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Volume 552: debated on Thursday 1 November 2012

The Department does not hold, and never has held, this information. However, Ofgem monitors disconnection issues more broadly, and in particular the obligation on energy companies not to disconnect vulnerable customers during winter months. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that Ofgem’s latest figures show that in 2011 the number of people disconnected from their energy supply for debt-related reasons fell by 54% for electricity and 59% for gas.

The energy companies proudly tell us they rarely disconnect customers. However, last year they installed prepayment meters to recover debt in more than 200,000 households, which increases the cost of power and, more importantly, means some households cannot afford to use gas and electricity. Will the Minister ask the energy companies to record the number of people who are so-called “self-disconnecting”?

This is obviously an issue for Members on both sides of the House, and we need to do more to address it. I am very pleased that we have made progress in reducing the total number of disconnections, but I take on board the hon. Lady’s point and I would be very happy to meet her to discuss her ideas.

There is a group of residential consumers who are off the gas grid and do not have the protection of Ofgem: people who use heating oil and liquefied petroleum gas. Will the Minister say something about people who in effect self-disconnect by not buying oil?

This is a significant issue. In Sussex I am one of those customers, and the cost of heating oil is staggering. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) did terrific work in this area when he was a Minister in the Department. Last year, he looked extensively into possible cartels and competition issues, and we continue to look very carefully into that. Again, I would happily meet my hon. Friend to explain exactly what we are doing.

The Minister only talked about on-grid electricity and gas in his original answer, but there are also serious off-grid disconnection problems. Sometimes they arise because people are unable to afford supplies, and sometimes there are involuntary disconnections because of difficulties in getting supplies through in bad weather. Has the Minister spoken to the major suppliers in this market to remind them of the difficulties faced by those on low incomes and to ensure there are no disconnections this winter?

I have not personally spoken to suppliers of heating oil because that is not part of my portfolio; it is part of the Energy Minister’s portfolio. As I have just said, however, the former Minister, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), was extremely forensic in taking this through, and his work continues in the Department.

I welcome Ofgem’s changes allowing households on prepayment meters with debts of less than £500 to switch to a cheaper tariff with a different electricity operator. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that making it easier for consumers to shop around and get a cheaper tariff will benefit everybody on prepayment meters, as well as those on other forms of payment?

Absolutely. We not only want to make it easier for consumers to shop around; we also want to ensure they are supplied with better information. We will use legislation to help people get the best deal.