[Relevant documents: The Fourth Report from the Energy and Climate Change Committee, Electricity Market Reform, HC 742 and the Government response, HC 1448, and the Sixth Report from the Committee, Ofgem’s Retail Market Review, HC 1046, and the Government response, HC 1544.]
I beg to move,
That this House believes that the energy market does not serve the public interest and is in need of urgent reform; notes with concern research by OFGEM showing that average household energy bills have risen, while energy companies’ profit margins have soared; recognises that, with a cold winter forecast and Government support cut, millions of families will struggle to heat their homes; believes that energy tariffs are confusing and unfair, meaning that 80 per cent. of people currently pay more for their energy than they need to, and that consumers who try to switch are often given inaccurate information; further believes that to tackle climate change, build a new low carbon economy and make the UK a world leader in green energy, which will bring new industry and jobs to the UK, people need to know that the energy market is fair; and calls on the Government to investigate mis-selling and ensure consumers are compensated, introduce a simple format to be applied across all tariffs, so that people can compare the full range of energy deals at a glance, increase transparency by requiring energy companies to publish their trading data, reform the energy market to break the dominance of the Big Six by requiring them to sell power into a pool, allowing new businesses to enter the market, increasing competition and driving down energy bills for families and businesses, and demand that energy companies use their profits to help reduce energy bills this winter.
I am pleased to move this Opposition day motion, and it is good to see the Secretary of State in his place this afternoon; we were all concerned for his well-being after his no-show on “Newsnight” on Monday. It was the day of that amazing energy summit, yet he was nowhere to be seen. That tells us just how well the summit went. As today’s report on fuel poverty highlights, the stakes could not have been higher: according to the National Grid Company’s forecast last week, this winter could be as bitter as last year, which saw the coldest December on record. Moreover, energy bills have risen by more than 20% this year alone, driving inflation to the second highest level in Europe, and have risen by more than 50% in the past four years, which means that the average family is now paying £1,345 a year just to keep the lights on and the house warm.
That matters. People do not have a choice about whether to consume energy. At the same time as more than one quarter of families are struggling to afford their energy bills, more price rises are on the horizon and more families are worried about how they will make ends meet, yet energy companies are enjoying soaring profits. On Monday the Secretary of State got the big six energy firms, which between them control 99% of the market, into the same room. With them were consumer groups such as Which? and Consumer Focus. It was the ideal opportunity to get a grip on spiralling energy bills, but what was the big idea? What was the bold plan? What was the new policy?
We were given two words that will strike terror into the hearts of the big six energy firms, two words that will give reassurance to millions of families worried about how they are going to heat their homes this winter: “Go compare”. I honestly thought that the Prime Minister was going to come dressed as the opera singer Gio Compario and force the summit’s reluctant audience to endure a chorus. He might as well have done, for all the good that came out of it. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State could only look on—as the Prime Minister spoke and the public relations shots were taken—reduced to the role of the Prime Minister’s meerkat.
That is why, as we left office, we set in train the opportunity to put in place a more balanced energy generation selection for everyone, and that is why many of those policies are now being carried forward by the present Government.
But let us talk about this winter, this week, as the cold snap hits, and about the prices that families up and down the country are facing. Let us talk about the outcome of that energy stunt. There will be no overhaul of the energy market to break the stranglehold of the big six, there will be no radical simplification of the tariffs available, and there will not even be a pause for thought about whether cutting winter fuel payments for pensioners is the right thing to do, even though the Prime Minister accused Labour of lying when we warned, before the general election, that the Tories would cut them. The only message was: go compare. However, people can only go and compare if they have easy, accurate, transparent information on pricing, which we do not have. The number of tariffs on offer has risen from 180 three years ago to more than 400 today: there were more than 70 new tariffs just this year. That does not help consumer choice; it hinders it.
My constituents, when they look at this vast array of different tariffs, step back and think, “Well, what’s the point? These six firms are effectively in cahoots anyway. They are almost operating a cartel.” They think, “Why bother wading through all this treacle and looking at the different tariffs, because we know that we’ll switch to one company and then, two minutes later, it will up its prices too.”
My hon. Friend makes the point that many of our constituents are making about mis-selling, and the barrage of information that does not allow them to make a clear choice. If there are too many tariffs that are complicated to understand and difficult to compare, people cannot make informed decisions about which deal would be best for them.
The right hon. Lady will be aware that energy prices soared in Britain between 1997 and 2010. Heating oil prices increased in real terms by 130%, gas prices by 71% and coal prices by 61%. Does she think that that inspires confidence in her approach?
That is one of the reasons why in 2007 we started discussions across Europe, as part of the new third energy package, to ensure that national regulators had more powers and to introduce more competition and transparency. That is what my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) has been calling for ever since he was Energy Secretary, including now, as leader of the Labour party. It is interesting that we are only now beginning to see signs that the Government are getting behind the Miliband deal. [Laughter.] It is absolutely true.
The Secretary of State likes to lecture us about the need to check and switch, but what does his own Energy Minister say? Earlier this year he poured his heart out to the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change about his struggle to find a cheaper deal. He said:
“I went on line to compare my tariffs and I was so confused by the options that I decided to stick where I was”.
That is what is happening to our constituents up and down the country. If the Minister himself cannot work out how to get a better deal, what hope is there for the rest of us? No wonder 80% of people are paying more for their energy than they need to.
I recognise the passion with which the right hon. Lady speaks. I share her passion, because many people in my constituency, particularly pensioners, have been struck with fuel poverty. However, I am beginning to ask myself whether she has been asleep for the last 13 years as prices have gone up. This has not suddenly happened overnight; the problem has got increasingly worse over the last 13 years. What does she say about that?
I am afraid that the problem has got even worse in the last year. Prices have been going up, even though wholesale prices have been going down. In its recent reports Ofgem has quite rightly complained about the way the energy big six blame wholesale prices when they put their prices up, but when wholesale prices go down they are not as quick to send them down the other way. It is just not good enough.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that shopping around, as people are being told to do, is a totally hopeless choice when they are suffering so badly, in many different ways, from rising prices, and not just fuel prices? Given the profits that the energy companies are making, does she think that they should make a contribution by cutting prices?
Absolutely, and that is in our motion today. Every Member of this House has a chance to vote to urge the energy companies to share some of their profits with the people who are their customers and to get prices down. As my hon. Friends have said, the problem is that even when people try to find a better package they do not get the right information.
Are things not, in fact, even worse than that? People can reduce the amount that they pay by switching only if they pay by direct debit, which acts against those on the lowest incomes who do not have bank accounts, and those of our constituents who do not wish to set up direct debits as they want the ability to decide which bills they pay when, in these difficult times.
Absolutely. There is no point in the companies having a system that does not recognise the situation of ordinary families. The National Pensioners Convention talks about the fact that fewer than six in 10 pensioners have access to a computer to go online. It is not fair or right. The onus should be on the companies, not the public. However, all the Secretary of State could do this week was blame the public: “It’s your fault you’re not getting out there and getting a better deal. It’s your fault you’re not saving yourselves £200 a time.” He has got a lot to answer for, because he has just sat back and let people suffer.
The right hon. Lady bemoans the unfairness in the direct debit discounts and the way in which those suffering from fuel poverty are treated by the system—there is also an issue with rising block tariffs—but all those things happened in the 13 years of the Labour Government. She is absolutely right to raise those important issues, but what did her Government do in that time to address them?
For a start, we had the most ambitious programme to help people in fuel poverty deal with their bills—the Government are cutting those measures—but we also started discussions across Europe about having Europe-wide legislation to tackle some of those issues by not only giving greater powers to regulators but ensuring more openness and transparency. I will talk about this more later, but I am sad to say that we are seven months overdue in implementing that legislation and putting into statute powers that we can use to control parts of the market. Perhaps the Secretary of State will say something more about why the package that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was negotiating when he was Climate Change Secretary has not been implemented.
Research published by the consumer group Which? showed that when people contacted the big six energy firms to ask how they could save money—that is, when they made the effort that the Secretary of State lectures us about—a third of them were given misleading advice. Either those customers were deliberately misled or the tariffs were so complicated that not even the staff selling them understood them. Can we imagine any other product or service where we would accept four out of five customers being overcharged—not just once, but time and time again—and nothing being done about it? When four out of five families are paying over the odds for their electricity and gas it shows how out of touch this Government are to lecture people about shopping around.
People do not want a Government who blame them for the fact that their energy bills have gone up. Families and businesses that do the right thing, work hard and play by the rules cannot understand why this Government are not only allowing electricity and gas companies to increase bills by so much, but seem to be apologising on their behalf. On Monday the Energy Secretary told the “Today” programme:
“Energy companies are not the Salvation Army”,
and said that he expected them to
“earn respectable returns for their shareholders”.
We know that the energy companies are not the Salvation Army, but it should not be Government policy to drive people into the arms of the Salvation Army either.
Can the right hon. Lady explain why, in 2000, the Labour Government set a 10-year target of securing 10% of electricity from renewables, with a starting point of 2.7%, yet failed to achieve it, adding only 6% in 10 years? In 2009 the current Leader of the Opposition set a legally binding target of 31%—in other words, signing us up to deliver 21% extra when we had already failed to achieve the 10% target in the preceding 10 years. Could she please explain that?
I am happy to support the Labour Government’s ambitious plans to be at the forefront of supporting renewable energy—and also, I should add, cracking the whip to make the energy companies play their part. Part of the problem is that the energy companies seemed to be on a mission to make us use more energy and pay more, rather than helping us to reduce our energy consumption and therefore pay less. We have nothing to apologise for on that front. What we are talking about today is what is happening this week, as the frost hits, and this winter, when people will face not only high energy bills but higher food prices, and wage freezes in the public and private sectors, in a country where unemployment is going up and people are feeling the squeeze on all fronts.
The question is: what can this Government do about that now? The answer, from Monday’s energy summit, seems to be: precious little. We do not think that this Government are doing enough. On Monday the Secretary of State could not bring himself to question whether it is right, at a time when millions of families and businesses are struggling with energy bills, that energy companies should be enjoying soaring profit margins, which are up more than eightfold since June. We do not think that it is, which is why we welcome The Sun’s “Keep it Down” campaign, and why we said that the Government should have used Monday’s summit to tell the energy giants to give up some of their profits and cut bills this winter. Was it any surprise that the BBC correspondent reported that the energy companies were “delighted” with the outcome of the summit? Well, they would be, because they were not asked to do anything.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that the energy companies need to be regulated, and that, along with regulation, we need initiatives to reduce the supply of energy that they get, over a 12-month or even a 24-month period? Does she also agree that such arrangements would need to be regulated and guaranteed under legislation? Regulation of the companies and a reduction in the supplies that they give out, guaranteed by legislation, will be the way forward.
We are clearly on record as saying that we need to reform this distorted market. We need openness and transparency, and we need simpler tariffs. It is not enough just to tell people to navigate themselves around the increasing number of available tariffs that are no good. This is also about breaking up the big six and opening up the energy market to new suppliers. We are clear about that, and today we are forcing the Government to tell the House whether they, too, are clear about it.
Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to look at John Hills’s report on fuel poverty? He talks about the thousands of people who will die from hypothermia this winter. Does not that make any arguments about who is at fault completely superfluous? The fact is that we have to prevent those people from dying. What are the Government going to do about this? Are they going to put profit before people’s lives?
I was pleased to be able to have a meeting with John Hills this morning to discuss his report. I would not want to make a direct comparison in this regard, but it is telling that more people die of cold in the winter than die on our roads. This is about recognising that, while certain actions will take time, we need to determine what can be done here and now. The sad thing is that Ministers are lecturing families and firms about insulating and saving, even though they have cut Warm Front by 70% and will not give anyone any information about their green deal for homes, which will not be ready for another year anyway. Labour invested more than £300 million in Warm Front during our last year in office, helping families to keep warm and save energy. We helped home owners on modest incomes to modernise their heating systems, but today that scheme has a budget of just £110 million, and it is due to end in April 2013. The Government could take action right now: they could also stand up to the energy companies and tell them to help people to help themselves. In doing that, they could perhaps save some lives.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that we should be challenging the big six over their excessive profits. She is also right to point out, in relation to the Government’s responsibilities, what Warm Front did to reduce fuel poverty. What does she think about the Government’s cutting of winter fuel payments and replacing social tariffs with a poorly designed system? We must press the Government about those changes.
My hon. Friend brings to the House the expertise of a public health expert, and she makes an excellent point. How people live, and the homes and communities that they live in, are important to their physical well-being. For example, 80-year-old widows will lose £100 this winter that would have helped to heat their homes. And by the way, the Prime Minister had the brass neck to tell the public to check out free insulation, but he forgot to say that the insulation schemes run by the energy companies exist only because Labour legislated to require them to spend £300 million every year on reducing fuel poverty.
My right hon. Friend will recall, as will most Members when the Government take us back to the 1980s, that it was Edwina Currie who said that pensioners had to stay in one room with a flask beside them, knitting themselves scarves and hats to keep warm. We are going back to that same territory, are we not?
I am afraid that Edwina Currie was in the news again only last week, when she said that she was not aware of anyone who could not afford to eat. People up and down the country are, however, facing the choice between keeping warm and having a hot meal. The sad thing is that many older people often make such sacrifices and keep quiet about them; they suffer on their own. In the voluntary sector, we are also seeing cuts to the services that support those people and help them to get access to their rights and to the deals that they deserve. This is a sorry tale of a sorry Government.
May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the report on fuel poverty by the Office of Fair Trading, which was published this week? She asks what is being done. The report described the stopping of practices by BoilerJuice—something that was set up on her watch—which allowed only one company to be in a position to market its products, namely DCC. Will she “go compare” that?
Whatever we do in public policy, the important thing is always to see whether it is hitting the mark and working as best it can. Does that mean that policies always stay the same? No, it does not.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for calling me his right hon. Friend, but I must challenge him and the Secretary of State over Labour’s record on supporting families coping with their energy needs. I challenge the Secretary of State to deny that the Decent Homes programme, which involved the modernisation of 1.5 million homes, reduced energy consumption. I defy him to say that the code for sustainable homes did not improve the energy efficiency of new properties. I defy him to say that Warm Front did not reduce energy bills for more than 2 million households. I also defy him to say that the car scrappage scheme did not remove hundreds of thousands of old cars from Britain’s roads and replace them with more fuel-efficient vehicles with lower emissions. I challenge him to own up to the House today to the fact that the regulations that his Government are introducing, seven months after they were required, arise from the third energy package agreed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Yes, it was Labour that agreed the legal agreement across the European Union to make the gas and electricity markets more competitive, to give new powers to the regulator, to reveal the financial records of the energy giants and to put in place a more competitive market that new suppliers could enter. The role of this Government, 18 months into office, is to delay the process of implementation.
Perhaps the Secretary of State is not just the Prime Minister’s meerkat; perhaps he is also the Chancellor’s poodle. Following the Osborne doctrine, which states, “We are going to cut our carbon emissions no slower, but no faster, than other countries in Europe”, perhaps he now believes that, as the Chancellor said,
“a decade of environmental laws and regulations are piling costs on the energy bills of households and companies.”
Perhaps that is why, this week, the Secretary of State failed to stand up to companies over pricing, why he failed to express the anger that the public feel towards the energy giants, and why he meekly agreed to let the energy giants pledge not to raise their prices over the winter only after they had already increased them.
People expect, and deserve, a Government with the courage to stand up to powerful vested interests. This Government cannot even stand up to their own Back Benchers. A survey last year showed that, in spite of the overwhelming scientific consensus, one third of Tory MPs are climate change deniers who doubt the existence of climate change and its link to human activity. As ever, we are particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) for the expertise that she brings to all matters scientific. On Monday, she solved an issue that has evaded scientists for generations when she told Radio 5:
“You can’t put solar panels on children’s shoes.”
I am glad that that thorny issue has been resolved once and for all, but this is all part of the background to the comments of the Chancellor at the Tory party conference, when he openly attacked low-carbon businesses to get cheap applause from Tory delegates. The truth is that this Government are not only out of touch but wedded to an out-of-date orthodoxy which, for too long, has allowed the City and companies such as the privatised electricity suppliers to do what they want at the expense of everyone else.
What will be the cost if we rely on fossil fuels for ever more? What difficulties would that create, in terms not only of fuel costs but of security of supply? I refer the hon. Gentleman to a report that I believe came from both Ofgem and the Department of Energy and Climate Change last year, which outlined that something less than 5% of the price of bills was connected to investment in renewables. Of course we have to look for a balance, but I am focusing on something that we should all be concerned about. Even the Government have admitted that people are paying too high a price for their bills because these tariffs are sold in a misleading way so that people do not get a decent deal. On top of that, we have only the six big energy giants in the market, which needs to be broken up and radically reformed. That is something we should focus our attention on, along with help to people and businesses to make their homes and businesses more energy-efficient so they can pull down the costs of energy over time. There is no going back, however, to an old system of energy supply; that will not help anyone.
What does my right hon. Friend say to people in the poorer parts of my constituency where energy efficiency will not work? People can do nothing with the housing they have got, but they have to live somewhere. The thing that makes the biggest impression on them is the price. If they are going to get screwed by the price from the energy companies, they are going to have to work out how they are to live. What do we do with people like that? We can talk all we like about efficiency, but it does nothing for these poor people.
We stand up for them. We stand up for them when they are not getting the best deal they can for their energy. We also stand up for them by ensuring that low-income homes are supported through Government schemes, whether that is Warm Front or the winter fuel allowance for older people, but those are being cut by the Government. That is what we do and what we look at. In the long term, we look at how we live our lives and where we live and, with Government leadership and support, we help business to do the right thing to help people not to be behind the curve on energy efficiency and lowering bills. We also look at what happens now, which is why our motion demands that energy companies use some of their profits to help people, particularly the most vulnerable in our communities.
The Government do not understand the reality for families who struggle to pay the bills at the end of the month or the reality for vulnerable people who must make choices about whether to heat their home or have a hot meal. The same applies to families who believe in greening their homes, do their recycling, have low-energy light bulbs and have insulated their homes, yet still find that under the complex, distorted tariffs they pay more for every unit of energy they use—not to mention the businesses trying to keep their head above water because of an austerity programme that is not working for Britain.
Yes, and all this takes place in an environment in which unemployment is going up and growth is going down. This toxic cocktail of Government policies is not only not helping us get to a better place for our economy, but is actually making it far worse.
Does the right hon. Lady share my particular concern for the south-west, given that if we add energy bills at an average of £1,300 to the water bills at £517, people are looking at spending 8% of their average income on utility bills?
The hon. Lady speaks up for the south-west and I know that she has raised questions a number of times about water in the south-west. Again, however, I would have to say that she should speak to her leader and to the Secretary of State about what they are doing to challenge these utility companies over how they supply, and she should recognise the difficulties faced across our country. She also needs to recognise particular difficulties within regions as well as within the country.
I understand that the wholesale price has gone down from its peak in 2008 by two thirds; in fact, wholesale prices have been going down in the last month. That poses the question: why do we hear from the energy companies when they say that prices are going up, but when the prices are going down we do not hear from them so loudly? Ofgem has said it is not good enough that when the energy companies claim that wholesale prices are going up, the price to consumers goes up like a rocket, but when they come down, the price comes down like feathers. The truth is that it is a complex market and it is difficult. We are not an island that can control everything, but we should control the way in which the energy companies are expected to satisfy us and the public about how they run their tariffs, and they should open their books to show transparency so we can see at what price they buy and at what price they sell, to ensure that we get a better deal.
Unemployment is at the highest level for 20 years, we have an austerity programme that makes the eyes water, inflation at over 5% and on top of that we face the biggest squeeze on living standards in a generation. Is it not imperative that the Government do something about rising energy prices, which do more than anything else to harm families’ budgets, making it hard for them to keep up a decent standard of living?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Given all the spin before the energy summit on Monday, it was disappointing that all that came out of it was that letters would be written to 8 million households telling them to check, switch, insulate and save. I am sorry, but that is not good enough. It is hard to check, switch, insulate and save when it is so incredibly difficult to navigate a way through the tariff system and people are never quite sure, even if they get what looks like a good deal, whether it is going to be a good deal down the road. That is why some of the tariffs that are fixed for 12 months have been so disappointing; many people have realised that they are not as good as they were claimed to be.
Before I came to this place, I worked for Citizens Advice, so I know that energy poverty has led to one of the greatest increases in inquiries. At the time, I argued for the introduction of a mandatory social tariff on behalf of those in the fuel poverty group, removing them from the market that was clearly not working. Would the Labour Front-Bench team agree with such a radical proposal?
We had something like that, but I am afraid that the present Government have taken it away. If we want to get to the root of the problem, we have to think about radically reforming how the energy market works. We have to create a dynamic and more open energy market that deals with climate change and operates in the interests of the consumer, not the vested interests of the few.
At the Labour party conference, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North called for reform to the energy market to end the dominance of the big six and get a fairer deal for the people of Britain. While the Government have been failing to act to prevent sky-high energy price rises, Labour has been leading the debate and is coming up with radical ideas to reform our energy market and deliver significant reductions in gas and electricity prices for millions of consumers. Our plans would provide immediate help to millions of families now and reform the energy industry to provide a new bargain in the future.
The right hon. Lady is making a critique of the current regulatory regime, which was the Labour Government’s regime. What we are doing is reforming the electricity market and there is also Ofgem’s retail market review. Those are the steps taken forward, and we will ensure that they deliver value for the consumer. The previous Government published 32 Green Papers and consultations and passed two pieces of legislation, so there was a lot of inactivity over the past 13 years.
I think I have already said that, back in 2007, we embarked on securing Europe-wide support for reform of the energy market. I am afraid to say that the negotiations on which the leader of the Labour party led have yet to be implemented. They are seven months overdue; they could have been implemented in this country seven months ago, but it has not happened yet. We are calling for further radical restructuring: we have argued for the energy giants to put all their power into a pool, but we have not heard that echoed by the Government. We have made many demands for transparent data to go to the regulator, but again we have not heard that echoed by the Government.
I will continue to expand on my theme a little, if I may, but I will be happy for the hon. Lady to intervene again if I have time.
If we want to get to the root of the problem, we must talk about reform, and our plans would provide immediate help for millions of families. First, we must deal with the sheer number and complexity of energy tariffs, which are extremely confusing and unfair. They hit loyal customers and penalise those who use less energy, and they really must be reformed. We propose a simple new tariff structure, which will be clearer and fairer and which will help all energy customers to get a better deal. It would work like a phone bill, with a daily standing charge and a cost per unit for the energy used.
Simplifying the pricing of energy would make it much easier for people to compare deals, work out which is the cheapest for them, and ditch the ones that are ripping them off. We need to get rid of expensive primary units and unregulated standing charges, so that people are no longer penalised for being low energy users, which is quite ridiculous. Instead of his “Check, switch, insulate” mantra, could the Secretary of State not try “Simple, honest, straightforward”? That might work better for customers.
What about redress? I understand that only two days ago, on breakfast TV, when asked about our proposal for a thorough investigation of past mis-selling and compensation for customers who have been ripped off, the Secretary of State suggested that that was not worth doing because it would delay other reforms. Labour Members will accept new protection measures as they are introduced, and we agreed that that should happen throughout Europe when we were in office. However—let me challenge the Secretary of State by repeating this—we are saying today that a full investigation into past mis-selling must be initiated, and that those who have been ripped off must be fully compensated.
In fact, what I said was not worth doing was referring the matter to the Competition Commission, because of the delays that it would involve.
I announced some weeks ago that we were considering redress for consumers. Moreover, we have said that it should not be just a question of a rap across the knuckles or indeed a fine, but that there should be a possibility of redress for consumers as well.
Obviously we will explore that in a little more detail, but I think it is clear that those who have mis-sold a package must pay back to people what they have lost through that, and must pay them compensation. It is clear that the fines are not working, because every time a consumer organisation conducts another survey, it finds more evidence of mis-selling. I think that this is quite straightforward, and I do not see why we need to go on talking about it. Let us just get on with it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Energy and Climate Change Committee, of which I am a member, should be praised for initiating the current inquiries? Already four of the big six have decided to stop doorstep selling, and we need to push that further. The Secretary of State knows that these companies are on the run; now he must put the boot into the big six, and ensure that our customers receive the compensation that they deserve. We need not measly words, but action.
My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I pay due respect to all the members of the Select Committee. They have done fantastic work on our behalf, highlighting some of the problems caused by the operation of the energy market and energy companies. It is about time that the Government stood up to the energy giants, because this is not good enough. I do not know how energy chief executives can go on television and brazen it out, talking about what their companies are doing for customers, when 80% of people are not on the best deal for them, and mis-selling appears to have reached the level that is being discussed in the Chamber and beyond. It is a disgrace, and the very least that those companies should do is fess up and pay back.
It is not just the mis-selling itself, but the fact that it has taken place within the confines of what is clearly a rigged market, that is such an utter disgrace. It is clear that the levels of profit per customer in all the companies in the market are rising very quickly and will fall very slowly, and that is of concern to every Member in the House.
My hon. Friend is right. People are not stupid, but sometimes I feel that the leaders in this country treat them as if they were. That certainly seemed to be the case on Monday, after the energy summit. People feel distrust, and they are right to feel distrust because of what has happened to them.
I am sure that we all have stories of our own experience. For instance, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), tried to work out what was the best tariff for him, and then gave up on it. Yet people are being blamed for sticking to the same supplier because they too have given up, although some of those whom we represent have more stresses to deal with in life than we have. Spending half the day sorting out an energy bill—if they can devote that much time to it—is just one item in a long list of things with which they are having to cope, and they are not being helped by the policies of this Government.
It is all very well for the Prime Minister to tell people that they should insulate their homes. It is true that they should do that, but some of the poorest people in the country live in private rented accommodation. They turn up in my surgery all the time. There are some excellent private landlords, but there are also many who are simply not interested in insulating their houses, and do not care how high their bills are.
We have been campaigning for something to be done about that from 2016, but I understand that the Government do not intend to do anything until 2018, and that too is a disgrace. We must also look much more closely at what happens to housing benefit in the private rented sector, and ensure that that sector is not left behind. We should consider incentives, but we should also consider introducing a bit of stick where it is necessary.
One in four children in Swansea currently live in absolute poverty, which means that every day a choice must be made between eating and heating. Should the Government not put at the top of their agenda the opportunities at their disposal to target support at those in greatest need, particularly households containing children in poverty?
The Secretary of State has focused on the fact that switching suppliers might save people as much as £200. Is that not a bit rich, given that the energy companies’ profit per person is £125? Most people will never get around to switching, and meanwhile the big six are raking it in.
If it is true that every customer who followed the Energy Secretary’s advice could save £200, why do the companies not make it easier for customers by simply reducing their prices? The latest report does indeed show that their profit margins are £125 a head, up from £15 a head in June. If that does not set the alarm bells ringing in Government, I do not know what will.
As Members have pointed out—including, to some extent, Government Members—reforming the way in which energy is priced and sold will only ever work if there is genuine competition in the energy market. There is no such competition at present. The market is dominated by just six firms, which supply more than 99% of electricity and gas.
No. I will not take any more interventions, because I want to leave time for other Members on both sides of the House to contribute.
The problem is that when wholesale prices go up, so do people’s bills, but when wholesale prices come down, bills do not. That is because of the lack of transparency in the market. The companies that generate energy sell it to themselves, and then on to customers. If the few big dominant firms were forced to sell the power that they generate to any retailer, companies such as supermarkets and others could come into the market, there would be more competition. and the upward pressure on prices would be eased.
In the long term, however, the only way in which we will deal with rising energy prices is by investing in new renewable sources of energy. The challenge is clear. A quarter of our generation capacity will close in the next 10 years, and we need to attract some £200 billion of investment. If we do not do that, energy bills may rise further still, by hundreds of pounds a year.
As a result of the uncertainty this Government have created, the UK is falling behind with investment in new low-carbon generation. Investment that should be coming to the United Kingdom, supporting jobs, growth and industry in this country, is now going overseas. Last year, when we left office, the UK was ranked third in the world for investment in green growth. Today, because of the choices made by the present Government, we have slipped 10 places to 13th, falling behind countries such as Brazil, India and China. That is why the Chancellor was wrong when he said the UK should not try to get ahead of other countries in developing our green industries; we should do that. We should be ambitious for our country; we should be a world leader on the green economy. That is good for consumers because in the long run it will bring down prices. It is good for our environment because it gets our carbon emissions down. It is good for our energy security because it means we are less affected by events overseas. It is good for our economy too, because it creates jobs and supports growth at a time when we need that more than ever.
I am afraid that we have a Government who are out of touch and unable to stand up to powerful vested interests on energy prices on behalf of the people of this country. They are out of touch when they tell people that they are to blame for rising energy bills. They are out of touch when they cut help for pensioners at a time when prices are rising and a cold winter is on the way. They are also out of touch when they insult people by saying “Check, switch” and “insulate to save.”
The public will check; they will check how their family voted at the last election and they will switch to Labour—as Liberal Democrat voters did in their droves in May. They will try to insulate themselves from the hardships this Government are raining down on them, and in a few years they will save themselves and this country from this terrible coalition.
The public do not need lectures from Government. They want leadership, and today there is a very clear choice before the House: vote to stand up to the energy companies and take action; vote for simpler and fairer tariffs; vote for justice and redress for the victims of mis-selling; vote to open the books and shine a light on how energy is bought and sold; vote to break the stranglehold of the big six and create an open and competitive energy market; vote to tell the energy companies to use their profits to cut bills now. I commend the motion to the House.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) brings a wealth of Government experience to her brief, and I congratulate her on her appointment and on securing today’s debate. She has a particularly difficult Opposition Front-Bench role as her boss, the Leader of the Opposition, was the former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. He held that post for almost two years, and presided over the last Government’s energy and climate change policies. It is his legacy that I am having to deal with.
As we did not hear much from the right hon. Lady about that legacy, I would like to remind her of it. First, we inherited a situation whereby we ranked 25th out of 27 European Union member states on renewable energy. No turf was turned for any new nuclear power stations. There was no progress on that throughout the 13 years the Labour Government were in office.
Carbon capture and storage is a crucial technology if we are to ensure that the coal mines and miners in this country have ongoing employment, but in 2007 the Peterhead project was cancelled, despite the competition, with the consequence that we have now further delayed addressing this issue.
There was not a single comprehensive energy saving package throughout the time of the last Labour Government, whereas in our first year in office, we have proposed in the Energy Bill a comprehensive package to make sure that householders can save energy, so that we end the scandal we inherited from the right hon. Lady and her colleagues of householders in our country spending more on their energy every year than people do in Sweden, where temperatures are 7° lower than here. That highlights the waste we inherited.
I will happily give way in a moment, but having listed a few legacy issues that we are attempting to deal with, I should make one final point. The leader of the Labour party held this portfolio for almost two years, but only now that he no longer has any power to do anything does he keep coming up with interesting ideas. He recently came up with the interesting idea—I do not agree with it but it is an interesting proposal—that the energy companies should be broken up and should no longer be vertically integrated. However, I can see no such proposal in the Opposition motion. Why is that? Is the right hon. Lady already resiling from the proposal that her boss made just a few weeks ago?
Indeed, I read this motion very carefully expecting, as usual, to come across a number of points on which we could disagree, but I and my ministerial team have consulted, and we cannot disagree with it. We will not oppose it. I hope that the right hon. Lady asks her boss whether she was right not to propose that key idea he made a few weeks ago.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his civility. However, he is rewriting history yet again. What did he and his party do throughout the previous decade and longer when we were establishing the consensus on the need to build new nuclear? Also, would he care to comment on the fact that when we left office this country was one of the top five most attractive countries in the world for inward investment on renewables?
We do not need to go as far back as that. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the coalition reached an agreement which said that, given the overwhelming support for new nuclear from the Opposition and the Conservative party, it has a part to play. I refer him to my recent speech at the Royal Society in which I addressed how we intend to make sure that we do not repeat the mistakes on new nuclear generation that, sadly, so many Energy Secretaries made in the past.
I will make a little progress before giving way again.
Across the country, rising energy prices are hitting households hard. On top of increasing petrol and food costs, many households are facing an increase of more than £100 in their annual dual fuel bills. For those who are struggling, it can seem as if bills simply keep going up. I am sure that all Members will join me in expressing concern about that, but sympathy from the sidelines is not enough. It is our responsibility to do everything we can to help. That is why we are focusing on the things that will make a difference both this winter and in the long term.
First and foremost, consumers need to know how they can cut their energy bills right now. We need open and honest information, so people can see the savings they can make by checking their energy deal, switching tariffs or suppliers, and insulating their homes. One of the positive things to come out of Monday’s energy summit was a commitment from the energy companies that, as part of the voluntary agreement, they will notify all their customers when there is a cheaper tariff than that which they are currently paying. That is a step forward. It is not the end of the story, but it is a step forward.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the choice of language is important? He says that we can reduce bills by switching and insulating, but is it not the case that, given the massive rise in energy prices, if people switch or insulate they may stop the rise being so big, but bills will keep rising? That is why people are being hit so hard. Wages are not rising, but bills are. Unless we can reduce bills, we will not help the situation.
That is a very good point. It is certainly the case that over the past year there has been a substantial increase in world gas prices because of the high growth in the far east, the demand for gas and the Fukushima nuclear accident. That substantial increase in gas prices has inevitably fed through to bills, but I think that people understand that, by getting a grip and comparing tariffs, they can curb that increase, and sometimes offset it entirely.
Ofgem is the independent regulator, and I have a lot of respect for the work it does. It has found that people could save £200 by switching, and I should point out that an additional £100 is available for simple energy insulation steps.
One of my constituents has taken the trouble to analyse each section of his bill. He found that although the gas price—the actual energy price—had reduced from being 62% of his bill to 42%, his bill had increased. When he interrogated his supplier he found that the profit level it had built in had a 9% increase. In reality, it had taken that money, which was not demanded of it for energy sources, and put it into the profit level. That is why bills are increasing.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, which is why we are happy not to oppose the motion. I agree that there are signs in this market of anti-competitive behaviour and we need to get a grip on that, which is exactly what this Government are doing in supporting what Ofgem—the independent regulator—is doing.
I will make a little progress before I give way.
Our approach means working together across the consumer groups and the energy industry to get the message out about checking, switching and insulating. Earlier this week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I brought the energy suppliers, the consumer groups and Ofgem together to do precisely that. In the new year, Citizens Advice will co-ordinate a “Big Energy Week” campaign, and energy suppliers have put together winter help packages for consumers, which I am sure other hon. Members will welcome.
The right hon. Gentleman is saying that he wants to be a champion of consumer rights. He will be aware that the primary consumer watchdog on energy, Consumer Focus, which has mandatory statutory powers, is being abolished by his Government and those powers are being absorbed by Citizens Advice, which has enough on its plate with changes in legal aid, cuts and all the rest of it. Does he not accept that that change will disempower energy consumers, at least over that period of change, and that the powers of Consumer Focus are set in statute in a stronger way than those of Citizens Advice, which is a charity?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. I care as passionately as he does about consumer rights on this issue. I spent some time on the board of Which?, the consumer association, so I will not be second to anyone on those particular issues. My experience—perhaps his differs—is that many of my constituents go first and foremost for advice on these issues to their citizens advice bureau, so that is an appropriate place to situate such advice.
When the coalition took office, some 400 separate tariffs were available. That is also part of the legacy we inherited from the time when the right hon. Lady’s boss was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. This coalition Government have, in our Energy Bill—now the Energy Act 2011, as it received Royal Assent yesterday—taken powers to force companies to give straightforward information about cheaper tariffs. We are also working with Ofgem to cut the number of tariffs and make it easier to compare them. According to Ofgem, only 15% of households switched gas supplier last year and only 17% switched electricity supplier. Switching should be fast and easy, and we are cutting the time it takes to switch to just three weeks—that is another change that this Government have introduced. In addition, Citizens Advice and Ofgem announced record funding from suppliers for the “Energy Best Deal” campaign, which helps vulnerable consumers to shop around for the best deal.
My speech is full of stuff on fuel poverty, but I wish to pick up on one of the points that the Secretary of State made. He said that Sweden was using less energy than the United Kingdom, but that is wrong. According to the Swedish Government’s own figures, Sweden uses twice as much energy as this country does, and the cost is more. In addition, according to the International Energy Agency, Sweden’s energy use is substantially higher than that of the UK. I do not suppose he meant to mislead the House, but I think he must get his facts right.
The hon. Gentleman needs to examine the situation for households. It is clearly the case that Sweden has a lot of hydroelectricity and a lot of industries are very dependent on it. My point was about households and the household use of heating, which is key.
Millions of households could save just by switching tariffs or payment method. From now on, suppliers will write to customers to tell them about these savings—that is another outcome from Monday’s energy summit.
I am going to make a bit of progress before giving way again. The hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) has already intervened once, so he will have to wait until I have taken interventions from some of the other hon. Members.
This winter, energy bills will show customers how to save money, encouraging them to call their supplier and check online for savings. They will also have access to advice.
The Secretary of State makes much of the fact that people will be able to save if they switch. What about the people who cannot use direct debit? What about the people who have not got access to the internet or those who, even if they did, would find it difficult to navigate their way through?
The sort of people the right hon. Lady is talking about are the sort of people we are particularly targeting with our warm homes discount. I heard some of the interventions from Labour Members with mounting surprise, because one of the things that this Government have done, of which I am very proud, is to concentrate help on those most in need—those most vulnerable to rising fuel prices. Through the warm homes discount we have altered the previously voluntary arrangement. I say to Labour Members that their Government operated a purely voluntary arrangement with the big six, so cosy was the relationship between the big six and the right hon. Lady’s boss. It was a voluntary, grace and favour arrangement, whereby support was provided for the most vulnerable. We did not have any truck with that. We decided that we were going to legislate on this, which is exactly what we did. As a result, we will have a two thirds increase in the support made available for these social discounts compared with what was available under the previous Labour Government. So on the matter of fuel poverty, we have been doing exactly the right thing, which is to concentrate support where it is most needed and to make sure that that support is available.
The Secretary of State is making an excellent point about targeting resources where they are necessary. Will he congratulate Cornwall council and other councils that are taking exactly that approach and working in partnership with the voluntary sector to provide free insulation and other ways of helping people in fuel poverty to stay warm this winter?
I certainly will congratulate the hon. Lady’s local council and every council, of all parties, on that work. I hope that we can maintain a cross-party and consensual view on this. Many councils, some Liberal Democrat-led, some Conservative-led and some Labour-led, have been pioneers in this area, and I want to see them do more. Leading on that is really important for our constituents, and it is something to which I pay great tribute.
People can save money on bills, but they can also save by using less energy in the first place. Far too many UK homes are not properly insulated. Loft and cavity wall insulation can save more than £100—we are talking about very simple changes. The big six energy suppliers, which supply 99% of UK households, all offer free or cut-price insulation, yet many householders still have not taken up the offer. So from December, 4 million of the most vulnerable energy customers will receive letters to tell them they are eligible for free or heavily discounted insulation to their loft or cavity walls. Many of these people will not necessarily save energy because they are currently too cold and keep their bills down. By having that insulation, they will be able to increase their comfort, and that is a very good thing to get through an extremely tough winter. The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that one of the scandals in this country, which underpinned the work of the Hills fuel poverty review, is that 25,000 people die each winter because of the cold. We have to deal with that. As has been pointed out, it is a multiple of the number of people killed on the roads and it is a scandal that across this House—I am not going to cast further aspersions on the record of the previous Government—we have not tackled this issue with more vigour until now.
These letters will direct people to a dedicated independent helpline, as part of our programme to ensure an extra 3.5 million homes are properly insulated by the end of 2012. Next year we will also be rolling out the green deal to help even more households save money through energy efficiency.
We must also make sure that help is getting to those who need it most—the most vulnerable households. As I pointed out, discounts have risen very sharply under the coalition, and the extra support will be available this winter. We are requiring energy companies to provide help to about 2 million low-income households through the warm home discount.That is a discount of £120 for 600,000 of the poorest pensioners—substantially more than they have been getting until now. We are spending £110 million on heating and insulation for low-income and vulnerable households through Warm Front.
Is it not the case that only about one in 20 pensioners will benefit from the warm homes discount, whereas our social tariffs went to all vulnerable households? In addition, there are cuts of £100 in the winter fuel allowance for those over 80 and cuts for older people of £50. This all adds up when one takes into account the VAT increases and everything else that people have to pay the price for under this Government.
The right hon. Lady again makes a point about winter fuel payments which I should have picked her up on previously. She may not be aware of this, as she was not in the Department previously, but we have adopted precisely the policy of the previous Labour Government on winter fuel payments. We have left it completely unchanged. They increased winter fuel payments on a temporary basis and then proposed to bring them down, and we have kept exactly in line with that policy, so I am in no position to accept lectures on this matter from the Opposition as we are implementing the policy that they agreed.
Of course, cold weather payments will also be paid to households in areas with extended periods of very cold weather. Part of the green deal scheme will be designed specifically to provide affordable warmth to low-income, vulnerable households through heating and insulation measures. Those policies will make a difference this winter, next winter and every winter thereafter. However, we also need to take the right long-term decisions so that energy does not become unaffordable in future. We need to keep the lights on in the cheapest, cleanest way and to make sure that households get the best deal in the long term as well.
The Secretary of State may be aware that north of my constituency a find of 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas has been announced. That will make an enormous difference one way or another if it is genuine. Would he like to comment on that and the difference it might make to prices in future?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Our overall energy policy is designed to be robust in the face of considerable uncertainties in relation to technologies and what is likely to happen to the price of particular fuels. If it transpires that the early indications we have received from Cuadrilla about the size of the find under Lancashire are correct, there will clearly be an impact on gas prices within the UK. We have already seen that gas prices in the United States are half of those in the UK and the rest of Europe and are even lower than the prices for gas in the far east. This is a very important development and all our policy framework is designed to make sure that we can provide affordable, clean electricity at the cheapest possible price to British consumers in the long run. If that means cheap gas, then obviously the technological imperative is to go forward with carbon capture and storage so that we can use that gas in an environmentally friendly manner. That is precisely why that is so important.
I must make a bit of progress with my speech; otherwise I fear we will be here all night.
Over the next 10 years, we need £110 billion of investment in power plants and another £90 billion of investment in energy infrastructure to avoid the risk of black-outs. If we do not invest now to reduce our energy use and our dependence on fossil fuels in the long term, we will have to rely on ever more expensive imports. That will leave us at the mercy of global oil and gas prices and at the mercy of events in very volatile parts of the world. We have only to look at what has been happening in Libya and the rest of the middle east to see that. The impact on energy security and household bills will be worse. This is a very important way of insuring our country against the sort of economic shocks that we can otherwise expect.
That four-pronged strategy of energy saving, renewables, new nuclear and carbon capture and storage is absolutely essential.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. He said that energy saving was one of those prongs, and on energy saving he said only a moment ago that the Government are introducing the energy company obligation, which will replace Labour’s carbon emissions reduction target and community energy saving programme. That ECO pot is not going to go just to homes in fuel poverty but will be split, with some money going to subsidise able-to-pay households. Will he tell us how much there will be in that ECO pot?
We will be bringing forward the consultation document on the green deal and the ECO subsidy shortly, and all those issues will be addressed. Clearly, we have to make sure that we are getting value for money on both the carbon reduction side and in reducing fuel poverty because they are both very important.
I want to make some remarks on carbon capture and storage, which was raised in Prime Minister’s questions. Despite the fact that all the parties have worked extremely hard on the first carbon capture and storage demonstration project at Longannet, we have not been able to reach a satisfactory deal, as the Prime Minister pointed out. We will not, therefore, be proceeding with the project. That decision is purely about the viability of that particular project and is not a reflection on our commitment to the CCS programme; indeed, hon. Members will have heard me commit us to that very clearly a moment ago.
The long-term need for CCS remains as strong as ever. We will continue working across Government to start a more streamlined selection process as soon as possible and £1 billion will be available, as it was allocated in the comprehensive spending review, for that new process. Over the coming weeks, we will ensure that the lessons from that first process are fully learned and we now know that commercial-scale CCS projects are technically viable and are likely to be financially achievable. We also know more about the best way to procure these first-of-a-kind projects. Our findings will be published and made freely available on the Department of Energy and Climate Change website to help to speed up deployment of CCS both here and abroad. We will study those lessons closely as we develop the forthcoming CCS road map setting out our vision for CCS deployment.
I thank the Secretary of State for referring to the situation with carbon capture and storage projects around the country. Will he explain to the House how the Government will look to use the great deal of work and research that have been done at the plant in Scotland to make sure that the endeavours, hard work and ingenuity there are not lost but are supported?
I am grateful for that question. It is absolutely right; we have learned an enormous amount from that. A lot of work has gone into the negotiations and a lot of good engineering work has been done with the front-end engineering and design studies. They will all be published, if they have not been already, and will be made available to everyone. We are absolutely confident, as a result of this process, that we are able to go ahead with the CCS project within that budget. Unfortunately, at Longannet the difficulties were specific to that project, including the length of the pipeline between Longannet and the reservoirs, as well as other issues concerning the rest of the plant such as its upgrading to comply with the large combustion plant directive. As a result of the knowledge that we have acquired in that negotiation and as a result of those feed studies, we are confident that we will be able to take a project forward.
Earlier in his speech, the Secretary of State referred to the disgraceful decision of the previous Government to abandon the gas CCS project at Peterhead, but are not this Government doing exactly the same with Longannet now? It was chosen as the only viable CCS plant in the competition, as no one else came forward. By abandoning it now, is he not putting back CCS development and ensuring that its much talked about exportable technology will not be developed in this country?
No, I disagree with that. I think that we have a very good track record at a number of our leading universities, with Edinburgh being first and foremost amongst them, of work on carbon capture and storage. One lesson that we have learned from the negotiations is that we can build a commercial-scale CCS plant with £1 billion. Indeed, we have had a very clear indication of interest back at Peterhead from Scottish and Southern that it would be prepared to do that with consortium partners. That is clearly going to be an offer that other contestants will have to beat, so for all the reasons that I have given and that I have explained at considerable length, we are determined that we should be successful with CCS technology. It is disappointing to me personally and to many others that we were not able to proceed at Longannet because of the specific problems there, but that certainly does not mean that we are shelving CCS.
I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is giving the House the benefit of time and his advice on the issue. Nevertheless, there will be concern about the impact that that outcome might have on the time scale for the delivery of an effective CCS programme. To be clear, is he saying that the difficulties at Longannet were primarily financial or technical? Does that raise a question about the viability of the technology, or can he reassure the House in that regard?
I can reassure the House that on the basis of the feed studies, that does not raise questions about the generic technology. What arose were questions related to the specific costs of employing the technology at Longannet, given how far away it is from the reservoirs and so forth. Those were the issues. We are confident that we can procure a CCS commercial scale plant within that £1 billion. That is what we intend to do.
A billion pounds was allocated to the CCS project at Longannet. I am amazed by what was said at Prime Minister’s Question Time and by what the Secretary of State has just said. That it is not going to happen. Projects 2 to 4 were already in the pipeline—excuse the pun—and I believe there are a number of interested parties. Will the £1 billion allocated for Longannet be available for one of those projects or will it be available across the board? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it will be committed to CCS with coal, or could it be gas?
Let me say clearly that one of the things we will do is attempt to align our deadlines on this with the European Commission’s new entrant reserve competition. One of the conditions of that competition is that the CCS plants have to be up and running and ready by 2016. That is in answer to the earlier question about the deadline. We do not foresee a slippage in deadlines.
There is money available from the European budget to support those projects. Money will be available. That £1 billion from the UK Treasury is secure. In addition, there may be help for running costs from the electricity market reform contracts for difference. With all those things we ought to be able to make sure that we get commercial-scale carbon capture and storage up and running. The projects that have been proposed to the Commission are a mixture of coal and gas. We want to make sure that we are doing both.
I hope the House will come away knowing that we are fully committed to the programme and the technology. What happened at Longannet is a disappointment. We would have liked it to go ahead if we could have done it within the affordability envelope that we had and if we had not hit those specific project problems there, but we will now go ahead elsewhere and we are confident that we will be able to get the commercial-scale CCS.
Our proposals to reform the electricity market—I have already mentioned contracts for difference—will deliver the best deal for Britain and for consumers because they will keep prices down and ensure that consumers are protected. We are working on giving Ofgem powers to force companies to give money back to consumers if the companies break the rules. That is the point about redress that the right hon. Lady mentioned.
The right hon. Lady knows that unfortunately it is a strong principle right across the House, and I am sure she will agree, that we should not have retrospective legislation. Legislation is for matters going forward. I agree that it would have been good if we had had legislation allowing for redress some years ago, but we have been in government only since the last election. For 13 years that was not done by the Labour Government.
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong about that. Mis-selling is clear. Ofgem had already tackled that with substantial fines and with the public reputational risk. As a result of the mis-selling that some of the companies were discovered to have engaged in, a number of them have said that they will not go down the doorstep route. There is therefore clear action on that already, but I agree that what should happen is not just a question of fines or making sure that the companies get the rap—[Interruption.] I have raised the matter with the companies and with Ofgem. It is important to make sure that there is also the possibility for Ofgem to provide redress to consumers who have lost out. That is an important principle. All of us on the Government Benches will want companies to rise to their responsibilities.
We are also working to open up the energy market to smaller companies. In the past, regulation stopped independent suppliers serving more than 50,000 customers. We have already raised the ceiling to 250,000 customers, and we are working with small suppliers to make it easier for them to comply with regulation.
Global energy prices are beyond our control, but we are doing everything we can to help households with their energy bills this winter. On tariffs, bills and insulation, we are making it easier for people to save money and save energy. Together with consumer groups and industry, we are working to improve the offer to consumers. We are taking action to help the most vulnerable households to cope with rising bills and inefficient properties. From the green deal to the reform of the electricity market, we are making the right long-term decisions to ensure warm homes and affordable, secure energy for the future.
At Prime Minister’s Question Time today the Prime Minister suggested that he supported the opening up of the energy market to a pool. Does that mean that the Government agree with the Labour Front-Bench team that the pool should be opened up in such a way that the big six should put all their energy into a pool for everybody to compete for?
I certainly agree. We have been talking to Ofgem about this and we have been talking with the big six. I found it a very interesting proposal from Scottish and Southern that it was prepared to trade a substantial amount of its electricity in the wholesale market. Scottish and Southern said 100%—of course, that is 100% of the spot market; it does not mean that Scottish and Southern is prepared to trade 100% of its electricity. The devil is in the detail. We have to make sure that the forward market is also liquid.
I am absolutely committed. I am not in favour of the Opposition’s proposal that we should refer these matters to the Competition Commission, because for two to five years that would put a freeze on the whole market. None of the big six would need to do anything at all. They would be able to put their prices up with impunity, they would be able to cut their investment, they would be able to pay more dividends to shareholders, and we would have an awful long time to wait before we had any real reform. The reality is that we think that we understand enough about what is not right in the market, at the retail end and the wholesale end, and are working very hard with Ofgem to ensure that it is put right, which is exactly what we will do.
Order. I must now announce the result of the deferred Division on the question relating to the Adjournment of the House. The Ayes were 306 and the Noes were 95, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
Before calling the next speaker, I inform Members that there is a 12-minute limit on speeches.
It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State. I had intended to be non-partisan and speak in favour of consensus, but having listened to his opening remarks, I will find it difficult to be disciplined and keep to that line, because he rewrote the recent history of energy. I certainly take no lectures from him on nuclear power and many other things. I have stood on the Government side of the House and argued in favour of nuclear power, the base load, renewables and energy efficiency, and I see no contradiction between them. For him to try to knock the policy of the Labour party when it was in government is nothing short of cheek.
I welcome the debate because energy prices are the big issue for constituents and consumers across the country. I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) chose this topic for her first outing as shadow Secretary of State. She gave an excellent overview of what has happened in recent weeks.
I did not want to be partisan, because the issue is too important for that, but when people criticise what happened in the past 13 years, I must remind them that, since 2009, there has been a trend of high gas and electricity price rises. The rise in 2008-09 was seen as a one-off resulting from a peak oil situation. In 2009-10 prices came down considerably. In 2009, gas prices rose by 51% in a single year and electricity prices also rose considerably, but the following year, when the wholesale price was half what it had been at its peak, prices came down by only 6% and 9% respectively. We have seen since then a trend of double-digit rises that are hurting every household in the country. That is why the House is right to debate the matter and look for ways to help.
I am very disappointed with the summit. I tabled a question last Friday, without knowing that there was to be a summit, asking when the Secretary of State last met the big six energy companies. He has partly answered that question, but I am disappointed that he did not ask them whether they would freeze their prices in future and what they would do to bring them down. The duty of the Secretary of State is to put the consumer’s view to those companies.
Our constituents are right to be annoyed by the fact that those companies’ profits have increased in the past few months from £15 to £125 for each household. I want to make it clear that I am not against energy companies making profits or having healthy balance sheets, because we need them to reinvest in our infrastructure as we move to a low-carbon economy, but I find it very upsetting that they claim that the wholesale price is high and put their prices up, but when the wholesale price comes down, the retail price does not follow suit. Our constituents are paying for that very dearly. As my right hon. friend said, that is the rocket-and-feathers concept—prices rocket after the wholesale price increases, but they come down very slowly.
I am a fellow Welshman, but my energy policy is different from that of the hon. Gentleman. Wales is a net exporter of energy because Wylfa nuclear power station, which is in my constituency, generates 30% of Wales’s energy needs. If that was to go, we would be in a difficult situation. However, he is right to point out that some regions of the United Kingdom that generate energy pay more in the retail price for their energy. The energy companies will tell us—I have raised this as a member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee—that that is because of transmission, but those areas, which are often on the periphery of the UK, generate electricity and send it to the national grid, but the consumers in those areas pay more for it. That is totally wrong and something we all need to work together to eliminate in future.
I wish to concentrate on two issues. The first is the reform of the regulator. I would like the regulator to have more teeth. That is not just my view. I can remember the Prime Minister, when Leader of the Opposition, saying that the regulator needs to get to grips with the energy companies and ensure that they deal with price rises. I agreed with him then, and I agree with that statement now. That is also why I am disappointed that there was a high-profile energy summit in No. 10 that resulted in these very tame reforms, if indeed they are to come about.
Ofgem has already suggested that we introduce greater accountability, greater transparency and simpler tariffs, and the Secretary of State was wrong about the time scale, because I believe that in the past year the number of tariffs has gone up considerably from 180 to some 400. I am not making a political point, because I know that many people, such as the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) of whom I am very fond, have phoned up energy company call centres and tried to switch tariffs but found it extremely difficult to do so. They have spoken to people at call centres who, despite representing and working for the companies, do not themselves know the tariffs, so the system really needs to be simplified to ensure that people understand them and can make a choice.
Even if everyone were to switch to a cheaper tariff tomorrow, they would still in a year or two’s time be paying more for their energy, so switching is a peripheral issue. We want the energy companies to divvy out some of their profits to help customers directly or to build infrastructure for the future—[Interruption.] Somebody shouts, “They are,” but they are not using their profits to a considerable degree.
I am sorry if the hon. Lady was not listening, but I believe that we will have a new nuclear power station; the consortium, Horizon, is working towards that. Issues in Germany might affect its balance sheet, but it is committed, as the Labour Government were, to the project. Work is being carried out, and I support the site that has been allocated.
When huge profits are made, the customer should not be punished, as they have been, with high rises in their gas and electricity bills. If the hon. Lady thinks the opposite, she is in a minority in the House, because we have seen excessive profits.
No, I am not going to give way again. I was talking about excessive profits, but I am going to develop an argument about the off-grid, which nobody has touched on so far.
When we talk about energy prices, and about double-digit rises for people with the big six energy companies and for the 99% of retailers who are on-grid, we should also consider those who are off-grid. They are not a small minority, because a considerable number of households are not connected to the grid and have experienced—I have seen evidence from constituents—increases of about 33% in the price of liquefied petroleum gas. The cost of oil has also gone up considerably, so I welcome the fact that the Office of Fair Trading is looking into the matter, but it will not be enough just to refer it to the Competition Commission; there needs to be direct action.
I should like a windfall tax. I am not afraid to use that phrase, and neither is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who in his Budget introduced a fuel duty—a windfall tax—to help people who were suffering then. The Government should do exactly the same for domestic energy users and households. The excess profits of energy companies should be used to help build an infrastructure, for example by extending gas mains, so that people off-grid have the opportunity—the choice—to go on to mains-supplied gas and obtain the same prices as those who are on-grid.
Indeed, we should go further. I would link off-grid issues to reform of the regulator, because the regulator should have responsibility for those who are off-grid as well as for those who are on-grid. The priority of the regulator, in its terms of reference, is to protect the consumer, yet those who are off-grid receive less protection, so I am asking for the equalisation of protection.
The Secretary of State will remember that I asked him about that when he appeared before the Energy and Climate Change Committee, and I asked the head of Ofgem, too. The head of Ofgem said, “That’s a matter for the Government”, and the Secretary of State said, “It’s a matter for the regulator.” Well, I should like to invite both of them for afternoon tea and to sit them down in a room, because people off-grid are losing out considerably while the Secretary of State and the head of Ofgem have different opinions of their remit.
The solution is simple and it could be implemented very quickly. The Government could give powers to the regulator, and the people off-grid could have protection equal to that for those who are on-grid. The 33% increase that I heard about from a constituent happened in summertime—in August—and it is not sustainable in the rural areas that are not isolated and that contain decent-sized hamlets, small villages and sometimes even small towns.
We need to be radical in our reform. Of course I agree with the Secretary of State and the regulator when they talk about simplifying bills and about greater transparency by the energy companies, but we have to go a step further and give the regulator real teeth so that it can deal with these situations. That is important to every Member of this House and every constituent we represent. We should never forget that those who are off-grid are paying considerably more than those who are with the big six.
I support many of the measures that are being proposed by the Government for electricity market reform, but they are all about the medium and the long term and, in the short term, people are being really hurt by their bills when they receive them. We, as the House of Commons, the Government and the regulator need to be working together for the short term. I would like to believe that the measures that came out of the summit will make a huge difference to our constituents, but that will not happen in the short term. The House of Commons—I very much welcome this debate—must fix its mind on the short term to help each and every household in the United Kingdom with their energy bills in future. Yes, there will be peaks and troughs with the prices of fuels and external issues that affect the price of energy—we all understand that—but we need to have a fair system so that when prices do come down the regulator can look at the books and say, “Yes, prices for consumers should come down by X amount as well.” Ofgem tried to do this and produced a report, but the energy companies argued with that process.
This is not anti-business or anti the big six; it is pro-consumer and pro our constituents. We all have a duty to stand up and protect their interests. The regulator needs to be beefed up, it needs to have more teeth, and it needs to be more proactive—but so do the Government. It is important to have this debate not to score political points but to put the welfare of our constituents first. They will be anxious this winter given their experience of such cold weather in the past year, and they want certainty that the House of Commons is on their side.
I genuinely believe that this winter there will be choices between heating and eating for individual families up and down the country. The fuel poverty rate in the north-east is approximately 24%; we have the second highest rate in the country. Clearly, that applies in relation to the big six, but I particularly want to speak about it in relation to heating oil and liquefied petroleum gas. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). Over the past year, he and I have debated, very much with common cause, the issues of fuel poverty and heating oil, and I am delighted to follow his eloquent and well-made speech.
My constituency is the second biggest constituency in the country, at 1,150 square miles, and it does not just face problems of rural fuel poverty. The town of West Wylam, which is a suburban part of Prudhoe, is in an area that has fundamental problems of fuel poverty, and it has perfectly normal residential housing: this is not just about a farm way out west. It is not simply a problem for rural dwellings. One and a half million dwellings are dependent on heating oil. On top of that, significant amounts of LPG are used. We are talking not about a small number of people but a very significant number who are greatly affected by this, which is an important problem throughout the north-east.
I will focus on the role of the Office of Fair Trading, which I believe has done good work. Its report of September this year on Boilerjuice was a success. The report published only yesterday on off-grid energy, about which I met the OFT at approximately 12 o’clock today, is well worth reading. It is a doughty read at 352 pages, and it would be a lie if I said that I had read every single page, but I am working my way through, and none of my copy will go for fuel at the end of the day.
The OFT’s investigation into off-grid energy is a market study. Those who analyse what the OFT does need to understand that a market study does not necessarily lead to a formal investigation. As a first point I invite the ministerial team to consider that, although clearly it is not fundamentally within their remit.
The hon. Gentleman obviously did not hear what the ministerial team said earlier, which addressed that exact point.
The OFT report is a market study, but I seek a formal investigation where there is a reasonable suspicion that the law has been breached in relation to the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. I suggest that that applies to pricing practices, particularly when there is a varying price after a customer has placed an order. In my constituency, there is ample evidence that that has happened.
I apologise that I was not here for the first part of my hon. Friend’s speech, but an urgent matter called me out of the Chamber. The experience that he so vividly describes in his constituency is echoed in Cornwall and across the south-west. I, too, welcome yesterday’s OFT report. It says specifically that there is an opportunity for us to go back to the OFT and make the case for a referral to the Competition Commission to look further at the issue of pricing, which he has raised. Will he join me in suggesting that Members whose constituents are affected by this should join together to make representations to the OFT for such a referral?
I totally endorse that point, particularly in relation to pricing practices and the considerably enhanced prices charged by many heating oil suppliers. I have done quite a lot of research into this matter. In Hexham constituency the price of oil rose from 41p to 71p per litre between September and December last year. In that time, the wholesale price of oil went up only by about 10%.
In my constituency there are roughly 16 to 18 heating oil providers. However, 11 or 12 of those are controlled by one company. DCC Energy, an Irish-based company, has bought up many of the individual suppliers throughout the country. It operates heavily in west Wales and has been prosecuted there in relation to a trading standards case. It also operates to a considerable extent in Scotland. In Northumberland and throughout the north-east it has a substantial presence. I accept that there is competition in the sense that there are about five genuinely independent companies providing heating oil. However, the other dozen or so are providing heating oil from one global source. There is nothing wrong with that, but when one adds up the figures, it means that one company has 69% of the providers and the multitude of other companies represent 31% of the providers. That should be investigated by the OFT, and it should result in a competition inquiry. If that case does not give the suspicion of price fixing, I do not know what does.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on that point. Across the country as a whole, a little under 30% of those who depend on oil for central heating are in fuel poverty, and they are primarily in rural areas.
With regard to the OFT’s report published yesterday, does the hon. Gentleman recognise that it found that the terms of contracts may not be entirely consistent with existing consumer protection? The OFT states that it will examine the
“clarity and fairness of termination rights”
and engage with suppliers to discuss how to proceed. Does he think that regulation is required, or should the OFT continue to pursue some sort of voluntary agreement ?
With respect, I would say that the answer is somewhere in between. There cannot be regulation without submissions being made and investigations taking place. It is incumbent upon us not just to get upset about how our constituents are being affected by heating oil prices but to make representations to organisations such as the OFT. We must also invite the Energy and Climate Change Committee to investigate off-grid energy, which I very much hope it will do.
I am most grateful, and I hope that as part of that inquiry the Committee will examine the weighty report that the OFT has provided, as well as specific submissions from individuals and organisations that, like the previous three speakers, can give specific examples of price fixing or the appearance of price fixing. That is in the context of DCC, the company that I am particularly concerned about and have to deal with, recording operating profits of approximately 19.9% on an ongoing basis. I find that figure hard to square with the one given by the managing director, who when questioned in The Sunday Times said that the operating profit was only 2%—but I have taken my figure from the published accounts.
In Hexham five independents operate—WCF, Par Petroleum, Wallace Oils, GB Fuels Ltd and Rix Petroleum. I urge individual Members to draw to their constituents’ attention by every possible means, as I do for each and every constituent who is faced by heating oil problems, which independents operate in the constituency, so that they are in a better position to get a fair price.
I want to trumpet the great success of the way in which certain communities, such as Tarset, Allendale and Humshaugh, have come together and produced their own price comparison sites. For example, there is Humshaugh village shop, which is run as a co-operative. It was set up by the local community and is financed and run by the 60 people of Humshaugh. Every Monday they publish the prices available from all the genuinely independent local heating oil suppliers. Individuals can either go to the shop’s website or—this addresses the point that was raised about people who do not have internet access—see the prices in the village shop throughout the week. Everybody in the village can then assess who is providing oil locally. Such ideas need to be taken forward.
I welcome the fact that the OFT report indicates that there are problems. However, I would ask the OFT to go further, not least because the report shows that when a company is one of a multitude owned by a larger company, it is obliged to give people who telephone it specific information about who its ultimate owner is. That needs to be monitored, because it is not necessarily taking place. My researcher phoned one of those only yesterday and was not given that information, as should have happened according to the OFT report. I urge the various Committees involved to examine that point.
There is also tremendous difficulty for those who wish to compare prices themselves, because heating companies have no obligation to tell people the price that they are offering. Unless people ask to buy, they are not necessarily given the price. With respect, the Government can do something about that, and I invite them to sit down with individual suppliers, particularly the larger suppliers, and make that point very clear to them. If people ring up and ask for a price, they should be told it rather than the company withholding it.
I am very grateful to my constituency neighbour for giving way, as we have very similar constituencies and face similar issues. Is it not also true that the price quoted when someone rings up is not necessarily the price that they are charged when the oil is delivered two weeks later? Last winter, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the cost of heating oil almost doubled in the space of a few weeks. Someone could order heating oil and be quoted 40p a litre, yet get a bill for 71p a litre two weeks later.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) is not the only one who has been carrying out research on websites. Let me cite the interesting efforts to prove the hon. Lady’s exact point undertaken by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), who ordered more than 2,000 litres of heating oil at a price of 40p a litre—again, from DCC—and received only some of the delivery, at the outset, at that price. Later that December, when the remainder was delivered, the price was 65p per litre—an increase of 25p per litre. I applaud his efforts in this House to publicise that, and previous efforts to deal with the problem, as well as the work of The Sunday Times.
I conclude by saying that I endorse much of the motion.
One of the next steps identified by the OFT was for the Government to take, because it acknowledged that people who use heating oil or LPG—or microgeneration, which the report also covers—cannot get dual fuel deals because they are off the grid, and furthermore, they are not eligible for the excellent new £125 warm home discount. This group of people, even if they are in absolute fuel poverty, cannot access some of the very good measures that the Government are introducing. May we ask the Government to consider that specific group of people, and see what could be done to help them?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who pointed out some important flaws in a market that should be fully competitive but at present does not best serve consumers.
People will be pleased to hear the Secretary of State backing the Labour motion but greatly disappointed that he has little to say that will give them any comfort or relief from the high and rising pressure of energy bills.
I want to talk about and draw some conclusions from the experience of a constituent who came to see me: Mr Terry Tomes of Denman road in Wath upon Dearne. Mr Tomes is on disability living allowance. He had a prepayment meter to try to control the costs of his energy bills, but he found himself with a debt to npower for gas and electricity of nearly £100. He was in such desperation about that that despite it being mid-winter, he had stopped using the gas entirely. I draw two conclusions from Mr Tomes’s experience: first, this is a system that requires much clearer and fairer pricing and regulation for consumers; and, secondly, the regulator, the energy companies and, above all, the Government are failing consumers across the country.
They are failing consumers in three ways. First, they are out of touch. People simply cannot believe their ears when they hear the Secretary of State say in answer to the question of high energy prices that consumers are to blame for not shopping around. If people are not online, if they are on prepayment meters, if they do not have full bank accounts, and if they are unfortunate enough to call, according to the recent Which? survey, the one in three energy company advisers who do not give accurate information about their charges, they are simply not able to shop around as the Secretary of State suggests. Even the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) is not able to do so, as in June he told the Energy and Climate Change Committee:
“I went on line to compare my tariffs and I was so confused by the options that I decided to stick where I was”.
The Government are out of touch—that is the first way in which they are failing consumers.
To put a bit of humility into the debate and to cut across party politics, the fact of the matter is that fuel poverty is on the increase. Last year, 36,700 pensioners died because of cold-related problems. That is 13 per hour. Does not that fly in the face of the austerity measures? Older people cannot access the right tariffs and they cannot pay their bills. How are they expected to pay their bills? How are they expected to look at different tariffs and access all the information that Government Members have talked about? Is it not right that we focus on those people as a matter of urgency to try to reduce the number of elderly pensioners who die because of fuel poverty?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right when he says that, for many, high energy prices mean a choice between eating and heating, and, in some cases, a choice between life and death, particularly in a harsh winter.
The second way in which the Government are failing is that they are scrapping some of the important Labour schemes to make homes warmer and bills lower, particularly the Warm Front scheme. You will know as well as I do from your experience in the Treasury, Madam Deputy Speaker, that over a decade, the Warm Front scheme helped more than 2 million households with their bills and insulation—it helped to make their homes greener, warmer and cheaper to run. This year and next year, that scheme will have a third of the budget that it had under the previous Labour Government. From 2013, it will be scrapped altogether.
In my constituency of Wentworth and Dearne, more than 3,000 households have benefited from that scheme in recent years, including pensioners, disabled people and young working families. One of my most recent visits was to Nicola Savage and her partner, Dan, who have two young kids. They had problems heating their home in Swinton, but the Warm Front scheme helped to replace an old back boiler with a new condensing unit. As Nicola told me at the time, “This makes a huge difference to us. When you switch it on, the house gets warm quickly and it stays warm.”
I believe that the previous Government were well intentioned with regard to the Warm Front scheme, but when I visited my constituents who benefited from it—there is no question that they benefited—I found that most of them paid twice as much as they should have done. I do not know who pocketed the benefit of that system, but my constituents could have paid half the price to a local supplier. The scheme was certainly not fit for purpose.
I do not know whether there is anything peculiar about the contractors and suppliers in St Ives, but that is not the general experience or track record of the scheme throughout the country, and it is not the experience of most hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I will not give way for the moment.
The third way in which the Government are failing is that they are letting consumers down by allowing the huge hike in energy costs and bills, which are up 20% in the past year, as we have heard. In six months, there has been an increase of £175. The Secretary of State, who knows the cost of speeding, is not in the Chamber at the moment, but for his benefit, £175 is the price of about three speeding tickets. Every time a family in this country switches on the heating or the lights, the Government are letting them down—and those with the lowest incomes and the poorest households are being let down the most.
Mr Tomes, who could afford £10 a week on his gas, found that he was paying £3 a week just for the gas debt charge, which was taken directly through the meter. The average cost for using the gas each week was £2.30, but the standing charge was £3.31. In other words, he was paying more for his standing charge than for the gas that he used. Why is the system penalising the poorest and benefiting the better-off? Why is it failing those whose consumer power is weakest while reinforcing the market position and choices of those who have money and confidence and can get online? In particular, why is it penalising low users of energy while rewarding higher users? Why are low users, such as Mr Tomes, paying more and losing out more?
The answer is that all the major energy companies have a two-charge system. They justify it by saying that one charge covers the fixed costs of supply while the other covers the variable costs. That means that every major energy company either has a standing charge plus a unit rate or a higher-tier tariff up to a certain threshold and then a lower-tier second tariff beyond that. As a result, the less energy used, the greater the part of the bill that goes to the standing charge, fixed part or higher-tariff component of the costs, which means that low-use households pay more for each unit of energy that they use. Which? has calculated that low-use households pay 23% more for their gas and 15% more for their electricity, and of course low-use households generally tend to be low-income households as well. The system is therefore socially and environmentally regressive. Its reform is well overdue, and it is time for the Government and the regulator to act.
The action needed is clear: we should require energy suppliers to recover a far greater proportion of their costs from the unit rate of energy. To make energy bills clearer and fairer, I propose to the Minister a five-point plan—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] They are in vogue at the moment. First, we should abolish variable tariffs for the same energy supply. Secondly, we should require all tariffs to have the same format—a daily standing charge plus a clear cost per unit, including all the discounts. Thirdly, we should restrict standing charges only to cover the costs of the gas and electricity network. Fourthly, we should cover all other costs, including the costs of the Government’s climate change or social policies, through the variable charge, not on a per-customer basis, as is currently the case. Fifthly, to make these changes, we should use Ofgem’s current powers to regulate standing charges, under licensed conditions, plus the energy company obligation.
Those changes would make the system clearer, making it easier for people to compare suppliers’ prices at a glance, and also fairer, so that low-income, low-use households would not have to pay significantly higher prices for the energy that they need. Those changes would be right in practice and right in principle, because climate change and social equity policies are best and most effective when they are more specific and selective in their application rather than having a general application. The costs of climate change should bite more strongly on heavy users, while the cost of supporting poor households should be borne more heavily by higher-using households that earn higher incomes.
Ultimately, people do not have the choice not to consume energy. As a service in a full-scale market, energy is a special case. That places a special responsibility on the Government to do more to protect consumers, who must have the energy that we all depend on.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who made a powerful case on behalf of his constituents and made some valuable points.
This is an important debate, because as I know from talking to my constituents in the west midlands, people are genuinely concerned about rising utility bills. As other hon. Members have pointed out, including the Secretary of State, fuel poverty urgently needs to be addressed. The west midlands as a region has the greatest proportion of people in fuel poverty in England, at 22.5% of the population or some 500,000 people. Around 20% of my constituents—7,500 people—could be defined as being in fuel poverty. This issue therefore needs to be tackled urgently. It has been around for a while: it has not suddenly emerged in the last 18 months, although I accept that genuine spikes in fuel prices have made the situation more difficult.
The Government need to respond—and they are responding—with a mix of policies. Both short-term and long-term policies need to be deployed to tackle the entrenched problem of fuel poverty and the situation that we face. However, there is no silver bullet, as it were, that could be fired to solve some of the difficult problems that we face from rising fuel prices. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House have made some valid points; I am bucking the fashion by not having a five-point plan—because a number of the issues are interlinked. We live in a society where our houses lose energy very rapidly—something about our housing stock is weak in that regard—which is why I am supportive of the Government’s initiatives in the green deal, which I believe offers a comprehensive solution to improving energy efficiency. The green deal will also have the side benefit of potentially providing important jobs in the area of the black country that I represent. I know, having talked to many local organisations and people in the Rowley Regis area, that there is particular enthusiasm for the green deal. We need to tackle energy loss in our housing stock.
I also welcome other initiatives that came out of the summit that was held earlier in the week. The big six energy companies have a responsibility to communicate information to their customers in a much more targeted way, so I welcome the announcement that they are to write to the 4 million most vulnerable energy consumers about the opportunities that are available for home insulation. That strikes me as a fundamental responsibility, and the big six need to concentrate on the way in which they communicate basic information to some of the most vulnerable in our communities.
Just as we need to tackle the problem of energy loss in our housing stock, we also need to focus on unnecessary energy use. This is not about going around lecturing people on how they should heat their homes, but I know that the Government are committed to introducing smart meters, which will make a fundamental difference. This is a long-term project, but, as I have said, we need short-term and long-term measures to address these questions. Smart meters will introduce a major change in the way in which people consume energy, and they will certainly help them to have a clearer idea of their family or individual energy use.
The Secretary of State and others have also raised the broader strategic point that we face major issues of energy security in Britain today. The fact has been well documented that Britain is very vulnerable to energy price shocks, and our dependency on imported gas and oil has given rise to energy security issues. This is a macro question, and it is imperative that we diversify our energy sources. Hon. Members have talked about the use of nuclear power, as well as other forms of low-carbon energy and renewables, over the next 10 to 20 years. This is critical; we are not going to solve the problems affecting our most vulnerable residents and consumers unless we are clear about dealing with the diversity of our energy supply and the problems of energy security. Those factors are critical to the debate.
Other hon. Members have mentioned tariff complexity. This brings us back to the responsibilities of the big six energy companies. The market is too complicated. There are too many tariffs and it is confusing for consumers. I agree with the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne that those who suffer most from this tariff complexity are the most vulnerable of our residents.
May I add that it is not only the most vulnerable people in society who do not understand the tariffs? In fact, very few people understand them. A fundamental problem is the idea of a unit. I do not know what a unit is. I do not know whether my hon. Friend knows what a unit is. We must start using language such as “an hour’s use of a bulb”, or some other form of consumer language. Companies need to be much less old fashioned, and much better at consumer communication. They need to communicate the value of the units and what we are paying for them.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The energy companies need to simplify the tariffs, but as she says, the language used to communicate also needs to change. The big six have a responsibility for communicating information in a way that is comprehensible and does not distort consumer choice. That is a fundamental issue. Ofgem has a responsibility here and the Government need to ensure that they keep the pressure on it continuously to monitor how information is distributed within this market to ensure that it is a truly competitive one. Ofgem must be on top of this, constantly monitoring to ensure that we get simplification both of the tariffs and of the information sent to consumers.
In the short term, as other hon. Members have mentioned, it is critical during the lead-up to this winter to maintain the winter fuel and cold weather payments, and to implement the warm home discount. Those are important short-term measures to maintain the situation and ensure that our most vulnerable residents are not put under pressure as they seek to heat their homes during what might be a very difficult winter.
The hon. Gentleman is making a considered speech, dealing with all the elements involved in this complex issue and specifically mentioning winter fuel allowances. On behalf of all our constituents, especially the vulnerable elderly, does he think it is good enough for the Government to say, “Because Labour was going to cut the winter fuel allowances for the over-80s and the under-80s, we are simply following suit”? Do we not owe it to our vulnerable elderly people at this time to ensure that those winter fuel allowances continue at their previous level?
On that point, many more pensioners will benefit as a result of the warm home payment. Is it not a huge problem for pensioner households that many elderly people do not really understand all the benefits to which they are entitled. Year after year, Age UK runs campaigns to demonstrate how many millions of people are not collecting all the benefits to which they are entitled. If they did, their household incomes would improve and they would have more money. It is important that in talking specifically about winter benefits, we should remind our constituents to make sure that they claim all their benefits. They should go down to their citizens advice bureau, Age UK or the local Age Concern and get a benefit check so that they receive all the money to which they are entitled.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the collection of benefits available. There is an issue about pensioners and other groups not knowing which benefits are available.
The Government are taking some short-term measures, but it is important to note that they need to take long-term measures because this problem will not be solved by a single silver bullet. The Government are going in the right direction. This debate has provided a useful airing of views across the House about how we tackle this important problem.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that the convention is that interventions should be short. Also, when addressing the House, a Member is supposed to address all of it, including the Speaker in the Chair, and not turn away so that the Speaker cannot attract the Member’s attention should it be necessary to do so.
I am pleased to take part in what I believe is a timely debate. There is general concern about the size of the energy bills that are hitting people right across the country. This is happening in the context of rising profits for the energy companies, while—despite what the global warmists are saying—we are increasingly having cold winters, which mean an increase in people’s energy bills.
As I have said, the debate is timely because there is a general feeling that the Government may not be giving these matters the priority that they deserve. When a Secretary of State dismisses the problem by saying, “Well, phone around and find out what the alternative costs are”, when energy companies are given a slap on the wrist but there is no real outcome, and when we are told, “Just grin and bear it, because some of this has to be done to save the world”, it is understandable that people should detect a degree of complacency.
This is a particular issue for us in Northern Ireland. First, the profits of Northern Ireland Electricity have risen by 68% over the past year, which is commensurate with the increases in the profits of the big energy companies in Great Britain. Secondly, energy prices in Northern Ireland are about 14% higher than the average in Great Britain. Thirdly, fuel poverty in Northern Ireland is well in excess of the average in the rest of the United Kingdom, affecting 43.7% of households in comparison with the UK average of 21%.
My constituents spend 10% of their incomes on fuel, and 44% of them are experiencing fuel poverty. Strangford has the second highest level of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s decision to reduce the winter allowance will have an unfair impact on people in Northern Ireland, as against the rest of the United Kingdom?
Yes, and I shall say more about that later.
Part of the problem is a direct result of Government policies that have an impact on households and businesses throughout the United Kingdom. About 50% of those who are in fuel poverty in Northern Ireland are over 60, but just as worrying is the fact that 27% of those who will find it difficult to pay their fuel bills—who will be, as we loosely term it, in fuel poverty—are in work. They are going out every day to do their business, and their wages are so low that they still find it difficult to pay. That is another reason for my belief that the debate is timely and will resonate throughout the United Kingdom.
I will not repeat all the many causes of the problem that have already been mentioned today, but I think it worth drawing attention to the way in which large energy companies have used the prices of raw materials to raise the prices that they charge consumers, and the fact that—as a number of Members have observed—there is not the same flexibility when prices fall. That is one of the reasons for the level of profits that companies are experiencing. As many Members have pointed out, in the short term some of those profits could be used to deal with the problems.
A second cause is lack of investment. Because of that lack of investment and because of the demand that exists, prices are bound to be fairly buoyant anyway, and there is a captive market. A third—I suspect that many people will secretly agree with this, but will not be prepared to say so openly—is the impact of the Government’s climate change policies. When we say that because we want a low-carbon economy we will charge those who use carbon-based fuels in ways that cause carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere, and when we say that we will introduce policies to stop that happening, we cannot run away from the fact that such action will have implications for people’s fuel bills throughout the United Kingdom. The facts are clear. This year, simply to deal with the renewables obligations, being forced to purchase electricity from renewable sources has added £1.8 billion to the cost of producing electricity, and by 2020 the cost will be £6 billion a year. According to the Department’s own estimates, domestic consumers will face a 33% increase in the cost of electricity and non-domestic consumers such as industry will face an increase of 43%.
I support the motion, but it makes a rather glib reference to climate change. Many people will feel that they can agree with such sentiments, but behind them is the reality of what will happen to fuel bills: people will pay more for their energy. Denmark, not our country, has the highest costs per unit and the highest fuel bills, and Denmark produces 20% of its electricity from wind power. That is the highest proportion in Europe. The lowest costs are in France, which produces 75% of its energy from nuclear power.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that France has the lowest energy costs serves to highlight that Governments of all colours have been short-sighted in not investing in new nuclear before, and that we ought to be going ahead with new nuclear now?
I absolutely agree. I have consistently supported that, and back home have received some criticism for doing so, as people ask, “Are you therefore saying we should have a nuclear power station in Northern Ireland?” If it produces cheap electricity and deals with some of the problems people in my constituency face, of course I am happy to support that—although whether there are sufficient economies of scale in the Northern Ireland market to support a nuclear power station is another matter.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the short-sightedness of previous Governments, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s U-turn. Although he tried to cover that up today, he has clearly performed a U-turn on this issue. When he was in opposition he opposed nuclear energy, but now that he is in government he supports it, although he adds about 100 caveats to that support—the conversion process may take a little longer than we expected.
Reference has been made to the possibility of huge shale gas finds in Lancashire. The relative costs of electricity generation are as follows: 2.2p per kW for gas-fired electricity as against 7.2p per kW for offshore wind farms. Offshore wind is therefore three and a half times more expensive.
We say that we want 30% of our electricity to be generated by offshore wind by 2030, but that has implications for consumers across the United Kingdom. Regardless of our views on climate change, there ought to be some honesty in this debate. I do not know what the impact on global temperatures might be if we were to decarbonise our economy and reduce our CO2 emissions, which account for 2% of the world’s CO2 emissions, by 10% or 20% by 2020, but there will be a price to be paid by each of our constituents, and we ought to make that clear.
Now that I have had my say on this particular part of the motion, I want to discuss some of the ways we can deal with the situation. We need to consider three periods. There are things we can do in the short term. Hon. Members have asked why pressure is not being put on the big energy companies to ensure that some of the windfall profits—I do not care what we call them, but we are talking about the increased profits—are redistributed in the form of lower prices. I understand that these companies have to make profits. If we want investment in the infrastructure for the future, there is no point saying that we want to strip profits from the companies that are going to have to make that investment. The question is whether those profits are excessive and whether, at this particular time, some of those profits should be going back to consumers. That could be in the form of price reductions, greater transparency about what is available or any of the suggestions that have been made, but the issue must be dealt with.
The second issue to address is that of winter fuel payments, which was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). Those payments have been reduced and it is not good enough for the Government to say, “We’re following the same policy as the party that used to be the party of government.” As I pointed out, part of this problem has been caused by Government policy and so it is essential that we find some way to help the most vulnerable. Of course it is going to cost money but this issue needs to be addressed.
In the medium term, we must examine how we help people to reduce their energy bills. That could be through what we in Northern Ireland call the warm homes scheme, but what the rest of the United Kingdom calls the Warm Front scheme. The warm homes scheme was introduced by my right hon. Friend and it has gone from strength to strength. It has taken a lot of households out of fuel poverty, although I take the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson), which is that it does not matter how much is spent on some homes as there will not be a significant reduction in the energy people use so fuel poverty will remain. The warm homes scheme in Northern Ireland has not just been a way of dealing with the social problem of fuel poverty; it is labour-intensive and so has been a useful scheme in creating local employment—it has a high local multiplier effect—at a time when we are looking for opportunities.
In the longer term, we have to be realistic about green policies. I welcome the Chancellor’s remarks that we should not be pursuing policies on decarbonising the economy if they place our economy at a disadvantage compared with others across the world. While the European Union is preaching about reducing carbon emissions, the German Government have a much more realistic view. They are actually investing in 20 coal-fired power stations and in nuclear, because they want to find ways of producing cheap energy. In the long term we have to look at our investment priorities and whether we are following the correct policy. If, in the long term, we wish to invest in that way, we need to consider how we are going to deal with the consequences.
It is always a pleasure to speak in these debates. The usual faces are here—the people who regularly show up when we discuss fuel poverty in Westminster Hall—and it is a pleasure to be debating with them.
I was intrigued by the shadow Secretary of State’s reference to meerkats. I always think of them as cute, cuddly animals that cover the ground quickly, which may be an appropriate description of the Secretary of State. My dog’s favourite toy is a meerkat, as was seen at last week’s Westminster dog of the year show. The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) later asked what we are going to do about the situation. Given the fantastic adverts—dare I say it?—we are going to stand up for the consumer; anybody who watches “Meerkat Manor” will know that meerkats stand up and look around. I am not going to be overly critical of what the previous Government did, although it is a bit of a cheek to ask what this Government are doing given that no nuclear power stations had started being built under them.
We need to be constructive because this issue is very important for our constituents. That is the key point that we need to unite behind, and I am pleased that there will not be a Division on the motion.
I want to tackle something that came up in my exchanges with the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who is no longer in his place. I know that he is an absolutely fantastic champion on behalf of those in fuel poverty—especially for off-gas-grid households. I am not suggesting that the energy companies should be encouraged to make excessive profits; I think we should be critical friends to them, but we do have to be friends to them because this country needs £100 billion to be spent on energy infrastructure over the next 10 years, and it is absolutely right that that will come partly from the profits that those companies will make. I understand that, in effect, consumers are the people who make the profits for the companies, but, like anything else, if it comes in tax, it still comes from consumers—from our constituents. Let us not kid ourselves that we do not ultimately have to pay, together, for the infrastructure that our country desperately needs.
I welcome the contributions that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who also is no longer in his place. He, too, has been a doughty champion for off-gas-grid households. Earlier today, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) and I were at a briefing about the Office of Fair Trading report that I have here. It is quite a weighty document, but it is double-sided, so the OFT was trying to be friendly to the environment. Members should read the report because, although the press notice did not make it sound very exciting, when one digs into it, one finds quite a lot that will prove very useful.
The hon. Member for North West Durham had an exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham about another issue that has been raised today—the OFT and how people were quoted one price and then expected to pay another. I am pleased to report that Carmarthenshire county council has successfully prosecuted a supplier for that practice. If we believe that that is happening in our areas, we must make sure that our county councils or city councils take full advantage of that ruling and ensure that they go after the suppliers that behave inappropriately towards our constituents at their most difficult time of need.
Let me mention some of the other contributions that have been made, including that of the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and the interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris). It is important that we make sure that our constituents are fully aware of the opportunities to seek advice on these matters. I thought that the criticism made of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State was a bit of a shame because I feel that there has been a genuine attempt to say to people, “There is information out there and there is an opportunity to switch, and we are going to try to make it easier to do so.” They will encourage people to do that. People do not need to pay a standing charge if they wish to receive gas from companies. If one is a low user, it makes sense not to want to pay that.
I was at a dinner last night with the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) and we were talking about energy challenges for the next 30 years. People from the royal academies were saying that it was ridiculous that the pricing and tariff systems seem to incentivise greater use rather than less.
To return to being a critical friend of the energy companies, there is one practice that I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) would have intervened on me to make a point about if she were here, so I shall do it for her. I am talking about the practice whereby people pay so much a month by standing order or direct debit. I happen to know about this because I end up dealing with this situation for my mother—this might embarrass her. I work out that she somehow seems to be £400 in credit even though there is no way she is ever going to consume that much, but the company keeps taking the same sum each month if not increasing it. So I have to make the phone call once or twice a year and a big cheque comes back.
I experienced similar behaviour when I spoke on the phone with a very pleasant customer service adviser who was trying to persuade me that, for no particular reason, I would double the amount of gas that I would use in the next year. However, I was able to convince her that if she did not leave my standing order as it was, I would change supplier. We all know that that argument encourages companies to listen a bit more. I put out a call today to energy companies to be friendly to their consumers and to work on these issues. I say to them, “Do not use your consumers’ direct debits or standing orders as cheap ways of borrowing, but help people to make sure that they are paying what they need to.” I am not saying that people should be given false prices so that they end up with a huge bill at the end of the year. Energy companies need to make sure that the scheme works as it should, so that MPs do not have to keep writing to the companies to ensure that such practices are not tolerated.
In my constituency, and I suspect in many constituencies across the whole United Kingdom, elderly people come to me and ask, “Should it be oil? Should it be electric? Should it be coal?” Does the hon. Lady share my concern that there should be no penalty for those who want to transfer from one energy source to another? If after a year, or perhaps 18 months or two years, they want to transfer back, there should also not be a penalty from the energy company.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The reason I am hesitating is that I probably need to think about it a bit more. There is undoubtedly a significant capital cost for switching between fuel sources. If one has a coal boiler and switches to a gas or oil boiler, there is a significant capital cost to that. I am not clear what is being done at present, but energy modelling should make it possible to model the prices and understand the impact.
I thank the hon. Lady for her generosity in allowing me to intervene again. An example would be gas from different companies—we have two gas companies in Northern Ireland, and there are different electricity companies. The change should not be so costly. Sometimes unnecessary penalties are included.
In that case, I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman’s original intervention. He makes a fair point. In discussions with the OFT we particularly focused on off-gas grid households and the terms and conditions that people sign up to unwittingly. Various regulations protect consumers from unfair trade contracts, but those can be complicated. There should be as few barriers to switching as possible. I hope the Government’s actions earlier in the week will lead to that in Northern Ireland, as well as in Suffolk.
The House has heard more today about off-gas grid than it has for a while, but it is fair to say that those who do not have access to mains gas have considerably higher costs than they would if they had access to it. The percentage in fuel poverty is even worse. The hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) referred to that in the context of Cornwall. According to the latest statistics that I saw, 23% of oil consumers are in fuel poverty, as opposed to 10% of those on mains gas and 13% of those on electricity. There are other heating sources, including liquefied petroleum gas.
Let me complete my comments on heating oil. The OFT study found that the market has been generally competitive. I know that came as rather a surprise to some Members, especially the statistic that 97% of households that are affected have access to four or more suppliers. The OFT said that it would share that information with us so that we can make it as widely known to our constituents as possible.
One aspect that the report did not cover but which we can help with relates to intelligent consumers. That is where buying groups come into their own. There are several such groups around the country. I commend one village in my constituency, Boyton, which has a scheme that covers every single household. People in every household are made aware of the scheme when they move in. That is a little better than my own village, where there are several buying schemes, but my landlady forgot to include me in the one over the summer, so I will have to shell out next month. It is important that villages and parishes can reach out to their neighbours and make sure that they are fully aware and take full advantage of the opportunities.
Reference has been made to the Energy and Climate Change Committee’s 2010 report on fuel poverty. One of its recommendations was particularly useful for those buying oil, but unfortunately it was batted off to the Treasury. Many consumers, if they are organised, buy their oil in the summer when prices are lower because of seasonal pricing. A plea has been made that the Secretary of State should speak to the Treasury to see whether there might be an opportunity for pensioners to receive winter fuel payments at different times of the year so that they match outgoings for the purchase of oil.
I also inadvertently misled the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) when I said that electricity companies automatically give a dual fuel discount to those people without access to gas. That is what I had been told by one of the big six energy companies. It turns out that only two of the big six do that, EDF Energy and E.ON, so that is something else that the other companies could do.
Another important consideration relating to off-gas-grid households is that many of the things the previous Government rightly did to focus on updating equipment meant that a lot of the money for Warm Front was directed at houses that had gas. In a way that makes sense; if significant energy reductions can be achieved by focusing on certain households, that is a good use of money. Anyone who wants a return would see that as a good use of capital. However, it meant that, in effect, many households missed out. We all know that older housing stock is much more difficult to treat, which is why I have made the plea before, and will make it again, that the Government should ensure that they do not forget rural households when trying to ensure that we all benefit from energy efficiency measures.
I have been using my iPad in the Chamber today in order to contribute to the debate. I have been able to check that rolls of Wickes ultraseal premium draught excluder—other DIY suppliers are available—cost a grand total of £3.49. I will take advantage of that this weekend, because I used it last year to provide extra seals for doors and windows in my house and I saw my consumption of gas fall by 18%. For £3.49, that is quite a good return. I encourage anyone and everyone to use the cheapest and simplest measures, such as draught excluders and the closing of doors, in older properties. I am not being patronising or saying that people must sit in front of one little heater; I am simply saying that there are some simple things we can do to ensure that we use less energy and that there are cheap and low-cost solutions.
I agree fundamentally with something that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn mentioned earlier. I feel very strongly that Ofgem should take ownership of all gas consumers. The Office of Fair Trading has done a good job with its inquiry, but people have to go to their trading standards officer and go down all sorts of other complicated routes.
I have just realised that I am out of time and must sit down.
Exactly. I remind Members that the wind-ups are due to start at 6.30 pm and that a large number of Members still wish to speak. It is not compulsory to take the full 12 minutes or necessary to take interventions. Please bear in mind the number of Members who wish to speak.
I will try not to use the whole 12 minutes available, as in many ways my contribution will be a repeat of a speech I gave in an Adjournment debate not long ago. I have listened intently to all Members who have spoken, particularly the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who said that he wanted honesty in the debate. Having heard history being reinvented and regurgitated so many times by Members on both sides of the House, I think that honesty is sometimes the first thing that goes out of the window.
I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on nuclear energy. Interestingly, Labour Members used to raise the issue of nuclear energy much more often than the then Opposition, who ran away and hid every time the word “nuclear” came up. I am sure that the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) will say, “And I wish it had just stayed that way.”
I can tell the Secretary of State, who unsurprisingly is not in his place, that doing nothing and giving up on things is just not an option for people. My predecessor in representing my constituency, the late Donald Dewar, once said:
“Cynicism, together with unrealistic expectation, are the two great bugbears of politics.”
Those words were ringing in my ears when I heard about the energy summit at Downing street. The cynicism is to think that there is nothing we can do to regulate prices, and the unrealistic expectation is the Secretary of State’s thought that asking those in fuel poverty to use less energy is a solution to the situation; it obviously is not.
The average household has seen energy costs rise by about £300 in the past year, and Ofgem announced last week that the profit margin for energy companies has risen to £125 per customer, from £15 in June. With 13,500 pensioner households in my constituency alone—it has one of the highest concentrations of pensioners in Europe—and with the highest number of single women pensioners in the entire country, according to the Library, Members will understand why this issue is of grave importance to me as a local MP, and why I raise it today as I have on other occasions. As Members can imagine, my constituency surgeries are currently dominated by this issue.
According to official figures, 65% of single pensioner households and about half of small pensioner households in Scotland were classified as poor in 2009, making them more likely than any other type of household to be affected by rising energy prices.
When I was first elected in 2000, four out of five single pensioner households in Scotland lived on an annual income of £15,000 or less; today that figure is 60%— admittedly lower than the percentage when I was elected, but the level is still unacceptable. According to Scottish Government figures, almost one quarter of single pensioner households and one fifth of smaller pensioner households in Scotland are deemed to be in extreme fuel poverty, which means that they spend more than 20% of their disposable income on heating their homes. In addition, in Scotland 8% of pensioners live in absolute poverty and one in 10 over-65s are classified as materially deprived. Members will therefore understand why I keep telling people that we are on the verge of a fuel poverty crisis.
What causes fuel poverty? There are three root causes: low incomes, poor housing and, most of all, high energy prices.
My constituency is 1,200 feet above sea level, its winters can be bitter, and the latest figures show that it has 40 excess winter deaths every year. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have failed to stop the super-profits of some energy companies, and do not have a coherent plan to help families with their fuel bills this year?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I will come on to the points that he makes, but to answer his last point, I sometimes wonder whether the Government are helping the energy companies make those obscene profits, rather than stopping them.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s comment on super-profits, but perhaps he will tell the House which way he voted on the windfall tax proposed on this side of the House on those same energy companies. They are making a 60% return on capital employed in a medium-sized field in the North sea, while the people whom he criticises today in the retail sector are making much less. Which way did he vote, and why has he changed his mind?
The hon. Gentleman is talking about a completely different area. I will talk about windfall taxes later, but suffice it to say that that proposal would have stifled what we were trying to do at the time. The hon. Gentleman thought that that was a good idea, but that is because he was on his side of the House and I was on my side of the House.
Eradicating fuel poverty involves tackling all three of the root causes that I mentioned. I have some sympathy with the energy companies as regards prices rising as a result of the influence of the wholesale energy market. As a member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, I am fully aware that wholesale prices have risen by 30% this year, but I am also aware that they are lower than a few years ago. According to Bloomberg, in autumn 2008 the wholesale price for our gas hit prices of 70p a therm, compared with 59p a therm today, showing that wholesale gas prices have dropped by 15% since then. Similarly, prices in the wholesale electricity market reached £120 per megawatt-hour in autumn 2008; today, they are £51.20 per megawatt-hour, which is less than half the price back then.
As a result, there is great suspicion by many, including Ofgem, that the big six have not been passing on wholesale market price reductions. Surprise, surprise! As far as I am concerned, these are anti-competitive acts, especially towards smaller energy companies. Chapter II of the Competition Act 1998 prohibits the abuse of dominant position in a market by one or more undertakings which may affect the trade within the UK. According to the competition law guidelines,
“Conduct may be abusive when, through the effects of conduct on the competitive process, it adversely affects consumers directly (for example, through the prices charged) or indirectly (for example, conduct which reduces the intensity of existing competition or of potential competition). A dominant undertaking is under special responsibility not to allow its conduct to impair undistorted competition.”
I have previously accused the big six of acting like a cartel on many occasions. That is supported by the nature of the recent price rises, whereby tacit collusion appears to be taking place as the big six followed one by one in raising prices at a similar rate, following a price leader. Overall, it is debatable whether that accusation would be upheld in a court of law, but it is a fair political point to make.
The Government have not pursued every angle on energy prices, especially as one of their current positions is to say that pensioners in Glasgow and the rest of Scotland should use less gas and electricity this winter. According to the findings of the Hills fuel poverty review, which is out today, 2,700 people will die in England and Wales as a result of this year’s energy price rises by the big six energy companies. Should these people really take the advice of the Prime Minister and his Secretary of State to use less energy? I am sure that the Minister will have a copy of the review, and I suggest that he study it. The fact that so many people will lose their lives as a result of energy price rises means that we have to consider this seriously. I do not make that as a political point but as a point about human beings.
Yes. According to the Hills report, that will happen because of the increases. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said that that means that in every constituency in the country, four people will die for that reason. That bears thinking about.
I would like VAT on utility bills to be zero-rated, but as far as I am aware there is an EU law against that. It is a matter for next week’s debate—perhaps it will be raised by Conservative Members—which I will probably ignore of course. I should like the Government to reverse the cut in the winter fuel payment. We heard earlier that they were going to maintain the level established by the previous Government. However, the previous Government had a record of consolidating the money at the end of the financial year, and we will never know whether they would have consolidated the £100 level because we did not win the election, unfortunately. As a result, elderly people in this country are now suffering.
Early-day motion 2279, which I signed last night, asks the Secretary of State, or Ofgem at the very least, openly to consider imposing a financial penalty on energy suppliers for anti-competitive behaviour in the energy market—or at least to remind energy companies of their social and competitive responsibilities and the consequences if they forget them. At times it feels as though Ofgem and the Government offer too many carrots and not enough sticks to the big six. Ofgem can impose a maximum financial penalty of 10% of an energy company’s turnover if it is seen to act anti-competitively. I suggest that it has been proven that that is happening. However, in its 11 years of existence, Ofgem has not once levied the maximum fine on an energy company.
If such a fine was imposed, the money could be collected by the Treasury and put in the Consolidated Fund, and the Prime Minister could tell his Chancellor to redistribute it to the hard-pressed customers in our constituencies this winter. How much would a 10% financial penalty raise? According to the Library, using the revenue figures for 2009-10, we could raise £9.5 billion from just three of the big six, with £2.4 billion coming from British Gas alone. Alternatively, a collective penalty levied on the total sales of gas and electricity to the domestic sector, which were £27 billion in 2010, would raise £2.7 billion. Clearly, money could be raised to help people this winter not through a windfall tax, but by using the enforcement powers that are already there. However, there needs to be the political will to do that, and to ensure that our irregular regulator is doing all it can.
Furthermore, I strongly suspect that behind these price rises we will find that the companies have grossly failed to stockpile energy reserves and to hedge adequately against future price rises. There may be a number of reasons for that, but I think that one is ineptitude. I also think that the answer lies in the fact that they have no incentive to do so.
I try to represent my constituents at all times. There is a group of people in my constituency who cannot access the internet in any way. Glasgow has the lowest uptake of internet access of any city in the country. We also know that very few elderly people are connected to the internet. Therefore, despite the calls from the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for people to go and find something cheaper, those people are left with what they have got, particularly those who live in houses made of concrete blocks that cannot have cavity wall insulation or any other energy efficiency measures installed. There are 400 tariffs for them to choose between, if they can understand them. The Minister could not, and I am not surprised. Left to their own devices, those people will have either to continue as they are or to switch the heating off. Consequently, 2,700 people in England and Wales will be added to the statistics, including people in my constituency.
I am sure that all Members are here today for the same reason: our constituents are struggling with the excruciating price of fuel. I will explore three practical points that might help, if the Government will allow me. The first relates to supply and the other two to upward price distortions that I believe could be removed or alleviated.
Shale gas has been mentioned and I will not go over the same ground. It seems that we have vast, abundant and cheap sources of gas in this country. We should be going through a shale gas revolution. I was glad that the Secretary of State spoke relatively warmly of the resource earlier, but I noticed that he moved quickly on to carbon capture and storage. I would like to bring to the House’s attention an article in The Wall Street Journal today entitled, “EU Weighs Pullback on Cutting Emissions”, which has the subtitle, “Commission’s Energy Department Urges EU to Reconsider Energy Transition Absent a Broader Emissions Deal”. I hope that the Secretary of State will not crucify the British people upon a cross of carbon, because if we can have a shale gas revolution I certainly hope we will. The imperative to produce cheap energy is clear, and many Members have set out the case with great talent and passion.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman noticed that the Secretary of State talked about the capital cost that carbon capture and storage would add to a power station that had to use it. He talked about a figure of £1 billion plus the running costs afterwards, which would add significantly to the costs of producing energy from gas.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It seems that these days we throw billions around casually, but those are enormous sums of money.
I turn, then, to more billions that are being thrown around. I have learned from Matthew Sinclair’s “Let Them Eat Carbon” that the EU emissions trading scheme is costing European consumers €15.5 billion a year and British consumers €2.2 billion a year. It seems to me that if we are truly concerned about what the poor and the strivers are paying for energy, we should look extremely carefully at such distortions to market prices. I note that because the carbon price collapsed under the EU ETS, we are now looking at a carbon floor price of £30 a tonne. Having tried to introduce a particular market-based mechanism and found that it does not work, we are now introducing a particular piece of price fixing. I am not at all convinced that that is a good idea.
Traditionally, Governments have interfered to pick winners, but it seems that at the moment they might be interfering to pick losers. I note that under feed-in tariffs, onshore wind receives £45 per megawatt-hour, whereas solar panels receive £400 per megawatt-hour. I am not sure those prices are a good use of taxpayers’ money, or of the system of feed-in tariffs, in the context of the shale gas resources that exist. I might go so far as to say that we seem to be entering some kind of Hegelian dialectic, in which on one hand we agonise over the price of energy and on the other hand we implement Government policies that seem deliberately to elevate energy prices, in the hope that some synthesis will emerge.
Before the hon. Gentleman gets completely carried away with the shale gas paradise, does he not understand that it is an unconventional gas supply and therefore very expensive to extract? Does he also understand that Deutsche Bank, in its recent review of energy prices, stated that unconventional gas supplies in Europe would have no discernible effect on future gas supplies, because of increasing demand across European and north American markets as a whole?
I think perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I will have to put our researchers in a room and have them fight it out, because my information is that the Deutsche Bank report has stated that a quarter of UK households could be driven into fuel poverty by being priced out of the market; that the most effective policy to bring energy costs down would be to abandon our unilateral renewables obligation, which would save 15% on costs; and that shale gas utilisation would save a further 15%.
It is not true to say that shale gas is more expensive than conventional gas. In the US, gas prices are now 50% of those on the European hub. That is a huge and unprecedented thing to have happened, and it is why the US is about to become a net exporter of gas. It has decoupled gas and oil prices due to shale gas. I am not saying that we can do that easily, but it has happened in the US, and it is wrong to say that shale gas is more expensive than other methods.
I am grateful, and with that I will perhaps move past shale gas. My point was that there are enormous, abundant resources of shale gas. Of course there are problems, but as an engineer I just see problems to be solved and risks to be mitigated. I think we should get on with it. We must also remember the points that I touched on about the price distortions that we are deliberately introducing into the market, including the subsidising of large corporations through surplus permits to emit, which have a market value. Such distortions in the market tend to push prices up.
Of course, prices are expressed in money, and I wish to move on to my favourite subject—the distortions that have been introduced to the market through the financial system. I have a wonderful chart before me that prices crude oil from a base figure of 100 in 1945. It shows that the oil price has only been high and volatile since 1971. The two lines—one is US dollars and one is gold grams—are coincident until 1971, but once we came off Bretton Woods and the dollar was decoupled from gold, oil prices were suddenly high and volatile. I showed the chart to an EU energy regulator and he was astonished because all the main events in the history of crude oil prices are simply missing from the price in gold.
Let me move on to the chart that shows crude oil simply priced in gold and blown up. We can see that oil in gold is cheaper now than it was in 1950 and that the oscillations have been pretty much around the same mean. I have other charts relating to gold and they show that gas prices are cheaper today in gold than they were in 1994.
It seems to me that if we are serious about energy prices, we ought to be asking serious questions about the value of money. Right now, one of the biggest problems we face is that “Helicopter Ben” Bernanke is printing dollars and distorting energy prices worldwide. That brings us back to the imperative that has been discussed: people will be in fuel poverty, choosing between heating and eating.
I ask the Government to consider how we can deliver a shale gas revolution. I want them to consider along with the EU Commission whether we should continue aggressive green policies in isolation. I want them to consider those policies and whether it is sensible to keep pushing up prices. Finally, I want them at least to consider some of the monetary effects on energy prices that, in my view, are now crucifying us all.
I am pleased to have managed to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, to be called to speak in this important debate. In the UK, 6.4 million homes are in fuel poverty and that number continues to rise. That is the number of households spending 10% or more of their income on their energy bills.
There are two key factors: energy prices and household incomes. Fuel prices continue to rise at astronomical rates and Government policies have left families in this country seriously squeezed. At the same time, the six most dominant energy firms, which, as I understand it, control 99% of the market, have seen their profits increase to £125 per person. That is absolutely scandalous. The figure has increased from £15 to £125 since June, so no wonder our constituents are seriously concerned about those companies taking them for a ride. My own father—who is a constituent of mine—calls it daylight robbery. Given what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) has said, I think that is worse than daylight robbery. It goes beyond robbery with violence and is tantamount, to me, to corporate manslaughter. It is estimated that 2,700 people will die this year as a result of the increase in fuel prices. That is an absolute disgrace.
It is important to recognise that, in the last quarter alone, such profits equate to billions of pounds. It shocks me to hear the Secretary of State defend the energy companies, saying that they are not the Salvation Army. Is it not time that we looked at this carefully? People are deciding between eating and turning the central heating on, so it is perhaps time for a little philanthropy from those companies.
The Government’s rhetoric is not good enough. We are most certainly not “all in this together”. It is not enough for the Prime Minister to arrange a publicity stunt with the energy bosses and then tell my constituents to shop around, switch energy supplier, insulate their loft spaces and save. It is dreadfully patronising to those people who have already attempted that but have found navigating the system extremely complicated. Indeed, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) experienced that when he attempted to change suppliers.
The Government could call for an investigation into allegations of mis-selling, but they have not done so. Consumers who have been ripped off by companies should be properly compensated. In my view, that is the type of thing that the Secretary of State should have said when he addressed the House from the Dispatch Box. The Government should tell energy companies to use their soaring profits to help families and businesses with crippling energy bills.
We need a mandatory social tariff. Energy suppliers should be forced to charge less to their most vulnerable customers, and I am confused as to why the Prime Minister did not ask for that in his energy summit. The Government need to stand up to the powerful vested interests in the energy industry, and to provide help, rather than patronising people. They are out of touch. Cutting support for the most vulnerable is absolutely appalling, which brings me on to the winter fuel allowance.
The Prime Minister’s decision to cut the winter fuel allowance will affect thousands of pensioners, including many hundreds in my constituency—[Interruption.] The Minister says something from a sedentary position that I cannot quite make out, but I wish he would listen and allow me to make the points that I want to make, because if he did so, he would learn something about real people in my constituency, who are suffering quite severely.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The reality is that the allowance was introduced by the previous Government on a temporary basis. For the year after the election, no money whatever was allocated to it. The allowance was a temporary measure, and this Government have continued the policy of the Labour Government. We have not cut it; that is what the previous Government planned to do.
Not at the moment.
As I have said, household income is a key factor in fuel poverty, but the Government’s economic record on that makes grim reading. Unemployment in Kingston upon Hull East is currently about 11.5% and it looks set to increase. The Chancellor’s mistake with the VAT increase costs the average family £450 a year and a pensioner couple £250 a year, which is on top of the ever-increasing cost of energy. In addition, food inflation is at 6.2%.
Energy prices and the greed of the big six is forcing households throughout the country into fuel poverty. Their greed is akin to the greed of the bankers. A profit margin of £125 per person when families are facing a choice between a decent meal and a warm home is utterly irresponsible. The energy companies have been increasing their profits substantially while preying on people who have no choice but to buy from one of the big six.
The Prime Minister’s energy summit represented a demonstrable failure to act. All we heard from the Government on Monday was their intention to write to those who are struggling, encouraging them to switch to a new deal. It is patronising to suggest that many have not already done this. According to the Government, if energy bills are too high, the customer is to blame. It is absolutely shameful. The Government desperately need to get a grip of these companies and take some positive action. I welcome the fact that Government Members will be supporting the Opposition motion today, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), the shadow Secretary of State, has said, people need warm homes, not warm words, from this Tory-led Government.
I am grateful for this opportunity to make what I intend will be a brief contribution to this important debate. It is timely because, as so many hon. Members have said, this is a matter of the first importance to so many of our constituents and many of the most vulnerable households. Again as has been said, many are making a choice between heating and eating. However, as the Financial Times pointed out last week, on trends that we have seen, it would not be too long before the average household is at risk of falling into fuel poverty. I know that Members on both sides of the House want to get to grips with this problem, so it does not have to be a party political issue. I am afraid, though, that in her opening remarks, the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) made it so.
There is much merit in the Opposition day motion, and the Government Front Bench team have said that they will not be opposing it. I do not suppose that it would be in order for me to suggest amendments at this stage, but long as the motion is, I think that it would benefit from the insertion of seven words. The first line reads:
“this House believes that the energy market does not serve the public interest”.
I would suggest inserting after “energy market” the words: “that we, the Labour party, presided over”. The Government took office after a Government who allowed extensive fuel poverty to persist, who failed to get to grips with the complexity in the market, who had no green deal and who were well off the pace on nuclear power, and all that time of course the now Leader of the Opposition had more than a passing association with energy policy. By contrast, the coalition Government have come in with bold plans to address all those issues.
There are important community-based initiatives, such as oil clubs, which have been mentioned once or twice, and organisations such as Greening Petersfield and Greening Alton and Holybourne, in my constituency, which are working with some of the most vulnerable people to take sensible, simple measures to better insulate their homes and to save money. Although there are many aspects to this debate, I want to talk briefly about just two: first, the implication of the green deal for the prices that, in particular, the most vulnerable people are paying and the need to ensure that they share in the benefits of the green deal; and, secondly, the need to tackle market complexity.
I welcome the green deal hugely. It is an innovative approach to this practical issue and could contribute to employment and growth—it is investment in the truest sense of the word. However, we need a few reassurances, particularly on how small businesses will share in the work and on how the quality of workmanship will be guaranteed. Specific to energy prices, however, I hope that the Minister will say something about how the green deal will work for people on pre-payment meters and about how the interest rate regime will ensure that those households and consumers considered the “highest risks” will not be effectively priced-out of the benefits arising from the green deal.
We fully support the green deal, which we piloted when Labour was in government in the pay-as-you-save scheme. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about pre-payment meters and interest rates, which were two points that we laboured in the Committee stage of the Energy Bill, sadly without getting answers. I know that I should be making a short intervention, but I would like to return to his point about the community element. We sought in Committee to secure lower administration charges for those smaller businesses, community projects, social enterprises, charities and co-operatives that want to take part in the green deal, but the Government rejected our amendments. Will the hon. Gentleman ask them to reconsider that?
The fact that the hon. Lady made those points does not make them bad points, and there will be further detail to come. Things do not necessarily have to be on the face of the legislation. As the green deal is introduced, I am sure that ensuring that the most vulnerable households share the benefits will be high on Ministers’ list of priorities.
The second point that I want to cover briefly is about complexity in the market. We know that there are hundreds of tariffs on the market—one of which, slightly inexplicably, involves getting a free football shirt. In some ways, complexity in the energy market is a reflection of increasing complexity in consumer markets in general. Those visiting the Sainsbury’s wine aisle now need to take a Hewlett Packard scientific calculator to work out the best deal, whereas those looking for a savings account or a credit card deal need to spend quite a long time working out the best deal in the first place and, more importantly, need to be sharp and ensure that they cancel it at the right time to get the savings. Things are becoming harder for consumers, but they are especially difficult with energy because it is that much less tangible and has that much more complexity to it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on making an excellent speech. On empowering consumers, one of the challenges is that most people are incentivised to switch accounts when their prices are hiked, only to find a few weeks later that their new supplier has also hiked its prices. Does he agree that one solution would be to block price rises for new customers for the first six months after signing up to a new tariff?
My understanding of the recent Ofgem announcement is that there is some provision for ensuring that what it calls innovative price tariffs must have a fixed element to them—funnily enough, I was just coming to more or less that very point. I welcome Ofgem’s new requirement for a single, simple tariff per payment type, but we need to ensure that that does not beguile us. I used to work in the hotel business, and anyone who has ever stayed in a hotel might be familiar with the rack rate. That is the price pinned on the back of the door, which is nominally a perfect reference price that people can use to compare hotels. The problem is that hardly anybody pays the rack rate; rather, all the competition centres on the other rates. That does not mean that such rates are a bad thing, but we would not necessarily be able to say that we had thereby solved the problem.
When it comes to solving the problem, we have to remember that the comparison websites—all the puns about meerkats and Go Compare were getting a bit much earlier—are commercial enterprises. Although they allow people to compare, the click-through payments that they receive mean that they have an incentive for screen biasing. The Consumer Focus code and accreditation are welcome, but that is not quite the same thing as ensuring that comparison sites operate absolutely perfectly in the public interest. I hope that it might be possible to consider a new model of comparison websites to sit alongside those that already exist, which would be broadly modelled on a website called Lenders Compared. I do not know how many hon. Members are familiar with Lenders Compared—probably not that many—but it was set up as a result of the Competition Commission investigation into high-cost lending and enables consumers to compare the cost of various home credit operators and others.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, some of which I agree with, but I wonder whether he will take up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) made about many people on low incomes, particularly those with disabilities, not having access to websites. I met a constituent this week with a visual impairment who is finding it extremely difficult to get information that he can access easily.
The hon. Lady is absolutely spot-on; indeed, I was just coming to that point. There are organisations and individuals who assist people with such matters, and a simple comparison mechanism could be very useful for them, too.
I raised the question of how many hon. Members had heard of a website called Lenders Compared. I suspect that the answer is not many, which illustrates a problem. It is all very well having a pure comparison website, but if no one has heard of it and no one looks at it, it is not doing its job. Such sites therefore need some marketing spend behind them. I suggest that Ministers might have a discussion with the industry about creating such a service, to be funded by the industry itself. People might ask why the industry would want to do that, as it would cost it money, but I think we might be surprised at how much it might be willing to consider, if not fully welcome, such a proposal, because of the pay-per-click marketing fees that it would save as a result of that tranche of its business going through such a site. So, that is my suggestion du jour for Ministers. I am grateful to you for calling me to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. This subject is of huge interest to the energy-consuming public, and these are matters of real fear and anxiety to many of them. We should remember that many of these British companies that are making big—even obscene—profits right now are the same utility companies, energy companies and communications companies that used to be owned by the British people. Whatever artificial market situation successive Governments put in place to try to manage those companies’ profits and markets, they continue to operate as a virtual oligopoly. There are few suppliers in the market, and entry into that market is virtually impossible. Those suppliers’ actions therefore have a disproportionately negative impact on prices.
The bottom line is that those companies were nationalised for a good reason—namely, to stop them using their strategic position to drive up prices. Ironically, we now find that our most strategic energy, water and communications companies are foreign-owned and are demonstrably using their position to drive up huge profits for a small number of senior staff and shareholde