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Gas Prices and Energy Suppliers

Volume 701: debated on Thursday 23 September 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on rising gas prices and the collapse of energy suppliers.

I came before the House on Monday to update colleagues on the action we are taking, and I appeared before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee yesterday to discuss the matter in greater depth. The Government have been clear that protecting consumers is our primary focus and shapes our entire approach to this issue. We will continue to protect consumers with the energy price cap.

The global gas situation has had an impact on some energy suppliers, and I have been in touch daily with Ofgem. As it set out yesterday, there are more than 50 suppliers in the domestic market, and we may, unfortunately, see more suppliers exit the market in the coming weeks. However, it is not unusual for energy suppliers to leave the market, for various reasons, particularly when wholesale global prices are rising. Ofgem and the Government have clear, well-rehearsed processes in place to make sure that all customers are supplied with energy.

Our approach will be informed by the following principles: protecting customers, especially vulnerable ones, from price spikes. The solution to this crisis will be found from the industry and the market, as is already happening, and I repeat that the Government will not be bailing out failed energy companies. We would like to see a competitive energy market that can deliver choice and lower prices. The energy price cap, which continues to protect millions of customers, will remain in place. Consumers come first, and that has always been the centrepiece of our approach.

On Monday, I said to the Secretary of State that he was being far too complacent about the situation we are facing. Events since have, unfortunately, borne that out: complacent about the crisis in the market; complacent about the impact on families; and complacent about the cost of living crisis. He pretended on Monday and again today that it was normal for a number of suppliers to go down each winter, but what we are dealing with is far from normal: 800,000 customers losing their suppliers yesterday alone and 1.5 million in the last six weeks. So will he now answer the question he has so far failed to answer: does he believe taxpayers’ money will be necessary to stabilise the market? If so, how will he ensure value for money and that we do not simply end up with greater concentration of the big six suppliers?

Next, I have a letter here that Ofgem wrote to the Secretary of State when he was the Energy Minister 18 months ago during covid, warning about

“systemic risk to the energy supply sector as a whole”.

It said the usual Ofgem mechanism, the supplier of last resort, may not be possible. It went on:

“The failure of medium and large suppliers would need to be handled via a special administration regime placing significant burden and costs on government.”

So will he answer the question of what planning was done for this eventuality following that letter? Surely the Government should be in a position now to know exactly what needs to be done where there is systemic risk to suppliers. Have they not left the country dangerously exposed, with them scrabbling around for solutions?

Finally, we are seven days from the cut to universal credit. This is the last time a Government Minister will be in the House explaining to millions of families why they are plunging them further into fuel poverty. Instead of warm words or platitudes, can the Secretary of State now tell the British people how he can possibly justify this attack on their living standards? Is it not the truth that there can be no defence of it, and that the only right, proper and fair thing to do is to cancel the cut?

Obviously, as usual, the right hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues. We have not been complacent. The whole point about the supplier of last resort process, which was interrogated last year, is that it is an organised, well-established process that can allow existing strong companies to absorb customers and failure. [Interruption.] If he would desist from chuntering from a sedentary position, he might actually hear my answer.

I remember the letter last year. We interrogated, all through the covid process, the systems we had in place. During that period, the supplier of last resort was found to work. So far this year, it has been found to work, so I am not going to try to talk ourselves into exacerbating the crisis.

With regard to the special administration regime, that is something that is in place. Thankfully, we have not had to use that, but the right hon. Gentleman knows as well as many people in this House that it is there should the case arise.

With respect to universal credit, I will say what I said earlier in the week. That is a matter across Government in terms of budgetary responsibility. There will be a Budget at the end of October and there will be plenty of time to discuss that then.

May I press the Business Secretary a little on the Government assumptions on pricing? In his evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee yesterday, the head of Ofgem appeared to suggest that he expected these high prices to continue for some time. I accept that the Government do not have a crystal ball, but in making policy choices the Government must be making some assumptions about what they think is the most likely path for prices. Can the Business Secretary set those out for the House please?

As I have said repeatedly, I do not have a crystal ball, as my right hon. Friend has suggested, and I do not make predictions about the price but clearly, we prepare for every eventuality. The biggest help for consumers and customers at this current time is the energy price cap, which I have repeatedly stated is staying in place.

This is not market failure; it is Government and regulator failure. Ofgem all along had the financial and hedging information to know which companies were at risk, so why are we now in crisis management phase?

The Tories promised us cheaper energy bills post Brexit, but right now electricity wholesale prices in the UK are the highest in the whole of Europe. Meanwhile, as gas prices increase, the Treasury gets extra VAT receipts and increased oil and gas revenues. Surely, there must be a redistribution of that increased Treasury income to help hard-pressed bill payers. At the moment, it is those bill payers who cover the additional cost of transferring customers to other energy suppliers. They cover the credit of customers with failed companies and then have to pay increased tariffs when transferred. The cap might stay but the cap does not stop energy bills going up, so why should bill payers pay even more money when the Treasury is getting increased revenue out of this? What is the additional estimated cost for bill payers?

A quarter of our electricity bills consist of levies, so as we move away from our reliance on fossil fuels, we need a fundamental shift in how that concession is paid for. That is something that the Treasury needs to address. It means ending the grid charging regime so that Scotland does not have the highest charges in Europe, and it means giving the go-ahead to pumped hydro storage in wave and tidal.

Finally, is the Secretary of State happy to sit by while the cost of living crisis is ongoing? Is he happy to plunge 500,000 extra people into fuel poverty, or will he fight the Treasury to end the universal credit cut and release extra money to help hard-pressed bill payers?

Clearly there was a lot in that question and statement. I will deal with a couple of issues, if I may.

With respect to universal credit and wider budgetary considerations, I have repeatedly said that they are matters for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. We will have ample opportunity to discuss these things in the House. With respect to the move away from fossil fuels, the hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement: I think that we need a diverse supply of decarbonised sources of energy.

Finally, I dispute the idea that we are ill-prepared. We have the SOLR and SAR processes in place and we stress-tested them throughout the whole covid period, when I was in constant contact with the industry. I feel that so far we have managed to accommodate such supplier failure as we have seen with existing structures.

Again, there are further budgetary issues, but I have always said that we are absolutely focused on customers, particularly the most vulnerable customers. The warm home discount is staying and we are looking to protect the most vulnerable customers, particularly prepaid customers, from the worst effects of the energy price spike.

On Monday, the Secretary of State dismissed our lack of gas storage as “not…relevant”. It has clearly left us vulnerable, so will he now admit that the closure of the Rough storage facility was a mistake?

I do not think that it is relevant, because there is no way that any storage in the world will mitigate the effect of a quadrupling of the gas price in four months, as we have seen. The answer is actually getting more diverse sources of supply and electricity through non-carbon sources—through nuclear, on which I am still very unclear as to the Opposition’s view, and through other sources of decarbonised energy.

Why do we not reduce VAT on fuel as a temporary measure? We did it for the hospitality industry, which was badly affected by covid-19. Why do we not abolish VAT for consumers on fuel now?

My hon. Friend is quite right: we did a whole range of interventions to alleviate the burden on consumers and on businesses. Those were fiscal interventions that the Chancellor pursued last year, and I am sure that he is looking at a range of things this year, but that is a matter for him to decide ahead of the Budget.

The right hon. Member will know that, in 2020, 48% of our natural gas came from the UK continental shelf, so that is clearly a strong, sustainable source of gas to this country. However, I suggest to him that gas is a transition fuel: in our pursuit of net zero by 2050, we want to transition away from it. That is why we are developing carbon capture and hydrogen, as he knows very well.

Further to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) asked, surely the Conservative answer—I raised this the other day—is to reduce VAT on energy bills, as was pledged by those who supported Brexit in the EU referendum. I know that the Secretary of State will say that it is up to the Treasury to decide, but he is very persuasive. He is a tax-cutting Conservative—he believes in tax cuts—and I know that, if he went to see the Chancellor, he would ensure that we got a VAT cut on energy bills.

I see the Chancellor on a regular basis, as my right hon. Friend knows, and I am delighted to inform him that those conversations tend to be confidential.

The UK suffers from higher costs both for consumers and for our businesses and industries. Why then, to follow the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), is the UK’s storage capacity just 2% of annual demand versus an average of 25% in Europe? Is that part of the reason why we do not have energy price resilience?

A conference of EU Energy Ministers took place only yesterday to discuss that very problem. Mitigating a quadrupling of the gas price is not a function of storage—that is a complete red herring. One reason why we have less storage is that we have a greater diversity of energy supply, and that is a strength, not a weakness.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right to focus on consumers and not to bail out energy firms that got things wrong or are too fragile. However, will he explain how he is dealing with customers currently on capped tariffs with suppliers that have gone bust? Is he encountering any resistance from the firms being asked to take on those customers, who may be arriving as a loss to the acquiring firm?

As I have said, we have a supplier of last resort process that has worked well in the past couple of years. It is not my job to state the terms on which customers are absorbed by other companies—

No, not ahead of the process. However, most of these prices are at or just below the price cap, and that is fundamentally what will protect consumers in this period.

This Government are responsible for families facing a cost of living crisis due to the triple whammy of rising gas prices, looming tax rises, and cuts to universal credit. Will the Secretary of State finally acknowledge and accept that it is completely and utterly immoral to cut universal credit?

What I do acknowledge is that there has been a quadrupling of the gas price, and that we have an energy price cap that will protect customers from such spikes. Schemes such as the warm home discount will also protect the most vulnerable customers. That is what I acknowledge.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of this country’s structural dependency on gas, which was created by the last Labour Government’s sidelining of green technologies, such as nuclear and even hydrogen?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For example, the last Labour Government did absolutely nothing to drive nuclear power, which is a fundamental ingredient of security of energy supply.

The figure of £139 a year has been floated in the press as the increase in the energy price cap this year, but that refers only to the variable rate and does not take into account the changes in bills that people will face if they move from one tariff to another—often against their will in the current circumstances. Will the Secretary of State consider asking the regulator to direct energy suppliers to limit the price increase to any individual customer to a reasonable amount over the coming year?

As I have said, we have a supplier of last resort process, and it would be wrong of me here at the Dispatch Box to interfere in how it works. It has worked effectively over the past two years. As I have said repeatedly to the House, the energy price cap does give some succour, because consumers prices could be exorbitant without the cap. The price cap gives support, and we continue to support the warm home discount for the vulnerable end of the market.

Customers in Kettering and across the country will be worried that their gas and electricity could be cut off if their energy supplier goes bust. To put customers minds at rest, will the Secretary of State explain in straightforward understandable terms how the supplier of last resort process works?

What happens—and it is happening at the moment—is that there is a process of bidding for the customers of the exiting, failing companies, and the cost of absorbing those customers is taken on by the company that wins the bid and also by the industry at large; so the costs are mutualised, but generally it has been seen that there is always continuity of supply. That is a key element of the system.

The Secretary of State clearly believes that the invisible hand of the market will solve all this without his doing anything—but when he talks about customers, does he mean only domestic consumers, or will he ensure that supply continues to keep industry going and jobs secure? In that context, does he think it acceptable that Germany has some 90 days of gas storage while we have only nine days’ worth? Will he also commit himself to ensuring that there are adequate supplies under our control for the future by licensing new gasfields?

We protect domestic consumers in the way I have outlined, but it is fair for the right hon. Gentleman to raise the issue of industrial users of energy in business. He will know that we have schemes that which protect industrial users of energy: we have the energy industry incentive scheme, and yesterday we launched a new tranche of the industrial energy transformation fund with up to £220 million, which enables businesses to bid in for further support.

I thank the Secretary of State for his tireless work over the last few weeks, not just on the gas price crisis but on the carbon dioxide shortage that followed. I also pay tribute to CF Fertilisers, which has come back online in Stockton, and to Ensus in Redcar for offering to help and come online too. For the benefit of people across Redcar and Cleveland, however, can the Secretary of State outline how we are supporting people and protecting them from these high prices?

My hon. Friend has made an excellent point. The carbon dioxide crisis—or question in hand—we dealt with immediately. I spoke to the CEO of CF Fertilisers twice, on Sunday and Monday, and we had a solution on Tuesday. I am very pleased that, as a consequence of that solution, the company has managed to get production up and running, and to get people back to work at its plant. My hon. Friend will know, after my many visits to Teesside speaking to Ben Houchen, that the Government are resolutely focused on helping his constituents to level up and get well-paid, secure jobs.

These skyrocketing gas prices will have a devastating impact, not just on the public but on businesses, which will eventually have to pass those rises back on to the public. Does the Secretary of State understand that that double whammy for the public will see even more families being pushed into fuel poverty and consequently into food poverty as well? Apart from cutting universal credit very soon, making it even worse for many of these families, what is he doing? What is he doing to support them?

The hon. Gentleman will have seen reports that energy companies want the Government to lift the energy price cap. I have repeatedly resisted that. I have said explicitly, on the Floor of the House and in other places, that the price cap must stay, while also reaffirming our commitment to the warm home discount scheme and the winter fuel payment. We are absolutely focused on keeping consumer prices as low as possible in the energy market.

We are all hearing about the number of businesses in this market that are going bust at the moment, but can my right hon. Friend assure me, and my constituents, that this is expected to be a short-term shock and we will come out of it with a robust market and plenty of diversity of supply?

My hon. Friend knows that competition is the key to this market. We had a world that was oligopolistic in this respect, but we have introduced the price cap, and there are plenty of small, nimble entrants driving innovation and a dynamic system. I am absolutely committed to a competitive market, and I am sure that after this process we will still have a vibrant and dynamic energy system.

Too many people nowadays have to watch every single penny, and have to worry about where all the money to pay the bills will come from. Will the Secretary of State have a look at the amount of time that it takes a supplier of last resort to provide people with an accurate forecast for their energy costs, and, if possible, try to reduce the period during which they experience that uncertainty?

I would be very happy look at that, as the hon. Lady suggests. I have said many times, I am in contact with Mr Brearley, the chief executive officer of Ofgem, on practically a daily basis now, and this is something that I can raise with him at our next meeting.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I own shares in companies that invest in renewable energy. As the House will know, consumer energy bills are enhanced by climate change levy charges, which are used to support renewable energy producers. Is my right hon. Friend aware, however, that a large number of those renewable energy producers use special purpose vehicle companies to receive those subsidies, and that many of those SPVs are based offshore for tax purposes? Will he meet me to discuss how the Government are going to close that very clear tax loophole?

As my hon. Friend knows, I am always prepared to meet him at any time to discuss any matter he chooses to discuss with me.

Would the Minister still advise consumers to change their energy supplier, or would they just be better off changing their Government?

They had a chance to change their Government and, as I recall, that did not end so well for the Labour party, although maybe my memory fails me. We have a dynamic, vibrant and competitive market, and consumers should have a choice in order to keep their costs low.

Obviously these are disturbing times for our constituents and I welcome the actions that the Government are taking. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, whatever happens in the markets, no one in Basildon and Thurrock need fear supply failure or sudden hikes in prices this winter?

No one in Basildon and Thurrock, or anywhere else in this country, need fear the eventuality that my hon. Friend describes. As I have said, the supplier of last resort process is absolutely focused on ensuring that customers have continuity of supply. That is a top priority.

Better insulation of homes is essential for cutting rising fuel bills and emissions. Does the Secretary of State agree that it was a mistake to cut the green homes grant earlier this year, and will he commit to reforming it and bringing it back?

As I have said a number of times, in this role and in my previous one, the green homes grant attempted to do three things. The first was to decarbonise public sector buildings, and that worked very effectively through Salix, the bank that disbursed those funds. The second element, which was disbursed by local authorities, has also worked very well. The third element is the one that we closed, and we want to get a renewed version of it.

In the final days of the last Labour Government, the UK was near the bottom of the G20 league tables for green investment and renewable energy. I therefore congratulate my right hon. Friend on his Department’s achievements on offshore and floating wind energy. Can he confirm that his Department will continue to invest in this area, particularly close to my North Devon constituency and the Celtic sea?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend will know that we have some really exciting floating offshore wind projects in the Celtic sea that I am very pleased to see being developed. She is also right to observe that during the last Labour Government, we did absolutely nothing whatsoever to ensure security of energy supply or its diversity.

An Erdington care worker with two children was close to tears when she said to me:

“I worked so hard throughout the covid crisis. Now I am facing my universal credit being cut, a tax increase and soaring energy bills. Jack, why are they going ahead with the cut to universal credit? Do they even begin to understand how difficult life is for people like me?”

Is she wrong?

The massive increase in energy prices is a global effect. I completely understand that people are facing issues this winter that were not foreseen maybe six months ago, but this Government have rigorously focused on protecting the most vulnerable customers in the energy market and we are absolutely focused on getting Britain back to work. That is why our unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the G7 at 4.7%. In France, it is 8%. We are creating jobs and we are keeping the economy going.

As my right hon. Friend will know, I have been something of a doughty champion in North Norfolk for the offshore energy grid—[Interruption.] He is smiling; he knows what I am going to say next. Will he work at speed to ensure that the offshore network grid will be implemented as soon as possible to ensure that we stop the dereliction of the countryside with the offshore cable corridors?

Nobody in this House has been as consistent and as focused on this issue as my hon. Friend. He knows that, as Energy Minister, I commissioned the offshore transmission network review, on which we have accelerated work. I would be happy to speak to him and other colleagues about the review’s progress.

The Secretary of State describes small energy companies such as Green in Newcastle upon Tyne Central as “failures,” but he says nothing of his own failure in structuring, regulating and shaping the energy market. Will he confirm that large energy companies, such as Green, will not receive a penny of taxpayers’ money? What support will he offer to the employees of Green, apart from slashing universal credit?

As I said, it has been a consistent feature over the past few years that energy companies have failed and left the market. We have a process to deal with that, the supplier of last resort. I categorically say to the House that we will not be giving any grants or subsidies to larger companies.

I welcome the Government’s market-led approach. The CBI has been clear in saying that Labour’s plans to renationalise our UK energy network would result in higher household bills. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it could also threaten UK energy supplies?

Any Labour plan to nationalise the industry would be a step back into the dark ages and would be a disaster for this country’s reputation as a hub of international capital and investment.

Rising energy prices will disproportionately affect people living in the north, where it is colder during the winter. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of regional disparities, and how will he mitigate against them?

The hon. Lady raises a fair point, and clearly the single most important determinant of gas prices is the weather. That is why we have schemes such as the warm home discount, and it is why we are focused on protecting the most vulnerable customers wherever they are in the UK.

Half a million more people are likely to fall into fuel poverty as a result of this gas crisis. With record increases in inflation, plans to cut universal credit that will hit 37% of Scottish families, supermarket shelves that grow emptier by the day and a regressive national insurance tax hike hitting those on the lowest pay hardest, what has gone so wrong as we face a winter of discontent? Why should anyone have confidence in this Government?

I will tell the hon. Lady why people should have confidence in this Government: we have a vaccine roll-out that is the envy of the world; we have got the economy back up and running; we have 4.7% unemployment, which is among the lowest in the G7; and we have navigated the storms of covid-19 pretty effectively.

A number of my constituents were victims of the green deal mis-selling scandal and have been left saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt for a scheme they thought was publicly funded and Government backed. The scheme was supposed to lower their energy bills, but now, on top of having to repay that debt, their bills are set to skyrocket.

In supporting my constituent who discovered that she is a victim only when she recently tried to sell her home, I was informed that the Secretary of State has no obligation to investigate cases more than six years old. Many victims of this scam will not have been aware immediately, so will he explain what recourse exists for victims who come forward later?

We have been dealing with green deal cases on a case-by-case basis. I have not been informed of the specific details that the hon. Lady describes but, with my officials, I would be happy to meet her to discuss the particulars of this individual case.

This is almost a perfect storm: gas prices that have risen due to the maintenance projects that were rescheduled for 2021 because of the pandemic; lower-than-usual gas supply from Russia; and less liquefied natural gas reaching Europe because of increased deliveries to Asia. How can the Government assist when most of these factors are beyond our control? Is it realistic to hope that consumers will see a reduction in their bills within the next year?

The hon. Gentleman has given a pithy summary of the various causes of the energy price spike, one that is very realistic; it is a global phenomenon. What I have said repeatedly is that what the Government can do is ensure two things: that customers have continuity of supply, through the well-established SOLR process; and that we are resolutely focused on keeping the energy price cap, so that consumers—our constituents—are protected from those exorbitant price spikes.