Rising energy bills are a serious concern for consumers in Scotland and across the rest of the UK. We are sustaining vital financial support for the most vulnerable consumers. Our reforms are opening up the market to competition and we are working to ensure that suppliers put customers on the cheapest tariff possible.
As the Minister knows, energy prices have risen dramatically since the coalition came to power. In rural and island communities people pay an even greater proportion of their income on fuel. Citizens Advice Scotland says that there was a sevenfold increase last year in people approaching it for advice on mis-selling in the energy sector. Does he not agree that it is now time for a radical reform of the energy sector, and for a price freeze until we put that reform in place?
I say gently to the hon. Lady, who I know has taken a long-term interest in and has a notable record on this issue, that the phenomenon of energy price increases did not just start in 2010. It was a feature of the years of the Labour Government too, as a consequence of the reduction in the number of companies operating in the market. That problem would be recreated if we were to undertake her policy of a price freeze. We have already seen the number of energy companies operating rise from six to 14. A price freeze would be a real threat to that.
It is now clear that we have two Governments who are choosing to side with the big energy companies rather than people struggling with the cost of living crisis. Is it not now clear that the only way for families across the UK to see some relief in their cost of living, with a freezing of their bills and breaking up the monopoly of the big six energy companies, is to vote no in the referendum and return a Labour Government in 2015?
I certainly agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s prescription that a no vote in September is very important, but I have to remind him that in one year alone under Labour there was a 20% increase in energy prices, and there was no suggestion of a price freeze then. When Labour Members were in government, they knew the reality: a price freeze would see prices going up before the price freeze and prices going up again afterwards. We are delivering help to vulnerable people in the here and now.
Whatever the headline average price increase, the fact is that that hides a multitude of sins. A constituent who approached me this week is a low electricity user and is facing a 50% increase in his unit cost. Others are finding that they are being hammered by high standing charges. Is it not time for the Government to take action and stop these practices?
These are all reasons why it is important to improve transparency in the market and the range of tariffs available. That has been the result of the action this Government have been taking. Under the previous Government there were at one point no fewer than 400 different tariffs available, so it was no surprise that people were confused. Simplicity is the way ahead and the Government are working on that, along with the regulator.
We know that energy bills have rocketed under the Secretary of State’s Government and that Labour will freeze energy prices. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) said this morning, one third of British investment in renewables comes to Scotland, but Scots contribute less than one tenth. That means that the rest of the UK supports Scottish renewable generation through their bills. Does the Secretary of State agree that the best future for renewables in Scotland, and the best way to keep costs down for Scotland, is for Scotland to stay part of the United Kingdom?
That is absolutely the case. Scotland has a tremendous opportunity to contribute to the growth of renewable energy as part of the United Kingdom, but that will take subsidies that come from consumers’ bills, the cost of which is spread across the whole nation, not simply the households of an independent Scotland. It would be madness for the renewable energy industry to support Scottish independence.