Stick, switch, or fix? It sounds like a game of cards, a contest of chance, and it certainly feels that way to consumers hopelessly hunting for competitive deals to cut their energy bills.

As of today, MoneySavingExpert declares there are "no fixed deals available right now that are worth considering". That's pretty much been the case for well more than a year as the energy crisis has exposed the price cap administered by industry regulator Ofgem to be a faulty mechanism within a broken market system.

The good news is there appears to be some respite on the horizon for consumers, with analysts at Cornwall Insight predicting that typical household energy bills will fall to their lowest in more than two years from April. Ofgem is expected to confirm the 15% decline in the energy price cap, to £1,635 a year from £1,928 currently, in its regular quarterly update on Friday.

This is slightly more positive than previous predictions from Cornwall Insight. The consultancy said a relatively warm winter, coupled with less disruption than feared from Houthis attacks in the Red Sea, have kept the wholesale prices paid by suppliers at lower levels than might have been the case.

Looking further ahead the consultancy is currently predicting a further 10% decline in the energy price cap, to £1,465, from July before creeping up again by 4% in October. These latter forecasts, it should be said, are far weaker and will likely be adjusted in the coming months based on market circumstances. 

READ MORE: Scottish Gas profits surge as energy bill rules relaxed

But yes, the overall trend on the immediate horizon is a positive and welcome relief as an increasing proportion of homes in Scotland and throughout the UK are falling into fuel poverty. No one, however, should be under the misapprehension that this broken retail energy market has suddenly returned to functional health.

As confirmed again last week by Scottish Gas owner Centrica, bad debt levels from customers unable to pay their bills are rising across the industry. Unless somehow addressed, this has all the hallmarks of the next industry storm that will undoubtedly - at least under the current system - lead to even higher household bills.

As Centrica chief executive Chris O'Shea has pointed out, every consumer in the UK is paying an extra £88 annually "for the failure of other energy suppliers in the last few years". More than 30 energy companies have gone bust since the start of 2021 after being exposed by restrictions that prevented them from passing on high wholesale costs, leaving Ofgem to maintain customers' supplies and protect their credit balances while it moved them to new suppliers. 

The regulator has also allowed remaining suppliers to recoup some of the costs of having to sell energy at prices below wholesale during the start of the crisis. In Centrica's case, this boosted profits at British Gas and Scottish Gas by approximately £500 million last year.

READ MORE: Who will shed a tear as Scottish Gas slides into losses?

It's easy to rail against Ofgem but the reality is the energy regulator can only operate within the rules set down by government, which include the introduction of the price cap in 2019.

While it sounds like something that should be keeping bills under control, the energy price cap was never designed to make gas and electricity affordable, nor offer any specific protection for those in danger of falling into fuel poverty. After all, the price cap is the same for all households regardless of income.

Its core raison d'etre was to protect households that hadn't secured a fixed price contract from being gouged on a supplier's basic variable default energy tariff. This protection is only in terms of paying a "fair" retail market price, with bills rising or falling in line with suppliers' costs which are mainly driven by the price of gas on the wholesale market.

Ironically, the price cap has now pretty much become the default, with the deals on offer all closely clustered around the current mark of £1,928.

And rather than being rewarded for signing on to longer-term contracts, households hoping to fix their gas and electricity tariff will wind up paying a premium if they go for a deal just now. Among the limited options available, the average fixed-price contract costs is about £130 a year more than the projected April price cap. 

READ MORE: Energy markets must work for the people they serve

This is in part down to the market stabilisation charge (MSC), which was introduced in April 2022 as a temporary measure to compensate suppliers if they lose customers following large falls in wholesale prices. When a drop in wholesale prices triggers the MSC, all domestic suppliers which acquire a customer must make a payment to the supplier that lost the customer.

Here again, this winds up reflected in higher bills across the board as potential compensation payments are factored into the prices in the contracts on offer. The MSC is now due to expire at the end of March and it is hoped this will spur the introduction of more and keener fixed price deals, injecting a bit of competition back into the market.

Suppliers' hands are also tied by the ban on acquisition-only tariffs, which stops them from enticing new customers with cheaper deals than those on offer to existing customers. The ban on acquisition tariffs is also scheduled to lapse at the end of March but this is not confirmed, with Ofgem expected to issue an update by the end of this month.

The price cap delivered for customers when wholesale markets were stable, but is inherently unable to keep up in volatile and fast-moving circumstances such as those of the past two years. If legislators stay their hand on systematic energy market reform in the hope that things are now settling down, it is a risky gamble as experts still expect prices to remain elevated throughout the rest of this decade.

Change requires legislative action but despite many months of assurances that government consultations are "active", we are now nearing the end of the second winter of this energy crisis with no substantive progress in evidence. Energy policy is currently getting booted around like a political football ahead of the forthcoming general election, but in this game everyone will lose if leaders continue to fail in grasping the nettle of energy market reform.