Extension and termination of tariff cap conditions

Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 15th March 2018.

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Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy) 11:30 am, 15th March 2018

I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 8, page 5, line 36, at end insert—

“(3A) In the case that the tariff cap is extended to have effect for the year 2023, the Secretary of State must publish a statement before the end of that calendar year outlining whether the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to introduce further legislation to introduce a new tariff cap to have effect beyond the date outlined in this Act.”

This amendment would require, in the event that the tariff is extended until 2023, the Secretary of State to publish a statement outlining whether he or she considers it appropriate to bring forward further legislation to introduce a new tariff cap to have effect beyond 2023.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. At our last sitting I made a joke about being brief in my comments, but I will be super-brief this time.

The whole reason for the Bill is the admission that the retail energy market is not working in terms of providing effective competition for consumers and allowing them to access the best-priced tariffs. I recognise that the Government have made it clear that the proposed cap mechanism is temporary for that reason and is to allow the market to remedy itself. Because this is a temporary cap, clause 8 is the sunset clause, which in effect states that the cap must end by the end of 2023.

I have tabled my simple amendment because, as we know, the market is not working, but there is no guarantee that it will remedy itself in the time proposed, although we hope it will. There is a risk that there will still be no effective competition in 2023, so the amendment suggests that if we get to that final year of the temporary cap, the Government should make a statement outlining whether they believe it appropriate to introduce further legislation for a new tariff cap with effect beyond 2023.

The amendment is to ensure that the Government update Parliament about where matters are at, and imposes that duty on the Secretary of State. It is a very simple amendment, so my comments have been super-brief. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

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)

Good morning, Sir Edward. It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your august chairmanship, and I am impressed with your X-ray eyes seeing the coffee cup. It is, once again, a pleasure to welcome fellow travellers on our Committee.

I was of course interested in what the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said—in essence getting back to that long-term question that we have all been discussing as to what “good” looks like. In 2023 how will we know whether the cap can be removed? Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman is in a way seeking to bind the hands of a future Government with his amendment, by putting in place, when the cap is finally removed—I think we all agree with the sunset clause—the need to opine as to whether further legislation should be introduced.

My hope is to persuade the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment, so I shall set out a couple of reasons why he should, although I think we all agree that we support the cap. We want the cap to be in place for the period it takes to restore effective competition in the market. We also agree that we do not want permanent caps to run in the market, because we want it to move towards a more competitive position. The Bill is an intelligent intervention to speed up that journey.

Frankly, the Government have no wish for a price cap to be a permanent feature of our energy market. We debated that point briefly last week. I think there is strong consensus in the Committee—if I have not misjudged it—that the cap should have a sunset clause. In order for a sunset clause to be effective, there should be an end date to the legislation. Of course, as we discussed last week, that does not simply mean we will pass the Bill quickly through both Houses—as I hope we will—and have the cap in place by the end of the year, as Ofgem has assured us is possible; we will also all be working alongside Ofgem to ensure that the conditions for effective competition are in place by the 2023 deadline. I think we would all want to see those conditions in place well before that date.

Ultimately, we want a fully working and competitive market that is transparent, innovative and adaptive, that promotes competition as the best driver of value and service to customers, and that has a regulator with the powers and appetite to regulate actively should a situation arise, as it has done, where we do not believe some groups of customers get that value and service.

We discussed last week the roll-out of smart meters—where we have seen good progress but we need to go further and faster—and moving to faster and more reliable switching. I am very interested in Ofgem’s midata proposals, which will make switching an almost seamless process. Indeed, my hon. Friend John Penrose, who was so instrumental in creating the Bill, told me about his latest app, Flipper, which enables someone’s supplies of various services to be transferred almost seamlessly, with their consent, to the best value tariff, based on what tariff they are looking for.

There are plenty of opportunities for consumers to benefit from that improved competition, but we have discussed the fact that, although some of us are active switchers and are aware of those opportunities, some of us are too time-poor to do that. Worryingly, there is a large group of customers who are on bad-value tariffs and either do not know it or are sufficiently disengaged from the market not to do anything about it. That is why we brought forward the Bill and why it is extremely important to test the initiatives that the Competition and Markets Authority proposed to improve engagement with so-called disengaged customers.

We have discussed incredibly exciting technological changes, such as the move to distributed energy, the increase in renewable energy and people’s ability almost to create their own energy network, which includes them, local businesses and other local energy consumers. New business models will also come into the sector. I was interested to hear the evidence of some of the more innovative new entrants about where they want to go with the market. They mentioned half-hourly settlement and payments to people who do not consume energy at certain times. There is an enormous range of adaptations, and of course smart metering will unlock even more.

We are all determined to have a fully competitive and fair energy market, but I think we are all of a mind that the cap should be a temporary measure. I pay tribute once again to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, who serves with great effect on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, to which we all owe a great debt of gratitude. The Committee said that there is a risk that if the price cap became a longer- term fixture it

“would put the Government unduly in charge of setting energy prices for the foreseeable future.”

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on receiving Privy Counsellor status—she joins a merry band of us. I accept the argument for a temporary price cap, but does she accept that we should look closely during this period at whether any other structural reform of the energy market is needed to ensure that there is even wider competition and hunger for customers, rather than complacency?

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)

I could not agree more. I thank the right hon. Lady for her kind congratulations. I feel it is an undeserved honour, but it is amazing. She is absolutely right. One of the reasons we were minded to bring forward the Bill was that we have a competitive energy market, with more than 60 companies that would like to sell us energy—either combined heat and power or, in some cases, just power—but we gifted incumbency to a large number of companies when we took what I thought were sensible steps to privatise the energy system. That brought in more than £60 billion of new capital and caused prices to fall and power cuts to halve, but the companies that were gifted incumbency have not had to work for customers. It was interesting to hear from new entrants about how they are determined to shake up that complacency.

I think the right hon. Lady also alluded to practices further up the energy system—or further down; I am not sure whether it starts at the top or the bottom—and particularly profits in the distribution sector and overall network costs, which have come down but arguably could come down further. Work has been done in that area, but I am determined that the whole sector, from generation right to the customer’s meter, should be highly efficient, that efficiency and customer service should be rewarded, and that we ensure we have not created a shield of incumbency that allows companies to persist with bad customer practices. This is the start. We may not need legislation to get there, so we may not have the pleasure of—

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and wish her many congratulations from the Government side of the Committee, too. On incumbency and the investment that she mentioned, is it not extremely important that the price cap is set at a level that continues to encourage investment the whole way through the energy chain and into the new infrastructure we need? That is one of the reasons it is so important to signal that this is not a permanent cap; it is an incentive to increase competition and to ensure that the market continues to be dynamic and that infrastructure continues to be invested in.

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)

My hon. Friend brings her great knowledge of these markets on a broader European scale to make a telling and vital point. The need to maintain investment in the industry, which we must have as we go through what is possibly the most exciting revolution in our energy markets for decades, is included in the Bill for exactly that reason. Clause 1(6)(d) speaks to exactly that point: we must ensure that we still have the financial investment in the industry that we so desperately need.

Having talked about the need to keep on improving efficiency, and having accepted the view of the Select Committee that the price cap should be only a temporary measure—reflecting a cross-party view that the Government should not be unduly involved in setting energy prices— I hope that I have persuaded the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun that his amendment is unnecessary and provides an obligation on a future Secretary of State to impose another price cap. A future Government may decide to do that—who am I to suggest what legislation a future Government might introduce? However, I do not feel that the amendment is appropriate; it creates disincentives and uncertainty in a market where we have to have certainty to generate investment. On that basis, I hope he might be persuaded to withdraw his amendment.

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

The Minister finished as she started, by talking about binding future Governments. I suggest that most legislation, in one form or another, binds future Governments. It is for future Governments to make changes to the legislation if it does not suit their policy at the time. Binding future Governments is not a reason not to table an amendment or to withdraw an amendment.

Again, the amendment is not about making the cap permanent. It acknowledges that the cap is temporary, but if, for whatever reason, we get to 2023 and we still do not think that there is effective competition in the marketplace, it puts a duty on the Secretary of State to explain what the Government will do to address that, including possibly introducing new legislation.

On what “good” looks like in the future, if the Government had accepted an amendment setting out the criteria for what effective competition will look like—such as the Labour amendment that suggested a whole list of criteria that should be considered to determine and measure that—we would know what “good” looks like in the future. That might also help to generate the effective competition that we are discussing.

That said, to go back to my original point, I am not trying to say that the cap should not be temporary. Following my comments to the Minister, I do not see any point in pressing the amendment to a vote, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment 11, in clause 8, page 5, line 36, at end insert—

“(3A) In the case that the tariff cap is extended to have effect for the year 2023, the Secretary of State must publish a report before the end of that calendar year on further measures that can be taken to ensure that conditions are in place for effective competition for domestic supply contracts.

(3B) The report under subsection (3A) must include, but is not limited to—

(a) the merits of establishing pooled trading arrangements which matches energy sellers and buyers on the day-ahead and near-term markets; and

(b) the potential impact of such an arrangement on competition for domestic supply contracts.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Before I proceed, I ought to say two things. First, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Devizes on her elevation to the Privy Council. In terms of nomenclature, I am not entirely clear whether I should refer to her as the Minister or the right hon. Minister in the future.

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

I think I will just continue with “the Minister”—or Claire, depending on the circumstances under which we meet.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun mentioned that he is a man of few words. I may well be a man of even fewer words today, because I am suffering somewhat, and my voice may not last for the whole proceedings. That could be a great boon for the Committee.

In the previous debate, we heard the hon. Gentleman’s wish to put further consideration of a possible cap in place at the end of 2023, when the sunset clause in the Bill comes into operation. Amendment 11 addresses that same issue but in a slightly different way. It acknowledges that there is a determined endpoint for the cap, come what may, and regardless of all other mechanisms in the Bill, such as reports by Ofgem, ministerial statements and considerations of market conditions. Clause 8 makes apparent that those mechanisms apply for each year during the term of the price cap, but they do not apply when it comes to 2023, because that is the end of the price cap.

Hon. Members might be tempted to wonder, if the conditions for proper market operation are not securely in place by that point—in each of the previous years, Ofgem has reported that the conditions are not in place and therefore the Minister would almost certainly not agree that the price cap should be taken off—what happens in that last year, when those considerations do not apply?

The amendment would make it necessary, under those circumstances, to look at other factors across the market, not just in retail but in wholesale trading, and to consider the conditions that would lead to better operation of the market as a whole. It would require the Minister to produce a report in that last year about what conditions in the wholesale market might bolster the market in terms of working properly, looking particularly at trading and how the market might work under a trading pool system.

I do not intend to go into a lengthy disposition about the nature of a pool as opposed to bilateral trading—I would recommend a paper from the University of Dundee entitled “How does bilateral trading differ from electricity pooling?” by Egheosa Onaiwu. That is a pretty comprehensive study of the differences. Briefly, a pooled system for generating would be established, whereby generators sell into the pool at an agreed price, and buyers bid into that market on the basis of the pool having been established at that agreed price.

The advantage of such a system is that trading is completely transparent at all times. At that point, depending on how far down the curve the pool goes, there are no bilateral deals, which hon. Members may well know have been quite a subject for investigation in previous years. It is not always obvious with bilateral deals in which companies are effectively trading with themselves—when one company has both generation and retail capacities—that they affect what is happening with the real price of energy at the point at which the trade is made. Nor is it particularly obvious, because it is not transparent, whether those deals are in the public interest in keeping the prices as low as possible. Suggestions have been made that on occasions where companies are effectively dealing with themselves, there can be price transfer. That is, a company is actually trading up in its bilateral deals, so that a price is taken out of the retail and transferred to the wholesale operation and an additional profit could be made.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley 11:45 am, 15th March 2018

My hon. Friend is making an important point. To sum it up, the big six are both generators and retailers. The case is that they generate energy, sell it to themselves and then sell it on to us, without us really being clear about what the true price is. But does he agree that the advantage of a more transparent pool is for those independent generators to have a marketplace in which they can sell their energy, as well as those smaller retailers that would like to operate in a much more open and transparent way? I am glad to say that that was the policy when I was shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. If, like other policy areas, it seems to be more popular these days, more strength to his elbow.

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

I thank my right hon. Friend for that encapsulation of how the pool works and for her important point that a pool system would allow independent generators to trade on exactly the same basis as those vertically integrated generators, and, equally importantly, independent retailers bidding into the market would be able to bid in transparently, on the basis that they would know what the price was at that particular point. There would be hands on the table and the price would be clear for everybody. The whole trading process would be thoroughly transparent, to the particular advantage of how the market works in its new incarnation as a large number of independent retailers and generators operating alongside the more integrated generators and those large inheritors of customers from, essentially, the days of the Central Electricity Generating Board.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Conservative, Wells

I am not sure that I am that enthusiastic about this idea for further intervention, on two grounds. First, the big six are increasingly separating out their supply and generation businesses, because it makes commercial sense for them to do so, and I am therefore not sure that we are tackling a problem that will continue to exist. Secondly and more importantly, in one of the most successful green finance models that is coming through the cheapest cost of capital tends to be when generation is built with a contract directly to a supplier. I wonder if the hon. Gentleman has considered what impact this measure might have on that very cheapest cost of capital that seems to be available for quite significant amounts of generation capacity coming onstream.

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

I will make two points in response. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be enthused by the merits of the pool when he looks into it—knowing, as I do, how deeply he does look into these matters on a regular basis. Although it is true that a number of companies are dividing themselves in different ways from the model that there used to be, it is by no means clear that in the complete vertical integration of those companies those divisions all face in one direction. In some instances, such as the recent merger of SSE and Innogy, retail has been put together in one company. In other instances, companies are breaking themselves up into what might be called a good company and a bad company, in terms of the different forms of generation, without distinguishing between vertical integration and generation. Indeed, there are further moves abroad. For example, E.ON in Germany has effectively taken over elements of Innogy, which may have effects back on SSE and Innogy in the UK. A variety of things are happening in the market, some of which point towards different forms of vertical integration and some of which, as the hon. Gentleman says, point in the direction of demerger.

That is not necessarily the central point about how a pool operates. Even if there are circumstances under which there is rather less vertical integration, the fact that the pool is bringing complete transparency on all trades to the table means that everybody in the market is absolutely on the same level as far as both those trades and the retail element, whereby people are bidding in, are concerned. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a number of newer companies will largely be bidding into the day-ahead market. They may be considerably disadvantaged in not knowing what has happened with trades down the curve when bidding into that market. Having that transparency right across the piece is, in principle, a very powerful lever to ensure that the market works well regarding retail trading.

Secondly, the pool system is not a fanciful notion that some people might think is a good idea but that has never worked in practice. Probably the most successful trading arrangement in Europe at the moment is Nord Pool, which does precisely this across the whole of Scandinavia. It does not have the negative effects that the hon. Member for Wells suggests it might in terms of cost of capital and investment, but stabilises that market across the whole of Scandinavia and produces transparency across borders.

In any event, a pool system is something that this we ought to look at for this country. What this amendment does is rather less than that. It asks whether the Minister thinks that, under circumstances in which it has not been possible to frank the market for returning to competitive purposes by 2023, other instruments should be introduced to get us beyond the end of the temporary pool and out of that temporary price cap, which is what we all want. That will be on the basis that we between us will have not just done a good job of running a cap but changed how the market works, so that the cap does not have to be in place subsequently and we do not need to return to the idea of one in the future.

That is what the amendment intends to do. I think it is a relatively modest ask of the Minister. I am sure that, if she is not promoted, she will be in her post in 2023—if there is a Conservative Government. At that point, she would simply have to produce a small report setting out how the pool system might work. Then we will look to see whether we can take that forward at that point as a key measure, to ensure that competition returns to the markets after the end of the temporary price cap.

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)

I have listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman and done a bit of research.

The first part of the amendment asks that an additional report is published setting out additional measures for competition. We had a fruitful discussion of this issue on Tuesday, and talked about the fact that there will be a comprehensive report. There is a duty on the Secretary of State to make this transparent, so it will be obvious that the conditions for competition that have been recommended by Ofgem at that point are clear. We discussed at length whether we need to specify, and the will of the Committee was that that was not the case. So the first part of the amendment is not needed, because we will have a transparent report, we will be able to see what “good” looks like—a phrase many of us have used—and we should be able to satisfy ourselves of that.

The second part of the amendment relates to pooled trading. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is a bit of an expert on that, so I felt that I should go away and look at such things. His argument is that having pooled trading arrangements could be an option that should be included in the assessment of competition, and that the report should cover that. He will know that pooled trading arrangements were in place historically. Indeed, I believe it was the first Blair Government that removed those conditions.

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

The Minister is absolutely right that there was a pooled system in place, but it was a one-way pool, not a two-way pool. Furthermore, there were only two generating companies at that time, so the circumstances were very different, and it was not a full pool in any event.

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)

I accept that helpful piece of information. But when it was cancelled and replaced with alternative arrangements, the real issue was that prices did not fall as far as they should. The rocket and feathers effect was in full cry. I have not been able to find a pub called “The Rocket and Feathers” anywhere in the country, so we cannot go out and celebrate the successful passage of the Bill with a drink in an aptly named pub. However, the new arrangements were put in place back in 2001 and extended in 2005.

The CMA, in its very comprehensive review of market competition, compared the principle of bilateral trading relationships, which the hon. Gentleman has eloquently expounded, with a pool approach. Its view was that the evidence did not support a move to such a pooling system, primarily because there is sufficient liquidity in the market—Ofgem reviews the liquidity arrangements—and there is price transparency for all the pool participants already. The CMA’s conclusion was that if we all accept that we need to move to a more competitive market, the evidence does not suggest a move to bilateral pooled trading relationships.

I have set out that Ofgem has wide powers to say what “good” looks like, on the basis of which it will make its recommendation to the Secretary of State about whether the cap should be lifted. I think that covers the first part of the amendment. I am persuaded by the CMA’s report that, given that the arrangements are working, there is insufficient merit in examining the merits of the pooled market, and there would not be sufficient gain from introducing that system. It should not be a specific requirement, as detailed by the clause.

There may be other opportunities to debate this structural point. On the point made by the right hon. Member for Don Valley when discussing the previous amendment, I hope that there will be opportunities over the next few years to talk in depth about what other arrangements need to be made in the market to improve the efficiency of the entire supply chain. However, hopefully in this case the hon. Member for Southampton, Test will consider withdrawing his amendment, as it is not needed in the Bill at this time.

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

I am not persuaded that this notion is not needed in the Bill in the eventuality of the cap going to 2023. However, I am reasonably persuaded that it would not be a good idea to press the amendment to a Division this morning, because the purpose of the amendment was essentially to allow us to debate the question of the possibility of a pool. I have not persuaded the Minister this morning that it would be a good idea for future trading arrangements. However, given the assiduous work that she has already done in looking at how a pool might work, I hope that she will continue with her studies, and will perhaps be persuaded in the fullness of time that it is actually a rather good idea for the long term, and ought to be pursued—if not by this Government, then by the next. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9