Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:01 pm on 6th March 2018.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 5:01 pm, 6th March 2018

I have long expressed concern and alarm at the way the energy market simply does not seem to work for consumers. I have worked with Members from other parties, most notably John Penrose, to try to ensure action is taken on this issue.

The fact that the Bill will impose a cap on the price of the standard variable and default tariffs, at least until 2020 and possibly longer, is good news for consumer, particularly those who do not switch for a whole variety of reasons. The Competition and Markets Authority’s investigations found

“a lack of engagement in the markets on the part of many customers, which suppliers are able to exploit by charging high prices.”

Indeed, some 34% of domestic energy customers had never considered switching supplier, with 56% saying that they did not know whether it was possible or did not know whether they had done so in the past.

As we have heard, consumers on standard variable tariffs are much more likely to be older, disabled, on low incomes, living in rented accommodation or without internet access. Those on standard variable tariffs have not seen their bills fall by much when the cost of providing energy has fallen. Such savings as are available are passed on only to consumers who were active switchers, as we have heard. We have to understand that not all consumers can engage in the switching process, so suppliers clearly need to do more to ensure that customers are not trapped in poor deals. The poorer someone is, the more likely they are to be on the more expensive standard variable tariff, subsidising cheaper electricity deals for the better-off. That cannot be right, and is essentially what has brought us to this point.

People in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran are overpaying on energy bills by £5.5 million a year. That illustrates the need for action in the market, but that action is much more urgent than the mooted timetable of winter 2018 would suggest. I absolutely welcome the cap, but I am extremely disappointed that Ofgem has said it will need five months to implement it. We have been told that the cap will be in place for winter 2018, but why not sooner? I am afraid that the perception again raises its head that Ofgem is dragging its feet.

The Bill is indeed welcome, but the focus hereafter must be on fixing this broken market. We must have easier and faster ways to switch suppliers, for those who can and do; we need more transparent energy bills for consumers; and we need to create the conditions for a much more competitive market. Some people propose that we should consider scrapping standard variable tariffs altogether and prohibiting all tariffs without an end date, as they inhibit consumer engagement. But that prompts the question what energy suppliers can and will do to increase consumer engagement, because the figures for switching and the CMA investigations have shown that consumer engagement is severely lacking, for a whole variety of reasons.

Is it not interesting that, since there has been political focus on this matter, with a commitment from all parties to tackle the standard variable tariff rip-off, we now see some energy companies withdrawing this tariff, or seeking to introduce new measures to prevent customers from languishing on it. That shows that, so far, there has been a lack of will to deal with this issue on the part of the bigger companies in particular. However, it is clear that political focus in itself can help to drive change.

I echo the view that was expressed earlier: we must take care that the action taken in this Bill, welcome as it is, does not lead to higher prices in the longer term. We cannot have a situation in which energy providers offset initial price reductions with increases once the cap is removed. We also need to ensure that consumers who are on a cap default tariff do not lose out as market conditions change in the future. When the cap is lifted, we need to ensure that we know what the conditions and criteria for doing so are and that, in the end, we are left with a more competitive and fairer market for consumers. We need to know what the impact of this cap is and to ensure that there will be no adverse impact on a competitive market.

What is done by the Government and the regulator for the period during which this cap is in place really matters. I am keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts on this, as we cannot begin too early to prepare for what comes after this cap—whenever it is lifted. We need to know how we can continue to protect consumers and ensure that they have energy deals that are right for them and that they are not ripped off as they have been. We cannot go back to business as usual after the cap is removed. We need real and lasting change, and this period when the cap is in place is an opportunity to make that change happen.