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Energy Bills: Self-disconnection

Volume 726: debated on Wednesday 25 January 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State to make a statement on the levels of self-disconnection from power sources and on Government support for energy bills.

As I set out to the House on Monday, the Government recognise the importance of protecting customers, including those on prepayment meters. This weekend, the Secretary of State set out a five-point plan on prepayment meters. He wrote to energy suppliers, calling on them to take every step to support consumers in difficulty, particularly those who are at risk of self-disconnection. The Government want to see a much greater effort from suppliers to help consumers in payment difficulties, including offers of additional credit, debt forgiveness or debt advice. As the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) will be aware, Ofgem, as the independent regulator, is in a position to direct suppliers in a way that the Government are not.

The Government understand that this is a difficult time for many families. That is why we have put in place unprecedented cost of living support. It is easy to take that for granted, but it is extensive. It includes the £400 discount under the energy bills support scheme, which has been appearing on electricity bills since the October bills arrived this winter, as well as the energy price guarantee, which does not need any form of application process and directly subsidises energy bills for the typical family this winter to the tune of an additional £900, with equivalent support in Northern Ireland. The Government are also committed to supporting those households without a relationship to a domestic energy supplier with a £400 discount under the energy bills support scheme alternative funding, with eligible households able to apply from 27 February.

It is critical that this support reaches consumers, which is why the Government have also urged suppliers to take action on increasing the number of vouchers being redeemed under the Government’s energy bills support scheme and why we have published a list of supplier redemption rates. We want to encourage suppliers to compare themselves with their rivals and look to do as well as the best, showing which ones are meeting their responsibilities and which need to do more.

There are also established industry rules and processes to reduce the risk of self-disconnection. Suppliers are required to have conversations with customers in arrears to set up a suitable debt repayment plan, taking account of their ability to pay. It is vital that these rules are followed. The Secretary of State wrote to Ofgem to ensure that it takes a robust approach to compliance. In response, Ofgem is reviewing supplier practice, and a key area of its review is the suppliers’ approach to self-disconnection.

But this is continuing work. This afternoon I will be meeting energy suppliers, Ofgem, Energy UK and Citizens Advice to ensure that they hear from the Government, the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members that there is a strong urge in this House to do everything we can to protect everyone this winter, and most of all, the most vulnerable.

A parliamentary answer on Tuesday disclosed that around 66,000 households in Scotland and 660,000 across Britain had self-disconnected from smart meters in the third quarter of last year. Self-disconnection is a euphemism for simply being unable to afford to heat or power your home. It is as pernicious as the term “collateral damage” is in war. Those afflicted by self-disconnection and all its misery are also civilians, but we are at peace, not war. These figures are for a quarter before prices rose and temperatures dropped. They are also only the tip of the iceberg. The numbers are far greater, as these figures do not cover those on legacy prepayment meters, the numbers of which are substantial, with almost 2 million in the UK and 300,000 in Scotland. They apply to those that operated before smart meters were brought in and they will substantially increase the numbers so tragically afflicted.

In an energy-rich country, fuel poverty is an obscenity. Given this heartless cruelty in a cold winter, will the Minister, first, end the forced installation of prepayment meters forthwith? Secondly, will he immediately abolish the perverse higher standing charges and tariffs for prepayment meters? Thirdly, will he as a matter of urgency bring in a social tariff for the poorest and most vulnerable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. He rightly raises the issue of those who are self-disconnecting. I think we can be proud of the fact that the numbers of people who were physically disconnected from power and heat last year were in single figures. The installation of prepayment meters has to be an absolute last resort. We must insist that people do not end up being physically disconnected from an energy supply. It is important to highlight that all suppliers are required to offer emergency credit when the meter runs out. This should give consumers enough time to top up their meters. Traditional meters have an automatic setting that allows for a set amount of emergency credit to be used after the customer is notified that the topped-up credit has been used.

As I have said, we are committed to having the right regime in place. In 2009, there were issues around the additional costs of prepayment meters. Ofgem had responsibility for supervising that at that time, as it does now, and it looked into the issues and brought in a regime to ensure that any costs and charges were commensurate with the actual costs of delivery. To a certain extent that has all been superseded by the energy price cap brought in by this Government, which limits the amount that anyone can charge for their energy.

It is excellent to have such a high-calibre Minister in such a crucial role. At Prime Minister’s questions I raised the issue of the energy bills support scheme, which has helped 99% of my constituents. I am interested in the report that identifies the worst and best performers on prepayment vouchers. The Minister said that he was going to meet some of those people today. Will he name and shame—and praise—people on that list and try to get those right at the bottom at least up to the median level, if not into the top quartile?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. We are absolutely focused on that, and we all have a role to play in increasing awareness of the vouchers, which are so valuable to people. We want to see more being redeemed, and the numbers are going up consistently. We have published the list of suppliers and we have already brought them together so that they can share best practice. I wanted to publish the list so that it could be seen not only by the House but by the suppliers’ chief executive officers, who I hope will talk to their teams about why they are lower down the list. If all of them, all of us in this House and everyone in the voluntary and other sectors and in local authorities do everything possible to raise awareness, we can lift the number of people who get that help, to which they are entitled.

One way or another, there are more than 3 million households on prepayment meters. With the rapid rise in prices and the continuing energy crisis, they are now all at risk of unseen disconnection, because they simply cannot afford the huge bills and constant meter top-ups they are facing. Energy companies know this, and they do not want to be saddled with account customers in distress, so we have seen 500,000 warrants obtained, particularly over the last year—18% up on previous numbers—to drive customers in trouble with their accounts into forcibly having prepayment meters installed in their homes, whether they want them or not. Customer disconnection is then not the problem for the energy company or the Government thereafter. For most customers, the energy companies can simply change the supply of smart meters from credit to prepay without a warrant being issued.

What are the Government doing about all this? Polite letters are not enough. Will the Minister now enforce measures to ensure that the energy companies stop issuing warrants and switching smart meters to prepay mode while prices remain high and the energy crisis continues? What are the Government actively doing to seek out and help those who have self-disconnected and are now energy destitute?

The Government have said, and will no doubt say again today, that help is on its way in the form of Government support for energy bills, yet precisely the customers most likely to self-disconnect are getting much less help than they should. As the Minister has said, 30% of the vouchers available to customers on prepayment meters remain unclaimed, for a variety of reasons. And the alternative help scheme devised for those who indirectly pay their bill, whether they live in park homes, communal buildings or district heating schemes, has simply not arrived. It was expected in December and then January, but we now hear it will not be active until the end of February—five months after account customers started to get assistance.

What are the Government doing to ensure that vouchers get through and are claimed by prepay customers, and that barriers to claiming are overcome? Why is the alternative help scheme so consistently delayed? Do the Government just not care about help for those living in park homes and other tenures, or are they incompetent in organising that help in a timely way?

Those who know the hon. Gentleman will know he is normally better than that. He knows, because we talk about it, just how hard the Department is working to make sure we get these things in place. We are proud that we got the EBSS discount out to an unprecedented 29 million people. I make no apology for prioritising getting the bulk of it out there.

The EBSS alternative funding sounds simple, but it is not. It is a novel scheme with ambitious timescales. It is a complex cohort with a range of different energy arrangements, including off grid, direct to commercial and via intermediaries. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) chunters from the Front Bench, but she should recognise the complexity of this challenge.

When we were looking at February delivery for the portal, I challenged it. A few days ago, I met the four pilot local authorities, which are across the devolved nations of Great Britain, to talk about the situation. We must make sure that we sort out all those complexities because, if we do not get it right first time, the pilot authorities say it would delay payments to consumers. My priority is to get funding to people as quickly as possible.

Where people are not already receiving the main EBSS, we have to look after public money by making sure their bank accounts are verified and legitimate, and that they live at the address. Those records are held across Government, local authorities and banks, so a complex case-management system is required. Local authorities need to be able to access the system securely, which requires multi-factor authentication, and some local authorities do not have the ability to implement that quickly. Robust fraud checks are necessary in an application-based system, to which there is no alternative for this group. Each iteration of the application process needs to be tested.

I am confident that we will have the portal up by or on Monday 27 February. We will work with local authorities, upon which we rely, and I thank the four pilot authorities and other local authorities. We need to make sure that their staff are trained, that the complexities are dealt with and that they have a robust system, so that they can swiftly process applications and make sure families get the money they so direly need. I fully accept the point about the need for speed.

This Government have given huge energy bill support to businesses and households this winter. Although I fully understand the complexity of the situation for park homes, what reassurance can my right hon. Friend give to the multiple residents who have contacted me, from Mill on the Mole near South Molton and from Berrynarbor Park near Ilfracombe, that everything possible is being done to get energy payments to them as rapidly as possible? MPs know where their park homes are. If there is anything I can do to deliver this support locally, I would be more than happy to assist.

My hon. Friend is right that identifying the location of park homes might sound relatively simple, and I hope I have made it clear that there are levels of complexity that have to be dealt with. We are doing everything possible to ensure this is done as quickly as possible. Because of council tax bills, this is the busiest time of year for the local authority staff who deal with this. We must have a system that stands up, is robust and delivers on time.

As might be expected, I pushed back in every way possible to see if we could open the portal in January, but we could not do so without risking the confidence and support of those local authorities. We will make sure that we have it in place and that we deliver it in the right way.

For months, my hon. Friend has rightly made sure that my focus has remained on this issue by reminding me of her constituents and their need for this help.

Come April, 8.4 million households will be in fuel poverty—that is almost a third of all households—and talk of capping average bills at £2,500 or £3,000 a year means nothing to people who cannot afford to pay their bill or top up their meter. People on prepayment meters are penalised with higher standing charges, so those who either choose or are forced into not using energy build up debt from these standing charges. Imagine getting into debt despite not using energy.

These people are more likely to have disabilities or suffer ill health. They are more likely to die prematurely and to have mental health issues due to the struggles of daily life. I do not know what their life is like, and I know for a fact that the Government cannot claim to understand what their life is like. We now need a proper social tariff and a further energy bill support package as a priority.

Much more needs to be done to ensure the vouchers are redeemed, rather than the Government just asking the companies to publish data and urging them to do more. The Government need to put in place a temporary ban on the forced installation of prepayment meters. Is it not a disgrace that energy-rich Scotland’s Union dividend is people who are unable to turn on their gas when Scotland is a net exporter of gas?

The hon. Gentleman said this support has absolutely no meaning, or something close to it. The meaning for those on benefits has been £800 of additional cost of living support, on top of the £400 EBSS support and the £900 of support organised through the Treasury. This is real support. The cheap rhetoric we have heard from the Scottish nationalists might be typical, but even so it is disappointing.

The hon. Gentleman says we need to do more than just urging suppliers to do more and to publish data. There is an application. People have to take up their vouchers, and they have to use them. I am all ears to any contribution he would like to make on how to build that up, because the whole of society—families, community groups, MPs and political parties—has to get the message out to people about these vouchers. I am confident that they are being sent out by the suppliers, so we have to encourage people to cash them in at a time when they need them most. There is always a danger that the people who need it most—we do not have the data—may be the ones least likely to use it. [Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) can make cheap points and shout at me from a sedentary position, or he can engage seriously and properly by trying to do everything possible to get a system that makes sure people get the help they deserve. That is what I want. If he thinks there are any practical steps that we should be delivering immediately, he should say so.

We have said that we will look at a social tariff and at how vulnerable people are looked after, but we have to look at it in a considered manner. I am proud of the support that the Government have put in place, and I believe it stands up internationally. We are determined to support people, particularly the most vulnerable, so that they do not suffer at a time of extreme energy stress.

Across the country and in the Kettering constituency, everyone should be benefiting from the energy price guarantee, which saves the average household £900 this winter on their bills. Everyone should be getting the £400 energy bills support scheme in £66 or £67 monthly payments. Those in bands A to D households should receive £150 council tax rebate. What extra are the Government doing for the 8 million lowest income households, most of whom are on universal credit, pensioners and disabled people who are most likely to have need for prepayment meters?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, there is a series of programmes to support people in those positions, and £800 for all people on benefits in addition to the sums that he has already itemised for the House.

The Minister prays in aid the money that is being given to households across the country, and I acknowledge that that is a significant amount of money, but it is not working, is it? One prepayment meter is issued every 10 seconds. Millions of people live in fuel poverty. My constituent, for example, is disabled and trapped in his house. He had a prepayment meter imposed on him, but no voucher. He was left in freezing cold conditions in the run-up to Christmas. That just is not acceptable. I am afraid to say that polite letters from the Secretary of State or cups of tea this afternoon with the Minister will not hack it. Does he agree that it is time that the Government took legal powers to intervene directly in the energy market in order to protect the people of this country?

That kind of crude socialist intervention in the market would be counterproductive, and it would be typical of measures that come from the Labour party. Its members go in with high talk of helping the weakest and poorest and they come up with policies that have exactly the opposite effect.

I wish to follow on from some of the questions regarding the £400 payment for park homes. Although I understand the complexities of the issue, will the Minister set out how, once this scheme goes live, he will communicate with the residents of park homes so that they do access the portal? Furthermore, will there be an alternative way to access the application process rather than just through an online portal?

I thank my hon. Friend for her extremely pertinent question. We will be promoting through a whole array of groups and, of course, local authorities are key partners in that. We will be looking for support from colleagues across the House, from local authorities, and from the voluntary sector. We have also been doing a larger-scale public communications exercise than the Department has ever previously engaged with. In answer to her final question: for those who are not easily able to access the Government portal, there will be a telephone support service as well. Again, this will be an application-based system. We will not get to 100%, but I hope that we can work constructively. All ideas are welcome so that we do everything we can to maximise the take-up and make sure that people get the support to which they are entitled.

My constituents living in houseboats and on heat networks have been left out in the cold for months without support or information. This is despite repeated assurances from the Minister about the vital £400 from the energy bills support scheme alternative funding. Applications for that were promised to be opened by the end of January, yet, yesterday, in a private briefing for Members, the Minister revealed that the earliest that the applications would be open is the end of February, with money not coming through until the end of March. Yesterday, he also replied to a written question in writing to a Member of this House that the scheme was still going to open in January. Does the Minister accept that his answers to Members of this House have been misleading and that he has broken promises to off-grid customers? What on earth is he doing to ensure that my constituents and people up and down this country get the support they need in the freezing cold right now?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I think she will find that the letter stated that the Government had announced that the scheme would open in January, which was true—we did announce that we aimed to open it in January. The pilot and engagement with local authorities has shown that we need to delay that to February, so I organised briefings yesterday afternoon to make sure that all Members of the House had heard about that. I am also seeking to notify the House as quickly as possible by writing to Select Committee Chairmen and others to let them know. We are doing everything possible to make sure that we have a robust system in place. I set out that this is a novel system: it is complex and it does rely on local authorities. It was after personally meeting representatives of those pilot local authorities that I came to the decision. I felt that this was the right thing to do to ensure speedy delivery of this support to her houseboat owners among others. It is also worth noting that they have seen support if they come through a commercial supplier of electricity through the energy bill relief scheme, but I want to see them get their £400 as well, and I want a system that works, is effective and is as quick as possible.

The Minister appeared to say in answer to an earlier question that no one should be physically disconnected from their energy supply. If I heard that correctly, and if that is indeed the Government’s position, does that extend to people on prepayment meters who cannot connect themselves to their energy supply because they simply do not have the money to top up the meter? If that is the case, I would be interested to hear what further action he will take to prevent that happening in all cases.

The point about a physical disconnection—I think that there may have been only one in the UK last year—is that it differs from what happens with a prepayment meter. By having a prepayment meter, no matter what pre-existing debts someone may have, as soon as they have money to put credit on, they can recommence their energy supply. Physical disconnection is when a person is literally cut off and then has to re-apply to get their supply back. That is an alternative that I do not want to see. The prepayment system is an absolute last resort for those who run up large energy bills, do not engage with the supplier and show no sign that they will pay. Those people must be able to do something and the installation of a prepayment meter, if absolutely necessary, as a last resort and under warrant if they will not engage in any other way, means that household still has access to energy, so long as they put some credit on. That is a lot better than bailiffs and a total physical cut-off. We can be proud of the fact that we do not have people cut off from their energy supply, although, admittedly, as the right hon. Member says, they have to put money on the meter in order to be able to access it.

I have had many emails from people who live in Dalmarnock and are served by a communal heating system operated by Switch2, which is not currently under Government regulation. These residents have received a letter informing them that the price per kilowatt hour is going from 11p to 32p, with additional standing charges. Will the Minister tell me what support these people can expect from the Government? At the moment, with the lack of legislation and the lack of eligibility for other schemes, they are left with heating that they cannot afford.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. If she will follow that up with some details, I will happily write to her and come back on the specific points she has raised.

I genuinely appreciated the Minister coming to meet us yesterday to discuss these issues, but he will have seen the shock and disbelief in the room when he made his announcement, not least as he wrote to me just last week to say that the scheme would open in January, and I have been asking him about this since October on behalf of constituents in Sully who are affected. Nearly 1 million people across the country have had no form of support, in lots of different types of building, as he well knows. Can he be absolutely clear: when that portal opens on 27 February, how long will it take for those people to get the payment? Are we talking about a month, two months, or will they have to wait until the summer? What advice can he give them in the interim? Should they allow debt to build up? Should they turn off their heating? What should they actually do, and what should the management companies do, particularly in communal buildings, which potentially owe significant amounts, with residents having not paid their Bills? What is his advice to them?

The decision was made yesterday and I was able to brief colleagues, including the hon. Gentleman—I thank him for attending the meeting—yesterday afternoon, so I have tried to move as quickly as possible. Of course, until a decision is made, Government policy stays as it is until it is changed, and that explains the letter. I certainly hope that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) would accept that I was not being disingenuous. We moved to communicate as quickly as possible once the decision had been made.

The payment will go through local authorities. Much as I would love to give a define date, it depends when people apply. We will be encouraging people to apply from 27 February—if that is when the scheme launches—and then local authorities will be carrying out their verification. We will triage that first, to minimise the imposition on local authorities, but they will have to go through a process to get the payment out. That means I cannot give a definitive date, much as I would like to, and much as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) is right to suggest that it would benefit people to know when they will get the support to which they are entitled. I hope he understands that, administratively, if I gave a date there would be a risk that I would be back before the House again to explain why, in some cases, it was not delivered. We will do it as quickly as we can but, having talked to the pilot local authorities, they feel that we are taking the most robust approach with the best chance of getting the payment out as quickly as possible.

For those who are getting support for alternative fuels, what reach does the Minister expect the scheme to have for those whom the Government have identified as relying on alternative fuels, and how long does he expect it will take for the remainder to get their money?

Following this urgent question, I will seek an answer for those on alternative fuels who are in the majority group; it might be where we are at in our data development, but I have not seen a number on that. If I can access that, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman, and I will seek a way of sharing it with the House. Most people will be paid automatically with a credit to their energy bill, which will be ready at the beginning of February. I suppose that may not appear on the bill until March, but we will have that up and running automatically for those with an energy bill. We hope to use the same portal that is being used for the EBSS £400 alternative fuel payment, and to open it very shortly after the opening of the EBSS alternative portal. When I have further specific dates that I can share, I will do so.

A number of constituents have got in touch with me from Castle View House, where several flats are sub-metered. They are desperate, and have been for some time, for payments to get through the door. I know that right hon. and hon. Members across the House also have constituents in that situation, many in park homes. I was not at all convinced by the Minister’s answer that the portal will be open on 27 February and the scheme will be in operation. What guarantee is there?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight the residents of Castle View House and the park home residents in his constituency, who are waiting and expecting to hear that they will get the support to which they are entitled. I am confident that we will have the scheme open on or by 27 February, and I and my teams will do everything to make sure that happens. We are working through local authorities, so we must ensure that we have all the procedures—some of which I touched on—properly worked through, and that we have local authority staff trained up so that they can then process the payment. I am afraid that is as far as I can go right now. It is a novel system; those working in local authorities on council tax are used to collecting money in rather than putting it out, but we are doing everything we can and I am grateful for the work of local authorities for the commitment they have shown, at a really busy time, in Wales, Scotland and England to try to make sure the payment is delivered.

Up to 170 park home households in Frogmore Home Park, Newlands Park, Highview Park and other areas of my constituency are still waiting for their £400 energy support payment. I first raised the issue of my park homes with the Minister seven months ago, and only last night, by chance, we discovered that the scheme would not be open by the end of this month. There are freezing temperatures this week. We cannot wait another month for the Government to get around to setting up a portal, which will then take much longer to release the funds. I suggested to the Minister last night that he immediately empower local authorities to distribute emergency funds to those households. Will he do that today?

The hon. Lady has passionately espoused the interests of her constituents over a considerable time, and I share and understand her frustration. She did not find this out yesterday by chance, but in a briefing with me that was arranged for Members right across the House. I am absolutely focused on making sure that the portal opens on or before Monday 27 February, and that we then get the money out to those who are entitled to it, with due protections for public money as well as a focus on delivery for them.

Wales has a smaller population than Scotland, yet the number of smart meters disconnected in Wales is consistently higher. In quarter 3 last year it was 75,000 disconnected in Wales, compared with 66,000 in Scotland; in Q2 it was 80,000 compared with 69,000; and in Q1 last year it was 60,000 compared with 50,000. I am indebted to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for enlightening me on these figures—perhaps the Minister can also enlighten me on why they are like that.

I am meeting suppliers this afternoon, and I will be pressuring them and continuing to talk to them about ensuring that they do everything possible to support people and provide them with emergency credit, repayment programmes and everything possible to avert their getting in a position where they have to have forcible implementation of prepayment meters, and to look after those who are on them and ensure that they are in a position where they can continue to access their heat and light.

Next week I am launching the all-party parliamentary group on prepayment meters, and one of the first things we were looking at is so-called self-disconnection. Given that I wrote to the Secretary of State in September expressing my concerns about this issue and have received zero response; given that the Government have twice tried to block my Pre-Payment Meters (Self-Disconnection) Bill, which seeks to outlaw self-disconnection; and given that I have had no response from BEIS to my debate in this Chamber on more general issues around prepayment meters last December, which was supported across the House, I ask the Secretary of State to commit today to meeting the APPG as a matter of urgency. We have been waiting long enough. The Minister can use terms such as physical disconnection all he likes, but the impact is the same: if people cannot access gas and electricity, they are stuck, and in 2022 somebody on a prepayment meter was disconnected from their energy supply every 10 seconds.

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her focus on and proper championing of this issue. I am not the Secretary of State but, as the Minister for Energy and Climate, I will instruct my office to reach out to hers and try to set up a meeting with the APPG sooner rather than later.

The Minister can be in no doubt about the strength of feeling on this, because we are going to have to go back to our constituents—who, we having shared with them his own words, were expecting the alternative fund at the end of last year and then in December—and disappoint them again with the news that it is not coming in January. He said that local authority capacity issues are part of the delay in rolling out the payment, so what consideration has he given to supporting local authorities with additional resources so that they can roll it out faster? As I shared with him yesterday, a member of police staff has told me that she cannot afford to put her heating on. We need to make sure that people, including dedicated public servants, can stay warm, so how can we get it rolled out?

I do not think I identified capacity issues as such; it is more about a set of complex issues that need to be resolved and then, having resolved them, providing suitable guidance for local authorities so that they are in a position to make the payment. I did say that it is challenging times for local authorities, because they are also doing council tax, but I am not hearing from them that there is some quick fix. We need people who are already trained to be able to use the systems, and it is through those systems that we will be able to ensure that the payment goes out. We are working with local authorities on the pilots, and I am grateful for their help in shaping the system and the guidance that will go to the other local authorities across the country.

The Minister must realise that promises of reviews by Ofgem into the activities of energy companies will come far too late for people who are struggling now to pay their bills—indeed, who cannot get anywhere near paying them. I am already waiting for a promised meeting with Ministers about the malpractice of overpayments being routinely kept by energy companies when they are consumers’ money, and direct debits having shot up well above the level at which they should be. The Minister has the power to turn up the heat on Ofgem: will he do it?

I meet Ofgem regularly—we will be meeting again this afternoon—and those are precisely the kinds of conversations we have. Ofgem is working hard on coming down on the suppliers and it has looked into making sure that suppliers do not build up unjustified credits. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is Ofgem’s role as the independent regulator to supervise, regulate and ensure that the licence conditions under which suppliers operate are fulfilled. We are doing everything possible to ensure that we hold Ofgem’s feet to the fire while it holds suppliers’ feet to the fire.

People who live in marinas and on houseboats are sub-metered, and in my constituency, they are often off the gas grid. Not only do they use prepayment cards—so they self-disconnect when they cannot afford energy—but they are being charged a pass-through commercial rate, often with 20% VAT added on. They have not had help with their heating or their electricity, and they are self-disconnecting. Does the Minister accept that offering money in the spring, when those people have already gone through a terrible cold winter, is just too late?

I share the hon. Lady’s frustration. Obviously we would have liked it to get to them sooner, but I have laid out the reasons why it has not. If their electricity is supplied by a commercial supplier, the energy bill relief scheme has been directly reducing their bills through that supplier. We have put in place legislation to require those Government interventions to be passed on to the end recipient.

The Minister mentioned in his initial reply the energy price guarantee, which has, of course, been extended until March 2024 for gas customers. There has been no further announcement, however, for those who use alternative fuels—oil, liquefied petroleum gas or wood pellets—to heat their homes. Can he give the House assurances that he will put pressure on the Treasury to make an announcement about next winter for households that use alternative fuels?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will look carefully at the cost pressures across different markets, as we did when we came up with the alternative fuel payment, which was originally £100 before we doubled it to £200. I know that that is making a difference in Northern Ireland, and it will make a difference in rural areas around the UK.

I thank the Government and the Minister very much for all the help that they have been able to give businesses and households—there is much to appreciate, and we need to put that on record.

Just this morning, a number of businesses back home in Newtownards town, which the Minister visited last week, have informed me that they are seeking small business support. They say that they have turned their lights off, that they are supplying thermals for staff to keep warm, and that they cannot afford the current prices. Some have informed me that they face bankruptcy. Would the Minister consider a small business relief fund that could be applied to businesses throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

It was a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman in his constituency last week; to meet community organisations there, including the Consumer Council, which hosted us; and to learn about the situation for people in Northern Ireland who are struggling with their energy bills. He is right to highlight the fact that businesses and others are struggling. That is why we brought in the EBRS, and why we will have the energy bills discount scheme from April. We will keep that under advisement.

Of course, in Northern Ireland—more than in the rest of the UK—many companies use alternative fuels, and we are, again, working on ensuring that we put support in place as soon as we can. But because of the nature of that, there is no central database, and we have to manage public funds. It sounds simple—if I were in opposition, I would probably shout at the Government to get it done, because it sounds so easy—but it turns out that it is complex. We are working as hard as we can to put those schemes in place a place even though energy is devolved and we should not have any responsibility at all—we have stepped up because we have had to, and we will continue to do so in this particular area. I very much hope to see the institutions restored in Northern Ireland and the Northern Irish people served by the people they elect.

There really cannot be any justification for the premium charges that are associated with prepayment meters. The energy companies are getting cash up front from customers before any energy is used. As I said to the Minister on Monday, they must be able to bank that and earn interest on it, as with those who accumulate credit balances and usually pay in arrears. Perhaps he can raise that point with the companies when he meets them this afternoon. Will he let us know what their response is in the letter that he promised me on Monday?

Ofgem is responsible for regulating that area. As I understand it, Ofgem looked into it in 2009 and made some changes then. It required suppliers to make cost-reflective charges only—charges had to be based genuinely on the additional costs of delivery—but that has, to a certain extent, been obviated by the energy price cap, which has put a tariff limit on what any company can charge. I will make sure that I get a letter to the hon. Gentleman on this topic.

Bills Presented

National Parks (Camping) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Richard Foord presented a Bill to provide for a right to camp in National Parks; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 235).

General Election (Public Support) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Richard Burgon presented a Bill to provide for a mechanism for an early general election to be held in certain circumstances, where the public has demonstrated support for such an election; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 17 March, and to be printed (Bill 237).