Ongoing relative tariff differential

Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 15 March 2018.

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“(1) The Secretary of State shall, during the term of the tariff cap conditions being in place, develop, ready for implementation, a relative tariff differential.

(2) A relative tariff differential is a requirement on supply licence holders that the difference between the cheapest advertised rate and the most expensive standard variable or default rate shall be no more than a specified proportion of the cheapest advertised rate.

(3) The Authority will be responsible for setting the proportion referred to in subsection (2).

(4) The relative tariff differential shall take effect on the termination of the tariff cap conditions.”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause is one that I feel particularly strongly about and that I hope the Minister can take on board, not necessarily with an immediate indication that the exact clause might be accepted but perhaps with an indication that she will look carefully at the principles it outlines and consider whether a similar amendment may be necessary and possible on Report. I say that partly because I appreciate that some of the wording is not what we would want to see in the final Bill. I particularly draw attention to the word “ongoing”. I am sorry that I have committed that word to paper, because it really should not exist as an English word; perhaps we can think of a better clause title. However, I want to talk briefly about what the new clause suggests.

Anyone who has followed the debate leading up to the Bill will know that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare in particular has pursued with great vigour, and to his great credit, a campaign to ensure that a price cap Bill came before the House. The fact that the Bill is here today is in no small part down to his hard work, and that of many other hon. Members, in keeping the issue at the head of discussion, and making suggestions and proposals about how the legislation might be introduced.

One proposal that the hon. Gentleman put forward is that, when we talk about a price cap we should talk about not an absolute cap but a relative one, because that has a number of merits that an absolute cap does not. He suggested that it should be based on tariff differentials. For my part, I do not think that a relative price cap cast in that way does the business. Like the Minister, I am in favour of an absolute price cap, which is what is in the Bill. I am not in favour of that formulation of a relative price cap because that is not actually a price cap. It could start on the basis of differential tariffs at any level, and would not perform the function of an absolute price cap.

However, what the proposal of a relative cap does really well is draw attention to a serious, big problem in the energy market today. If energy companies have a very substantial range between tariffs, that affects their ability to switch their customers, and particularly their sticky customers. Let us not forget the range of sticky customers—people on variable tariffs—that a number of companies have. I think SSE, for example, has 89% of its customers on standard variable tariffs and other similar tariffs. Most of the big six have well over 50%. Even some of the newer energy companies are accreting a number of customers who are in that position. Those customers, who have been the focus of the Bill, are the most prone to particular energy companies effectively trading on their loyalty to change the terms of the tariffs over a period of time, so that they migrate towards the top end of the tariff range, rather than the bottom end, which they may have entered into an agreement on in the first place. Even if someone is on a fixed-term tariff offered at a particular point by an electricity company with a substantial tariff range, thinks they got a particularly good deal from that company and is a loyal customer, they may well find themselves placed on a new tariff towards the top end of that company’s tariff range when that mode of deal comes to an end. In many instances, people do not know that has happened: they thought they were getting a good deal but find that they are paying through the nose for their electricity.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley 12:30, 15 March 2018

It is worth exploring what might happen down the road when the temporary price cap ends. I am in favour of an absolute price cap rather than a relative price cap. I am listening very carefully to what my hon. Friend is saying and I have read the new clause, but may I say this to him in a friendly way? My concern is that there is a danger that what he is putting forward may inadvertently create a relative price cap and I am against that because a company could set its highest tariff very high so that, even if there were a 6% differential, it would be a differential between a high tariff and a really high tariff. I am totally at one with him on ensuring that another set of bad practices does not come in when the temporary price cap ends, but is there not a danger that that might be the unintended consequence of his new clause?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I thank my right hon. Friend for that important point about trying to look at the consequences of what may happen when the price cap ends. Indeed, the new clause considers precisely what circumstances will be in place at that point. In essence, its purpose is to require the Secretary of State to produce a report on what might happen to relative tariff differentials in the period after the price cap ends. I suggest that that may be one of the pillars of a return to reasonable market conditions when the cap ends. If that pillar and other matters relating to the market working well were in place, and had been franked by Ofgem as being in place, the relative tariff range limitation device might come into place at that point.

In those circumstances, it would make no sense for an energy company to start with a very high tariff, because it would simply lose a whole pile of customers. Indeed, in circumstances where companies have done that, for various reasons, they have bled a very large number of customers. We can see that in some of Centrica’s activities, for example. It seems to me that in circumstances where the market was otherwise working reasonably well, the market itself would determine whether companies could hoick their original offer tariff really high to take advantage of a restricted tariff level. That may simply not be a viable strategy for them to adopt under those circumstances. At the same time, however, companies that had offered a competitive tariff would not have the option of transferring customers to a non-competitive tariff if they did not switch.

That is particularly important given that all the evidence we have so far shows that, whatever we do and whatever remedies or new instruments are put in place, it is unlikely that we will ever have a market in which everyone actively switches. It is extremely likely that the system will continue to operate on the basis of a majority of people one way or another not switching and a minority of people switching, sometimes very actively. Yes, perhaps that switching would keep the market in order, but the market nevertheless would still carry a large number of people who did not switch.

In the past, people not switching has led to the maintenance of SVTs and default tariffs. Even when measures are applied, such as Ofgem’s experiments with getting people to switch on the terms of the CMA’s recommendations—a number of pilots have been carried out, including letters from energy companies or from Ofgem informing people about how they might switch —a good number of people do not switch. We have a reasonable responsibility—indeed, a duty—to consider what will happen to that body of people even after we apply all the other remedies to the market. It seems to me that this particular remedy for the period after the absolute price cap ends may actually address that issue of sticky customers continuing not to switch.

Let me give hon. Members an idea of what is happening in the market today. As we might expect, among the 60-plus companies making a tariff offer in the market, there is an upwards curve in basic tariffs. The annual cost of a dual fuel tariff ranges from about £800 to £1,200 for some of the green tariffs we discussed. If we look at those companies’ tariff ranges—I will not mention names—we see that one company that starts at the lower end with an initial tariff offer of a little over £800 has a tariff range of up to £1,150, another company that offers an initial tariff of just over £900 has a tariff range of up to £1,200, and a company that starts at just under £900 has a tariff range of up to £1,150. That indicates that, at the moment, the slope of a company’s initial tariff bears no relation to its tariff range. Indeed, some companies have very good tariff ranges—Members might be surprised to hear some of their names—whereas other companies, which Members might have a rather more benign view of, actually have huge tariff ranges. So the question of tariff range and how that may affect sticky customers is a question not just of there being bad companies doing this and good companies not doing it, but of it being reasonably endemic across the range of companies offering a relatively low initial tariff but having a very high tariff range structure in their arrangements.

The new clause therefore simply says not what should be offered after the cap is over but that there should be a piece of elastic, as it were, between the lowest tariff and the highest. In essence, that is what the relative price cap suggests, but I am saying that the good bits of that suggestion should be incorporated as a pillar of the market’s working well once the absolute cap is over. In a sense, that is the best of both worlds, the good bits of what is being proposed in the relative price cap and the good bits of the absolute price cap working well together to ensure that the market works well in the long term.

The Minister should look closely at my suggestion as an instrument to ensure that the market works well, which is what we all want to happen at the end of the absolute price cap. It would also be relatively easy to put in place while nevertheless assuring that section of the market for the future for those people who pay the high tariffs because of their particular behaviours. We should all be concerned about that and I hope that the Minister will take it on board and come back with something that makes it work, perhaps in a slightly different form—perhaps with a better name than the ongoing relative tariff arrangement—and that works well for all of us.

Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Minister of State (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Clean Growth) 12:45, 15 March 2018

I agree with the right hon. Member for Don Valley that it is absolutely right to think about what might happen when the cap goes off into the sunset, as we have done extensively. I am always interested to listen to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test but I slightly feel—unless I have misjudged this—that we are going over territory that we have covered extensively, in particular on Second Reading. We have heard many arguments about the absolute versus the relative tariff and, in effect, he is proposing a perpetual relative tariff—[Interruption.] Perpetual or ongoing, perhaps we are dancing on the head of a pin—

Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Minister of State (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Clean Growth)

Okay, but there is a relative tariff or a relative cap that is ready to go. The hon. Gentleman said on Second Reading:

“It should be clear that we want this price cap to come in. We believe it should be an absolute and not a relative price cap”.—[Official Report, 6 March 2018; Vol. 637, c. 271.]

I agree with him, as does Ofgem and as does the Select Committee, which made it very clear that it felt that a relative cap would simply be gamed.

As the right hon. Member for Don Valley mentioned, there is also the problem that companies will simply lift up their skirts and raise their whole tariff. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test may say that companies would then lose their customers, but we come back to the question of whether people will actually move. Yes, companies may lose those hyper-price-sensitive switchers who are very engaged, but they may not lose the customers we are really here to help today—those who are more vulnerable and not as savvy.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Centrica lost more than 800,000 customers, but 650,000 of them were due to a collective switch—one big deal. So only 150,000 of a very substantial customer base, the majority of whom are still on SVTs, actually shifted, despite the price rise. The numbers are therefore not quite as unequivocal as he suggests.

He is also right to raise the issue of ongoing protection for vulnerable consumers. We will all be pleased that, regardless of the price cap, Ofgem has already introduced a safeguarding tariff for those on prepayment meters, an additional 1 million customers. Those customers have saved about £120 to date relative to what they would have paid. The tariffs that they are paying have come down relative to the uncapped SVTs on the market. That absolute cap mechanism, therefore, is working. Even when the safeguarding tariff put in place by the CMA or the price cap in the Bill comes to an end, Ofgem will continue to have the powers to take further steps to protect vulnerable customers as it sees fit.

We are all here because we want the market to be in a competitive place on the expiration of the tariff cap under the sunset clause. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test may say that that is a triumph of optimism over practicality but, in essence, if we believe the market will be more competitive and we do not believe that the relative price cap is the way to address any remaining issues of uncompetitiveness, I find it difficult to see why we should put his new clause into the Bill, running all the risks we talked about on Second Reading—which have been explained eloquently by others—of the variable tariff cap not being an effective way to establish competition. We will have had a temporary absolute cap in place. We will have sent the very clear signal. That will have operated. I can see a situation where a relative cap could undo some of that good work and we would suddenly see prices zooming upwards because there was the opportunity to do so.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman thinking hard, as always, about what “good” will look like, and I share his desire to continue to work together on ensuring that this cap delivers, but I hope he will withdraw the new clause on the basis that it is not necessary and could have bad unintended consequences.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I simply do not accept what the Minister says about bad unintended consequences. I do not think that is realistic. Conversely, having something like this in place would be a positive driver of a return to not only good market conditions but proper protections for those operating tariff arrangements under those otherwise good market conditions. It is important that, in the ending of the absolute cap, we get both sides right. It is not just a question of the market working well. It is a question of people in that market who have disadvantageous circumstances being protected properly as it goes forward.

Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Minister of State (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Clean Growth)

Would the hon. Gentleman accept that those arguments could be made today about whether we are introducing an absolute or relative cap? We have all agreed quite strongly that an absolute cap provides those protections. If he were proposing that Ofgem has an absolute cap ready to go, we could raise some of the questions we discussed earlier about future uncertainty in the market. I felt that until today we had all considered carefully, but rejected, the structure of a relative cap as a hypothesis—as opposed to an actual absolute cap, which we have—that would not deliver the results we want: vital protections for vulnerable customers.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Yes, indeed. That is why I have been pains to say that this is not a relative cap. It was not a relative cap when it was proposed, although it was branded as one, but can actually be a pillar of an instrument for market return. I do not want to pursue the new clause today; but, for reasons that the Minister and I perhaps need to talk about, it would be a good idea to bring something like it back on Report. I think we probably will. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chair do report the Bill to the House.

Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Minister of State (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Clean Growth)

May I thank you for your wise chairmanship, Sir Edward? I also thank Ms McDonagh, who chaired the Committee on Tuesday; the Clerks of the Committee, who have kept us assiduously on the straight and the narrow; and the House staff and Hansard reporters, who always do such an amazing job.

I extend fervent thanks to all members of the Committee. We have had an extremely constructive and helpful debate and have probed many aspects of the Bill. I also thank the witnesses who gave evidence and from whose wisdom we have benefited. I think that covers it, apart from thanking my excellent civil servants for their help in drafting the Bill and their excellent answers to questions. We will continue to draw deeply from that well, but at this stage I thank everybody for taking the Bill—hopefully successfully—through Committee.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Like the Minister, I thank everyone who has taken part in this stage of the Bill’s passage. We have had a genuinely constructive debate, in which we have all been facing in the right direction. I particularly thank the Clerks for their assiduous work and for their help with tabling Opposition amendments; unfortunately we do not have an entire civil service on our side, so we must seek other help, but we have not been failed.

I hope that the Bill will now progress to its remaining stages with consensus that the tariff will be an absolute cap, and with good support from all sides of the House for the result that we all want.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy)

Without going on for too long, may I, too, thank the Clerks and the Chair? I thank the Minister for listening—I hope—and congratulate her on her appointment to the Privy Council. Like the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, I look forward to seeing the tariff cap in place, competition in the marketplace and consumers being saved money.

On behalf of us all, I congratulate the Minister on her great honour; we are all absolutely delighted. On my own behalf and my fellow Chair’s, I thank all hon. Members who have taken part, particularly Dr Whitehead and the Minister. For an unreconstructed Thatcherite libertarian marketeer like me, it has certainly been a useful re-education camp on the benefits of intervention in the marketplace.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.