Tuesday 24 April 2018
Smart Meters Bill
My Lords, I must make the usual announcement. If there is a Division in the Chamber, we must adjourn and resume after 10 minutes.
Clause 1: Smart meters: extension of time for exercise of powers
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out “2023” and insert “2026”
My Lords, I will speak also to Amendments 2 and 4 in this group. Amendment 1 gives the Secretary of State a further three years beyond the date the Government are asking for in the Bill. The Government seek to extend the existing powers provided to the Secretary of State to develop, amend and oversee regulations relating to the licensing of smart meters from 2018 to 2023. Unusual as it may seem, we would like the Government to have more time. We want them to get the smart meter implementation programme right.
We are all in favour of smart meters and the benefits that they will bring to energy efficiency and customer satisfaction. I could cheekily say that we do not want to have to grapple with whatever state of distress the smart metering programme has reached when we take over at the next general election. We want the plan to work for consumers, and at the moment we see a smart meter rollout that is unclear, incoherent and unco-ordinated in its approach. The Second Reading debate revealed the delays, complexities and escalating costs at this juncture. We want the Government to take more time. We think that they will need more time. Ostensibly, they are seeking the five-year extension—three years beyond the 2020 deadline—in order to conclude a review of the data access and privacy framework by the end of 2018, and to fulfil any actions needed from the review.
In addition, I understand that the National Audit Office review of the cost-benefit analysis, due in July, will also be delayed because of a lack of resources. The review was also going to consider the technological choices made to ensure that the programme was not going to be installing obsolete equipment. I would appreciate it if the Minister would include the latest position on the NAO report in his remarks. This indicates that there is going to be a pause in any case. We believe that this time should be used constructively. Experience has already shown that the timetable has slipped. We say to the Government, “Take more time. We think you might need it. And in return, let’s get it right. Let’s be more ambitious. Let’s capture the latest technology to bring real benefits to consumers”.
Also contained in the amendment is the consideration that the statutory obligation to complete the rollout by 2020 needs to be reassessed. First, there is a mixed message or misunderstanding about what is to be completed by 2020. I am grateful to the Minister for his letter of 22 March, after Second Reading. In his second paragraph, he writes:
“The obligation on energy suppliers … is to take all these steps to install smart meters … by the end of 2020”.
However, in the first paragraph of page 2 of the letter he writes:
“The Government is committed to ensuring all homes and small businesses are offered smart meters by the end of 2020”.
There is a lack of clarity between installation and being offered a smart meter by 2020.
The Government needs to reassess the whole programme, revisit the milestones and reset the parameters in a collaborative way with the various interested parties charged with making smart metering happen. Just as the Government need sufficient time to undertake and execute actions from the post-rollout review of the programme, as the Minister’s letter states, so the industry needs the confidence to implement worthwhile solutions for its consumers.
I move to Amendment 2, which was moved in the other place, and we repeat it here merely to retest under what circumstances the Secretary of State may wish to remove certain licensable activities to which his department has drawn attention in its memorandum, submitted to your Lordships’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Although it is stated that there is no intention to use this power, one licensable activity that could be removed is a revision of the smart meter communications service, the DCC. In line with the ambitions under Amendment 4, perhaps the Minister might clarify why his department may wish to use the power included here.
On Amendment 4, although the Minister and the Government may wish to portray that smart metering is now back on track and proceeding constructively towards its objectives, very few independent assessments concur with that view. There continues to be confusion regarding which types of SMETS 1 meters can be upgraded without replacement to be interoperable and from what date. There is confusion around differing standards and the use of differing technologies around the UK; confusion over whether pursuing the 2020 deadline has the potential to increase costs and risks and jeopardise the programme’s increasingly suspect credibility to consumers; and concern that a lack of fully tested SMETS 2 meter devices will further undermine meeting supposed timescales.
In considering the number of reports across the various parameters important to stakeholders, the necessary consumer activity required and the technological challenges inherent in these meters, we concluded that it would be far more constructive if all those intimately challenged by the rollout were to come together to share perspectives and work constructively together to find common solutions and co-ordinate the rollout. We consider that Ofgem as the industry’s regulator would be best placed to lead and develop this national plan. We consider that consumers should be put at the heart of the programme, costs monitored to secure benefits for them and the programme able to take advantage of all developing consumer technologies.
Proposed new subsection (3) clarifies those that Ofgem must consult, and subsection (4) specifies all the ambitions to which the national plan must have due regard. The plan must set out credible milestones with appropriate timescales for achievement, including the installation or termination date. The plan needs careful monitoring and adjustment, with frequent reports from Ofgem. For example, I draw attention under proposed new subsection (4)(g) that all other national rollouts of smart meters have been conducted through DNOs—distribution network operators—not suppliers. Here the rollout has been conducted by energy suppliers. I do not wish to challenge the whole implementation model, but it could be that different answers are required as implementation proceeds, and Ofgem needs to be able to take account of this and promote effective delivery mechanisms.
A reset needs to be made so that the consumer can begin to have confidence again that smart meters will be deliverable and beneficial. Smart metering needs to be the first crucial initial infrastructure in place to deliver the benefits of smart technologies to the home. It needs to be effective—it needs to be got right. I ask the Minister to respond positively to this amendment. It may not be correct in every detail: for example, it does not include a review of the cost-benefit analysis, as it had been understood that the NAO was already going to be doing this. The Minister needs to advise the Committee on the status of that review. It can be included on Report, should the NAO not conduct the review after all. However, I ask the Minister to agree that a national plan along these lines is required and to bring something back himself on Report. Perhaps this can be discussed next week, but a favourable response would be very constructive. I beg to move.
I support Amendment 4. Compared with other noble Lords present, I came late to the smart meters table. They have participated in a number of debates leading up to where we are now and during that process they have obviously met a number of bodies associated with the smart meters programme. I have to say that I have been somewhat shocked at how what should be an energy revolution, welcomed on all sides of this House and beyond, has turned into a shambolic mess. As was mentioned, the cost—much higher than was ever envisaged—will no doubt end up with the consumer. This could and should never have happened.
I was a member of the London Assembly when it was formed in 2000 and I was chair of the transport committee. When we introduced in London the biggest civil engineering project since the end of the Second World War—the congestion charge—a great deal of planning and work went into making sure that on the day it went live, it was so well thought through that nothing went wrong, despite the Daily Mail circling the perimeter of the charge to, it hoped, see it go wrong. I do not really understand why the commissioning of such a major infrastructure project has not been treated in that fashion. This is an absolutely huge change and an infrastructure priority, heralding a better future for all when energy is very important to this country. It seems to have involved a kind of piecemeal bun fight over which companies will deliver which meters to which people under what circumstances and for how long, with no co-ordination, no collaboration and nothing bringing it together.
Everyone has made it quite clear that the deadline will be missed. I am afraid that I have not met anyone, other than the Minister, who thinks that this deadline will be reached. That being the case, rather than move the programme to 2023 or whatever, it would be far better to grab hold of it now: otherwise, consumer confidence, which is vital to this project, will be completely undermined. I hope that the Government will grasp hold of this and take up the recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, coming back with a similar suggestion for halting the project and promoting a national plan. Not only does what needs to be done to whom, by whom and at what cost need to be thought through but there is a great need for a new communications programme to market the project. There is possibly also a need to incentivise consumers and to find a way not to put them off but to bring them back into the fold after they have become somewhat disillusioned.
The opportunity to make the project work is there, but at the moment we are in danger of the absolute opposite happening, with diminishing returns and diminishing confidence, shooting ourselves in the foot over what should be a fantastic programme for the future. The project has been piecemeal, inadequate and not thought through. If the Minister will excuse me, I believe that he should bring it together, do the necessary and bring back an amendment on Report.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, on this major amendment in terms of a plan. I have been searching to find a way in which this project can be put right. The difficulty is in making it deliverable and coherent without going back to where we were 12 years ago. This programme started in 2006 and it has taken since then—the time taken for the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, plus a bit more—to get to 300 SMETS 2 meters. That is what we have achieved over that period of time. That suggests to me that it has not been good. Obviously, a number of Governments have been involved during that time. We all understand how important this is. This programme is not just about people not having to read the meter any more, as one of my colleagues said over lunch, but about how we manage energy in the whole economy and our nation for decades ahead. We should be leading a cultural, technical and economic change.
The solution proposed here—putting it in Ofgem’s hands—is probably one of the best ways to do this. Again, I congratulate noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, on his initiative. But the big paradox here, as the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, said, is that in a situation where we are late and getting later, it is impossible to meet the targets we have at the moment—they will not be met; like my noble friend, I have met no one who agrees that it is possible to roll out this programme— so we have to get realistic. But at the same time I understand the Government’s wish to make sure there is no slack in the process. This should be relatively simple and straightforward—a meter for two sources of energy communicating electronically with a data centre, which sends the data back to the energy suppliers—but it is not. We need to rethink it without going backwards.
I have heard of a number of instances, particularly with SMETS 1 meters, where people have changed supplier; the existing meter has been taken out and replaced with one from another supplier and the meter is identical and made by the same manufacturer, but on a different leasing arrangement. So I would like to understand how we get over that short-term and, indeed, long-term problem. There is a real cost implication for consumers and the leasing costs of the equipment have been a major factor in the cost of the rollout so far for the suppliers. How do we get round that issue? Is there a legislative way, or an instruction or whatever, to solve that problem with SMETS 1 meters now as we move on with the programme?
My Lords, is there not actually a rather bigger problem than the one the noble Lord has just explained? At the moment smart meters are offered to consumers. They do not actually have to have them. This whole scenario falls absolutely flat unless there is an imposition on the energy companies, whether gas or electricity, to install smart meters in their customers’ premises.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Grantchester in his Amendment 4 and reiterate his important suggestion. He accepts that his amendment is not necessarily the definitive way forward and is inviting the Government to engage with him and others to try to find a form of words, process and activity that would enable a national plan to come forward that we could all get behind. I hope that when the Minister responds he might signal that this is something he will consider.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, I have come to this relatively late. Those who have not been living the ups and downs of this over the past few years are completely and utterly shocked that it could have got to this stage without some very serious consequences. At a superficial level—I know it is more complicated than this—the initial programme has had to be restarted and reset but is now about to stop, and people are being laid off and made redundant because there is no guarantee that the SMETS 1 meters will be continued after October 2018. A completely new, untested and uncertain scheme involving SMETS 2 will be brought in on top of that and will therefore go back over ground already covered in a way that is as yet unforeseen.
At the same time, the whole costs of this are hidden and difficult to ascertain. The process under which levers can be exercised on people is not clear and the role of Ofgem, the regulator, is very passive in relation to the capacity it has now. It all smacks of being a complete and utter train crash of enormous proportions, and the only solution appears to be to keep ploughing on. British pluck is all very well but it has not always been the most successful way forward, particularly in matters involving technology.
I urge the Minister, when he comes to respond, to think very carefully about the way in which the Opposition are proposing this and about the support we have received from others. If we do not come out of this with a clear and approachable process—whether it is this national plan or not—the real danger is that consumers will literally be switched off in the sense that they will not wish to be involved in this. As a result, the huge upside of this, the benefits of bringing in a new technology, opening up innovation and bringing in new thinking about how we manage our energy supply—which was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson—will be lost if consumers are not prepared to walk along. This is not about individual customers having a better time; it is about how we as a country can cope with the energy demands that we will face, and minimising them while strengthening our approach as we go through. This is a terrific chance to get this right in a proper and positive way.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, used the examples of the length of a number of wars. I will not follow him down that track because I think one could come up with some longer wars as examples. He mentioned that this had started under a Labour Government, continued under a coalition Government and was now being dealt with by a Conservative Government. I have been a member of two of those—obviously I was not a member of the Labour Government. It has been going some time but we want to get it right.
When things have been going some time I am always faintly surprised when Oppositions put forward amendments to suggest that we should take even longer. I suppose that is why the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, prefaced his remarks with, “Unusual as it may seem”. I take note of that. I will not rise to his bait to make any comments about the likely outcome of the next election. Quite rightly, he wants whoever is in government at the time, whomsoever that may be, to be helpful, possibly referring to the remarks on the word “helpful” made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, in yesterday evening’s debates. We will try to avoid “helpful” in the future.
To continue on the helpful theme, I would obviously like to be helpful. The noble Lord asked whether we could have further meetings. I will make myself available when the noble Lord, the noble Lord’s colleagues and the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, and others want to have meetings between now and Report if we feel that we can discuss things further and take things forward.
In the meantime, I will respond in a little detail to the specific amendments—Amendments 1, 2 and 4 in the first group. As I said, the first amendment proposes to extend certain powers that the Secretary of State has to develop, amend and oversee regulations relating to smart meters until November 2026, although in this Bill we have sought only the powers that we think are justified, which extend to 2023. Extending the powers to 2023 would allow the Government to continue to oversee the programme, while suppliers meet the obligation on them to take all reasonable steps to install smart meters in homes and businesses by the end of 2020.
The noble Lord referred to my letter where I talked about them offering rather than installing—we are trying to make sure that they have at least offered something to everyone. Obviously no Government can guarantee that one can be installed in every home because it is quite possible that a number of individuals will refuse to have a meter for whatever reason. It also allows the Government to undertake a post-rollout review once the programme has been operating in a steady state and then implement any of the recommendations that emerge. We hope this will help to ensure that the smart metering programme is fit for purpose—whether SMETS 1 or SMETS 2—for decades to come.
I am sorry to interrupt, but on the narrow point, what specification are the Government adhering to? Is it the obligation on energy suppliers to take all reasonable steps to install smart meters or not?
We hope that they will offer—and if they do, obviously they must then install. There is no point offering to install one unless they do so. So we hope that all of them will have offered and installed by that date.
It is important that we get this right, because there is a world of difference between making an offer to install and having an installation completed. My noble friend Lord Grantchester, in making his proposal, would give an additional three years because the understanding we had from the first paragraph of the Minister’s letter was that it was about the completion of that process. If the noble Lord is saying that the licence obligation placed as a condition of licence on energy suppliers is only to offer, does he not accept that that completely changes the process?
No. I wanted to make clear that there is no obligation to have got to a 100% rate of installation because we know we can never get to that target. What we are looking for is that they must make the offer and then make the installation—that is the undertaking—by the appropriate date. We do not think that extending the time is necessary. Does the noble Lord follow me?
I will try one more time and then I will stop. The obligation placed statutorily on companies operating as energy suppliers is, as I understand it, to have made an offer to take all reasonable steps to install smart meters in homes covered by the mandate by the end of 2020. That will be considered to have been completed if they have written to and received information back from all those who would be eligible to receive these things, and, where there has been an acceptance, have completed the installation. Obviously, as the Minister said, you cannot install a meter if somebody says that they do not want one, so those people are taken out of it—but must everyone else, if they say that they want a meter, have had one installed by 2020? That seems extraordinary.
It is not simply a matter of writing a letter to the individuals concerned. One letter would not be enough. The energy suppliers must show that they have made reasonable efforts with all their customers while allowing a degree of flexibility in certain circumstances. The rollout obligation puts that onus on them. Ofgem has made it publicly clear in an open letter that it will need to adapt its approaches to consumer engagement, using other approaches where necessary. It is not merely a letter, but it must make a genuine attempt—merely making a solitary offer is not sufficient—to get hold of those people to make an installation.
I shall interject very quickly to follow up on my noble friend’s comments. There has been a lot of confusion about what sort of meter will be installed. The Government have backed away from SMETS 1, but I am also hearing industry commentators suggesting that if SMETS 1 meters can be interoperable, the process should continue beyond October as they will then be interoperable as though they were SMETS 2 meters. So if, as we are hearing from other commentators, people are standing down staff from being able to put meters into premises where they have said yes because of the unavailability of SMETS 2 meters, that in itself will mean there will be a considerable delay to implementation. In the circumstances, it is rather unclear to the consumer what exactly their expectations will be and what will be delivered by what date—hence my argument. The Minister needs to appreciate that there is probably still a lot of confusion out there regarding what meters will be done by what date, when they might be installed and when any benefits will be appreciated.
As the noble Lord is aware, SMETS 2 meters are now being installed. I cannot remember the figures given at Second Reading, but so far there have been very few. However, we expect to see a fast increase over the coming months.
We have also made clear—the noble Lord alluded to this—is that SMETS 1 will no longer count by October, the date to which he referred, and thereafter SMETS 2 will be installed. If a SMETS 1 is installed after that date and is upgraded to a SMETS 2, obviously that will count as a SMETS 2. I will take advice and write to the noble Lord if I am wrong on that. However, as the noble Lord knows, from October SMETS 2 will count in meeting that commitment.
With that, with the changes and with the gradual rise in the number of SMETS 2 installed, no suppliers will have problems in finding work for their staff, and so will not have to lay people off and bring them back on during this process.
My understanding is that there are so few SMETS 2 meters out there—mainly in supplier homes—that their testing with the DCC cannot be relied upon at this stage. Surely it cannot be done with fewer than 50,000. I am not a technician—I do not know what the number is—but 300 or fewer is not enough to ramp up the rollout of SMETS 2 in the way the Minister is suggesting.
Again, I will take advice on that. We will come back to it on a later amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has spoken about not moving further until we have a large number rolled out. However, my understanding is that this process is beginning to happen and that numbers are going up. The noble Baroness is looking at me in disbelief, as she so often does. We often disagree.
In defence of my noble friend, we have had briefings which tell us what she has just said to the Minister. I do not know where he gets his briefings, but the industry has briefed us and it is clear that SMETS 2 is not at the stage that he thinks it is.
My Lords, I am not sure whether, strictly speaking, the noble Baroness is correct. My understanding is that the number of SMETS 2 installations will go up over the coming months, in which case it will be possible to test them, and therefore that by October we will be at a stage where we can go ahead. We have time on our hands on this matter and, as I said, I would like to have further meetings with the noble Baroness and others between now and Report. We could then go through some of these particular points.
At the moment perhaps I may get on with these amendments and come back to my point. As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, there will be this change in October. SMETS 1 meters will no longer count, but suppliers will still be able to make use of their workforce in the installation process.
On the extension that the noble Lord is generously seeking on behalf of the Government, we do not think it can be justified. It would not send out the right signals and could even have—dare I say it?—an unhelpful impact. It could suggest that the Government would play an active role in leading the programme well beyond the point at which the self-sustaining industry model overseen by Ofgem is due to take over. It also risks undermining industry momentum in progressing the rollout just as suppliers are accelerating deployment with the new generation of meters being brought in. Delay to investment decisions and deployment would also bring delay to the benefits that accrue to consumers from receiving smart meters. In turn, that could impact on the pace of moving to a smart meter system with dynamic time-of-use tariffs made possible by smart meter installation. That is why we are firmly committed to the programme’s timetable as reflected in Clause 1.
The noble Lord referred to the NAO report. We welcomed it and the follow-up study on smart meters, and will work closely with the NAO to help review the progress of the programme, but I do not believe that the report necessarily means that we need a pause in the rollout. As the noble Lord knows, it is routine for the NAO periodically to examine every major government programme, as it did on smart metering in 2011 and 2014. We will take note of the report and discuss it with the NAO, but I do not think that the programme needs a pause.
Amendment 2 relates to the power to remove licensable activities. This amendment seeks to limit the extension of the Secretary of State’s power, so that beyond 1 November 2018 he would not be able to exercise the power to remove any licensable activities in respect of smart meter communications. The Government have so far used the power only to establish the provision of a smart meter communication service as a licensable activity. That ensures that we have a communications and data system that supports secure, reliable and interoperable services for smart meters. The DCC is playing a fundamental role in driving smart metering benefits, and we do not currently consider that we will exercise this power to remove the provision of a smart meter communication service as a licensable activity.
However, we cannot rule out that evidence could emerge to suggest that the removal of at least some elements of this licensable activity to the market could be justified. Retaining the power to remove licensable activities in respect of smart meter communications is therefore necessary as a backstop and is consistent with the Secretary of State’s principal objective of protecting the interests of energy consumers. The Secretary of State may also determine that it is appropriate and in energy consumers’ best interests to introduce further licensable activities in support of smart metering by 2023.
As detailed in our delegated powers memorandum, the smart metering programme continues to develop policy in a number of discrete areas, including overseeing the development of technical solutions delivering smart benefits to the small number of premises which are currently not expected to be served by the smart meter communications network as to do so would be disproportionately expensive. This is typically due to location and surroundings. For example, this can affect premises in highly built-up areas with many tall buildings as well as remote or mountainous areas.
One of the tools we may wish to use to deliver the policy is requiring activity to be licensed. For example, it might be considered appropriate to create a licensable activity that relates to arranging the establishment of communications to these properties. Should we introduce a new licensable activity here that is subsequently found no longer to be justified or needed, we would need to have retained until 1 November 2023 the ability swiftly to remove that licensable activity.
As the noble Lord will be aware, we have used the affirmative resolution procedure. We have also referred it to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. It did not raise any issues with it. Further—I shall read this out because it is not often that one gets praise of this sort—the memorandum from the committee, in the part that I have highlighted, states:
“There is nothing in this Bill we would wish to draw to the attention of the House. We do, however, wish to commend the helpful and well-drafted memorandum about the delegated powers in the Bill, provided by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy”.
We do not often get praise, so I think that it is worth repeating it on this occasion to make sure that it is properly on the record. Obviously, it was already on the record, as it was in the committee’s 17th report—but I am grateful for the opportunity to repeat it.
Amendment 4 is the big amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and principally supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, for what he said about it. He talked about there being confusion on a number of points, which I hope I can help deal with. He also spoke about moving from rollout by suppliers to rollout by DNOs, as happens in another country. I suggest to him that making such a change might bring more confusion and chaos than absolutely necessary. Let us first deal with the amendment and no doubt we can talk about that later.
The amendment would task Ofgem with consulting stakeholders and publishing a national plan for smart meters by 31 December 2018. It would then require the Secretary of State to specify the final version of such a plan in regulations. The large-scale rollout of smart meters across Great Britain by 2020 is a substantial technical, logistical and organisational challenge. As we have made clear, meeting that challenge depends on collective and co-ordinated delivery. I think that that programme should be led by the Government, who set the policy and regulatory framework for the realisation of the benefits. The rollout is delivered by energy suppliers, networks and others. Ofgem’s role is to make sure that consumers remain protected during the rollout, to monitor energy suppliers’ compliance with their obligations and potentially to enforce against any non-compliance. The Government have provided strong leadership and established governance frameworks, with clear roles and responsibilities, across all these parties. Under this leadership, the smart metering programme has already made substantial progress.
Given the scale of the challenge, I understand and welcome the noble Lord’s appetite for information and reassurance on progress. I remind him of the commitments that the Government made earlier in the passage of the Bill—namely, that we will publish an annual report on the progress of the smart metering implementation programme as well as an updated cost-benefit analysis in 2019, to reflect the state of play after the transition from SMETS 1 to SMETS 2 meters has taken effect.
In that context, it is not clear what the additional value of a national plan of the type proposed by the noble Lord would be. The purpose seems to be to task Ofgem with the oversight of smart metering implementation and to reduce the Government’s role. Such a change in approach would simply divert attention and resources from the rollout delivery and associated consumer benefits. The Government are rightly accountable for safeguarding the benefits of smart metering. The new clause would duplicate existing efforts to deliver an efficient rollout and would put an undue burden on Ofgem. Furthermore, requiring the Secretary of State to specify the final version of the national plan in regulations would limit his ability to use the Section 88 power, of which the noble Lord will be aware, to modify the smart metering framework in future. The purpose of the Bill is to enable the Government to respond to the operational realities of the rollout and to adjust the monitoring framework as may be required. The new clause would undermine that intent.
In summary, a high-level plan for the rollout of smart meters was set by the Government in their 2011 prospectus document, which establishes the framework for the rollout.
I was engaged in debates on these matters with the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, 10 years ago, when the original legislation was put through. I am unable to understand what pressure is on the Government to get on with this before the National Audit Office produces its report. I would have thought that that report was critical in all this, as it may well make recommendations that do not fit within the proposals of this legislation. What is the pressure? Could we not have waited for another six months? What would have happened if we had?
I have been criticised for the Government going rather slowly on something that was introduced in 2006 by the Government of whom the noble Lord was a supporter. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, this has continued through the length of two world wars and a bit more; I asked him not to specify any further wars. The NAO has already reported three times. As I said, we will respond to the NAO’s report, but I do not see why we should not continue with what we are doing at the moment. As far as I know, we are all in full agreement on the general benefits of a smart metering programme and of getting as many people as possible on to it, so that they will be wiser about their use of energy and more able to consider which energy supplier to choose—I am just giving all the benefits of smart meters. I do not think that there is any need to pause for the NAO report. As I said, we will consider it and respond as appropriate.
Has the NAO expressed a view on whether the legislation should have been delayed? It will have a view. Is it happy for us to proceed with legislation without its report?
I am not aware that the NAO has asked for any delay, but the noble Lord can look at its three reports, including the most recent one, which I have referred to. I will leave that to him.
As I said, we published our prospectus document in 2011, which established a framework for the rollout and was the basis for the regulatory framework through which the rollout is now being delivered. It is right that we have progressed from planning to implementation. Both the Government and Ofgem are focused on monitoring the rollout to ensure that it delivers in a timely way—albeit, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, put it, slightly less timely than he would have liked. Where our monitoring activity identifies areas where the course of the rollout needs to be adjusted, we will of course take action.
In due course, we want smart metering to be business as usual in a competitive retail market. The Government will then be able to step back when it is right so to do. However, in the short to medium term, the Government do not intend to step back from their leadership role. Through the powers in the Bill, we will sustain our active engagement with the industry to ensure that any risks to meeting the 2020 deadline are identified and addressed as quickly as possible. I repeat what I said about hoping to have ongoing discussions with the noble Lord and others, but I hope that in the meantime he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Before the noble Lord sits down, could I just come back to the NAO report, just to be clear in my mind about exactly what is happening? Am I to understand that the NAO is still planning to report by July 2018 on the cost-benefit analysis of introducing smart meters? The noble Lord has correctly said that the NAO has already done two reports—in 2011 and 2014. It is now four years since the report of 2014 and I understood that the general consensus was that it was about time to do another cost-benefit analysis, in order to prove to consumers that what is happening is for their benefit, even though the costs are going up. However, if the review is being shelved, it is important to know that. We understand that it was not part of any legislative programme but that it was going to improve consumers’ perspectives on accepting an offer that would be beneficial to them. Can the Minister be precise: is the NAO report going ahead in July 2018 or not?
I do not know about the precise timing of that report. Obviously, that has to be a matter for the NAO. We will respond at that moment, but I do not think it is necessary for the Government to delay what we are proposing to do. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, there has already been too much delay. We will await with interest the report from the NAO.
I do not think that the NAO wants to cause any delay. I understood that it did not have the resources to undertake this work and therefore that it would not happen, although it is crucial for the continuing rollout that consumers can easily see the benefit over and above the cost of the programme. It is not easy to understand it within their own bills, but if the NAO produced a report showing that overall it was beneficial to consumers that this was going ahead, it could be very constructive in allaying some people’s fears that this is not for them because of the cost. I want only to understand whether the NAO still has a commitment to produce the report this year.
Again, I do not know about this year. I understand that the NAO still plans to undertake a review. It has not confirmed its timetable. Obviously, that is a matter for the NAO. When there is a new cost-benefit analysis, obviously we will look at it—but I cannot go into the NAO’s timetable.
Perhaps it might be useful if we could meet the NAO and go through this and make sure that the audit is broad enough in scope without it taking longer. I realise that this question is not completely to do with these amendments, but I did ask the Minister about the transferability of SMETS 1 meters, which is different from interoperability—SMETS 1 meters are surprisingly interoperable generally—and the problem of taking one out and replacing it with one that is almost identical but is from a different supplier. Is the Minister aware of that? Do his officials see that as a significant problem? Is there a solution so that we can stop this almost immediately, if it is happening?
I think I had better take advice on that and possibly write to the noble Lord, or deal with it in any meeting that we have. I understand that some SMETS 1 meters can be upgraded. But I do not want to put on the record anything that I might have to make a personal statement about and correct the following day. Perhaps we could leave that to a letter or a discussion with the noble Lord.
I am very happy with that. I stress that it is an asset and financing issue, rather than an interoperability issue.
I thank the Minister for his response, and I am grateful for all the comments made around the Committee today. It has been very helpful. I am not trying merely to tease the Government in offering them more time, I thought that the Minister might come forward with evidence to show that all this is going to be achieved well within the 2023 timeframe, and the different steps that are going ahead, such that we could be shown to be completely erroneous in our impression that the Government may need more time. I put it to him that we are trying to be constructive and trying to get the right solutions done in an effective way for smart metering to be well accepted, so that when consumers are offered a smart meter they are only too keen to go ahead because of the state of the technology, the benefits that can be shown to them, and so on, and we can all look forward to an early resolution of all these problems for a successful outcome. So if the Minister is happy to take it in that timeframe and does not see a critical issue in the 2023 deadline, I am very happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendment 2 not moved.
Clause 1 agreed.
3: After Clause 1, insert the following new clause—
The Secretary of State must place a duty on the Government Communications Headquarters to conduct an annual risk assessment to ensure that the smart metering system is adequately protected from cyber attacks.”
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 6 and 11 in due course. Amendment 3 places a duty on GCHQ to conduct an annual risk assessment regarding the security of the smart metering system. One of the delays experienced in the rollout of smart meters concerns whether or not the system is secure from cyberattacks. Considering that the technology used to communicate the information from the smart meters is a basic 2G technology which can hardly be said to be secure, it is remarkable that GCHQ is able to pass the system as fit and secure.
In the Minister’s letter dated 20 March, which I referred to earlier, he clarified that critical communications with smart meters will happen only when authenticated by strong encryption and independently countersigned by the DCC. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify what that means, whether GCHQ is demanding technological improvements and whether security issues are part of the Government’s review of the data access and privacy framework to be completed this year. What processes do the Government have in place to ensure the robustness of the system? Cybersecurity is a constant challenge, and we believe that an annual risk assessment will be required to keep the UK’s infrastructure secure from potential attack. I beg to move.
My Lords, I tabled Amendment 11 to probe issues around the use of data obtained by the powers in the Bill. It takes the form of a review into the use and potential misuse of the data obtained via the smart meters scheme. The review would look at the risks of data theft and of data being passed to a third party without the consent of the consumer, and if the risk of theft or passing on without consent was substantial the report would bring forward measures to be implemented to combat such events. Lastly, the amendment would require the Secretary of State to lay a report of that review before both Houses within six months of the Act coming into force.
I think the intent of the amendment is quite clear. We have recently seen the extreme value of data to a number of organisations. It is clearly valuable in a world where we create and feed markets through information, and the more personal that information, the more targeted sales or persuasion can be. The amendment seeks to put measures in place to mitigate those risks.
My Lords, Amendment 6, in my name, refers to issues that I raised at Second Reading. It calls for a review of the code of practice for energy suppliers. It is a probing amendment. I am anxious to get a bit more information from the Government about how they understand consumer engagement because I feel that whenever we are trying to deal with these issues human behaviour is the last thing about which we have serious concern. If we look back at the Green Deal, some of the disasters there were due to human behaviour, so it is important that we understand how people react. Indeed, the success of the rollout depends on consumers and consumer confidence, yet, as we have already heard, they are not obliged to have a smart meter. Therefore, how they react to the proposals is very important.
We know that many people who have smart meters are quite satisfied with them but there is evidence that not all is well in the way they are dealt with by the suppliers. My amendment calls for the Government to look not only at people who have had meters but at those who have been approached and at what might have gone wrong during that process. As I have said before, I was approached but until very recently there was no guarantee that I could carry on benefiting from a smart meter if I changed supplier. However, whenever I tried to engage with the people on the phone who were trying to persuade me to have a smart meter, they did not seem to understand that at all. If consumers are to be in favour of smart meters, the people who talk to them need to have all the facts at their fingertips.
I do not know how many of your Lordships heard the recent edition of the Radio 4 programme “You and Yours”, which covered the way in which the big six deal with people. They have a target to meet and sometimes find it difficult to get people to take up meters quickly enough. First, you have to talk to them, or sometimes they send a letter, and then they talk to you to make the arrangements. They had been sending letters and emails to people saying, “We are arriving next week to put in your meter”. This created such a stir that lots of people contacted “You and Yours” on this issue. Having listened to the programme, even more distressing was the fact that Ofgem had said that it was okay for them to do that.
That is why it is important that we look seriously at the code of practice. Some people said that they definitely did not want a smart meter, yet the suppliers still turned up on their doorstep. Some people thought that they had to have a meter, although we know that that is not how it is meant to be. Therefore, it is important that we look at this matter seriously. My noble friend Lord Teverson has raised the issue of another, almost identical, meter being installed when someone changes supplier.
The other issue that has been brought to my attention is that there are sometimes long delays between people being contacted and the installation being carried out. The suppliers are clearly trying to do something about that by just turning up on people’s doorsteps, which means that there is no delay at all. There is a serious issue here.
Another thing that has been brought to my attention is that, after installing the meter, installers do not always check that all the appliances work and that everything in the house is okay. This particularly affects gas supplies. Noble Lords will know—as I have known to my cost in the past—that if something is wrong with your boiler or the gas people see that your boiler is not quite right, they turn it off and that is it. That has happened to some vulnerable customers. The Minister and I have had discussions about the fact that boiler replacements have been taken out of the ECO scheme. A vulnerable customer’s boiler might be turned off when they get their smart meter and they have no way of replacing it, so that is something that we need to look at.
I support this programme. It is very important that we have smart meters but, as the programme goes along, particularly because it depends on consumers taking up meters, we need to get this right. I hope that the Government can look seriously at the code of practice. Also, does the Minister think that the code of practice and Ofgem’s powers are strong enough to deal with this?
My Lords, I do not profess to have huge knowledge of this subject. It is not an issue which I have researched recently.
When the original legislation went through—I refer to the role played by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in about, I think, 2006 or 2008—I spoke at great length during the course of the proceedings because I knew the subject. However, my questions on this occasion are simple and elementary.
When my service charge for my flat in London is issued every three months by the management company, it always shows the amount of water consumed by each flat in a list that is circulated to all members of the residents’ association—there are about 160 flats and a similar number of members—and therefore the occupants of flat 1 in my block will see how much water I use. I have always thought that was rather dangerous—depending into whose hands it fell—because from water consumption you can tell the scale of occupancy of the residents.
When I was having a chat with some colleagues and I saw Amendment 11, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, in which paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (2) of the proposed new clause refer to,
“the risk of data obtained from consumers being stolen”,
“the risk of data obtained being passed on to third parties without the consent of the consumer”,
I was left wondering what would happen with this 2G technology and how easy it would be to hack in and find out how much electricity is being used by the occupant of a particular flat or house. That is exactly the information that burglars, of all people, would want. I wonder to what extent these matters have been taken into account when deciding on the technology supplied. People have meters at the moment, but I do not know if there has been any research on whether this information is already being tapped into and given to people who would misuse it by breaking into people’s homes. Has any work been done to establish to what extent that might be a problem?
The Minister cannot have all the answers—I understand that—but if we are not aware today of the incidence of this information being abused, perhaps he could write to the members of the Committee about it because it is important. We are going into a new era with all this technology and I wonder whether it could be abused by people having that important information when they are seeking to burgle or interfere with other people’s properties.
I support Amendments 6 and 11 which are also in this group. In Amendment 6, the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, seeks a review of the code of practice energy suppliers must follow in the installation of smart meters. We agree with that as a necessary and constant reassessment of best practice should become part of any post-rollout review.
Similarly, Amendment 11, also in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Maddock and Lady Featherstone, calls for a review of the use of data from the operation of smart meters. I am grateful to them and my noble friend for highlighting some of the problems that could arise if we are not careful in this operation. We agree that it should be kept under constant review by the department to make sure that the risk of errors and non-compliance is kept to a minimum.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, I take it that we are dealing with Amendments 3, 6 and 11. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, caused me some confusion when she said Amendment 7. However, I am sure she meant Amendment 6 if she did say Amendment 7. I take it she was speaking to Amendment 7, and I will come to it in due course. I will deal with the amendments in the order in which the three leads took them and so I will deal first with Amendment 3, then Amendment 11 and then Amendment 7. If I get confused in my note I hope the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester—who is always quick on these things—will stop me.
I will also take note of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and his general remarks about service charges in flats and the consumption of water by himself and others. Obviously that is wide of the Bill. I am sure the noble Lord uses appropriate amounts of water and comes to the House as clean as he always should be. We will read nothing into the amount of water that appears on his service charge. However, he makes a perfectly good and valid point about what people can understand from information about the use of a particular flat or residence by the consumption of gas, electricity or whatever. I hope that can be partly dealt with in what I have to say about security but it might also be helpful if I write to the noble Lord and others about it in due course.
Amendment 3 asks GCHQ to undertake an annual risk assessment of smart metering’s vulnerability to cyberattacks. Considerable effort has been invested by the energy industry as a whole and by government—including the National Cyber Security Centre, which is part of GCHQ—in designing security protection into the end-to-end, trust-based security architecture. Robust security requirements have been developed for smart metering equipment, the DCC and participating organisations, as well as assurance on the implementation of these requirements. These are a fundamental part of the smart metering regulatory framework.
In April 2016, the NCSC technical director published a blog on the security of smart meters in which he stated,
“we’re confident that the Smart Metering System strikes the best balance between security and business needs, whilst meeting broader policy and national security objectives”.
The NCSC continues to be fully engaged on smart metering, providing an annual threat report and practical guidance.
Underpinning the security requirements, assurance and governance arrangements currently in place is a security risk assessment. This has been through a number of iterations on the back of public consultation to ensure emerging and future security threats are appropriately addressed. This is in turn informed by the annual threat assessment that the NCSC provides. Additionally, each organisation must carry out an assessment of its processes for the identification and management of risk at least annually.
The end-to-end security model is also subject to ongoing monitoring and review. Smart metering regulations require that a review of the end-to-end security model is undertaken at least annually. This is undertaken by industry in the form of the Smart Energy Code security sub-committee, which is independent of government and composed of security experts from industry. Industry is also subject to an independent security assessment prior to using systems and annually thereafter. This assessment is set against a security controls framework, which is detailed in regulations. This is the basis for a consistent level of review across all organisations and provides a guide to the types of evidence that should be provided to demonstrate compliance.
Based on the detail I have just outlined, an additional security assessment annually by GCHQ, most likely by the NCSC, is unnecessary given the existing and ongoing risk management and security assessment arrangements and the close engagement GCHQ and the NCSC have had and continue to have in relation to smart metering. I hope that the noble Lord will feel that his amendment is largely dealt with.
I move to Amendment 11, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, which deals with data privacy. It refers to data obtained by energy suppliers, both as a result of half-hourly settlement and due to smart metering in general. This data has the potential to deliver benefits for consumers, suppliers and the energy system, but we recognise again that appropriate safeguards are required on who has access to data, in which circumstances and for which purposes.
A smart meter data access and privacy framework is in place and is designed to provide clarity and reassurance ahead of the rollout of smart meters. It complements broader data protection legislation to address more specific questions regarding access to energy consumption data from smart meters. That sector- specific approach was supported by the Information Commissioner’s Office. The central principle is that households have control over who can access their detailed energy consumption data, except where this is required for regulated purposes—that is, obviously, billing.
Ahead of concluding on the provisions of this framework, the Government undertook a privacy impact assessment, which included consideration of the procedures in place to ensure that data is transmitted securely to authorised parties only. It also reviewed the safeguards in place to protect against the risks of unlawful and unauthorised access to data. The assessment concluded that the smart metering system was designed in a way that minimised the likelihood of a successful attack on the infrastructure and the impact of any such intrusion. As part of our ongoing monitoring of this area, we are currently undertaking a review of the data access and privacy framework to ensure it continues to protect customers while enabling proportionate access to data. That review will conclude later this year.
The principles underpinning the development of the data access and privacy framework are informing the extensive work that Ofgem is undertaking in exploring options for data access for settlement purposes. Ofgem is taking a “privacy by design” approach to this work, promoting consideration of privacy and data protection compliance from the start. It is also engaging with the Information Commissioner’s Office and consumer groups. It is its intention to consult on its proposals, supported by that privacy impact assessment. I was going to say that that is to happen later in spring, but for the moment I had better say “in the coming months”.
I hope that, with that assessment, the noble Baroness and others will agree that there are appropriate safeguards. I think that, with what I said on that and on the first amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, will be reasonably satisfied, but I offer to write if there is anything more I can say on that matter. Of course, I and no Government—indeed, no one—can give an absolute cast-iron guarantee that any smart meter cannot be hacked into because none of us knows what people will get up to. We also accept and acknowledge that information on any meter is something that could be of use to people outside. We want to make sure that the appropriate protections are in place while also making sure there is appropriate access.
I ask a consumer question: if someone wanted to know now whether it was possible for their meter to be hacked, who would they ask? Who could tell them?
The first people to ask would be the suppliers of that meter, to ask them what evidence they have and to take it from there. The same is true for any IT equipment that the noble Lord buys for any purpose. None of us can give any absolutely cast-iron guarantees as to what can and cannot be done by nefarious people.
This is one of the reasons why the amendment asking for this sort of national plan would have been interesting. Those are the kinds of questions that the consumer would expect to find in a report of that nature. I would not ask my supplier; I would ask the manufacturer whether its equipment could be hacked. If it said that it could be, I would want assurances as to how that would be dealt with. I am not altogether convinced that manufacturers have been asked, or whether GCHQ has been asked that question for it to appraise separately. It is on the list; I presume it too has been asked about the system that is being introduced.
The point I am making to the noble Lord is that it would be wrong for anyone to give an absolute cast-iron guarantee of any sort with equipment of this sort. I can think of a whole range of other questions on other subjects. I remember that it used to be said that if you went to a school and asked about its policy on bullying and were told there was no bullying, you should immediately reject that school because quite obviously it had no idea of what was going on. Similarly, if someone offered a cast-iron guarantee that their equipment was unhackable, I would have some doubts about it. They could say that they had done everything possible to make sure it was unhackable, but we have the right processes in place with suppliers and others to make sure that checks can be done—which is what I have set out—to make metering as secure as possible. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, who dealt with privacy, that is why we have also had consultations with the privacy commissioner. I think that we have all the appropriate checks in place—but if I offered the noble Lord the guarantee he is asking for, he would know that I was a charlatan.
There is another question that would have been answered in this report. It is the question that the public ask all the time. If I have a supplier and I have a piece of equipment installed, will I be able to change supplier? Most people in this Room probably know the answer about retaining that equipment, but the great public outside do not know the answer, and that is what they worry about. So it is essential to the Government’s case to make it clear when and in what circumstances that problem will no longer arise.
I fully understand what the noble Lord is saying and the need to provide the public with as much reassurance as possible, and clearly to explain the range of steps that the Government have taken with security experts, including GCHQ, which I mentioned earlier, to provide robust security for the smart metering system. We worked in partnership with GCHQ on the blog on smart metering infrastructure. We will continue to support Smart Energy GB, among others, to provide a clear and reassuring message to the public on smart metering security. We will do all we can. Everyone else will do all they can. All I am saying is that one can never get beyond that 99.9% security up to 100%.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, drew a distinction between transferability and interoperability. The question I am asking is what the public are asking. When will they be given assurances that it will be possible to change supplier and retain their smart meter? It is a very simple question, and I do not think you will find the answer anywhere at the moment as far as the public are concerned.
The noble Lord is moving on to another question.
This is one of the amendments.
The noble Lord asked what assurance we can give to the public about security, and I think I have given as much assurance as I can. I acknowledge that it is important for the Government to continue to give as much assurance as possible. That is why we talked to GCHQ and others. With regard to changing supplier—is it changing the meter or changing supplier? They are two different matters.
One is the consequence of the other, as I understand it. That is the problem. When you change your supplier, I understand that on occasion you have to change the meter. Am I not correct?
Unfortunately, probably after the First World War, the Second World War and the Korean War, the phoney war bit during the coalition Government was around the whole process more or less coming to a halt because this whole security issue came up, which was a major delaying factor at the time. I do not want to talk on behalf of the Government of that time, but security was given huge focus. From a personal point of view, I feel that that area has been dealt with enough at the moment. It clearly needs an ongoing security look, but it was one reason why the whole programme pretty much ground to a halt during part of the period of the coalition Government—if that is at all helpful.
We will get on to “helpful” again later on. I do not know whether I can take the noble Lord much further. We have talked about security, and I have made it clear that we must give the public as much assurance as possible. I think that the noble Lord is happy about that and the involvement of GCHQ and others.
The noble Lord raised the question about consumers in effect losing functionality when switching supplier. When installing a smart meter, it is necessary for energy suppliers to take reasonable steps to inform the consumer that they may lose some of the functionality when switching supplier—but only some. There is also the question of whether those with SMETS 1 meters can switch supplier. The noble Lord’s question started on one level and moved to quite different levels at different moments, but I think that that was what he was talking about. Consumers with the first generation of SMETS 1 can still switch energy supplier, and they are often in a better position to do so. That is a matter for them, and they can continue to do that.
I shall now move on to the second in this block of amendments—the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, Amendment 6, which suggests that there should be a review of the code of practice by the Secretary of State. Receiving a positive installation experience that leaves consumers satisfied and well informed is vital to ensuring that they can engage with their smart meter and take control of their energy use. Energy suppliers were required by their licence to develop and adhere to an installation code of practice when installing in domestic and microbusiness premises. In developing this code, energy suppliers were required to ensure that it both supported the delivery of overarching objectives and, in a number of key areas, met detailed requirements. Those requirements include providing energy efficiency guidance, not charging consumers up front for the installation, and meeting the needs of vulnerable domestic consumers. Energy suppliers were also required to take into account the views of consumer groups and other interested parties when developing the code.
The code was consulted on in draft in 2013 and subsequently approved by Ofgem in its capacity as the authority in this area. It is overseen by a code governance board composed of representatives from large, small and microbusiness energy suppliers. It also includes representatives from Citizens Advice. Any of those representatives has the ability to propose amendments to the code, which are then presented to Ofgem for consideration. This governance framework ensures that consumer interests are represented on an ongoing basis across all elements of the code’s operation.
Energy supply licence conditions supporting the code of practice also require energy suppliers to put in place monitoring arrangements and procedures for reviewing and updating the code. As part of this activity, energy suppliers are required to obtain views from consumers on the installation process and conduct of their installers. To achieve this, the code requires all energy suppliers installing more than 5,000 smart meters a year to undertake a survey of their customers. These surveys are conducted regularly, the results are anonymised, and reports are provided to the code governance board on a quarterly basis, enabling any areas of concern to be identified and rectified, including through amendment to the code.
As a further backstop, in the event that significant concerns are raised regarding the suitability of the code, Ofgem also has the power to require energy suppliers to review specific features of the code and can direct modifications if necessary. The amendment here would require a one-off review of the code to be undertaken, but I hope that in outlining the governance and monitoring requirements already in place I have demonstrated that the code is already subject to ongoing review and continues to evolve to meet consumer needs.
The noble Baroness also touched on the travails she has had on the telephone in dealing with some suppliers. She referred to “You and Yours”, which I am afraid I do not often get the time to listen to but I will make sure that those particular concerns are brought to me. She also referred to examples of gas being turned off. She will be aware that it is obviously the duty of any gas operative—if there is any danger, even a small perceived one—to go down that route and if it is unsafe to ensure that it is turned off.
I made two points about gas. When it is turned off, I certainly do not expect them to allow things that are unsafe. My point was that there is no provision for somebody in poor circumstances—say they are elderly and they have a smart meter put in and it is the middle of winter and they cannot use their boiler—to get a new boiler. I think the Government need to look at this. It is a very small point but there will be several people affected by it.
The Minister has explained how the process works at the moment and how the code of conduct works and how it can be amended. Can he tell us how it has been amended as the process has gone along?
I would prefer to write to the noble Baroness regarding any amendments that have taken place. I, like others involved in this, but not all, am relatively new to the subject—but it has been going for some time, so I imagine that amendments have been taking place.
I think the noble Baroness suggested earlier—just in terms of the travails on the telephone—a degree of aggression.
It was the lack of understanding of the person who was trying to persuade to have a meter of how it worked and what the options were and whether they were interoperable.
If the operator could not cope with the noble Baroness, obviously they probably need further training. I think that is probably a matter for that particular supplier. There is guidance for them and they should take every opportunity to treat all domestic customers fairly and to be as transparent and accurate as possible in their communications. I hope that they will continue to do so. I note what the noble Baroness said.
I hope I have dealt with the three amendments in sufficient detail and I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw Amendment 3.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. Initially I was slightly alarmed when he talked about the national infrastructure having to be a balance between security and business needs. I would have thought that our national infrastructure is critical and must be entirely secure at all times. However, he went on in his reply to further elaborate that energy threats are assessed each year and I was very satisfied that the situation is under constant review, so I am very happy to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
4: After Clause 1, insert the following new clause—
“National Plan for Smart Metering
(1) Within one month of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State may direct OFGEM to develop a draft National Plan for Smart Metering which will deliver all the objectives of the smart metering implementation programme, together with an appropriate termination date.(2) The Secretary of State must consult OFGEM before giving a direction under this section. (3) When preparing the draft National Plan, OFGEM must consult—(a) District Network Operators (DNOs);(b) Data Communications Company;(c) energy suppliers;(d) consumer interests bodies;(e) Smart Energy GB;(f) the National Audit Office; and(g) such other relevant bodies as may seem to be appropriate.(4) The draft National Plan for Smart Metering must set out the obligations to be undertaken by the licensed energy suppliers and their associated organisations in delivering all the objectives of the smart metering programme and must include, but is not limited to, the following—(a) detailed targets for each quarter of each year for each energy supplier in pursuit of the objective of complete roll out of smart meters by an agreed termination date;(b) a detailed specification for the functionality and performance required in each meter, so as to ensure reliable service life, ease of installation and maintenance, appropriate inter-operability, future upgrading capacity, and removal and safe disposal of obsolescent equipment;(c) an assessment of the future developments thought feasible and desirable for the smart meter programme, including monitoring of customer activity so as to deliver least cost tariff benefits combined with the maximum ability to engage with future appliance applications, inter-operability, compatibility with smart phones and tablets, and the encouragement of self-generated capacity in the home;(d) an assessment of the potential of smart meters to be the gateway to additional domestic energy efficiency measures;(e) an analysis of technical developments to provide alternative solutions for Home Area Network (HAN) connections where premises are not able to access the HAN using existing connection arrangements;(f) an assessment of the most effective way of dealing with the inclusion in the programme of hard-to-reach premises and multiple-occupancy dwellings;(g) an assessment of alternative delivery arrangements as between energy suppliers and DNOs which might increase the effectiveness of roll out solutions over time.(5) OFGEM must publish the draft National Plan for Smart Metering by 31 December 2018.(6) After due consideration and consultation, the Secretary of State must in regulations made by statutory instrument specify the final version of the National Plan for Smart Metering.(7) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of that instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.(8) OFGEM must report annually on the extent to which the National Plan for Smart Metering is being delivered, in line with the termination date.(9) If at any point it appears to OFGEM that the targets specified in the National Plan for Smart Metering are not likely to be achieved, it must prepare a report for the Secretary of State, who must lay such a report before Parliament, together with recommendations for what consequential action is required to enable the programmes to be completed by the termination date.”
Given the noble Lord’s answer on Amendment 4, I merely wish to point out that in putting forward this amendment we are not suggesting a change in approach as he seemed to think. We are suggesting that Ofgem be used as the Government’s regulator in order to critically analyse, on behalf of the Government, the plan that is unfolding in their own eyes and mind. The Minister made the point that there was a high-level plan somewhere in existence. It needs to be dusted down, expressed and promoted because it does not appear to be inspiring confidence around the industry at the moment. Indeed, if this high-level plan was more readily available, we could perhaps look at it and critique it because, in assessing the Bill as it goes through the House, we need to be robustly reassured that everything is in place and likely to be successful, hence the need for the amendment we were proposing.
I will critically analyse the Minister’s response and engage with him further in the coming week. In the meantime, I will not press Amendment 4.
Amendment 4 not moved.
5: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Review: use of powers to impact energy use in the United Kingdom
(1) The Secretary of State must commission a review to consider how the extended use of powers provided for in section 1 will impact energy use in the United Kingdom, with particular reference to—(a) the impact on fuel poverty; and(b) the impact on energy efficiency.(2) The Secretary of State must lay the report of the review under subsection (1) before each House of Parliament within 12 months of this section coming into force.”
My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 5—I hope I have got the right number this time and I apologise if I confused people before.
This is a probing amendment. I have raised issues with the Government before about the interoperability and the joining-up of the different policies that we have. Fuel poverty is an area in which I take an interest and the Bill impacts on fuel poverty strategy and affects those in fuel poverty. It also impacts on energy efficiency, which, as the Government have made clear, is one of the reasons for the programme. However, I am never quite sure how good the Government are at joining everything up. The amendment therefore asks the Government to review how this programme is affecting the fuel poverty and energy efficiency programmes and how it can benefit them.
On fuel poverty, the ability for people on low incomes to get an accurate bill and save energy is important. We know that shock bills can create a sense of fear in people and quite often that is why they end up going into debt. Inaccurate bills can sometimes have the same effect and we recognise that part of this development is to prevent people receiving inaccurate bills. Any delays in the programme will have a greater adverse effect on those who are in fuel poverty or are vulnerable in some way or another.
The pre-payment meter price cap, to which we will come later, is still closely linked with the smart meter rollout. One area of the rollout concerns me. Smart meters have been of great benefit to people on pre-paid meters but I understand there might be problems later when the SMETS 2 come in. Could the Minister reassure us that the Government have this in hand, because some people are concerned about how it might work out?
I learned today something that neither I nor my colleagues had heard of before. Photovoltaics on roofs is one of the energy efficiency programmes that we have introduced in the past, but when one of my colleagues in the House who has such a system asked for a smart meter she was told that she could not have one. However, she might be able to when SMETS 2 comes in. So there are two questions about the SMETS 2 meters: are people who pre-pay going to suffer and what are we doing about people with solar panels? Do the Government know how many houses have solar panels? That is a whole chunk out at the moment. If that is the case, they should be the first people to get SMETS 2. Somebody should try to target it in that way.
The other issue is one that I have discovered, I think from the briefings we got from Smart Energy GB, which is the fact that not everybody has an in-house display when they have their meter fitted. I was quite shocked by this because I thought that was the whole point. As it said in the briefings I received from it, some people have meters in very strange places—in cupboards under the stairs and all sorts of places. I cannot understand why the programme was not insisting that, when you have a smart meter, you have an in-house display, otherwise many of the benefits that we hope smart meters will bring are somewhat negated if you cannot read it very easily.
I am not going to prolong the Committee much longer, but it is important, whenever the Government review what is going on with the smart meter rollout, that they think carefully about the other areas of policy. As I said, and as I raised before, I am particularly concerned about those in fuel poverty. I know that the smart meter rollout companies are working quite carefully with other people to help those in fuel poverty. I declared an interest at Second Reading because I am a vice-president of a fuel poverty charity, National Energy Action. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister can answer a couple of the questions I have given him. I urge that, whatever reviews we have, we must sometimes refer to how it is impacting on other government policies. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to my Amendments 12 and 13. One of the things that has exercised me most about this programme is how, in the transition from SMETS 1 to SMETS 2, we assess that we are sufficiently there to fire the gun to roll out what is an £11 billion programme. That is not an insignificant amount of money. My noble friend Lady Featherstone pointed to the congestion charge. I do not know what it cost to roll out; it was expensive, but I suspect it was not anywhere near £11 billion. That is why it is important, before the rest of this happens, that we make sure we are in the right place.
I understand that we currently have some 300 SMETS meters out there being tested. I also understand that there is still a further software upgrade to happen in September—I would be interested to know whether that is the case—yet we have a deadline of October, which is only some six months away. That is why I am saying in the amendment—it is rather a blunt instrument and probably would not be absolutely correct for the final Bill—that there should be some 500,000 SMETS 2 meters out there to make sure that this market works. That seems like a huge number, but I remind noble Lords that it is 1% of the total number of meters that have to be smart by the end of this programme—some 47 million to 50 million. That is why, in terms of the size of the programme and the length of time we have already taken in getting it right and getting consumer confidence, I am trying to understand from the Government and the Minister what tests they have and what threshold they are expecting to see before they say that the programme is fully fit for purpose, they have confidence and they are going to roll the rest of it out as SMETS 2—SMETS 1 no longer, although we have 10 million of those meters already. What is the threshold that says that they have the confidence to roll out one of the most expensive projects? I am not sure that it is as expensive as Hinkley C, but it probably will be by the end of the Hinkley C programme. It is a huge amount of money and a huge national investment that is really important for the future, so what is the threshold test before we roll it out with confidence?
I shall speak to Amendment 7, which is in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Maddock. Much was and is made about the upside of the benefits, or the hoped-for benefits, to the consumer of the rollout of smart meters. In the other place, the Secretary of State Greg Clarke said:
“About a third of the savings come from the possible reductions in the use of energy. Just over 40% comes from the supplier’s cost savings, which is a result of not having to read meters … We expect those savings to be passed onto consumers as savings in their bill”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/10/17; col. 238.]
We want a new clause that makes that expectation of the Secretary of State into a reality by putting it into the Bill, and we do that by amending the Energy Act 2008 to put in a provision,
“requiring the holder of a supply licence to pass on any savings made by the holder as a result of the Smart Metering Implementation Programme to the consumer”.
I do not really feel that I need to labour the point—I think that it is clear. A promise has been made, and this is the methodology for making sure that that promise is delivered.
My Lords, this is a wide-ranging group of amendments and it is a bit hard to find the right balancing point to address it, so I am going to give up at the beginning and just go through them one by one—in a slightly different order, just to confuse everyone.
Amendment 5 is right on the money in trying to make us focus again on why we are doing this and what it is about. It will not be worth doing unless there is an impact on energy efficiency. As we were reminded in the first group by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, the problem we face and the one that the Government have to open themselves to be honest about is whether this will be worth having in the sense that it will actually change people’s behaviour and therefore save us some of the costs that we have from our expensive use of energy. If that is not part of what we are thinking, we need to make it part of the process and, indeed, the plan, if we go that way.
I was listening hard to what the Minister was saying, but I was expecting him to say a lot about the industrial strategy, since it is seated in his department and it seems to me that this is part of the industrial strategy. Our energy efficiency should have a material effect on our ability as a nation to continue to operate as a net importer of energy and as we gradually try to be more effective and efficient in what energy we can produce and how we use it. Those things seem crucially the bedrock on which any industrial strategy, and therefore any chance of this country surviving in the long term, is placed. I would have thought that it would be important to the Government to put this at the heart of what they were saying about the future stages of this process, because that will be helpful in convincing consumers, both those in fuel poverty and others who are just interested in the overall economics and efficiency of the country. So the requirement to lay a report that focuses on that might help us to win the battle of hearts and minds to get people more to accept it, and we support the amendment.
Amendment 7 is a bit more on the money in real terms, because it says that, if there are economic and other efficiencies in the process, the consumer should benefit from them. Again, we would support that. You do not have to be a conspiracy theorist—well, probably you do, but you do not have to be a genuine conspiracy theorist—to sense that there is something a bit odd going here. In a curious sort of way, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said it. Here we have an £11 billion programme. It is not being financed out of general taxation; there is a money tree, and that money tree is consumers who are being asked to pay for this without actually knowing what they are paying for. This is being loaded on to their bills and recouped by the companies. It is not being passed on to those who are benefiting from efficiencies. Nor is it being used for useful purposes for trying to help those who are suffering fuel poverty. Have I got this wrong? If I am right in this, we ought to confess that this is what we are doing and think much more carefully about the £11 billion price tag. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, put his finger on it in saying that we ought to be certain about the benefits that will flow from this before we push the button, and his amendment, which we are coming on to, focuses on that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, talked about real benefits to individuals. If we were interested in the consumer approach and in consumers buying this programme, getting behind it and saying that everybody should have one of these things because not only do they give you pretty pictures about what energy you are using but you get money out of it because it shows you how to reduce your costs and that benefit comes back to you, that would be an advantage to the Government, who might otherwise be struggling to get people behind this.
Amendments 12 and 13—effectively, Amendment 13 —take us back to our discussions on the first group of amendments and Amendment 4, which is tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Grantchester. Amendment 13 sets as a condition of minimum confidence 500,000 SMETS 2 meters—still a very small number—which are so far really untested in operation. Going back to what I said earlier about the need to operate in the wider context of opening up for innovation and bringing in new ideas, new ways of saving money and new ways that consumers could try to do things differently in their home in their use of equipment and the internet of things, we know all these other things are there and should be part of this process and package, but they cannot be until this project goes well. This amendment might look like a simple delaying tactic, but it sets an important pausing point at which everybody who is concerned in this, whether there is a proper plan or not, can say that they have confidence to go ahead with this project because they know it works and that at least at the level of the first 500,000 of these SMETS 2 meters it is a going concern, it is terrific, we can talk it up and we can all get behind it. There is a lot to commend this amendment to the Minister and I look forward to hearing him respond to it.
The Government have a rather uncomfortable choice. It would be very sensible for them to accept either this amendment or Amendment 4 because without some sort of overall bringing together of the consumer interest, the supplier interest, the regulator interest, Parliament, which needs to have a role in this, and the Government we will not get this working properly. That will be suboptimal for the country and for everyone in the long term.
My Lords, may I correct something I said about Hinkley Point C? EDF’s latest estimate is actually £19 billion to £20 billion. Preventing that sort of capital expenditure on energy generation is what this programme should be about. I apologise to the Committee that it is a rather larger sum than even I thought.
My Lords, £1 billion here, £1 billion there and pretty soon we are talking real money. I will deal with the amendments in the order they came: that is, Amendments 5, 7, 12 and 13. Amendments 12 and 13 go together. Actually, all three go together, but there was some confusion.
Starting with Amendment 5, which was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, on energy efficiency and fuel poverty, I ought to say in passing that I very much support the spirit behind these amendments but I am concerned that they could undermine the efficient delivery of the rollout and could lead to unintended consequences and costs for consumers. But I will deal with the amendments one by one, starting with Amendment 5.
One of the main objectives of the smart meter rollout in Great Britain—it does not apply to Northern Ireland—is to put consumers in control of their energy use so that they become more informed and efficient, and save themselves money. Smart metering will reduce the costs for prepayment customers and enable remote topping-up, meaning that some of Britain’s hardest-pressed energy consumers will have access to more competitive deals and more convenience in paying for their energy. I was grateful for what the noble Baroness said about people with prepayment meters and the price cap. We will get on to the price cap for others more generally, but it is already in existence for people with prepayment meters and I think that it has been working with some success.
If I heard her aright, the noble Baroness said that she had heard that SMETS 2 meters posed a problem for some prepayment customers. We believe that SMETS 1 meters provide significant smart functionality to consumers, but SMETS 2 will provide them with additional benefits and will allow consumers always to retain smart functionality when they switch suppliers. SMETS 2 meters will also allow consumers, if they choose, to share data with third parties, and those third parties may be able to offer, for example, tailored energy-efficiency advice, which could be of use to certain customers.
Amendment 5 would introduce a new clause requiring the Secretary of State to commission a review to consider how the extended use of powers would impact energy use in the United Kingdom, with a particular focus on the impact on fuel poverty and energy efficiency.
With in-home displays offered to households as part of the installation, low-credit alerts are more visible, giving consumers an early warning. The ability for consumers to set a budget and to see exactly how much they are using, in pounds and pence, is giving prepayment consumers control over their energy use and contributing to greater levels of satisfaction among prepayment consumers. Certainly, the research that we have done shows that 84% of smart prepayment customers are satisfied with their smart meters and 88% are likely to recommend them. Government research shows that eight out of 10 would recommend them to family or friends, and 82% of people with a smart meter have taken at least one step to reduce their energy use. British Gas is reporting that its dual fuel customers with smart meters are making sustained 4% annual energy savings.
To some extent, that brings me on to the question about accessibility of meters raised by the noble Baroness. As she is well aware, the accessibility of existing meters can be pretty difficult, as I discovered in London the other day as I lay down on the floor trying to read a meter. I realised that I did not have my reading glasses with me but then realised that reading glasses would not help as I was wearing my contact lenses. It is a minor problem for someone in a reasonably fit state, but we accept that reading meters can be difficult for certain people, depending on where the meters are put.
The technical specifications for IHDs require them to be designed to enable the information on them to be easily accessed and presented in a form that is clear and easy to understand, including by consumers with impaired sight, memory, learning ability or dexterity. Energy suppliers, led by Energy UK, have been working together to develop a fully accessible IHD, and we expect that device to be available shortly. If it can be made available to those who have problems, the noble Baroness and I will also find it a great deal easier.
The thing that surprises me—and I have not really had an answer to it—is why, when the Government planned the programme, it was not part of the plan that everybody with a smart meter should have an in-home display. It would be an obvious enhancement and would not be difficult. I do not know why it was not thought that this should be insisted on from the beginning.
This is going back in history. The past is another country. I do not think I want to go there just for the moment. I do not know the answer to that. If I can find out more, I will certainly let the noble Baroness know.
The noble Baroness also raised the question of smart meters working with solar panels and spoke about the information she had received from one of her noble friends. As I understand it, all SMETS-compliant electricity meters must be capable of both measuring the amount of energy the household consumes or imports from the grid and recording the electricity generated by solar panels or other microgeneration technologies that is fed back or exported to the grid. We are not aware of any technical reasons why smart meters cannot be installed in premises with microgeneration technologies. However, some suppliers may start installing for these customers later in the rollout. If the noble Baroness would like to go back to her unnamed noble friend—perhaps it was not a noble friend, perhaps it was someone misleading the noble Baroness—and get back to me, I will take this up and find out what the real answer is. The initial response is that we feel that this should not be the case, but I will respond when the noble Baroness gives me more information.
Amendment 7 was spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone. The rollout of smart meters offers an opportunity for consumers to take control of their energy use and realise significant savings as soon as the meter is installed. Like any infrastructure project, the smart metering programme involves some investment, but it will enable a net reduction in consumers’ energy bills over time. Amendment 7 would give the Secretary of State power to modify licence conditions and industry codes so as to require energy suppliers to pass the savings they make from the rollout on to consumers.
We expect that competitive pressures will encourage energy suppliers to pass on the cost savings they make from the rollout of smart meters. If energy suppliers do not pass on the savings to their customers, their customers, as we all know, can switch to a better deal among an increasing number of competitors. As noble Lords will be aware, there is an increasing number of competitors and it is quite simple to switch. We recognise that the market is not working for all customers. That is why we have introduced to Parliament the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill—it is in another place at the moment—which will require Ofgem to set a cap that protects existing and future domestic customers who pay standard variable and default rates. The cap will last until 2020, and it may be extended annually, up until 2023, if it is assessed that the conditions for effective competition are not yet in place. In setting the cap, we expect Ofgem to take into account the benefits that energy suppliers will achieve from the rollout.
Smart meters are themselves an enabler to greater competition in the energy retail market. Smart meters provide near real-time information to consumers on their energy consumption and how much it is costing them, giving consumers greater awareness, which in turn is expected to further increase consumer switching. The signs on this are encouraging. According to a report on consumer engagement in the energy market, published by Ofgem in 2017, 23% of consumers who say they have a smart meter have switched supplier in the past 12 months, compared with 17% of those who say they do not have a smart meter. It is worth pointing out that we would expect the level of engagement from consumers to help inform Ofgem’s review into whether the conditions for effective competition are in place.
I turn now to the final two amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson—Amendments 12 and 13. The Government want consumers to benefit as soon as possible from the advantages of smart meters. That is why we continually review the rollout and take action to remove any barriers to effective delivery. The amendments would require, as a condition of extending powers that the Secretary of State has to amend or introduce new regulation for the purposes of smart metering, one of two conditions are met first before those powers can commence. The noble Lord suggested either 500,000 second generation—SMETS 2—meters must have been installed or a review of the programme, focused on consumer satisfaction and value for money, must be complete. We do not believe that either of those conditions for commencing the extended regulatory powers are warranted or necessary. We are also concerned that the effect of those amendments would be to leave the Government without powers to intervene to unlock delivery barriers and ensure consumer benefits are being realised.
I will take each condition in turn. I shall deal, first, with the noble Lord’s SMETS 2 target of 500,000. Like the noble Lord, we want to see the SMETS 2 meter installation accelerated. It is very small at the moment, but in the near term this should happen only if it is in the best interests of consumers. Setting a target would remove suppliers’ flexibility to plan and manage the rollout efficiently in order to serve their customers effectively in a competitive market and could lead to unintended consequences. We are assured that larger energy suppliers have commercial and financial incentives to drive them to install SMETS 2 meters as soon as is practicable. SMETS 2 meters unlock more of the customer base, supporting more cost-effective marketing approaches. They also include capability for load control and additional support for consumer access devices, thereby supporting service offers in line with energy suppliers’ potential future business strategies. These incentives align with regulatory imperatives to make progress, not least that our current expectations are that from later this year the installation of SMETS 1 meters will no longer count towards an energy supplier’s rollout obligations. We intend to include in future quarterly statistical publications—subject to sufficient supplier anonymisation—information about the number of SMETS 2 meters that have been installed, allowing for progress to be tracked and transparent.
We agree with the noble Lord that the programme should understand its impact during operations, in terms of consumer satisfaction and value for money. As regards consumer satisfaction, the department commissions and receives, including via Smart Energy GB, regular survey updates on smart meter consumer satisfaction. I have referred to some of them, and the satisfaction levels that have been achieved. In terms of value for money, my right honourable friend the Minister for Business and Energy, Claire Perry, has committed, as part of the Bill’s passage in another place, to undertaking and publishing an updated cost-benefit analysis in 2019, which will reflect, among other things, the real benefit for consumers. On this basis, the noble Lord’s condition would be duplicative and risks undermining the powers that the Government need to ensure the rollout is progressed smoothly and in consumers’ best interests.
Can I just ask again a rather simple question? I understand that we are not the only country in Europe with a smart meter installation programme. The French claim that they have done it for half the price of the programme in the United Kingdom. They claim it is going to cost them €5.5 billion, whereas we are potentially spending £11 billion. Is there any truth in that? Is our equipment the same as what the French are introducing? Is there some explanation for this suggestion that we are paying rather a lot for our equipment?
I do not necessarily take all claims from France as seriously as the noble Lord does. I will certainly have a look at that claim being made by the French, but I believe we are doing reasonably well. Obviously, I will have a look at what they are doing and, if there are things that we can learn from that, we should do so. Just as we will continue to monitor delivery in this country, we will study and look at what is happening abroad. I have received advice about what is happening and whether we are sharing our experience with other countries and whether other countries have shared their experience with us. We have looked not just at what is happening throughout Europe—we have met representatives from Ireland, Sweden, Spain, Malta and, I understand, France—but we have looked further afield to India, Australia and the United States. Lessons we have learned include the importance of consumer engagement. That is why I emphasised earlier what we have done on consumer engagement.
On the actual costs, the advice I have received is that the EU average comes in at £181, compared with our figure of around £155 for a single-fuel electricity installation. So that is somewhat lower. On that front we are doing better. If there is anything further I can add about gas distribution grids in Malta or Italy that might be of use or even of interest to the noble Lord, I will pass it on. Another matter that came up was a concern about privacy, which is something that the noble Lord is concerned about and we discussed earlier.
In conclusion, we will continue to monitor the delivery of the programme and will continue to provide updates in annual reports and an updated cost-benefit analysis. I do not think the amendments add much. They risk duplicating those processes and could result, as I said, in unintended consequences that might delay getting the benefits to the consumer. I hope, therefore, that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
The purpose of my amendment—I accept a lot of what the Minister said about its effects—was to get to understand what the test will be. What criteria will the department use to say, “SMETS 2 meters will work, they will integrate with the systems they have to integrate with, so we will give them the green light”? How will the assessment be made that SMETS 2 works—not just the individual meters but as a system—before we invest the other £8 billion?
My Lords, we have started. The noble Lord gave his figure for how many SMETS 1 meters have been installed—I think it was about 10 million, which I do not dispute. I do not have the precise figure in front of me. We feel it is likely that we will be ready to cease to count the SMETS 1 meters towards the target in about October and therefore the suppliers will move on to SMETS 2, which brings further benefits. Over this year, we will see a growth in the number. I am not going to give a precise figure now for how that will grow, but we are likely to see the benefits from that. There is no point sticking with SMETS 1 when we can move on to SMETS 2.
I agree entirely with that, but it is not the point I am trying to make. SMETS 2 operates through DCC in a different system. It has different software and capabilities; otherwise, there is no point in doing this. SMETS 1 machines work on different systems. They work through the suppliers in bespoke ways. I understand the difference between the two. We need to stop operating SMETS 1 as soon as possible and we want to roll out SMETS 2. What is the test so that we can be happy that SMETS 2 functions correctly and confident that it is all systems go? I do not understand the test.
I suggest that the test has already been passed and we are doing SMETS 2 come what may.
We are going ahead to SMETS 2. The noble Lord is right there. We will see benefits from that, just as we have seen benefits from SMETS 1. That process will continue. I am suggesting to noble Lords and the rest of the Committee that we will provide appropriate reports back as to how that goes in due course, but I cannot provide any figures on exactly how fast that is likely to go, particularly in the initial stage this year.
I shall put it another way: what would happen if, having fitted 500,000, we found that there was a problem?
My Lords, I do not believe in crossing bridges until we get to them. When we get to that stage, if there is a problem, I will come back to the noble Lord.
Let us put the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, to bed happily. There is no further testing. The Government have accepted this, on the basis of what we understand to be the evidence of 300 SMETS meters placed into the homes of employees of the companies commissioning them. The network is said to be working, and may or may not be, at two different levels in the north—I am not quite sure where—and the south because there are two different arrangements, with an imperfect but satisfactory, to all intents and purposes, gas approach based on the idea that the SMETS 2 meters that go on to the gas equipment have to be shut down for most of the time that they are there because otherwise they will use up the batteries, which they are restricted to using because you cannot use electricity near gas since it might blow up. Therefore, they are battery-driven and the batteries cannot last forever. It would be ridiculous to have a situation where you had to have teams of people coming in right across the country replacing the batteries all the time because that is what we are trying to stop them doing when they have to read all the meters. The Government are going ahead with this—this is the point I still do not quite get—on the basis of very imperfect testing on a scale of £8 billion to be spent over the next few years, which is effectively a voluntary tax paid by people who did not know that they were being asked to pay it. It is bonkers.
I am afraid I do not recognise what the noble Lord has offered. I suggest that we continue discussions on this. What the noble Lord is putting to me is not what has been put in front of me in other places. As I said, we will continue to monitor matters and to provide information. That will be sufficient to deal with the amendments. If the noble Lord would like to continue to make these strange allegations about what is happening, we can continue to do that in the discussions that I offered when dealing with the first amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his full response to me on Amendment 5. I am still not totally convinced that the Government always look very carefully at how their different policies interact. I am grateful that he has asked for extra information about the photovoltaics. It was new to me and I will come back to him with a bit more detail. Let us hope that it is just a one-off—that the supplier was just not very interested in doing this particular person’s house and that there is nothing more to it than that. I was quite shocked: lots of people have photovoltaics and if that really was the case we really need to do something about it. As I said, it was a probing amendment to try to open up discussion on these issues that I am concerned about. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 5.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
Amendments 6 and 7 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
Clause 3: Objective of a smart meter communication licensee administration
8: Clause 3, page 2, line 34, at end insert—
“(aa) that the cost incurred when the smcl administration order is in place is not passed on to the consumer; and”
Clause 3 seeks to protect the consumer from any costs that might ensue following a failure of the DCC. How could the DCC fail? It is a new service and there is a change in the top management at this critical point. No aspersion is intended but it is a change right at the top, and of course there are questions about the financial security of the DCC, should the parent company, Capita, run into problems. That is a timely point to make, given that my right honourable friend Vince Cable has secured an Urgent Question which is being debated right now. This afternoon Capita has revealed losses of £500 million last year, it has launched a £700 million fundraising effort to reduce its vast debt pile and its share price has plunged by 47.5%. At Second Reading it was mentioned by noble Lords across the House that Capita had issued a profit warning. They were right to do so.
We are all nervous since the collapse of Carillion. Is Capita too big to fail? What will we do if it does? Clause 3 is about insuring against the unknown, because the costs of any failure should not be a liability for the consumer. I beg to move.
My Lords, in this group we have Amendment 10, which I think takes the debate a little further forward. The noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, made the case very well about the immediacy of the problem that now faces the Government and how they make progress with a company which has given a profits warning and has had to raise funding. Although it says that it might have access to many billions of pounds in borrowings and other things, it obviously raises questions of an order similar to those in the Carillion episode of a few months ago. I look forward to the Minister’s response on that, which I hope will cover the question of whether the Crown’s official involved in checking out companies that have major contracts with the Government has considered its longer-term prospects, making sure that any contracts placed with that company are satisfactorily secured in terms of delivery.
Our amendment fits in very neatly with this, at least in the sense that the reality of an administration is that it is a failure not only of the operations but of the possible costs. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, we do not wish to see those costs passed on to the consumer. However, it also raises wider questions about what is going on here. In a sense, this is relatively familiar territory in that the Government are achieving a social objective using private sector activities. As was said in the other place only this afternoon, this is not new to Governments; Governments of all shapes have for the last 20 years or so increasingly used the private sector. Indeed, it is a long and distinguished history: Governments do not do very much on the ground in terms of buildings or roads. They may well carry responsibility for them and pay for them but the physical work is done by others. Outsourcing can deliver benefits. However, at a time when margins are being decreased and there is a bit more concern about whether these companies will be able to survive, we have to be very careful in what we do.
The thinking behind Amendment 10 concerns not just the mechanics of what happens in a default but whether the Government can think a bit more widely about how the company operates. Obviously, the new company, the DCC, is crucial to the delivery of the SMETS 2 programme. It is wholly owned by Capita; it has a ring-fenced arrangement with Capita but is nevertheless entirely under the control of that company. Although there are independents on the board, and everything else, do the Government really feel that that is sufficient at a time when so much is riding on it? We are talking about £8 billion worth of investment and work going forward, and everything that we have said this afternoon in relation to the future of our energy policies and initiatives and to consumer interests is certainly part of the whole operation.
When we were considering the green bank—I am waiting for the head of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, to snap up at this point—we came across a similar problem, which was trying to make sure that the body that was being set up in the private sector, which we knew at that time was to be sold, had imposed within its structures a set of conditions under which the Government retained a golden share, to make sure that its original purposes, and green purposes in particular, were not polluted or changed by subsequent changes in the operational management of the company when it was set up or in its eventual sale. It turned out to be a very complicated issue, and I pay due credit to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for pursuing it to the point where we found a solution, which was not one that the Government ever thought we would come up with. But it was possible to come up with something that met the requirements that the Treasury set, unrealistic though they were, that the arrangements should not leave the Government in a direct power relationship to the company, because that would require any costs and everything else to go on to the balance sheet, but still retained the ability of the company to operate so that the green objectives were retained and operated. I am simplifying to make the point.
Does not this arise also with DCC? Is there not a worry here that we are talking about an organisation, a structure, a delivery function and an operation which suggests that we really ought to be thinking harder about the overall structure here? If the narrow question about what happens in an insolvency is insufficient to probe it, should not the wider concerns about all the companies that are going through difficulties with their delivery of public service obligations? The newspapers will be full of questions about what is happening to recruitment to the Army, because Capita is not performing very well on that, and what happens to other areas of activity. We may find that, £3 billion into the programme, the main structural body responsible for organising the network for our safety and data and all the operations that will lead to customer buy-in to this is unable to fulfil its objectives because of other financial constraints, and we do not have the right regulatory structures in place to ensure that it carries on the way it does. This amendment gives the Government at least some incentive to look at that, and I hope that they will respond positively to it.
My Lords, I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Featherstone. Indeed, I agreed with many of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned. The structure of the company in terms of green shares or golden shares is an interesting point that may be well worth pursuing.
Perhaps I should know this, as it is a factual question, but how long is the contract with Capita for DCC? What are the arrangements at the end of that contract? However long the smart metering programme goes on for—and one hopes that smart meters will be there for many decades before the next technology comes along—what are the arrangements for selecting the next incumbent? Does the DCC remain, or does it transfer to the new contractor, or is there a new corporate structure at that time? I am just trying to understand the length of commitment that we have with DCC at the moment. I am sure that, if I had done that research, I would already know, but perhaps the Minister could enlighten me.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, says, there is always a lot to be said for asking questions to which one already knows the answer. In fact, I was told that that was one of the firm rules—that one should only ask questions to which one knows the answer.
My noble friend Lord Young will respond to the UQ on Capita debated today in another place—in time, I hope, for noble Lords to go through and listen to it. We do not believe that any of our strategic partners, including Capita, are in anything like a comparable position to Carillion. The current licensee is wholly owned by Capita but is required to operate at arm’s length from it. There are provisions in its licence to prevent Capita from taking working capital out of the licensee. Together those provisions mean that DCC would continue to operate while Ofgem, as regulator, sought to appoint a new licensee or for a new owner to be secured. I shall not say anything further on that subject at the moment but I hope I have dealt with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and his noble friend Lady Featherstone. If necessary, I shall write to them in greater detail.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to our final group of amendments—Amendments 8, 9 and 10—and should like to start by addressing Clauses 8, 9 and 10(2)(a), which broadly seek to achieve the same aim of preventing the pass through of administration costs to consumers.
Clause 6 grants the Secretary of State the power to make modifications to electricity and gas licence conditions where he considers it appropriate to do so in connection with the special administration regime for the smart communication licensee, which is currently Smart DCC Ltd. Clause 7 makes it clear that the power in Clause 6 can be used to allow the costs of smart meter communication licensee administration to be recouped from the industry insofar as there is a shortfall in the property available for meeting the costs. It is at industry discretion whether it chooses to pass its costs through to the energy consumer.
Without a SAR in place, if the DCC becomes insolvent the impacts could be significant for consumers and the energy industry. For instance, disruption to billing and settlement could lead to inaccurate billing for consumers and cash flow issues for energy suppliers. Energy suppliers may also incur costs by having to put in place new procedures to replace the services provided by the DCC. These costs could be significant and ultimately would form part of the energy supplier’s cost base for providing gas and electricity services to consumers.
The proposed costs-recovery mechanism is in line with the mechanism that already exists for energy network and energy supplier special administration regimes and follows the already well-established principle in energy market trading arrangements. If a market participant, as a result of insolvency, defaults on any charges, it is required to pay industry costs and the cost is socialised across market participants. The proposed mechanism would allow for expenses of administration to be recovered via National Grid charges should there be a shortfall in meeting them.
This is the most efficient and equitable means of cost recovery available as it would socialise the costs across a wide range of consumers via, for example, electricity supplier and gas shipper charges. This could be drawn from a range of sectors, not only the domestic sector. As the £16.7 billion in quantified benefits expected from the programme will include the energy industry and energy consumers, it is right that the expected marginal increase in costs needed to ensure that the substantial benefits can be realised are met by the recipients of those benefits.
Moreover, in the unlikely event that administration did occur, the administrator would be under a duty to manage the company in a way that ensures that services continue to be supplied efficiently and economically and to conclude administration as quickly and as efficiently as is reasonably practical. As few additional restrictions as possible should be placed on the smart communication administrator in relation to its costs or in taking on new contracts as these could hamper efforts to rescue the company.
As my honourable friend the Minister for Business, Richard Harrington, committed during the passage of the Bill in another place, when we consult on this proposed mechanism we will consider and set out an assessment of the estimated potential scale of costs that might need to be recouped from industry. The figure would, of course, depend on a number of factors. These could include the timing of and reason for the DCC licensee entering special administration, how far those costs can be met by the property available—for example, through the proceeds of sale or restructuring—the operating costs of the DCC licensee at the time, and costs specifically resulting from special administration, such as the costs of any legal and technical expertise appointed by the administrator in support of the execution of its duties.
We remain mindful of the impact of costs arising from an insolvency event and the overall value for money which the programme should continue to demonstrate. However, we also remain mindful of the risks of not having an effective SAR in place. Ultimately we consider that the risk of insolvency is low. The DCC’s financial arrangements are constructed so as to make the risk of insolvency low; for example, with users of the DCC’s service required to put up credit cover. Putting in place a special administrative regime is just a sensible precaution.
Amendment 10 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, does more or less the same as Amendments 8 and 9 but adds a bit more, particularly in proposed new subsection (2)(b). This amendment seeks to give the Secretary of State the power to impose conditions on successor smart meter communication licensees, including a potential requirement that they are British owned. In consideration of this requirement, it is important to be clear at the outset that in awarding the smart meter communication licences the licensee will need to demonstrate that they are a fit and proper person to carry out the relevant functions. This can be expected to include factors such as the ownership of the proposed licensee. However, it is neither appropriate to judge suitability solely on the basis of whether a company is GB-based nor to exclude non-GB companies by default. Doing so risks failing to deliver value for money for consumers and potentially undermining the effectiveness of the smart metering system.
Two key areas for consideration were highlighted during debates in the other place. The first was national security. We covered that earlier when I spoke about GCHQ. The Government certainly take the security implications of foreign control and ownership seriously and, as I made clear in a Statement the other day, repeating it on behalf of my right honourable friend, the Enterprise Act grants Ministers statutory powers of intervention in mergers and takeovers that give rise to national security issues.
I can at this stage highlight other reforms coming in that area to strengthen the Government’s ability to scrutinise investment in the United Kingdom’s most critical businesses on national security grounds. We will be discussing that, I think, next week. There was a question from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, about how long the licence is for and what happens next. Initially it is going to run until 2025, and at that time Ofgem will be responsible for the next licence award. However, there might also be the opportunity to extend the existing licence for a further six years.
I hope that I have dealt with the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, and that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment. As this is the last group that we are dealing with, I repeat what I said earlier: if noble Lords feel that it would be fruitful—or “helpful”—to have further discussions between now and Report, obviously I will be more than happy to arrange that. Noble Lords know how to get in touch with me. I hand over to the noble Baroness.
I thank the Minister. I am comforted to some extent to know that he believes that the service will carry on, regardless of financial issues. I look forward to seeing the potential scale of the costs, but I disagree with him about those costs. From what has been said and from what I can glean from this whole business, I do not think at the moment that the savings to the consumer will come anywhere near the costs to the consumer. However, for the time being, I am content to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 8 withdrawn.
Amendment 9 not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
Clauses 4 to 9 agreed.
Amendment 10 not moved.
Clauses 10 and 11 agreed.
Amendment 11 not moved.
Clauses 12 and 13 agreed.
Clause 14: Short title, commencement and extent
Amendments 12 and 13 not moved.
Clause 14 agreed.
Bill reported without amendment.
Committee adjourned at 6.13 pm.