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Oil Prices

Volume 525: debated on Thursday 24 March 2011

I have received a number of representations on the effect of high oil prices on consumers. The Government are aware of the significant impacts that they are having. That is why the Chancellor has announced a £1.9 billion package to ease the burden on motorists, and why I have asked the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the domestic oil market.

How does my hon. Friend expect renewable energy in particular to help off-grid customers who have previously had no alternative to traditional supplies such as heating oil?

My hon. Friend has raised an extremely important point. One of the purposes of our world-leading renewable heat incentive is to encourage businesses and, subsequently, homes to install renewable energy equipment. That is an important way of helping people who currently rely on off-grid mechanisms such as oil and gas.

I hope that my hon. Friend was as pleased as I was when the Chancellor announced in his Budget statement the scrapping of the fuel duty escalator and the introduction of a fuel duty stabiliser. Does he agree that that will go at least some way towards helping my hard-pressed constituents and fellow drivers in Lincoln and throughout the country, who before the general election were faced with an escalator that involved seven fuel duty increases?

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in his pleasure at yesterday’s announcement, and the relief that it will bring his constituents and many others throughout the country. Scrapping the escalator imposed by the previous Administration was a significant change of policy, and all our constituents will be grateful for the steps the Chancellor has taken.

Given the significant number of households in Pendle and the 3.6 million in the United Kingdom as a whole that are off the gas grid, how soon does my hon. Friend expect the OFT’s investigation to be concluded?

That is another important point. I have asked the OFT to complete the work quickly. I want to have its report by the autumn, so that we can learn any necessary lessons and make any necessary changes before next winter in order to protect customers who are off the grid.

I join my hon. Friends in commending the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement yesterday. Many of my constituents will be very, very pleased about it. However, will the Department, during its investigation of the market, look into the discrepancies between pump prices across the country? I do not understand why the prices in my constituency are among the highest, and I am not sure that my constituents do either.

The investigation relates chiefly to the domestic oil and gas market, but if there is evidence of unfair and anti-competitive practices in relation to fuel prices on forecourts, I hope that my hon. Friend will write to the OFT, and I should be grateful if she copied me into the correspondence so that I can see the evidence for myself.

Seventy per cent. of households in Northern Ireland depend on domestic heating oil. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment about possible regulation of the home heating oil industry and the exorbitant prices that households are now being charged?

That too is an important point. The fact that Northern Ireland is significantly more exposed than other parts of the United Kingdom in this regard was one of the driving forces behind our request for the OFT investigation. We will work with the devolved Administrations in any way we can to ensure that any particular examples of difficulties in different parts of the country are taken into account.

About a year ago, the then Secretary of State and I were fortunate enough to be taken up on to the roof of Redland Park united reformed church in Bristol by Rev. Douglas Burnett to look at the solar panels installed there, which had made a huge difference to the church’s fuel bills—it was not having to pay for fuel at all, and was making money selling electricity back to the grid. Is it not therefore ridiculous that under the new feed-in tariffs other churches in Bristol will not be able to follow suit?

As my fellow Minister of State has made clear, the previous Government got their estimates wrong. They assumed there would be no large-scale solar developments in this country by 2013, but there have been a significant number of large-scale applications. That would have blown the budget and made it more difficult to deliver for domestic installations, and we are therefore right to review this process.

What assessment have the Government made of the effect of speculative commodity indices activity on wholesale commodity prices, and what steps are they taking to restrain such activity by banks here and international funds?

There is varying evidence on the effect. There is certainly some evidence that it has pushed up prices, but there is also evidence that hedging can help consumers. We have had discussions with countries, including Saudi Arabia, and it is willing to increase oil production to deal with any market shortages that might arise. I am satisfied from those discussions that demand can be met by increased supply, so shortages should not be a factor in pushing up prices.