I beg to move,
That this House has considered home energy and lifestyle management systems and the Green Deal.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. Before I start, I should apologise to you and those present: this morning’s speech will be brought to you by Halls Soothers—although other sweets are available—so if I start coughing, please bear with me.
With winter approaching, the extra cost of heating a home will be a concern not only for income-poor families but for many of the Prime Minister’s “just about managing” families. Fuel poverty is still a reality for far too many in society. Unfortunately, many of those households live in energy-inefficient homes. That fact, combined with stagnant incomes and the impact of the Government’s austerity measures, leaves some households vulnerable to increasingly unaffordable energy bills.
To compound that, hundreds of my constituents now have unaffordable and hugely inflated bills thanks to the UK Government’s bungled green deal scheme. The green deal was a flagship scheme intended to give homeowners access to cheap loans to modify and improve home energy efficiency. The loans were to be paid back through monthly energy bills, which were to be cheaper due to the green investment made in people’s homes. That credit, however, was often sold as grant funding to confuse consumers.
The fundamental rule, or “golden rule” as it is known, was and is that the savings on bills should always be equal to or greater than the cost of the work. The idea was that consumers would be able to receive energy improvements in effect for free, reducing energy consumption and breaking free from spiralling energy bills. Not only would the house save money and have a lower carbon footprint but, it was hoped, such schemes would reduce carbon production throughout the country, helping to achieve the Government’s carbon reduction targets.
A scheme that empowers households to get out of fuel poverty and have warmer homes is always welcome, but for far too many this scheme failed, and failed utterly. The Government’s ambitious aims looked good on paper, but they fell well short and, as the result of a weak and ill-conceived framework, families were left far worse off. Rather than “pay as you save”, constituents were left paying more and saving nothing or, in far too many cases, actually footing the bill for fraud. Investment in energy savings should be a national priority, and I think that everyone across the House would agree that we need to meet fuel poverty targets and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but elements of the scheme were so badly designed and involved such ineffective regulation that for many it became a nightmare.
I should point out, before the Minister does in her summing up, that plenty of businesses and providers did not abuse the system, with the result that many consumers benefited from the scheme, as was originally envisaged. The green deal, however, was allowed to be abused by criminals who preyed on and exploited households, many of them vulnerable. Ultimately, regardless of one’s politics or trust in any Government, no one thinks they are about to be scammed when a Government logo is on the paperwork. We will come back to the Government, who were in effect the enablers of this great fraud, but the actual fraudsters themselves were Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Systems, or HELMS.
The behaviour of Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Ltd was inexcusable. The use of classic dodgy salesman tactics—overstaying in customers’ homes to intimidate them into a sale, blatant falsifying of figures, misleading documentation, fraudulent marking of signatures, insistence on inappropriate works and outright lying to elderly vulnerable individuals—has pushed victims into deeper fuel poverty and debt, with no access to a quick and effective remedy. In the majority of cases that I have seen, individuals were sold solar panels regardless of need or suitability. Once again misled on finance, those individuals unknowingly sold their ownership of the solar panel feed-in tariff to offset the up-front cost of works. Ultimately, that meant that households had solar panels on their roof, were possibly still liable for maintenance and servicing, and yet received no financial benefit.
More unbelievably, the managing director of the now liquidated company HELMS, Robert Skillen, not only is a director of PV Solar Investments Ltd—the separate company set up to receive HELMS’s customers’ feed-in tariffs that, shamefully, is still trading and is in receipt of mis-sold victims’ feed-in tariffs—and the man with the brassiest of brass necks, but is now looking to profit from “mis-sold energy claims” through a company called True Solar Savings, despite it not being authorised by the Claims Management Regulator. He has fleeced us once, but now wants to assist us in getting redress from his own company’s mis-selling. The man has zero shame, and his outrageous lack of recognition of his culpability is astounding.
Given Robert Skillen’s central role as managing director of HELMS, therefore, I strongly advise against any business interactions with that man or his companies. Robert Skillen and HELMS, however, were enabled by the UK Government, but my constituents and many others throughout the country are now paying the price for the Government’s casual short-sightedness.
My constituency, like others, has been affected. One-hundred and sixty-nine of my constituents have been affected, and what was striking about the public meetings that we held was the proportion of elderly people in their 70s and 80s—one with dementia, another with almost total blindness—who were tricked into this. It was not, on any level, the selling of solar panels; it was fraud.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We are not in a competition, but although the issue affected 169 people in her constituency, in mine 293 households received HELMS panels, out of more than 3,000 in Scotland. Like her, I held my first public meeting on the issue earlier this month. As we know, attendance at such meetings can be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, but although the subject was rather niche, targeting households with solar panels, about 120 people were in attendance. The meeting was full of individuals with similar stories of being taken advantage of by outrageous mis-selling, pressured into agreeing to inappropriately costed works or told blatant lies for a quick sale.
Two of my constituents, Mr and Mrs Murray, were particularly affected. A HELMS salesman knocked on their door in Linwood—a part of my constituency particularly affected by the mis-selling—and stated that it was to have funding available to invest in homes and energy. He had pressured the Murrays by insisting that the funding was time-limited and finite. They were told that they should have loft insulation, exterior wall insulation and solar panel works. He mentioned no tie between finance and their energy bills, and nothing about a debt tied to their property until 2039 at £1.47 a day.
As my hon. Friend knows, last year I set up the all-party parliamentary group on green deal mis-selling, which I chair. We have been inundated by problems of that kind. The distinct issue in Scotland, with cladding work in particular, is the requirement for building warrants, which HELMS did not apply for and which cannot be applied for retrospectively. That leaves householders unable to sell or insure their homes. Does he agree that the Government should do more to support people in that position?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, the chair of the HELMS all-party group here at Westminster. I shall come to this, but the building warrants issue is complex. In fact, I apologise in advance for making a longer speech than I am accustomed to, because of so many such complexities, building warrants being just one of them.
Back to Mr and Mrs Murray. The HELMS salesman tied them into an additional finance agreement with a personal finance company for a debt repayment of more than £9,000 to meet the expense of the solar panel installation. My constituents acknowledge that they were aware of that finance, but were told by the salesman that they would receive feed-in tariff payments quarterly to offset that cost, as well as having the benefit of lowered energy consumption and billing. However, such was the unfathomable incompetency and mis-selling of HELMS that when the Murrays applied for their feed-in tariff payments, they were missing essential documentation for the process. They pleaded with HELMS, which remained unco-operative and, as we all know, then went into liquidation, leaving my constituents helpless.
It gets worse. In January 2016, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, as was, introduced a statutory instrument requiring all existing renewable energy installations with certification issued before 15 January 2016 to submit their feed-in tariff application by 31 March 2016 or be unable to claim any feed-in tariffs or export payments. The UK Government not only failed to protect my constituents from the unscrupulous criminal behaviour of HELMS, despite accrediting it as an approved provider, but went on to implement procedures that would prevent my constituents from ever receiving payment for the solar panels that they pay £88 a month for. Mr and Mrs Murray have gone from paying £90 a month for energy to paying £220 a month, all under a Government incentive.
Many people did not know either that a 25-year debt would be tied to their house, potentially making it difficult to sell. An even bigger impediment to selling houses is that many households—possibly the vast majority—have no building warrant for the insulation that was installed on the exterior of their property. They were not informed of the need to apply for a warrant, and now not only might struggle to get one but may have to cough up the statutory uplift of 300% extra for a late application.
To compound that, in some cases when homes generate on-site renewable electricity via generating equipment such as solar panels, their import supply meter is incompatible with and affected by that on-site generation, sometimes resulting in inaccurate meter readings and billing issues. The current metering system and equipment was designed and configured to record meter electricity flows from the distribution network to consumer premises, but on-site generation has in some cases resulted in metering difficulties at premises where it is used, which are increasing in number.
Two things can happen. First, the import supply meter can run backwards. Since the ’80s, to prevent tampering, meters have been fitted with backstops so they cannot run in the wrong direction. Where on-site generators are connected at sites with meters that do not have backstops, exporting electricity causes the meter to run backwards. As a result, the consumer’s import meter readings are reduced by the amount of electricity they export. When that is discovered, the supplier may recalculate the consumer’s bill for the period for which the meter operated incorrectly and charge the consumer for the shortfall. In most cases, on-site generation exports are unmetered and the supplier needs to use estimates to calculate the bill.
In other cases, the meter treats all electricity in the same way. Some digital meters are configured in a way that results in them adding exported electricity to the imported electricity meter reading, which can result in the consumer paying for both imported and exported electricity. Again, once that situation is identified, historical bills need to be estimated.
Two other constituents of mine, Mr and Mrs Scott, had a HELMS salesman at their door five times. On the fifth occasion, Mrs Scott agreed to the works. She did so only after researching the Government’s accreditation and backing of HELMS. The family have gone from paying around £70 a month in energy bills to paying between £170 and £265 a month. The reason for that increase and variation in expenditure is that, on top of the green deal finance charges, the meter and the panels are incompatible. As a result, the family’s supply meter runs backwards and my constituents pay estimated bills from their supplier. They have fought for years to have that corrected. Only now, with prompting and reference to Ofgem guidance, has their supplier agreed to replace their supply meter with a compatible one.
That shows how ill-equipped HELMS was. Its lack of knowledge—or more likely, if we are honest, its lack of care—about panel and meter compatibility was outrageous. That should never have been an issue, and my constituents should never have seen their energy bills triple.
Members are no doubt beginning to see just how complex this issue is. My constituents and many other people across the UK have been through years of agony in seeking redress. HELMS failed to correct complaints. Constituents who took their cases to the green deal ombudsman were told they could no longer use that as a route to redress because HELMS no longer participated in the ombudsman scheme. Cases sat with the Financial Ombudsman Service for well over a year with no action. HELMS was liquidated and redress, such as it was, was unobtainable.
This was a UK Government incentive, backed and promoted as such. HELMS was accredited, and indeed promoted, under the Government banner, allowing it to enter homes and sell under a false umbrella of trust. Many of the families I have dealt with were sold on the phrase, “Government backed”. In fact, that was what persuaded many of them to listen to the dodgy sales patter in the first place. I have subsequently found that during that time, when someone searched online for a list of Government-accredited providers, HELMS was often top of the list.
How can the Government sit idle while households are left saddled with the hardships caused by HELMS? The very reason why work was agreed to was the shiny stamp of approval from the UK Government. What good is Government accreditation if it is worthless when issues and violations occur?
Who takes responsibility? HELMS and Robert Skillen have thus far escaped ultimate accountability. Despite being fined £200,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office, they paid a mere £10,000 before the liquidation of HELMS. That highlights why the ICO has called on the Government to allow it to issue penalties of up to £500,000 to the company directors responsible.
Thus far, the Government have washed their hands of any responsibility for this mess. Instead, they hope the Green Deal Finance Company, which purchased the green deal loan book from them, will deal with it. Although GDFC was aware of some irregularities, it was not informed of the scale of the mis-selling and fraud that HELMS undertook. Given the delays with seeking redress through the ombudsman, GDFC offered to take over the case load directly to try to speed up the process. Although that has helped, the process is still too slow. GDFC has admitted that it was ill-equipped and under-staffed to deal with the scale of the issue. It has apologised for the delay and vowed to speed up the process.
Colleagues may have a different take and may have casework to prove otherwise, but I have met GDFC three times—I was particularly pleased that it attended my public meeting in Linwood—and my impression is that it is diligently, if slowly, working through the various claims and, in the majority of cases, making offers to reduce loans or cancel them altogether. Of course mistakes will be made—my office has asked GDFC to reassess particular decisions, and it will continue to ask if necessary—but thus far, in my view, GDFC has worked in good faith.
Is not part of this issue that people of that age should never have been sold 25-year finance for solar panels that may last only 15 years or so? The offer to my constituents seems to have been only to reduce what they owe, not to clear it. They are still being told, “We’ll let you off £4,000, but you still owe us £6,000 for panels that aren’t working.”
I could not agree more. The age at which some people entered 25-year agreements is shameful. That should never have been allowed. It was obviously known that that debt would ultimately just be tied to the house rather than to the individuals concerned. The reductions in payments ultimately go back to the Government’s golden rule of trying to put the consumer in no worse a position than they were previously. In my mind, that is not good enough. That is why the Government should step in rather than allowing the Green Deal Finance Company to deal with the issue itself.
An independent source calculated that the compensation process, which GDFC had no obligation to instigate, may cost the company upwards of £20 million. For its part, GDFC thinks that there remains merit in the green deal scheme. Everyone agrees with the idea, albeit with some regulatory tweaks and tightening up, but we have issues with how it was implemented and regulated.
GDFC itself has identified some of the issues that should be addressed. First, it is unclear whether a consumer with a complaint about a green deal provider should take it to the Financial Ombudsman Service, the green deal ombudsman or Ofgem. There is a risk that each regulator relies on the activities of the others, and that firms that pose a risk to consumers are not properly monitored or controlled.
Furthermore—this is crucial in the vast majority of HELMS cases—despite the regulation built into the scheme through dual regulation by the Green Deal Oversight and Registration Body and the Financial Conduct Authority, there is a complete absence of regulation of the assignment of feed-in tariff payments, which are not regulated by either of those bodies. That has caused severe consumer detriment. The feed-in tariff assignment was in many cases grossly undervalued. GDFC examined HELMS customer documentation and discovered that there was no calculation of the value paid for the feed-in tariff. HELMS simply took the difference between the green deal loan value and the cost of the solar panel installation. That meant it was incentivised to maximise green deal advice report savings by manipulating the energy performance certificate assessment, thereby maximising the value of the green deal loan and minimising the amount paid for the feed-in tariff. The effect was to maximise the net income of PVSI, HELMS’s sister company.
There is no statutory mechanism for the feed-in tariff to be reassigned in the case of mis-selling. There is no regulation of the company that receives the feed-in tariff. The contract that some customers signed and some discovered they had not signed allows the customer to buy back the rights to the feed-in tariff from PVSI, but only at the original purchase price, notwithstanding how far through the feed-in tariff income stream that takes place. GDFC believes that the feed-in tariff contracts with PVSI should be set aside. I agree, and I am sure that hon. Members do too.
As I have said, when people see any kind of Government logo on a document, the last thing they expect is to be scammed. That is why the UK Government must do more to help people in that position. My colleagues in the all-party parliamentary group in Westminster and the cross-party group in Holyrood will not allow the UK Government to wash their hands of this responsibility.
I have a number of questions for the Minister, who I know is standing in for the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), so I hope that she will commit to respond in writing to questions that she is unable to answer today. The right hon. Member for Devizes said that she would meet me; will the Minister confirm that she is willing to meet me, the Green Deal Finance Company and trading standards in the same meeting?
Many have already paid off their loans for a number of reasons: peace of mind, concerns about carrying extra debt or because they had difficulties selling their property. They are still potential victims of fraud, but without an active loan, they cannot gain redress from the Green Deal Finance Company. What happens to them? How do they get their money back?
What was the Green Deal Finance Company advised about HELMS and mis-selling more generally when it was sold the loan book? Why was the feed-in tariff element not regulated? Would the Minister consider legislation to regulate it? Will the Government take steps to ensure that the ombudsman is appropriately resourced and has more powers to deal with rogue providers? Will the Minister meet the power companies to ensure that the metering problems are fixed as a matter of urgency and that no house will be left worse off or in debt as a result of inadequate metering? Crucially, will she commit, at the very least, to considering a compensation fund for those affected?
Thus far there has been nothing short of an abdication of duty by the Government. They have an obligation to do something to help the thousands of households that have been affected by this fraudulent behaviour. The scandalous mis-selling of panels was carried out by HELMS but enabled by the UK Government under their banner. Therefore, it is the Government’s responsibility to fix this mess and ensure that our constituents are adequately compensated in a timely fashion. A fund to provide financial relief would be a good start to repairing some of that damage. It is beyond time that the UK Government recognised their role in the fraudulent behaviour of HELMS. My constituents and, indeed, many thousands of others across Scotland and the UK, need answers and action now.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing the debate and on making the case so succinctly on behalf of his constituents. I am sure that colleagues are well aware that the green deal was not extended to Northern Ireland, but tackling fuel poverty and making homes more energy efficient remains a priority for us. I will speak about a number of similar schemes and options available in Northern Ireland. I support the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that other hon. Members will back him up.
I support redress for all the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others who have been financially disadvantaged to a considerable extent. When reading up on the topic, I was truly shocked to read about the questionable business practices that many HELMS employees seemed to adopt; we have heard about some already and we will hear more. It is no wonder that so many Members are here today talking about the negative impact on their constituents. Many were left out of pocket and some have struggled to sell their homes, which the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) mentioned.
Over the past few years, there has been an increase in fraud, especially in relation to solar panels. In 2017, directors of a company were jailed, and recently a six-member gang committed a £17 million fraud in a solar panel scam. The full rigour of the law must be brought to bear on the company directors responsible.
The Minister is listening intently to what is being said and I look forward to her response. I know this matter is not ultimately her responsibility and she is filling in; nevertheless, I hope she is able to respond to my hon. Friend’s intervention.
When the company went into liquidation, many customers found themselves at a total loss, unable to take up their case with either the ombudsman or the company. The fact that the green deal was backed by Government undoubtedly gave the scheme credibility. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said that one of this constituents phoned to check the scheme and found that it was Government-backed, so thought that it must be all right, but it was not. Coupled with the idea of saving money and being green, that resulted in many customers signing agreements that they did not necessarily understand, on the premise that their bills would not increase. It was disappointing for many that that did not turn out to be the case.
Members have given evidence that these operators of the scheme took advantage of their constituents. That said, Members must ensure that we do not undermine public trust in these types of scheme, given the potential benefits they can deliver. For example, in Northern Ireland, we have worked hard to tackle fuel poverty, and earlier this year, fuel poverty figures for the Province fell to 22%—a welcome drop from 42%. That indicates what we are doing back home, even with a stuttering Assembly.
I understand that the Government hope to do a future green deal project. Will that not be completely undermined if this issue is not resolved?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The Government have a great responsibility to address the issue for the sake of the credibility of any future schemes and so that participants in them will not worry about the future.
It is important to recognise that price fluctuations in home heating oil played a role in the fuel poverty figures I just gave. The reduction is welcome news, but we should not rest on our laurels: 22% of people considered fuel poor is still 22% too many.
A scheme that has proved to be extremely successful is the Northern Ireland sustainable energy programme. It has a particular focus on tackling fuel poverty, with 80% of funding ring-fenced for vulnerable and low-income families. The NISEP provides help to install energy-saving measures in homes, including energy-efficient boilers, heating controls, loft insulation and cavity wall insulation. With funding coming from a levy paid by all electricity customers, the scheme is delivered by energy companies and managed by the Utility Regulator. We have a system in place that has managed the programme well and delivered.
In 2017-18, five energy companies provided schemes, each of which had different eligibility criteria and incentives and/or grants to help people to make their homes more energy efficient and perhaps reduce their overall energy bills. As I mentioned, the focus is on those at risk of fuel poverty—for example, many of the schemes work directly with housing associations, which identify eligible tenants. The sheer variety of schemes means that people can make informed decisions about which scheme would best suit them and address their specific needs.
The NISEP provides some £7.9 million towards energy efficiency interventions, which include insulation and heating upgrades. It has proved so successful that it has been extended again until March 2019. The programme is working. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North referred to a different scheme. I only wish that scheme were the same as then we would not have needed this debate. We have accountability whereas, as he said and as we want to illustrate, there is no accountability in that scheme.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking to specific issues of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. To come back to the mis-selling of the green deal, does he agree that people were conned into buying mis-sold products on the basis that there were UK Government logos on the paperwork, and UK Government approval gave them the confidence to go ahead, so the Government should compensate those individuals? That is what we are seeking from the debate.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. With great respect to the Minister and the Government, I expect the Government to respond positively to the request being made on behalf of the constituents who have been disadvantaged and mis-sold products and who, as a consequence, are poorer today than they thought they would be. I cannot understand how someone who was paying an electricity bill of £80 a month can suddenly be paying £170 or £240 a month, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North described. How can that be cheaper? How can it be legal? How can that be allowed to happen? That must be taken on board.
Across the United Kingdom, we all recognise the importance of becoming greener and the need to have a diverse and sustainable energy mix, which is why it is important to look at new technologies as well as to harness those that are already tried and tested. The Northern Ireland renewables obligation, like its equivalent in Great Britain, requires suppliers to source an increasing proportion of the electricity they supply from renewable sources. Colleagues might be surprised that, despite the often wet and windy climate in Strangford—in fact, my constituency has among the lowest rainfall in Northern Ireland; we sometimes wonder if that is true, but the statistics prove it—one of the most popular sources of renewable energy that people are turning to is solar. This might be controversial given the topic of the debate, but it really does work when done well.
There is a number of large farms in Strangford, and many of them have installed solar panels—in fact, one farm in my constituency has 10 acres of solar panels. That is an example of what can happen when green energy is done right, and that is what we want. With renewables obligation certificates guaranteeing payment for every unit of electricity generated, it is not surprising that so many are investing in solar panels. Not only can people save money on electricity bills, but they help to make Northern Ireland, and the whole United Kingdom, a greener place for the next generation, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
What has happened with HELMS has probably put a lot of constituents off installing solar panels and, more broadly, installing renewable energy measures, but as we try to tackle climate change and battle to keep the lights on, it is important that we look closely at green energy measures, from electric cars and smart homes to making simple energy-efficiency changes to our homes. Not everyone will benefit from solar panels—people who do not generate enough electricity are unlikely to reap benefits and will end up paying more. As has been illustrated today, that was the case for many hon. Members’ constituents, and HELMS was at fault. The Minister, the Department and the Government must respond. However, it is so important that we do all we can both to help people out of fuel poverty and to support the use of renewables where possible and appropriate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing the debate and making a powerful speech to introduce the complex but dramatic and distressing situation of green deal mis-selling and the impact of HELMS in particular.
I was elected last year by a community that I have grown up and lived in my whole life. Balornock is probably similar in many ways to Linwood in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency: it was an overspill estate created after the second world war, built at a time of great optimism in the Glasgow city region, where people were moving out of overcrowded slum tenements in the inner city and into what they saw as new build housing, with indoor toilets and front and back gardens. The community was largely born of the baby boomer generation, who moved in and have lived there their whole lives. Many benefited, as they saw it, from buying their council houses in the 1980s and 1990s, and, as they reached retirement, they wanted to make improvements to their houses.
The community was built out of great optimism and aspiration for the future. Five years ago, the green deal was launched to great fanfare by the Tory Government, with the promise of a win-win situation for homeowners: lower energy bills and the chance to do their bit for the environment. It seemed like a great idea. Those who sought to exploit that scheme cynically homed in and targeted communities, particular those with a large population of baby boomers in self-contained housing units—not flatted accommodation—with back and front gardens. If the scheme sounded too good to be true, that was because for some in those communities it turned out to be exactly that.
Dozens of my constituents in Glasgow signed up to install green deal-financed improvements to their homes, such as solar panels and insulated cladding, but that has proven to be one of the worst decisions they have ever made. Instead of realising the Government’s vision of a flagship programme to reduce fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency, the complete failure to regulate the scheme properly has allowed it to be ruthlessly exploited by gangsters and other rogue traders, who have systematically preyed on trusting people who thought that, as the scheme was approved and accredited by the Government, they could trust its credentials and sign up.
In 2015 Christine McBain, one of my constituents, handed over her life’s savings to a Cambuslang-based green deal provider called Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Systems—otherwise known as HELMS—to put external wall insulation on her Swedish timber-framed house in Balornock. Those houses are a common feature of Balornock, because after the second world war the overspill in Glasgow was so problematic that timber kit houses were imported from Scandinavia, such was the pressure on housing. More than half a century later, those houses are not the most energy-efficient, so this offer seemed like a plausible way for those homeowners to make them better. As I have said, it turned out to be the worst decision they ever made.
Another constituent, 86-year-old Mary, handed over her lifetime’s savings and has been left with £17,000 of debt after being duped by HELMS with no sign of any redress. It is the most appalling experience as an MP to see people who are meant to be enjoying their retirement, and feeling safe in their life’s work and savings, but who have been stripped of any sense of security and are in absolute distress about what they are having to deal with. If this is not dealt with urgently, sadly they will have to deal with it for the remainder of their lives. That is a shameful indictment on the Government’s failure to regulate their policy.
Christine and Mary are among many local residents in my constituency who have been left totally in limbo by HELMS. The company carried out similar works on more than 160 properties in my constituency without obtaining the necessary building warrants, cynically preying on local residents with promises of free solar panels and cavity wall insulation that would save them thousands of pounds. Normally such a matter would be easily remedied with a retrospective application for a building warrant from Glasgow City Council. However, because building standards were not adhered to by HELMS, no backdated planning permission can be granted without costly surveys. In addition, the statutory fee for a building warrant will be tripled where works have already been completed. Residents simply do not have the financial resources to fund that, and in the absence of building warrants the houses are now uninsurable and unsellable. Residents—many in the latter years of their lives—feel effectively imprisoned in their own homes. That is shameful.
I am currently seeking agreement from Glasgow City Council to waive the multiplier fee for the retrospective warrant and to cover the cost of the surveys needed for the building works. Will the Minister write to Glasgow City Council’s chief executive to make a similar call?
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the underlying fault lies with the UK Government scheme? To me, the UK Government lobbying Glasgow City Council to pick up those costs, rather than offering to fund them, seems the wrong way round.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I urge the Minister to show some leadership and overall responsibility. In the first instance, she should contact Glasgow City Council’s chief executive and offer a dialogue. I would be receptive to the hon. Lady’s proposal of the Government offering to finance those costs as a way of breaking the impasse and getting the problem dealt with. The problem requires a whole-Government approach from city level, Scotland level and UK level. That would be the most proactive way to deal with it. Ultimately, however, responsibility lies with the Department that introduced the scheme, and it should show some moral and financial leadership.
Earlier this year I met representatives of the Green Deal Finance Company to raise my constituents’ concerns. In the last year alone the GDFC has upheld 169 complaints against HELMS, compared with 14 complaints against all other contractors upheld since 2013. Clearly, one contractor is a massive outlier in those figures. Some 154 cases against HELMS remain under consideration by the GDFC. However, the piecemeal approach to handling complaints has put the onus on the victims. The sheer number of complaints upheld against HELMS suggests that there was a systemic failure of regulation by the Government and that a proactive approach is now needed, to tackle that huge failure in the green deal scheme. It was the responsibility of the Minister and the GDFC to lead in the matter; it cannot be the responsibility of residents who are already distressed, disoriented and at their wits’ end in trying to deal with it. They cannot be put under further stress from the huge effort of having to right the wrong.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware, from speaking to his constituents, that people who chose to pay over several years through their electricity bills are not able to withhold payment, which is a common and acceptable consumer rights practice, if they believe that there was mis-selling. If the power company does not receive the funds, those people accrue debt. They cannot prevent the green deal payment from being made through their energy bills, which means they accrue more debt in the process.
I completely agree. One of the most insidious aspects of the green deal scheme is that it locks people into a structural system. The loan is tied to the house, so the property imprisons the resident. That is the most appalling aspect of the way things have been manipulated by HELMS and other nefarious practitioners of the scheme.
HELMS made more than 6 million nuisance sales calls and, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, was fined £200,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office. The Department of Energy and Climate Change also fined the firm another £10,500, but conveniently the company was put into liquidation by its owners, who walked away after paying just £10,000 of the fines owed. The company was owned by the multi-millionaire Robert Skillen, who continues to live a highly privileged lifestyle at the expense of the thousands of people he ripped off—including my constituents—leaving a trail of misery and chaos in his wake. He fled abroad and continues to profit from his fraudulent business practices. If he had any honour he would return to the UK and face the accusations against him. Indeed, he should face prosecution for fraud.
I just want to make Members aware that Mr Skillen has returned to the country—on a number of occasions, I think. Once he turned up at the Green Deal Finance Company to ask for the details of the customers who have contacted it, so that he could contact them directly, such is the shamelessness of the man.
It is appalling to realise that this chap has such a shameless attitude that he does not accept the harm he has caused to thousands of people, who cannot sleep at night. I hope that he will realise the impact he has had on them. However, it is time the Minister and the GDFC took formal steps to censure and effectively blacklist the guy, to stop him continuing to exploit vulnerable people.
As the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) mentioned, dozens of other homeowners in Glasgow North East are still literally paying the price of the green deal’s failure, through the finance deals that they were conned into to get the work done. A home is somewhere that we should all be able to consider a sanctuary and place of safety. However, many are so depressed by the green deal trap that they can no longer bear to live in their own homes, which are the very source of their turmoil.
Most people would consider a Government-backed scheme such as the green deal to carry a copper-bottomed guarantee, but for many of my constituents the feeling is one of total betrayal by the authorities they trusted. The Tory Government created the environment in which rogue traders could pull a fast one. The Government and the Green Deal Finance Company must now do everything they can to find a remedy for those who have been adversely affected. They must contact all 4,226 HELMS loan recipients, to make them aware of what they can do to find redress if they experience financial detriment because of the scheme. They must also consider a compensation scheme for those affected by mis-selling by HELMS.
That is why after I was elected I joined the all-party parliamentary group on green deal mis-selling, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), and why I presented a petition to Parliament earlier this year, urging the House of Commons to ensure that the Government compensate and protect people who have suffered detriment because of the green deal scheme. In the interest of fairness and justice the Government should now take steps to ensure that the same thing can never happen in future.
I am delighted to participate in the debate, Mr Robertson. I extend my heartfelt thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for securing a debate to expose HELMS’s mis-selling of energy-efficient products under the UK Government’s green deal programme. It has affected many of my constituents. Indeed, as we have heard, we all have constituents who have been victims of that mis-selling, and who have been caused considerable anxiety, stress and financial loss as a result of the scandal. The UK Government, as every Member who has spoken has said, need to step up and take responsibility.
There is no denying that the scheme was Government-backed, but it turns out that the wider regulatory provisions failed to ensure that the deal was fit for purpose. What is required is for the UK Government to put in place a compensation scheme for all the consumers who have been left out of pocket—and there are many. We now have a situation where some homeowners who were taken in by the scheme have been left unable to sell their homes. They are not making the savings that they were told they would. It has all come to nothing. Some have been left with higher bills than they had before. The work carried out has often been substandard. Building warrants for wall cladding have not been obtained, so the consumers affected have had to pay for retrospective warrants at 300% of the cost of a normal building warrant, or have had to pay to have corrective works done, because building standards will not issue a warrant if they deem the work not to have been done properly. We have constituents who are not on a feed-in tariff because they were not registered prior to March 2016. Far too many people now face the prospect of monthly repayments for finance deals with extensive payback periods in excess of 20 years. How can that possibly be acceptable?
I am pleased that the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth assured me in a debate on 10 October that she would ask her officials to look at the loan arrangements. She pointed out:
“The green deal…was designed to unlock the issue of persuading people to improve the energy efficiency measures of their homes. Currently, all contracts are covered by existing consumer protection, but as a second action point I undertake to go away and review this specific company and write to her with the state of progress on those conversations.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2018; Vol. 647, c. 110WH.]
I await that letter with eager anticipation. I am sure that the Minister who is responding today can see that, far from unlocking
“the issue of persuading people to improve the energy efficiency measures of their homes”,
the scandal has undoubtedly set that cause back considerably, which is in no one’s interest. However, the Government could do much to mitigate the distrust that has been sown, the alarm that has been caused and the financial loss that those caught up in the scandal feel.
We have heard that the issue is complex, but in another sense it is very simple: the UK Government-backed scheme has led to ordinary consumers facing huge difficulties, and it is incumbent on the UK Government—there is a moral imperative—to put it right. The debacle shows that the UK Government’s system of regulation is simply not fit for purpose. Consumers did not have the protection under the law that they were entitled to expect. That needs to be addressed. Those consumers who inadvertently and unwittingly signed over their feed-in tariffs must have them returned. Today, those who have suffered in the HELMS fiasco simply want to know whether the Government are going to step up, or whether they are going to leave those who trusted the Government-backed scheme floundering in debt, hardship and despair. I urge the Minister to do the right thing and help the people who have been let down, misled and swindled by the scheme.
Order. I should like to leave a couple of minutes at the end of the debate for the mover of the motion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this important debate. He made the case against HELMS excellently—the mis-selling of loans, the outright fraud, the fact that it was deemed to be a Government-backed scheme, the targeting of the vulnerable, the transfer of feed-in tariffs, and the personal finance arrangements that effectively forced people to commission other works. Some people took out loans for works that the Scottish Government would have paid for directly because they invest in energy efficiency measures.
My hon. Friend mentioned that building warrants were not applied for and people were not told that they needed them; now, statutory fees are added if people apply for a building warrant retrospectively. We heard about incorrect metering, and the fact that HELMS was able to go into liquidation and walk away, paying just £10,000 out of a record £200,000 fine for cold calling. We heard about the Government’s total inaction and inadequate governance, and about the Government’s attitude, which when combined with the actions of HELMS, has created fuel-poor households rather than helping people with their fuel bills.
My hon. Friend’s comments were echoed by other speakers. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) spoke about people being imprisoned or trapped in their homes, which is a travesty. He said that he asked Glasgow City Council to waive the statutory late fees for building warrants, and I put the same request to my local authority. The problem is that these are statutory fees—in law, they cannot be waived. That puts the ball firmly in the corner of the UK Government, who should pay those fees.
It is a disgrace that people are being locked in to these deals. Older adults and vulnerable individuals were, I believe, deliberately mis-sold these products. In some cases in my constituency, which thankfully have now been dealt with, it meant that elderly individuals could not move from their homes to sheltered accommodation or nursing homes when they needed care.
It is a shocking indictment and really disgraceful that people are trapped and cannot get into houses that are fit for purpose.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) correctly highlighted the need for compensation, the issue of people who are unable to sell their homes, and the March 2016 feed-in tariff deadline that means that people are missing out on the tariffs they expected. It was good to hear a concession from the Minister about reviewing consumer regulation, and it will be interesting to see how that progresses. My hon. Friend issued a further challenge to the Government, and we all want to see action and intervention on this.
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North highlighted issues that are familiar to SNP Members but that the UK Government have so far chosen to ignore, despite numerous written parliamentary questions and letters from MSPs and MPs, including me. Surely today the Minister will confirm that the UK Government will take action and listen to our calls for a compensation fund for those affected.
Let me give some headline statistics: 162 households in my constituency have green deal finance with HELMS, and of those 142 have photovoltaic installations. Some 3,054 households in Scotland have HELMS green deal finance for PVs, and there are more than 4,000 across the UK. Other Members have mentioned the duration of loans: 93% of those loans in Scotland, including for 97% of my affected constituents, are in the range of 20 to 25 years. Think of that: a supposedly spend-to-save measure is being paid back over 20 or 25 years. No private company would take out such a loan to make projected minor annual savings because the risk is too great. We already know about the dodgy installations and wiring, but there is no way that those PV cells have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years. The additional ongoing maintenance required will offset any projected savings that people were led to believe they would get. Imagine having an asset that will not last for the life of the loan—it is criminal. Anyone aged 40 or over who has taken out a loan will still be paying it back when they reach state retirement age and beyond. That would be bad enough under normal loan ethics, but as we have heard, many people who took out those loans were duped by salesmen who said that savings would pay for a Government-backed scheme. What does the Minister say to the people who have been cruelly conned and left with long-term loans?
One couple who approached me had specifically been told that installing solar panels would help them make money on the sale of their home, but instead they have been paying double and triple the amount for their electricity. Does my hon. Friend agree that those who have been hardest hit are people in middle to low-income homes?
I completely agree: this scheme is creating fuel-poor households, which is why Government intervention is needed.
How did this come about? For me, the situation results from a combination of a few factors. It was originally a Liberal Democrat policy that clearly had not been correctly thought through, and there was a Tory partner in the coalition Government who maintained a “hands off—market forces will prevail” ideology, which prevented direct Government intervention. There was always the desire not to get directly involved. Some unscrupulous businessmen saw a fantastic opportunity to make money at the expense of the vulnerable. The impact of events have since been compounded by successive Tory Governments who have refused to take a lead as the mis-selling scandal unravelled.
I find it incomprehensible that the UK Government have so far not seen fit to have a proper investigation into this matter and they are forcing victims to take out individual claims. That adds to the stress of the situation, and coupled with the non-disclosure agreement that is associated with any settlement offered from the Green Deal Finance Company, it is apparent that the initial approach is to minimise any refunds to those who deserve them. It is a classic “divide and conquer” approach, rather than an attempt to do the right thing.
When I read the debates on the Energy Bill in 2011, I noted that the current Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth served on the Bill Committee. Given her familiarity with the legislation and the wider points debated in Committee and other debates, surely she would want to lead in fixing this mess. Indeed, as this mess has unfolded, it has become clear that the governance arrangements were not fit for purpose. Interestingly, the SNP spokesperson at that time, the former Member for Angus, Mike Weir, raised concerns on Second Reading, saying:
“One of the problems with energy mis-selling was that it was a long time before many of the cases came to light. Does the Minister have any thoughts on ensuring that the standards that are to be imposed on those selling green energy are regularly inspected to ensure that any problems can be detected at an early stage?”
The Minister responded:
“I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will keep all elements of the green deal under close review…we will need continually to monitor all aspects of it, especially those relating to selling and mis-selling… If we identify any areas in which we think improvements can be made, we will not hesitate to make them.”—[Official Report, 14 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 1049.]
Unfortunately, Mike Weir has been proved right. The UK Government did not uphold their end of the bargain regarding the governance and review that they said they would undertake.
On governance, the length of the loans alone should have prompted an automatic red flag. The 242 complaints about cold calling between October and December 2014 offering “free” solar panels should have resulted in much quicker clampdown on the actions of HELMS, but the Government were too slow to act. We know what the then Energy Minister, Greg Barker, thought of HELMS—he praised it for its entrepreneurial start-up skills. Mr Barker is okay now: he stepped down in 2015 and was promptly made a life peer in the House of Lords. The Secretary of State for Energy at that time lost his seat in 2015 but was knighted in the 2016 new year honours list and is now back as an hon. Member in this House. I am sure that my constituents will want to know why those who got it wrong have been rewarded and, as we have heard, those who have been wronged are still fighting for justice and have been ignored by the UK Government.
As we have heard, someone else who did okay out of this was the director, Robert Skillen, who was up to his neck in it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, Mr Skillen has some amount of brass neck to come back and campaign to protect people from the mis-selling that he was involved in. That is shocking. I hope the Minister will confirm that all necessary agencies and authorities will look into his ongoing activities and see what can be done to prevent further fraudulent action by him.
Coming back to governance, in a written answer to my parliamentary question on what review the Government had undertaken of the so-called golden rule and how it was working, the answer was “None.” Once the scheme was up and running, why did nobody look at whether the golden rule was working and whether the savings that had been predicted were being generated? That is another dereliction of duty. Who would think that basing a whole scheme on one year’s savings against a loan was a good idea? We need a proper root-and-branch review of HELMS installations, and I suggest that we need to extend it to wider green deal installations elsewhere.
The Tory Government pulled the green deal, but what analysis did they do when they put a block on it? When will we hear why they pulled it and what lessons were learned? While the Tory Government has stood back, it has been left to MSPs, MPs and citizens advice bureaux to try to assist affected constituents, but we are doing so with both hands tied behind our back because we do not have the address information. Only the Green Deal Finance Company, and therefore the Government, know exactly who has these green deal finance deals from HELMS. Again, that is why we need Government intervention. Before I conclude, I must put on record my tribute to the work done by my local CAB, particularly Linda Corbett, who has done fantastic work on digging into HELMS, understanding the issue, taking it forward and helping people, and to a local constituent, Isobel McNicol, who started a HELMS awareness and campaign group. However, it should not be left to those people to act; Government intervention is needed.
In the ministerial response to me the Government rejected the assertion that the whole issue is shrouded in secrecy, but I suggest there is still not enough transparency. We need to know how many people have been defrauded of their feed-in tariff. In response to a written parliamentary question of mine, I was told that it is not the Government who hold the information on whose feed-in tariffs have been transferred, but Ofgem. The Government need to get an understanding of the matter, because we have heard that there has been widespread fraud on the transferring of feed-in tariffs.
As others have said, this has been a flawed energy policy from the start. The problems will set back efforts to get people to sign up to future energy efficiency measures. Some people who are fuel poor and deserve to have energy efficiency measures installed in their homes will be afraid to do so. The Government must get a grip, set up a compensation fund, do a proper investigation and start taking collective action.
This debate revolves around a number of issues—not just the question of one rogue company, but wider issues relating to the nature of the green deal programme when it was set up, what it decided to do with regard to redress arrangements, how the relationship of payment to reward was set up, and various other issues. That positions the debate firmly as being about the Government’s response to a number of these issues, not just the legal responses to a particular company that has clearly acted reprehensibly in engaging customers in deals that were anything but green and anything but advantageous to them.
I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this important debate. It is a debate that goes back to when the green deal was set up in the first place, with the Energy Act 2011. As the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) observed, the current Energy Minister participated as a member of the Bill Committee. I think the hon. Gentleman will also be aware that I, too, was a member of that Committee, and many of the issues that have been raised this morning concerning aspects of the green deal were raised during the process of bringing the Act into being.
One particular issue that I and others raised during passage of that Act was the concept of the golden rule in the green deal. The central selling point was that people would never pay more than they would get back in savings from arrangements relating to the green deal—what they would save as a result of green deal treatments would always be greater than what they paid up front.
It was pointed out during the passage of the 2011 Act that that idea was an elastic concept, and that it was always going to be difficult to get the right balance in the relationship between payments and savings. It is that aspect of the green deal that HELMS appears to have taken particular advantage of. In fact, it is fair to say that the company systematically exploited every single weakness in the green deal in its approach to customers. It took not only all the feed-in tariff from customers, but the export tariff, which it put into a separate company. It made a lot of money out of that process, because the feed-in tariff at that point was pretty generous to customers, yet it still engaged customers in loans for those properties.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) have mentioned just how many of their constituents were systematically victimised by this scam. They were victims not only of a scam, but of a scam that appeared to them to have been authorised by the Government. During the passage of the 2011 Act, considerable efforts were made to ensure that the green deal was authorisable by Government, but not enough efforts were made subsequently to ensure that what was authorisable by Government was actually sound and authorised by Government. As hon. Members have mentioned, in the early stages a number of companies such as HELMS were praised by Ministers as great examples of companies that could be properly authorised and could safely go around carrying out green deal arrangements.
As hon. Members know, the green deal was a complete fiasco and was closed down by the Government shortly after they took office following the 2015 election. Members may recall a former Energy Minister saying that he would not sleep at night unless millions of people had taken up the green deal. The number who did turned out to be only a tiny proportion of those who would have taken up the green deal. The interest rate on the loans was clearly a big factor in the low take-up. Indeed, as Members have attested to today, it is a factor in the overhanging loans that a number of people have, for up to 25 years, as a result of the mis-selling by HELMS and one or two other companies. This is not a happy tale at all. What we have heard about today are particular aspects of a wider scheme that was pretty flawed in both concept and execution.
Of course, on top of that is the fact that the Government not only withdrew from the green deal but then sold the whole loan book to a private company, the Green Deal Finance Company. It is now landed with a number of complaints, because the Government are effectively saying, “It’s nothing to do with us; it’s the Green Deal Finance Company, a private company.” It is fair to say, as hon. Members have reflected on, that the company is trying to do something about the overhanging debts that a number of people have as a result of being on the green deal loan book. Indeed, there are several reports of the Green Deal Finance Company reducing the loan debt of particular people to a level at which it does match the requirements of the golden rule, so that they are not continuing to pay more on their bills than they are saving in energy charges. But that is only scratching the surface, because only a few people have been dealt with in that positive way by the Green Deal Finance Company. There is clearly a much wider issue, which relates back to how the green deal was set up. A redress system was not built into the green deal as it unfolded, and the mess that resulted from those shortcomings is still with us today.
It is incumbent on the Government to take much greater responsibility for their own mess, for the consequences of the weaknesses in the green deal as it came forward, and certainly in the case of HELMS, a company that the Government were talking up, shall we say, until fairly shortly before it went out of business, with all the problems attached to that. I look forward to hearing from the Minister today what proposals the Government have to take this matter forward in a positive way. I note that, in answer to a written question at the beginning of the year, the Government said that they were actively involved with bodies relevant to this issue and hoped that there would be a resolution. I would be interested to know the bodies with which the Government have been involved in discussions, what they think would be an active resolution to this issue and how they are progressing with that active resolution.
My personal view is that it is imperative that some active resolution is brought about across the board, because this is a reputational issue for any future energy efficiency or home improvement scheme. If customers engaging with those schemes have no confidence in the schemes working, they will not happen. It is absolutely imperative that we get energy efficiency and green energy schemes going in this country as part of the challenge of decarbonising our energy systems and uprating the energy efficiency of homes across the country. It is important that that gets under way for the future with a clean slate and a clean bill of health for what is being done.
It is therefore incumbent on the Government, in order to foster good will towards future energy efficiency schemes and to put right the wrongs of the past, to actively engage in finding solutions to the problems of mis-selling that we have heard about this morning and to consider the wider issue of the deficiencies of the green deal scheme and the need to ensure that we get it right for any successor schemes, whether privately or publicly funded, in future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing the debate. I welcome the comments and interest of other hon. Members; they mentioned the particular issues for their constituents. We have a shared wish to see proper redress for consumers who have been mis-sold green deal plans. I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the case of Mr and Mrs Murray. We listened to his account of the sadness and horror that they have experienced.
I want to make a particular point at this stage. As the Minister responsible for consumer protection, company law and the insolvency process, I place it on record that the Government are committed to ensuring that rogue directors, rogue traders, are investigated, in the interest of protecting consumers. I feel very strongly about that in this role and, obviously, my other roles in Government.
In total, Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Ltd, which I shall refer to as HELMS, was responsible for selling 4,581 green deal plans. Of those, 3,068 were sold to households in Scotland and 293 in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. We understand that about 460 consumers have made complaints about the green deal plans provided to them by HELMS. That is a substantial number and it is a real concern, but let us remember that a large majority of green deal plans run smoothly, without complaint.
Most complaints focus on the fact that HELMS led consumers to understand that there would be no cost to their installation. HELMS gave consumers the impression that that was possible because of the nature of the Government’s green deal scheme. Consumers were then surprised to see green deal payments appear on their electricity bills. Many consumers were unaware that they were entering into a credit agreement, or of the opportunity that they had to cancel their agreement. That runs counter to what the green deal is about—enabling consumers to install energy efficiency measures through a loan and then repay through the resulting savings on their energy bills.
The consumer’s position was often worsened because they were persuaded by HELMS to assign elsewhere the rights to any feed-in tariff from the measures. HELMS encouraged many to transfer their feed-in tariff rights to a separate company—one related to HELMS—as a contribution to the costs of their installation. That meant that consumers could not put that potential funding stream towards meeting the costs of the green deal plans, and HELMS failed to inform the consumer of the impact.
Before saying more about the HELMS cases, I shall provide some background on the green deal. It was launched by the coalition Government in 2013. Under the green deal, consumers can borrow money to fund improvements and repay the loans over time through their electricity bills. In the case of solar PV, consumers can begin to use renewable energy generated on-site in their homes. The savings can then be used to repay the loan. A principle called the golden rule, which has been mentioned today, is in place and intended to ensure that loan repayments do not exceed expected savings.
It is true that at the time the Government and, indeed, hon. Members from across the parties had high hopes for the green deal. But it failed to take off to the levels expected. Various reasons have been offered for that. They include its complexity and the fact that it did not properly consider consumer demand to undertake energy efficiency improvements in this way. The original scheme design was not perfect, but we and others believe that the pay-as-you-save mechanism at the heart of the green deal can still play a valuable role in the future. We have published the summary of responses to our call for evidence and will consult on proposals in due course. The right consumer protection will be paramount in any reformed scheme.
We want to improve the green deal, but it is far from being the only game in town for energy efficiency. Just yesterday the House debated the Draft Electricity and Gas (Energy Company Obligation) Order 2018, under which we are looking to further improve the already successful energy company obligation scheme. Since 2013, it has led to over 2.4 million measures being installed in nearly 2 million homes.
To make things right for the consumers who have suffered from the activities of HELMS, it is important to know that there is a specific process for handling complaints under the green deal. Consumers should first approach their green deal provider. If the problem is not resolved, the consumer may then approach the green deal ombudsman or the financial ombudsman service, depending on the nature of the complaint. Ombudsman decisions are binding on the green deal provider. If the consumer is still dissatisfied, they can refer their complaint to the Secretary of State for consideration.
The liquidation of HELMS further complicated resolving consumer complaints, as it meant any ombudsman decisions against HELMS could not be implemented through the company. Therefore, my Department worked with other key parties to establish a mechanism to offer a resolution for consumers. The Green Deal Finance Company reviews those cases and, where it considers it appropriate, makes settlement offers to consumers. If they are dissatisfied with any offer received, consumers can still refer their cases to the Secretary of State under the green deal framework regulations. The Secretary of State has the power to reduce or cancel loans where he is satisfied that the consumer has suffered, or is likely to suffer, a substantive loss.
Does the Minister think that, rather than the onus being on the individual to seek that assistance, the Green Deal Finance Company ought to be writing to every recipient of a loan and every customer of HELMS to make them aware of the route to getting redress, if they need it?
The Green Deal Finance Company will make those offers. If they are not accepted by the consumer, the onus is on them to recommend the case to the Secretary of State and for him to take the decision. That is the redress process that we have put in place.
I thank the Minister for giving way again. She said that roughly 10% of people who have a HELMS green deal have instigated a complaint. Therefore, 90% of those sitting on these deals have not complained, and many do not even know that they have been conned. That is why the Government have a responsibility to contact them directly and begin investigating, to see what help they can give.
If that has not already been done, I am sure it will be looked at. I am not sure whether it has been done or not, as I do not have that information.
The Minister spoke about the compensation that effectively comes through the Green Deal Finance Company. Does she think it right that a private company, which had nothing to do with the initial mis-selling or scamming, is left to deal with this issue and possibly £20 million of compensation to consumers, instead of the Government, whose scheme it actually was?
As a Government, we have worked with the Green Deal Finance Company to establish the redress system. That is why it can make offers and has done so. I will repeat the process again. If consumers are not happy with the offer that has been made, they can refer the case to the Secretary of State. We understand that only 100 offers have been accepted and 52 have been referred to the Secretary of State, so I encourage consumers to refer them to the Secretary of State. So far, only one decision has been taken on a HELMS case, but the Department is considering the evidence in other cases before the Secretary of State decides what sanction, if any, is appropriate. We expect more decisions to follow shortly.
From the outset, the green deal was subject to a monitoring regime administered by the Green Deal Oversight and Registration Body, which started investigating HELMS in October 2013 and concluded with a report in March 2015. Based on that report, the Government concluded that there had been significant consumer protection issues with the company, and the then Department of Energy and Climate Change imposed a final sanction on HELMS in November 2015. In September 2015, the Information Commissioner’s Office issued HELMS with a £200,000 nuisance calls fine—its largest ever at the time—after ruling that it
“recklessly broke marketing call regulations.”
Soon afterwards HELMS stopped issuing green deal plans, and in March 2016 it entered into liquidation.
I regret that it is taking some time to reach conclusions in many of the cases, but I would like to assure everyone that my Department is focused on progressing them as quickly and fairly as possible. We need to ensure the necessary evidence on substantive loss being incurred and to allow time for representations to be made.
Notwithstanding such mis-selling issues, let us be clear that solar PV in the UK is a success story, with rapid deployment over the last eight years. We are now exceeding our projections on solar PV deployment. In 2013 we estimated that solar capacity would reach 10 to 12 gigawatts by 2020, but the latest figures indicate that we now have over 13 gigawatts of solar capacity installed in the UK—enough to power over 3 million homes.
As I have said, I would be happy to meet with trading standards and the constituent of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North—I want to get a greater understanding—but will quickly answer some of the questions raised, so that the hon. Gentleman has time to wrap up.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his point about Northern Ireland. The green deal has not applied in Northern Ireland, because some of these matters are fully devolved. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) for his comments. I would like to hear further information on the issues particularly affecting properties in his constituency, which I can pass on to the Secretary of State. I also thank the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) for her comments. She is always a champion for her constituents, and where she feels there is an injustice, she stands up for them. The green deal framework ensures that payments should not exceed the period of the savings—over 15 to 20 years. Providers that do that will be found in breach and then action can be taken by the Secretary of State, including fines and stopping the actual deal. I would be interested to know about particular ongoing cases that may be of interest.
Unfortunately, we will probably never be able to completely eradicate mis-selling but, as a Minister in this Department, it is something I feel strongly about. Where it does happen, we will try to have the best processes in place to deal with it. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North for securing this debate and I look forward to seeing him in the future.
I appreciate the Minister’s response. Will she commit to answering in writing the questions that I asked? [Interruption.] For the record, she has nodded her head.
This has been an excellent and worthwhile debate. We have heard some shocking cases from across the country. The Minister’s admission that the scheme is not perfect may be the line of the day, such is the scale of the understatement. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) noted that only 10% of HELMS customers have complained, which highlights the fact that so far we have only dealt with the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to come.
The Chamber might not be full, but I remind the Minister that, as she said, 3,000 homes in Scotland and around 4,500 across the UK have been affected. I accept that the Government did not intend this to happen. What has happened is the unintended consequence of ineffective regulation and oversight. There is nothing we can do about the past, but the Government can still do the right thing by putting a compensation scheme in place, tightening up the regulations for any future green deal offers and taking some responsibility. I urge them to do so as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered home energy and lifestyle management systems and the Green Deal.