Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:51 pm on 6th March 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby 4:51 pm, 6th March 2018

That is a concern, but let us not forget who owned these businesses at the time. In many instances, shares in the utilities were bought by the customers, some of whom have since disposed of their shares—some utilities have been acquired by larger corporations. I agree that the ability to change supplier is important.

The other reason for privatisation was to make the industry more efficient. There is no question but that that happened in the immediate aftermath of privatisation. There were dramatic falls in price. I accept that there has been some consolidation, and it is now important that there is some intervention.

I am a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which has taken evidence on this subject. I am probably the most sceptical member of the Committee, and I needed some persuading of the merits of the Bill. I accept that the market could work better, and other interventions could be made to improve it. I have concerns about the long-term consequences of the cap, and I know the Minister will address some of those concerns in her summing up.

The Select Committee has drawn attention to two key issues: the lack of activity by the regulator in holding the big six—the legacy companies of those that were privatised—to account; and, more importantly, the “feeble” response of the big six to the threat of a cap. It may be that the industry did not take the Government’s remarks to heart and that it thought it would get away with it. It is a shame that this legislation has had to be introduced.

As for the market, all customers receive the same product and it is therefore entirely wrong that so many of the big six have a large proportion of their customers on standard variable tariffs—the most expensive rates. I understand that 57% of big six customers are on those tariffs. Of course, it is wrong that those companies should use the high standard variable tariff price to subsidise low prices to attract new customers—we hear of a £300 difference—and in that respect the energy companies have not done the right thing in recent years. One thing they could have done easily was change the description of a “standard variable tariff” to an “emergency rate tariff”, so that consumers were clear that they were on a default rate and that a better rate would be available to them if they were to change tariff. It is wrong that the big six have taken advantage of inertia in that way.

The other innovation that could have been introduced, at the instigation of the regulator, would have been to have a fixed-term contract for the supply of energy, in the same way as people have a fixed 12-month period for their insurance, be it for their home or their motor. If people receive a renewal that is significantly different from the price they have been paying, that in itself is a trigger to shop around. It is a great shame the regulator has not identified and done this, and instead has been far too slow and too reluctant to use the powers it has had.

Switching rates are a useful measure of the effectiveness of the market, and it is great that more and more people are switching. We hear that about 20% switched in the past year. The rate is increasing, but I accept the point that the Minister will make that the figures we see are affected by super switchers. Like my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne, who sounds as though he is a super switcher, these people are changing very regularly. We do not need huge numbers of super switchers; we need people to look at and understand their bill, and change when they see themselves at a disadvantage.

I also hope the Minister will address the issue of the detriment that the CMA found—the £1.4 billion. We are looking at a transfer of that sum from companies to consumers, in many cases rectifying the wrongs done to those on standard variable tariffs. One concern is that that detriment exceeds the profits of the energy companies, so the question we might want to ask is: where is that money going to come from? I hope that the action of Government will drive efficiencies, but are those going to be able to be generated sufficiently quickly?

Alternative measures could have been implemented, and one of the first things I would have liked to have seen the Government consider is extending the existing protections for vulnerable customers. We have had protection for those on prepayment meters for some time, and that has been extended to those on the warm home discount. It should not have been difficult to look at Department for Work and Pensions data in order to identify other people who we might consider as being vulnerable and extend those existing protections to them. I am disappointed that we have not looked at doing that.

I am also disappointed that we did not look at more effectively turbo-charging the marketing programme to encourage people to change their supplier or tariff. Some 5.5 million people switched in 2017. If more people exercised the power to which Caroline Flint just referred—the ability to switch—this legislation would not be necessary.

The third issue I wish to raise is that of smart meters, which will empower consumers. It is a great shame that we have not managed that process more successfully and we have not got SMETS2 meters out into the market more quickly, so that people are also provided with the tools to be able to change their supplier swiftly and easily. It is important that the Bill is a short-term measure. It is vital that the sunset clause is in place, and I know that the Minister will be keen to state why that is there. Like other Members, I hope she will address how we are going to identify whether the market is working sufficiently well to make the second term unnecessary. I hope that it will not be necessary and that the action the Government are taking now will cause the energy companies to address the issues and deal with standard variable tariffs.

I wish quickly to address one concern about the possible consequences of the price cap. I am worried that we will see the same as what happened with tuition fees, with suppliers congregating around the cap and there being less incentive for people to change. I am worried that in the short term some of the work we have done to encourage people to switch will be lost as things stabilise. As I have mentioned, I am also worried about the difficulty of removing the cap, and, as I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State, I am concerned about how we can set it at the right level.

As other Members have said, there is currently lots of change in energy generation. I hope that the dynamic nature of the market in generation can be replicated in the market in supply, and that the temporary measure in the Bill will be exactly that so that we can return to an effective, competitive market as quickly as possible.