The Government have completed the passage of the Utilities Act 2000. We seek to secure full competition in the supply of gas and electricity and in the generation of electricity, with the benefits being passed on to consumers, while protecting disadvantaged customers and the environment.
I know that, especially in cold weather like this, my right hon. Friend shares my anger about the millions of households left in fuel poverty by the Conservative Government's neglect of that important policy area. What steps is she taking to ensure that the liberalised energy market works as well as possible for the fuel poor?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. One of this Government's first moves was to reduce VAT on fuel, a particularly punitive tax that was imposed on the poorest members of society. There are 35,000 excess deaths in winter that are attributable to the cold. That is why ending fuel poverty is a priority for the present Government.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the benefits of competition are not yet fairly shared by everyone. The Government are addressing that in a number of ways: there is Ofgem's social action plan, and several industry initiatives have been taken. I am pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is today announcing a new initiative from the energy company Innogy—a £10 million programme called "health through warmth", which will potentially help more than 20,000 households in England and Wales to make their homes more energy-efficient so that they can stay warmer at lower cost. [Interruption.] You will observe, Mr. Speaker, that Conservative Members have no interest in these matters. They had no interest in them for 18 years. This Government have not just an interest, but a commitment.
Many in the electricity and gas industries attribute the recent doubling of the wholesale gas price to the interconnector, and to the Government's failure to achieve a liberalisation of the gas market in Europe; but given the gas price increase, how helpful does the Minister think it is to British industry to make it suffer the additional costs of another new tax on its energy bills from 1 April this year, following the imposition of the climate change levy?
If the Minister really does care about the competitiveness of British industry—and she should note that employment has fallen this month, for the first time—should she not join us in calling on the Treasury to scrap this expensive and highly damaging new tax?
The Government have been keeping a close watch on the progress of gas prices in the past few months, and if there is any evidence of anti-competitive behaviour, we shall not hesitate to take action on it. As for the climate change levy, the hon. Gentleman seems to ignore completely the responsibilities that we have not only as a Government but as members of society to ensure the sensible and most efficient use of energy. For that reason, there has been extensive consultation with industry. My hon. Friends at the Treasury have received numerous representations from intensive energy users and others on the climate change levy.
The hon. Gentleman should be honest with the House on what actions Conservative Members are prepared to take to ensure that the environment is protected for the future and that we have a truly competitive environment, nationally and internationally, for all of our companies, not only those that are intensive energy users.