I advise the House that no amendment has been selected.
I beg to move,
That this House
calls on the Government to freeze electricity and gas prices for 20 months whilst legislation is introduced to ring-fence the generation businesses of the vertically integrated energy companies from their supply businesses, to require all electricity generators and suppliers to trade their power via an open exchange, to establish a tough new regulator with the power to force energy suppliers to pass on price cuts when wholesale costs fall, and to put all over-75-year-olds on the cheapest tariff.
At the heart of this debate is a question about whether we believe that people have been overcharged and let down by a regulator that has failed to do its job, and that to win back the trust of the British people we need to mend this broken market. Today we put before the House a motion that proposes two measures to provide real help now through a temporary 20-month price freeze and by putting all those over the age of 75 on the cheapest tariff, as well as deep structural reforms to the way that this market works for the future. These are the measures that we will take if we win the next election, but these are measures that this Government could take now, for which they would have our full support.
My hon. Friend coined the term “energy island” to describe his island constituency of Anglesey and I know he takes a keen interest. We have already said in the House and elsewhere that we believe that those who are off-grid should come under our new regulator. Of those people who are off-grid, only 10% rely on oil for both their heating and their light. The rest have oil for heating but rely on electricity, so our price freeze would have an impact on many off-grid customers as well.
I will make a little more progress.
At the outset I want to deal with a few of the myths that the Government have resorted to peddling in the absence of any credible policies of their own and because they are confused about how to respond to our proposals. The first myth is that the price freeze cannot or will not happen or that the idea is a con. Let me tell the House that there is only one situation in which this price freeze will not happen: if the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats win the next election. If we are elected, this price freeze will happen. The idea that a price freeze will not work if wholesale prices increase is complete and utter rubbish.
As the energy companies themselves admit, they are not buying today all the energy they need to supply their customers tomorrow. They buy their gas and electricity two, three or even four years before it is supplied, precisely in order to manage the risk of fluctuation in wholesale prices. The Secretary of State must know this, so the Government’s argument does not stand up.
The second myth is that companies will undermine the freeze either by hiking up their prices beforehand or by increasing them afterwards, but as I asked the Secretary of State at the last Energy and Climate Change questions, if companies collude to increase their prices beyond anything that can be justified before the next election, will he stop them? If he will not, let me be clear: we will take action. As for what happens after the price freeze ends, the reason it lasts for 20 months is that that is how long we think it will take to enact our reforms to overhaul this market. By that point, we will have a new regulator in place, with the power to force companies to cut their prices when wholesale costs fall, which will prevent the kind of mark-up and overcharging that we all know is happening. This price freeze will happen and it will work.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that it would be in the interests of bill payers for all Governments to have an objective of keeping the cost of capital in the industry as low as possible so that bill payers may get their energy as cheaply as it can be produced?
I do agree. It is sad that in recent times so many people who want to invest in energy have said that the capital costs are going up because of the dithering and indecisiveness of this Government towards investment in energy.
The third myth is that our proposals will deter investment. Nothing could be further from the truth. As EDF’s decision on Hinkley Point C shows, what matters for investors is long-term certainty on returns, not short-term gains based on overcharging. That is why we have supported the Energy Bill and given our backing to the framework of contracts for difference and the capacity market. And we will put right this Government’s failure to set a decarbonisation target, in order to give low-carbon investors the certainty they need to invest throughout this decade and the next.
Can the right hon. Lady name a single international investor who says that they are more likely to invest the billions of pounds we need in our energy infrastructure as a result of the policies that she is following? I know many who say they are less likely to invest, but can she name one who is more likely to?
What I hear from investors such as Siemens is their concern that the fact that the Government have not signed up to a decarbonisation target has affected their confidence in investing in our country. It is incredibly sad that the investment in renewable energy has halved in the past three to four years that this Government have been in charge.
Can the right hon. Lady tell the House whether anyone has visited her or her right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition as an investor or a utility and said that because of the Government’s policies they are less likely to invest? Has anyone said that to her?
For the past month we have seen the Secretary of State and members of the Government standing up for the big six—[Hon. Members:“The big seven.”] —the big seven, rather than standing up for the consumers and businesses of this country, which are being ripped off. If we want a secure future in which investment can come forward, we need a little less bickering on the Government Benches about green levies and less fighting against what consumers want.
My right hon. Friend is right to debunk the myth about investment. Is she aware that under this Government we have dropped to seventh in the world in investment in clean energy technology?
Absolutely. Investment has halved from £7 billion to just over £3 billion. It is a shame that the consensus that we created in government has not been held together because of the fractious relationships on the Government Benches.
I will make some progress before I give way again.
What the Secretary of State has to understand is that markets work only with consent. We know that there are some on the Government Benches who want to turn concern about rising energy bills into opposition against renewable energy. Unless we reform this market and restore trust, those same people will continue to undermine public support for the investment we need.
I support the Opposition motion, as far as it goes, but does the right hon. Lady accept that without serious investment in energy efficiency, there will be no permanent end to fuel poverty? If so, can she explain why there is no mention of energy efficiency in her motion?
The hon. Lady is right. Energy efficiency is important, and I am sure that, like me, she is saddened by the attacks on those parts of the Bill that support energy efficiency measures for the most vulnerable and poor households in our country. It is interesting to see how the big six—[Hon. Members: “Seven.”]—the big seven have gone to Government saying, “Relieve us of this burden,” but they take out full-page adverts in national papers talking about how they have helped millions of people with their energy efficiency. They cannot have their cake and eat it. Labour will produce a Green Paper in 2014 with more detailed proposals on energy efficiency to make sure that we deal with both parts of the problem—market reform, prices and investment in renewable and clean energy, as well as how we help people keep bills down through energy efficiency.
If there was any doubt about the extent to which the Government have got it wrong, the fact that they think an energy policy needs the approval of the big six before being credible tells us everything we need to know. Will my right hon. Friend confirm which of the energy companies are making the biggest profits, and are they therefore the biggest investors in future infrastructure?
Centrica, which owns British Gas, has passed on the largest share of profits to its shareholders but made the least amount of investment, but all the companies are making good profits.
What we have not seen is a market that encourages competition to the extent that the energy companies strive to compete with each other on price and to win the support of their customers. That is also what the motion is about, because the fourth myth is that our proposals will somehow undermine competition, but our market reform proposals would increase competition. They would level the playing field and enable independent generators and small suppliers to compete more effectively. Of course, no energy company, big or small, wants us to do something that reduces its profits, but suppliers such as the Co-op recognise that in order to restore trust the people need to see a clean break with the past. Smaller suppliers such as Ecotricity and Ovo, which might not necessarily like our price freeze, nevertheless say that it does not threaten their viability.
The fifth myth is that the problems we see in our energy market today can somehow all be laid at the door of the previous Administration, a Labour Administration who—the House might recall—introduced winter fuel payments, which the current Secretary of State described at the times as a gimmick, insulated over 2 million homes through Warm Front and lifted over 1.5 million people out of fuel poverty. Before Labour came to power, consumers could not even switch electricity supplier. As he knows, the restriction on suppliers also being generators was removed in 1993, under the previous Conservative Government, which led to the vertical integration we have seen over the past two decades. If the Secretary of State wants to compare records, I am happy to have that debate, but I think that the public would be better served if we all engaged in a proper debate on how to reform the market for the future.
The Secretary of State might not agree with our proposals, and that is his choice. He will have to account to the 47,550 bill payers in his constituency if he opposes our price freeze in the Lobby this evening. I believe that the public deserve a proper debate. The motion presents the House with clear proposals to restore people’s faith in the energy market and get them a fairer deal.
The right hon. Lady is being generous in giving way. She mentioned smaller suppliers. She will be aware of Utilita, one of the good small energy companies, which is based in my constituency. I wonder whether she is aware of the comments of its managing director, Bill Bullen, who wrote in The Times shortly after the Leader of the Opposition’s conference speech that with any price freeze
“the impact on smaller energy suppliers will be much harder felt and the level of competition in the market will drop.”
Is that now an Opposition policy intention?
Small suppliers have told us on the record that the most important thing for their future viability and competition is openness, transparency and access, and that is what our proposals seek to do.
Let me deal with each of our proposals in turn. The first is to freeze gas and electricity prices for 20 months. We would do that—the Government could do this now—by legislating to give the Secretary of State the power to modify suppliers’ licences to stop them raising their prices. Over 20 months it would save the average household £120, the average small business £5,500 and the average medium-sized firm nearly £33,000.
I am not going to give way.
The reason that is needed is simple: the public have been overcharged. Figures we published yesterday revealed a large and growing gap between the costs that energy companies have paid on the wholesale market and the prices they have charged their customers. They confirm what the chief executive of Ovo said the week before last when he noted that wholesale prices had been broadly flat over the last two years and that companies could be facing higher wholesale costs only if they had bought energy from themselves and above the market price.
Those figures, which have been audited by the House of Commons Library, also confirm that the mark-up cannot be explained by any of the other excuses we keep hearing from the companies when they raise prices, be they network charges or policy costs, because more than half the increase in bills has gone straight to the energy companies, either in the form of higher profits or to pay for inefficiencies in their businesses.
My right hon. Friend will also be aware of the information Ofgem published this week showing that wholesale prices have increased by just 1.7%, while the average bill has increased by more than 9%. Is not that why Labour is absolutely right to call for a price freeze?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a growing chorus of voices saying that something is wrong in the market and in what we are being told about rising costs leading companies to increase bills. It just does not add up. Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research has shown that efficiency savings alone could knock £70 off the average bill. To correct the overcharging that has happened in the past and give consumers some badly needed respite for the future, we propose to freeze prices for 20 months.
Is not there a good precedent for acting when there is a defect in the market? Did not the Conservative Government in 1981 impose a windfall tax on the banks when the market did not work and the banks themselves made a windfall?
My hon. Friend is right. I think that the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, also imposed a windfall tax on oil and gas. The truth is that when the market is not working it is important for Governments to step in, because failing markets do not provide competition or the security that people want from the energy sector. We all agree that these things, whether energy or water, are essential to life and that we all need them. In that situation, people expect Governments to step in and ensure that the market is fit for purpose.
In his wide-ranging speech, the former Prime Minister expressed his concern about Governments being out of touch with the public, whether on energy or the cost of living. He suggested a windfall tax, but we want something that goes straight to consumers, which is why we think the price freeze is the right way ahead.
I will make some progress, because I am conscious of the time.
Vital though the price freeze is, it is not the only part of the package before the House today. There is widespread agreement that Britain’s energy market is neither as competitive nor as transparent as it should be. There are two connected reasons for that. The first is the vertically integrated structure of the big six energy companies. The principle underpinning privatisation was that supply companies would compete with each other to drive down generation costs and keep prices efficient, but today all the big six energy companies both generate and retail power. Collectively they supply over 98% of the retail market and account for 70% of electricity generation. The problem is that if suppliers are also generators, what incentive is there to keep wholesale costs down if the effect is to reduce the profits of the company as a whole? While energy companies often claim that their profit margins are only 5%, they omit to mention that their profits on generating electricity are, on average, closer to 20%.
The second connected problem is that if the big six can supply most of their customer base from their own power stations, there is little incentive to trade on the open market. It is not possible to determine what physical volumes of gas and electricity are traded within vertically integrated companies as that information is never disclosed, and the prices they charge themselves are never published, but according to the London Energy Brokers Association just 6% of energy is traded on the open market. That makes it difficult for independent generators to secure long-term deals to sell their output, which in turn inhibits future investment. At the same time, independent suppliers are prevented from expanding and new suppliers are deterred from entering the market because they find it difficult to access forward contracts that provide the volume and shape to meet their customers’ needs.
That is why the motion proposes two fundamental changes to the way in which the market works at the moment. First, it would force the big six energy companies to ring-fence their generation businesses from their supply businesses. This would counter the natural conflict of interest within vertically integrated companies and ensure that the interests of supply businesses are better aligned with those of their customers in enabling them to seek out the best possible prices. It would also prevent self-supply, which, in turn, should increase the volume of energy being traded openly and create a more competitive and transparent market. If the Secretary of State disagrees, will he explain how the public interest is served by allowing energy companies to generate energy and supply it to themselves at a price that is never disclosed, and in a way that makes it almost impossible for other players to get a foothold in the market? How does that help consumers, how does it help competition, and how does it increase transparency? If he does not disagree, why will he not back our proposal, or what is his alternative?
I am listening very closely to the right hon. Lady, because she is, I think, putting before the House a new proposal on ring-fencing. For the sake of clarity, is that about splitting up the big six companies into new companies—a total break-up—or an accounting separation and self-supply restriction? Which is it? We need to know.
Order. Let the right hon. Lady be heard.
Beyond the customary theatrics that sometimes dominate debate in this House, for which we should all admit our responsibility from time to time, I would say that if one looks back over Hansard it is clear that for the past two years, whether at DECC questions, in Opposition day debates or in urgent questions, I have been putting forward measures to reform this market, including a break-up of the way in which the companies run their generation and retail sides. We have said in this House—I will obviously send this information to the Secretary of State—that we need to create, as we did with the networks, a separation in relation to the way in which the companies run things. That does not necessarily mean having two companies, but it does mean having two different legal entities. The Secretary of State is, in effect, saying, “Oh, it’s all right—it’s fine.” We have made this proposal time and again, and it has been reported in the press time and again. It is unfortunate that he lets himself down with that sort of intervention.
We will be publishing a green paper that will expand further on our energy market reforms. Of course we welcome a discussion with the big six and others about how we take this forward, but we are very clear that we have to stop the cosy relationship between the generation and retail sides. It cannot be allowed to go on in the way it has.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to restate that this whole debate is about consumers? This is about the British public—ordinary families and businesses who need the best deal—and not about having a petty debate about whether a company has one legal entity or two legal entities.
It is about recognising the problem and trying to find a solution. That is exactly what Labour has been doing and talking about, as is on the record in this House, for the past two years. The Government are not listening to consumers or to those who want to get access to the market because they are standing up for the big six.
The right hon. Lady is telling us about these policies that she has. In forming them, did she read Ofgem’s final proposals on wholesale power market liquidity, which were published in June?
We have looked at, and debated in this House, the way in which Ofgem has been working in the past few years. We looked at the way in which it was working under the Labour Government when it did not use the powers we gave it. It is not fit for purpose and it needs a massive change. The sadness about Ofgem is that when it has produced reports on, for example, whether bills are going up when wholesale prices are not, it has done very little about the situation.
I thank my right hon. Friend for kindly giving way; she is being very generous with her time. I imagine that she, like me, has gone to visit energy companies and has seen for herself that one, not far away from this building, has its generation department physically next door to all its displays and where it buys energy. Does she believe that that is the issue we now need to address, as stated in the motion?
My hon. Friend is right; she is talking about the trading floor in Victoria. It is interesting how closely the different parts of these organisations work together. In fact, some companies have welcomed the move to separate the generation and supply side, but we are not interested in a piecemeal approach with six different versions of what it should involve. That is why we need law that is consistent, transparent, and does the job.
At the moment, poor liquidity is recognised as the single biggest obstacle to improving competition in the energy market. If all electricity had to be traded via an open exchange, or a pool, that would create a level playing field that would enable any market participant to compete on price in order to retail power to the public. This would be different from the previous pool in two important respects. First, under the previous pool there were only two generators, who were therefore able to exert considerable influence on the market price and, indeed, to ratchet it up over time. Today, there are many more generators. Secondly, when the old pool was originally established in 1990, only generators were able to place bids, which again gave them excessive market power. Today, there is no reason why a two-way pool, with generators and suppliers both placing bids, could not be introduced. Indeed, if the Government look around the world, at the Nord pool in Scandinavia or the power exchanges in the United States, they will see plenty of examples of markets with more exchange-based trading of this kind that are more liquid, more transparent, and encourage greater competition.
Of course, we should do this in the most cost-effective way. Given the volumes that are already being traded on the day-ahead exchange, we would be open to creating a pool by requiring all generators and suppliers to trade 100% of their output on the N2EX exchange. If the Secretary of State does not agree, will he explain why he thinks that allowing these firms to do most of their trading in secret, behind closed doors, serves the public interest?
I am listening very closely to the right hon. Lady, and I even agree with some of it, but I am genuinely confused about the idea of a pool and how it fits in with the Energy Bill’s contracts for difference, which guarantees a strike price for generators. I fail to see how putting all the energy into a pool will create competition, as the price has already been set, and if it goes above that, the company will have to pay back the difference, while if it goes below it, the taxpayer will have to pay.
That might be the price for the generator but it is not the retail price, and that is what is important in terms of competition and keeping pressure on. I am surprised that Scottish National party Members decided not to support the price freeze. They are on the side of the Prime Minister and the big six while my colleague Johann Lamont—Scotland’s Labour leader—and Scotland’s millions of energy consumers support the price freeze.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that while this Government bicker about the structure of the energy companies, my elderly and infirm constituents will be perhaps be dying this winter because of the energy price hikes under that lot over there?
What is happening to people now is very concerning. All the consumer organisations and those from the fuel poverty lobby are extremely worried about the choices that people are making between heating and eating. The idea of putting on another jumper is an insult to those people, many of whom are older and more vulnerable residents who are not online and are in the group that does not switch. Switching is not going to happen as a result of entreaties from the Government, and we need more action on that.
I will make some progress, because I want to get on to one of our other policies that could have an effect this winter.
A competitive, transparent energy market is our aim, but markets must have rules. The question is what those rules allow and what they encourage. Do they mend broken markets or do they allow some firms to take advantage at the expense of everybody else? The motion proposes two important changes to the rules.
First, we all think that there should be simpler and fewer tariffs, but we must also ensure that the market protects those who are less able to switch. The over-75s are the most likely to live in homes with poor energy efficiency and the most vulnerable to cold weather, but they are the least likely to switch supplier and the least able to access the cheapest deals, which are often online. As a result, they often pay more than they need to. The motion proposes that we make the energy companies put all over-75s on the cheapest tariff. The energy companies have told me that they can do that.
Secondly, the constant attacks on clean energy are short-sighted because investing in clean, home-grown energy and energy efficiency will improve our energy security, make us less reliant on imports and leave us less vulnerable to price shocks in world markets.
No, I will not give way.
We currently have the problem that when wholesale costs increase, bills go up like a rocket, but when wholesale costs fall, bills fall like a feather, if at all. In a properly competitive market, cost reductions would be passed on as quickly and as fully as cost increases. I urge the House to support the proposal in the motion to establish a new regulator with the power to force companies to cut prices when wholesale costs fall. I know that the president of the Liberal Democrats supports that proposal, because he said so to the audience and viewers of “Question Time” when I sat next to him on the panel a few weeks ago. I hope that the Secretary of State will confirm his party’s support for the proposal in his speech.
That is what real action looks like. That is what a Government who put the interests of ordinary people ahead of the energy companies would look like. What a contrast it is with this Government: a Government who pretend to put everyone on the cheapest tariff, even though 90% of people will see no benefit, but who refuse to put all over-75s on the lowest deal; a Government whose only answer is to tell people to shop around, even though switching levels have fallen to an all-time low, as people have lost faith with the market; and a Government who want to roll back the very measures that will insure us against rising prices in the future because they are too weak to stand up to the energy companies today.
Let us remember that 60% of the levies that the Government are rushing to blame were introduced by them. It was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who introduced the carbon floor price, which leaves British consumers and industry paying over and above what is paid by our European neighbours for energy. They talk about value for money, but it is they who designed the energy company obligation—a scheme that requires 53 pieces of information to be submitted for one measure to be installed. When they talk about moving policy costs from people’s bills to people’s taxes, let us remember that it was this Government who abolished Warm Front and now have the unenviable record of being the first Administration since the 1970s not to have a publicly funded energy efficiency scheme.
Today’s motion might refer only to energy prices, but it is about much more than that. It is about who our country is run for. Is it a country that works for hard-working people or are we settling for a country where only a few at the top do well and everyone else struggles? The Opposition know that the first and last test of economic policy is whether living standards are rising for ordinary people. Today, the House faces a choice: a choice between whether it is people’s bills that will be frozen this winter or their homes; a choice between whether we reform broken markets or defend them; a choice between whether we stand up for the 60 million people who live in this country or the big six energy companies, for the 2.4 million businesses or the big six energy companies. The reality is that if we do not fix this broken market, nobody else is going to. Today, in this House, we have it within our power to provide real help now to millions of people who are facing the cost of living crisis and to reform the energy market to deliver fairer prices in the future. I commend the motion to the House.
Before I call the Secretary of State to reply for the Government, I remind the House that in consequence of the large number of Members who wish to speak, I have imposed an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.
I have notified you, Mr Speaker, and Caroline Flint that I will not be here for the final part of the debate. I apologise for that. The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend Gregory Barker will be summing up.
I want to make it clear at the start of my speech that the Government worry about rising electricity and gas bills all the time. As part of our economic strategy, we are working to bring down prices, get people into jobs and get the economy going. I will touch on that general point shortly.
I welcome this debate and hope that there will be many more debates like it, because we want to debate which party and which side of the House has the best policies to help people and to improve Britain’s energy market.
I regret the fact that we have lost the consensus on energy and climate change policy that we had until very recently, because consensus is vital. We need tens of billions of pounds of investment in new energy generation and networks. If we are to persuade investors, not just in the UK but around the world, to invest in the UK, they need to see that there is consensus on these issues. I hope that we will get back to that. I thought that we had got back to it when there were just eight votes against the Third Reading of the Energy Bill. All the major parties, including the nationalist parties, voted in favour of the Bill. All the Labour Front Benchers voted in favour of the Bill. I welcomed that at the time. I just wish that the consensus had not broken down so quickly.
Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that in supporting the Energy Bill, we made it quite clear that it did not contain measures to tackle the problems in the broken market or the concerns of consumers? We made it clear that we reserved the right to continue to campaign for the measures that we have outlined today, which would fix the market and put consumers at the top of our concerns.
We rejected the right hon. Lady’s arguments at that time and we reject them again today, as I shall set out. However, I am serious when I say that it is critical that we show investors around the world that there is consensus on these issues. I will try to rebuild that consensus in this debate and time and again afterwards, because I believe that that is in the national interest.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend on the need for consensus. Does he agree that one of the outcomes of the consensus that there had been until recently was very low political risk when investing in the energy infrastructure of this country? As a direct result of what the Labour party has done, there is now political risk in this country, which pushes up the cost of borrowing and pushes up bills.
My hon. Friend is right. What the Labour party has done has increased the cost of capital. Who loses as a result? The consumer. By recklessly proposing this irresponsible policy, the Labour party has shown that it is against the consumer.
The Secretary of State has made a valid point about the consensus on the Energy Bill. Is he aware that the Labour party amended the Energy Bill yesterday in a way that will ensure that coal stations are switched off more quickly, at an estimated average cost per consumer of £50? The Labour party then comes to this House and proposes this motion. What does he think about that?
We are listening to their lordships House. I have to tell my hon. Friend that the argument is a little more complicated than what he has set out.
Consensus is critical, not just across the House, but within the coalition parties. I accept that there have been debates within the coalition, but we have come together and produced a coherent energy policy. I will aim to rebuild the consensus with the right hon. Member for Don Valley because, as I think she knows, that is in the national interest.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his contribution. He talks about sending a message of consensus from this House to investors in the energy market in this country, but today he has the opportunity to send a message of consensus from this House to people who are struggling to heat their homes this winter. Will he take that opportunity?
I certainly will because I believe we have the best policies. There are two routes to rebuilding that crucial consensus. The first, which I would love to take, is to invite the right hon. Lady and the leader of the Labour party to discuss the issues with me so that we can try to reach out to Labour Members, explain why we think their policies are extremely damaging, and try to get the energy policy back on to that important political consensus. I fear, however, that that will not be possible. The noises we have heard from the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Lady suggest that they do not see the error of their ways, despite many people explaining it to them.
Will the Secretary of State accept that the green deal is not working, that zero-carbon homes are off the agenda and renewable energy is under attack, and that a late amendment to the Energy Bill in the other place shows that the Government are trying to scrap their legal duty to end fuel poverty altogether? Is he really surprised that the public do not believe his Government’s crocodile tears over rising energy bills when the Government’s own policies are making that worse?
I completely reject everything the hon. Lady said. First, £31 billion has been invested in clean energy since 2010, and according to Ernst and Young we are now the fourth best place to invest in renewable energy—that is up, despite what the right hon. Member for Don Valley often says. More than 85,000 assessments have been made under the green deal, and more than 81% of those who have had green deal assessments have either had work done, are getting it done, or are considering having it done. That is much more of a success. Caroline Lucas does her case no good by talking down the green deal.
I will not give way as I want to make some progress. I have made it clear that I would like the Opposition to come and talk to us so that we can rebuild that national consensus, but I fear that that is not going to happen. Instead, we will have to expose Labour’s so-called policies for the fraud they are. I am going to do that in full today and, I hope, in future debates. I hope that when Labour Members hear the arguments against the policies of those on their Front Bench, they will reflect and realise how irresponsible and ineffective those policies are.
I want to make some progress. I also want to talk about the context for this debate, which is the cost of living. When considering the cost of living, one tends to think about inflation and how the general price basket is affecting people, particularly the poorest in our land. We should be focused on getting inflation down robustly.
When we came to government, inflation was 3.4% and rising. We had to bring it down, and latest figures show that this month inflation is now lower at 2.7%, and forecast to stay low. That is an achievement. In the context of the cost of living we have seen employment and growth go up, and unemployment, the deficit and inflation go down. That economic record will help people up and down the country because we are seeing the benefits of that. To give an example to the Labour party, in the past year alone, disposable incomes have grown.
I will not give way. Disposal incomes are now higher than in any year from 1997 to 2010. That is because of our income tax cuts for people on low and middle incomes, because we have taken action on fuel duty and frozen council tax—[Interruption.]
I was making the case that we have taken action to help people with the cost of living. Look at what has happened to gas and electricity prices. Under Labour gas bills doubled. In the previous Parliament, the average annual rise in gas prices was 12% per annum; in this Parliament it has been 10% per annum—far too high, but less than under the Labour Government. We could say the same about electricity prices. In the previous Parliament the average annual rise in electricity prices was 8% per annum; it is now 7% per annum—too high, but a better record than under Labour. According to recent Office for National Statistics figures for household spending on electricity and gas bills there was a 9% per annum rise in the previous Parliament; that is down to 6% in this Parliament. We want to do better, but we will not follow the record of the Labour party, which was dismal on prices and bills.
I have not made that analysis, but I know that others have and are concerned that Labour’s policy will put up energy prices in many different ways.
I promised to analyse Labour’s policy and contrast it with the Government’s, and I will do that now. Let us start with Labour’s price freeze. The right hon. Member for Don Valley tried to say that the Government have put myths about. She tried to debunk those myths, but failed completely. We have made it clear that we believe that Labour’s policy is a complete con because prices could go up after the price freeze. The right hon. Lady’s answer to that is the amazing piece of legislation she is going to introduce, which will stop that. It will not, however, because the proposed legislation she described has no price regulation in it. If she is going to say that she will introduce full-scale price regulation, let her get to her feet now. If she is not, she simply cannot say that prices will not go up after her price freeze.
On that point, did not the Leader of the Opposition admit the day after the announcement of his policy that he could not guarantee that prices could be frozen if world energy prices rise?
That is absolutely spot on. When he responded to that point, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear that the Leader of the Opposition had sold the pass on their policy. If wholesale prices go up during the price freeze, they will not just hit consumers—we are worried that consumers will be fleeced by Labour’s policy—but they will also hit the competition and the small suppliers who are producing deals that people are already benefiting from.
I believe that competition is the way to sort that out, and I thought the right hon. Lady was saying that in her speech. I thought the point of her speech was to say that the markets are not working, and that in order to tackle overcharging she wants the markets to work. Is she saying that that is not her position and that she will bring in profit caps and stop companies overcharging, or is it competition? Competition or regulation—let the right hon. Lady come to the Dispatch Box and tell us. She cannot.
I will make some progress and then I will let my hon. Friend in.
Labour’s price freeze is a con. It damages competition and, as we have heard, it damages investment. That contrasts with what the Government are offering, which is direct help to the poorest in society, radical energy efficiency programmes, and a focus on competition that the Labour party never had. That direct help, the warm home discount—£135 off the bills of 2 million of the poorest people—was never offered by the Labour party. We are taking forward the winter fuel payment and we have tripled the cold weather payment. That is direct help to the poorest people, and we are proud of that.
I will make some progress and then I will give way.
On energy efficiency, the energy company obligation—which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said is not working—has already helped 216,000 households this year alone, and we expect many more people to benefit from that by the end of the year. I have explained how well the green deal is going with 85,000 assessments already made.
When the Government talk about switching, the Labour party pooh-pooh it, saying, “That’s not the way to do it. Switching isn’t so important.” However, let us look at the facts on switching. uSwitch shows that, between
Does the Secretary of State agree with my constituent, Nick Jones, who wrote to me on Friday—I have never met or spoken to him—about the Prime Minister’s advice on switching? He saved £611 a year on his gas and electricity costs. He was prompted to look at his phone costs and saved a further £230. He said:
“I can only say a big thank you to the Prime Minister for his advice and giving me the confidence to take this step and make a saving of £841 per year to my family’s budget.”
Is not switching a better approach than trying to fix the market, which is the mad-cap scheme proposed by the Opposition?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. As the uSwitch figures show, there are big savings to be made. Interestingly, the right hon. Member for Don
Valley says that switching is not enough and talks down switching and the opportunity of millions of people in our country to make big savings. She should be ashamed.
We are pushing switching very, very hard. The evidence is that switching is growing fast, as described by my hon. Friend Nigel Adams. Let me give the House one further piece of evidence. First Utility has increased its customer numbers by 57% from the beginning of October. People are switching in larger numbers. They are moving away from Labour’s big six to the coalition’s competition.
The amounts that people have saved in the Secretary of State’s examples suggest that they were being overcharged in the first place. Does he agree that getting the best tariff and encouraging switching does not mean that people will get a good deal? The market is rigged.
I am coming to the rigged market, but the market was rigged by the Labour Government. It is Labour’s big six and Labour’s market. We are changing and reforming it while Labour does nothing.
One thing that worries me about switching is that we need to ensure that it operates for the poorest in our country. The right hon. Lady and another hon. Member made the point that, sometimes, the fuel poor and many elderly people do not get the benefits of the market and are not helped by competition switching—the figures bear that out. We cannot just rely on switching; we need to ensure that it works for those people. That is why the Government have put so much money behind the Cheaper Energy Together scheme and collective switching, and why we are putting money behind the big energy saving network. We want to ensure that Age UK and the Citizens Advice Bureau go out into communities to offer advice to those people. That is how to ensure that the poorest in the land can get the best deals in our land.
Yes, I am aware of that. That is why we have raised the amount. Under Labour, it was about £100 or £150. With Ofgem, we have raised it to £500 to enable people to switch. I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is behind the times.
For those of us who want more competition, is not the problem that the price freeze and the forward purchase of energy, which Caroline Flint has described, is much more difficult for the smaller suppliers than for the bigger ones? The price freeze will do nothing to support a competitive market when it comes to an end.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have seen a big growth in independent suppliers and competition, which did not happen under Labour. Labour Members now want to kill it. Having created the big six, they want to help them. We will not allow that to happen.
The Opposition missed something else in the debate. In my constituency, more than 400 jobs—[Interruption.] Will Caroline Flint listen to my point? [Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] I find it surprising that we have to listen to childish noises from Opposition Members when we are debating such an important matter. More than 400 people in my constituency have jobs in independent energy companies that are challenging the big six. One of them challenges on business services, and the other provides consumers. Those 400 jobs will go the minute the market is controlled by the Labour party. Do Labour Members not care about those jobs?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Our policies will work. We know that because they are working. We are getting the supplies and switching.
I am going to make some progress. I have given way a lot and will not give way for a while yet.
On Labour’s pool and ring-fencing proposals, the Government contrast the policies of the right hon. Lady with our policies for greater transparency in the financial accounts of the big six and for Ofgem’s wholesale market reform “Secure and Promote”. Interestingly, when I asked her whether she had read that document, she said that she had not—[Interruption.] To be fair, let me correct the record: she did not answer the question. If she has read it, she can come to the Dispatch Box and tell us. She is not coming to the Dispatch Box, so we know that she has not read the document. Let me help the right hon. Lady. It would have been beneficial for the Opposition to have read the documents. They claim that Ofgem is appalling and is not doing any work on competition, but the document shows that it has done so.
Interestingly, the reason for the work is given at the beginning of the document. Ofgem produced the document because it wants to make more competitive markets to help the consumer. The right hon. Lady has not read the document, which is not very good. It is clear from her policies that she has not done so.
No, I am not giving way.
The right hon. Lady talked about the pool and the exchange on which the electricity will be traded, but she has not noticed that the day-ahead market in Great Britain has boomed under this Government. In 2011, just 5% of final Great Britain demand for power was traded on the day-ahead exchange. In the past six months, more than 50% was traded. We have seen a big increase, but she did not even bother to mention it.
No, I am not giving way.
Ofgem has looked at whether or not it should mandate 100%. It will ensure that there are new reporting requirements so it can check what is happening. It will say that, if the number does not improve and stays as it is, it will intervene. It is not intervening now—the right hon. Lady will not know this because she has not read the document—because the independent generators have not asked for it to do so. The independent generators say that the day-ahead market is not the problem for competition and that the day-ahead market is not the market in which there is room to drive down prices. They say that the problem is the forward markets—the month-ahead, six months-ahead, year-ahead and the two years-ahead markets.
No, I will not give way. I want to explain to the House why the document is so important, and why Ofgem’s policies, which the Government support—we have put reserve powers in the Energy Bill to push them through—are so important for competition and pushing prices down for consumers.
Independent generators need to know who will buy their electricity. The right hon. Lady is right that the big six can sell it to themselves, but independent generators cannot do so—they must sell it to someone else. That is a big risk for the independent generators, and they need to be able to cover it. Primarily, they do so at the moment through purchase power agreements or through bilateral trades, which are used mainly when selling to businesses. However, they say that they cannot guarantee those, so they must spend more, and that their capital costs increase because of those risks.
Independent generators face another risk. The question is not only whether they can sell energy, but whether they can buy it. If they have a contractual power purchase agreement and their generation capacity is not working for a particular month and they are unable to supply, they fail their contract. To be able to enter more contracts and expand their businesses, they therefore need to know that they can buy energy in the wholesale markets if their generating capacity is not working.
It is therefore essential that we have a liquid market for four months, six months and 24 months ahead. Guess what? The previous Government did nothing to enable that competition in generating markets. Interestingly, the policies the Opposition have proposed today will also do nothing about the real problem. The description that the right hon. Lady gave of her policies proves that point. If she had read the document, she would have seen on page 8 the analysis by Ofgem—working on all the contributions from the independent suppliers and all the people in the industry—is that the problem she has identified is no longer a problem. It has marked that problem “green”. The problems that we have identified, which we and Ofgem are fixing, are all marked “red”. She really needs to do her homework. There is no point the official Opposition coming to this House with ill-thought-through policies that will not work. Our policies will work for the consumer, push competition into the market and get prices down.
Let me put it on the record that it is important that our energy companies make profits. I think we need reasonable profits for people to invest. I also know why it is important that companies make profits: the right hon. Lady agreed with me when I asked her, last time we debated this. I asked her whether energy companies should make profits and she agreed.
Let me finish answering Andrew Gwynne. I am not satisfied with the energy markets that we inherited from the last Government. We want to make sure that competition is working. That is why we have already had the retail market review with Ofgem, which is now improving competition in the retail markets. It is why we have Ofgem’s latest proposals in “Secure and Promote”, which the Opposition have not read, to improve competition in the wholesale market. I am not satisfied with the markets at the moment, but our policies—with Ofgem’s help—are coming into place now.
We have had to run to make sure we turn round the markets we inherited, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman how quickly our policies are now coming in. The retail market review comes into effect, in terms of people’s bills, next month. Ofgem is still consulting with the industry, but expects to give a final response to its consultation this year. Then its proposals for a market maker, which will ensure transparency so there are none of the secret deals that the right hon. Lady keeps on about, will start happening in the first half of next year. We are producing the competition proposals and they are coming into force. People have not seen the benefits of them yet—I accept that—because we have been trying to turn round the rigged market that we inherited. We are now turning it round and people will begin to see the benefits over the years ahead.
The Secretary of State has been waving a document around. Can he turn to the page in that document that discusses netting off between companies in the long-term market? Can he turn to the page in that document that discusses the question of creating trades at time of closure by companies? If he cannot do so, will he accept that the document is not quite the panacea for all the transparency issues that he thinks it is? Will he go away and review the things that the document does not say as well as what it does say about the transparency of the market?
I am going to answer the question. When the hon. Member for Southampton, Test reads this paper, he will know that it is in a series of papers and other papers deal with those issues. The relevant paragraph—it does not deal with netting off, but it deals with the impact of netting off—is on page 7. The right hon. Member for Don Valley should like this, because we have some agreement on the need to make sure there is competition in the wholesale markets. It states:
“It could also encourage business models that reduce the need to trade in the wholesale market, such as vertical integration and long-term contracts. Poor liquidity therefore inhibits competition between incumbent players in the market.”
In other words, we need these proposals so that there is more competition in the forward markets so that new entrants can come in and the prices that the incumbents charge are more transparent—something that the right hon. Lady says that she wants to see.
I have heard the Secretary of State in this mood before. The last time was when he was defending the pub companies. A few months after he left that job, his party agreed that we were right and that he had been wrong all along. He is a tremendous defender of the vested interest. Can he tell me why any of the thousands of people in Chesterfield who happily signed our petition because they are so concerned about the cost of fuel should have any confidence, listening to him, that because he is doing this job things will be any different in the future? People are struggling, and he just does not have the answers.
The hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening to the debate. It is clear that it is the Government who are standing up to vested interests, because we are bringing in competition against Labour’s big six. The problem for the Opposition is that they created the big six: we are the ones putting pressure on the big six.
The Secretary of State will have heard the shadow Secretary of State say earlier that Ofgem is not fit for purpose. But when the Leader of the Opposition was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, he said that Ofgem was fit for purpose. Does that not clearly show that the Opposition have no consistency, no vision and no strategy on these matters?
My hon. Friend has been incredibly helpful because he anticipates what I am about to say about the third part of Labour’s policy package. It would abolish Ofgem, which it created and which the Leader of the Opposition reformed. It will replace it with Ofgem 2—a tough, new regulator. It is such a charade we could hardly make it up. We have been reforming Ofgem. We have given it powers that the right hon. Lady’s party failed to do in government. For example, if an energy company is found to have maltreated a customer the fines will go to the customer, not to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is one example of the new powers.
We have a new regime in the Energy Bill, with a strategy, policy and statement to make sure that Ofgem is doing the job that this House and the Government want, and we have now got new leadership at Ofgem. I look at the record—we are now tackling competition issues in the retail market and the wholesale market. It is true that under the last Government Ofgem was not as powerful or active as it should have been: we have reformed that.
We have gone further than that by now proposing to consult on criminal sanctions for manipulation of the energy markets. We are increasing the robustness of the regime by having an annual competition test. We have shown that we are not complacent. Although we have taken major measures to improve competition in the markets that we inherited, we want to go further year after year, because we believe in competition even though the Opposition do not.
The Secretary of State suggests that the Government have given powers to Ofgem to ensure that any redress goes to customers, but can he explain why recently, when Scottish Power were found guilty of mistreating their customers, of the £8.5 million fine only £1 million was to be shared among the 335,000 customers who were estimated to be victims of the company’s bad practices, while the rest was to be put towards the warm home discount? That does not sound to me like it is going to the customers who were victims of the company’s bad practices.
I am surprised by that point, because the powers are in the Energy Bill and will take effect when it gets Royal Assent.
We need a big debate on energy and climate change, and I hope that we keep having the debate not just today, and not just in the House, but over the next year and across the country. There are difficult issues in the debate, such as the trilemma of making sure that we decarbonise, keep the lights on and do so in an affordable way. It is not only this country that has to face those challenges: they are being faced across the world and especially in other European countries that face the same rises in gas prices that we are struggling with.
The solutions are not easy. They are often complicated. I have been grateful for the right hon. Lady’s support during the passage of the Energy Bill—it may be qualified support, but it was support—but on this issue we obviously have a different set of policies. We agree that there are problems—not enough competition and people are struggling with bills—and we have to produce a solution for them. What we have heard from the official Opposition is irresponsible, ill-thought-through populist nonsense that will not assist a proper debate. Any analysis of the policies that are being served up soon reveals major flaws. I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to reject the motion, and I invite the Opposition to think again and to act, for once, in the national interest.
The Secretary of State spoke for just over 35 minutes. Nothing he said will have given any comfort to my constituents, or to anyone suffering as a result of the energy crisis. Perhaps he should reflect on what he has said and come back with something that will mean a lot more to people struggling with their household bills at this difficult time.
My hon. Friend will be aware that thousands of people in Chesterfield have signed a petition in favour of the policy we are debating today. After today, rather than send them a long letter, I will send them the Secretary of State’s speech, so they can see exactly what the Liberal Democrats think of the struggles they are facing.
Absolutely, although I imagine my hon. Friend’s constituents would fall asleep after five minutes rather than read the speech in its entirety.
As winter bites and the nights become colder, many of our constituents are again worrying about the cost of heating their home. Wholesale energy costs have increased by only 1.7% this year, but the average bills that Glaswegian families have had to pay have rocketed by more than 10%. According to Fuel Poverty Evidence Review, more than 800,000 Scottish households—almost 35% of Scots—are fuel-poor, and spend 10% or more of their household income on energy.
What my constituents know, what I know and what the entire country knows, with the apparent exception of both the Prime Minister and the First Minister of Scotland, is that the British energy market is broken. It is dominated by only six companies, which collectively supply 99% of British households and generate more than two thirds of the country’s electricity.
According to figures from the House of Commons Library, last year UK electricity prices increased by 5.7% on average, while the EU average was a fall of 3.5%. In fact, the UK had the highest increase of all the G7 and EU countries, bar Japan. Last year, the UK had the third highest prices in this area. Eight years ago it was little better—the fifth highest in the EU. Why does the hon. Gentleman think that the UK consistently pays the highest energy prices in the developed world?
The hon. Gentleman highlights the need to fix a broken market across the UK. The bizarre thing is that he wants to leave the UK, but stay in the UK energy market. That is against the interests of the people of Scotland. I will come on to the wider policy of the Scottish nationalists in a moment.
Given that we have had price hikes of more than £300 since the last election, and at the same time more than £7 billion of profits have gone to the shareholders of the big energy companies, does that not highlight the case for breaking the monopoly of the big six companies?
I am sorry, but I have given way twice already.
Last week, we saw the big six sit before the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change and claim that prices in the past few years have been driven by wholesale costs, when it has already been demonstrated that that is not the case. That was confirmed by some of the smaller companies, one of which told the Committee:
“I can’t explain any of these price rises… I have been somewhat confused by looking at the explanations for the price rises that we’ve seen in the past three or four weeks.”
There have been billions of pounds’ worth of profit while pensioners in my constituency face the impossible choice of heating or eating this winter. What could be more indicative of a broken market than one that leaves our most vulnerable citizens unprotected at a time of greatest need, solely in the name of higher profits?
The problem is not simply the behaviour of the energy giants. My constituents are literally paying the price of being trapped between an uncaring, out-of-touch Tory Government pursuing cuts and profit at any cost, and a distracted Scottish Government desperately trying to frame any and every problem as a reason for independence—two Governments more interested in electoral dividing lines and narrow ideology than in improving the lives of the Scottish people. They are choosing to stand up for the vested interests of the big six energy companies and boost their profits while Scottish families struggle to pay their bills. It is indeed a sad day when Governments become a cheerleader for the energy companies, instead of putting struggling people first.
Scots are now faced with a crippling combination of rising living costs and frozen wages that have created a cost of living crisis that both Governments are failing to address. Disappointingly, however, Alex Salmond wishes only to talk about the powers he wants rather than getting on and using the powers he has to make a difference. There is now an interesting coalition in the context of the constitutional debate in Scotland. We have a coalition of the Scottish National party, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and the big six energy companies all standing up for their own interests, not the interests of the people of Scotland. The Prime Minister’s policy was not announced first by him: the first person to announce the Prime Minister’s policy on energy prices was the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, at the SNP conference. She said that the SNP wanted to take the cost off the energy bill and instead put it on the tax bill, meaning that people who are working hard will continue to have to pay the price while big energy companies will get away scot-free. Those are the wrong priorities, and they are damaging.
What else have we heard from the nationalists? They want not just to let energy companies off meeting their responsibilities for renewables, but give them a massive tax cut. They want to cut corporation tax, which will mean that after independence they will have more, not less, profits. What is even more confusing is that they say—we have heard it already from Mr MacNeil—that the UK energy market is broken and that is why we need independence. Their policy, however, is to say, “Let’s break away from the United Kingdom, but let’s share the UK energy market.” That is not in the best interests of Scotland. Scotland makes up 8% of the UK population, yet one third of spending on renewables is spent in Scotland, so the whole of the UK is contributing, through their energy bills, to supporting the renewables industry. Do we honestly think that one third of renewables spending will continue to be spent in Scotland after independence? I do not think so. Independence would break the historic pooling of resources across the UK for the benefit of all.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the purchase of renewable energy in the Republic of Ireland?
Absolutely. We have not heard about Ireland for a long time. I am happy to consider the example of Ireland to show why we are better off in the UK. Corporation tax in Ireland is half the UK rate, but unemployment is double that in the UK. That shows us how working in partnership with our friends and neighbours in England, Wales and Northern Ireland benefits bill payers not just in Scotland, but across the UK.
I want to highlight a positive example in my constituency and my city of what a caring administration can do to help people who are struggling at this difficult time. The
Labour-led council in Glasgow, which, despite facing more than £150 million in budget cuts from the Scottish Government, has again stepped up to protect Glasgow pensioners over the age of 80 by offering a £100 winter fuel payment to those struggling to meet the costs of energy this winter. That is a Labour council using its powers to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. It is not making excuses about why it cannot or will not act, and it is not looking to pass the buck or put the blame on to someone else. It is not pointing fingers, or using other people’s misery as a basis to promote a political agenda or independence. Instead, it is providing a lifeline to thousands and responding to the cost of living crisis affecting our constituents. I am proud that on the Labour Benches we are standing up for British consumers.
Under a Labour Government, we will not just break up the big six energy companies’ monopoly, but ensure fairness in the system and cut bills. For the people in my constituency, 38,549 households will have their bills cut if a Labour Government are returned at the next general election. We will save a typical household £120 and an average business £1,800, at a time when household budgets are being squeezed. Labour will not stand by but take action, as Glasgow city council has done, to help hard-pressed Scottish and UK families. We will put people first, while others continue to put their ideologies and political obsessions before the interests of the people of Scotland and the UK. We will tackle the cost of living crisis that is denied by the UK Government and the Scottish Government, despite official figures from the House of Commons Library that confirm that working people are £1,500 a year worse off under those Governments. Prices have risen faster than wages in 39 of the past 40 months, on both the First Minister’s and the Prime Minister’s watch; and chief executives have enjoyed pay increases averaging 7%, while public sector workers have had to endure real-terms pay cuts and worsening conditions. Tackling energy prices is crucial to easing the burdens on family incomes, which are symptomatic of a problem that these Governments are simply unable or unwilling to address.
As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday, the Government have nothing to say about our plans for the living wage, the falling value of the minimum wage or zero-hours contracts. They are silent because they believe in a race to the bottom and they know these things create the low-wage, high-profit economy that they seek and fundamentally believe in. It is an economy where profits of £7 billion and tax cuts for the richest peacefully co-exist every single day with millions of people living in poverty. It is an economy that prioritises six large companies over the well-being of 60 million people.
The Opposition want real action to help British families: a price freeze while our broken energy market is fixed; a regulator that can cut unjustified price rises; a ring fence between the generation and supply businesses of the energy companies to ensure proper transparency and to force energy companies to trade the energy they produce in the open market; and a new simple tariff structure that people can understand. People in this country deserve action to help them during the winter months, not the damaging ideology of this Tory Government.
I put on the record my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, including my presidency of National Energy Action, the country’s leading fuel poverty charity.
Anybody listening to the speech from Caroline Flint will have been oblivious to the fact that this country faces an energy crunch. There is no doubt that it is coming. We can debate whether it will be in the latter part of this decade or in the middle of it, but clearly we need an enormous amount of new investment if we are to deliver the energy security we need. I make no apology, therefore, for starting my speech by talking about energy security. We cannot have affordability without security of supply.
I will not get involved in the private discussion between the Labour party and the Scottish National party, which seems to be creeping into this debate, but it is a matter of regret that new nuclear power plant will not be built in Scotland as well as England.
Without the necessary investment, we will see not the lights going out, as people sometimes say, but brown-outs, where major energy users are asked to come off line for a period, and a price spike, which will have very damaging consequences for businesses and consumers. We need huge investment, therefore, in a range of different sectors. As part of the solution, we need to reform the market to bring in more investment than we have seen for many years. The situation was bad under the last Labour Government, but it goes back much further. Although we recognise the need for others to enter the market, I am disturbed by part of this debate, because we cannot secure such investment without the big six. We need the big six alongside other players in the market, and were we to drive them away, it would be much more difficult to deliver the necessary security of supply.
Market reform is part of the process, but until recently, so has been political consensus. When the right hon. Lady reflects on her speech today, I hope she will consider its impact in the boardrooms of Spain, Germany, France and elsewhere around the world. They will be saying, “Is this a party that welcomes our involvement and future investment in the UK?” I can assure her that she is introducing a degree of political risk, making it more difficult to secure the investment we need if we are to deliver the affordability we want.
Is my hon. Friend aware that when the Leader of the Opposition announced the price freeze, £1 billion was wiped off the energy stock market overnight?
That did happen, but it is actually worse than that, because to deliver the £100 billion-plus we need invested in our low-carbon sector, the companies investing need to borrow money, and the greater the political risk, the higher the interest on that borrowing. If the cost of borrowing increases by even 1%, the result will be a dead-weight cost of £1 billion a year on consumers’ energy bills—just to pay for Labour’s political risk.
I will not, because we are all on a strict time limit.
Some of the projects that Labour says it cares about most will be hardest hit. Low-carbon projects are lumpier and require more investment upfront and so are most difficult to finance. I am talking about nuclear projects, renewables projects and in due course, I hope, carbon capture and storage. If companies looking to invest in those areas think that the terms under which they might invest could be changed retrospectively to their disadvantage, they will move away from the UK. We have to make this country more attractive to investment than elsewhere. If we do not, companies looking at international opportunities—
I will not. I know the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for nuclear, and I want that nuclear power station built on Anglesey almost as much as he does. I care very strongly about that.
If we are to get the necessary investment, we must make a compelling case for why companies should come here, rather than go somewhere else.
We have heard reference to the decarbonisation target, but there is nothing in the motion about how that can be met. The measures in the motion would make it harder to get the investment we need to reach that target. Labour is going back to what it has done before, setting grandstanding, ambitious targets without putting in place the road map necessary to meet them. When we came into government, we had to put in place the renewables road map and the fuel poverty road map to address some of those challenges.
The motion is not only counter-productive, but shows breathtaking ignorance of the factors that have driven up prices. We know that prices in this country over recent years have been driven up more by the wholesale price of gas, which is beyond—I believe—even the control of the right hon. Lady and Governments of any colour. The International Energy Agency says that we are moving into a golden age of gas, but it warns us not to assume that it will be cheap, as countries such as Japan and Germany move from nuclear to gas and growth in China and India means a greater demand for gas there as well. Those will remain the issues really determining prices.
Labour’s policy is based on a deliberate falsehood about the causes of energy price increases and would be counter-productive, even if companies did not increase their prices to take account of it. It might play well with focus groups and work as a short-term political initiative, but it will do massive long-term damage to our ability to attract investment into the country, and in the process will do massive long-term damage to consumers, who will end up picking up the tab. That is especially unfortunate, because there are areas in the motion—for example, on transparency—where we could build on Ofgem’s work and deliver the common ground that many of us care passionately about.
So what do we do? First, we need to have an honest debate about the factors driving up prices and to link that with an understanding of the long-term investment we need in this country and how we are going to secure it. As the Secretary of State said, we need once more to take politics out of energy policy, just as John Hutton and Malcolm Wicks did and as we tried to do in the early years of this Government. That is an important objective in its own right. We also need action now on the changes that Ofgem is proposing. These decisions should be taken by the regulator, not by politicians. One of the changes that we have made is to say that the Government should set the policy framework and that a robust regulator should then deal with how the market operates, rather than having politicians constantly wanting to be regulators as well as policy makers. We also need to focus on ease of switching, and we need to do more to ensure that people are on the best available tariff.
Finally, I want to talk about what we in the Government can do to reduce the impact on bills. We could take some of the extra charges off the bills. In this regard, I have some sympathy with the amendment tabled by the Scottish nationalists. There are two elements of our energy bills that are highly regressive. The charges are borne by consumers including those on the lowest incomes, but the benefits often go to those on much higher incomes. They relate to energy efficiency and to feed-in tariffs for microgeneration, and I hope that the Government’s review of those policies will look at what could be done to fund those areas out of general taxation. They are good, important policies that we should support, but the way in which they are paid for at the moment means that people on the lowest incomes are paying a disproportionate amount towards their delivery. The Government have rightly decided to review that matter, and I hope that that will offer some early relief for consumers.
This is an important debate. We need to get away from the simplistic measures proposed in the Opposition’s motion. We also need to take this opportunity to have a debate about this country’s long-term energy needs, and about how we are going to meet security of supply requirements in a low-carbon way and, above all, in a way that will keep energy affordable now and into the future.
The Secretary of State apologised to the House at the beginning of his speech, saying that he would not be here for the summing-up speeches, and the House accepted that. I was rather disappointed, however, that he did not comply with the long-held convention of the House by staying in his place to hear the following speaker from the Opposition Benches. That was disappointing, to say the least, and I feel obliged to comment on it.
I was once told that if someone stands by the side of a river and watches the logs go down, like the tide of mankind, they will see them float back again if they stand there long enough. I was reminded of that when I watched the energy company executives giving evidence to the Energy and Climate Change Committee last week. That exotic gathering of four had in its midst three representatives of the big six. Their evidence mimicked the three wise monkeys. They saw no evil in the hiking of energy prices, they did not hear the universal condemnation of their greed, and they spoke in glowing terms of their care and compassion while British consumers are suffering charges that have been fabricated by their rigging of the market.
I served on the Standing Committee of the Bill that privatised the electricity industry. I recall that the Secretary of State at the time was Mrs Thatcher’s favourite boy, Cecil Parkinson. He was followed by John Wakeham. I note that there is a private Member’s Bill relating to the legacy of Mrs Thatcher. Well, the things we are discussing today are her legacy. I remember another former Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan—by then the Earl of Stockton—accusing the Thatcher Government of selling the family silver. That is exactly what they did when they sold off the electricity, gas, coal and water industries, and we are in deep water today because of that legacy.
“This island is made mainly of coal and surrounded by fish. Only an organising genius could produce a shortage of coal and fish at the same time.”
The Tories, past and present, were and are such organising geniuses.
Yes. Indeed, half the world’s energy is produced by coal.
We are an island people and, in my younger life when I was a miner, we were self-sufficient in energy. It is thanks to Government failures that we now have to go cap in hand to the Russians for gas, to the Chinese for coal—they are now buying up coal all over the world—and the French for nuclear-generated electricity.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, although the Secretary of State did, in his generosity, let me have a go. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about coal. Over 50% of this country’s capacity comes from coal. Was he as surprised as I was to see that Labour had tabled an amendment to the Energy Bill yesterday whose effect would be to close down the existing coal stations more quickly than is already planned. Does that not seem odd?
I have been in this House a while now, and I have seen policies from both sides. There is too keen an opinion about being anti-coal. I know that Caroline Lucas and the green movement, and some coalition Members, are anti-coal, but it is a fact of life that our energy would be a lot cheaper today if we had not closed down the Scottish mining industry. I attended an Adjournment debate today called by my hon. Friend Sir Alan Meale, in which he described how the few miners there are left had been deprived of their concessionary fuel. He talked about how pensioners, widows and disabled miners had lost out on their pension rights. This is all because there is no mining industry to support our people in retirement. That is quite shameful.
Since 2011, the cost of energy has risen at an average rate of 1.6% a year, but the big six have increased prices by an average of 10.4% a year. I have listened to those who defend that situation, including the Secretary of State, who was so illiberal that it was untrue. He was more Osborne-ite than Lib Dem. I also listened to Charles Hendry. They seem to justify not freezing energy prices and not correcting the rigged market because to do so would interfere with investment. If those who are taking us for a ride by rigging the markets are saying, “If you stop me rigging the market, I will not invest”, my response would be that Governments have to govern. We cannot be held hostage by those monopolies. The situation in Scotland in recent weeks, in which the Government were being held to ransom, should worry us all.
The truth is that my constituents are hurting, as are yours, Madam Deputy Speaker, and we need a Government who are on their side, not one who make excuses, support the bosses and the privileged few, reward the wealthy and punish the poor. That is not what this Parliament should be doing.
I am getting nostalgic as I recall another one of my favourite quotes—that it is “the duty of government to seek to improve the quality and standard of life of its poorest citizen. Any Government that doesn’t do that is immoral”. We need to revisit that quote. Everything we do in this place should be driven not by the need to punish the poor for their poverty, but by the need to help them and lift them out of their poverty. When Governments and Parliaments fail at doing that, it has to be examined.
The hon. Gentleman provided a quote on how not helping the poor is immoral, and I agree with him; of course that is right. If, however, we look at what happened to fuel poverty under the previous Government, we find that it went up by 50% in the last five years of that Administration—from 2.5 million to 4.7 million people. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me, therefore, that the conduct of the previous Government was immoral?
I could give the hon. Gentleman the obvious answer, but I will give him the polite answer. I do not welcome comments like that from Government Members when they are three years into their own government but always want to talk about the previous Government, especially when prices have been rigged, increases have been imposed on working people and the poor have been punished. All I hear is a young ambitious Conservative Back Bencher who wants to get on to the Front Bench by talking about what happened years or generations ago. I invite the hon. Gentleman and his hon. and right hon. Friends to consider what I said earlier: it is his duty, my duty and our duty to seek to improve the quality of life of our poorest citizens. We are not doing that. When the Labour leader talks about freezing prices and sorting out this rigged market, it might not be a panacea, but it is a good start.
We all agree that there is a real problem here and that the real problem is energy bills and fuel poverty, not just for consumers, but for industry, too. We hear about energy-intensive industries closing all the time.
It is refreshing that we are here talking about reducing energy prices. In a lot of energy debates, I usually go through the Division Lobbies trying to stop the Opposition from increasing energy prices. We have divided, for example, on the decarbonisation target and on a perfectly respectable and reasonable proposal from the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend Gregory Barker to reduce the solar tariff from six times grid parity to four times grid parity. As I mentioned earlier, Labour tabled an amendment in the House of Lords last night that will increase bills. Let us agree, however, that we are on the same side, at least in terms of our objective—we want to decrease bills.
Before I explore that further, let me highlight an inconvenient truth that is at the heart of this debate. That inconvenient truth is comparability with other countries in the EU. I heard the shadow Secretary of State make two observations about other EU countries. I think she said that Spain already had a cap. That is true; she is right. Spain’s energy prices, however—for gas and electricity—are higher than ours. I do not think there is much point in having a cap if energy prices are higher than ours. The right hon. Lady also mentioned Scandinavia and its pool as a model for her pool. Again, if she looks at the gas and electricity prices in Denmark and Sweden, she will see that they are the highest in the EU—considerably higher than ours. We need to be careful, therefore, to look at these things in the round. [Interruption.] The shadow Secretary of State intervenes from a sedentary position; if she wants to intervene, I will be far more generous than she was.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned comparative prices and specifically mentioned Denmark. Is not one of the problems the fact that consumers here in Britain have to pay higher prices because much of the responsibility for conservation is being placed on those who purchase power—consumers—rather than on others whose main concern seems to be to deliver to their shareholders?
I am going to talk about progressive versus regressive ways of paying. Let me make the point again that among the 27 countries in the EU, our gas prices are the 26th highest. If a cartel is being operated, it is not a very good cartel. That is not to say that consumers are not in real difficulty now. One of the big issues, and one of the distinctive features of our energy market, is not so much the unit price as the fact that our housing stock is spectacularly poor in terms of energy insulation.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the prices are lower, but can he explain why in the last few years the increase has been larger than in any other European country?
No, I cannot, because I am not an expert on the market. I am merely trying to establish whether the absolute prices that we are paying vis-à-vis our European competitors indicate the existence of a cartel, as has been claimed on many occasions. That does not appear to me to be the case, but someone can always intervene on me—actually, they cannot, because that would be the third intervention and I would not be given extra time, but someone could always discuss the point with me in future.
The fact remains that we have the 26th highest gas prices out of 27 in Europe and we need to be clear about what problem we are trying to solve. The problem that we should be trying to solve is the problem of our housing stock, whose standards need to be raised to the level of the standards in the rest of Europe. Germany’s gas prices are 40% higher than ours, but its gas bills are lower than ours. Why? Because its housing is better insulated and better built.
I have five points to make. My first point is that whatever we decide to do on the basis of the various reviews, we should not reverse the thrust of our policy on insulation. We should not give up on the energy company obligation, the green deal and smart meters. I do not agree with Caroline Lucas on many issues, but I do agree that far and away the most effective way of making progress on energy in general is to ensure that there is better conservation and more efficiency.
Secondly, we need to make the market work better—
No, I will not, because I have already given way twice.
I welcome the proposal for a competition review: it would clear the air. If there is indeed no cartel, surely everyone should welcome it. I also welcome the proposal for 24-hour switching, although, having reflected on why I might not switch as often as I should, I concluded that it was still too difficult. I have just moved house, and it took a long time for me to manage to speak to those guys on the phone. I suggest to Members on both Front Benches that we should introduce a fining system. If it takes more than 10 or 12 rings for any of the big six to answer the phone and transfer callers to someone who can deal with their query, that company should be fined. I bet that if we introduced such a system, we would find that the energy companies hired more people and dealt with calls more efficiently, and switching—whether in 24 hours or not—would be much easier.
Of course we need more new entrants to the market, but I have a further, serious criticism to make of the big six. They have described a margin of 4% or 5% as reasonable, which is an entirely spurious observation. I have no idea whether such a margin is reasonable, but the point is that we should evaluate them on the basis of their return on capital employed. A margin of 4% is a huge margin for a foreign exchange dealer and for a petrol retailer, but a very small margin for any other retailer. When someone asks if £7 million a day is too much profit or too little, that is a very hard question to answer. The big six are entitled to a reasonable return on their capital employed. We should focus on that, and they should focus on it too when they are telling us how reasonable they are.
I am sorry; I will not.
I understand that a former Prime Minister has suggested that, if we experienced a particularly cold winter and, as a consequence, the energy companies made more money than they had budgeted to make, a windfall tax might be an appropriate response. The companies could argue that something in the other direction should be provided in the event of a warm winter, but I agree with the former Prime Minister that if they make additional, incremental, supranormal profits over and above what they would have made in a normal winter, a windfall tax—or what a consultant would presumably describe as a profit-sharing mechanism—is fair enough.
There might need to be structural changes in the industry. If the market is not working, I agree with the Opposition that they are entitled to intervene. We have just intervened in the private pensions industry. I campaigned for that, and it was right. If this market is not working, they are right to intervene. My problem is that I have looked very hard but I genuinely find it difficult to see the evidence that the market is not working to the extent that they say. We must remember, too, that we need these guys to put £200 billion into our infrastructure in the next decade.
My third point is about what I consider to be our increasingly unilateral position on carbon emissions leadership. We need to have a grown-up discussion about this, and the House needs to understand that our carbon emissions are 20% lower than Germany’s per unit of GDP and per capita. We are not a high-carbon country, yet as we see Europe and Germany reining back—unabated building of coal-power stations and vetoing the emissions trading system and all that goes with that—it is not reasonable for us to be constrained by unilateral carbon leadership. If we are going to do that, we need to be honest about the cost. Frankly, too often people say some of these policies are cost-neutral or even cost-effective. They are not; there is a cost to them. It may be a price worth paying, and maybe we should pay it, but at least let us be honest.
My fourth point is about the balance between regressive and progressive taxes. I agree that putting all these charges on to bills is particularly regressive, and if the current review finds that certain parts should come into general taxation, I will support that.
My final point is that we should have more honesty in this debate. There is a cost to going green. It is not enough for those on the Front Benches to say that in 10 years’ time it will be seen to be more cost-effective to be doing this than not. That is quite unlikely; it is quite unlikely that we will discover we have to do these things for the sake of the planet, as opposed to burning coal, which would be much cheaper, and that there is no cost to it. There is a cost to this; we should take it on the chin and discuss things in that context.
The energy companies should stop talking about their 4% or 5% margins, which is a ridiculous concept, and start talking about what their return on capital is. I do not believe it is an unreasonable return, although I may be wrong, but at least let us be honest.
It is a pleasure to be speaking for the first time under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I congratulate you on your election to the post.
I am very pleased that the former Energy Minister, Charles Hendry, is still in his place, because he is right that there was consensus between my good friend the late Malcolm Wicks and him, and they had a good working relationship. When he talks about political risk, however, he should not look across to this side of the Chamber. He should look within his own party and within the coalition, and see the debate within the coalition, which is causing divisions on energy policies today.
I am pleased this issue is high on the agenda. I have been banging on about energy prices for some time and I am glad it is now in the political mainstream. I am glad my party and party leader are leading on this issue, too, because I am afraid the Government are for ever in the wake on these issues. Only 18 months ago the Prime Minister had a summit in No. 10 Downing street. He was there for a few minutes—he was very busy—but he said he had sorted the energy companies out on prices. When I intervened on the then Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, in a debate and asked him whether he had told the energy companies to hold their prices down, he replied, “No need, they’re already going to do it on their own”, but here we are today with rises in prices that people and business cannot afford.
My hon. Friend and I had the dubious pleasure of attending that Select Committee hearing last week, and comments about a modest return have been made here today, too. The Centrica boss said to the CBI yesterday that £2.7 billion was a modest return. That is £7.4 million per day, or £86 per second. Is that a modest return, or is it robbery?
My hon. Friend will recall that I challenged the Centrica bosses. Indeed, I challenged the CEO of Centrica not to take his bonus this year, because his salary and bonus combined have gone up by 38% since 2008 while bills from his company have gone up by 36%. I am a customer of British Gas, although perhaps not for much longer. To be fair to the CEO, Sam Laidlaw, he has decided not to take his bonus this year. I hope that others will listen and follow suit, because it is immoral that these companies are saying, “We are making only a modest amount” yet they are paying themselves more than a modest bonus out of their profit. They tell us that the internal market between generation and retail is working okay and that they are separate entities, but they pay their bonuses altogether as one company, and they take a huge amount in dividends for their shareholders.
Like my hon. Friend, I have raised this issue over a long period. I thought two or three years ago that we should have had a proper investigation into whether there is a cartel. When I was on holiday in Cornwall a couple of years ago, five tankers were lined up for a couple of weeks. If someone is telling me that something is not going on in that market, I do not know what to say.
I used to work on oil tankers and gas tankers, and I know that they stay at anchor for some time waiting for the prices to vary before they empty their cargo and get the price for it. That is an important issue.
The energy market is flawed, as Government Members have actually agreed. The Secretary of State, who made an appalling speech and left quickly, did not tackle the issues at all and did not come up with any suggestions. He said that the Government were doing things for the consumer, but the reality is that the Select Committee and others have been lobbying hard for Ofgem, the regulator, to help the consumer. It is doing slightly more but not enough—and it is too late. It is a disgrace that the Secretary of State leaves so quickly after making so many interventions in this debate—he is not even prepared to sit there. The energy team has been reduced by half a Minister, as one of them is doing a job share with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, yet the Secretary of State cannot sit down there. Instead he has to get a Whip to sit on the Front Bench because the team has been depleted. Energy is at the top of people’s agenda, but it is way down at the bottom of this Government’s priorities.
David Mowat asked why, compared with Europe, we are paying less for our bills. One reason—I have told him this before and I hope he is listening—is that people in many other European countries pay VAT at 20% or more on their fuel and energy costs. I am sure that he is not suggesting that this country takes that approach so that we can make a comparison—
For other things the hon. Gentleman has to look not to Europe but to his own Front-Bench team, because the ECO—energy company obligation—was introduced this January by the Government. The Prime Minister boasted that it was one of his flagships of the greenest Government ever and about how the green levies were going up, yet only last week he said he was going to change all that. The Prime Minister is making policy on the hoof—I will never accuse him of being consistent on anything and he is certainly not consistent on energy policy.
Of course I will. Can the hon. Gentleman give me one example of when any Government Member boasted about levies going up? We may have boasted about policies, but when did we boast about levies going up?
The Prime Minister has said numerous times on the record—I will find this and send it to the Minister—that his Government are the greenest ever and are putting on extra green levies; when he compares our schemes with the Government’s schemes he boasts that these levies are actually increasing to help on that. That is exactly what the Prime Minister has done, and I am sorry that the Minister does not understand his own Prime Minister—it is complicated at times.
There we are. I am sure that the Minister agrees with the Prime Minister on that, and I thank my hon. Friend. Another levy that this Government have introduced unilaterally and which has pushed prices up is the carbon floor price. It is an Osborne levy if ever there was one. Again, the Government boasted in the Budget about how they were using these levies to control companies and push up costs on business. Those who blame Europe should remember that this is in addition to the European emissions trading scheme, and that companies in Britain are paying more because of what this Government have done this year—the levy came into being in April. It is no use their blaming Europe, or previous Governments. They must take responsibility, because all our constituents are paying the price of this Government's energy policy. That is why we are having the debate today.
I want to mention small businesses, because they are suffering more than the domestic customer. Average rises for small businesses, which do not have the luxury of comparison sites on which they can switch easily, have been up to 20%. I hope that the Government—and, indeed, my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint—will consider helping those businesses. They cannot absorb the cost, so they pass it on to the customers. That means that we pay for those rises.
I am a member of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change and we had a robust discussion with the energy companies last week. Let us be honest. We hear the Government talking about Labour’s big six, and the Prime Minister leads that. They forget that in 1993, Sir John Major—that Marxist, who has been accused of being a red by many people for wanting to intervene in the market—set up the integrated system we have now and allowed the then big three to dominate the energy market. Let us not take any lessons about how the big six were set up. Flawed privatisation policies and the former Prime Minister’s interventions allowed the companies to be both generators and retailers. That is the situation. I know that it does not sit comfortably with the Conservative party, but it is a fact and I challenge the Minister to say otherwise.
We have talked about green levies and wholesale prices.
I promise the House that I will not make a habit of jumping up and down to intervene before I get the chance to wind up. Will the hon. Gentleman give a little of his speech to the 13 years in which the Labour party had the opportunity to shape energy policy? Will he defend what went on in those 13 years?
I am certainly happy to do that. I sat on the Committee that considered the Energy Bill in 2008, which helped many places. It even helped to set up the Hinkley Point agreement that we just reached. The Liberal Democrats voted against the Bill. The Energy
Act 2010 gave more powers and responsibilities to the regulator to deal with prices. I remind the Minister that we did not get into office in 2010 and I wish that he would use those powers, which he and his party supported at the time. I am happy. We enacted the Climate Change Act 2008 and we set up the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to deal with legacy waste in our country. We have a record of which we can be very proud.
We are in the Chamber today after three years of a Government under whom we have seen rocketing prices, and all they want to do is blame somebody else. It is time the Government stood up and were accountable for their actions. The Liberal Democrats are helping them—I am not just having a go at the Tories. We need to get consumer rights, which is why I was happy to hear my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State say in response to an intervention I made earlier that under a Labour Government, a new regulator would look after customers who were not on the gas mains. Switching and the reduction for those on dual fuel do not apply to lots of constituents in this country, and we need to extend the reach. I am very pleased by that commitment, because I have been asking this Government to introduce such a provision—I have asked each Minister, and there have been quite a few—and they have refused to do so.
In this country, we need a party and a Parliament that stand up for the customer—for small businesses and individuals who, year after year, not as a spike but as a trend, are being ripped off by the energy companies. It is time for Parliament to act and today is an opportunity for us to do so. I am proud to support the motion tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. When we are in government, we will make the changes that the people of this country deserve.
Labour's 20-month price freeze has hit the headlines and will prove superficially popular with the voters, but there are many reasons why it will not work, much as we all want to reduce people’s bills. It is a hopeless strategy to try to control the sales price of businesses that have volatile raw material costs, because prices will go up before the freeze as companies try to hedge against the risks of a Labour election win. In fact, that has probably already begun. Prices will go up again after the freeze as companies seek to recover any losses that they think they have sustained.
During any freeze prices will stay artificially high even if raw material costs go down. Having begun to take the drug of price fixing it would be hard to kick the habit after 20 months. Why not 24 or 30, or doing it again the following winter, or the one after that? The proposal risks further damage to the market as a result of uncertainty, which may well spread to other industries. There would be huge political pressure to freeze prices in other sectors, risking further chaos and a return to the situation facing us in the 1970s.
This all has to be paid for—that is the economic inevitability. History shows that price fixing does not work and damages the economy in turn. The willingness of Caroline Flint to interfere with the market would unsettle other sectors, break some smaller suppliers such as First Utility, which was promoted with the switch of the
Leader of the Opposition. The supplier has gone public and explained that its most famous customer’s policy would put it out of business.
The UK energy system clearly needs modernisation and massive investment. The proposed price freeze increases the political risks for this country and for its new investors. All of this will put up long-term prices—the consumer will pay. Any Government who freeze prices would undermine the role of the independent regulator, Ofgem, and no doubt would succumb to the temptation to recruit their own staff of bureaucrats and inspectors to enforce their policy.
We should ensure that Ofgem does its job; keep up the pressure on the big six suppliers; look at encouraging more new entrants; do lots more to save energy in the first place; get a fair deal for people on pre-payment cards and meters; ensure that consumers receive bills that they can understand; support the development of many more green energy provisions on a local basis such as the Wedmore power co-operative solar array, which opened this weekend in my patch; and make it swift and easy to switch suppliers.
Finally, it is unclear whether the shadow Secretary of State was advocating a windfall tax rather than a price freeze. However, such a tax seems to be a better idea by far as there would be an opportunity to redistribute any windfall to those who need the most help. Every pound spent to support those with disproportionately high bills, particularly on energy-saving measures for those very households, is a pound well spent. Planning a price freeze demonstrates a lack of understanding of business, and shows the impact of interfering in this market, which would cost consumers more, not less.
We have had an interesting debate. I am sorry that the Secretary of State has left the Chamber, but I note that he apologised for doing so. I found it astonishing, however, that he asked for consensus, but went on to make one of the most provocative speeches that I have ever heard in the House, particularly on a subject where he is on a weak wicket. I can imagine going round my constituency speaking to elderly folks and people with disabilities, and people—far too many—suffering from fuel poverty and saying, “Well, we’re not doing anything about the cost of energy, but we’ve reached consensus.” I do not believe that consensus can be reached because, like many of my hon. Friends, I have been involved in these issues for more than 10 years. If right hon. and hon. Members have a minute or two, they might want to study the debate that I secured in Westminster Hall on this subject on
A few weeks later I put a question to our own Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on
I support the motion before the House and the proposition from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and colleagues on the Front Bench. It resonates with long-suffering consumers. The commitment to a price freeze is absolutely right, and the fact that it is new, even from those on my own Front Bench, whether in government or in opposition, does not take away from its validity.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that under the previous Conservative Government a big battle went on in the House one Friday morning, especially among Members of the governing party, in relation to an increase in cold weather payments that the then Government would not concede? Does my right hon. Friend recall that it was a Labour Government who created the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which the Minister represents? The Government say that the Labour Government did not take these matters seriously. We did, and we introduced housing insulation for the less well-off.
As always, my hon. Friend makes a valid point. I know that he represents Coventry South, but as he comes from Coatbridge, I am not surprised at the logic that he introduces to the debate.
I support the motion before the House. I do not believe that some of the ideas that we have heard from Government Members, including from the Secretary of State, about tinkering around the edges, transferring green taxes to general taxation and other measures that have been mentioned for over a decade would necessarily work. We heard yet again about switching. Well, I hope it works this time. On previous occasions the experience of my constituents has been that no sooner did they switch to one company than that company put up its prices. There was therefore very little point in them taking that advice. I question whether switching will work now.
Given the seriousness of the problems, there is a call for transparency. The veil of secrecy that exists in the energy industries is wholly unacceptable in the modern world, with the massive profits of energy companies and increasing fuel poverty. The energy markets are utterly broken. Surely we as a Parliament are not prepared to accept that without protest, and why should our constituents do so?
In the Government’s response to today’s debate a great deal of faith was placed in the regulators, but I do not share it—not for one second. In the debate that I mentioned at the start of my speech I had quite a lot to say about the regulators.
Rural areas and places such as Northern Ireland are heavily dependent on home heating oil, which means that energy bills are 50% higher on average than even the high bills that people in Great Britain are suffering, but there is no regulation of that sector of the energy market. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that something needs to be done to help those families who are particularly hard hit by very high energy bills?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent and very valid point.
That part of the motion relating to the regulator is very important. I do not believe that Ofgem has done the job it was expected to do, no matter who set it up. I have met Ofgem, written to it and listened to what it had to say. It responded to one of our representations on
We are entitled to ensure that the public are no longer duped about the actual cost of energy. I would have expected that to be the role of a proactive regulator. For example, the four major companies that have raised prices blamed wholesale prices, green levies and network costs for the latest bill increases of between £100 and £150, which have led to an average bill of £1,400 a year. In 2010 npower’s electricity wholesale prices fell by 13%, but that was not passed on to the consumer, and the average wholesale price fell by 4% in 2011 and rose by less than 2% in 2012, yet the company increased retail prices by 5.1%, 7.2% and 9.1% respectively in those years, and E.ON and EDF behaved likewise. More recently, wholesale energy prices rose by 1.7%, but consumers are facing an increase in their bills of 11.1%.
How can that possibly be justified? How can it be said that the market is working and that if we leave it alone things will work out? I do not know about the word “cartel”, but I know that there appears to be a measure of collusion, and certainly a measure of delivering price demands to customers, that cannot be defended. I do not believe that Ofgem is best placed to act in our interests.
I support the commitment to a price freeze and think that it is very welcome. It is right that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench should demand action now. I accept that it will take time to sort things out. If we have not done it in the 10 years to which I have referred—we certainly have not—then 20 months is not a very long time to have the kind of open debate and consultation about energy that I believe the British people are entitled to expect. I also congratulate North Lanarkshire council on its commitment to its house insulation programme.
I realise that many of these things are happening because of the austerity that exists in Britain today. Nevertheless, unless we have an energy strategy that is fair about prices, the environment, markets and proper regulation, our people will suffer. I do not believe that it is in the interests of right hon. and hon. Member to allow such a situation to develop or beyond the wit of this Parliament, and indeed this Government, to do something about it now.
I think that this is the first time I have been in action while you have been in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, so let me congratulate you on your election.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr Clarke. I listened carefully to Albert Owen, and I agree with his views about nuclear power. Nevertheless, I think that the Secretary of State made an excellent and powerful speech that drilled some very big holes in the speech by the shadow Secretary of State.
We have to get three things across straight away. First, we cannot talk sensibly about energy policy without noting that commodity prices across the globe are rising, and it is therefore unacceptable to talk about this in a strictly local way. My hon. Friend Charles Hendry made that point very powerfully in connection with rising gas prices having affected overall energy prices.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Does he think that the Labour party may have embarked on a process that will inevitably lead to a comprehensive prices and incomes policy, because when other prices go up, people will look for the same action in those areas? Have not we been there before, and was it not a very uncomfortable space to be in?
That is a good point, and I will deal with it later. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for reminding me to mention it.
Secondly, we cannot talk sensibly about this subject unless or until we understand the economic circumstances in which we live. A lot of people would say that we want lower energy prices, and absolutely we do—the Government are right to emphasise that—but we have to produce some economic growth to help to drive down prices and to drive up wages and salaries where appropriate. We have to get that on the table and well understood.
Thirdly, it is a bit rich for Labour Members to claim that this is all our fault when during 13 years they did not build one single nuclear power station. [Interruption.] They did not, and we have got on with the job. The Government are absolutely right about that.
My main points are these: first, commodity prices are global, and we cannot influence them globally but must respond to them sensibly and locally; secondly, we must consider the economic circumstances; and thirdly, we have the history of failure by the previous Labour Government.
We have to increase capacity, and that is why the Energy Bill is so important. We talk about the big six, but in my constituency we have a large number of small companies and one fairly big one that is not a member of the big six but is a powerful beast nevertheless—Ecotricity, which is busy taking new customers from the big six because of the price rises. That is an example of effective competition being driven, and quite right too, by the arrival of more capacity.
I have a small competitor in the electricity supply market in my constituency as well. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that these smaller competitors would be disadvantaged during a price freeze because in trying to buy energy on the forward market they lack the collateral that the big six have, and therefore, during that period, the big six would be advantaged over the competition?
Not yet, because I am dealing with this point. A price freeze simply freezes the problem and does not enable a solution to be introduced. I have admitted that we need to find ways of driving prices down—of course we do—but a price freeze is not the right way because it will prevent firms from responding normally to the market. As Sir Bob Russell correctly noted, if we start freezing one thing it is not long before we need to freeze a few more things in order to keep up.
That is immensely kind; I thank the hon. Gentleman so much. He talked about the smaller company in his constituency. If it is the one I think it is, its chief executive has said that the reason it was able to keep prices lower was because it had been investing in renewables, not getting hooked up in gas or other fossil fuels. Is that not the conclusion to draw from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks?
That brings me to my next point, which is, ironically, that there is a tension between wanting to have lower prices and protecting the environment. I have often thought that the Department of Energy and Climate Change is both poacher and gamekeeper. We need to continue investing in green energy. I will always promote green energy because my constituency has a lot of important companies that are working extraordinarily hard to develop green technologies. However, we must respond to the price issue as well. That is why the Government are right to calibrate the green taxes more sensibly to reduce prices in the energy market. I get the sense more and more that the Opposition agree that the price freeze is simply idiotic.
I will talk about two other important matters. The first is energy storage. We do not give enough attention to that subject. Energy storage technologies will help and we need to invest in them. I hope that we will see energy storage treated as a capacity in the Energy Bill and that it will be invested in. Liquid air, for example, provides us with an opportunity to store energy and thereby flatten out demand and sort out the trough problems.
My hon. Friend David Mowat spoke sensibly about the need to focus on making houses more energy efficient. Of course we must do that. We have the least energy-efficient houses in Europe in broad terms. We have to continue with the green deal. I am delighted that the Minister is promoting that and that it has got off to a good start. We have to ensure that our houses do not leak energy, but contain it and therefore use less of it. That is one way to reduce bills.
Something that has not been discussed in the debate thus far is competitiveness, not just in this country, but across Europe. In January, the Prime Minister set out the stall for renegotiating our position in the European Union. One of the key points that he made was that we should strengthen the single market in energy. He was absolutely right. We have to recognise that there are lower commodity prices on the continent. We must be able to benefit from those prices. We need to attract investment from the continent and we must invest in the continent so that we have a more competitive and more connected energy policy.
Connectivity is lacking in certain areas. We need more investment in our infrastructure so that we can be sure that whatever form of energy we alight upon can get to the right place in the most cost-effective and efficient way. That is definitely a way to drive down prices. We must set out the stall for increasing competition in the energy market both locally and internationally, with Europe as a target. That would not be a particularly difficult thing to do.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about interconnectivity. Will he therefore explain why the Government have specifically excluded interconnections from their capacity market arrangement? Will he be at the forefront of trying to change that?
It is always great to hear from a fellow member of the Environmental Audit Committee. He asks a very good question. [Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”] And he will get a very good answer. I am referring to connectivity across Europe. I do not think that the remit of the Energy Bill extends that far. There is not sufficient connectivity between England and France. There is no connectivity between Norway and—
No, the hon. Gentleman has had a fair crack of the whip.
In summary, this is about powering through with more competition and ensuring downward pressure on prices, while recognising the global and economic challenges we still face, even though they are being rapidly dealt with by the Government. We cannot talk about a subject as critical as energy without considering those other issues—that is the key point on which I shall conclude.
It is a delight to follow Neil Carmichael; I cannot think of anybody I would rather follow in this debate. I thank my colleagues for initiating this important debate. I want to use this opportunity to talk about my experience and that of my constituents when dealing with energy companies.
I welcome the proposal from the leader of the Labour party to freeze energy bills, certainly for consumers but very much for businesses as well. In my constituency I meet businesses on a regular basis that have been treated appallingly by energy companies and/or their brokers. Businesses have been expected to put down unrealistic bonds or deposits so that they can get energy, and they are also being conned—quite literally—into energy deals that are wholly inappropriate for them. Action needs to be taken.
Let us consider how consumers are treated by energy companies. Over the past few days there has been talk in the press about how energy companies are deliberately hanging on to their customers’ money. I am in no doubt that that is a deliberate policy by some of the energy companies, and I will give the House two or three examples of what energy companies are doing with their customers’ money.
One example is something of which I have personal experience. Until two years ago I had a prepayment meter. Someone on a prepayment meter receives an annual statement that sets out what they have used and what they are likely to use in the next 12 months. It predicts how much energy someone will use, and what the likely cost will be. I decided, understandably, to move to direct debit to reduce the bill. I phoned the energy company—British Gas—and the call handler explained that they had to go through a process of assessing what my bill was likely to be. I pointed out that a prediction had already been made in the annual statement, but of course they insisted on going through the process of counting the number of radiators and asking how many people were in the household. Lo and behold, to nobody’s surprise the company suggested a higher direct debit on a monthly basis than what I had been paying for the past 12 months.
In reality, the company was trying to bamboozle me into paying more per month. I am fairly forthright and insisted that it stuck to a reasonable amount of money, but my concern is that many people, particularly those on prepayment meters, are some of the most vulnerable in our society and could easily have been bamboozled into paying a higher direct debit than they should have paid. I am convinced that that call handler had been encouraged to take people down that route so that they would pay more.
I thank my hon. Friend for kindly giving way. He articulates an important point about vulnerable customers who are paying above the odds on prepayment meters. However, it is not just those on prepayment meters who pay direct debits; we all have the opportunity to do that. I have raised this point before in the House, but is my hon. Friend aware of actions by companies such as E.ON, which was previously my energy provider? I see myself as very forthright, but when I called it to amend my direct debit—I knew I was paying above the odds on a monthly basis—it would not allow me to amend it. I had to pay the price it offered me, and that was it. I had to pay above the odds, and it was essentially allowed to accumulate money from me. That was the only choice offered to me; otherwise I had to pay a quarterly amount, and a much higher price for my energy.
I am obviously not aware of that particular case although I am happy to make representations to E.ON on my hon. Friend’s behalf, and try to get her a better deal. She makes an important point.
My second example is from when I moved house, just over 12 months ago. I stopped the relationship with British Gas to move to another provider, yet the money it was taking from me continued to leave my account. I had to get on the phone and kick up a stink to get the money back. British Gas had retained literally hundreds of pounds that were due to me. That was being done to maximise its profits.
Let me give the House a third example. This one is from a constituent, Alan Valentine, who contacted me this week because of the hullabaloo on energy prices. His mother died in March, and he paid the final bills using British Gas’s automated payment system. Needless to say, a company called Past Due Credit Solutions was soon chasing him for payments he had already made. Mr Valentine states:
“I am concerned mainly that many thousands may be sent demands for bills already paid, many hundreds of whom may be elderly or forgetful, many of whom may then pay the bill again.”
Those are clear examples of energy companies doing all they can to maximise their handling and holding of consumers’ money. Those behaviours are wholly unacceptable.
Before my hon. Friend moves on from energy companies, does he find it perplexing that there seems to be no Government action against energy companies that are quietly getting rid of existing tariffs such as the E.ON pensioner fixed-rate tariff, which are designed to protect people? They are doing so in the name of Government policy—the policy of the Prime Minister—on reducing tariffs. What is fair about that?
My hon. Friend poses a very good question. What is fair about that?
Energy companies are quickly becoming the new banks. I am delighted that Labour is calling time on their behaviour. If the Conservative-Liberal Government will not take action, I am pleased that a Labour Government will.
It is a pleasure to be in your presence while you are in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is the first time I have spoken under your guidance.
I want it to be known that I am not standing up for energy companies or anything to do with them. I am standing up for common sense and the consumer. All hon. Members are keen for energy prices to drop. I am proud to support the work of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and the Prime Minister. For the first time in decades, genuine action is being taken to improve our energy market. I really believe that.
Caroline Flint, who is not in her place, said a lot about myths. All political parties like to talk about myths, but let us talk about reality. If a potential Prime Minister stands up in the Chamber and says, “I am going to freeze energy prices,” they will send the stock market into disarray. That is what happened. Overnight, £1 billion was wiped off the stock market in energy.
I have two nuclear power stations in my constituency—energy is the largest employer in my constituency. Hon. Members can imagine the horror of my constituents who saw that. They knew immediately that the energy companies would react to safeguard their interests after losing £1 billion, and they hiked energy up by 10%.
They then wanted their customers to sign up to a three-year freeze deal, which would completely negate what the Leader of the Opposition wanted to achieve. That is the reality of what happened.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that the price freeze offered by a number of companies recently—not any future price freeze—was linked to the Labour party conference? Is he saying that the Labour party conference announcement led to those price freezes? I have not heard anyone else make that case, so is that what the hon. Gentleman is seriously saying?
I am referring to the announcement in the Chamber—obviously this is a more official domain than the Labour party conference.
The three-year price freeze negated completely the policy. It seemed popular, people are still talking about it, and the press are talking about it with gusto. But the reality is that unless the energy industry is renationalised, that is how the markets will react. Last time there was a similar run, the Leader of the Opposition was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. We had a price fix of three years. If he could not do anything against the markets when he was in power, what makes him think that he can do it now? It is all pie in the sky. In reality, the energy companies will carry on looking after themselves, the consumers will get the hike on the threat of a price freeze, and it will cause pandemonium among consumers, especially in their pockets.
As I have said, my constituency has two nuclear power stations. The announcement by the Leader of the Opposition has the potential—if it has not already—to damage pension funds through the shares in the company.
Because gas is the market maker, the two nuclear power stations in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are making large amounts of additional money from the electricity they sell at gas market maker prices because they are not subject to the carbon floor price. Therefore they are completely insulated from the effects that he mentions. Far from being worried about the situation, I would suggest that they are worried about the possibility that the Government might remove the carbon floor price and thus remove the free money that they are getting.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s analogy. We are talking a lot about gas, but the two nuclear power stations are huge employers in my constituency. What is the Opposition saying to my constituents with the suggestion of a price freeze? Will there be a freeze on their wages? That is what would happen. How can those two new stations produce energy efficiently and make some profit out of doing so without passing the effect of the price freeze down to the people who work in the area? The local economy would be hard hit. It is one thing to announce price freeze policies on the hoof, but that is the reality.
We are trying to be more responsible. I agree that we must take down green levies, which are a blight on struggling families. The average British family pays £112 a year because of green levies and I am delighted that the Prime Minister is taking action on that. We all support low-carbon energy production, but there is no point in confusing saving the planet with taxing people to death. We also need to invest in local energy production which is less susceptible to foreign crises and currency fluctuations. My hon. Friend David Mowat, who is no longer in his place, articulated accurately how the European markets are dealing with this problem. We can debate what sort of locally produced energy we should have, and I am very aware of people’s different views on that, but having local production is vital in my area for a variety of reasons, including the local economy and the cost to the consumer.
My hon. Friend takes a Churchillian stance on this issue. We do need more nuclear power in this country and I have never made any bones about saying so. Under this Government, Britain has done well at improving homes to make them more energy efficient, and that cuts costs even at a time when costs are rising. I want us to go further and consider the possibility of tax breaks for companies that build homes with solar panels.
We must push to bring more companies into the market. In 1997, there were 20 major energy companies; now, there are just six. The monopoly must be broken up, and that will never happen unless people are willing to switch providers. The Leader of the Opposition switched supplier. I do not want to ridicule him for that; I want to praise him, because he did the right thing. I just wish he would encourage others to join him, because this is one way of creating competition that will push costs down.
There are more ideas than the ones the Department of Energy and Climate Change is working on, but whatever happens the public must be aware that while the Labour price freeze sounds attractive, it is fundamentally weak and will not lead to lower energy bills—it might even increase them. The truth is that there is no obvious solution to the problem, but by putting a number of measures in place we can take control of it. I support the work of the coalition on energy markets. For the sake of my constituents, I beg hon. Members on both sides of the House not to put that work at risk.
I hope everyone in the House agrees that the rising cost of energy is putting huge strains on families throughout the country. The motion calls for a freeze on energy prices. That is superficially attractive, but it is mired in difficulties, not least because it freezes the inequalities in the system. It is true, however, that the energy companies have serious questions to answer about the reason prices are rising. Every year we are told that it is due to the wholesale price of energy, and the Energy Secretary repeated that in last week’s statement. However, the chief executive of Ovo Energy, appearing before the Select Committee and on TV this week, stated that the cost of gas he is buying is lower than it has been in the past four years. Ofgem originally questioned whether there had in fact been a price rise, before rowing back. Its position can best be summed up as: “It depends how you read the figures,” which hardly instils confidence.
I fully understand that the situation is probably not straightforward, in that the need to ensure sufficient supplies well into the future and the volumes of energy purchased by the large companies, effectively as futures, as against that of smaller companies who may buy on the spot market, may make a difference, but both the regulator and the Department must act decisively. If there is any suggestion that wholesale prices have not risen as claimed, the rises must be cancelled or curtailed. It is not good enough to call for a Competition Commission inquiry. That will take years and we need quick action now to find out the truth of the claims. To that extent, I support the call to ensure that when wholesale prices are reduced they should be passed on to the consumer. The consumer is rightly suspicious and we require much greater transparency.
I have said on other occasions, and will repeat it again, that we would be prepared to look at any proposals for reducing energy bills, but I have concerns about the Labour proposal for a one-off energy price freeze. What would happen, for example, if energy companies substantially increased prices prior to, or immediately after, the freeze? Would a Labour Government force a reduction? Would they bring in a permanent control of prices? How would they deal with the urgent need for investment in our energy infrastructure? In an intervention, I asked about contracts for difference and the pool system. Hon. Members will recall that contracts for difference were supposed to guarantee a price to stimulate much needed investment in energy infrastructure. I do not understand how that would fit into the proposed system.
Caroline Flint spoke at length about splitting up energy companies, but she seemed to be talking about the split between the two wings of energy companies—the wholesale and the retail supply side. That has dangers. Anyone who watched the recent “Dispatches” programme on energy prices would have seen what was said about E.ON and the rather unique way it deals with that. Apparently, the retail side makes no money because it pays huge rates of interest on money borrowed entirely from associated companies within the group. How will that be dealt with in the proposed system? E.ON is already effectively split between wholesale and retail, but that is not having an effect, because it is a matter of artificial accountancy, borrowing money from other companies within the group. As an alternative, we have proposed transferring from energy bills to general taxation the cost not of all green measures, but specifically of the fuel-poverty measures and the energy company obligation, which we calculate would reduce energy bills by 5% or about £70 each and every year—it would not be a one-off saving. This would have the added advantage of delivering a more integrated fuel-poverty programme than could be achieved if we left it to the energy companies.
In the energy statement last week, the Secretary of State again repeated that the Government had taken powers to implement the Prime Minister’s promise to put everyone on the lowest tariff. I have pointed out before, and will do so again, that the measures in the Energy Bill will not have that effect. The Bill requires energy companies not to put everyone on the lowest tariff, but only to make the offer, which might be lost in the mass of paper we receive from them already. Is not part of the problem that there is such a lack of trust in energy companies that whatever they offer will be met with total scepticism by consumers, even when they offer free loft insulation or suggest the most appropriate tariff?
The proposed changes will even fail to help the poorest in our society who have to rely on prepayment meters—this is another difficulty with the energy price freeze. For someone on a direct debit tariff, it might be fine, but anyone on a prepayment meter will still be stuck on a higher tariff, because generally their tariffs are higher than direct debit tariffs. If we are truly intent on ensuring that everyone has the lowest possible bills, these measures should not only operate within an existing contract, but allow people to move to a cheaper contract. Instead of freezing the price, we need to mandate that people be moved to a cheaper contract.
Perversely, prepayment meters are one of the few examples where consumers pay much more if they pay cash in advance. That is important, because Citizens Advice Scotland recently issued an energy report showing that the majority of people coming to it with energy problems have trouble with prepayment meters. It cited examples of people putting £10 in a meter, only to see £7 taken to meet existing debts, leaving them with only £3 of energy, which is completely insufficient to heat homes.
The motion calls on the Government to put all over-75s on the cheapest tariff. Although any help is welcome, it rather depends on the tariffs. If the cost of energy continues to rise, the amount payable will also continue to rise throughout the various tariffs, so this measure would not hit at the heart of the problem of the relative affordability of energy. It is not clear whether the motion intends that people should be put on the cheapest tariff that their present supplier offers or the cheapest overall tariff. The best option is to have a cheaper specific tariff that is identical across all companies and available to the over-75s. That would attack the problem. A system of higher winter fuel allowances for elderly people would also be a much better option. Furthermore, to take up the point raised by Albert Owen about off-grid consumers, I have tried repeatedly—and will do so again on
It has been interesting to listen to Labour Members. Understandably, they seem to have great disdain for the energy companies. I was particularly struck by the speech from Anas Sarwar, who is no longer in his place. In a recent article in The Independent,however, I noticed that at the very conference at which Labour announced its new policy, it had a céilidh sponsored by Scottish Power, so it has not always been so reluctant to dance to the tune of the big energy companies.
I did not anticipate having the opportunity to speak, so I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me and to colleagues whose speeches I have heard.
It is important first to set out our objectives for energy policy, on which, even in this heated debate, a large majority of the House can reach a consensus. We want energy that is affordable and reliably available to businesses and households. We want to meet our energy needs in a way that also meets our commitments in the carbon budget to reduce carbon emissions and take responsibility for the consequences of our choices for the rest of the world. It is worth bearing in mind, in seeking to do all those things, that the question of affordability can be addressed not only through energy-specific policies but through wider economic policy.
I suspect that energy is not going to get any cheaper, so it is important that we look to other mechanisms to make our energy more affordable. Above all, I would certainly agree with those who have spoken today about the need to become more efficient in our energy use in order to get the bills down. I also hope that we can support economic policies that will provide for growing incomes, so that people’s ability to pay their energy bills will be improved. That should be an objective of this Government and any other.
My main interest in speaking in the debate is to elicit more detail from those on the Opposition Front Bench about the proposals that they want MPs to vote for this afternoon. The “deep structural reforms” that Caroline Flint talked about introducing after a 20-month price freeze are worthy of closer scrutiny by Members on both sides of the House, but I lack any confidence that the interim measure of a price freeze would actually work. I want to ask some questions about that, and I hope that Tom Greatrex will be able to answer them when he sums up.
How long would it take to bring about a price freeze, once a Government Minister had decided to introduce one? Could he or she do it under their own executive authority? Would they need to put it to the Cabinet, or get a Government write-round to support the proposal first? Could it be done through regulations, or would it need to pass through this House? Would it require primary or even emergency legislation?
I would be interested to hear how long it would take to implement such a freeze, regardless of which party was in power, if a Minister was minded to do so. That would also tell us how long the energy companies would have to respond to the situation before the Government were able to implement the freeze. Would it be possible for the energy companies, either under this Government or a future Government, to get price rises in before a freeze came into effect?
What would be the consequences of a price freeze while it was in place? The right hon. Lady said that, even if wholesale prices were changed during a freeze, electricity suppliers would not feel the effect or need to increase their prices because they would already have purchased their energy on the forward markets. As I have tried to explain in earlier interventions, that will present a particular challenge to the very companies that I hope all Members want to have a greater presence in the electricity market, because those smaller companies are at a disadvantage compared with the big six when trying to buy electricity on the forward markets.
It is not difficult to understand. An independent electricity generator entering into a contract to sell its electricity some time in the future to a supplier of electricity to businesses and other customers is giving up the opportunity to sell it to anyone else. It will therefore have to be extremely confident that the supplier will still have the financial strength to pay for that electricity later on. Generators look for collateral in those circumstances, and the big six clearly have the necessary collateral to see them through that process. It is much harder for the smaller, challenger companies.
The hon. Gentleman talks essentially about the security of long-term bilateral deals. Does he accept that the effect of a pool, particularly a full purchase-in and a full buy-out pool, removes a number of the issues he has raised about the uncertainty of whether we can get a buyer and whether the person who is buying ultimately has the wherewithal to do so?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I said that I was interested in the long-term proposals outlined by the right hon. Member for Don Valley. However, I am talking about what happens during the period of the price freeze, before some of the changes she proposed come into effect; and I was highlighting the difficult position in which the small suppliers are left during that period.
This issue relates not just to wholesale prices, as other increases in costs that suppliers will experience during this price-freeze period are relevant, too. Suppliers will experience regular increases in costs for distribution and transmission, and unless they are in a position to change their prices before the freeze comes into effect, that will be a direct hit. Although some Labour Members may believe that the big six can take that hit, it is a much bigger challenge for smaller competitors to be able to absorb it. In fact, a market in which losses need to be absorbed for a period of time before it is possible to break even acts as a barrier to entry. If we want a more competitive market, introducing a new barrier to entry and to the viability of new entrants will clearly not help bring about competition. In order to be able to grow market share, new entrants rely on people having an incentive to switch. I would be interested to hear what the Opposition think will be the practice of competition during the 20-month freeze. How possible do they believe it will be for the smaller competitors to challenge the big six during this period, or will it just be one of entrenchment for the big six companies?
At the start of the debate, I asked whether the right hon. Member for Don Valley agreed with me—and she did—that it was in the long-term interest of consumers for Government policy to seek to reduce the cost of capital to businesses in the industry. If we enjoy in the future a very competitive energy market—after whichever Government have been busy reforming the electricity market—the lower the cost of capital, the lower the prices will be that consumers pay.
It seems to me incontrovertible that an industry experiencing a Government intervention which forces a price freeze for a period of 20 months will have the effect of raising the cost of capital. Investors do not have to invest in the sector if they do not wish to do so; they can invest elsewhere. If they know that the Government have frozen prices, that will be a reason for the cost of capital to increase. Ultimately, that would push up prices for consumers, even after all the reforms that the shadow Secretary of State outlined. That would not be in the best interests of consumers. I do not believe that this idea is going to work.
Perhaps the best thing we can do this afternoon is to shoot a number of canards standing in the way of grasping the central issue of how to reset the market in such a way that it will work in favour of consumers and customers instead of against customers’ interests. Frankly, saying that proposals to reset the market will lead to a deterioration in investment prospects or a loss of market value that will prevent people from investing is the first and one of the biggest of such canards.
A substantial amount of investment is needed, but it cannot be judged on the basis of the interests of integrated utility management; it will come from companies investing in the wires, in smart meters and in new forms of generation that are independent of the utilities. Indeed, the balance sheet of the big six suggests that not a very high proportion of that £100 billion-plus investment is likely to come from them in any event. It appears that the factors relating to the investment will be manifold, and will not necessarily be related to the fortunes of the big six.
To say that resetting the market will cause it to work in a terrible way in the future is effectively to say that breaking up what is currently a seriously dysfunctional system will lead to problems. That strikes me as a counsel of despair not just where the market is concerned, but where consumers are concerned, and it is, perhaps, the second big canard to be shot. It is claimed that the Energy Bill will put a number of things right, and it will, but what it will not put right is the malfunctioning of the market. What is extraordinary about the Bill—as with the energy reform White Paper that preceded it—is that the one thing it does not do is reform the energy market. It lets the market carry on just as it has in the past, and we know that the market is seriously dysfunctional.
Bilateral trade that rolls down the curve conceals a considerable amount of what is actually going on. One might think, for example, that there is a relationship between the 24% profit that is made by generators overall and the 5% that is made by retailers, because one sells to the other, and one might therefore wonder where the missing money in the middle is going. In fact, much of it is going to people who are trading with themselves and “netting off” so that their trades do not appear as trades at all, or even creating trades close to gate closure in order to balance the two sides of the operation of an integrated company.
We know that the energy market is pretty dysfunctional, and we know that it needs to be reformed. The question is, can we reform it by simply continuing with business as usual and hoping that Ofgem will continue to produce documents that aim to introduce a little more transparency to a market that, by definition, is largely not transparent, or should we do more to reset the market in favour of customers?
As always, my hon. Friend is speaking very knowledgeably, and he is making a good point about the dysfunctionality of the energy market. When, 25 years ago, it was first suggested that the market should be privatised, we were told that one of the key reasons for privatising it was that the risk would be transferred from the Government—from the public purse—to the private sector. Is not the truth that, in the last 25 years, the risk has been transferred from the Government to the private sector, and thence to the customer? The customer bears the risk whatever happens.
My hon. Friend is right. The market tends eventually to land its risk, its transfer arrangements and its outcomes squarely on customers’ bills. The point about a price freeze is that it must be seen in the context of the other measures that it is being suggested should accompany it as a way of securing a pause while the market is reset.
For the sake of my education, will the hon. Gentleman clarify one point? It seems to me that if we had a nationalised energy company and the prices went up, there would be only two ways of paying for that: through the customer, and through the Government. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, whether a company is nationalised or commercial, the customer pays in the end?
The hon. Gentleman asks a rather complicated question. Currently, gas is the market-maker and companies that produce energy that is not gas-based sell their energy into the retail market at the electricity-equivalent of the price of energy produced by gas. It is to be hoped that one of the effects of energy market reform will be that a change in the balance of production, in particular as a result of increasing amounts of renewables, will mean that gas is no longer the market-maker. That is another canard that will need to be shot in the long term.
Obviously, the world gas price varies considerably. The UK market is currently based around the gas price. If gas is no longer the market-maker over the medium and long term, a number of interesting consequences will arise, particularly in terms of how we would relate volatile markets to retail prices.
That is one of the issues that would be dealt with by the Opposition’s proposals to introduce a pool. If there is a pool into which everybody transparently sells their products and the pool then sells to energy retailers, that would deal with a number of problems that have arisen as a result of the imperfections in the market, and which would remain despite the Energy Bill trying hard to address them. If there was a pool, they would be dealt with even if gas was still the market-maker, but the market would be much more efficient in the long term if that was not the case.
We should consider in this context the fact that independent generators do not believe they have a clear market for their products. That issue remains unsolved by the Energy Bill provisions. If there were a pool, it would be substantially solved in as much as they would know they had a buyer into the pool and a seller out from the pool. If the current dysfunctional market were reset in the way the Opposition propose—with a price freeze while the market is reset, a pool, and a regulator that can properly relate what is happening in world prices to how they are being passed on through the pool and out the other side—a lot of the issues we have been talking about today would become far more simple and transparent, and the future solutions would be customer-oriented.
I do not say that that would solve the problem of increased energy prices in the future, because it is certainly true that world energy prices continue to increase and that there would be price increases for the consumer. It is not true, incidentally, that under those circumstances energy companies would simply take back the money lost during a price freeze, because there would be regulation reflecting world prices. Although prices have gone up, the world gas price has not gone up over the past year and a half. A fair relationship between world energy prices and retail prices could be achieved through a combination of new forms of regulation, an energy pool and a reset of the market.
We must look at these proposals as part of a wider package that, at its heart, is on the side of the consumer. At present we have a dysfunctional market that will never end up on the side of the consumer unless it is fundamentally reset so that it points in the right direction. My sorrow is that, although the Energy Bill has many good provisions that deserve to be supported, it does not do that, and that is what the Opposition proposals are trying to do, and that is why they should be looked at seriously—
I wish to start by putting the energy bill crisis into the context of the cost of living crisis. As we know, since May 2010 prices have risen faster than pay every month apart from this April. Why was April different? It was different because people on high incomes wanted to take advantage of the tax break that this Government had given them. We also know that one in four children live in poverty—in some wards in my constituency the figure is one in two—with the level set to increase in the next few years. By 2020, because of this Government’s policies, 1.1 million more children will be living in poverty. These are the choices that this Government have made.
Escalating heating bills are a major factor affecting costs to households and to businesses. Last year those costs increased by between 6% and 11%, and since this Government came to power an extra £300 has been added to energy bills. So why is this happening? Until the last few months, this country had a flatlining economy—we have had three years of it. Although the growth over the past few months is welcome, if we had had just 1% growth since 2010 we would have generated £335 billion more in the economy, with all the associated jobs and personal income that that would have brought. If we had had 2% growth, we would have generated £551 billion, and many economists believe that that will just not be recoverable.
Related to that situation has been the fact that pay has either gone down or been frozen. Some 400,000 more people are living below the living wage, bringing the number of those doing so up to 5.2 million. In Oldham, the level of weekly pay has fallen from £432 in 2010 to £426 in 2012, which is well below the regional and national averages. But this is not just about the Government’s mismanagement of the economy; they seem incapable of showing leadership and standing up for ordinary people against powerful vested interests. Too many big businesses have for too long been behaving unethically, whether we are talking about tax evasion or aggressive tax avoidance, cheating the Exchequer of up to £35 billion a year; large companies choosing to pay small businesses in their supply chain late—an estimated £30 billion is owed to small businesses in late payments; or the big six energy suppliers acting as a cartel, claiming that wholesale energy costs have driven up energy bills by 10.4% on average a year, whereas this actually costs them only 1.6% on average.
I tried to intervene on the Secretary of State to make the point that this is happening at a time when these companies are publishing profits of £3.7 billion, which is an increase of 73% since 2010. According to Ofgem’s latest electricity and gas supply market indicators, the typical domestic dual fuel bill now stands at £1,420 a year compared with the £1,105 that it was in May 2010. But what have this Government done, apart from tell us to put jumpers on? Governments set the tone for the culture of a society. They do so not only explicitly through their policies, but by what they imply. It is clear from this Government’s policies and actions exactly where their priorities lie, and it is not with ordinary people and with addressing the inequalities and poverty that exist in this society.
The effect is, as one would expect, fuel poverty. Its level had fallen in recent years, following the various energy-efficiency measures introduced under the last Labour Government, such as the Warm Front programme. But with rising energy bills swamping all that, even under the Government’s new definition of fuel poverty there are now 2.4 million people who are fuel poor, with the average household fuel poverty gap standing at £494.
The Fuel Poverty Advisory Group warned in 2010 that instead of fuel poverty being eliminated by 2016, more than 7 million households could be fuel poor. In Oldham East and Saddleworth, 16% of households—8,000—are fuel poor. To help them, Oldham council launched a collective energy switching scheme that enrolled 22,000 households. The council admits, however, that that is not enough—and it is not enough.
There are wider effects. Sir John Major has said that the real choice people face is whether to heat or eat. I am particularly concerned about this winter and its effect on the most vulnerable in society—older people and those who are ill or disabled. We know that on average 24,000 people, predominantly older people, will lose their lives every winter. Last year, however there was a 75% increase in the number of expected deaths, partly because of the increase in flu but also, according to statistical analysis, because of the extreme cold. It is inconceivable that heating costs will not play a part in the number of excess winter deaths we face, and it is just not good enough to say “Put a jumper on”. If we consider the issue in the context of the crisis in accident and emergency, we can see that there will be absolute meltdown.
It is not only the elderly and the vulnerable who are affected. A constituent wrote to me who is a teacher with a young son of four and twin girls of 20 weeks. She lives in private rented accommodation with her husband, but the landlord cannot afford to update the boiler. She is not eligible for anything. She said, “Last winter was a nightmare. I have newborn babies; what am I going to do? What will support me? The heating costs are bad enough.” I have also had constituents, similar to those mentioned by my hon. Friend Simon Danczuk, who have written to me about their constant battles with the energy companies. It is just not good enough.
My hon. Friend is making a very serious speech. Is it not true that when we talk about professionals such as teachers struggling to find the extra money, they are the same people who have had their pay frozen for almost three years? The Government are now talking about freezing their increments, too. They are losing out twice over: costs are going up and their wages are stagnant. That is a direct result of the Government’s policies.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is a double whammy and the Government are doing nothing to address it.
When the Minister replies, perhaps he can respond to the questions that my constituent has raised. What is she to do? She is working, so she cannot claim support to renew her boiler. Thousands of families up and down the country face equivalent problems and he must give a response on the difficulties mentioned by other Opposition Members.
I wholeheartedly support the pledges made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint. We must overhaul the energy market, abolishing Ofgem and creating a tough new energy watchdog. We must require the energy companies to pool the power that they generate and we must require those companies to put all over-75s on the cheapest tariff.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in such an important debate, because I believe that today we are discussing an issue that goes to the heart of the cost-of-living crisis that my constituents are living through day in, day out. We need urgent action to address the problem and I am pleased that that is exactly what Labour proposes today.
Since the Prime Minister took office, energy bills have risen by almost £300 per family. Of course, we all know that when my right hon. Friend Edward Miliband was Energy Secretary, prices came down. During the debate, I have been saddened but also a little heartened. I am saddened because we have heard from a Government who are making it absolutely clear that they will take no action on one of the key issues facing my constituents. At a time when members of the public are calling so desperately for something to happen and we are hearing a Government who are so very much out of touch defending the status quo, I must admit that I was a little heartened to think that when we go to the next election they will have to look the electorate in the eye on the doorsteps, saying, “We were given the chance to do something, but we turned our backs on you and stood up for the big energy companies.” That heartens me very much in electoral terms, despite my disappointment about the impact on my constituents.
Opposition Members have raised an army of straw men to explain why they cannot take serious action. It is not possible for anyone who is worried about energy prices to hear the speech of the Secretary of State and believe that things would be any different under him in future than they are today or than they were yesterday. He raised the green deal. The number of people assessed for the green deal would fill Old Trafford, but the people who have taken up the green deal would not even fill the Chamber. That is the scale of the failure.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong. He confuses the number of people who have taken up green deal finance with the number of people who have had an assessment and installed green deal measures. Once they sit down at their kitchen table, a surprisingly large number of people—thousands and thousands—elect to take all the savings immediately and install the measures.
British Gas alone has installed more than 10,000 green deal measures for customers who have elected to install them. Some 80% of people who have had a green assessment say that they have already installed measures, are currently installing measures, or are likely to do so.
Was it six? I got it wrong. The measure is a pitiful failure and to hold it up as an example of a Government success shows how little the Government know and how little they are doing.
In the few weeks since the Labour conference the Government have been in complete disarray on one of the central cost of living issues that we face. When I listened to the speech by David Morris I was reminded of someone who thought that if we did anything to these powerful energy companies they might end up hurting us in return. Basically, we should just leave them alone, because if we did not they might up put up prices or not increase wages for his constituents. I was reminded of someone who thinks that the way to tackle a bully is not to tell anyone about what they are doing because the bully might get them after school. It was absolutely pitiful, and the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will have heard what he said—I am sure that they will be made aware of it—and they will know that he is someone who absolutely refuses to take their side or stand up to the big six.
When we hear Government Members say that we need to put pressure on the big energy companies while at the same time coming up with a host of risible reasons for not taking action, saying that that would be dangerous, we know that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are not the answer to this problem.
Prices are going up because when the wholesale price of energy increases the energy companies pass that on, but when it drops our constituents do not see a fall in their bills. If that sounds familiar to Government Members I would not be surprised, because it is precisely what the Prime Minister said when he was Leader of the Opposition. In Bedford in 2009, when he was still attempting to occupy the centre ground, he said:
“I think we all feel that when gas prices or oil prices go up, they rush to pass the costs onto us and yet when we read in the papers that the oil price has collapsed and the gas prices are coming down, we wait for a very long time before we see anything coming through on our bills”.
I could not agree more, and it is a shame that the Prime Minister does not say now what he did when he was attempting to be elected.
Only last month, Which? estimated that flaws in the market have left consumers paying £3.9 billion a year over the odds since 2010. We have a duty to our constituents to end this great rip-off. One-nation Labour has a long-term vision to do just that—not simply with the energy price freeze but with a suite of measures that will radically transform the market. There are three steps that will make a significant difference, including, first, separating the parts of the business that generate energy from the parts that sell to consumers. My hon. Friend Dr Whitehead was excellent, as he always is, on the importance of this, setting out its real value. Secondly, we would introduce a simple new tariff structure and make sure that people over 75 always paid the lowest tariff. Thirdly, there would be a measure to abolish Ofgem, which has failed to stand up for consumers, and to replace it from January 2017 with a new energy watchdog with teeth.
The 42,000 households in my constituency cannot wait for those proposals to bear fruit. They need action now. They need a Prime Minister who is not strong on the weak but who is brave enough to stand up to the energy companies and deliver a price freeze. An incoming Labour Government will legislate with immediate effect to make this happen and will put an average of £120 back into the pockets of every household in Chesterfield. Unfortunately, the response of the Prime Minister and the response that we heard from the Secretary of State was once again to stand up for the wrong people and to take the side of vested interest. It seems that the Conservatives will do anything to prevent the big six from having to reduce their profits.
“I think green taxes as a whole need to go up”.
In 2006 he told “Newsnight” that
“we think green taxes should take a bigger share of overall taxes.”
So evil were these green taxes that his Government introduced 60% of the green levies currently imposed on energy companies. We all remember when the Prime Minister was the Leader of the Opposition and was attempting to present the modern face of Conservatism. He has certainly travelled a long way from “vote blue, go green”. He has shot the husky and simply told people to pull up their hoodie. He is not standing up on behalf of the people in my constituency.
The Prime Minister has not explained how, when he abolishes the green levies, the burden will move to general taxation. Where will the money come from? I do not believe the Government are going to increase taxes. That leaves one of two possibilities. Either it will go on to the deficit, which the Government have so singularly failed to eradicate in the way they promised, or they will reduce the budget for schools, hospitals, roads or other Government Departments. We have had nothing from the Secretary of State or Ministers about how they propose to fund those measures from general taxation. It was interesting that in the Secretary of State’s entire speech, he did not once mention the idea of getting rid of green levies and raising the money from general taxation. That spoke volumes about the extent of the disarray that the Government are in.
The issue is not just the impact on consumers. Labour is very much the party of small business. Our policy of an energy price freeze is an example of that. Annual energy bills for small businesses have gone up by an average of £10,000 since 2010. Small businesses will benefit hugely not just from the price freeze, but from a market that works for consumers. In addition, our plan to cut business rates for small business would mean an average saving of nearly £450 for 1.5 million business properties. These two policies demonstrate to small businesses that it is only Labour that will stand up on their side and cut their costs so that they can reinvest in new jobs and new products. Labour’s policy is good for consumers, good for business and good for the economy. I am proud to say that I will be supporting it and voting for it today.
There are 6,196 households in my constituency that are in fuel poverty, using the 10% of income measure, but those statistics are from 2011 and are the most recent. Since then prices have risen at least twice, while real wages are stagnating, so I am sure those figures will be much higher now. Energy prices are a key driver of the Prime Minister’s cost of living crisis, which has seen on average £1,200 wiped off the real value of the annual incomes of working people in the north-east.
Those fuel poverty figures do not tell the whole story. They do not show the households on the borderline of fuel poverty or those that may have a decent income, but for which energy costs are just one of a number of ever-rising costs that they have to meet, such as rent, child care bills, kids’ clothes, school uniforms, food and groceries. It is this reality that this Prime Minister and this Government do not understand. It is all very well telling people to wear a jumper around the house. Does the Prime Minister not realise that people do that already, my family included?
In the north-east, where it gets cold from September onwards, we put blankets over our legs when we watch telly. Some people even use quilts to keep warm, especially the elderly. There is a whole north-south divide element to this debate that needs to be addressed. As someone who lives in both places all year round, I know that there is regularly a 10° C difference, and that is without the added wind chill factor. According to the BBC’s weather forecast, at 4 o’clock today, when I last checked, it was 14° C in London and 8° C in Sunderland, and that is a mild gap. What about those who have to wear jumpers or layers of clothing when they go to bed at night because they have been unable to put the heating on all evening, or all week?
Why are energy prices rising? As we have heard, average wholesale prices have risen by just 1.6% a year since 2011, which accounts for around £16 of the increase in bills since 2011, but consumers’ bills have risen by 10.4% on average. That is six times more, at around £100 a year. That is being used to fund the fat-cat salaries of the big six and double the profits for their shareholders. Are Ministers really telling the residents and small businesses of Washington and Sunderland West, including the 6,196 households living in fuel poverty, that they would rather stand up for the right of the big six to boost their profits than for the people they are elected to this place to serve?
We must not lose sight of the fact that it is still the very poorest and most vulnerable of my constituents who pay the highest unit costs for their energy because they are on prepayment meters. They cannot switch to cheaper rates because there is very little competition, if any, for their business. They cannot pay a set amount by direct debit each month to spread the cost of winter over the rest of the year because the energy companies will not give them that credit facility. If they cannot afford the £10 to top up the meter, the lights and boiler just do not go on.
The energy company executives who appeared before the Energy and Climate Change Committee last week assured my hon. Friend John Robertson that they would not cut off the elderly or disabled this winter, but those on prepayment meters cannot just keep using their heating; they are cut off the minute they run out of money or emergency credit.
My hon. Friend will remember from the days when she worked with me in Unison that we had discussions with the energy people when they changed to prepayment meters, meaning that people now self-disconnect. Companies can now say that they no longer cut people off or have responsibility for that, but those people are forced to disconnect themselves. The number of people in this country who live without access to heat, fuel and warmth because they have no choice is hidden, and that is a disgrace.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I would like to know what advice the energy company executives will give all those people. Will they offer them a deal they can afford in order to keep warm this winter, as they said they would during the Select Committee hearing?
I am going to share something quite personal today. I know that there are some MPs, although not many, whose background is similar to mine. I grew up in poverty. I know what it is like to have no central heating, and I know what it is like when you then have central heating not to be able to put it on because your mam cannot afford it. I know what it is like to wake up so cold that you cannot bear to undress to get washed and ready for school. I know what it is like to have a thick layer of ice on the inside of your bedroom window—I used to think everybody did in winter. I know what it is like to have the electricity man knock on your door and cut of your power when you are 13-years-old and minding your two younger brothers while your mam has popped out to see your nanna because it is the middle of winter. I know what it is like to sit and wait, scared in the cold and dark, until your mam comes home, trying to keep two little boys occupied and make them feel safe.
That was in 1979, the first year of the previous Tory Government, and the year I was politicised and realised what it actually meant to have a Tory Government. My mam was not feckless; we were poor. There is a difference. A lot of people living in fuel poverty today are working. They are not feckless either, but there is a cost of living crisis beyond their control and not of their making.
I know that 34 years later some families still have experiences similar to mine. I remember talking to a member of staff at a Sure Start children’s centre who told me about the mothers of young children who often came to the centre with their child for hours at a time because it was warm and they were unable to use their appliances or TV at home because they could not afford to top up the meter.
I have recently heard about heat buddies in the north-east—groups of people who go to each other’s homes in turn to save heating their home in the evening. I have also heard that bath houses are being requested—in 21st-century Britain—because people do not have the money to heat their homes or water, so they wash with a kettleful of water in a sink and cannot face even trying to boil enough water for a bath as their home is too cold for them to bathe in. For goodness’ sake, Mr Speaker, what sort of country are we living in? Is it Victorian Britain? Is it Dickensian Britain?
Tory Britain—exactly. What are the Government doing for these people? What they need—what we all need—is an energy market that is forced to work in the interests of consumers, not shareholders. But until a Labour Government have the opportunity to make the required changes stated in the motion, they need a Prime Minister with the bottle and the guts to tell the energy companies that enough is enough—that people in 21st-century Britain should be able to have a bath in their own home and to go to bed warm enough to wear just a nightie or a pair of pyjamas, and not to die because of the cold with central heating they cannot afford to use.
I very much appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying—she is making a very powerful speech. The problem is not that the Prime Minister does not have the courage to stand up to the energy companies; it is that it is not in his make-up to stand up to the energy companies. It is not what he wants to do; it is not what he came into politics to do. He is not in politics to stop the energy companies making profits and to make consumers better off.
Is not the country all the worse for that? Well, I hope that the Prime Minister and his Government sleep warm in their beds at night, because huge numbers of people in the country he governs certainly do not, and will not this winter.
I would like to wrap up my remarks by quoting some extracts from a letter that I received a couple of weeks ago from Mrs Templeton, a constituent of mine from Biddick in Washington. Mrs Templeton wrote:
“I am writing to say how disgusted me and my hubby are about the rise in energy prices…Mr Miliband says he will freeze prices in 2015, but what can be done now?...I cannot believe the country is taking this on the chin...we should fight back…The top people in these companies will not worry about the increase, but believe me, most of the country are afraid of putting their heating on.”
There are millions of Mrs Templetons across the country—people who are sick of their bills keeping on going up but never coming down, sick of seeing energy companies’ profits ballooning while they have to choose between heating and eating, and sick of this Prime Minister doing nothing about it but defend the status quo. If he does not have the strength to fight back on behalf of Mrs Templeton and all those other people across this country, I suggest that he should stand aside and let someone who does do so.
It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson, who made an impassioned speech. I seek to echo some of the points she made and to speak strongly in support of the Opposition’s motion. I do so as the MP representing the constituency with the third highest level of fuel poverty, according to the Government’s new definition.
Not a week goes by when I do not have a constituent come to me to raise their serious worries about their energy bills. That is sometimes because they have been ripped off by their energy company. We have heard many examples of people who have paid above the odds for their direct debits or have been penalised when they have moved and have not received the credit to which they are entitled. We have heard about specific issues to do with people who have prepayment meters but often find that very difficult and have to pay over the odds in any repayments that they have to make. I speak in support of the motion on behalf of all my constituents and people right across this country.
The constituents we represent, and people up and down the country, are paying a staggering £315 more for their energy bills than they did back in 2010. That is against the backdrop of a cost of living crisis in which people have seen prices rise faster than their wages in 39 out of the past 40 months. Many of my hon. Friends have talked about the real choice that people in our country—the seventh most industrialised in the world—are having to make between heating and eating. That is not a joke or a catchphrase—I have seen it on far too many occasions, as have many of my hon. Friends. We are the only G7 country in which the Red Cross is providing emergency food aid. It does not help that people are having to spend £1,400 a year on average for their dual fuel bill, but have not seen their wages go up accordingly.
Some 700,000 people have accessed emergency food aid through a food bank. That is a national disgrace. The responses that the Prime Minister has given from the Dispatch Box at Prime Minister’s questions have been pitiful. He has not acknowledged the depth of the problem in this country. It is a stain on our national conscience. I am ashamed that people in my constituency have to go to a food bank because they cannot afford to put food on the table. To link that point back to this energy debate, people are often unable to use the goods in the emergency food aid bag that they receive from the Trussell Trust because they cannot afford the gas that it would take to heat them up on the cooker.
Those are the issues that our country faces in 2013. I look forward to the Minister’s response because what the Secretary of State said was pitiful. He talked about switching, but for all the people who are facing a very cold winter, the best deal in a broken market is not a good deal. The figures that were released yesterday showed that the gap between the wholesale price and the prices that energy companies are charging us is getting wider. The wholesale price has gone up by 1.7% and the average bill has gone up by 9%. At a time when people are struggling to get by and there is a cost of living crisis, it is difficult for people to deal with those price increases.
That is why I support the Opposition motion. We need a price freeze. The Government have an opportunity to implement the price freeze today. I sincerely hope that they will, even though the Secretary of State indicated that they will not. A price freeze would assist 40,221 households in my constituency alone. It is not just households that will benefit, but businesses. We need a price freeze so that we can implement the raft of measures that are needed to reform the market. I notice that many Government Members are fixated on the freeze. The freeze is the vehicle by which we will implement the changes in legislation that are needed to fix the market.
What are the changes that are required urgently? We need to separate the retail market from the generation side. I mentioned in an intervention on my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint that I have been to one of the energy companies. I saw for myself the physical collocation of the generation and retail sides. The room in which the company oversees its generation—the big six generate 70% of the capacity in the UK—is right next door to where it buys and sells its energy. The idea that the two sides do not liaise or engage with each another is ludicrous. That is why we need urgently to separate the retail side from the generation side.
We need to introduce a two-way pool in the energy market so that there is transparency in the cost of energy generation, which we do not currently have. It is in the best interests of the energy companies to charge themselves a high price. We do not know what that price is because it is decided in back-room deals among themselves. There is a pool, but it makes up only a fraction of the market. We need the whole market to use the two-way pool so that we can see the price of energy and to encourage new entrants into the market. At the moment, the big six dominate the energy market, making up about 99% of it, and there is little opportunity for new entrants to come in.
We need to have standardised tariffs so that people can compare energy prices properly. At the moment, the tariffs are very confusing. People need the switching websites because they cannot compare prices for themselves. The previous Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change told the Select Committee that when he had tried to switch, he could not do so because it was so complicated. There are hundreds of tariffs. If we had standardised tariffs, people would be able to compare prices easily.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that it is important that over-75s are put on the lowest tariff automatically, for the very reasons that she has just given?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention as I was just about to make that very point.
I am delighted that the motion reinforces our policy that energy companies should automatically put over-75s on the cheapest tariff. That would assist 5,867 people in my constituency, and constituents of hon. Members across the House. Older customers are less able to benefit from direct debit deals because they are less likely to have access to a bank account, or access to the internet to get online deals. It is possible, perhaps through data-sharing, for energy companies to put the over-75s on to those cheapest tariffs. They could do that today and make a real difference to hundreds of thousands of pensioners up and down our country.
I am supporting the motion today because we need a tough new watchdog. We know that Ofgem is not doing a proper job because back in 2008 it was investigated, and 16 different areas identified.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Back in 2008, 16 areas were identified where Ofgem was not doing a proper job. The other year it was found that it had improved in only four of those 16 areas which, over that time, is frankly not good enough. When millions of our constituents and businesses up and down the country are suffering, we need a proper regulator with teeth, as well as the responsibility and ability to ensure that when there are reductions in wholesale costs, those reductions are passed on to consumers in way that is not done at the moment.
The Secretary of State was keen to talk about the green deal and the energy company obligation, which the Government have presented as a sort of quick-fix. Of course we need to do everything to ensure that we help millions of households across the country that do not have proper insulation in their homes, as that is one of the best ways to reduce bills. What the Government have proposed, however, and what they are doing on the green deal—well, the figures speak for themselves and we wait to see what will happen by the end of the year. The Minister said he would not be sleeping at night if 10,000 homes had not had a green deal package, but we wait to see the figures.
I am referring to figures of those that have actually completed. I return to my point that we have the green deal in hand with the ECO, and thousands of people in the insulation industry have lost their jobs.
Let me mention an actual individual. Mr Sturdy in my constituency is 85 years old. He has previously had a stroke, suffered from angina, and undergone a quadruple heart bypass. He has been visited in his home three times by three separate companies purporting to help him with the energy company obligation. Separately, his energy company, SSE, said “Go to Carillion as it will help you with the energy company obligation.” He has paid hundreds of pounds to get his loft cleared and his thin insulation removed, yet all those companies cannot provide him with the insulation he needs. He has spent hundreds of pounds and his home is now less well insulated than it was before. He is facing a very cold winter and I hope the Government will address that in their remarks.
I found the Secretary of State’s speech one of the most disappointing and unconvincing that I have heard for quite a time. It seemed to me that he was quite rattled—at times shrill; at times patronising—and perhaps that explains why he fled the Chamber the second it was over. He appealed for consensus with the Opposition at the start, but only on terms that suit his friends in the big six. His only proposal to reduce prices was by competition, which everyone can see has patently collapsed in the present semi-monopoly system. He had no plausible answer whatsoever for stopping the current gross overcharging. He spoke about transparency—which, of course, we all want to see—but never explained how the present excessive opaqueness could effectively be remedied within the present system.
It needs to be said at the outset that whatever opinion people in the Chamber, or outside, may have about an energy price freeze, this necessary examination by Parliament of the cost of living in general, and the cost of energy for the nation in particular, would never have happened had the Leader of the Opposition not put down a very powerful marker in his conference speech two months ago. The debate has thrown the Government into a tizzy, which they do not know how to handle. The Prime Minister was rushing around threatening to remove the green levies, which is the opposite of what he said a few months ago, and apparently forgetting that this is supposed to be the greenest Government ever. He was even beating his chest threatening all manner of action against the water industry for its price rises.
The Secretary of State was jerked into action, threatening to criminalise market manipulation, demanding yet another Ofgem investigation—is this the 18th?—into company profits, and proposing to speed up switching suppliers from five weeks to 24 hours, which is unworkable, because if all suppliers put up prices by roughly the same amount at about the same time, which is the experience we have had, it will make no difference.
The key point is that none of that flurry of activity to protect the consumer would have happened had not my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made a commitment to real action, which two thirds of the electorate immediately hailed as exactly what was needed. It is absolutely extraordinary that the Leader of the Opposition, who currently has no executive power at all, has exercised more influence over Murdoch and BSkyB, over Leveson and press regulation, over Syria and starting another war, and now over energy pricing and the cost of living, than all members of the Government put together.
Let us be clear on the key point, which is rather different from the understanding of many Government Members. An energy price freeze is not a policy programme in itself—of course it is not—but merely an important element in wider reform. As Opposition Members have made perfectly clear, it will be followed by a return to trading energy through a pool system, which will be more transparent than the current system, together with separation or unbundling of the different arms of the energy companies. They are currently vertically integrated, which means that they can both generate energy and supply it to the customer, which makes it very hard, if not impossible, to assess the extent of their profits, because they trade with themselves and with one another.
There are good reasons to review the current energy market structure and the business model on which it is based. Ever since Kyoto, global warming has made mitigating CO2 emissions the dominant challenge. The decline in the UK’s indigenous natural gas fields has made ensuring the security of supply and managing the energy sector’s impact on the balance of payments key objectives. Whether the liberalised market alone is capable of achieving those objectives automatically can be questioned—[Interruption.] Well, experience has shown that it is targeted on micro-efficiencies and on extracting egregious profits.
What has happened in the past two decades to deal with that policy fragmentation? There has been a persistent accumulation of directives, rules and subsidy schemes that are intended to cure the liberalised market of its intrinsic indifference to decarbonisation and the security of supply. All that has been programmed and overseen by a growing army of regulatory bodies, quangos and advisory institutions. We have thus ended up with the worst of both worlds—a byzantine industrial structure theoretically co-ordinated by the market mechanism, but one that nevertheless requires omniscient policy makers to mastermind everything it does. I submit that that is not sustainable.
With or without a price freeze, we face the distinct possibility of a capacity shortage—in other words, the lights going out—by the middle of this decade. If the lights go out, it will not be because of a temporary price freeze; it will be because a market based on a private oligopoly has not concentrated, and perhaps cannot be expected to concentrate, its efforts on fundamental issues of national security rather than on the short-term gains of senior executives and shareholders. Surely the lesson is that restructuring a broken and dysfunctional market is the key to solving the problem of crippling rises in energy prices.
As an emergency measure to stabilise a situation in which price hikes have clearly got out of control, and to provide leeway to introduce wider reforms, a limited price freeze is certainly needed. It is also justified, as other hon. Members have pointed out, when Ofgem data suggest that wholesale prices over the past year have been almost flat—rising by perhaps 1.7%—but retail prices are now being pushed up by the big six by between 8% and 11%. Indeed, according to Ofgem, some of the big six have seen their wholesale prices actually fall over the last three years.
The Prime Minister’s itch to roll back the green levies is a false economy, and not only because they represent such a small component of the rise in prices. The Department of Energy and Climate Change estimates that the full range of green policies—I am referring to the energy efficiency savings from earlier Energy Bill-funded schemes, the impact of policies on wholesale prices, boiler regulations and the EU minimum standards of electrical efficiency—will cut typical gas bills by 1% and electric bills by 11% in 2020.
Ever since the Leader of the Opposition made his speech in Brighton and we came back to Parliament, this issue has dominated the parliamentary system, especially in the Whitehall farce we see every week that is allegedly called Prime Minister’s questions, but should really be called Prime Minister’s deflections. We have had a series of throwaway remarks from the Prime Minister about the price freeze issue. He said last week that the problems could be resolved if everybody did what our leader did and switched companies. The Government have blamed the price rise in wholesale gas, but last week the Prime Minister came back and asked, “Who created the big six?”, as if he had not spent the last 42 months in power doing nothing about the power of the big six. That is all good knockabout, music-hall stuff, but I bet the people of Oldham, Liverpool and Washington, who have been spoken about in the last half hour, are not laughing as they sit at home shivering and wondering how they will pay the bills over the next few months.
Let us look at the Prime Minister’s case. Last week he had a go at our leader for switching electricity suppliers. Well, our leader is a canny lad and he might have saved himself £500 a year. But we need £110 million of investment, and it is a farce for the Prime Minister to point to an amount of £500 as a reason why we should not do something. He has blamed wholesale prices and said that the Government cannot control the markets, but privatisation was supposed to transfer the risk from the state to the private companies. Instead, it has transferred the risk directly to the people who cannot afford to pay—our constituents.
This is also a question of trust. Are we being told the truth about wholesale prices?
I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend refers to wholesale prices. Does he believe that the regulators are as transparent as we would expect them to be when they examine something as important and influential as wholesale prices?
The regulator clearly admits not being fit for purpose. My hon. Friend Luciana Berger mentioned the report from 2008. Ofgem said then that it had not been transparent. The actual gas wholesalers are not transparent. I do not know whether hon. Members are familiar with the Henry hub, which is a pipeline and hub in Louisiana that distributes the vast majority of natural gas in the United States. It is also used as the name for the pricing point for gas prices on the markets in New York. Those prices are set in dollars per million BTUs—British thermal units. In April 2012, 1 million BTUs cost $1.95. In June 2008, they cost $12.6. So the cost was six times lower in April 2012 than it was in June 2008. Even now, it is only $3.62 per 1 million BTUs, yet we are told it has to go up because the price has gone up. How can we trust people who manipulate the figures?
“The 36% decrease in the average natural gas price paid by manufacturers between 2006 and 2010, from $7.59 to $4.83…was large enough”— but—
“Since that survey was conducted, natural gas prices have fallen further.”
The people responsible for energy in the US are saying that prices have gone down, but we have been told that bills have had to go up so much because wholesale gas prices have gone up so much. Are we being misled? Is there a cartel? People say that there is not, but have we forgotten about OPEC? Have people forgotten what happened to us in the 1970s, when people literally had us over an oil barrel? Why should we expect more today from the same people?
The Prime Minister’s other deflection was about who created the big six. I will accept some responsibility, because I believe that my party did not do enough in government to control the energy market. Up until 2008, we did not get our act together and the huge price increase seemed to wake people up. The Conservative party, however, cannot get away from its history. It created the big six by its decision, in the 1980s and 1990s, to privatise the utilities industries. The Conservative Government started by dismantling the most technically advanced coal industry in the world, an industry that was leading the world on clean coal technology—could we not use some of that now? They then went and told Sid to buy shares in gas, electricity and water. They were actually using public money to bribe people to get themselves back into power. It worked very well for them, but the chickens are coming home to roost and the people feeling it are sitting at home at night wondering if they dare put the fire on. We have left billions of tonnes of coal under our feet to lie dormant, while we are being held to ransom by gas and oil companies. We have to bring energy into this country from the most unstable places in the world.
There has been a lot of talk in the past few years about carbon capture and storage. I had the pleasure of sitting in a Committee with the Minister and discussing how wonderful the green deal was going to be. That all led to nothing. The price freeze is welcome—it is a step in the right direction and people need it. What is also required is proper regulation by Ofgem, or whatever takes its place.
I find it scandalous, but not surprising. Ofgem was never capable of dealing with people who have spent lifetimes manipulating oil and energy markets throughout the world. Why should the world be any different from how it has been for a hundred years? That is one of the reasons why the people who came before us in this House had the sense to nationalise the energy utility sector. It could then be run in the interests of the people of this country, and not for the people who do not live in this country. All they want to do is siphon money off from the purses and wallets of the people we represent to fund their own profits. While I am not surprised, I am concerned.
My party has a problem. I am clear that unless we have control this situation will go on and on. We might have a 20-month window when we freeze prices, which is welcome, but what happens after that? Will companies be able to put prices up? We have been told that the market will be reformed in a way that will stop them doing that. Well, I will believe that when it happens. This probably will not go down well with my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, but anybody who listened to “Question Time” last week—the real question time where sometimes people answer questions, not just deflect them—will know that when it was suggested that we nationalise these industries again there was a huge cheer from the people in the room. They realise that without proper ownership we will never control these people. The people who went before us knew what they were doing.
We are coming up to the 25th anniversary of the privatisation of the utilities, and look what we are left with after 25 years of them having it all their own way. We have no security of supply and instead are relying on some of the most unstable countries in the world for our basic energy needs. We have not followed up on developing new technologies—where we once led the world—not just in coal, but in wind and wave and other things; on those things, we should be much further advanced than we are. We have a national grid that the people running it accept is not fit for purpose, and we have just stood back and let the companies get on with it. They have not upskilled the work force or trained it to meet the challenges of the future, because they have been too busy siphoning the money off into profits, and at the end of the day, the people carrying the can are the customers, our constituents.
At the Labour party conference, our leader said repeatedly that this country deserved better. We do deserve better, and it is clear that only Labour will deliver it. I am probably wasting my time, given that the invisible men of the Liberal Democrats are not even here—and there are only four Members of the major governing party here—but unless we vote for the motion tonight, this will not happen before 2015, and unless the people of this country vote for us in 2015, it will not happen then either. Ours are serious solutions for serious times. So far, all we have heard from the so-called leader of this country have been attempts to deflect responsibility with jibes, cheap jokes and humour. This is no laughing matter. We need to realise that this is a matter of life and death for the people whom we represent. We realise that, and so do the parties on the Government Benches, but they will not face up to it.
I am glad for the opportunity to make a few comments in this debate. As for all colleagues—at least on the Opposition Benches—who have spoken, the issue of rising energy prices comes up every week in my surgeries and public meetings. It is utterly complacent for the Secretary of State to lecture us about rising disposable incomes, as if that were the solution to the problem and energy prices did not really matter. He should try and tell that to people who, on top of rising energy prices, have been forced to accept a drop in hours, a wage freeze or rising housing costs, which is the reality for millions up and down this country.
To date, the Government’s measures have not worked, as they have implicitly recognised, because if they were working, why would the Prime Minister have announced, on the hoof, his two major changes in energy prices? Last year, came the promise to put everyone on the cheapest tariff, which then became a promise to simplify tariffs, from which millions of energy customers will not benefit; then, this year, came the sudden review of green levies, which has now become simply the transfer of some energy efficiency measure into general taxation, or so it would appear.
The Government’s policies have not worked to date because they rely on claimed features of the energy market that, by themselves, have not and cannot bring about the required level of market reform and apply downward pressure on energy prices. First, as my hon. Friends have said, the Government are relying on competition, but as even the Secretary of State would seem to accept, competition is not bringing down prices. After all, given that the prices charged by the major energy companies all seem to rise at roughly the same time and at roughly the same rate, we may be excused for being sceptical about competition. We now seem to be relying on switching, but after three and a half years in power, the Government have realised that it is not as easy to switch as they suggested, so they are going to introduce measures to make it easier.