Assessment of extension of the tariff cap to small businesses

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) Within three months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State shall lay a report before each House of Parliament assessing the merits of extending the tariff cap to small business customers.”—

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 is a simple and brief new clause that would require the Secretary of State, immediately after the passage of the Bill, to lay a report before both Houses assessing the merits of extending the tariff cap to small business customers. I do not think I need to emphasise that the Bill’s title gives the game away about what the tariff cap will cover: the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill applies to domestic customers and to no one else. That rather gainsays the idea that, in many instances, small businesses have far more similarities with domestic customers than with large companies, which may have wholly different arrangements for dealing with their electricity supply—they may engage in private wires or bilateral long-term contracts, or have their own generating plant—from small businesses, which in effect hug pretty closely to the principles for domestic customers.

It seems a little invidious that the cut-off point for the price cap is the end of the domestic customer level. I am sure no hon. Member present is in this position, but it is quite possible for a very large house with multiple activities going on in it to consume a lot more electricity than a high street retailer or a small business. A number of small businesses will find that their electricity bills are not capped even though, to all intents and purposes, they are indistinguishable from domestic customers as far as their patterns of use, means of purchase and so on are concerned.

The new clause would require the Secretary of State, shortly after the Bill’s passage, to think about whether it might be appropriate to bring small businesses under the cap as it progresses, with a proper definition of which small businesses are in and which small businesses—those at the larger end—are out, so that the cap’s benefits can be extended to that particularly hard-pressed sector of the UK economy, and so that a proper relationship can be established between who is doing what so far as their energy purchases are concerned and who should benefit from a cap as a result of doing those things.

This is a simple, straightforward amendment, which I hope the Minister will consider carefully.

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 am extremely interested in new clause 3. I will not delay the Committee too much, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to have observed the issue faced by many small businesses. Indeed, it was observed by the last Conservative Government when they commissioned the CMA report. That report also looked at what was happening in the small business sector. It was a really important question.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, there is a huge variety of SMEs. They consume energy in entirely different ways and have different supply contracts. Many of them are on a domestic tariff. A question I have asked—I am not sure I know the answer—is what triggers the move from a domestic to a business tariff. If I do not have the answer by the end of this speech, I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman. It is an important question. [Interruption.] My civil servants are scribbling furiously. Of course, those businesses will be protected by the tariff.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, companies that are not supplied via a domestic tariff generally have fixed-term, fixed-price contracts that they negotiate through a broker, and those contracts are based on a range of different factors. In my constituency, I am aware—this has come up in the question around energy efficiency, which is a particular problem we need to try to crack with the small business sector—that many small businesses, particularly service companies, occupy premises where energy is just part of the price they pay. There are real disincentives for those landlords to shop around for a more competitive energy price, because it might reduce some of the benefit they get from selling those services as a bundle. It is an interesting question.

The CMA reviewed the small business market and found that a combination of features lead to a weak customer response. My argument on that—I have discussed this with small businesses—is that if someone is making payroll every month, looking to export to new markets and thinking about what they might have to do with the changes to our technical relationship with the EU, they do not necessarily always default to looking at energy costs, even though that might be economically rational, as electricity or power prices might be 5% of an overall cost base. According to the CMA, that weak customer response provides energy suppliers with unilateral market power over inactive customers—those words always make me feel very uncomfortable when we are talking about a supposedly competitive market.

The CMA has already recommended remedies, and those are being implemented. We have ended auto-rollover contracts with restrictions, including termination fees. That was implemented by the Energy Market Investigation (Microbusinesses) Order 2016. We are making prices more transparent, and we are having a price comparison website, which has already been implemented by the CMA through an order in June 2017. Early reports suggest that that has not been fully taken up by suppliers.

We are establishing a programme of prompts with information for consumers to engage, which is similar to the remedy for domestic customers in terms of the least engaged groups. That is ready for implementation, but no date has been set. In a similar way to what we are doing on domestic remedies, we are establishing a database of inactive customers that will be made available to rival suppliers and switching sites. Ofgem has not yet implemented that recommendation.

There has been some progress on transparency and auto-rollover contracts. The recent welcome action Ofgem announced to end back-billing beyond 12 months will also benefit small businesses and should help significantly with the cash-flow drain that a large backdated bill could cause.

Ofgem has a business consumer survey under way that we expect to get sight of this summer. It should give us more insight into the experience of business consumers. Ofgem plans to review consumer protections in the small business market.

While I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the new clause on the basis that the Bill focuses on domestic customers, where we already have more information, I am extremely interested in the problem of how we might provide better customer service and pricing availability to small business customers. I am perfectly happy to commit to looking at the problem very seriously and to have a proper and open discussion, as the hon. Gentleman and I tend to do, about what more might be done. I would send a very strong signal that, if at some future point a price cap mechanism might help small businesses, that is not something I would turn away lightly.

The hon. Gentleman has re-identified an excellent problem, if you like, in the energy markets. As I said to the right hon. Member for Don Valley earlier, the Bill is part of the intention to make a competitive market work well for all consumers. I will continue to engage closely with this problem, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will be content to withdraw the new clause on that basis.

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 the Minister for that positive response to the overall suggestion. I appreciate that the Bill sticks fairly closely to domestic tariffs, and that is perhaps how we should leave it for present purposes, but I hope that the principle that has been raised, about that almost imperceptible gap, on occasion, between where domestic tariffs finish—

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 can inspire the entire Committee with the assiduousness with which my brilliant team is able to answer my questions. A company chooses the business rate. Those in commercial and retail premises have to choose a business tariff, but, of course, a home business, of which there are millions and millions, can be on a domestic tariff. In a way, there is a sort of self-selection mechanism, but if the business moves into commercial premises, it does have to default on to a business tariff. I hope that clarifies the confusion I raised.

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 the Minister for that clarification, but it emphasises the fact that a small business may be in circumstances where it is renting part of a building or is part of a business park, the negotiation of the energy supply is out of its hands and it is paying a set amount for that electricity, but that is not done on domestic rates, even though the extent of the business means the electricity may be well within what is normally paid for by a domestic consumer.

The Minister is absolutely right to identify the issue for small businesses, and I hope that will underline the seriousness with which she will take the issue forward. She indicated that she does want to give it further thought and to look at circumstances where the point of departure may be less abrupt in the future. On that basis, with the trust that she will assiduously pursue this, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 4