Energy companies will face criminal sanctions if they manipulate the market, Coalition ministers have announced.

Firms, including the so-called Big Six providers, will also be pressed to cut the time it takes customers to switch suppliers from an average of five weeks to just 24 hours.

The crackdown comes as the Tory-Liberal Democrat Government attempts to stem growing public anger over rising energy costs after four of the six biggest firms, including ScottishPower and Perth-based SSE, announced inflation-busting price hikes in recent weeks.

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The Coalition has already announced plans to "roll back" green taxes in the autumn statement next month. But campaigners warn these have only a small effect on bills.

Ministers yesterday outlined a plan to encourage more competition on the market and force companies to be more transparent over their bills. But critics warned that manipulating markets was already a criminal offence.

Energy Secretary Ed Davey admitted his drive to a 24-hour switching target would not happen overnight.

He said companies would be encouraged to cut the average time to one week, and then to one day. Mr Davey hinted at the scale of the problem saying he would not allow companies to pass additional costs created by cutting the switching time on to customers.

Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Sophie Neuburg said: "Ed Davey is right, bills are soaring thanks to rising gas prices - but promoting easier switching is like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic."

Caroline Flint, shadow energy and climate change secretary, said: "It's another day, another policy that will do nothing to help people with their bills this winter. Hard-pressed energy customers struggling with the cost of living need action now."

l First Minister Alex Salmond has refused to back Labour's promise to freeze energy bills. He said the pledge would prompt energy firms to hike prices before or after the proposed 17-month freeze was imposed.

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