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Energy Prices

Volume 532: debated on Wednesday 14 September 2011

5. What recent representations he has received on increases in prices for electricity and gas by the main energy suppliers in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (70964)

Energy price increases continue to be a matter of concern to the public and the Government. I recently discussed the issue with the six largest energy providers in Scotland as well as with consumer groups.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but he will no doubt be aware that the energy companies are now just a major cartel. I therefore suggest one of two options for him: either to give Ofgem the power to say no to the energy companies when they come forward with huge increases; or—even better—to return that power to this House.

We share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to be vigilant about everything that we see in the energy market, which is why the work of Ofgem and my colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change is so important. The latest discussions with the energy companies took place in the last couple of weeks, building on those that I had earlier in the year. The energy companies are in no doubt that the Government expect them to look carefully at all their pricing policies, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to be vigilant in that respect.

One hundred thousand pensioners in Glasgow face cuts totalling £4 million to their winter fuel allowance this year. At the same time, energy companies are putting up their prices by up to 20%. Does the Secretary of State agree that no pensioner in the UK should have to choose between heating their home and putting food on the table? If so, what is he going to do about this?

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus attention on some of the most vulnerable people in society, both in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland. I would point out to him that the winter fuel allowance will return to its previous level, as planned by the previous Government, and that the cold weather payments—on which we spent over £50 million last year—will continue at a higher level than before. I know that the hon. Gentleman studies these matters carefully, and he will be aware that, through our Warm Home discount scheme—a statutory scheme that is replacing the previous voluntary scheme run by the energy companies—we will ensure that we get more than double the amount of assistance to vulnerable households this winter and during the winters ahead.

I hope that the Secretary of State will take the opportunity to talk to renewable energy providers about the fact that the only way of getting the electricity generated in that way into the grid is via overhead pylons. Given that undergrounding takes place in alpine countries, will he insist that that happens in the highlands and the north of England as well?

I understand the sensitivity of the issue that my hon. Friend raises; indeed, it occurs across the country. This matter must be carefully considered, and the proposals for the transmission network must take full account of environmental and other planning considerations.

In his discussions with the energy companies, has the Secretary of State discussed the 1 million households that are not on the gas main? What are the energy companies going to do to extend the gas main and give those households the opportunity to use a cheaper fuel than oil?

We are keen to ensure that consumers have as much choice as possible, whether through extending the transmission networks for all different kinds of energy or through looking at ways of enhancing competitiveness in the market by increasing transparency and improving smart meters. All those measures need to be looked at, and I will certainly put the right hon. Gentleman’s point to the energy companies the next time we talk.

In those discussions about off-grid gas consumers, did the Secretary of State talk about the escalating price and the need to avoid a repeat of the difficulty in ensuring supplies during the severe weather last winter?

People are acutely aware of the problems caused by the weather last winter and the winter before that. That is why the measures to keep resilience in the network are particularly important. Equally, however, we need to recognise that that adds cost to consumers, which is why we are maintaining the cold weather payments. We will also have the winter fuel allowance and, through our new measures, we will enhance the support for vulnerable people across Scotland.

Many of my constituents, particularly those on low incomes, are struggling with the large increases in their gas and electricity bills. I very much welcome the recent news that Ofgem has brought in a firm of specialist auditors to help its investigation into whether the high energy prices are really justified, and I look forward to seeing its report at the end of the year. Will the Secretary of State and his colleagues ensure that Ofgem has all the necessary support to carry out a thorough investigation, and sufficient powers to sanction the big six, in particular, if, as I expect, it finds that they have been acting unfairly?

Certainly, a feature of the discussions that I have been having recently is that many of the energy companies recognise that they need to regain the trust of the consumer concerning price rises and the reasons that they have come about. In the next few weeks I will be bringing energy companies and consumer groups in Scotland together to look at these issues in detail. I will ensure that the companies focus on the appropriate responses and that we take away whatever work we need to do.

Given that surveys conducted by Consumer Focus Scotland show that nine out of 10 people who bought energy products on the doorstep would never do so again, does the Secretary of State agree that it is time for all energy providers in Scotland—not just four—to end the practice of cold calling? If so, when will the Government introduce legislation to ensure that this foul practice ceases?

I join the hon. Lady in condemning the sharp practice that has been on display in many parts of the country, particularly in Scotland. That is one of the issues that we will discuss in the meeting that I mentioned in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). We are determined to get the companies to recognise that that is an unacceptable practice.

At a time when Scottish and Southern Energy will be adding an average of £171 a year to each of its customers’ electricity and gas bills, tipping thousands of people in Scotland into fuel poverty, and when other energy providers are following suit, does the Minister agree that it is unfair and morally inappropriate that its chief executive officer received a bonus of £2 million on top of his £840,000 salary when the wholesale prices of energy were actually going down?

Remuneration is a matter for the energy companies themselves, but all of us have to ensure that we are carefully focused on the performance and behaviour of all these companies, which is why I have been ensuring that their focus is on what their consumers, and particularly the most vulnerable, need. The hon. Lady is right to focus on fuel poverty: at the end of 2009, a third of Scottish households were measured to be in it. The measures I have already outlined will go a long way towards helping to tackle it.