My Lords, first, I welcome the Minister to this addition to her brief—that is the best way of putting it—and look forward to debating energy issues with her in the months to come. I thank her for introducing the regulations this afternoon.
The Minister will of course know that it was the last Labour Government who initially took steps to convert the earlier voluntary scheme into a compulsory scheme back in 2009, so of course it is natural to expect that we welcome the proposed extension of the scheme. No one should struggle to heat their homes over winter, and the continuing scandal of fuel poverty and excess winter deaths shows how vital this policy has become. However, we have major concerns about the delay in tabling these regulations, which have now been echoed by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which concluded that the delays will make the policy intent unobtainable this winter. That is the reason I am moving the amendment this afternoon. I will therefore ask the Minister about the timing of these extended regulations, as it appears increasingly unlikely that the policy objective of reaching customers before the winter months will be achieved.
The policy was announced by the Chancellor in November 2015, but by all accounts—the Minister confirmed this—there was a delay of five months while cross-departmental wrangling was resolved. However, I do not accept what the Minister said—that this can be written off as an unusual period. After the four-week consultation ended, it took another two months for the regulations to be laid before Parliament, and now here we are on the last day, rushing them through.
The result of this delay is that the rebates will begin to apply only in December, with some not being received until January or February next year, which is well after the cold winter weather will have set in. A number of respondents to the consultation raised particular concerns about customers on prepaid meters, who have to pay up front, often on the most expensive tariffs, and who will not receive the payments in time to make a difference to their fuel poverty. Does the noble Baroness agree that this delay is unacceptable? What steps is she taking to address the problem through departmental co-operation so that these events do not happen again? What dialogue is taking place with the suppliers to introduce the rebates in the speediest possible way, given that this delay has occurred?
Secondly, there remains a problem with targeting the payments effectively. The then Secretary of State acknowledged earlier this year that only 15% of households in receipt of rebates have both low incomes and high energy costs—that is, they are in fuel poverty. Meanwhile, in 2014 over 10% of households were classified as being in fuel poverty, and the number is rising. There is an urgent need to target the payments more effectively to those most in need. Therefore, can the Minister clarify how the proposed data sharing will improve targeting to the most vulnerable customers, many of whom are unaware of their entitlements to these payments?
Finally, how do the Government intend to address the criticisms of the CMA and others that energy companies continue to overcharge their customers? This is compounded by the difficulties that suppliers put in place for customers seeking to switch. Indeed, a recent Sunday Times consumer advice article recommended that people did not even try to switch suppliers until the Government had made the process easier. For that reason, I am moving the amendment and I look forward to the Minister’s response.