Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:04 pm on 6th March 2018.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset 4:04 pm, 6th March 2018

In the interests of brevity, I want to make one point about the rationale for the cap that I do not think has yet been stated in this debate, and two points to reassure my hon. Friends about issues that have arisen.

On the rationale, it is true that Ramsey pricing—the gouging of so-called loyal or, in other words, inertial customers—is a major issue, but predatory pricing on the other side of the balance sheet is equally important. As Rachel Reeves said, large suppliers are making uncovenanted surpluses out of the default tariffs, which they are using to cross-subsidise their competitive tariffs to exclude entrants from the market to the greatest possible extent. Once they are deprived of the ability to generate oligopolistic returns from the default tariffs, as my hon. Friend John Penrose mentioned, they will have to do what they are very reluctant to do —namely, recognise more closely the true cost of their own inefficiencies in their more competitive tariffs, thereby allowing much greater penetration of the market by small challengers.

That is why I celebrate the fact that the Government have made the cap a temporary one with reviews. The shadow Secretary of State, when she was engaging in what sounded on this side of the Chamber suspiciously like scraping the barrel to find things to object to, asked the question: how will we know that the time is ripe for the cap to be removed? The answer is when the challengers have actually been able to move into the market in great numbers, because the cross-subsidy in the predatory pricing model has faded away and we therefore have a proper energy supply market.

Of my two crumbs of comfort, I want to offer one directly to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare. We all owe him a great debt of gratitude for banging on about this for a very long time and thinking about it deeply. I assure him that the Bill, whatever anybody may have said about it, clearly allows for a cap that, far from being a freeze, will never be a freeze, as he recognises, and will also not be an absolute point tariff either—or need not be an absolute point tariff. It is entirely in Ofgem’s gift to decide how the cap varies or does not vary depending on circumstances in the external supply markets for energy.

Knowing the current personnel in Ofgem, and having talked to them about this—I am grateful to the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth for facilitating some of those discussions—I am absolutely convinced that they will in fact make this a calculated, formulaic cap that properly reflects the changes in external international circumstances. It will therefore be miles away from the lunacies, although they were politically attractive lunacies at the time, of the Labour party’s original proposal for an absolute price freeze, which, incidentally, would have crippled customers at a time when energy prices were falling.

The second point I want to make to my hon. Friends is that this is the right kind of structure.