My diary of mum’s awful death on the “Liverpool Care Pathway”
As a nurse and health visitor with 25 years’ experience, Carole Jones thought she knew the workings of the NHS inside out.
But when her 85-year-old mother Maureen was admitted to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge last year having suffered a stroke, she was totally unprepared for what followed.
Her mother’s chances of recovery having been written off by medics, a decision was taken — without Carole’s knowledge — to place Maureen on the controversial Liverpool Care Pathway (LCP).
This is a plan ostensibly designed to ease the suffering of the dying, which can involve the heavy sedation of a patient and the removal of tubes providing food and fluid.
Over the past week, families have contacted the Daily Mail saying they believe their loved ones were wrongly put on the LCP by hospitals when they were not in fact close to death, fuelling the suspicion that it is used to hasten deaths to save the NHS money and free up beds.
In June this year, Professor Patrick Pullicino, a consultant neurologist for East Kent Hospitals, and Professor of Clinical Neurosciences at Kent University, told a conference the LCP had become an ‘assisted death pathway’.
It is a view with which Mrs Jones, 64, has some sympathy. It took Maureen, a widowed mother of two from Haverhill in Suffolk, 12 days to die after her admission, during which time she was deprived of food and water.
Carole was by her mother’s bedside, recording in a deeply moving journal her observations, not just as a loving daughter, but also as a healthcare professional.
Here, the Mail reproduces an edited version of that journal — which raises further disturbing questions not just about the Care Pathway, but more generally about the dignity offered to the dying in NHS hospitals.
Monday, July 25, 2011
I receive a call from Denise, a carer at The Meadows, the home where Mum has been looked after for the past year. I can tell from her tone that something is seriously wrong.
She tells me that Mum, who while showing early signs of dementia had been in relatively good health, has had a stroke and been taken to Addenbrooke’s Hospital.
My husband Peter and I immediately jump in the car, but it takes four hours from our home in Chepstow. When we arrive, my mother looks so poorly, so helpless: her mouth distorted, her lips pouting.
My heart goes out to her. How cruel can nature be? When we have to leave her at midnight, I hate it. I want to be with her, to let her know she is not alone. But in hospital that’s not an option.
Tuesday, July 26
Visiting hours are only 3pm to 5pm, and 7pm to 8pm. Mum looks so ill. She is awake. I talk to her and hold her hand. I say it is Carole and I’m sure she replies: ‘What now?’
I just want to comfort her. I know she will be feeling frightened as she hated being in different places, especially alone. An occupational therapist asks us all about Mum’s mobility status, whether she could walk using a frame. We say she was quite limited, and had been deteriorating over the past few months.
The doctor, a senior registrar in his last year of training, then says he can see us, and we are led to the ‘quiet room’. He explains that Mum has suffered a massive right-side stoke, and that given her dementia and very limited mobility, the best treatment would be palliative care. There was nothing that could be done for her.
They will not be giving intravenous fluids in case they lead to a chest infection, and there will be no quality of life for Mum [if she carries on].
Not nice to hear at all, yet I do realise that Mum is very ill. The doctor says that without fluids, the end will come within three to four days at the most.
When I come away from talking to him I am in a state of shock. I know Mum’s had a big stroke, but they are pretty much writing her off. When I come out of that meeting, I don’t expect her to last the week.
Wednesday, July 27
There is confusion about whether Mum might be moved out of the hospital and back to The Meadows. I am amazed at this. How could she be moved if she is so poorly? In the end, nothing comes of it.
Thursday, July 28
I phone the ward in the morning and am told Mum is comfortable, and pointedly reminded that visiting hours are 3pm to 5pm.
I find this insensitive and unnecessary given that I had been told on Tuesday that Mum was receiving palliative care. It makes me feel so useless, and that I ought to fight to see her. How can I reassure her if I am not there?
Friday, July 29
We are back on the ward again at 9.30am asking to see her. I am not sure if this is very popular with the nurses, but I want to be with Mum. After all, we had been told the end could be any time.
I have always been led to believe that when this point is reached, nothing can be done other than keep the patient comfortable: care of the dying, basically. As a healthcare professional, it is a hard to take when the ‘patient’ is your own mother.
Saturday, July 30
The nurses have agreed I can see Mum at any time, so I’m on the ward by about 10am. Mum seems about the same really, sleeping a lot but when awake, muttering or trying to say something, over and over again.
I just keep telling her that Carole is here, and that I am holding her hand. I hope she can understand that. I just don’t know whether she is in pain, or just frustrated at not being understood.
A female junior doctor speaks to us, informing us that there had been a discussion the day before and it had been decided to commence the Liverpool Care Pathway (LCP) for Mum. I have not heard of the LCP, so the doctor explains it is a plan of care put in place for the dying. Why weren’t the family told of this, or included in the discussion?
The fact that Mum had dementia and limited mobility has been mentioned a few times, and now it is mentioned again. Was this the criteria used to decide that all active treatment should be withdrawn?
On the second day, the doctor had said Mum would have no quality of life, but who really has the right to decide that?
A consultant comes later that day to sign the paperwork the junior doctor had commenced. It states that intravenous fluids had stopped on Wednesday night. He briefly explains what we had already been told: [there is] no active treatment, and most people cannot go longer than about three to four days without fluids.
It sounds so barbaric. That afternoon, we are moved to the side ward. Now Mum is there, does this mean she will soon die?
Sunday, July 31
The chaplain comes and talks to us for a while, and then says the 23rd Psalm for Mum, also the Lord’s Prayer. It is very moving and I feel quite emotional. Mum seems to let out a big sigh. In the side ward, she is asleep nearly all the time. I think she feels the peace and quiet in there.
I am sure Mum is aware of Pete and me being there. She flickers her eyes, or sighs at times at Pete’s voice. This would have been such a peaceful time for Mum to pass on.
Monday, August 1
Last night, Mum had to be moved back to the main ward because there was another admission coming in and, as it was a man, he had to go in the side ward because of the policy on mixed wards.
To top this, Pete is told he can’t stay with me now because Mum is on a female ward. I try to tell the nurses that I can’t get through this without Pete beside me, and it’s finally agreed that he can stay with me — but only if the curtain around the bed is closed at all times.
A sister looking after Mum asks if I think she would like her hair washed. I reply that she would. When we return to the ward, the sister tells me that Mum had communicated with her that Wednesdays were her hair-washing day. They were.
Now I am confused. We had been told there was no hope for Mum, therefore no treatment was being given, yet she could comprehend and communicate about her usual hair-washing day.
This is heartbreaking.
How can anyone be so sure that there is no hope for anyone? We speak to the lead doctor, the consultant of the whole team, who tells us that the severity of the stroke means there is little that can be done. It is all very depressing.
About 7pm, a nurse comes by the bed with the diamorphine pump for Mum, which delivers a pain-killing sedative. This seems a bit final, but I have to accept this. The nurse says that now Mum is on the Care Pathway, we can stay with her as long as we want.
I say that we were under the impression that Mum had been on this programme since Friday. The nurse says it is now official. I reply: ‘You mean the boxes are now ticked.’
Tuesday, August 2
Another doctor comes with the scans and explains what happened when Mum was admitted. The scans show evidence of a massive stroke and how Mum’s brain had been previously damaged by dementia.
Although this provides some proof of Mum’s condition, I still feel very sad about it all, and uneasy that it means she is not being treated with any fluids, because it is perceived she would have no quality of life.
I say that Mum had been without fluids since Wednesday night. The doctor had not realised this, and could not understand how Mum could go so long without fluids.
I sit with her most of Tuesday night. She moans and taps her right knee. I notice that she has a large bruise around her knee, which I assume was the cause of her moaning and discomfort.
Wednesday, August 3
I explain to the registrar about Mum’s knee, how she had showed me this by tapping her leg. The registrar reviews her prescription chart and increases the diamorphine as he thinks Mum is in pain. I explain that I do not think she is in pain, but trying to communicate to be moved.
The registrar still advises the increase in diamorphine to be the best option. I guess Mum is just not doing what is expected, and that the lack of fluid is not working in the time expected.
One member of staff even says that ‘it was hot, therefore (my mother) would lose more fluids so it would not be much longer’. I also understood that I should not even put a damp cloth to my mother’s mouth in case she gleans some moisture from it, which would prolong her life.
Surely health professionals must realise they are looking after human beings with feelings, not just ‘objects’ to be dealt with in a textbook fashion?
Thursday, August 4
We sit with Mum and she still tries to communicate with me. I suppose some people would say I am kidding myself. I know she is trying to say something to me, but I can’t quite work out what it is.
It is the most heart-rending thing to witness my mother being so vulnerable. I just want to protect her and ensure she knows she is not alone, that I am there with her through this final ordeal of her life.
Two nursing assistants come to turn her, despite the consultants having written in Mum’s notes that she did not need such regular repositioning, that her comfort is paramount now. I stay and watch but soon wish I hadn’t.
A sliding mat is put under her by the nursing assistants, who are busy chatting to each other about another member of staff, so they don’t notice that Mum’s head is not supported so that it falls backwards when they move her on the mat.
Poor Mum, the look of terror on her face will remain with me for ever. Her eyes are wide open. How can anyone be so intimately involved with a patient, yet not notice what they are doing to them?
They just have no empathy for my poor mother. I talk to her, tell her I am here, and that no one will move her again.
Friday, August 5
The early hours, and Mum’s eyes remain open now, staring into mine all the time. Her breathing gradually becomes more shallow. I know she is dying, yet her pulse continues to throb. It seems her heart is just not ready to let go, yet her body cannot cope.
Is this due to lack of fluid and nourishment, I wonder? I will never know. Mum gradually seems to be struggling for breath, until she eventually takes her last gasp of air. I will never forget that, to the very last, Mum has fought what is happening to her.
It is the most heart-rending thing to witness my mother being so vulnerable
Looking back, I have no regrets that I was by her side during the last 12 days, however harrowing it was. I wanted her to know she was not alone, and that I loved her. I only hope she knew and took some comfort from that.
I always understood my mother’s prognosis. I knew she was dying and that there was little hope of rehabilitation. However, I am concerned about quite a few aspects of her treatment during those 12 days.
The dismissive attitude of some of the staff, the lack of continuity of staff looking after Mum, the ridiculous restrictions of visitors to dying relatives, the unnecessary movement to a main ward to die, and the lack of information with the Care Pathway.
The care pathway was not fully explained to me, and I am not convinced this is the best plan to follow for dying patients. It seems to be a process more for staff than patients.
Nothing will ever alleviate the stress and guilt I feel that I allowed nursing and medical staff to place my mother on the LCP without being given enough information about it.
Obviously, it takes time to come to terms with the loss of a parent, but in my case, the experience of watching my mother die in the way she did will haunt me for ever.
Were we right to agree to no active treatment? We are all humans. Would you treat your mother this way? I guess not.
In reply to a written complaint from Mrs Jones about her mother’s treatment, Addenbrooke’s Hospital stated that there was ‘no record that the family were not happy for your mother to be treated palliatively’. It adds that because of the patient’s poor prognosis she was placed on the LCP, with the agreement of Mrs Jones, to try to keep her ‘comfortable’.
It continues: ‘Had there been any indication that your mother had the potential for rehabilitation, this would have been pursued.’
The letter, dated March 29 of this year and signed by the hospital’s complaints manager, concludes: ‘It is evident from your letter and from the responses which I have received from the staff who have looked into your concerns that we could have made you and your family’s life a lot easier. . . helping you to cope with the sudden and catastrophic stroke which your mother suffered.
‘I am truly sorry that this was the case. Please be assured that lessons have been learned by your experience, and actions have been taken to try to prevent another family feeling as you have done.’
A spokesman for the Trust last night said they had offered to meet Mrs Jones to discuss any further concerns.
Top British female lawyer’s career in tatters after assault conviction for pulling her 11-year-old daughter’s hair during tantrum
A top barrister’s career was under threat today after she was convicted of assault for grabbing her misbehaving daughter’s hair.
The woman, 47, snapped after the 11-year-old started hitting her and trashing their home during a row over a sleepover, Burnley Magistrates’ Court heard.
The youngster had earlier rung the police because she was furious at not being given money for a taxi to a friend’s house.
After officers came to the family home and told the girl off for the call, she began throwing clean and ironed washing down the stairs and repeatedly hitting her mother in the face with a jacket.
The unruly schoolgirl then slammed the lounge door so heavily that a chair smashed into a wall and knocked over a shelf, spilling DVDs and ornaments onto the floor.
The lawyer, who has been both a prosecution and defence barrister for 17 years, eventually lost her temper. She lunged forward from her own chair and grabbed the child’s shoulder-length hair, accidentally ripping out some strands, which were caught by her costume jewellery ring.
Today the barrister – who cannot be named for legal reasons, to protect the identity of the child – was facing a disciplinary hearing before the Bar Council after she admitted assault at the Lancashire court. She sobbed as she was given a 12-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay £85 costs.
Her counsel Mr Sephton Lee told the court that it was the barrister’s birthday on the night of the assault earlier this month.
Mr Lee told the court: ‘She had no plans to go out and celebrate. She had been drinking and perhaps it is fair to say that during the course of the evening, she drank a bit too much.’
He said the daughter had ‘a bit of a tantrum’ after returning from a friend’s house and was demanding to be given money to go back there by taxi.
When she didn’t get any cash, the girl secretly rang the police. Officers arrived and spoke to the mother and daughter before admonishing the daughter for calling them.
Mr Lee added: ‘Police clearly had no concerns about the daughter’s welfare or the mother’s level of intoxication before they left.’
The solicitor said the girl continued to misbehave until the mother got out of her chair to stop her.
He said: ‘It’s against all this background, she accepts she lunged forward towards her daughter and she accepts she grabbed her daughter’s shoulder-length hair.
‘It would appear she has pulled some hair from her daughter’s scalp. It’s believed a costume jewellery ring which she has on her finger caught on her daughter’s hair, causing hair to get caught up in the ring and that was how the injury has occurred.’
‘This was not a deliberate, intentional, malicious assault on her daughter. The mother was arrested, taken to the police station and interviewed and during the course of that interview, she expressed deep remorse and regret and she has asked me to apologise unreservedly to the court today.
‘She is well respected by her fellow practitioners and the judiciary.
‘There is no suggestion whatsoever that she is an unfit mother, quite the reverse. This is a tragedy for everybody, certainly for the girl and her mother.
‘This is an isolated incident, when a loving, caring mother pulled her daughter’s hair in circumstances where, we would say, her daughter was behaving badly.’
The court heard that the lawyer had informed the Bar Council about what had happened. Her law chambers continue to support her and she will be travelling to London in the near future to account for her actions before the Bar Council.
Mr Lee said : ‘The Bar Council will no doubt take a dim view of this matter and her ability to earn a living as a barrister may well be in jeopardy. This has been a very difficult case for the mother. These proceedings and the conviction today are significant punishment.’
Passing sentence, District Judge Nicholas Sanders told the woman: ‘This is a tragic case on many levels.’
Britain’s high-tech Thought Police
British authorities target bloggers, tweeters, and t-shirt wearers for speech crimes
“What country has just sentenced a man to eight months in prison for wearing an anti-police t-shirt, and another man to three months in prison for telling an ‘abhorrent’ joke on Facebook? Iran, perhaps? China? No, it’s Britain.”
Something has gone horribly wrong in Britain in recent years. The birthplace of John Milton (“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience”), and John Stuart Mill (“Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is so far doing a public service”), has become a cesspit of censoriousness.
The frequency with which the police and legal system now throw into jail anyone judged to have committed a “speech crime” is alarming.
On October 11, Barry Thew, a 39-year-old man from Manchester, was sentenced to eight months in jail—eight months!—for the crime of wearing a t-shirt that said, “One less pig — perfect justice”.
He donned the t-shirt just a few hours after two police officers were shot dead in Manchester, on September 18. Some members of the public took offence at his flagrantly police-baiting tee, complained to the cops about him, and before you could say “Fuck da police” Thew was being found guilty of committing a Section 4A offence under England’s Public Order laws—that is, he “displayed writing or other visible representation with the intention of causing harassment, alarm or distress.”
On October 8, Matthew Woods, a teenager from Lancashire, was jailed for three months for—get this—writing jokes on his Facebook page.
Currently, a five-year-old Welsh girl called April Jones is missing. Woods decided to make some jokes about this, writing on FB stuff like “Who in their right mind would abduct a ginger kid?” and “I woke up this morning in the back of a transit van with [a beautiful girl] — I found April in a hopeless place.”
Funny? No. Criminal? Apparently, yes. For telling these tasteless jokes to the infinitesimally small number of people who can see his Facebook page, Woods was found guilty under the Communications Act 2003 of sending “a message or other matter that was grossly offensive.”
The judge described Woods’ “crimes” as “abhorrent.” I find the state’s imprisonment of a teenager for telling jokes infinitely more abhorrent than Woods’ sad stab at creating lolz.
These are only the most recent incidents of people being banged up for saying “grossly offensive” things. Last month, Michael Coleman, a member of the right-wing British National Party, was given a suspended eight-month prison sentence and 240 hours of community service for using the word “darkies” on his blog.
He blogged about what he stupidly considers to be “the difference in personality, perceptions and values of people of darker races and ourselves” and said Britain’s current immigration policy amounts to “darkies in, whites out.” For this, for expressing his petty prejudices on a little-read blog, he was found guilty of racially aggravated harassment. The politician who brought the case against him said his crime was to express views that are “not acceptable to the overwhelming majority of local people.”
Social-networking sites are being subjected to the most stringent censorship. In July, a 17-year-old boy was arrested and questioned by police after he sent insulting tweets to British Olympic diver Tom Daley. The 17-year-old was spared jail but was issued with a “harassment warning.” In March, a 21-year-old student called Liam Stacey was sentenced to 56 days in jail for making crude jokes on Twitter about a then very ill footballer called Fabrice Muamba.
Last year, following the summer riots that rocked many English cities, two young men were jailed for four years for setting up a Facebook page called “Smash Down Northwich Town,” a reference to the town in Chester where they lived. The page was all about how cool it would be to have a local riot. No one accepted their invitation to riot, though; there was no “smashing down.” Yet still the two men were convicted of a public order offense, criminalized for being fantasists effectively.
I guess we should just be grateful that The Clash were never banged up for likewise giving voice to riot fantasies in their 1977 hit “White Riot”: “I wanna riot, a riot of my own.”
Now, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the body responsible for prosecuting crimes in England and Wales, is holding a series of meetings to clarify the law on tweetcrimes and FB misdemeanors, and to decide when it is legit, and when it isn’t, to bring criminal charges for trolling or inflammatory speech online.
I can save it a bucketload of time by telling it right now when charges should be brought against web-users for speech-based affrays: Never. Ever.
Speech is either free or it isn’t. And if it is, then that means everyone must have it—not just nice people, but also nasty people; not just the right-on, but also the racist; not just well-educated judges who use their free speech to spout BS about how abhorrent certain jokes are, but also immature tweeters, Facebook saddos, and unpopular bloggers who use their free speech to insult minorities or make bad gags about missing girls.
Granting the state the power to determine what is abhorrent and what is acceptable, which thoughts may be expressed publicly and which may not, is a dangerous game. At the moment, the state might “only” be locking up racist joke-tellers or teenage buffoons, but who knows who else might fall foul of today’s self-styled shapers of public morality. Blasphemers, perhaps? Queen Elizabeth-bashers? Sexist porno makers?
Allowing the state to determine the rightness and acceptability of words and ideas doesn’t only lead to gobsmacking levels of censorious authoritarianism—it also robs us, the public, of our right and our responsibility to work out what is true and to challenge what feels like dross in the arena of public debate. As John Milton put it 350 years ago, “Let Truth and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
The most worrying thing in Britain right now is the rise of the idea that individuals may be rightfully harassed and punished by the state if they hold views that are “not acceptable to the overwhelming majority of people,” as was said of the racist blogger.
That’s the end of eccentricity right there, of any element of danger and daring in public discourse. If being unpopular is seen as a sufficient justification for being arrested and put on trial, then who will ever dare put their neck on the line and say controversial, offensive, properly interesting things? The top-down enforcement of thought-policing doesn’t only mean we will see fewer racist ramblings and less teenage stupidity—it also means there’ll be less intellectual risk-taking, and a stifling culture of back-watching conformism.
Besides, society has no right to punish people just because the overwhelming majority of people don’t like what they say, as John Stuart Mill argued decades ago: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” Absolutely. Free all Britain’s tweeters, t-shirt wearers, and bloggers now!
British High School results 2012: private schools ‘dominate top grades’
Privately-educated teenagers were three times more likely to score straight As at A-level this summer than teenagers from state schools, figures show.
Almost a third of pupils from the independent sector gained at least three As in this summer’s exams compared with just over one-in-10 attending Government-funded schools and colleges.
The results are likely to tighten private school pupils’ grip in places at leading universities, which demand a string of top grades as a basic entry requirement.
It comes after Alan Milburn, the Government’s lead advisor on social mobility, admitted that poor performance at school and college remained the biggest barrier to higher education for thousands of teenagers from poor backgrounds.
In a controversial report published today, he called on institutions to make lower grade offers to “less-advantaged pupils”.
But the comments sparked anger among head teachers’ leaders who warned that it risked lowering standards.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Saying to disadvantaged students that we have lower expectations about what they can achieve, and their grades for university entry, can send the wrong message.
“The aim should be to encourage all students to succeed, whether that be in an apprenticeship, higher education or other routes.”
According to data published by the Department for Education, some 12.5 per cent of pupils gained three A or A*s at A-level this summer, down from 13.1 per cent a year earlier.
The average point score in A-levels – and equivalent vocational qualifications – also dropped in 2012. The average exam was awarded 211.8 points – roughly equivalent to a C – compared with 216.2 a year earlier.
The move follows a toughening up of A-levels in recent years, with pupils being expected to completed fewer modules in more depth and answer longer essay-style questions.
It emerged that pupils from private schools were significantly more likely to score straight As. Figures show that 30.6 per cent hit the target, compared with just 10.7 per cent among pupils from state schools.
Independently-educated schoolchildren also achieved higher average points in each A-level. They scored an average of 242.3 points – close to a B grade – compared with 211.4 in state schools.
In a further disclosure it emerged that boys were also more likely to achieve straight As than girls – 12.7 per cent compared with 12.2 per cent.
Energy prices: Turning up the political heat in Britain
Can the Prime Minister really do anything to lower households’ soaring gas and electricity bills?
Do not be surprised if a relation gives you a thick woolly jumper for Christmas – we are all going to be a lot colder this winter. In the last week, three of Britain’s largest energy companies, British Gas, Npower and Scottish Power, announced rises in gas and electricity prices that will add between £80 and £110 to the typical annual household bill. The steep rise follows a similar increase at SSE, another of the UK’s “big six” energy giants.
Combined with rising food, petrol and rail prices, the energy hikes will pile financial pressure on families. By December average household bills will hit £1,312 a year, up from just £552 in 2004. Research has found that nine out of 10 households – some 22 million dwellings in the UK – plan to ration energy use this winter to save money, which may be good news for high-street knitwear retailers but will be less healthy for everyone else.
It was against this backdrop that David Cameron waded into the debate. In an attempt to turn the political thermostat up on the large energy companies, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons on Wednesday that firms such as British Gas will be required by law to give customers their lowest available tariffs. His announcement took everyone by surprise, including officials at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), who had not agreed on the policy. The Coalition spent yesterday frantically rowing back after a severe case of burst policy pipes across Westminster.
So what is the truth about energy prices? Is there anything that politicians can do to lower them? Or will consumers just have to put more money aside to cover the ever-increasing cost of heating homes?
There is no question that consumers are getting hammered. While average household incomes have risen by 20 per cent since 2004, average energy bills have risen by 151 per cent, according to uSwitch.com, the price comparison website. An estimated 5.6 million households will be in “fuel poverty” next year – defined as those that spend over 10 per cent of their income on adequately heating their home – according to the charity National Energy Action.
Energy firms argue that they have had to raise prices due to the increased cost of gas and electricity on the commodity markets. They also blame the array of energy-efficiency taxes imposed by the Government. Figures from Ofgem, the regulator, partially back this up. The proportion of a gas bill made up by the wholesale cost has hovered between 50 and 60 per cent for the past five years. But environmental taxes have significantly added to a bill. Green taxes account for around £75 of a £1,000 bill and this is set to double to £150 over the next three years.
Energy companies argue that their profit margins are low at around 5 per cent, which is about the same as “pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap” supermarkets. But they are also masters of bamboozlement when it comes to the different tariffs they offer consumers, which in turn sow confusion, lack of trust and the suspicion that we are being ripped off.
Between them, the big six energy firms and the UK’s eight smaller providers offer around 80 tariffs. The public simply do not know whether they are getting a good deal. Just tapping details of my annual bill – £1,200 – and my south-west London postcode into a price comparison site brings up 54 alternative tariffs. Some claim to save me £222 a year while others will cost over £80 more.
None of the rates is simple to understand. Some of the “cheapest” deals come with hefty cancellation fees and will automatically dump me back into a more expensive tariff after just over a year. Certain cheaper deals also require me to manage the account online rather than by post or phone. Alternatively, some of the more “expensive” tariffs have no cancellation fees and offer fixed prices until 2015.
It was into the complex issue of tariffs that the Prime Minister stepped this week. Mr Cameron said that he would force firms to give every customer the cheapest deal possible. At the moment, homeowners are automatically placed in costly “standard” tariffs unless they have specifically asked for a cheaper deal. Such a move might save around 20 million homes up to £200 a year. However, Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, speaking the day after the PM’s intervention, said that rather than automatically place people on the cheapest tariff, firms must notify customers of the best available deals.
The difference in approach is subtle but huge. Mr Cameron’s scheme would mean state intervention in a free market and forcing companies to offer a fixed low price. Mr Davey’s approach is one step back from compulsion: it would put the onus on homeowners to shop around for the best deal, with a nudge from the suppliers. In the end, John Hayes, the Tory Energy Minister, said that Mr Cameron’s plan was one of a “number of options” under consideration.
The energy industry was incensed by Mr Cameron’s announcement, accusing him of forming “policy on the hoof”. Insiders said that even if Mr Cameron’s idea was put into practice, it might not make any difference. If firms had to offer the “cheapest” deal to householders, there would be nothing to stop them ditching their lowest tariffs so that more expensive deals became the “cheapest”.
“The danger is that they will pull their cheap deals and put everyone on more expensive standard tariffs, meaning that people will end up paying more,” said Mark Todd, director of Energyhelpline.com.
By the time the Government realised how tricky this proposed policy would be, the consumer group Which? was calling on the Prime Minister to “stick to the promise”. The timing of Mr Cameron’s intervention was unfortunate. Today, Ofgem will announce its plans to reform the household energy market by simplifying the number of tariffs on offer and making bills easier to understand. The bold statement from the top is likely to confuse this message.
The truth is that the Government’s hands are tied. While there is clear political capital in wanting to help hard-pressed families, the commercial realities limit its options.
First, the Government is partly to blame for the price rises due to its green taxes. Second, government intervention in a functioning and open market would probably be anti-competitive and would certainly go against the beliefs of most Tory and Lib Dem MPs. And third, George Osborne needs the firms to invest in next-generation energy provision – be it shale, wind or nuclear – before the lights go out. He needs their money, their goodwill and their co-operation. Telling them to fix their prices is certainly not the way to do this.
Some critics have called for a Competition Commission inquiry to force the big six to break themselves up, but this would be costly and take years. That said, the Government’s policy thus far has been about increasing competition, not meddling with prices. Last year, when Mr Davey was Consumer Minister, he told me that government intervention in the energy market was off the agenda.
“The only way to tackle [high prices] is to ensure that we have got competitive energy markets,” he said. “I would be surprised if The Daily Telegraph would be keen for us to intervene in the market. We have shown that it actually works the other way round – state intervention can be very inefficient and lead to higher prices. Competition is what you need to deliver.” What he said next tells you all you need to know about the Government’s power to reduce prices: “But we have also got to be realistic. A lot of these prices are global prices… we have to be modest about our ability to impact that.”
We should brace ourselves for many cold winters to come.