We will need to come back to this matter, but it would be tremendously helpful if Ofgem came up with some clarifications on it, because that might reassure me and others. So far I have had nothing to reassure me in that direction—in fact, quite the opposite.
As I was saying, it is not just me who is worried about this: both Which? and uSwitch worry it will mean cheaper fixed deals will be withdrawn from the market; and leading challenger energy firms such as Octopus Energy, Utilita Energy, Utility Warehouse, Ebico and Good Energy are all worried that Ofgem’s price-fixing efforts will inevitably get it wrong. The lawyers and lobbyists for the big six are licking their lips at the prospect of all those fat fees from legal challenges and persuasive lunches. It is no coincidence that they are already demanding the Bill should allow expensive and time-consuming appeals to the Competition and Markets Authority whenever Ofgem’s committee sets a price.
If all these people think the Bill’s details create problems, what is the alternative? What needs to change? The thing to remember is that default tariff prices are just a symptom of a much deeper problem. The moral flaw at the heart of this market—the thing that sticks in the throat —is the mark-up loyal customers are charged compared with competitive switching deals. I am talking about the enormous, unjustified, sneaky price hike the big six hit people with, without their consent, just because they are loyal or simply too busy to switch. That is the unfairness, the burning injustice and the thing that drives customers—our constituents—to write to each and every one of us demanding, “This must change”.
If the problem is the mark-up as between the competitive deals and the default tariffs, why does the Bill only address half the problem—the price of the default tariffs—rather than the gap between the two? If we are really serious about solving the problem, why not cap the gap instead? A cap that creates a maximum mark-up would deal directly with this moral underlying problem—the cause of the rip-off—rather than only half of it. It would mean default tariffs would have to move in tandem with the ultra-competitive, consumer-friendly part of the market. People who took the trouble to switch would still get the best deals, but customers who forgot or did not want to switch would get protection, too.
Capping the gap is future-proof as well. If the international price of energy fell suddenly, as we were discussing earlier, it would not just be the competitive switching deals that would get cheaper; the price of capped tariffs would fall, too, and people would not have to wait for six months for Ofgem’s all-knowing committee to meet and change it. Capping the gap would not dilute or derail the all-important underlying market changes which are going to make energy feel competitive and normal either. Customers would still have plenty of incentives to start switching. That is why this Bill and its introduction make this a great day— I meant it when I said it. This Bill is important, even though it is only temporary. It will save millions of customers hundreds of pounds on an essential product. Although it is not perfect and it could be better, it is a very important step. So for the moment, for the principle of the thing, for the Second Reading debate today, let us just celebrate the fact that it is here at all and support it.