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Open up Northern Ireland energy market

By Claire McNeilly

The rules governing the energy market in Northern Ireland must be re-examined by the Assembly, leading politicians have said.

There were also calls for an urgent investigation into how the electricity and gas companies operate their businesses.

MLAs Mike Nesbitt and Judith Cochrane said that local firms need to provide pricing information that is accessible to people so they can make rational choices based on facts.

They spoke to the Belfast Telegraph after David Cameron admitted that the Government needed to work “harder and faster” to cut energy bills.

The Prime Minister also accepted the need for a “trusted, simple and transparent” market ahead of yesterday’s summit with the six biggest UK power firms, consumer groups and regulator Ofgem.

Mr Nesbitt, UUP enterprise spokesman, said lack of competition was one of the major problems in Northern Ireland, where there are three electricity suppliers and two gas firms in operation.

“It is time the Assembly re-examined the rules governing the local energy market,” said Mr Nesbitt. “People here are traditionally very conservative and once they have picked a company they tend

to stick with them. If another firm appears to be coming in cheaper many consumers don’t seem to trust that that will be a long-term commitment and so they stay with the company they’re with.

“It’s a real hassle for many people to swap over from one supplier to another.

“But the bottom line is we don’t have enough competition in terms of gas and electricity, and what little we do have is confusing.”

At the beginning of this month electricity prices soared by 18.7%, while the cost of gas had previously risen by 39% from September.

Some 44% of homes in Northern Ireland are defined as fuel poor — when 10% of income is spent on heating and lighting.

Alliance spokeswoman Judith Cochrane said it is time to look closely at the energy market.

She added: “Companies need to be brought into line so that consumers can get advice on basic tariffs and make rational decisions based on facts.”

In a joint article with Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Chris Huhne on moneysavingexpert. com website, Mr Cameron wrote: “We are determined that everything that can be done will be done to help people bring their energy bills down.”

The coalition is aiming to get on the front foot on energy bills after Labour leader Ed Miliband attacked the “rigged” market in Britain.

Background

MLAs say local energy firms need to provide easy-to-read pricing information so that consumers can make sure they are getting the best possible deal. The comments came after David Cameron admitted the Government needed to work “harder and faster” to cut bills. The UUP’s Mike Nesbitt said lack of competition was a big problem in Northern Ireland.

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