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Electricity Supplier Obligations (Amendment and Excluded Electricity) (Amendment) Regulations 2017

Volume 785: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2017

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 28 March be approved.

Relevant documents: 32nd Report, Session 2016–17, from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, 27th Report, Session 2016–17, from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, these regulations amend the Electricity Supplier Obligations (Amendment & Excluded Electricity) Regulations 2015. They make provision for indirectly exempting eligible energy-intensive industries from part of the cost of funding the contracts for difference scheme. They aim to avoid putting these industries at a significant competitive disadvantage.

The transition to low-carbon—and the securing of our energy supplies—must be done in a way which minimises the cost to business and domestic consumers. Our industrial gas prices are internationally competitive but our industrial electricity prices have moved out of line with other European countries. The UK’s industrial electricity prices for large consumers in the EU 15 were the highest after Italy’s in 2016, as set out in The Clean Growth Strategy. This places UK electricity-intensive manufacturing industries at a competitive disadvantage and increases the risk of some deciding to relocate.

In order to meet our legally binding climate change and renewable energy targets, we have implemented a number of policies designed to incentivise generation of electricity from renewable resources. The costs of these policies are recovered through obligations and levies on suppliers, which pass these additional costs on to their customers. This results in electricity bills being higher than they otherwise would have been.

The CfD scheme is such a policy. It gives greater certainty and stability of revenues to electricity generators by reducing their exposure to volatile wholesale prices. The scheme is financed through a compulsory levy on electricity suppliers, which pass the costs on to domestic and business users through their electricity bills. The levy currently stands at almost £2.52 per megawatt hour. The funding costs of the CfD can reduce the attractiveness of the UK as an investment location and increase the risk that companies will invest or even move elsewhere. This is a scenario we wish to avoid, particularly as we exit the EU.

We intend to safeguard the competitiveness of those energy-intensive industries that are exposed to the additional costs arising from the CfD by exempting them from a proportion of these costs. An exemption scheme allows for real-time changes in energy use to be taken into account and provides certainty to business. The European Commission approved our state aid proposal to exempt certain EIIs from the cost of the CfD in December 2015.

The statutory instrument before us updates and improves the 2015 regulations. It brings them into line with the terms of our state aid approval, allowing us to commence the scheme. We recognise that the exemption will redistribute the cost of financing the CfD among other electricity consumers. We estimate that this will increase annual household electricity bills by around £1 between 2018-19 and 2023-24. None the less, we have taken steps to reduce consumer bills, which are now lower than they might otherwise be. Indeed, our energy efficiency policies reduced the average household energy bill by £161 in 2016. After taking account of the cost of policies for delivering cleaner energy, supporting vulnerable households and investing in upgrading our buildings, there was a net saving of £14 on the average household energy bill in 2016. Energy efficiency is the best long-term solution for tackling fuel poverty.

Since April, 70% of the £640 million per year energy company obligation has been focused on low-income households through the affordable warmth part of the scheme. This will upgrade the energy efficiency of more than 300,000 homes per year, tackling the root cause of fuel poverty. Certain households can also get £140 off their electricity bill for winter 2017-18 under the warm home discount scheme.

These regulations amend the original 2015 regulations. These amendments are necessary to bring those regulations into line with the Commission’s state aid approval. We are also making certain technical changes to the regulations to improve the administration of the scheme. The effects of the amendments include, among others: changes to eligibility; allowing new or restructured businesses to claim the benefit of the exemption; a requirement on beneficiaries to notify us, to help us ensure that they receive the exemption to the correct level and only if they are eligible; and allowing a company to apply for the exemption if it does not obtain electricity directly from a licensed electricity supplier.

The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee raised a number of points relating to consultation and timing, provision for direct competitors and the impact on consumer bills. I will summarise the main points. The policy to exempt eligible energy-intensive industries from a proportion of the costs of CfD had been subject to three previous consultations. The third consultation covered technical amendments to the regulations rather than policy changes, as the policy had already been consulted and agreed on previously. Our original intention was for these regulations to come into force at the end of February. However, some of the technical issues needed further consideration to ensure that the amended regulations achieve their aim. We involved stakeholders throughout the whole of this process.

Our original intention had been to provide relief to direct competitors—businesses which do not meet the eligibility criterion on electricity intensity but which manufacture the same product as eligible companies in the same sector. This was to create a level playing field and prevent market distortions within sectors. We submitted a state aid notification to the European Commission to address this issue. However, the Commission does not think our proposal is compatible with the relevant state aid guidelines. We are currently considering alternative options which may be open to us within the scope of these guidelines.

These draft regulations will make the necessary changes to the 2015 regulations to allow us to exempt eligible energy-intensive industries from up to 85% of the indirect costs of funding the CfD scheme. As well as providing these businesses with greater long-term certainty, the measures set out in these regulations will reduce the price differential between eligible energy-intensive industries and their international competitors, mitigating against the risk that these companies are put at a significant competitive disadvantage and might choose to move their production abroad. I commend these regulations to the House.

I am grateful to the Minister for ranging a little wider than the regulation before us. I was going to ask him about how some of this fitted in with the Government’s wider policy aims, particularly on decarbonisation. I recognise that industries that are intensive users of energy find some of the decarbonising regulations quite difficult. I recognise that there is a balance to be struck, but I would be interested to know whether the department has looked carefully at or has any figures about what the balance will be on decarbonisation after this.

The Minister also replied a little to the criticisms of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. I read with interest what it had to say because six weeks are recommended for consultation, but there were precisely five weeks, and it is rather bad practice to consult across the summer holiday period, which is what the Government did. That was pretty unfortunate. They were trying to get regulations in place by February 2017. In the end, they did not come until March, so I think something is not working quite right in the Minister’s department. He is fairly new there, so I challenge him to see whether in the next year it can have less criticism from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee when it brings forward matters such as this.

Apart from that, I recognise that the Government are trying to balance several things: how they can help industries that are intensive users, the regulations for decarbonisation and state aid rules from Europe. I recognise that that is not easy. I hope they have it right. I cannot profess to understand some of the very complicated matters in these types of regulations—I wish we had Lord Jenkin of Roding here as he would put us right if we had got it wrong. We are happy to support these regulations as far as they go. I hope we are not supporting something that we will regret in future.

I thank the Minister again for his clear introduction to the regulations before the House tonight. As on the previous regulations, the amendments to the 2015 regulations are largely technical, although in this case it is largely as a result of receiving state aid approval which requires these amendments. The Government have also brought forward other technical amendments to clarify the 2015 regulations and to improve their workings. I am content to approve the regulations as they reduce the disadvantages to energy-intensive industries, but they give rise to many serious questions concerning the impact of the policy and the relative effect on different businesses and their competitiveness.

The main contentious issue arises from the exclusion in these regulations of the intended extension of relief to energy-intensive businesses that do not qualify as having high energy costs as specified in the order. While the European Commission was happy to approve the 2015 regulations, subject to the alterations we are debating tonight, it was not happy to include the extension the Government sought for businesses other than those specified as being energy intensive.

In the 32nd report of your Lordships’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, dated 27 April 2017, it seems the Government are happy to drop this altogether with the thought that the CFD exemption will not have a significant effect on competition within the UK after all. Can the Minister clarify what sort of businesses these are, what their response is to the change in the Government’s position and what the cost is of the competitive disadvantage that they no longer consider significant? Has the assessment changed following dialogue with the commission? The Government’s answer refers only to the UK. What is the competitive position of these excluded businesses internationally? On Brexit, perhaps the Minister could outline the Government’s intention regarding state aid provisions that are part of EU membership once we leave. Is it the Government’s intention merely to amend the regulations to include the original intention once the UK has indeed left the EU?

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee was also critical of the Government’s short consultation in summer 2016—the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, drew attention to this feature of the department as well. Perhaps the complexity of the provisions and the adjustments in the Government’s response could entail further and more meaningful consultation regarding the numerous interactions between various government policies influencing renewables and the energy-intensive industries. There are also many questions around the costs of the exemptions for energy-intensive industries on other business and consumers.

One of the questions debated in the other place concerned the fall in the costs added by these regulations, from £1.80 to £1 a year on consumer bills. The Minister in the other place seemed unable to explain the significant drop. What is the grossed-up cost of this measure? Is that what has changed, or the estimates of the number of businesses in the intensive energy sector? How is the discrepancy to be explained? This highlights the complexity in analysing and understanding the impact on businesses and how they will react.

The Government have said they are developing a package of measures to support businesses to improve their energy use and efficiency. The Government are said to be revitalising the Green Deal. They are also considering the costs to the charitable sector. Could the Minister add to these statements tonight and give any indication of timescales? The Government have launched an independent review of the cost of energy, to be chaired by Professor Dieter Helm, in response to the report of your Lordships’ Economic Affairs Committee. Can the Minister update the House on this?

The costs to the consumer of the various government schemes are also subject to the levy control framework. This has also come in for severe criticisms from many sides, including the National Audit Office. Once again, the Government have realised they must have a rethink and start a review. How is that review progressing?

Although the regulations today can be approved in so far as they clarify various measures the Government are undertaking, nevertheless there are huge issues around the Government’s framework that demand swift resolution.

I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for supporting these regulations. The noble Baroness referred to the balance in recognising that some industries are not able to compete on a level playing field if they are heavily penalised by their electricity costs and that can come into conflict with our decarbonisation policy. She is of course absolutely right that it is a very difficult balance. The steel industry is an example of a very energy-intensive industry where if we did not address this balance, we would have no industry at all. There is a balance to be had. After all, from the planet’s point of view, if all we succeed in doing is moving the steel industry from here to another country, we have not improved the lot of the planet at all in the process. She is quite right to say there is a balance, and it is a balance that we are constantly trying to get right. I note the noble Baroness’s criticisms—indeed, her strictures—about the way in which we conducted this consultation. I have taken them on board and I am sure the department will do so too.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, raised the relative impact on competitors because the European Commission did not accept our argument. I think we have a serious argument here. It could be that there was a new process for making steel that was less energy-intensive and did not qualify for the exemption. That would put it at a competitive disadvantage in relation to the more energy-intensive process of making steel that did qualify, thereby achieving the reverse of what we intend to do, which is to move towards less energy-intensive methods of making steel, chemicals, glass, ceramics or, for that matter, anything else. So our argument to the Commission was a good one and we should carry on pursuing it.

The noble Lord then raised the issue of what we are going to do about the state aid provision programme post-Brexit. I can say only that that is part of the negotiations that are going on and it would not be for us to decide what to do about that post-Brexit although, depending on the trade agreements negotiated with Europe, there will be some understandings about that issue to avoid unfair competition between us and our European friends.

The noble Lord asked about the analysis behind why household bills changed from £1.80 to £1. The update from £1.80 to £1 was mainly because we reduced our estimate of the volume of electricity consumed by eligible energy-intensive industries. We have also updated our estimates of CfD policy costs and volumes of electricity sales to households and other consumers. I have to say I am just reading out my brief; I do not know whether or not it answers the question. I gather that it does. Excellent.

I believe the independent review by Dieter Helm is out tomorrow. I stress that it is an independent review, not a government one. I do not know what is in it but I think there will be lots that is of interest to the noble Lord when he reads it. If I have missed out any of the questions raised, I will write to noble Lords later. On that basis, I commend the draft regulations to the House.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 5.47 pm.