Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 3 July.
“From rural hamlets to coastal communities, it is a properly functioning market that ensures fair prices for motorists, but for that market to function customers need transparent data to find the best price. On that basis, when we saw fuel prices rising last summer we asked the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate whether the market was working for customers as it should. Today, the CMA published its final market study report and I am shocked by its findings: rising fuel retail margins, and clear evidence of a rocket upwards and a feather downwards in the pricing pattern for diesel.
It is completely unacceptable that consumers have been paying more. The financial impact of the 6p per litre increase, just in the fuel margin, from 2019 to 2022, cost customers of the four supermarket fuel retailers £900 million last year alone. Asda’s fuel margin target was three times higher for this year than in 2019 and Morrisons’ doubled over the same period. It is wrong that in a cost of living crisis drivers do not get a fair deal on fuel and end up being overcharged.
Motorists should not be used as cash cows by the fuel industry. The Government will not stand for it and I know this House will not stand for it. Therefore, we accept the CMA’s recommendations in full. We will create a statutory open data scheme for retail fuel prices and an ongoing road fuel prices monitoring function for the UK market. We will consult on the design of the open data scheme and monitoring function as soon as possible this autumn, but that is not enough. I have asked the CMA to have a voluntary scheme up and running by next month and I fully expect fuel retailers to share accurate, up-to-date road fuel prices. The CMA will also continue to monitor fuel prices.
I demand that fuel retail bosses stop ripping off consumers, by making prices available so that the market can operate as it should. Transparency is vital for competition and to keep prices down.”
My Lords, cost of living pressures are affecting people right across Britain. In that context, we welcome the Government commissioning the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate soaring fuel prices last July. The CMA has finally recommended measures to improve fuel price transparency and stop inflated fuel prices being passed on to hard-hit consumers. The fuel finder open data scheme is welcome, but given that retailers have been inflating the prices, how do the Government expect the CMA’s voluntary scheme to work? When will the Government end the painful wait for consumers and bring forward the legislation that is needed to enforce it?
My Lords, the Government have stood for this gouging behaviour by the supermarkets over the past year. In rural areas such as Somerton and Frome, and Mid Bedfordshire, people find themselves facing the highest prices and the least competition, and will benefit the least from the comparison scheme. I have two questions for the Minister. Is it fair that supermarket bosses will get bonuses based on gouged profits, and will the Minister review the rural fuel duty relief scheme, which gives a 5p-per-litre reduction, to see whether it can be extended to rural areas not presently covered?
My Lords, let me thank both noble Baronesses for their support for the report and the Government’s action. First, in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, putting the open data scheme and monitoring function on a statutory footing will require parliamentary time, but the Government will work as quickly as possible to do so. I note that she welcomed the fact that in the meantime we have asked the CMA to create an interim voluntary scheme encouraging fuel retailers to share accurate, up-to-date prices. Of course, we expect all fuel retailers to co-operate with the CMA by providing that information fully and promptly. We will legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows, but we need the primary legislation to be passed by both Houses first. We will consult on the secondary legislation in advance of primary legislation being approved in the digital services Bill. The noble Baroness will know that taxation and fuel duty are matters for the Treasury and the Chancellor, and I would not want to predict what he might do on that.
My Lords, I want to follow up on a question asked in the other place yesterday. It follows a visit I made recently to Northern Ireland, where I was struck by how much lower fuel prices were. I understand that is largely because of the fuel price checker. The Minister in the other place was asked yesterday why the Government had taken so long to introduce something similar in the rest of the UK; can the Minister here today answer that point?
As I just said to the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, we will legislate as soon as we can. We will consult on the secondary regulations in the autumn, but we cannot implement them until we have the primary legislation through. There are of course a number of existing fuel price checkers, but the problem is that they are not updated frequently enough and are not compulsory, so not all retailers have to take part in them. When we have the powers, there will be a compulsory scheme and all retailers will be expected to comply.
Does my noble friend agree that the excessive prices that have been charged have had a disproportionate impact on rural motorists and have added to the cost of deliveries of foodstuffs and other items? Is that something that the Government will keep a watchful eye on?
My noble friend makes a good point. For many rural areas, where filling stations perhaps do not get the throughput of customers, prices tend to be higher anyway. It is certainly something we want to keep an eye on to make sure that rural customers are not disadvantaged.
My Lords, the supermarket premium is apparently about 6p per litre, but that is nothing compared to the prices charged in motorway service stations, where it is often a further 18p to 20p above that. The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, referred to the 6p as gouging. If that is gouging, what is the situation with motorway service stations and what are the Government going to do to fix it?
The noble Lord makes a very good point. Those of us who use motorway service stations are often baffled as to why fuel is so expensive in them. This is something that we will want to keep a close eye on; again, price transparency—that is, motorists having the ability to check what fuel might be available just by taking an exit and going to a service station that is relatively close to a motorway—would be much more beneficial.
My Lords, Ministers, particularly the Prime Minister, do not seem to understand the problems of ordinary people. As far as fuel is concerned, whenever fuel costs go up for industry, prices go shooting up. When fuel costs go down, prices are very slow to come down. Now, we have the banks putting up interest rates for borrowers but not offering high-interest returns for savers. There are so many examples of where ordinary people are suffering. The regulators seem to do nothing about it; they seem more interested in the interests of the industries than in those of consumers. Is it not about time that we had some kind of directive for the regulators to look after consumers’ interests?
I understand the point that the noble Lord makes, but I think that he is being a little unfair. The CMA is a regulator, of course; this particular regulator very much had the interests of the consumer at its heart when it produced this report, which has widespread support and backing from all parts of the House. The Government will act on its recommendations, so that is a case of a regulator acting in consumers’ interests. The CMA is designed to produce competition, which is the best thing that can operate for the consumer.
The other example mentioned by the noble Lord is slightly off topic, but much more attractive interest rates are offered by a number of smaller financial institutions. It really is a question of the consumer shopping around, but plenty of information and online resources are available for someone to find the best return on their money. No doubt the noble Lord has lots that he wants to invest; if he looks at the various websites, he will be able to invest it well. Obviously, he is a well-known Scottish Member so is bound to have plenty of funds to invest.
My Lords, picking up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, about motorway services, a number of continental countries have signs along the motorway telling drivers what the price of petrol will be at the first, second, third and fourth service stations along their route. That provides a competitive element and is supposed to have been very successful in managing prices. Are the UK Government looking at such a scheme?