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Hughes demands energy bills rebate
Low-income households should be offered an immediate rebate on energy bills in Chancellor George Osborne's Autumn Statement, senior Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes has said.
His call came as Lib Dems made clear they will not give ground on the green levies which David Cameron has said he wants the Chancellor to "roll back" in the statement to MPs on December 4.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said Liberal Democrats are willing to shift some of the burden of the levies - which cost households an average £112 a year - from energy bills to general taxation.
Meanwhile, Labour's shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint called for a rethink of the biggest levy, the Energy Companies Obligation (ECO), which she described as expensive, bureaucratic and failing to reach those who really need it.
The ECO scheme operated by the Big Six power companies adds £47 a year to the average bill to pay for energy-efficiency measures like insulation and new boilers for households in fuel poverty. But a report by the IPPR think tank suggested that 1.3 million of those in greatest need have not received help because £434 million - 80% of the total £540 million budget - was being targeted at homes that are not fuel-poor.
An opinion poll laid bare the high stakes that political parties are playing for in the debate over gas and electricity prices, with 72% telling pollsters Survation that the issue will play a part in the way they vote.
The survey for the Mail on Sunday found that 60% opposed green levies and 61% would like to see at least some of them repealed. Mr Cameron's policy of rolling back the levies and forcing companies to move customers onto their lowest tariffs won the support of 40%, while Ed Miliband, with his promise of a 20-month freeze, was backed by 33% and Nick Clegg, who has vowed to preserve the levies, by just 7%.
However, more people blamed the energy companies (59%) than either the Government (15%) or the previous Labour administration (15%) for the spiralling cost of gas and electricity.
And the energy companies were once again the focus of anger, after reports that three of them - Scotia Gas, UK Power Networks and Electricity Northwest - had between them saved £140 million by using legal tax loopholes to minimise their liabilities.
Mr Alexander declined to comment on the individual cases, but said customers were right to be "livid" about firms using aggressive tax avoidance techniques. Scotia Gas and Electricity Northwest declined to comment on the allegations, while UK Power Networks told the Press Association that it "fully complies with all applicable regulatory, tax and legal requirements relevant to a group operating in the UK".
But Labour's shadow chief secretary Chris Leslie said: "I t's not good enough for Danny Alexander to simply say he is angry about companies exploiting loopholes. As the Chief Secretary to the Treasury he should be acting to close them down."
Energy minister Greg Barker revealed he had summoned the Big Six for talks on their handling of overpayments believed to total as much as £2 billion made by direct debit customers.
Mr Barker said consumers would be "outraged" if it was confirmed that overpayments were being stockpiled rather than returned, allowing the companies to earn interest on cash sitting in their accounts. He told the Mail on Sunday: "Energy firms must come clean on how much cash they are sitting on. If we find serious abuse, rest assured we will come down on them like a ton of bricks."
Mr Hughes said that, after using previous Autumn Statements to announce freezes on fuel duty for motorists, Mr Osborne should now take action for energy consumers.
"I would like people to have a rebate on energy bills that would help the poorest most and would mean that there would be immediate relief this year, not waiting for the post-election period," he told the BBC's Sunday Politics.
Mr Hughes said there was "a deal to be done" on funding energy-efficiency schemes like ECO and the Warm Home Discount from general taxation, but insisted Lib Dems would not "back off" from schemes to fund the development of renewable power sources, which make up about half of the green levies.
And Mr Alexander told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "Our commitments to green energy, our commitments to renewable energy, are vitally important and they are not something that we as Liberal Democrats will compromise on."
Conservative minister Baroness Warsi told Sky News's Murnaghan: "What ordinary families want to know is that when they are paying their bills they are paying the lowest possible tariff - and the Prime Minister has been leading the charge on energy companies to make sure that that's what consumers get.
"What ordinary families also want to know is that when they have accumulated credit with the energy companies, that isn't just held by them and that it is passed back at a time when people are watching the pounds and the pennies.
"And what ordinary families also want to know is that what the energy companies are making in profit is transparent and that they are paying the taxes that are due to this country."
But Mr Miliband said: "Since David Cameron has been Prime Minister, energy bills have gone up by an average of £300 because he has refused to stand up to big energy companies.
"On top of failing to address the broken energy market, David Cameron is failing to stamp out tax avoidance. We have a Prime Minister unwilling to take the side of hard-working people. Unwilling to act against the energy companies, unwilling to clamp down on tax avoidance and close down tax loopholes."
The Big Six energy companies are due to appear before the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee on Tuesday to answer questions about prices. But they have come under fire after it emerged that only one of them - E.On - is expected to send its chief executive to face MPs.
The chief executive of trade association Energy UK, Angela Knight, rejected criticisms of the companies, telling Sky News: " Whoever is going to appear will come with all the facts and all the figures and are there to answer the questions because as an industry it is better to answer the questions, to be open, to be transparent."