I thank members for their consideration of the legislative consent memorandum in relation to the UK Government’s emergency Energy Prices Bill. As ever, when discussing reserved energy legislation, we must remind ourselves once again of the many vital actions that the Scottish Parliament could choose to take directly if the powers to do so were not reserved. That frustration is heightened today by the challenging timescales within which we have had to work in order to allow Parliament the time needed to consider the implications for Scotland.
Given the focus of the LCM on supporting people through the most acute energy prices pressures in living memory, I absolutely understand the speed with which the bill is progressing through the UK Parliament. Indeed, just before the recess, I oversaw our emergency legislation on support for tenants during the cost crisis, so I recognise—and I hope that members across the chamber will recognise—the very constrained circumstances in which we are considering the motion today.
Before turning to the specific issues requiring consideration, I want to emphasise just how much the urgent need for the intervention in prices, which the bill provides for, is driven by our vulnerability to gas prices. This crisis continues to highlight our reliance—indeed, our overreliance—on gas as a means of heating so many of our homes and buildings, which leaves our energy prices at the mercy of a hugely volatile market. Therefore, as we do everything that we can to support people through the crisis in the immediate term, it remains essential that we accelerate our transition away from fossil fuels for heat.
Meanwhile, no sooner had the UK Government introduced the emergency bill, which it seeks to pass at breakneck speed, than it cut short its flagship policy on energy support. The curtailing of the energy price guarantee by the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week has plunged households back into uncertainty about their bills and finances. Many households are already faced with making stark choices between providing food or warmth for themselves and their families. That is why we have called repeatedly for additional targeted support for vulnerable consumers. The chancellor’s reversal of what had been a two-year energy price guarantee makes the need for such support all the more urgent. We estimate that 860,000 households in Scotland now live in fuel poverty, with 600,000 households living in extreme fuel poverty. Therefore, although we have committed to doubling our fuel insecurity fund to £20 million as part of our emergency budget review that we are progressing, much more needs to be done with the powers and resources that exist at UK level.
I will move on to the issues in the bill that the Parliament needs to consider today. We have identified five clauses that require the Parliament’s consent. Those provisions cover the reduction of domestic energy bills, the reduction of non-domestic energy bills, support for meeting energy costs and the regulation of energy markets. The first four of the five clauses—clauses 13, 14, 15 and 19—relate to support for consumers in meeting energy costs.
As set out in the draft memorandum, the powers exercised under clause 13 could be used in a way that relates to devolved competence. The example that is used in the draft LCM is the use of the power to provide financial assistance to meet or reduce expenses for heating in cold weather. Based on the urgent need for people across Scotland to receive financial assistance to mitigate the impact of the crisis, the Scottish Government recommends that the Parliament consents to clause 13 and the related clause 14.
Clauses 15 and 19 will enable the delivery of support, such as the equivalent to the £400 delivered through the energy bills support scheme, to those who were previously not eligible. Examples of consumers who are eligible for that equivalent support are park home owners and students living in rented accommodation. Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport wrote to the secretary of state to seek urgent assurance that everyone in Scotland who is entitled to it will now receive the £400 rebate.
Earlier this year, the Scottish Parliament raised concerns about second home owners benefiting from the energy bills support scheme discount. Our limited powers meant that we could not prevent second home owners from benefiting twice from the £400 energy rebate in the way that we would have wanted to. The cabinet secretary did, of course, formally request an amendment to the Energy Prices Bill to prevent such an outcome, but such an amendment has not been accepted.
Although that remains deeply disappointing, we have been given an explicit understanding that the forthcoming equivalent support will be awarded via an application process and will apply only to primary addresses.
Clause 22 gives power to the secretary of state to give directions to energy licence holders in response to the energy crisis, and is not limited to activities in reserved areas. Therefore, the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport wrote to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to request that the bill be amended to require the Scottish ministers’ consent before any direction is given that affects a devolved area.
In coming to a conclusion, I express the hope that the latest forced regeneration at the top of the UK Government might also compel a reappraisal of some of the glaring gaps in its energy policies. A prime example of a step in the right direction would be an immediate commitment to require and fund a major programme of energy efficiency measures and improvements. That would not only make homes more comfortable and affordable to heat but improve our environment and security of supply, by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and reducing the power that is exercised at the whim of countries such as Russia and its current leader.
Although I again reflect that the UK Energy Prices Bill is far less than it might be were the powers behind its creation available to the Scottish Parliament, it remains better than nothing. Consenting to the motion will allow the people of Scotland who are currently struggling to pay their energy bills and heat their homes to receive desperately needed financial assistance as quickly as possible. I therefore must recommend that the Parliament consents to the UK Energy Prices Bill as it stands.
That the Parliament agrees that the relevant provisions of the Energy Prices Bill, introduced in the House of Commons on 12 October 2022, so far as these matters fall within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament, should be considered by the UK Parliament.