just pass some legislation at that later stage, "to make sure there is a fair deal for the customer".

In fact Hutton argues the same line that the Tories did when they privatised the utilities: that a competitive (private) market is essential for keeping prices low. What a joke! Surely he knows that this nonsense flies in the face of the experience of all of us - and nobody is exempt, since we all need to use electricity and/or gas, so we know that the price of fuel only goes in one direction: up!. And any price cuts only last long enough to get us to switch supplier but when we do, the price just goes up again.

It is only by legislating that the government could do something about the extortion of the energy companies. That way it could impose price controls on them, or it could take us back to the pre-Tory era, of public sector provision. But such choices are not and never have been, on Labour's business-friendly agenda. This is why it will not end relative poverty of any kind in this country, whether it is fuel poverty, child poverty, or general poverty.

 Protecting the profits of war

The high court ruled last Thursday that the government broke the law when it instructed the Serious Fraud Office to drop its investigation into alleged bribery in arms deals between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia.

This SFO investigation began in 2004, even though the first phase of the so-called "Al-Yamamah" deal dates way back to 1985, struck for BAe by the Thatcher government. Over the years, Saudi Prince Bandar allegedly received payments worth 1bn from British Aerospace to secure contracts to supply aircraft and arms. The SFO was just about to unravel some Swiss bank accounts, when Blair's attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, suddenly terminated the SFO's investigation in December 2006, on the grounds of "national security".

In fact Blair and Goldsmith claimed that Saudi Arabia would stop giving Britain information on terrorism if the investigation continued ... but, more importantly, that it might also break its contract to buy 72 new Eurofighter Typhoon jets worth 20bn to BAE Systems!

So, what will be the consequence of last week's judgement? In fact Brown is proving just as anxious as Blair to protect BAE's profits. His ministers have said they will now have to legislate to give the attorney general statutory powers to shut down future investigations on "national security grounds" to bypass the judiciary! In the meantime, the SFO, which is currently pursuing allegations of bribery by BAE in six other countries, might be asked to "reconsider" its decision...

One might wonder why BAE, one of the largest arms companies in the world, has to bribe anyone. It has been the main British beneficiary of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, its sales rose by 2bn to 17.5bn and its underlying profits rose over 20% to 1.48bn. It has been acquiring US companies and has recently had multi-million pound orders for upgrades to armoured and mine-resistant vehicles. But apparently that is still not enough. It is now lobbying the MOD not to cut defence spending. And it will probably get its way.