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Energy Prices and Profits

Part of Opposition Day — [6th Allotted Day] — Living Standards – in the House of Commons at 6:49 pm on 4th September 2013.

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Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change 6:49 pm, 4th September 2013

This has been an interesting and timely debate. As we head into the autumn, I know that colleagues across the Chamber share their constituents’ worries about the rising cost of living and the strain that energy costs in particular can put on tight family budgets. That is why the coalition is determined to do everything it can to help hard-working families with their energy bills.

Sitting here this afternoon listening to the Opposition Front Benchers, I could not help but recall the words of Marshal Talleyrand 200 years ago. When the ancien régime was briefly restored to the French throne after the defeat of Napoleon, Talleyrand famously said of the old, backward-looking, clapped out Bourbon royal family, “They learned nothing, and they have forgotten nothing.” Put another way, the old regime singularly failed to understand why they had been deposed by the people in the first place, or to learn from any of their previous mistakes.

Is that not just old Labour all over? Labour, which saw heating bills more than double during its time in government. Labour, which in 13 years of government allowed real competition in the market to shrivel. Labour, which in 1997 inherited a diverse range of 14 competing companies and turned them into the big six. Labour, which drove British energy into the ground and failed to build a single nuclear power station. Its record on renewables was little better. After 13 years in office, Labour left Britain third from the bottom of the European league table for deployed renewable energy. It was Labour that allowed the cost of its green energy programmes to spiral out of control but failed to take real steps to decarbonise the sector; Labour that, after 13 years in power, left office with nearly 5 million vulnerable people living in fuel poverty; and Labour that, in the last Parliament, saw fuel poverty rise in every single year of the now Leader of the Opposition’s tenure as Energy Secretary.

So what is the big idea that Labour has brought forward to the debate to help hard-pressed consumers? It has three ideas—hardly an energy revolution, but let me remind the House what they are. The first is to abolish the regulator that Labour created in 2000 and replace it with—yes, you’ve guessed it—another quango. It also wants to bring back the electricity pool, the same pool that it abolished back in 2001, and put all over-75s on the cheapest tariff—hardly a groundbreaking idea when we are already acting to do that, but for all consumers, not just the oldest 8%, so that all our constituents can benefit from a better deal.

I will not pretend to the House that there are easy answers, simple solutions or quick fixes to driving down fuel poverty, driving up competition in the sector or delivering a better, fairer deal for hard-pressed consumers. However, unlike the Labour Government’s drift, inertia and failure to deliver, the coalition has rolled up its sleeves and is making a real difference.

I want to spell out some of the bold, practical measures that the coalition is taking to help hard-working families, but before I do that I will address some of the important points that colleagues have made. We have heard from the hon. Members for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend Chris Heaton-Harris, Mr Weir, my hon. Friend Mr Spencer, Albert Owen, my hon. Friend Christopher Pincher, the hon. Members for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for Glasgow North West (John Robertson), my right hon. Friend Mr Lilley and Sheila Gilmore.

It was striking that not a single Labour Member spoke in favour of the Opposition’s proposal to abolish Ofgem, but two clearly disagreed with it. It was notable that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood made a thoughtful and constructive speech, and he was right to address both the causes of, and possible solutions to, our energy challenges. The hon. Member for Angus was also thoughtful, and I assure him that our simplification of tariffs is already having an impact. I also take on board his important points about prepaid meters.

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry about the need for bill simplification. We get it, and we are on it, but our entire grid is crumbling and requires big investment, whatever energy source we put into it. This year, onshore wind added just £9 to consumer energy bills. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn, the second Labour Member to disagree with Labour Front Benchers about abolishing Ofgem, made sound points about off-grid customers. We are looking carefully at the Committee report to which he contributed. My hon. Friend Christopher Pincher spoke with great authority and gave a balanced approach to the complex issues we face.

The coalition does not have a magic wand, and Labour’s legacy of debt, deficit and economic failure casts a long shadow over all Departments. Despite the imperative of dealing with Labour’s debts, we are taking action and setting a new radical and ambitious energy agenda. Unlike under the previous Government, there have been two energy Bills in three years. The green deal might be in its infancy—I listened to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East—but it is already building a new market in energy efficiency, and bringing far greater competition to the market and new choices for consumers.