Duty to consider the needs of customers in rural areas

Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 15 March 2018.

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“(1) When exercising its duties under section 1, the Authority must have regard to the need to protect customers in rural areas.

(2) When exercising their duties under sections 7 and 8, the Authority and the Secretary of State must have regard to—

(a) whether effective competition exists for customers in rural areas, and

(b) additional protection in place for customers in rural areas.”

This new clause requires the Secretary of State and the Authority to have regard for customers in rural areas when exercising their powers in setting, reviewing and terminating the cap.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

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

We know that part of the problem with existing tariffs is that certain groups of people are more likely to be adversely affected. New clause 2 would make the duty to consider the needs of customers in rural areas absolutely explicit. To recap what I think we are all aware of, people who reside in rural areas are more likely to have lower incomes; they are more likely to be off the gas grid, which leads to overall higher energy costs; and, particularly in Scotland, they are more likely to have properties that are much more difficult to make energy-efficient, thereby increasing their ongoing energy costs.

Digital connectivity is an issue predominantly in rural issues, which means that is difficult to undertake regular switching. Rural areas also still suffer from notspots for mobile coverage, which is an impediment to getting a smart meter. If we really believe that smart meters will help revolutionise the market and help people get lower tariffs, we need to eliminate the notspots. The Scottish Government have just announced a £25 million fund to provide more coverage in rural areas, but that is perhaps not something they should need to step up to the plate on. Challenger companies are also less likely to tackle the rural issue, so the incumbents—the big six—often have almost a monopoly in some rural areas. That is another barrier to competition.

To cap it all in terms of the disadvantages for rural customers, people in the Scottish highlands and islands have to pay 4p a unit more for electricity usage. Rubbing salt into their wounds, anything generated in more rural areas has higher transmission charges placed on the generation companies, and customers in those areas pay a higher distribution levy. That is a real injustice for those in rural areas. And, of course, the Government have removed contract for difference auction capabilities for onshore wind in rural areas, which compounds the whole feeling of injustice.

The new clause would therefore require the Secretary of State and the regulator to have regard to customers in rural areas in exercising their powers when setting, reviewing and terminating the cap. The clause itself is self-explanatory. Again, I am interested to hear 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)

The new clause seeks to add a clause to the Bill to create duties on Ofgem and the Secretary of State to consider the needs of customers in rural areas and to consider additional protections for them.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about this on Second Reading, and many of us who represent very rural constituencies understand exactly what he is saying. I have been really pleased to learn that, in the north of Scotland, the Government have confirmed their commitment to the hydro benefit replacement scheme, which is worth an average of £41 annually per household in the region.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that costs are in some cases the function of geography—there is this unfortunate thing that it costs more to get electricity down to certain parts of the country. In my own region, the south-west, the peninsular effect creates some unfortunate energy price increases for those living at the end of the grid, as it were. That is something we have long had to live with. I am not saying that that is acceptable, but to date it has been a function of the pricing of energy distribution.

The other issue for many of those representing rural areas, including mine, is that people rely on heating oil or liquefied petroleum gas deliveries, because we are off the grid. Not only can that be a costly proposition, given the spike in heating oil prices, but it is a problem in terms of carbon emissions. As the hon. Gentleman knows from the clean growth strategy, I am determined to phase out fossil fuel heating—not in a way that penalises existing customers—starting with new builds from 2025, and really trying to come up with cost-effective alternatives in future.

When we have the consultation on the energy company obligation, which will be happening shortly, I am minded to review how much we direct towards customers in rural areas. As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as I know only too well from my constituency, fuel poverty is not an urban phenomenon. Many of our constituents live in old homes, which are not suitable for more modern forms of energy efficiency—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden is putting up his hand to say that his house is like that. These homes are a problem, particularly for those on low incomes; in my constituency the average income is well below the national average, and many of our homes are simply very old. That is why, what I would like to do with ECO, to be forthcoming, is to see how we can deliver more help to rural households and how we can focus that help more on innovation so that we can create more of a route to market for important new technologies that could help.

We have an open market in the supply of heating oil—it has been looked at, and the conclusion was that it is competitive and working. LPG customers have the LPG orders introduced by the CMA, which set a maximum contract length. Under the fuel poor network extension scheme, Ofgem sets a target for gas distribution companies to connect an additional 91,000 low-income homes to the gas grid by 2021. So there is work afoot to reduce some of the disbenefits of living in some of the most beautiful parts of the world, such as the constituency of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun.

I have mentioned additional help, but I suppose the question is whether we should specify in the Bill that more should be done. My argument is that the new clause is not necessary, because the Bill already explicitly requires Ofgem to protect all existing and future standard variable and default customers, including consumers in rural areas. Furthermore, Ofgem’s role as the regulator under the existing gas and electricity Acts confirms that it has a duty to protect the interests of all existing and future customers. It should specifically have regard to the interests of individuals living in rural areas, among other things.

There are already protections at various levels of the law and in the Ofgem regulations for those customers for whom the hon. Gentleman so rightly speaks. I therefore do not believe that the new clause is necessary, but I remain apprised of the issue he raised, which many of us face: how we help people who live in rural areas, who do not have the same options as those who live in urban areas, whether in terms of heating, lighting or broadband. I hope that he is content with that explanation and is minded to withdraw his new clause.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy) 12:15, 15 March 2018

I welcome what the Minister said about ensuring that ECO is rolled out and that people who live in rural areas are prioritised. I realise that a cap in itself is not a means to an end in terms of ensuring effective competition and particularly helping people in rural areas, and that other Government policies are required to do that. Although, as the Minister said, the regulator needs to have due concern for all consumers, the new clause was intended to re-press the need for the Government and the regulator always to remember the disadvantages that people in rural areas face. It is clear that the Minister is well aware of those issues from her own constituency. For that reason, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 3