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Energy Bills

Volume 573: debated on Thursday 16 January 2014

We are very concerned about rising energy bills, so we are helping consumers in three ways: with direct help with money off their bills; with stronger competition; and through energy efficiency programmes. Last month, we secured an agreement with the energy companies for an average £50 cut off this year’s bill, and I am pleased to tell the House that my Department’s own work for greater competition for consumers will be enhanced following the appointment of Clive Maxwell, the current chief executive of the Office of Fair Trading.

Frankly, the autumn statement was a great disappointment. Will the Government accept that they could do far more to help businesses and consumers who are facing crippling energy bills? The limited changes to green taxes are far too little, too late. Bills will still rise, and simply telling people to shop around is not a proper answer.

I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. People are switching providers very effectively. In November last year, the month after the price rises were announced, 614,000 people used the benefits of the competition that we have enhanced to get better deals and save hundreds of pounds. When it comes to records on bills, the provisional 2013 gas and electricity figures have now been published and we can make a comparison between this Government’s record and that of the last Labour Government. Between 2000 and 2010—the last Parliament—gas bills rose by an average of 12% a year; in this Parliament, they have risen by an average of 6%.

A new report by the Children’s Society says that about 5 million families are likely to turn down their heating because they cannot afford it, and children will suffer because their homes are simply too cold. Given that 3.6 million children last year thought that their homes were too cold in winter, does the Minister agree that it is now time for a price freeze to ensure that parents can keep their children warm during the cold winter months?

No, I do not think it is time for a price freeze, because I do not think that will help the children the hon. Lady is talking about. We all know that Labour’s price freeze is a con and the energy companies will shove up the bills after the price freeze has ended. We want to give people permanent help, which is why the £50 average cut to people’s energy bills is welcome. In addition, we are ensuring that the warm home discount delivers £135 off bills for the most vulnerable people. That is a good record. We will be coming to the House later this year with our draft fuel poverty strategy, because we want to do more for the most vulnerable households in our society.

A man in my constituency was recently arrested for stealing food. Upon escorting him home, the police found that not only did he have nothing to eat, but he had no heating or electricity at all in his home. He had turned to theft out of desperation. Why does the Minister not recognise that energy prices are a huge contributor to the cost-of-living crisis which is leading to such poverty and that this situation will only get worse until the Government adopt Labour’s energy price freeze?

I do not know the case that the hon. Lady talks about, but the Government are as concerned as anybody about energy prices, energy bills and the impact on people around our country. That is why we have been hyperactive in this area; we have done far more than the previous Government. I mentioned the comparisons we can now make between energy bill rises under the previous Government and under this one. As I said, gas bills went up twice as much under the previous Government, but electricity bills increased by an average of 9% in the previous Parliament whereas in this one they have increased by 4%. We know that that still means bills are going up and we need to help people, but Labour’s record in this area was shocking.

If people are to be encouraged to switch supplier to cut their energy bills, we must make it as easy as possible for them to find an alternative supplier. One big barrier to that is utilities charging steep termination charges. Can the Department do anything to get rid of or reduce those charges?

We certainly are looking at all aspects of switching to ensure that it is easier and quicker. Ofgem’s retail market review will make a big difference here and it is being implemented now, with simpler and clearer bills, and fewer tariffs. We are also working with the industry to reduce the time involved; I believe that before this Parliament finishes we will have halved the switching times, which will really help people such as my hon. Friend’s constituents.

The Secretary of State has been reminded by colleagues from all parts of the House this morning that this is not just about electricity and gas bills, low tariffs and dual fuel discounts; it is also about people in rural areas who cannot have any of those things because they rely on liquefied petroleum gas or fuel oil. I have long argued that the worst examples of fuel poverty are faced by people who are isolated in rural areas. Does he agree? Will he make them a priority in his new fuel poverty strategy?

My hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on this issue. It is clear that the House wants to bring it to our attention, and we are already working on it. As my colleagues have said, we need to address an issue of identification: getting good statistics and data, matching and so on. I can give an assurance that we will focus on this issue, and I invite right hon. and hon. Members to raise the matter with me and my Ministers, and bring forward ideas.

Our constituents are rightly concerned about energy prices. So does my right hon. Friend agree that it is irresponsible for any political party to attempt carbon tax changes to the Energy Act 2013 in the other place, which, had they been successful, would have added £125 to our consumers’ bills?

I think my hon. Friend is referring to the one issue over which the Prime Minister said to the Liaison Committee there is a difference between the two coalition parties. The £125 figure that he quotes is from the Conservative party’s website. The figure from the Committee on Climate Change on the cost of the decarbonisation target is six times less. What that shows is that we need a debate on the decarbonisation target and what the actual costs will be.

The Secretary of State said last December that his Government would reduce the average household bill next year by £50, but three of the big six energy companies are not passing on the reduction to fixed-price tariff customers. Will he confirm that for some of those customers the measures he announced will not take a single penny off their energy bills?

We negotiated a deal with the big six in which they agreed to deliver a £50 average bill reduction, and that is what we expect. We were clear at the time that it was an average bill reduction, because it is impossible to ensure that it goes to every single customer. Our analysis shows that they have largely complied already, and the House can be assured that we will not let up the pressure.

So that means there are customers who will not receive a single penny off their bills. Is it not a fact that average energy bills are still at least £60 more this winter than last winter? Why will the Secretary of State not admit that he and his Government are doing nothing to stop the big six energy companies raising prices?

First, every customer will get something off their bills because of the rebate that we are putting through related to renewable and social costs, so it is not true that some people will not see any reduction. Furthermore, when the hon. Lady and her colleagues talk about the big six, they forget to mention that Labour created the big six. It was when Labour messed up the reforms of the energy markets in 2001 and abolished the pool in a bad way that we saw consolidation and the big six. We are now fixing that problem.