All 5 Claire Perry contributions to the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Act 2018

Read Bill Ministerial Extracts

Tue 6th Mar 2018
Tue 13th Mar 2018
Tue 13th Mar 2018
Thu 15th Mar 2018
Mon 30th Apr 2018
Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill
Commons Chamber

3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage: House of Commons

Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill

Claire Perry Excerpts
2nd reading: House of Commons
Tuesday 6th March 2018

(6 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Act 2018 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Antoinette Sandbach Portrait Antoinette Sandbach
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We are already seeing those kinds of mechanisms with MoneySuperMarket.com and other organisations. However, some are incentivised, getting payments for switching. The Government have given Citizens Advice £100,000 to provide transparency regarding the rates offered and to help those who come to it with debt problems or other problems to switch.

Claire Perry Portrait The Minister for Energy and Clean Growth (Claire Perry)
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I am cautious not to make too many interventions because Members are making great speeches, but I am worried that there will be so many questions that I will not have time to respond to them all at the end. I just want to reassure the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach). The midata trial is really important, as it enables people to allow their data to be ported to a third-party website that will then automatically come up with the best deals for them. Ofgem is working on that tool and it should open the way to much more innovative third-party switching services, which we all desperately need.

Antoinette Sandbach Portrait Antoinette Sandbach
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We have seen that the cap works for the vulnerable customers who have had their energy prices capped. Although some have gone on to less advantageous tariffs, most have benefited, as shown in the evidence received by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. I agree with others that smart meters will revolutionise how we deal with not only energy, but perhaps other services. The cap is a temporary measure and is only needed as one. I add my voice to the others who called on the Government to ensure that loopholes on green tariffs are not used to game the legislation. The Bill has expanded the exemptions to include the safeguard tariff and those explicitly chosen by consumers, and the Government have strengthened the language relating to green tariffs.

I, too, call on Ofgem to act. I am afraid that I do not take the view that we needed this legislation. I would argue that Ofgem had the right to protect consumers without it, but I welcome the fact that the Government are acting to ensure that we address the clear problems in the market, particularly predatory pricing. This is about getting access to tariffs and the switching mechanism for those who need it. We should encourage those people and reach out to them, whether through Citizens Advice or how they sign on for their benefits. We clearly need to enable data sharing, so that energy companies can quickly identify vulnerable customers.

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Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con)
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I am pleased to follow so many eloquent speakers, almost all of whom agree that this is a very sensible Bill.

I would like to begin with a question: can it be right that customers purchasing energy from the big six for some of the most basic things in life—simply keeping warm, making a cuppa, cooking the supper or running the washing machine—collectively paid some £1.4 billion more than they ought to have done between 2012 and 2015? In 2016, that figure escalated to almost £2 billion. As we have heard, that was the conclusion of the Competition and Markets Authority’s energy investigation. I am pleased to say that the Bill is intended to rectify that, which I am sure you will agree, Mr Deputy Speaker, is eminently sensible. Why? Because it is in the interests of fairness, of delivering for the customer and of giving better value to many people who quite frankly have been taken for a ride and have been paying over the odds for the self-same energy supply that others have got cheaper. In reality, they have been taken advantage of, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) said.

We would not think that it was possible, but how has it happened? What we might call “active customers” are on the ball and save money by switching continuously, according to the prices on offer. Those people can save up to £300 a year by hunting out the cheapest deals. However, as we have heard, not everybody does that. Indeed, five out of every six households did not switch energy supplier in nearly a year between October 2016 and September 2017. That adds up to a cool 11 million households, although I am pleased that 4 million vulnerable households have been helped with an absolute price cap on prepayment meter tariffs.

The people in these 11 million households are on standard variable tariffs. They do not chop and change, but stick with the initial supplier. How are they rewarded for their faithfulness? By paying over the odds by up to £300 in a six-month period. That is itself a far from fair state of affairs, but it is even more scandalous that many of those staying on standard variable tariffs are those who can ill afford to do so. A high proportion of them are elderly. That is especially pertinent in a county such as mine, Somerset, where there is an ageing population. Between 1984 and 2014, the number of people aged 85 or more in Somerset increased by an incredible 170%, which is more than 18,000 people. The number of people aged 75 or more is projected to double in the next two decades, and the fastest-growing group is men aged 80 and over.

Those people should not be targeted and taken advantage of because they are not au fait with modern technologies such as surfing the internet to find cheaper energy deals. I am standing up for the elderly in particular—I run an older generation fair in Somerset, where I talk about these and many other things—and I believe that the Bill will definitely benefit elderly people in rural areas. We have a very high proportion of elderly people: two thirds of people in Somerset are over 65, and I believe that many of them will benefit from the Bill. Picking up the phone or checking on the internet is just not on many people’s agenda. A lot of them are already struggling to make ends meet, so we need to do everything we can to help them.

At the other end of the scale, the many young people who are renting accommodation also fall into the category of those on standard variable tariffs—they are often restricted from swapping energy suppliers by their landlord. I believe that the Bill will benefit them as well.

There is another category of people who are affected, whom I call the “mid-rangers”—my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) mentioned them—and I put myself and my family in that category. These people are really busy: they are working all day, and when they get home they are caring for their kids and they have to cook the dinner, take the dog for a walk and do all those other things. Are they really going to say, “I know what I’ll do tonight—I’ll pick up the phone or go on the internet to see whether I can get a better energy deal”? Truly, they do not do that, and they are the ones on SVTs.

I really believe that setting an absolute cap is a very sensible way of helping people in all those categories. It is not a price freeze, but a cap, as has been well pointed out. Ofgem will be given the task of making it work effectively, with a formula, and it will be responsible for setting the cap. I urge it to be transparent in doing so, because there must be no loopholes for big companies to game the system. It is absolutely imperative that companies do not take advantage of the cap and then raise all their bills to the top level; we have also heard much about that.

Ofgem will have a duty to report regularly on whether the whole system is to be expanded. The system is meant to be temporary, which is absolutely right. It is an artificial lever to control the market for a short while, and it is being applied in the interests of the consumer. I believe that this is the right way to go, as it will still enable competitiveness in the market, which is absolutely essential. We want the market to work better for everybody by continuing all the advances that are under way, such as smart meter technology and data-driven technology. If the market is made to work more efficiently, there will be more money for all companies to invest in renewables and to achieve our clean growth strategy.

On that note, I want to say that if we are talking about fairness in energy and better deals for customers, new technologies will play a very important part in the future direction of travel. Focus needs to be placed not just on energy efficiency, but on cutting the energy that is wasted, because a real concentration on such things could save consumers half their winter energy bills. I will give a couple of quick examples of gadgets that could be used. There is a small device—1.5 square inches in size—called Margo, which I saw only yesterday at the sustainable energy event in Parliament.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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Yes—very good.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I believe the Minister opened the event. This gadget listens to the amount of gas in one’s meter and can hear how much gas is being used, and it has shown that customers are being overcharged by £40 to £50 a year because they are not being metered correctly. That is £1 million for all the people in Taunton Deane. The other gadget is a stored passive flue device, which uses waste heat from the boiler to heat water before it goes into the boiler so that it does a lot less work. It can provide a whole tank of hot water that can be used for other things. Overall, it will save the consumer money. [Interruption.] People are coughing to get me to wind up, but those new technologies are incredibly important and will play a part in the good work the Government are already doing on their clean growth strategy, cutting our emissions, reducing fuel bills and giving consumers a better and fairer deal. At the heart of that is the Bill, which I fully support.

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Claire Perry Portrait The Minister for Energy and Clean Growth (Claire Perry)
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I thank my opposite number, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), for his characteristically calm and sensible remarks. Indeed, it has been fantastic to listen to the calm and intelligent debate we have had today, with so many very well-considered views.

There is really strong consensus across the House both on the need for the Bill and, broadly, on the scope and structure of the proposed legislation. For that, I want to thank several groups of people. I thank my civil servants, who have done a good job in producing the current draft. I also very much thank the BEIS Committee, which is ably chaired by the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) and has several extremely committed members from both sides of the House. Giving evidence to the Committee was a terrifying experience, but their scrutiny and suggestions, which we have fully incorporated into the Bill, prove the excellence of such a method of pre-legislative scrutiny.

I thank colleagues on the Conservative Benches and, indeed, on the other side of the House, who have helped us to improve the legislation prior to this point with their very considered suggestions. I thank in advance those Members who will serve on the Public Bill Committee and will contribute to our further debates, because we all want the cap to be in place well before the year-end, and it must have a smooth passage through the House of Commons to achieve that aim.

I need to single out two Members. The first is my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), whose campaigning championship in this regard has really electrified the parties on both sides of the House about the need to act. As we heard today, the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) has brought the best of her wisdom and experience to this debate. It was a pleasure to listen to both Members’ speeches.

I want very quickly to recap the purpose of the Bill and to refute the growing idea that we have in any way dragged our feet. I was struck by what my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) said about how the best form of legislation is evidence-based. We have had the CMA review, and we have taken the time to consider the fact that freezes do not work terribly well, and to have the regulator bring forward reasonable and welcome improvements. For example, we saw only this week the ending of the back-billing problem whereby people could be back-billed over many months, ending up owing thousands of pounds. The regulator has got the message strongly.

The Bill is a time-limited, intelligent intervention that will help to accelerate the transition to a more competitive market. It will give more powers to the regulator, which is right. The market has changed significantly since the original days of liberalisation. We have some extremely empowered customers, and we also have a large pool of customers who are less engaged and have ended up on poor-value tariffs. The cap has to be set to maximise investment, competition, innovation, switching and improved efficiency, and it will be accompanied by a whole package of other measures—the so-called carapace that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test mentioned—such as smart meter roll-outs, same-day switching and so on.

The Bill will also be a doughty defence of consumer rights. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), my hon. Friends the Members for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), and the right hon. Member for Don Valley really stood up for their constituents and what the Bill will mean for them.

The Bill is not an attempt to extend political control over the industry. I champion the fact that since privatisation we have seen more than £80 billion invested in the industry, with power cuts halved and network costs down 17%. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) said, we need billions of pounds more of investment to drive forward an exciting low-carbon, distributed energy future. The last thing we would want to do is to scare off that level of investment.

I will say something gently to the Opposition, because they could not resist a poke, about the idea that their policy is for a cosy array of mutual companies. The shadow Chancellor has said, “We want to take these industries back.” We know what that means: borrowing billions of pounds, raising taxes for millions, and none of the further investment that we need. It would be entirely the wrong thing for the industry. The Bill is a clear signal that we believe in well-regulated competitive markets as the best way to deliver service and value for all customers, and that we will act on market failures to give regulators more power to improve market conditions.

Mark Menzies Portrait Mark Menzies
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I thank the Minister for the way in which she has engaged with me and other colleagues who had concerns about the Bill. She has made time to meet us, with her officials, and addressed many of the concerns that we have raised with her in private. I want to put my thanks on record.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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I thank my hon. Friend. I would also like to put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), whom I omitted to thank as one of the original campaigners north of the border.

Eight main issues were raised that I want to address. The first, which was raised by many hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), and my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield and for Eddisbury, was what will happen to vulnerable customers once all this has taken place. Of course, we have the safeguarding tariff that is now protecting 5 million people, saving them on average £120 compared with what they would have paid. That has been brought forward. We expect a whole package of additional improvements—smart metering, next-day switching, the midata project, the CMA policies about engagement with those disengaged customers, and an expectation that Ofgem will continue to scrutinise and actively monitor tariffs to make sure that any gaming creeping into the system is knocked on the head.

Many good comments were made about ensuring that the Bill will not disincentivise competition, including by my hon. Friends the Members for Wells, for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke). We know the level of investment that we have to maintain, which is why the Bill will introduce a time-limited, intelligent cap. The powers given to Ofgem have to ensure that we do not disincentivise competition, while ensuring that companies have an incentive to improve the efficiency of their operations. Too many companies are still stuck in the operational methods of the past and customers are paying the price for that.

Interesting points were raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Fylde (Mark Menzies) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous), and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), about an appeal to the CMA, which is something for which the big six are lobbying. I firmly believe that given the level of transparency and scrutiny that will happen when setting the cap, there will be opportunities to ensure that that is robust. Ofgem’s decision on the cap can be judicially reviewed. Courts can consider these issues more quickly than the CMA, and a whole range of evidence can be taken in such a case, whereas with CMA decisions, the range of those who can comment is very restricted. I do not want anything that slows the introduction of the cap.

Albert Owen Portrait Albert Owen
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I pay tribute to the Minister and the Secretary of State for honouring their commitment to take this measure through as speedily as possible. Will she look at other reviews? We await a Government response to the Dieter Helm review, which, by looking at transmission and distribution, could complement the price cap.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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The hon. Gentleman anticipates a point I was going to make about many contributions about the calls for additional market reviews. The call for evidence on the excellent Helm review, which was commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, has only just closed, and I think we need to take the time to consider it. I was struck by the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin). What we want is a rational, functioning economic regulator in a market that is so vital in keeping the lights on, keeping investment going and keeping people warm in their homes, not a political rush to do things.

The right hon. Member for Don Valley raised the issue of green tariffs and gaming the system. Ofgem has never been required to scrutinise existing green tariffs. It will have to scrutinise carefully and consult during the process of the design of the cap to ensure that it is fit for purpose. As we heard from many Members, the expectation will be that customers should not have to overpay to be on a green tariff. We are now buying subsidy-free offshore wind and I opened the first subsidy-free solar farm only last year.

There were many questions about the structure of the cap, including whether it should be variable or fixed. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare has campaigned on this matter very strongly. I was again struck by what my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset said. The structure of the cap should be able to take into account changes in the wholesale system. Clause 6(1) states that the period of consideration has to be no greater than six months, but it is entirely within Ofgem’s powers to change the cap more frequently. Of course, as we know, standard variable tariffs are currently updated only one or two times a year. Companies buy forward and hedge their energy prices, so it is not usual for very strong changes in wholesale prices to be incorporated. We will get to see the structure of the cap and its sensitivity to those prices going forward.

There were concerns about ensuring we allow co-operative energy providers to be in the market. My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, who is such a doughty consumer champion, made that point, as did the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) and others. We already have co-operative energy structures—White Rose Energy, Robin Hood Energy and so on—and there is no barrier to those companies coming forward and delivering.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby asked about the removal of the cap. We will have a series of tests, and we have set out clearly in the Bill what those tests will be. Ultimately, we want loyal customers to be treated as well as, if not better than, new customers who are being attracted by cheaper deals. That will be the absolute test.

In conclusion, we know the Bill is necessary. We know we need to get it through Parliament. I have been really encouraged by the tone of the debate, with so many Members having really scrutinised the Bill and being absolutely determined to see it through. I am confident that we can pass this vital Bill and our constituents expect us to do so, as they do not want to be overpaying on their bills. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill (Programme)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill:

Committal

1. The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.

Proceedings in Public Bill Committee

2. Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 15 March 2018.

3. The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.

Proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading

4. Proceedings on Consideration and proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.

5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.

6. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading.

Other proceedings

7. Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Rebecca Harris.)

Question agreed to.

Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill (First sitting) Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill (First sitting)

Claire Perry Excerpts
Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons
Tuesday 13th March 2018

(6 years, 3 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Act 2018 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 13 March 2018 - (13 Mar 2018)
Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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Q I just want to be clear about the point on five months, Dermot, that you have mentioned. Could you briefly break down what that five-month period will consist of? And are you able to guarantee that there will not be any drift in that process, so that the five months is an absolute outside time rather than an approximate time?

Dermot Nolan: I might ask Rob to answer that, but I may come back at the end.

Rob Salter-Church: That five-month period will start with us issuing a statutory consultation, which will run for eight weeks, or two months. That is something that we are required to do by law as part of the due process that we go through. Thereafter, we would have a period to analyse fully the responses to the consultation. As we said, that will be a transparent process; there will be lots of information that we will need to review. Thereafter, when we publish our decision and the final drafting of the cap, it is subject to a 56-day notice period, which again is a legal requirement that we have to go through before the changes can take effect. When you add those various stages together, it gets to five months. Can I guarantee you that there will not be any drift? What I can guarantee is that we will have this as our absolute No.1 priority for Ofgem to deliver.

One of the things that is important for us to consider in ensuring that this cap is in place as quickly as possible is making sure that the due process is gone through. It would be unfortunate if, in trying to do something more quickly, we created a legal risk around process, and that could be exploited by somebody challenging it and seeking to delay the introduction of the cap. So, we are confident that we have a good, robust process and we will get through it as quickly as we can.

Claire Perry Portrait The Minister for Energy and Clean Growth (Claire Perry)
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Q We are all very much appraised of the need—cross-party—to get this cap introduced by the end of the year. For us, winter does not start in February 2019; it starts in November 2018. What is the opportunity to apply the cap retrospectively, particularly if there is any form of legal challenge?

Dermot Nolan: Retrospectively, Minister, in the sense of—?

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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In other words, reimburse customers who would otherwise be overcharged if for some reason the energy companies delayed the introduction of the cap through any form of legal challenge.

Dermot Nolan: First, before coming back to that, I want to reiterate again that we want the cap in as quickly as you do. There will be no drift; we will make sure that we meet that timeline. I absolutely say that as clearly as I possibly can. So we will bring in the cap.

At that point, the cap would apply to all energy suppliers. If they were in breach of it, they would be in breach of their licence obligations and potentially they would be subject to fines, and ultimately to losing their licence. So, it is almost inconceivable to me that, if the cap was in place, a supplier was not in compliance with it. We would obviously use every single power we had at that point in time.

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
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Q On the last panel, Dermot, the price spike of two weeks ago come up. So, to follow on from Vicky’s questions, first, against your modelling, what event did we see two weeks ago? Was that a once-in-five-years event or a once-in-10-years event, in terms of the price spike it generated? Secondly, how do you model against the reality that there will occasionally be those price spikes, but at the same time that we will all urge you to take as much risk as you are willing to, in order to make the price cap a meaningful cap? It would be interesting to know how you strike that balance between the variability in the wholesale market, albeit that it happens very infrequently, versus our wish that you are as bold as possible with the cap.

Dermot Nolan: Absolutely. Two points on that. First, regarding, the events of last week, it is difficult to be precise. I would say they are more the type of once-in-five-years spikes. I will note that, if I may sound very gnomic, there are spikes and spikes. This was quite an acute spike in the gas price, and then there was a spike in the electricity price, but it was not that long-lived. Forward prices for four or five days did not change dramatically, so it was an abrupt spike but a short one.

The whole point of how to set the cap, and over what time period, is a fundamentally important one. The Bill suggests that the price cap must be updated every six months or less. There is an inherent trade-off. One of the things I particularly want to hear about from consumer bodies is over what period people want their prices to change. All the evidence we have in many ways suggests that people like smooth energy prices. They do not like spikes in their own bill. If the cap is set every six months, and a one-week spike is smoothed out over that six months, there is an appeal to that—you get relatively sure prices over a six-month period.

At the same time, you find that if there have been spikes of whatever form during a six-month period—if there has been, say, a fall in energy prices after two or three months—people say, “Why is this fall in wholesale prices not being reflected in my bill? Why do I have to wait six months for it? Why can I not have it after three months?” If we did a three-month price cap, that would ameliorate that issue, but we might be a little bit more vulnerable to spikes and changes in prices. How we balance that is not straightforward and is one of the things that we would particularly want to hear from consumer groups on during a consultation.

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None Portrait The Chair
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We will now hear evidence from Rich Hall, Chief Economist for Energy at Citizens Advice, Pete Moorey, Director of Advocacy and Public Affairs at Which? and Peter Smith, Director of Policy and Research at National Energy Action. We have until 11.25 am.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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Q Good morning. Thank you very much for coming. I have lots of questions for you. Thank you very much also for your support—sometimes equivocal and sometimes unequivocal—for the Bill.

One question that I think is exercising us all is support for vulnerable customers, who we strongly believe the Bill will help. We are interested in your views as to what else, as well as the Bill, would be necessary to deliver what we all want: maximum protection for the most vulnerable.

Rich Hall: I will kick off. I think we would strongly support the view that we would like to see protections in place for vulnerable consumers as a priority—for them to be the first to be protected and the last to lose protection if there were to be a circumstance in which it would be lost. We know from the CMA’s investigation and from other studies that consumers with vulnerability characteristics are less likely to switch than the norm: disabled people, the elderly, those on low incomes, renters, people in rural areas and those who left education early. Some of the most vulnerable consumers in society are likely to be on the worst rates.

The Bill should provide significant protection to those consumers for the lifespan of the legislation, but that lifespan is clearly finite in its current form. There would be annual reviews from 2020 to 2022, which we would expect to pay particular regard to the impact of the price cap on vulnerable customers and to the extent to which they are engaged in the market and benefiting from it or need further protection.

However, in its current form the Bill would fall away no later than 2023, which creates an issue around how you would ensure that those consumers continued to be protected beyond that date. Clearly, if it were possible to encourage them to engage more in the market and to switch, that would be our first line of protection in which they could help to protect themselves. However, we have to look back at the historic records here and note that over 20 years or so there has been significant disengagement in the marketplace. It might be difficult to tease vulnerable customers into the market. From our perspective, we would be looking to see price protection for vulnerable consumers extended beyond the lifespan of the legislation.

We note and welcome the comments from the Minister and the Government in their response to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny, that enduring protections might be needed, and also Dermot Nolan’s comments, from Ofgem, to a similar effect. I think the challenge is: if it is not going to be in the form of protection through this cap, what is it? We currently think that there might be a need for an enduring cap, and the Bill in its current form does not necessarily provide for that protection after 2023.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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Q Thank you. Mr Moorey, you have not been super-supportive. Would you agree on the need for more protection for vulnerable customers?

Pete Moorey: I support everything that Rich said on the potential need for ongoing support for vulnerable consumers beyond the end of the cap as set out in the Bill. It is important, though, that we do not assume that vulnerable consumers across the board do not engage in the energy market. We know that the most vulnerable are often the savviest consumers. They have to be: they are on tight budgets and, therefore, they can be the most adept at engaging with markets. I know Peter’s organisation, National Energy Action, has done an awful lot of work with very vulnerable people to get them engaged and on to some of the best deals in the market.

Our—and, I hope, your—vision is ultimately of a market that is competitive and delivering good outcomes for consumers. That should include vulnerable consumers and the ability for those consumers to be as actively engaged in the energy market, as they are in many other markets—notwithstanding the fact that, as Rich said, there will potentially be some people who will need ongoing additional support. We would support that.

Peter Smith: There are two clear priorities that sit outside the Bill. The first would be to extend the warm home discount scheme to smaller suppliers; currently, smaller suppliers, with fewer than 250,000 customers, are not required to provide the warm home discount scheme. That means a real challenge on the doorstep in terms of encouraging households, particularly vulnerable households, to switch to the smaller suppliers. Those smaller suppliers are often able, at least on a price comparison website, to provide the cheapest deal but households do not know that they might be missing out on the warm home discount scheme.

The second element is to get on and use the data-sharing powers on which there was a recent consultation, which would enable Government to better share information about households eligible for the warm home discount scheme and could, therefore, benefit from the safeguard tariff.

Those two actions can take place regardless of this Bill. As we warned in the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny, if we do not do those things, the cost might be that 500,000 low income and vulnerable households—many working-age—will miss out on approximately £260-worth of support this winter and next. It is an urgent priority.

Two things that can be done inside the Bill, reflecting on the previous evidence and remarks from the rest of the panel, would be to clarify in clause 2 that Ofgem should have due regard to households on the safeguard tariff. We are particularly worried that there is an assumption being baked in at this stage that the SVT-wide cap will protect exactly the same households as are protected by the safeguard tariff. That is not the case. We are also making an assumption that the relative values of those two different caps are going to be broadly the same. Again, that is not the case. We would like Ofgem to consider those two issues specifically. It is right that that is reflected in clause 2, and we support the hon. Member for Southampton, Test’s amendments that seek to achieve that outcome.

The final thing from my perspective is in relation to clause 8, where the conditions by which we remove this SVT-wide price protection need to be met. The opportunities that Dermot Nolan talked about to reflect on vulnerability within that context, particularly engagement for vulnerable consumers, are the clear priority and should be listed in the Bill to make sure that that assessment on competition is also reflecting on engagement of consumers, particularly the most vulnerable households. There would be a set of things that could be done to make that clear.

Michelle Donelan Portrait Michelle Donelan
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I just want to follow up and build on the topic of consumers. How do you each feel this Bill will impact on the interest groups you represent? This is particularly pertinent to Which?

Pete Moorey: We represent all consumers, and the Bill may have a number of different impacts for all consumers. Clearly, for the large number of people on standard variable tariffs, it is going to mean a cut in their energy bills, which will be very welcome for them.

However, as you are probably aware, we have some concerns about the risks presented by a price cap and the impact that could have for consumers as a whole, which may well be mitigated by the measures in the Bill regarding Ofgem, ensuring that it maintains attempts to promote competition.

Nevertheless, the things that we are concerned about with the introduction of a price cap are that we do not see any softening of competition and that we do not see prices for consumers overall going up. It is likely that for some consumers we will see some price rises, as some tariffs get removed. We do not want to see a reduction in the standard of customer service, which is often deemed as being poor among the larger suppliers; the annual satisfaction survey that we do at Which? every year shows that the larger suppliers do very poorly on a whole range of metrics.

Also, we do not want to see less innovation in the market. So we do not want to see the introduction of a cap having an impact on the smart meter roll-out, or indeed on the transformation that Dermot Nolan spoke about, which we really support, around the introduction of new suppliers in the market, who may well be able to bring a transformation to energy, which is what we want to see.

I absolutely understand why the price cap is being introduced. I think the energy industry had opportunities, time and again, to stop this from happening, and they failed to react to that and to the problems that their customers were facing in the market. However, as we now introduce the cap, we have to be very mindful of those risks: the last thing we want is a price cap to come in, be removed at the end, and for us then to be left with exactly the same kind of broken market that we have now.

Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill (Second sitting) Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill (Second sitting)

Claire Perry Excerpts
Committee Debate: 2nd sitting: House of Commons
Tuesday 13th March 2018

(6 years, 3 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Act 2018 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 13 March 2018 - (13 Mar 2018)
Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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Yes, I am happy to accept your guidance, Ms McDonagh. I am being enticed down the road I have taken by hon. Friends and colleagues, and of course as far as I am able I will not give way to temptation.

The central point, on which I want to end, is that we do not need a lot of sanctions to get Ofgem to do what it is supposed to do under legislation; but if something is in legislation it is pretty sure that it will get done, because that is how it works. An out date in the Bill would be a little further help in making sure that Ofgem would do what it has said it will do to put the measure into practice. Hon. Members will have a view on how important or necessary that approach is, but I do not think it can be gainsaid that putting the date into the Bill would provide a little further assurance.

That is the basis for the amendment. I hope that Members will support it, if they decide they want that further assurance, but I am sure that the Minister will come up with persuasive reasons why another view could be taken. We will listen with interest.

Claire Perry Portrait The Minister for Energy and Clean Growth (Claire Perry)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank all members of the Committee. We have a highly qualified Committee here to deliver, over the next few days, what we all want: a legally watertight price cap Bill that enables some of the more egregious pricing structures in the energy market to be addressed.

The amendment moved by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test is intended, as he said, to put a hard-stop deadline on the implementation of the Bill. I understand his reasons exactly. We have discussed the Bill and are broadly in agreement about what we are trying to achieve. I agree that it is imperative for the measure to be in place before the end of the year. People say “before next winter”, and that somehow rolls into 2019. I want it on the statute book and implemented by the end of the year—ideally well before 31 December—because we owe it to the customers whom we are trying to protect. We have all been clear about that, and it is the message delivered in multiple debates and in multiple communications with Ofgem and suppliers. I shall speak in a moment about the possible risks of accepting the amendment.

Something else that is refreshing is that all parties have committed to getting the Bill through. I do not suggest that there will not be strenuous attempts to amend it, but I intend that it should be sent up to the other place in good order, so that it can go through the Lords effectively and we can get what we want, which is for the Bill to be in place and in good shape by the summer recess.

It was helpful to have the witness sitting this morning. We heard Ofgem say that, once we have given the go-ahead on Royal Assent, it will have to take a whole series of statutory measures, including developing the cap. Of course, some of that work has already started, quite rightly. We do not need to do this sequentially; we can do it in parallel. We are then going through a fairly transparent consultation process to make sure that any possible objections or concerns about the tests we have set out in the Bill on competition, switching and maintaining investment are met. There is a statutory duty to have a consultation period. We heard this morning that that will take five months, albeit with some things starting already and processes going on in parallel.

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Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I was not originally going to talk, but 25 minutes into the Bill Committee my frustrations kicked in. It felt like 25 minutes of almost agreeing with the amendment. We have got an amendment with a date and everybody agrees that it is a reasonable deadline and timeframe. We are seeming to agree that Ofgem has committed to doing this in five months. I thought that Dermot was absolutely resolute in the evidence session in saying “We will do it in five months”, but his colleague had slightly more caveats and was slightly more restrained.

I cannot see any problem in getting a deadline that puts a marker down: humans work better to a deadline. It sends a message to our constituents and the people out there that we have this clear deadline. I listened to the comments from the Minister and I understand that she is saying that she wants to minimise any risks going forward in getting the Bill implemented. What if there is a legal challenge and then the deadline becomes a possible issue? But given that we have already agreed that we think this is a robust Bill that has been well written and well crafted, I think we have got to have confidence that it is robust. Having a date on the face of the Bill will make it that bit more robust and watertight.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s support, and I am delighted that we have cross-party support. I think we are all agreed that this is a robust Bill. I thank the hon. Gentleman for sharing his tribute to the parliamentary team, who have done a good job drafting it.

Stephen Kerr Portrait Stephen Kerr
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would like to pick up on the comments made by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun about the robust performance that we saw from Ofgem this morning. Frankly, that could be, in part, because when Ofgem appeared before the Select Committee scrutinising the legislation, it was less than robust—the witness was less than robust. I think he has got the message: he cannot be neutral on this; he has to be robust. We saw that today and that gives me great confidence that we will see this Bill enacted in the way we envisage.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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I defer to my hon. Friend’s experience. He sat through this process, doing an excellent job on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and has seen the evolution of this robustness.

In response to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, I think the Bill is absolutely robust. We are agreed: we have a tight, well-drafted Bill that does not allow for random amendments. The challenge is that the actual job of setting the price cap has, quite rightly, been given to the independent regulator. We have to go through a process of transparency and confidence building, if you like, with participants in the market, so that the number is set at the level we want to deliver maximum benefits to consumers without the dis-benefits of driving investment out of the industry, or indeed providing a less competitive environment. That is why I have been persuaded that Ofgem gets the deadline, believes it has the right to do it, but has asked for a period in which, quite rightly, it can go through a very transparent process. The more transparency the better, because that will head off any possible legal challenge. I wish we did not have to be in the world of worrying about future legal challenges, but I think we are all convinced that we need to make the whole process as robust as possible.

In responding to the hon. Gentleman from north of the border, Kilmarnock and Loudoun, I hope I have persuaded the hon. Gentleman from a long way south of there to withdraw his amendment.

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Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. I cannot possibly comment on that. I got this on the internet, by the way. The headline was “Millions of Brits in line for £100 as Theresa May delivers on energy price cap promise”. Underneath, it said:

“The price cap on 11 million gas and electricity bills is to come in by end of the year as The Sun’s Power to the People campaign pays off”.

“It was The Sun wot done it”—not us, by the way.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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It is worth saying that that fine newspaper The Sun has campaigned for an end to various aspects of rip-off energy tariffs, and it is great that it was celebrating the fact that we had finally launched this Bill and got the provisions in. In this case we should all say, “Power to the people!”

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Since I do not read The Sun, I am not entirely up to date with all its campaigns, but obviously the Minister does and is. We will leave it there.

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Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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I rise to speak to new clause 1, which is tabled in my name. It replicates or mirrors amendments 8, 9 and 10 in trying to provide explicit support for vulnerable and disabled consumers.

In the Minister’s opening remarks this morning—in private and in the evidence session—she expressed her concern to ensure that vulnerable customers are protected in future. Clearly, part of the Bill’s aim is to protect the vulnerable and those who have been getting ripped off. When I asked one of the panels about improving the Bill, and I specifically mentioned vulnerable and disabled people, the representative from Citizens Advice said that the protections are implicit in the Bill, but not explicit. Ofgem agreed that the protection of vulnerable people needs to be considered, although it believes that some measures are already in place. New clause 1 would explicitly ensure that vulnerable and disabled consumers have that protection and consideration in terms of effective market competition for the grouping they sit within.

New clause 1 effectively mirrors a clause proposed by Scope—a charity whose strapline claims that it exists

“to make this country a place where disabled people have the same opportunities as everyone else.”

Given that Scope are expert advocates and campaigners, I was happy to move this new clause.

As Scope rightly observes, people with disabilities are often high consumers of energy due to their impairment or condition. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test highlighted that a quarter of the households in which a disabled person resides—4.1 million households—spend more than £1,500 per year on energy, and nearly 800,000 households spend over £2,500 a year. That is a huge, significant sum and clearly has a huge impact on their expenditure. In terms of market regulation, it therefore makes absolute sense to make specific provision for vulnerable and disabled consumers.

We heard that some disabled people are protected under current schemes, but not all disabled people are automatically eligible for the warm home discount, and nor do they automatically get registered on the priority services register. That, again, reinforces why the Bill needs to make explicit provision for vulnerable and disabled people when setting, implementing and reviewing the cap, particularly in terms of whether conditions for effective competition are in place and whether the cap should be lifted.

We have already heard that, as predicted, additional protections will need to remain in place post cap. I want to conclude with an example from Scope. This is from someone called Lynley:

“Before I became disabled, I never gave heating a second thought. But now, as I’m home every day, things are very different. I find it hard to stay warm as I can’t move around to generate any heat. I need the heating on pretty much constantly. I also use an electric heat pad to help manage my pain and an electric powerchair to go outside. This equipment requires charging frequently. My energy bills are much higher than before, and—coupled with the loss of my income as a teacher—have made getting by very difficult.”

There is cross-party support for the Bill as a whole, and we all agree that it is about doing the right thing to protect consumers from getting ripped off in what has been a market failure to date. But let us do this absolutely properly and make sure that the rights of the vulnerable and the disabled are explicitly protected in the Bill as well.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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I would like to speak to amendments 4, 8, 9 and 10 and new clause 1. I will start with the first part of amendment 4, which requires a hard estimate on the face of the Bill as to what the saving might be. I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for Southampton, Test quoting our Prime Minister so extensively. I could quote some of the things she has said about the Labour party, but I would not like to challenge the spirit of cross-party consensus. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman really does not want to tempt me on that.

We can all sit and make estimates of what the savings ought to be, but all of that will depend on the level at which Ofgem chooses to set the cap.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the Minister think that it is regrettable that, in the newspaper with the biggest circulation in the nation, a legitimate expectation may now be created that the saving will be at £100 or greater?

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Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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I am sure the hon. Gentleman listened to the Prime Minister talking about the Labour party as being divided, divisive, tolerating anti-Semitism and supporting voices of hate. He probably does not want to trade quotes the Prime Minister has given.

However, let me move back to what we discussed in relation to the previous amendment. We talked extensively about how Ofgem needed to set the level of the cap to avoid crowding out investment, to encourage switching and, importantly, to set the cap at a level that does not facilitate strong legal challenges. That is why it is so important that we let Ofgem—which I think we all now believe does have the capability, and does share our commitment, to get this done by year end—get on and set the cap.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford made the point about setting an arbitrary figure. The problem with that is that this is not an average figure. We all know that we tend to work in averages, so just having that as the target would lead to all sorts of gaming.

The three things we all want are for the cap to come in, for it to be set at the right level and for it to be proportionate—once again, I wish we were not worrying about legal challenges, but we have to make sure. This is absolutely vital.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test and I have discussed at length the difference between a cap and a freeze. We do want this cap to move over time. We know that prices go up as well as down. We know that the wholesale cost changes. We want to have the most efficient energy system we can, but the cost may increase. Having this number in the Bill would, in effect, bind Ofgem into setting a number that had no relation to the underlying costs.

I absolutely support the hon. Gentleman’s intentions. He and I both want to see these sorts of savings. In fact, the average spread between the cheapest tariffs in the market and the average of the standard variable tariffs is more like £300, so we would both confidently expect the savings to be greater than this. I will turn to the prepayment meter cap—the safeguarding cap—in a second in relation to the specific regard for vulnerable customers, but it is notable that the average saving after the April increase will be north of £100. Customers who are on that tariff are more than £100 better off than they would have been if that tariff had not come into place, so there is evidence that more than that amount could be achieved.

I will turn now to the second part of amendment 4, plus amendments 8 to 10 and new clause 1, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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If I heard correctly, the Minister was saying that people on the safeguarding tariff would be better off. However, in evidence this morning we heard that people will be eligible for it only if they have successfully applied for the warm home discount. Is that right? There is a waiting list and money runs out before time, so would she give consideration to the notion that it should be people who are eligible for the warm home discount and not just the people who have actually managed to get it?

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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That is a very important point, and the hon. Lady is extremely knowledgeable in this area. She brings me to the second part, when I will hopefully address her point.

The safeguarding tariff came into force in April 2017. That perhaps gives the lie to the idea that the previous Government did nothing; this was all part of the pressure that we put in place. The tariff initially affects people who are on prepayment meters, who are often exactly as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun described—perhaps living in fuel poverty. That tariff is put in place by the CMA—it is nothing to do with Ofgem—and it will run until 31 December 2020. We have seen Ofgem extend that to this additional group—those who have claimed warm home discount—as the hon. Lady quite rightly said. She raises an interesting point, and we should take a look at it to ensure the maximum number of people are capable of achieving that safeguarding discount.

I asked the team to look at the impact on the bills of customers on these tariffs. Before the safeguarding tariff came in, the PPM average standard variable tariff was about 5% more expensive than the average standard variable tariff. Now, those who are on the PPM and vulnerable tariff pay on average 8% less than those on standard variable tariffs. That is absolutely working, independently of the Bill, to deliver the savings that we want to see for vulnerable and disabled customers. Those caps will continue to be in place, and it is very important that both are in place and that the Bill does nothing to remove eligibility for them.

I want to talk about some of the other duties on Ofgem, which are already covered in clauses 1(6), 7 and 8. They require Ofgem to protect all existing and future domestic customers, including vulnerable and disabled customers, and to consider whether effective competition is in place for the domestic energy supply as a whole. When effective competition is considered, it has to apply for all customer groups, including vulnerable and disabled customers.

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Before the Minister gets too far from the issue of vulnerable customers and the cap, I thought National Energy Action’s evidence this morning was interesting. It is probably premature to react to that evidence by enacting the Opposition’s amendments. Could the Minister confirm that she will go back and look at whether the evidence provided this morning warrants some action, perhaps before the Bill comes back on Report?

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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Again, it was a very effective evidence session this morning. I was just going to come on to some of the other support we are looking to provide, in particular through the Energy Company Obligation, where we may be looking to help a broader group of people than is currently eligible.

I want to touch on some of the other duties that Ofgem already has in relation to protection of this customer group. The original gas and electricity Acts place a duty on Ofgem to protect the interests of existing and future customers. In carrying out this duty, Ofgem should have regard to the interests of individuals who are disabled or chronically sick, individuals of pensionable age, individuals with low income and individuals residing in rural areas. So I would argue that Ofgem already has these duties in place as part of its conditions. Indeed, the Bill, in which we make it explicit that we need Ofgem to consider all customers and all competition in setting the cap, makes the amendment surplus to requirements.

Stephen Kerr Portrait Stephen Kerr
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I just have a brief question. I know the Minister has acknowledged the Select Committee’s work on pre-legislative scrutiny. One of the recommendations in its report was about amending the Digital Economy Act 2017 to allow data to be shared with energy companies. That is a huge impediment right now to getting help to the most vulnerable—particularly those who are on SVTs.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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Yes. Again, I want to thank my hon. Friend and the Select Committee for bringing forward a series of recommendations, which we have accepted. He refers to a statutory instrument that is being started in the Cabinet Office, which I am assured will receive assent—or whatever the right word is—during the passage of this Bill, subject, of course, to cross-party support. That opens up the opportunity for much better data sharing to support vulnerable and disabled consumers.

It is extremely important that we continue to look at this group. We heard today that some of those we might consider most vulnerable are also the most assiduous switchers, because they simply do not have a penny to spare. I guess the issue I have, which is why we are here, is that we do not want people to have to invest the time in shopping around to feel that they are always getting the best deal.

Households that are receiving the warm home discount, in addition to qualifying for the safeguarding tariff, get £140 a year. Of course, we protect our pensioners, with up to £300 a year for winter fuel payments. Sadly, the cold weather payment was also triggered in the last couple of weeks, and that was another £25 during the cold snap. There is also the priority services register, which is a free service provided by suppliers for people of pensionable age who are disabled or chronically sick, have a long-term medical condition or are in a vulnerable situation. Those people go to the front of the queue should an emergency—a supply interruption—interrupt their heating or cooking facilities.

Finally, I want to mention the ECO consultation, which we will bring forward shortly. It is my intention, as far as possible, to pivot the whole of ECO to focussing on the challenge of fuel poverty and trying to make sure that those in the greatest poverty receive the greatest benefit, but also to use the programme to support more innovation and more targeting. I live in an off-grid area, and I am fed up of getting ECO leaflets through my door. It does not feel like the best targeted scheme to me, and I would like it to be targeted at those who are perhaps time-poor and need the help the most.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In the NEA’s evidence this morning, it said that one of the additional things needed for a package for the most vulnerable customers was energy efficiency measures. I know the Government are consulting on energy efficiency programmes, and particularly on amending the energy efficiency standards for rented homes. May I urge the Minister to make sure that that is brought forward quickly as well, because it will take a while to implement these measures in people’s homes? This is not just about lowering the bills; it is about making sure that people are not using huge amounts of electricity and gas in the first place.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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The hon. Lady is quite right: the great thing about energy efficiency in the home is that it cuts both carbon emissions and bills, so it is a win-win situation, and that is why we have set an ambitious target. She is right that we have started with homes in the rented sector and the social rented sector, and our intention is to make sure that progress is delivered as soon as possible.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister for not exactly spilling the beans but giving us a little preview of what the Government will come up with in response to the consultation on ECO. If there is to be much more concentration on those in fuel poverty, regardless of one’s view on whether the total sum on ECO is sufficient to do what we want on energy efficiency, that is a positive step.

Will the Minister also say a word or two about the regulations that I think are still not yet with us on the responsibilities of landlords to raise the energy efficiency of their properties? I am sure the Minister will know that overwhelmingly those who are vulnerable and in fuel poverty are concentrated in that private rented sector—

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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I am not sure I agree.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Substantially, I think we can agree. Does the Minister have any idea whether the regulations will turn up shortly? Secondly, if they do turn up, will they have within them the requisite amount of money that landlords should spend on bringing their properties up to band E, so that we can have reasonable assurance that will help vulnerable and fuel-poor customers?

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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At the risk of being ruled out of order, I will write to the hon. Gentleman. He is quite right that we want to make sure that people are not living in private rented accommodation with poor quality safety or energy efficiency. We intend to introduce those regulations—indeed, they are already on the statute book. We intend to make sure of the maximum amount of cash that is required.

The other question on this is that the vast majority of landlords are small: they are people owning one or two properties that they rent out. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the whole scheme was based on the green deal. It was a Bill Committee that I was proud to sit on; we thought that was going to provide a financing mechanism, but it has not. That is why the work of the Green Finance Taskforce, which we will be bringing forward to assist in financing mechanisms, will be helpful. I will write to him with those details.

Turning to amendments 4, 8, 9 and 10 and new clause 1, I hope I have persuaded the Committee, first, that to put an arbitrary number for savings in the Bill would not be appropriate. It would not be an average number and is not necessary, because we can see from the safeguarding tariff that bills have fallen. Also, we would all expect that number to be greater. Secondly, I think we are all seized of the need to protect and improve services for vulnerable customers. That is part of Ofgem’s duty and is part of the tariff cap conditions and the conditions for competition. There is a lot of support already. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wells that more needs to be done. That is why we would like to bring in ECO, to make sure that that customer group is paying the least possible for their energy and getting the best possible service.

On that basis I invite the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, to withdraw his amendments.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As I have mentioned, our amendments are requirements on Ofgem to take these matters into account. It may be that, as a result of what we have discussed in Committee—after all, it will be on the record—that Ofgem might consider itself to be rather better instructed.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I want to emphasise that this is exactly why this process is so incredibly helpful. The signalling that collectively we can give about the need to consider the conditions that might be there—albeit perhaps buried in a statute book somewhere—is vital. That is why it is a pleasure to have these conversations.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think the Minister for giving that additional weight to the points we made this afternoon, which will amplify our intentions for those reading our deliberations. It is clear that the intention behind the amendment—what Ofgem should have regard to in setting the tariff cap—is shared across the Committee.

I also take the point in practice that the first part of amendment 4 would give Ofgem additional work and could be a little problematic as far as getting the amount right before the price cap comes in is concerned. It might have been prudent for the Prime Minister to put those caveats in what she said a little while ago about how the Bill was to proceed, but on the basis of our discussion this afternoon, I do not wish to proceed further and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Exemptions from the cap

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Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I hope the hon. Lady will forgive me for saying this, but she makes a rather good case for my amendment. Let us consider circumstances, such as those she mentions, in which insufficient renewable energy is generated on a particular day to “go round”. What we mean by “go round” is that renewable energy, in most instances, is variable. If we look at our little National Grid—

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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The app!

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The app, to see what is being generated on any particular day, we will see that it varies from 4% or 5% to 20% or more, depending on the circumstances, so it certainly is true that there will be a variable amount of renewable energy to go round.

However, that is not the point as far as renewable energy suppliers who contract to supply wholly from renewable sources are concerned because they will provide themselves with power purchase agreements or will own their own generating capacity and guarantee that, come what may, what the consumer gets as a result of their tariff is renewable. In a sense, they will have pre-empted the “not enough to go round” point by guaranteeing with their arrangements that there is. I suggest, precisely for the reasons the hon. Lady set out, that that can be problematic for those companies. Nevertheless, that is what they guarantee as part of their tariff.

As far as brown energy companies that want to do a bit of greenwashing are concerned, the hon. Lady is absolutely right that if there is not enough green energy to go round they remove the portion of renewable energy from their supply and the tariff becomes browner, even though they say it is partially green. That is precisely what the amendment seeks to avoid, by making the starting point that the exemption applies to tariffs that are clearly wholly renewable and about which it can be said without a doubt that that is what they are—no messing about. That is why they should be exempted.

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Caroline Flint Portrait Caroline Flint
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your careful stewardship, Ms McDonagh.

I find myself in an interesting position. I completely understand what my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test is trying to do with his amendment. The sense I get from the interventions so far is of common agreement, and that is also the response of the Select Committee. I am glad to see on page 24 of the Select Committee’s report that I have a footnote—I have never been a footnote before, and I am so proud. Good Energy and I, and others, made a submission to the Select Committee about why we have to be very careful about gaming in moving forward in relation to the price cap.

My hon. Friend has clearly outlined the concerns that we have—and share with others across the House and those outside who have made representations—about the danger of people trying to use green as a way to avoid providing fair prices. Let us be clear: we are talking about the sticky customer base—those people who, year in year out, find that their energy bills go up. The CMA review and others have found how people have been overcharged for a number of years now, and there has been much discussion in this place about that. I totally understand my hon. Friend’s intent in trying to introduce “wholly” as another way to separate those who might game the system from those who are in all good faith seeking to invest in and buy 100% renewable energy.

My only problem is that I feel that we want to make this legislation as simple and straightforward as possible, given that there is also agreement that this is a temporary measure for a period, which will hopefully allow people to get a fairer Bill for their energy and not be overcharged, and in which we and the Government can look at what further reform might follow from this in the future. My hon. Friend and I have spent many hours discussing that and we think there is much that could be done—but that is not for today’s debate, Ms McDonagh.

As someone who very much supports renewable energy, not only for our electricity and power supply but for our heat supply as well, I am not sure of the evidence. I may be convinced during the passage of this Bill that a premium price for green energy stacks up. I might be wrong, but I am not sure it does stack up. I apologise to colleagues on the Committee that I was not able to be here this morning, but I have read the written submissions—in particular, those from Bulb and OVO, who outline their concerns about exempting green tariffs from the legislation. A lot has been done to contribute to today’s situation, where the sort of energy that we want, for climate change and in terms of being innovative in the sector, has seen a huge reduction in overall costs and is therefore able to compete very effectively in the market.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

In my mind, the right hon. Lady is not a footnote—she is a major chapter heading. I am enjoying listening to her speech, because it was largely as a result of the great cross-party consensus that we brought in the Act—and some pretty tough decisions, which she supported in her shadow Secretary of State role. That is why we are able to buy renewable energy at prices that do not require a substantial subsidy. That is why we all look forward to a situation where customers should not be charged a premium for that renewable energy source.

Caroline Flint Portrait Caroline Flint
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for that intervention—I aspire to be a book. [Interruption.] A library, no less. Goodness. People will not be able to work out what the hell we are talking about in this Committee!

A lot has been done to drive investment in the renewable sector, and some of that is ongoing. My hon. Friend is quite right that the renewable obligation is coming to, if not its end, then close to it. We also have contracts for difference. We also have the renewable heat incentive for heat. A business in my constituency that produces green gas is a beneficiary of that. In lots of different ways, there continues to be support for renewable energy of one form or another. No doubt, should it get the green light, the tidal lagoon will also be receiving a contract for difference that will guarantee a price for what it produces over a number of years.

I would question my hon. Friend, and also the Minister—she has tried to tighten up the wording and, in this clause, has enabled Ofgem to step in, assess, consult and what-have-you—because I am still not convinced that there is any need for exemptions in the way they suggest. The more complicated things become, the more clarification that is required and the more points at which Ofgem is tied up finding a formula for what the price should be—we will have more discussions down the road about how often that should happen and the methodology for that—the more tasks we are giving it, which could lead to more confusion. The last thing I want, after all this, is a legal challenge that could stop the price cap being in place in time for the people we care about as they start paying their winter bills in 2018 and early 2019.

I hope we can think more about those issues. We may not resolve them today, but we should give them some more thought—I certainly will. I might be wrong about this, and I am happy to receive submissions and thoughts from others outside this place. For reasons of simplicity, and for the development of the renewable energy market and how it has been helped to get to a place where it provides cheaper energy today than our fossil fuels, it is still worth considering whether any kind of exemption is warranted in the Bill.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh. I will briefly follow the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test and my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley with one simple point.

I should say, for context, that we have obviously broken out into violent agreement—that is always good—not just on the need for the legislation, but on what it is for. It is not the end state that we seek, but a key part of getting us on the journey there. We all want the market and the providers to use this time, whether the full five years or not, to change practices so that, at the other end, the consumer gets what they need. There is a lot of enthusiasm for that.

With that in mind, as we look at each and every line in the Bill, we should think about how the individual words fall and the unintended consequences that might arise from a superfluous word or a missing word, because we know—and we would expect nothing less—that there will be conversations in the big companies about the different ways to approach the next five years. The choice will be whether to genuinely change or to game the system. We have to be mindful of that and look to close down every possible opportunity to game the system, so as to be clear that this is legislation to drive proper change. It is a short-term cap, but will lead to a long-term benefit.

The amendment does that. It takes up the cudgels from what the Select Committee said. It is proportionate, simple and easy to understand. I understand that delivering what sits behind it may be complicated, but it sends a clear signal about what this Parliament values and I support it.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

One little word has provoked a substantial and excellent debate. There is a genuine sense in the Committee that we all want to achieve the same thing: companies not being able to game the system, and tariffs that deliver for consumers and do what they say on the tin, so that if they say they are renewable, they are actually renewable, not just a package of greenwash. That is why I genuinely feel that the crowdsourced approach to legislation can be very good. I pay tribute to the Select Committee process, once again ably represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, who helped us to focus on the issue. I was pleased to hear several hon. Members comment that we have tightened up the wording accordingly.

We are wrestling with questions around gaming and what a green tariff looks like, and this question of “wholly” or “in part”. All those will be addressed by two processes, which I will talk briefly about. First, as the right hon. Member for Don Valley said, we have quite properly tasked Ofgem with looking at the whole issue. I think I am right in saying that it has never been asked to review the whole suite of green tariffs in the market and opine on whether they are any such thing.

A co-benefit of the whole process will be understanding what is out there, whether it is wholly, partially or not at all green, and what the price premium for some of those products is. I was a very early Good Energy customer, over 10 years ago, and—

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I am afraid that, unlike the hon. Lady, I came off it, because it was so expensive—I apologise if she thought we were going to have a nice bonding moment over our green tariff. By the way, having heard the evidence, particularly from some of the more nimble companies coming in, I have every intention of looking very closely at changing my tariff again. However, the point is that the world has moved on. As the right hon. Member for Don Valley pointed out, prices have dropped and there is a question as to why we should be paying a premium tariff.

I would like the amendment to be withdrawn today—albeit on the basis that we do not yet have a brilliant fact base—but the offer I would make to every member of the Committee is for my team to put together a list of all the green tariffs in the market already and perhaps to ask for some evidence for to what the price premium is, so that when we look at this issue again on Report we will perhaps all feel a little bit better informed about this part of the market structure.

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is useful that the Minister will go away and make an analysis of the green products that are already on the market. I wonder whether she might also, with the evidence from Octopus and Bulb ringing in her ears, go away and ask the Department to go for just one more lap on whether or not this exemption is necessary all together, or whether it might do more harm than good when it comes to promoting green energy and the way that consumers regard green tariffs.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I am sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s point; he is extremely knowledgeable in this area. However, as we have been through, particularly in the draft scrutiny process, we genuinely do not want tariffs that customers actively choose to be on, and which support the welcome development of creating demand for the renewable market, to be captured, as it were. The hon. Member for Nottingham North made the point about unintended consequences, and that is why word-by-word scrutiny is so important. The BEIS Committee supported that view, and I think the legislation has been substantially improved by that process. I am therefore less inclined for the proposal to be withdrawn completely, but I want to talk a little more about the point that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test made. I have talked about publication transparency. To me, transparency—having Ofgem look at these tariffs, probably for the first time—is an important part of establishing that this is a credible part of the market.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I should say that although I have been a Good Energy customer for some time, we now have Bristol Energy—there is that conflict between being green and giving support locally; I think it has now introduced a green tariff. Another west country electricity company, Ecotricity—which has made a submission to this Committee very late in the day—is concerned that if the cap is introduced across the board before the green exemptions are looked at, its customers might find their bills having to go down when the cap comes in, only for Ecotricity to have to turn round and say, “Actually, we’ve got this exemption now. We want to put your bills up.” At the risk of delaying the introduction of the cap, I urge the Minister to make sure that the green exemption issue is sorted out at the same time that the cap comes in.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

In standing up for her local enterprise, the hon. Lady pre-empts the second point I was about to make, which is that we will use transparency, but we will also use the Ofgem consultation process to do exactly that. Ofgem has to consult—it has to review the existence of these tariffs and understand what they mean—and it will have to do that as part of creating the cap, because it is a condition of introducing the cap that those exemptions are also carefully defined.

There is an interesting question. There is the transparency issue, there is the consultation issue, but the third thing is this: is it zero, 100 or somewhere in between? It will be explicit, I think, in conducting that analysis that Ofgem has chosen a level of what it thinks this level will be. I totally understand the point that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test made about us all wanting a world in which renewable energy is not intermittent. Indeed, I opened Clayhill solar farm, the country’s first subsidy-free solar farm, partly because it has managed to achieve on-site storage, providing both a better economic return and overcoming the problem of intermittency. That is all absolutely correct.

However, we are not there yet, and I was very struck by what my hon. Friends the Members for Wells and for Chelmsford and the right hon. Member for Don Valley said. They said that we want to be in a world where we are not stifling that evolution, but instead creating a demand for those tariffs in the future. It may be that, in setting out its view on what constitutes the tariff, Ofgem will say that it is 75%, or 95%, or 50%, and we will all have a chance to respond at that point. I absolutely accept the spirit in which the hon. Member for Southampton, Test tabled the amendment, but I fear, as we talked about, that it would have the unintended consequences of driving some tariffs out of the market and creating other perverse incentives.

I would like to put on record that the issue of gaming exercises us all. I have said this to the energy companies and I will say it face to face: if they think they should be spending their energies working out ways to game the tariff, as opposed to delivering better consumer value and service, we will put them on notice that that is exactly what none of us wants to see. That is a strong message that we have all delivered.

I am happy to provide more information to inform the debate. I have listened carefully to the excellent contributions, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman sees that this one tiny word creates a series of unintended consequences that perhaps weaken the cap and that he is therefore content to withdraw the amendment.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I take the Minister’s offer to give further and better particulars about green tariffs, including what they consist of, what the relationship between part-green tariffs and wholly green tariffs is, and what the cost is, as essentially a suggestion that the matter should at least partly be placed on the Table and might be revisited on Report, depending on what we see. It is an excellent suggestion and I very much welcome it.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

To be clear, I am not inviting further amendments to the Bill—far from it. My hope is that during the passage of the Bill, with the joint messages we are sending out with cross-party support, the requirements for more information and transparency that will accompany the Bill’s passage—because they have to inform the tariff calculation—can only be helpful in this consumer market, even if they are not on the face of the Bill.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I understand that the Minister is not inviting further amendments—it is her job not to—but I can envisage a circumstance in which we have gathered all the information together and some things scream out from it that we might consider on Report. In which case, we should properly do that. On the basis of that offer, and presuming that the information would effectively be in the form of a sort of late evidence submission to the Committee and would go to all its members—

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

My intention is that we will write to all Committee members with the information.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is great. It is a very welcome suggestion and wholly constructive regarding what we are trying to achieve with the amendment. On that basis, I wholly agree that it should be withdrawn. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Notice of proposed modifications

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I realise that, in moving swiftly through clause 2, I did not give anyone the opportunity to comment, so I feel that I should say briefly what this clause does and why it should stand part of the Bill.

The clause sets out the first part of the bespoke licence modification that must be followed by Ofgem to implement the price cap. They are the statutory steps that Ofgem will take and they will cover the final design and level of the cap. Concerns have been expressed that if organisations wanted to try to derail the implementation of the Bill, it would be by objecting to some part of that process. The process very much mirrors powers that Ofgem already has to modify the standard supply licence. The clause sets out the technical arrangements of the timing, the timings of notice of publication, and provides the steps to be taken before the Bill is passed, which I alluded to in earlier comments, so that as much of the work as possible can be done in tandem with the Bill’s passage through Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Publication and effect of modifications

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

Again, the clause outlines the final part of the licence modification process that Ofgem must undertake to impose the tariff cap—this is the actual modification of the licence conditions and implementation. It, too, sets out the statutory steps that Ofgem must go through. Ofgem must set out how it has taken account of representations made during the consultation specified under clause 4. As we heard in the evidence session this morning, it must set a date that the modifications will take effect from, which must be after a period of 56 days beginning on the day when the notifications are published.

The clause also sets out that the appeal mechanism is via judicial review, rather than through an appeal to the Competition and Markets Authority. We have had a conversation about that—certainly during the very good Second Reading debate—which is primarily because we want nothing to get in the way of implementing the temporary price cap. The CMA’s powers are used exclusively where there is a permanent control mechanism, but we and the Select Committee have taken substantial evidence to suggest that judicial review gives all interested parties an adequate means of address. A court has sufficient expertise to hear an appeal. A court is likely to be able to hear a matter more quickly than the CMA, which reduces the possibility of the implementation route being delayed.

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am keen to ensure that I understand the measure correctly. There is a 56-day period ahead of any modification being published, but presumably there is also a 56-day period for the initial implementation of the cap. Are we clear that Ofgem is content about being able to publish its cap within the five months—actually, eight weeks ahead of that five months?

--- Later in debate ---
Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I believe a very good letter was written to the Select Committee in which the timetable was set out specifically. Perhaps we can arrange for the letter to be distributed to the Committee—although I am not sure whether I have such powers over a letter to the Select Committee. Ofgem set out the timetable clearly, including all the statutory periods, with the assurance that it felt very capable of bringing the cap in before year end.

To return to the clause, in Committee we are very much of the mindset that the judicial review route, should someone wish to appeal against Ofgem’s methodology, is appropriate and would not delay implementation. That was agreed in the excellent work of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Review of level at which cap is set

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 6, in clause 6, page 4, line 31, leave out “6” and insert “3”.

I must confess that I have been following the past several clauses assiduously by reference to the draft Bill instead of to the actual Bill, although the Government had not made any changes, so I do not feel too out of sorts. However, with this clause, the draft Bill and the final Bill part ways considerably. Fortunately, I managed to realise where I was in time, so we can talk about this relatively short clause, which is on a review of the level at which the cap is set.

The clause is important because it is the clause that decides this is a cap and not a freeze. The requirement on the authority is that it regularly review the level at which the cap is set, on the basis of all the circumstances to which the market has been subject, and whether the cap should be modified or changed as a result of its review. Indeed, the clause requires the authority to publish a statement when it has done that review, as to whether it proposes to change the level at which the cap is set.

--- Later in debate ---
Someone may answer that it is not technically possible to reduce the time to three months, because so much time has to be spent reviewing whether the trend is long term or short term, so reducing the time would not allow anyone to be sure that the trend was a trend. I would accept that point, but failing that, reducing the period to three months would be a wholly beneficial part of the cap, and it would be welcomed in principle on all sides of the debate.
Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman again puts forward a sensible probing amendment that it is a pleasure to think about and speak to, but I will chance my luck and try to persuade him to withdraw it.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the review is a crucial part of the Bill’s effectiveness. Is the cap set at the right level? Is the ability to change the cap clear? Have we set out the conditions under which the cap must apply? We will get on to the conditions as to what success looks like. Is the cap dynamic enough to make a difference in the market?

If I read clause 6 carefully, two words precede the hon. Gentleman’s one-number intervention. In terms of reviewing the cap, the clause uses the phrase:

“The Authority must, at least once every 6 months”.

When we had this conversation on Second Reading, I said, correctly, that the opportunity is there for Ofgem to review this cap more frequently than that, should it choose to do so. It can review it on a weekly basis or a three-monthly basis, but it must review the cap every six months. That is consistent with the reviews of the prepayment meter cap, which is already delivering savings of up to £120 a year, as we talked about, and which is what the excellent Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee report recommended. I think that the flexibility the hon. Gentleman is seeking is covered by the words “at least”.

Yet the hon. Gentleman raises an important point: what happens if there are suddenly wild fluctuations in the energy market, which we want consumers to benefit from, and particularly if there is a sustained price fall? I have looked at this a bit. It is a bit like the mortgage market: unless someone is on a tracker rate, changes in the wholesale prices do not always feed into the retail prices. Indeed, these companies make an art, or a science, of hedging their supplies so that they bake in what their margins look like on a future basis. Any sustained price fall would take its time to feed through to those companies’ overall cost of energy provision.

Indeed, companies change their SVTs only once or twice a year, even though those are standard variable tariffs. We had a very interesting conversation this morning in Committee about whether that was a rather benign description—maybe we should be looking to tighten up the language a bit. These variable tariffs vary only once or twice a year. There is an argument that giving Ofgem a statutory duty to review this at least every six months provides an opportunity for the market movement to be greater than it is under the SVTs. I feel that with the words “at least” we have provided in the Bill for Ofgem to react to market movements or any other structural changes that would affect consumers. That flexibility is there.

As always, the hon. Gentleman has thought about these things carefully. As he alluded to, there is a risk that by specifying every three months, given that this is a short-term cap—it will apply for a minimum of just over two years and a maximum of just over five years—we would perhaps create an unnecessary process burden. We want Ofgem to continue to regulate this market well; we want it to continue to bring forward initiatives such as the cancellation of billing backwards for more than 12 months and the work it has announced it wants to do in the wholesale energy markets to ensure that returns are proportionate. I am persuaded that by changing the period to three months, we would create a potentially unnecessary burden that does not deliver anything more than we have already allowed for with the wording of clause 6(1).

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I got there in the nick of time. While the Minister has been speaking, I have been looking at Ofgem’s tracker for wholesale energy prices. It is clear to me that in the first quarter of each calendar year, prices are particularly volatile and disproportionately higher than in the remainder of the year. In his evidence, Dermot Nolan said that, over six months, those midwinter peaks are ridden out. That means we should defer to his judgment that six months is the right unit, not quarterly.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend again brings assiduous online research, which is marvellous, and his knowledge of this market, to support the point that Ofgem believes that six months is a proportionate time. The Bill does allow Ofgem—should it be required to do so by market movements, and that volatility persists over a period of time—to make the necessary adjustments. I know that I am on a winning trend, which may not last, but on that basis, I hope the hon. Gentleman is persuaded once again to withdraw the amendment.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The intervention of the hon. Member for Wells demonstrates why I should not only have been looking at the right Bill in the last 10 minutes, but have brought my iPad with me.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

You are sat in front of the iPad queen.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Mine has died.

--- Later in debate ---
Being able to reflect reasonably accurately what is happening and to direct a cap accordingly is potentially a very good thing. I did not entirely catch the Minister saying that Ofgem would clearly have the ability and the authority to tighten the cap if necessary under those circumstances.
Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

That is an excellent point, and I was thinking of exactly the same things when the hon. Gentleman was speaking. The rocket and feathers, by the way, sounds like a marvellous pub in the Don Valley that I would love to come and visit one day. That is an excellent description for what happens and, thinking it through, the existence of the cap protects against the feathers, because there will be a hard stop in the market that might accelerate the fall of the feathers or create something a little more weighty, on the same duration, or a more accelerated duration, than the current SVTs. It would be a prod to the market, to make sure that those downward prices are reflected in the price cap. On that basis, it could be very helpful to overcoming the problem.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Indeed. As the hon. Member for Wells points out, over the recent period, there has been a pattern of volatility in the wholesale market, but not necessarily a pattern of predictability. The market tends to be rather more volatile at the beginning of the year; the level of volatility differs, but we know it is more volatile. There is the question of looking at that effect over the entire period of intervention of the cap, and how that volatility is factored into Ofgem’s duties.

I take the point that the phrase in the Bill is

“at least once every 6 months”.

After what has been said this afternoon, I hope that Ofgem will consider fairly carefully how its interventions take place. It may well be that—after close consultation with the hon. Member for Wells—Ofgem comes along and says it will review the cap more frequently at certain parts of the year and rather less frequently at other parts of the year.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the wording of the Bill allows Ofgem to effect exactly those decisions, should it think it necessary.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I take that point. Although I prefer to legislate with absolute certainty rather than hope, in this instance we can reasonably expect that Ofgem would look at that properly, as far as the market is concerned. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

We have had an excellent debate, where we have been genuinely probing and testing the Bill, and we have come to a good outcome. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Question 6 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Review of competition for domestic supply contracts

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 7, page 4, line 38, at end insert—

“(1A) The Secretary of State shall within six months of the passing of this Act publish a statement outlining the criteria that is to be used by the Authority in the review to assess whether conditions are in place for effective competition for domestic supply contracts.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to outline the criteria that shall be used by Ofgem when assessing whether conditions are in place for effective competition for domestic supply contracts.

I do not know if it is my upbringing in the west of Scotland, but compared to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, I am a man of few words, so I will be really brief.

Amendment 1 and its explanatory notes lay out the case. I have prepared a timeframe for the Secretary of State to set out the criteria by which Ofgem will assess the operation of the energy market for effective competition in the marketplace, and such effective competition clearly will allow the cap to be lifted.

The amendment is important for a couple of reasons. Clearly, if we want the suppliers to change their behaviour, it is important that they know what they will be measured on. Hopefully, that will give them further incentives to change their behaviour and to make the market much more competitive and effective for consumers.

The Government’s aim is that the cap will be only temporary—perhaps lasting only two years. Therefore, it is a limited timeframe. That makes it even more important that, as soon as we can, we understand what the companies will be measured against. If a report is laid that sets out the criteria within six months, that takes away the risk of moving targets, in terms of the suppliers changing how they are operating, but perhaps not in the way we want. Obviously, we want to manage how they operate and make that most effective for consumers. The amendment is quite simple and speaks for itself.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman is a man of few words, but what a very pleasant accent, if I might say so, and what a joy it is to welcome so many colleagues from north of the border with similar burrs on our side of the House. I will now try to speak exclusively about the amendment and take his example of brevity in doing so.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the question of the conditions for effective competition so that we can all understand when the recommendation to remove the cap is the right one, as he said, considering how the market evolves over the next few years. We all have a hope and expectation that the market will evolve rapidly; indeed, the whole principle behind the Bill is about an intelligent intervention that will help the market to reset to a more competitive environment.

We have set out these general conditions, but I feel very strongly that with an independent regulator that we all believe has the powers and knowledge to both set the cap and confirm whether competition has been restored, it is right that we do not hold it to a specific set of weightings for what competition looks like. Again, I refer to the BEIS Committee, which said:

“We believe that Ofgem have the required expertise to set and measure indicators of effective competition and make the appropriate recommendation to the Secretary of State.”

The hon. Member for Nottingham North made the point about unintended consequences; we had conversations in pre-Bill meetings about whether we would want there to be a formula that said, “It is 20% switching times and 50% price cap reduction”. All that constrains Ofgem’s ability to review and set an opinion on competition, particularly as the market evolves. We are all expecting the energy market to evolve quickly. The amendment would constrain Ofgem’s job unnecessarily. There is nothing to be gained from seeking to pre-empt Ofgem in its work. In raising this issue, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun is absolutely right to say that that scrutiny of what effective competition looks like will form an extremely active test of whether we can all sit around in a couple of years’ time and say that this Bill on which we have all worked so hard has been effective.

On the basis that the amendment would constrain what Ofgem want to do, I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels content with my explanation and will consider withdrawing it.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Listening to the Minister, on one level I think that constraining Ofgem might not be such a bad thing if it constrains it in a way that we are happy with, because then we can have criteria that we as politicians, and consumers and suppliers, understand. On the other hand, I understand what the Minister says, in that the regulator has its own job to do. I am conscious that some of the submissions we received as part of this process express concern about the fact that nobody knows what these effective competition criteria will look like. I still have some slight concerns, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I suspect that the Minister is much better placed to answer that than I am, but I guess—I would support this wholly if it were the case—that we have done a lot of work with carrots when it comes to smart meters and we are starting to get into stick territory. If we want the new digitised market to really work—I know that almost everyone here is passionate about achieving that—smart meters are no longer optional: they are a necessity. To use that as a metric of success seems very reasonable to me.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I want to try to address two of the main points that came up: what “good” looks like, the conditions for success and how far we should specify them in the Bill, and why progress with installing smart meters is the only explicit condition. Ultimately, this is the nub of the whole Bill. We are all here because we believe that the conditions for effective competition are not in place and that the Bill will assist the market towards that evolution. I suspect that we all believe in well regulated, competitive markets delivering the best value and service for consumers, and if we see a regulatory gap—a place where the regulator needs new powers to deliver that—it is only right that we fill it. That is what we are doing.

Once again, I have great sympathy with what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test set out. I feel sometimes that we are a bit like Eeyore and Tigger: he is always looking for the very worst outcome and I am always very optimistic about the future. Perhaps it is good that we often meet in the middle. The challenge, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wells set out, is that the list that the hon. Gentleman has put forward is very sensible. I am sure that we could all come up with further factors that we thought would indicate that the market was acting more competitively.

--- Later in debate ---
Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Why would it be a box-ticking exercise if we as parliamentarians set out criteria that we think can be used, but not if Ofgem sets out the criteria?

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

That is a valid point. I guess that by setting the criteria in the Bill we would effectively constrain the opportunities that Ofgem has. Ofgem, as a regulator, should be able to sit closer to the market and observe its evolution, and amend its processes accordingly. All of us know how even the most tortuous, tiny change to a Bill, even if it is done through a statutory instrument, can chew up an awful lot of time and reopen a debate that did not actually need to be reopened.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test is right that we absolutely have legal powers to protect our constituents, and that is what we are doing, but what we are also doing is empowering the regulator to be perhaps more nimble and agile than politicians and even my fine civil servants might be.

I turn to the Smart Meters Bill, because it is right to say, “Why is that the only thing in the Bill?” Frankly, the reason is that we are rolling out this massive Government programme. We are talking about £11 billion of investment and £17 billion of benefit to consumers. It is now a licence condition for Ofgem. We have had the first roll-out and we are working hard on the data integration, so that the upgrades to a SMETS2 meter happen seamlessly and remotely. I fully intend to work with industry very closely this summer to start to turbocharge that process. There is huge benefit there; the conditions are in place and we want to accelerate.

We want to make sure that the obligations to be part of the evolution of a competitive market and to roll out smart meters are inextricably linked in the minds of industry. On that basis, although we have an important role to play in talking about the terms of effective competition, we expect the market to continue to evolve. It would not be helpful to constrain Ofgem’s definition now by setting out what could be perfectly sensible ideas.

Of course, there will be an opportunity to review Ofgem’s report and say what the conditions are. We have not yet talked about what the transparency of publication is for that report, but that is certainly something we can address when we discuss that part of the Bill. There is a question as to how transparent that report is made and how widely it should be circulated. As the Committee knows, I am open to ideas of transparency, because it is the way to drive the best forms of competitive behaviour. I fear I may be chancing my luck this late in the day, but I invite the hon. Member for Southampton, Test to withdraw his amendment.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I say something first about Tigger and Eeyore? I can see the analogy, but we have to remember that Tigger got Pooh and Piglet completely lost in their quest for the North Pole, and also consumed all Roo’s medicine in a very unhealthy way.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

But surely the hon. Gentleman would accept that that was a fine and wonderful adventure, and Tigger did it with great gusto?

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

This might be slightly outside the scope of the Bill.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was just going to say briefly that Eeyore stopped people standing on each other and falling over while trying to get Piglet out of a tree. He was very wise in certain circumstances. What I am trying to say, I hope without any further reference at all to Pooh and Piglet, is that under these circumstances we need to be a little more—I will refer to it again—Eeyoreish than Tiggerish. It is essential that we are careful about the going out of the cap, just as we are careful about its going in.

I heard what the hon. Member for Wells had to say—indeed, it would have been possible to put out a list as long as your arm of possible concerns. He is quite right. I heartily endorse a number of the concerns he raised. I am grateful to him for describing me as a fellow traveller; as he will know, in our party, being described as a fellow traveller is not always meant in the most complimentary of ways. He has set the record straight as far as that is concerned.

What I have tried to do with this particular amendment—by the way, I am not particularly precious about every last line of it—is to craft a number of considerations that should reasonably pass by the eyes of Ofgem when it is thinking about whether conditions have returned to the market or not, so that it is shaped. Indeed, if the Minister were to say, “Yes, jolly good idea, but we’re not quite sure that all the conditions are absolutely right. We’ll take it away and come back with something on Report that will set that out in a rather better way,” I would be overjoyed. It is an attempt to try to make things work, rather than to get everything right first time.

What I do know, however, is that among the flakier conditions is ensuring that Ofgem has due consideration for the roll-out of smart meters. I could see circumstances where the smart meter roll-out has gone completely down the Swanee, yet market conditions are effectively there for the removal of the cap. Indeed, from what I know about the circumstances around the smart meter roll-out, partly as a result of my involvement in the Smart Meters Bill recently, it is quite possible that the smart meter roll-out will go seriously down the Swanee.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I now feel a T-shirt coming on saying, “What would Eeyore do?” I wanted to try to give the hon. Gentleman some comfort on this matter. Clause 7(1) refers back to something set out in clause 1(6)(b):

“whether conditions are in place for effective competition for domestic supply contracts.”

That means that in consulting on the cap structure, what Ofgem believes to be important will have to be explicit upfront. Also on smart meters, it says that the review “must, among other things”, so it is not the exclusive thing. In fact, I have just reassured myself, because clause 7(5) states that the Secretary of State will have to publish the statement about whether they consider the conditions to be in place. It will be very explicit about which conditions have been taken into account in establishing whether the market competitive conditions have been restored.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for her concordance-like examination of the Bill to look at those conditions, but I stand by the point that there is, with the anomalous imposition of smart meter roll-out, nothing there effectively. I would have hoped that the Minister would be able to say, “Yes, you are quite right. There is nothing there effectively and we can put something there—perhaps not exactly this—on Report”. That would have caused my worries about the out as well as the in of the price cap to recede, but apparently that is not going to happen.

I, of course, wish the Minister the best of luck with her Tiggerish wish to get smart meters absolutely right. I am sure she will give that her full attention and ensure that it works as well as it possibly can, but I am afraid that under the circumstances I will have to press the amendment to a vote on the principle of what it is about.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I rise simply to say that I think that was a useful conversation about what competition looks like. We have made excellent progress today, and I propose that clause 7 stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Rebecca Harris.)

Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill (Third sitting) Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill (Third sitting)

Claire Perry Excerpts
Committee Debate: 3rd sitting: House of Commons
Thursday 15th March 2018

(6 years, 3 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Act 2018 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 15 March 2018 - (15 Mar 2018)
Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 8, page 5, line 36, at end insert—

“(3A) In the case that the tariff cap is extended to have effect for the year 2023, the Secretary of State must publish a statement before the end of that calendar year outlining whether the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to introduce further legislation to introduce a new tariff cap to have effect beyond the date outlined in this Act.”

This amendment would require, in the event that the tariff is extended until 2023, the Secretary of State to publish a statement outlining whether he or she considers it appropriate to bring forward further legislation to introduce a new tariff cap to have effect beyond 2023.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. At our last sitting I made a joke about being brief in my comments, but I will be super-brief this time.

The whole reason for the Bill is the admission that the retail energy market is not working in terms of providing effective competition for consumers and allowing them to access the best-priced tariffs. I recognise that the Government have made it clear that the proposed cap mechanism is temporary for that reason and is to allow the market to remedy itself. Because this is a temporary cap, clause 8 is the sunset clause, which in effect states that the cap must end by the end of 2023.

I have tabled my simple amendment because, as we know, the market is not working, but there is no guarantee that it will remedy itself in the time proposed, although we hope it will. There is a risk that there will still be no effective competition in 2023, so the amendment suggests that if we get to that final year of the temporary cap, the Government should make a statement outlining whether they believe it appropriate to introduce further legislation for a new tariff cap with effect beyond 2023.

The amendment is to ensure that the Government update Parliament about where matters are at, and imposes that duty on the Secretary of State. It is a very simple amendment, so my comments have been super-brief. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Claire Perry Portrait The Minister for Energy and Clean Growth (Claire Perry)
- Hansard - -

Good morning, Sir Edward. It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your august chairmanship, and I am impressed with your X-ray eyes seeing the coffee cup. It is, once again, a pleasure to welcome fellow travellers on our Committee.

I was of course interested in what the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said—in essence getting back to that long-term question that we have all been discussing as to what “good” looks like. In 2023 how will we know whether the cap can be removed? Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman is in a way seeking to bind the hands of a future Government with his amendment, by putting in place, when the cap is finally removed—I think we all agree with the sunset clause—the need to opine as to whether further legislation should be introduced.

My hope is to persuade the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment, so I shall set out a couple of reasons why he should, although I think we all agree that we support the cap. We want the cap to be in place for the period it takes to restore effective competition in the market. We also agree that we do not want permanent caps to run in the market, because we want it to move towards a more competitive position. The Bill is an intelligent intervention to speed up that journey.

Frankly, the Government have no wish for a price cap to be a permanent feature of our energy market. We debated that point briefly last week. I think there is strong consensus in the Committee—if I have not misjudged it—that the cap should have a sunset clause. In order for a sunset clause to be effective, there should be an end date to the legislation. Of course, as we discussed last week, that does not simply mean we will pass the Bill quickly through both Houses—as I hope we will—and have the cap in place by the end of the year, as Ofgem has assured us is possible; we will also all be working alongside Ofgem to ensure that the conditions for effective competition are in place by the 2023 deadline. I think we would all want to see those conditions in place well before that date.

Ultimately, we want a fully working and competitive market that is transparent, innovative and adaptive, that promotes competition as the best driver of value and service to customers, and that has a regulator with the powers and appetite to regulate actively should a situation arise, as it has done, where we do not believe some groups of customers get that value and service.

We discussed last week the roll-out of smart meters—where we have seen good progress but we need to go further and faster—and moving to faster and more reliable switching. I am very interested in Ofgem’s midata proposals, which will make switching an almost seamless process. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who was so instrumental in creating the Bill, told me about his latest app, Flipper, which enables someone’s supplies of various services to be transferred almost seamlessly, with their consent, to the best value tariff, based on what tariff they are looking for.

There are plenty of opportunities for consumers to benefit from that improved competition, but we have discussed the fact that, although some of us are active switchers and are aware of those opportunities, some of us are too time-poor to do that. Worryingly, there is a large group of customers who are on bad-value tariffs and either do not know it or are sufficiently disengaged from the market not to do anything about it. That is why we brought forward the Bill and why it is extremely important to test the initiatives that the Competition and Markets Authority proposed to improve engagement with so-called disengaged customers.

We have discussed incredibly exciting technological changes, such as the move to distributed energy, the increase in renewable energy and people’s ability almost to create their own energy network, which includes them, local businesses and other local energy consumers. New business models will also come into the sector. I was interested to hear the evidence of some of the more innovative new entrants about where they want to go with the market. They mentioned half-hourly settlement and payments to people who do not consume energy at certain times. There is an enormous range of adaptations, and of course smart metering will unlock even more.

We are all determined to have a fully competitive and fair energy market, but I think we are all of a mind that the cap should be a temporary measure. I pay tribute once again to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, who serves with great effect on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, to which we all owe a great debt of gratitude. The Committee said that there is a risk that if the price cap became a longer- term fixture it

“would put the Government unduly in charge of setting energy prices for the foreseeable future.”

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

It is always a pleasure to give way to the right hon. Lady.

Caroline Flint Portrait Caroline Flint
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on receiving Privy Counsellor status—she joins a merry band of us. I accept the argument for a temporary price cap, but does she accept that we should look closely during this period at whether any other structural reform of the energy market is needed to ensure that there is even wider competition and hunger for customers, rather than complacency?

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I could not agree more. I thank the right hon. Lady for her kind congratulations. I feel it is an undeserved honour, but it is amazing. She is absolutely right. One of the reasons we were minded to bring forward the Bill was that we have a competitive energy market, with more than 60 companies that would like to sell us energy—either combined heat and power or, in some cases, just power—but we gifted incumbency to a large number of companies when we took what I thought were sensible steps to privatise the energy system. That brought in more than £60 billion of new capital and caused prices to fall and power cuts to halve, but the companies that were gifted incumbency have not had to work for customers. It was interesting to hear from new entrants about how they are determined to shake up that complacency.

I think the right hon. Lady also alluded to practices further up the energy system—or further down; I am not sure whether it starts at the top or the bottom—and particularly profits in the distribution sector and overall network costs, which have come down but arguably could come down further. Work has been done in that area, but I am determined that the whole sector, from generation right to the customer’s meter, should be highly efficient, that efficiency and customer service should be rewarded, and that we ensure we have not created a shield of incumbency that allows companies to persist with bad customer practices. This is the start. We may not need legislation to get there, so we may not have the pleasure of—

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

Of course—it is a pleasure.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and wish her many congratulations from the Government side of the Committee, too. On incumbency and the investment that she mentioned, is it not extremely important that the price cap is set at a level that continues to encourage investment the whole way through the energy chain and into the new infrastructure we need? That is one of the reasons it is so important to signal that this is not a permanent cap; it is an incentive to increase competition and to ensure that the market continues to be dynamic and that infrastructure continues to be invested in.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend brings her great knowledge of these markets on a broader European scale to make a telling and vital point. The need to maintain investment in the industry, which we must have as we go through what is possibly the most exciting revolution in our energy markets for decades, is included in the Bill for exactly that reason. Clause 1(6)(d) speaks to exactly that point: we must ensure that we still have the financial investment in the industry that we so desperately need.

Having talked about the need to keep on improving efficiency, and having accepted the view of the Select Committee that the price cap should be only a temporary measure—reflecting a cross-party view that the Government should not be unduly involved in setting energy prices— I hope that I have persuaded the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun that his amendment is unnecessary and provides an obligation on a future Secretary of State to impose another price cap. A future Government may decide to do that—who am I to suggest what legislation a future Government might introduce? However, I do not feel that the amendment is appropriate; it creates disincentives and uncertainty in a market where we have to have certainty to generate investment. On that basis, I hope he might be persuaded to withdraw his amendment.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister finished as she started, by talking about binding future Governments. I suggest that most legislation, in one form or another, binds future Governments. It is for future Governments to make changes to the legislation if it does not suit their policy at the time. Binding future Governments is not a reason not to table an amendment or to withdraw an amendment.

Again, the amendment is not about making the cap permanent. It acknowledges that the cap is temporary, but if, for whatever reason, we get to 2023 and we still do not think that there is effective competition in the marketplace, it puts a duty on the Secretary of State to explain what the Government will do to address that, including possibly introducing new legislation.

On what “good” looks like in the future, if the Government had accepted an amendment setting out the criteria for what effective competition will look like—such as the Labour amendment that suggested a whole list of criteria that should be considered to determine and measure that—we would know what “good” looks like in the future. That might also help to generate the effective competition that we are discussing.

That said, to go back to my original point, I am not trying to say that the cap should not be temporary. Following my comments to the Minister, I do not see any point in pressing the amendment to a vote, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 11, in clause 8, page 5, line 36, at end insert—

“(3A) In the case that the tariff cap is extended to have effect for the year 2023, the Secretary of State must publish a report before the end of that calendar year on further measures that can be taken to ensure that conditions are in place for effective competition for domestic supply contracts.

(3B) The report under subsection (3A) must include, but is not limited to—

(a) the merits of establishing pooled trading arrangements which matches energy sellers and buyers on the day-ahead and near-term markets; and

(b) the potential impact of such an arrangement on competition for domestic supply contracts.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Before I proceed, I ought to say two things. First, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Devizes on her elevation to the Privy Council. In terms of nomenclature, I am not entirely clear whether I should refer to her as the Minister or the right hon. Minister in the future.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

Just Claire is fine.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think I will just continue with “the Minister”—or Claire, depending on the circumstances under which we meet.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun mentioned that he is a man of few words. I may well be a man of even fewer words today, because I am suffering somewhat, and my voice may not last for the whole proceedings. That could be a great boon for the Committee.

--- Later in debate ---
Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will make two points in response. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be enthused by the merits of the pool when he looks into it—knowing, as I do, how deeply he does look into these matters on a regular basis. Although it is true that a number of companies are dividing themselves in different ways from the model that there used to be, it is by no means clear that in the complete vertical integration of those companies those divisions all face in one direction. In some instances, such as the recent merger of SSE and Innogy, retail has been put together in one company. In other instances, companies are breaking themselves up into what might be called a good company and a bad company, in terms of the different forms of generation, without distinguishing between vertical integration and generation. Indeed, there are further moves abroad. For example, E.ON in Germany has effectively taken over elements of Innogy, which may have effects back on SSE and Innogy in the UK. A variety of things are happening in the market, some of which point towards different forms of vertical integration and some of which, as the hon. Gentleman says, point in the direction of demerger.

That is not necessarily the central point about how a pool operates. Even if there are circumstances under which there is rather less vertical integration, the fact that the pool is bringing complete transparency on all trades to the table means that everybody in the market is absolutely on the same level as far as both those trades and the retail element, whereby people are bidding in, are concerned. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a number of newer companies will largely be bidding into the day-ahead market. They may be considerably disadvantaged in not knowing what has happened with trades down the curve when bidding into that market. Having that transparency right across the piece is, in principle, a very powerful lever to ensure that the market works well regarding retail trading.

Secondly, the pool system is not a fanciful notion that some people might think is a good idea but that has never worked in practice. Probably the most successful trading arrangement in Europe at the moment is Nord Pool, which does precisely this across the whole of Scandinavia. It does not have the negative effects that the hon. Member for Wells suggests it might in terms of cost of capital and investment, but stabilises that market across the whole of Scandinavia and produces transparency across borders.

In any event, a pool system is something that this we ought to look at for this country. What this amendment does is rather less than that. It asks whether the Minister thinks that, under circumstances in which it has not been possible to frank the market for returning to competitive purposes by 2023, other instruments should be introduced to get us beyond the end of the temporary pool and out of that temporary price cap, which is what we all want. That will be on the basis that we between us will have not just done a good job of running a cap but changed how the market works, so that the cap does not have to be in place subsequently and we do not need to return to the idea of one in the future.

That is what the amendment intends to do. I think it is a relatively modest ask of the Minister. I am sure that, if she is not promoted, she will be in her post in 2023—if there is a Conservative Government. At that point, she would simply have to produce a small report setting out how the pool system might work. Then we will look to see whether we can take that forward at that point as a key measure, to ensure that competition returns to the markets after the end of the temporary price cap.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I have listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman and done a bit of research.

The first part of the amendment asks that an additional report is published setting out additional measures for competition. We had a fruitful discussion of this issue on Tuesday, and talked about the fact that there will be a comprehensive report. There is a duty on the Secretary of State to make this transparent, so it will be obvious that the conditions for competition that have been recommended by Ofgem at that point are clear. We discussed at length whether we need to specify, and the will of the Committee was that that was not the case. So the first part of the amendment is not needed, because we will have a transparent report, we will be able to see what “good” looks like—a phrase many of us have used—and we should be able to satisfy ourselves of that.

The second part of the amendment relates to pooled trading. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is a bit of an expert on that, so I felt that I should go away and look at such things. His argument is that having pooled trading arrangements could be an option that should be included in the assessment of competition, and that the report should cover that. He will know that pooled trading arrangements were in place historically. Indeed, I believe it was the first Blair Government that removed those conditions.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman is going to correct me on that. Good—I like a bit of correction on history.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister is absolutely right that there was a pooled system in place, but it was a one-way pool, not a two-way pool. Furthermore, there were only two generating companies at that time, so the circumstances were very different, and it was not a full pool in any event.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I accept that helpful piece of information. But when it was cancelled and replaced with alternative arrangements, the real issue was that prices did not fall as far as they should. The rocket and feathers effect was in full cry. I have not been able to find a pub called “The Rocket and Feathers” anywhere in the country, so we cannot go out and celebrate the successful passage of the Bill with a drink in an aptly named pub. However, the new arrangements were put in place back in 2001 and extended in 2005.

The CMA, in its very comprehensive review of market competition, compared the principle of bilateral trading relationships, which the hon. Gentleman has eloquently expounded, with a pool approach. Its view was that the evidence did not support a move to such a pooling system, primarily because there is sufficient liquidity in the market—Ofgem reviews the liquidity arrangements—and there is price transparency for all the pool participants already. The CMA’s conclusion was that if we all accept that we need to move to a more competitive market, the evidence does not suggest a move to bilateral pooled trading relationships.

I have set out that Ofgem has wide powers to say what “good” looks like, on the basis of which it will make its recommendation to the Secretary of State about whether the cap should be lifted. I think that covers the first part of the amendment. I am persuaded by the CMA’s report that, given that the arrangements are working, there is insufficient merit in examining the merits of the pooled market, and there would not be sufficient gain from introducing that system. It should not be a specific requirement, as detailed by the clause.

There may be other opportunities to debate this structural point. On the point made by the right hon. Member for Don Valley when discussing the previous amendment, I hope that there will be opportunities over the next few years to talk in depth about what other arrangements need to be made in the market to improve the efficiency of the entire supply chain. However, hopefully in this case the hon. Member for Southampton, Test will consider withdrawing his amendment, as it is not needed in the Bill at this time.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not persuaded that this notion is not needed in the Bill in the eventuality of the cap going to 2023. However, I am reasonably persuaded that it would not be a good idea to press the amendment to a Division this morning, because the purpose of the amendment was essentially to allow us to debate the question of the possibility of a pool. I have not persuaded the Minister this morning that it would be a good idea for future trading arrangements. However, given the assiduous work that she has already done in looking at how a pool might work, I hope that she will continue with her studies, and will perhaps be persuaded in the fullness of time that it is actually a rather good idea for the long term, and ought to be pursued—if not by this Government, then by the next. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9

Consequential modification of standard supply licence conditions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I am not going to delay the Committee on non-controversial clauses, but I feel it is important to state briefly the purpose of each clause, so that we are all clear in supporting them. Clause 9 gives Ofgem the power to modify the standard supply licence conditions after the tariff cap ceases to have effect under clause 8. On the point made by hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, we are giving the regulator powers, as it sees fit, beyond the extension of the price cap, to modify the licence as it has already. The effect is that Ofgem can continue to modify the standard supply licence conditions as it deems appropriate, following the removal of the tariff cap, but of course those modifications must be published and it must state their potential impacts.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 9 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10

Amendments of the Utilities Act 2000

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

This is simply a clause containing a whole load of technical gubbins. I commend it to the Committee.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

It is a pity we cannot have that sort of debate on every clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11

Interpretation

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

This clause is a lot of definitional gubbins. It is extremely important—I do not wish in any way to reduce the hard work of the Bill drafting committee—but it does not require a long speech.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 11 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12

Extent and commencement

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

This clause confirms the geographical extent of the Bill. It will come into force in England, Wales and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland. I am sure the Committee knows that there are separate arrangements for energy supply in Northern Ireland, including existing price controls on incumbent suppliers. We have made reference to that cap in our debates. The Act will come into force on the day it is passed, to make sure that we achieve the crucial momentum in the implementation period.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 12 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 2

Duty to consider the needs of customers in rural areas

“(1) When exercising its duties under section 1, the Authority must have regard to the need to protect customers in rural areas.

(2) When exercising their duties under sections 7 and 8, the Authority and the Secretary of State must have regard to—

(a) whether effective competition exists for customers in rural areas, and

(b) additional protection in place for customers in rural areas.”.(Alan Brown.)

This new clause requires the Secretary of State and the Authority to have regard for customers in rural areas when exercising their powers in setting, reviewing and terminating the cap.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We know that part of the problem with existing tariffs is that certain groups of people are more likely to be adversely affected. New clause 2 would make the duty to consider the needs of customers in rural areas absolutely explicit. To recap what I think we are all aware of, people who reside in rural areas are more likely to have lower incomes; they are more likely to be off the gas grid, which leads to overall higher energy costs; and, particularly in Scotland, they are more likely to have properties that are much more difficult to make energy-efficient, thereby increasing their ongoing energy costs.

Digital connectivity is an issue predominantly in rural issues, which means that is difficult to undertake regular switching. Rural areas also still suffer from notspots for mobile coverage, which is an impediment to getting a smart meter. If we really believe that smart meters will help revolutionise the market and help people get lower tariffs, we need to eliminate the notspots. The Scottish Government have just announced a £25 million fund to provide more coverage in rural areas, but that is perhaps not something they should need to step up to the plate on. Challenger companies are also less likely to tackle the rural issue, so the incumbents—the big six—often have almost a monopoly in some rural areas. That is another barrier to competition.

To cap it all in terms of the disadvantages for rural customers, people in the Scottish highlands and islands have to pay 4p a unit more for electricity usage. Rubbing salt into their wounds, anything generated in more rural areas has higher transmission charges placed on the generation companies, and customers in those areas pay a higher distribution levy. That is a real injustice for those in rural areas. And, of course, the Government have removed contract for difference auction capabilities for onshore wind in rural areas, which compounds the whole feeling of injustice.

The new clause would therefore require the Secretary of State and the regulator to have regard to customers in rural areas in exercising their powers when setting, reviewing and terminating the cap. The clause itself is self-explanatory. Again, I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

The new clause seeks to add a clause to the Bill to create duties on Ofgem and the Secretary of State to consider the needs of customers in rural areas and to consider additional protections for them.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about this on Second Reading, and many of us who represent very rural constituencies understand exactly what he is saying. I have been really pleased to learn that, in the north of Scotland, the Government have confirmed their commitment to the hydro benefit replacement scheme, which is worth an average of £41 annually per household in the region.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that costs are in some cases the function of geography—there is this unfortunate thing that it costs more to get electricity down to certain parts of the country. In my own region, the south-west, the peninsular effect creates some unfortunate energy price increases for those living at the end of the grid, as it were. That is something we have long had to live with. I am not saying that that is acceptable, but to date it has been a function of the pricing of energy distribution.

The other issue for many of those representing rural areas, including mine, is that people rely on heating oil or liquefied petroleum gas deliveries, because we are off the grid. Not only can that be a costly proposition, given the spike in heating oil prices, but it is a problem in terms of carbon emissions. As the hon. Gentleman knows from the clean growth strategy, I am determined to phase out fossil fuel heating—not in a way that penalises existing customers—starting with new builds from 2025, and really trying to come up with cost-effective alternatives in future.

When we have the consultation on the energy company obligation, which will be happening shortly, I am minded to review how much we direct towards customers in rural areas. As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as I know only too well from my constituency, fuel poverty is not an urban phenomenon. Many of our constituents live in old homes, which are not suitable for more modern forms of energy efficiency—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden is putting up his hand to say that his house is like that. These homes are a problem, particularly for those on low incomes; in my constituency the average income is well below the national average, and many of our homes are simply very old. That is why, what I would like to do with ECO, to be forthcoming, is to see how we can deliver more help to rural households and how we can focus that help more on innovation so that we can create more of a route to market for important new technologies that could help.

We have an open market in the supply of heating oil—it has been looked at, and the conclusion was that it is competitive and working. LPG customers have the LPG orders introduced by the CMA, which set a maximum contract length. Under the fuel poor network extension scheme, Ofgem sets a target for gas distribution companies to connect an additional 91,000 low-income homes to the gas grid by 2021. So there is work afoot to reduce some of the disbenefits of living in some of the most beautiful parts of the world, such as the constituency of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun.

I have mentioned additional help, but I suppose the question is whether we should specify in the Bill that more should be done. My argument is that the new clause is not necessary, because the Bill already explicitly requires Ofgem to protect all existing and future standard variable and default customers, including consumers in rural areas. Furthermore, Ofgem’s role as the regulator under the existing gas and electricity Acts confirms that it has a duty to protect the interests of all existing and future customers. It should specifically have regard to the interests of individuals living in rural areas, among other things.

There are already protections at various levels of the law and in the Ofgem regulations for those customers for whom the hon. Gentleman so rightly speaks. I therefore do not believe that the new clause is necessary, but I remain apprised of the issue he raised, which many of us face: how we help people who live in rural areas, who do not have the same options as those who live in urban areas, whether in terms of heating, lighting or broadband. I hope that he is content with that explanation and is minded to withdraw his new clause.

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Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This is a simple and brief new clause that would require the Secretary of State, immediately after the passage of the Bill, to lay a report before both Houses assessing the merits of extending the tariff cap to small business customers. I do not think I need to emphasise that the Bill’s title gives the game away about what the tariff cap will cover: the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill applies to domestic customers and to no one else. That rather gainsays the idea that, in many instances, small businesses have far more similarities with domestic customers than with large companies, which may have wholly different arrangements for dealing with their electricity supply—they may engage in private wires or bilateral long-term contracts, or have their own generating plant—from small businesses, which in effect hug pretty closely to the principles for domestic customers.

It seems a little invidious that the cut-off point for the price cap is the end of the domestic customer level. I am sure no hon. Member present is in this position, but it is quite possible for a very large house with multiple activities going on in it to consume a lot more electricity than a high street retailer or a small business. A number of small businesses will find that their electricity bills are not capped even though, to all intents and purposes, they are indistinguishable from domestic customers as far as their patterns of use, means of purchase and so on are concerned.

The new clause would require the Secretary of State, shortly after the Bill’s passage, to think about whether it might be appropriate to bring small businesses under the cap as it progresses, with a proper definition of which small businesses are in and which small businesses—those at the larger end—are out, so that the cap’s benefits can be extended to that particularly hard-pressed sector of the UK economy, and so that a proper relationship can be established between who is doing what so far as their energy purchases are concerned and who should benefit from a cap as a result of doing those things.

This is a simple, straightforward amendment, which I hope the Minister will consider carefully.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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I am extremely interested in new clause 3. I will not delay the Committee too much, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to have observed the issue faced by many small businesses. Indeed, it was observed by the last Conservative Government when they commissioned the CMA report. That report also looked at what was happening in the small business sector. It was a really important question.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, there is a huge variety of SMEs. They consume energy in entirely different ways and have different supply contracts. Many of them are on a domestic tariff. A question I have asked—I am not sure I know the answer—is what triggers the move from a domestic to a business tariff. If I do not have the answer by the end of this speech, I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman. It is an important question. [Interruption.] My civil servants are scribbling furiously. Of course, those businesses will be protected by the tariff.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, companies that are not supplied via a domestic tariff generally have fixed-term, fixed-price contracts that they negotiate through a broker, and those contracts are based on a range of different factors. In my constituency, I am aware—this has come up in the question around energy efficiency, which is a particular problem we need to try to crack with the small business sector—that many small businesses, particularly service companies, occupy premises where energy is just part of the price they pay. There are real disincentives for those landlords to shop around for a more competitive energy price, because it might reduce some of the benefit they get from selling those services as a bundle. It is an interesting question.

The CMA reviewed the small business market and found that a combination of features lead to a weak customer response. My argument on that—I have discussed this with small businesses—is that if someone is making payroll every month, looking to export to new markets and thinking about what they might have to do with the changes to our technical relationship with the EU, they do not necessarily always default to looking at energy costs, even though that might be economically rational, as electricity or power prices might be 5% of an overall cost base. According to the CMA, that weak customer response provides energy suppliers with unilateral market power over inactive customers—those words always make me feel very uncomfortable when we are talking about a supposedly competitive market.

The CMA has already recommended remedies, and those are being implemented. We have ended auto-rollover contracts with restrictions, including termination fees. That was implemented by the Energy Market Investigation (Microbusinesses) Order 2016. We are making prices more transparent, and we are having a price comparison website, which has already been implemented by the CMA through an order in June 2017. Early reports suggest that that has not been fully taken up by suppliers.

We are establishing a programme of prompts with information for consumers to engage, which is similar to the remedy for domestic customers in terms of the least engaged groups. That is ready for implementation, but no date has been set. In a similar way to what we are doing on domestic remedies, we are establishing a database of inactive customers that will be made available to rival suppliers and switching sites. Ofgem has not yet implemented that recommendation.

There has been some progress on transparency and auto-rollover contracts. The recent welcome action Ofgem announced to end back-billing beyond 12 months will also benefit small businesses and should help significantly with the cash-flow drain that a large backdated bill could cause.

Ofgem has a business consumer survey under way that we expect to get sight of this summer. It should give us more insight into the experience of business consumers. Ofgem plans to review consumer protections in the small business market.

While I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the new clause on the basis that the Bill focuses on domestic customers, where we already have more information, I am extremely interested in the problem of how we might provide better customer service and pricing availability to small business customers. I am perfectly happy to commit to looking at the problem very seriously and to have a proper and open discussion, as the hon. Gentleman and I tend to do, about what more might be done. I would send a very strong signal that, if at some future point a price cap mechanism might help small businesses, that is not something I would turn away lightly.

The hon. Gentleman has re-identified an excellent problem, if you like, in the energy markets. As I said to the right hon. Member for Don Valley earlier, the Bill is part of the intention to make a competitive market work well for all consumers. I will continue to engage closely with this problem, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will be content to withdraw the new clause on that basis.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for that positive response to the overall suggestion. I appreciate that the Bill sticks fairly closely to domestic tariffs, and that is perhaps how we should leave it for present purposes, but I hope that the principle that has been raised, about that almost imperceptible gap, on occasion, between where domestic tariffs finish—

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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Would the hon. Gentleman accept an intervention?

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Ah! The Minister has been inspired.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I can inspire the entire Committee with the assiduousness with which my brilliant team is able to answer my questions. A company chooses the business rate. Those in commercial and retail premises have to choose a business tariff, but, of course, a home business, of which there are millions and millions, can be on a domestic tariff. In a way, there is a sort of self-selection mechanism, but if the business moves into commercial premises, it does have to default on to a business tariff. I hope that clarifies the confusion I raised.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for that clarification, but it emphasises the fact that a small business may be in circumstances where it is renting part of a building or is part of a business park, the negotiation of the energy supply is out of its hands and it is paying a set amount for that electricity, but that is not done on domestic rates, even though the extent of the business means the electricity may be well within what is normally paid for by a domestic consumer.

The Minister is absolutely right to identify the issue for small businesses, and I hope that will underline the seriousness with which she will take the issue forward. She indicated that she does want to give it further thought and to look at circumstances where the point of departure may be less abrupt in the future. On that basis, with the trust that she will assiduously pursue this, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 4

Ongoing relative tariff differential

“(1) The Secretary of State shall, during the term of the tariff cap conditions being in place, develop, ready for implementation, a relative tariff differential.

(2) A relative tariff differential is a requirement on supply licence holders that the difference between the cheapest advertised rate and the most expensive standard variable or default rate shall be no more than a specified proportion of the cheapest advertised rate.

(3) The Authority will be responsible for setting the proportion referred to in subsection (2).

(4) The relative tariff differential shall take effect on the termination of the tariff cap conditions.”—(Dr Whitehead.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

--- Later in debate ---
The Minister should look closely at my suggestion as an instrument to ensure that the market works well, which is what we all want to happen at the end of the absolute price cap. It would also be relatively easy to put in place while nevertheless assuring that section of the market for the future for those people who pay the high tariffs because of their particular behaviours. We should all be concerned about that and I hope that the Minister will take it on board and come back with something that makes it work, perhaps in a slightly different form—perhaps with a better name than the ongoing relative tariff arrangement—and that works well for all of us.
Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I agree with the right hon. Member for Don Valley that it is absolutely right to think about what might happen when the cap goes off into the sunset, as we have done extensively. I am always interested to listen to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test but I slightly feel—unless I have misjudged this—that we are going over territory that we have covered extensively, in particular on Second Reading. We have heard many arguments about the absolute versus the relative tariff and, in effect, he is proposing a perpetual relative tariff—[Interruption.] Perpetual or ongoing, perhaps we are dancing on the head of a pin—

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not proposing an ongoing cap.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

Okay, but there is a relative tariff or a relative cap that is ready to go. The hon. Gentleman said on Second Reading:

“It should be clear that we want this price cap to come in. We believe it should be an absolute and not a relative price cap”.—[Official Report, 6 March 2018; Vol. 637, c. 271.]

I agree with him, as does Ofgem and as does the Select Committee, which made it very clear that it felt that a relative cap would simply be gamed.

As the right hon. Member for Don Valley mentioned, there is also the problem that companies will simply lift up their skirts and raise their whole tariff. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test may say that companies would then lose their customers, but we come back to the question of whether people will actually move. Yes, companies may lose those hyper-price-sensitive switchers who are very engaged, but they may not lose the customers we are really here to help today—those who are more vulnerable and not as savvy.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Centrica lost more than 800,000 customers, but 650,000 of them were due to a collective switch—one big deal. So only 150,000 of a very substantial customer base, the majority of whom are still on SVTs, actually shifted, despite the price rise. The numbers are therefore not quite as unequivocal as he suggests.

He is also right to raise the issue of ongoing protection for vulnerable consumers. We will all be pleased that, regardless of the price cap, Ofgem has already introduced a safeguarding tariff for those on prepayment meters, an additional 1 million customers. Those customers have saved about £120 to date relative to what they would have paid. The tariffs that they are paying have come down relative to the uncapped SVTs on the market. That absolute cap mechanism, therefore, is working. Even when the safeguarding tariff put in place by the CMA or the price cap in the Bill comes to an end, Ofgem will continue to have the powers to take further steps to protect vulnerable customers as it sees fit.

We are all here because we want the market to be in a competitive place on the expiration of the tariff cap under the sunset clause. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test may say that that is a triumph of optimism over practicality but, in essence, if we believe the market will be more competitive and we do not believe that the relative price cap is the way to address any remaining issues of uncompetitiveness, I find it difficult to see why we should put his new clause into the Bill, running all the risks we talked about on Second Reading—which have been explained eloquently by others—of the variable tariff cap not being an effective way to establish competition. We will have had a temporary absolute cap in place. We will have sent the very clear signal. That will have operated. I can see a situation where a relative cap could undo some of that good work and we would suddenly see prices zooming upwards because there was the opportunity to do so.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman thinking hard, as always, about what “good” will look like, and I share his desire to continue to work together on ensuring that this cap delivers, but I hope he will withdraw the new clause on the basis that it is not necessary and could have bad unintended consequences.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I simply do not accept what the Minister says about bad unintended consequences. I do not think that is realistic. Conversely, having something like this in place would be a positive driver of a return to not only good market conditions but proper protections for those operating tariff arrangements under those otherwise good market conditions. It is important that, in the ending of the absolute cap, we get both sides right. It is not just a question of the market working well. It is a question of people in that market who have disadvantageous circumstances being protected properly as it goes forward.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

Would the hon. Gentleman accept that those arguments could be made today about whether we are introducing an absolute or relative cap? We have all agreed quite strongly that an absolute cap provides those protections. If he were proposing that Ofgem has an absolute cap ready to go, we could raise some of the questions we discussed earlier about future uncertainty in the market. I felt that until today we had all considered carefully, but rejected, the structure of a relative cap as a hypothesis—as opposed to an actual absolute cap, which we have—that would not deliver the results we want: vital protections for vulnerable customers.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes, indeed. That is why I have been pains to say that this is not a relative cap. It was not a relative cap when it was proposed, although it was branded as one, but can actually be a pillar of an instrument for market return. I do not want to pursue the new clause today; but, for reasons that the Minister and I perhaps need to talk about, it would be a good idea to bring something like it back on Report. I think we probably will. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chair do report the Bill to the House.

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Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

May I thank you for your wise chairmanship, Sir Edward? I also thank Ms McDonagh, who chaired the Committee on Tuesday; the Clerks of the Committee, who have kept us assiduously on the straight and the narrow; and the House staff and Hansard reporters, who always do such an amazing job.

I extend fervent thanks to all members of the Committee. We have had an extremely constructive and helpful debate and have probed many aspects of the Bill. I also thank the witnesses who gave evidence and from whose wisdom we have benefited. I think that covers it, apart from thanking my excellent civil servants for their help in drafting the Bill and their excellent answers to questions. We will continue to draw deeply from that well, but at this stage I thank everybody for taking the Bill—hopefully successfully—through Committee.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Like the Minister, I thank everyone who has taken part in this stage of the Bill’s passage. We have had a genuinely constructive debate, in which we have all been facing in the right direction. I particularly thank the Clerks for their assiduous work and for their help with tabling Opposition amendments; unfortunately we do not have an entire civil service on our side, so we must seek other help, but we have not been failed.

I hope that the Bill will now progress to its remaining stages with consensus that the tariff will be an absolute cap, and with good support from all sides of the House for the result that we all want.

Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill

Claire Perry Excerpts
3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage: House of Commons
Monday 30th April 2018

(6 years, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Act 2018 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Consideration of Bill Amendments as at 30 April 2018 - (30 Apr 2018)
Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you.

I am delighted to speak in support of this Bill. It focuses on a temporary managing of the energy market, which has not been managed well enough, which is why we are talking about the whole concept of this Bill. I will speak briefly, and only to amendments 7 and 9. I do not disagree with the sentiment of, and intention behind, these amendments, and above all it is, of course, vitally important that we look after the vulnerable in society, in particular in terms of energy, and especially when the market is deemed not to be functioning properly.

It is crucial that people can keep warm and cook the right food and that they are comfortable and well, but this Bill already addresses that. It places a new set of duties and powers on Ofgem to protect consumers on variable and default tariffs, and Ofgem already has a duty under the electricity and gas Acts to have regard to the need to protect vulnerable customers. We should also remember that in 2016 the Competition and Markets Authority made an order, following its energy market review, to put in place a safeguard tariff for customers on prepayment meters, and about 4 million people have benefited from that. Last year, Ofgem took the decision under its principal duties in the electricity and gas Acts to extend the safeguard tariff to customers in receipt of the warm home discount.

Ofgem must have regard to the need to protect vulnerable customers when exercising its functions under these Acts, and I would argue that that is already being done. However, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) that it is crucial that Ofgem uses its powers and uses them well and that its feet are held to the fire in this respect—to use an energy term. It also introduced an enforceable vulnerability principle into the domestic standards of conduct, making it clear that suppliers must do more to treat vulnerable customers fairly, and this must be done.

Realistically, therefore, these amendments seem to be overkill, placing new obligations on Ofgem that are not necessary; however, it must use the powers it has. Also, as many Members have said, the powers in this Bill are only temporary: the price cap operated by Ofgem is not intended to last beyond 2023, and I fully support that. By contrast, Ofgem’s powers to protect vulnerable customers under the electricity and gas Acts are not limited.

It is necessary to bring in the fairness that this Bill has right at its heart. Its main aim is to place a new set of duties and powers on Ofgem to protect customers on standard variable tariffs. That is what this is really all about; far too many people have been taken for a ride. In 2016, about 11 million people were paying a total of £2 billion over the odds for their energy; that is simply not right. Individuals are said to be paying about £300 too much. Many people falling into this category are the elderly, and I am speaking on this Bill in part because Somerset has a particularly ageing population, and they have been taken advantage of, as indeed have many young people who are in rental accommodation because they are tied to one form or another of payment.

We must not mess about any further with this Bill. We must be able to see the wood for the trees; we do not want to bring in another lot of suggestions and regulations that delay the Bill, because it is more important than ever that its measures come into operation this winter. It is essential that we protect the vulnerable, but it is not necessary to legislate further on vulnerability, as suggested by amendments 7 and 9. I hope that on this basis the amendments will be withdrawn.

Claire Perry Portrait The Minister for Energy and Clean Growth (Claire Perry)
- Hansard - -

I thank all colleagues here this afternoon for their intelligent and sensible contributions to a debate that has run for several years. We are now within striking distance of bringing this Bill to a conclusion and sending it off in good order to the other place. I particularly thank my relatively close—geographically speaking—party colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), whose dogged and intelligent scrutiny, along with that of his colleagues, has made this a much better Bill, and I pay the same compliment to the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) and her Select Committee. This shows that when we work together we can deliver good legislation. I will respond to the amendments discussed today and my hope is that in doing so no Member feels obliged to press their amendments to a vote.

New clause 1, which we discussed at length in Committee and again today, seeks to introduce an ongoing, almost perpetual, relative price cap once the absolute price cap is removed. Like the Member speaking for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), I am a little perplexed by this amendment, as I said in Committee. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) has spoken so powerfully on many occasions against a relative cap and in favour of an absolute cap, and yet this new clause suggests bringing in the opposite: a relative cap on a perpetual basis. I will talk more about the issues we have with relative caps, but this is a little counterintuitive. It would also mean—this will be anathema to many colleagues who have spoken passionately today in support of a relative cap—effectively perpetual Government intervention in the energy market. There is strong agreement across the House in favour of competitive markets delivering the best for consumers. When those markets are broken, or regulation slips out of date, it is right to improve the powers of regulators, but perpetual Government intervention, particularly in setting prices, is not the way to deliver the best outcomes. Therefore, the new clause is not necessary.

Moving on to the comments on relative caps, Ofgem said in its evidence, which others strongly supported, that a relative cap will be gamed by the largest suppliers. If we introduce this hypothesis, it will be gamed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) also pointed out, we also heard in Select Committee evidence sessions that there was overwhelming support for an absolute cap—now and then.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend wishes to intervene, and I will of course give way.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I hesitate to pray the Labour Front Benchers in aid of my argument, but the Minister has just quoted Ofgem in favour of hers, so perhaps it will make sense. Does she not agree that it would be commercial suicide for a supplier to raise its tariffs in the competitive market, to protect its position, were a relative cap to be introduced? I think the shadow Minister said earlier that it would be commercially suicidal or a kamikaze move.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
- Hansard - -

I am afraid that I have to disagree with my hon. Friend and reject that point. That is what has been happening for many years to the most vulnerable customers, who have seen price rises recently and who are not switching for a variety of reasons. We are trying to deal with that customer group today. I hope that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test will withdraw the new clause on the basis that it is not rational and not needed.

Amendment 5 proposes that a set period of five months be placed in the Bill. We debated that at length in Committee, and I believe that we are all seized of the need to bring the Bill into force in good order as quickly as possible—we do not want to wait any longer. We want the Bill to be in place by the time we rise for the summer recess, and obviously it has to go through the other place first. We want the caps to be transparent and to be applied in time for this winter, 2018, so that people can start to benefit and make savings on their energy bills immediately.

We heard from Back Benchers why they felt the five months provision would be difficult, and I will add my concern that if Ofgem were to go over such a legal limit, even by a couple of days, it could inhibit its ability legally to bring forward the cap. We must do nothing to reduce Ofgem’s ability to consult on the cap and put it in place. It is worth emphasising again—I am sure the regulators and others are listening—that we want and expect the cap to be in place by the end of the year. I do not think the proposal in amendment 5 is either legally permissible or necessary.

Amendments 2, 3 and 4 were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and supported by many Members who have thought carefully about this issue. We have refined the Bill through the course of our discussions and made it into a better piece of legislation, and I am grateful for that. We have heard again today many of the arguments that we have heard during the Bill’s passage. We are talking about a theoretical position in talking about a relative cap, because the only cap we currently have is the safeguard tariff, which is an absolute cap and which appears to be working to save customers money.

Our concern is that with a relative cap, we could see suppliers lifting their skirts on their cheaper tariffs, and that there could be an inhibiting effect on some of the innovations that my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) mentioned, with companies charging extremely low prices for time of use tariffs. We heard overwhelming evidence during the evidence sessions chaired by the hon. Member for Leeds West, and also in the Public Bill Committee, that absolute caps were considered a much better way of bringing forward the protections that we all want. That is the view of Ofgem, the Select Committee, Citizens Advice, moneysupermarket.com and some of the new energy companies, and I am persuaded that those organisations have the interests of the customers we are trying to help at heart.

I am also concerned that if we had relative caps, there could be a lot of gaming going on and a lot less transparency. We have talked about what would happen if suppliers lifted their prices. We know that the trouble we have is with a group of customers we refer to as disengaged. They are not digitally enabled; they tend to be older, on lower incomes and more vulnerable; and they are not as susceptible or sensitive to the price elasticity that would perhaps persuade others to switch. The aim of this price cap Bill is to protect those customers, so I do not believe that it is necessary to accept those amendments.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I just want to point out that the criticism that the relative cap can result in an increase in switching rates and tariffs has equally been applied to the absolute cap. There has been criticism of both kinds of cap, not just of the relative cap.

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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There has been a lot of criticism of both kinds of cap, but if we look at the one sort of cap that we have—the prepayment meter cap that is extended to vulnerable customers—we see that those customers have saved between £60 and £120 on the basis of that cap. It has actually worked to reduce their prices. I am pleased that my hon. Friend is not intending to press his amendment to a vote.

Amendment 6 seeks to ensure that we have a stated amount of the savings that might accrue. I think that is perhaps slightly mischievous, and it does not really reflect the consensual spirit that we have had throughout the passage of the Bill. I can imagine that the people coming up with these numbers were looking at the savings that we have discussed in relation to the prepayment cap, or indeed the £300 average difference between the most expensive and the cheapest tariffs in the market. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) said, we need to calculate volume as well as price to estimate the service, and we do not yet know what cap Ofgem will set. We also do not want to constrain Ofgem’s ability to set the cap or to create targets for the big six to work towards as the maximum saving. I hope that, on the basis of that explanation, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test will be content not to press his amendment.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Field of Birkenhead Portrait Frank Field
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Might the Minister meet people to discuss amendment 1 further?

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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There has been a huge amount of scrutiny, and I am hoping that we can get the legislation through to the other place, but my door is open. We want a well-functioning energy market that works for everybody and provides competitively priced energy.

I was asked an important question about the statutory instrument, which is also going through the House, that enables data sharing between the DWP and others. It has completed its pre-legislative scrutiny and will be introduced during the passage of this Bill. It is a vital and necessary part of ensuring that the powers in the Bill work.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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Will the Minister be clear with us tonight that the safeguard tariff and the absolute cap do not contradict each other and that they can be introduced together, so that the protections can continue? Is she convinced that that is the way forward?

Claire Perry Portrait Claire Perry
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There is nothing in the Bill that interferes with Ofgem’s ability to extend the safeguard tariff, which is part of an existing separate set of powers. By having this discussion, we are sending a clear message that we expect Ofgem to retain adequate protections for the most vulnerable consumers once the Bill is passed. I thank colleagues for putting that matter forward for debate today, because it is an absolutely vital point that we must get across. However, on the basis of my responses, I hope that the hon. Member for Leeds West will not feel the need to press amendment 9.

Amendment 8 essentially sets out the conditions that would determine success when we consider whether the price cap should be removed. As we discussed in Committee, it is not the job of Ministers to prejudge the regulator’s work on what a good market will look like in two years’ time. This country has seen some of the most rapid evolution in energy innovation, and in the future there may well be factors that are no longer considered relevant in establishing competition or factors that do not best address consumers’ needs. I do not want to put anything into the Bill that would give energy companies something to target. The Bill is supposed to be about giving the regulator broad powers to ensure that companies deliver a better price for consumers, not try to engineer a particular outcome. I hope that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test considers that a sufficient explanation and will not press amendment 8.

It has been great to have so much cross-party conversation and discussion on this important piece of legislation. I forgot to mention the vital point made by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) about green tariffs, but the process of setting such tariffs will be scrutinised as never before and we will have better, more transparent tariffs as a result. I hope that all Members are satisfied with the explanations I have provided and that we will not need to trouble the Lobby Clerks this evening.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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On the basis of the explanations that have been put forward, we will be happy not to press our amendments, but we will wish to press new clause 1, which has not been properly understood or responded to this evening.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.