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Energy Prices and Profits

Part of Opposition Day — [6th Allotted Day] — Living Standards – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 4th September 2013.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change 4:45 pm, 4th September 2013

I just want to make a little progress.

The Energy Bill takes broadly based back-stop powers to improve liquidity, but the Government cannot even say in what circumstances or in what way they would use those powers. I am sure that the Secretary of State will pray in aid Ofgem’s work on liquidity. In our previous exchanges, he has defended the regulator against my criticisms, but I hope that he has read the Select Committee’s report, “Energy Prices, Profits and Poverty”, which was published over the summer. Its conclusion is stark. The very first page of the report states:

“Ofgem is failing consumers by not taking all possible steps to improve transparency and openness in the energy market.”

I am afraid Ofgem’s proposals on wholesale market liquidity do not go anywhere near addressing the two main problems with the market.

The first problem is that the market is dominated by six companies that both generate power and retail it to consumers with a market share of 98%. As Which? pointed out in its report over the summer, the obvious problem with the structure is that it provides little incentive for companies to keep wholesale prices efficient if the effect of doing so is to reduce the overall profitability of the company. Why would the supply arm of an energy company try to drive down profits on the generation arm if the outcome was to reduce the amount of money the company as a whole was making? Although the companies are right to say, as they frequently do, that their retail profits are only 5%, which is pretty healthy, their profit margins on generation are much more substantial. Which? suggests in its report that last year they were about 19%.