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‘More than tricky winter’ ahead, warns Hague as energy bills soar

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The former Conservative leader William Hague has said Britons will suffer shortages due to the gas crisis, warning it could be a “more than tricky” winter for many families.

The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, also admitted it could “could be a very difficult winter” with families facing rising energy bills, as he sought to distance himself from the added burden of the cut to universal credit.

Hague said the government needed an elite group of ministers chairing meetings each day on how to tackle the crisis – akin to the Covid Operations committee during the height of the pandemic.

“If I was in government, I would be saying: ‘Get an elite group of ministers together in this reshuffled cabinet who are going to meet every day’ to be on top of all of these issues,” he told Times Radio. “And to do anything that the government needs to do, but they won’t be able to do everything. There just will be shortages of something.”

Kwarteng confirmed the government was considering state-backed loans to energy companies hit by soaring gas prices.

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“Those are some of the ideas that are being discussed because it costs a company to absorb up to hundreds of thousands of customers from another company that has failed. That costs money and there may well be a provision for some sort of loan, and that’s been discussed,” Kwarteng told Sky News.

Kwarteng said he was committed to protecting British people, when confronted over whether the government would be forcing people to choose between heating and eating in the face of mounting fuel costs caused by the gas crisis.

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But he said removing the increase in universal credit was “a matter for the chancellor and the work and pensions secretary”, adding that he was in conversations with them about the pressures.

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“We face a global energy spike in terms of prices,” Kwarteng told BBC Breakfast. “But I’ve said that there are mechanisms in place now to protect consumers. I’ve been very clear that the energy price cap is staying, even though some energy companies I read today are asking for it to be removed.

“I’ve been very clear that that’s staying, so we’re protecting customers there. We’ve got the warm home discount, we’ve got winter fuel payments, which are again focused on the most vulnerable customers. So, we’re completely focused on helping vulnerable customers through this winter – particularly with regard to energy prices.”

Pushed on the issue of universal credit, he said: “It’s a difficult situation, it could be a very difficult winter. That’s why, as energy minister, I’m very focused on helping people that are fuel poor. Universal credit, you will know, is an issue for the chancellor and the work and pensions secretary. I’m speaking to them a great deal about it.”

Earlier on Sky, Kwarteng hinted at a bailout for CF Industries, the UK’s biggest supplier of CO2. He said: “We’re definitely looking at trying to secure carbon dioxide supply. I’ve spoken to the CEO of the business, Tony Will. He flew over on Sunday. We spoke very candidly about the situation.

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“He said the problem he had was that the natural gas price is much higher than the ammonia which he sells. So essentially what happened last week was that the plant downed tools. And I said of course we’ve got to manufacture this CO2. And that’s what we’re talking about this week. It’s pretty imminent.

“I hope we have a very clear plan to get CO2 production going again. I’m very confident and hopeful that we can sort it out by the end of the week.”

Hague said there were more risks to come beyond the current crisis. “I think it could be a tricky winter, more than tricky, actually,” the former foreign secretary said.

“And I think, I’m one of those people who think that probably the central banks around the world or the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and so on, have underestimated the risks of inflation after the pandemic.

“And on top of that we see for all sorts of different reasons, these supply shortages, as you know, there’s so many things at work in this and that there’s a shortage of gas and the booming gas prices from the fact that it hasn’t been very windy for a few months, to last winter going on a long time, to Asian economies suddenly buying up the liquefied natural gas that comes out of Qatar, all of these things working together.”