Gas and Electricity Costs — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:30 am on 18th January 2022.

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[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 2:30 pm, 18th January 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the cost of gas and electricity.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Obviously, the debate is very dear to my heart, because I represent the part of the United Kingdom that every year seems to have the lowest temperature recorded in any community: the village of Altnaharra in Sutherland.

Much of what I am about say is blindingly obvious, but I want to roll out a few statistics. It is a fact that household electricity and gas bills are predicted to rise in April by around 45%. That would see the price cap reach £2,000 a year, or £165 a month. I would suggest that without Government intervention, this rise could take the total number of households in fuel poverty to no less than 6 million. The high level of global gas prices affects the whole economy; it does not impact only on energy retailers, suppliers and household customers. It could mean between a 1% and 2% inflationary increase across the whole UK economy, which would result in more than £10 billion a year in additional Government costs from indexing debt to pensions, salaries and other payments.

Some 33% of households in rural Scotland are in extreme poverty, with a further 9% in ordinary fuel poverty. That makes a total of 42%. The figure is even more acute in the far north and my constituency, where, as I have already said, temperatures are regularly the coldest in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade Team Member), Chair, International Trade Committee, Chair, International Trade Committee

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is absolutely right about Altnaharra, and the fuel poverty that is shared by his constituency and mine. The UK Government talk about levelling up, but one of the best things that could be done in that regard would be to tackle the differences and inequities between distribution costs of the electricity network, as well as the transmission costs to generate. I note that our part of the world is a net generator and contributor of electricity, particularly to the grid.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My highland colleague makes a sage and wise point. [Interruption.]—with all due reference to my right hon. Friend Mr Carmichael.

The figure that I have outlined compares with 24% of households living in poverty in the rest of Scotland, which is still a high figure. I believe that fuel poverty is a clear priority issue for remote rural constituencies but, overall, I would suggest that is an unacceptable blight across society.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend has talked eloquently about the hardship of fuel poverty experienced in rural Scotland, and particularly in the highlands. I want to talk about disabled people, who are also disproportionately suffering as a result of the energy crisis. They have higher energy costs because of the equipment that they often need for assisted living. Just living from day to day is simply more expensive for them, so does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should be putting in place additional support—similar to the warm home discount—for families of disabled children and for disabled people of working age?

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My hon. Friend must be clairvoyant, because she has anticipated a point that I shall make in due course. I thank her for her intervention.

There are two major contributory factors to fuel poverty in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross: the absence of mains gas supply to many properties, and the comparative price of electricity, which costs four to five times more than mains gas and domestic oil per unit. Both of these power sources are often used to heat things that we rely on—for instance, water. Rural and remote households are more exposed to rising household costs due to paying an extra premium.

I suggest that energy policy in the UK is fundamentally broken. Consider this: the highlands and islands, to which Angus Brendan MacNeil referred, produce more than 300% of their electricity demand from renewable sources—we produce three times more than we use. We export the rest to other parts of the UK, but as the hon. Member pointed out, a highland or island household pays more per unit of electricity due to the transmission charging regime, which pushes up energy bills even further. This is fundamentally wrong. Root and branch reform is required to design a UK energy policy that is fit for the 21st century, and that, most importantly, puts consumers at its heart.

Turning to business, energy price hikes are having a serious impact on the viability of businesses in the far north and, indeed, across the UK. I will quote two examples. Sitting at the back of the Public Gallery, I witness today Mr Andrew Mackay, my constituent. He and his brother own three hotels in Caithness known as the Caithness Collection—excellent hotels. They are facing an annual increase in electricity costs from almost £77,000 to—can Members believe?—nearly £130,000, which is a 70% rise.

Also in Caithness, we have a local engineering company, JGC Engineering, which is owned by the Campbell family and makes excellent pieces of stainless steel for the nuclear and other industries. The company’s annual electricity bill runs into six figures. The owners have been forced—they had no choice; it was the best deal they could get—to sign a deal that, believe it or not, means an 80% increase in costs starting in March 2022. To enable sustainable economic growth and—to borrow an expression from Her Majesty’s Government—to level up the United Kingdom, it is imperative that measures are put in place to protect consumers and businesses from crippling energy costs.

Looking ahead at the UK’s future energy mix, it is crucial that investment in renewables is kept up to pace. However, I believe that the Government can also look seriously at novel solutions to age-old problems. In terms of nuclear power, small modular reactors, such as those being designed by Rolls-Royce, could provide districts with heating and electricity in areas where it is costly to receive utilities on the national grid.

This kind of out-of-the-box thinking could reduce the cost of gas and electricity, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and ensure the economic future of areas that consider themselves left behind, such as Caithness.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Is there an estimated cost for these modular reactors? How much will it cost overall? Is there a policy for how nuclear waste will be dealt with?

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

A conversation with Rolls-Royce would be rewarding for the hon. Member. It is working up the proposals, but has some interesting thinking; I think we would be unwise not to take a good look at it.

Solutions do not stop there. Governments could soften the impact on consumers in the short term by providing loans up front to energy suppliers to cover the costs incurred from the significant rise in global wholesale prices for gas. I suggest constructively to the Minister that the Government could remove VAT from energy bills, or double and extend the warm home discount, taking £300 a year off the heating bills of around 7.5 million vulnerable households.

Her Majesty’s Government could introduce a new social tariff for those in fuel poverty—perhaps double the winter fuel allowance, giving up to £600 a year to 11.3 million elderly pensioners who currently face a £208 real-terms cut to their state pension next year, due to the Government’s decision to scrap the triple lock.

The Government could also implement a one-off windfall tax on oil and gas companies’ super-profits—the extra profits. This would not impact companies’ usual profits and thereby keep jobs secure, and would target the unprecedented extra profits that they have made in the last six months.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Does my hon. Friend agree there is also a role for the energy companies in all this? I suspect that he will have as many constituents as I do who, over the years, in order to compensate for the lack of access to mains gas, have taken other options, including storage heating and going on to tariffs such as “total heating total control”, which is now being used by SSE to keep their customers prisoner because it is impossible for them to switch. Does he join me in calling on companies such as SSE to treat their customers, who have been loyal for generations across the highlands and islands, rather better than that?

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I have no hesitation in joining my right hon. Friend in making that plea. His points are well made.

I hope that in getting this debate under way today, we start a dialogue with energy companies, Her Majesty’s Government and all concerned parties—not least those people who stand to be faced with crippling debts. I think of a young mother I know, who lives in the village of Balintore in my constituency. She tells me that she has to budget absolutely to balance the books; it is just a few pounds between surviving and going into the red. She says to me that if the electricity bill or the cost of diesel for her car goes up, she is in trouble. To square the books, she would then have to cut down on her expenditure. In turn, that hits the local shops, the local chemist and so on, in the seaboard villages of my constituency. I hope there will be a dialogue.

There have been, in what I have said, a lot of “coulds”, “shoulds” and “woulds”. What we really need from the Government is real, urgent action. I would suggest that they have failed millions of hard-working families and thousands of pensioners, at a time when energy bills are going through the roof. At this stage, the nation is plummeting further into a fuel poverty crisis. As far as I can see, there seem to be no plans to tackle it, but I await the Minister’s comments with great interest and expectation. At the end of the day, old people, single parents and people on very limited incomes are wondering how the heck they will get through the next period, because we all dread getting into debt.

Members from across the House have put forward suggestions to the Government on how to stop this disaster in its tracks. I respectfully suggest to Her Majesty’s Government that we stop the dither and delay, get talking, and do something about it.

Photo of Craig Mackinlay Craig Mackinlay Conservative, South Thanet

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. It is a fact that all economies are facing an energy price rise, for international reasons. The hon. Member has not mentioned gas at all. No matter anyone’s views on gas, it will be part of our energy mix for a generation. I wonder if he might agree that we have been uniquely silly in diminishing our storage capacity, with the closure of the Rough field. Mother nature has given us a gift in this country: a lot of gas. No matter anyone’s view on the path to net zero, a super report by the House of Commons Library charts the reduction in our gas use over the years, and shows that we have reduced our gas capacity and production even faster, leading to imports. Does the hon. Member agree that it might be sensible to increase our domestic supply while gas is such an important part of our energy mix? That might give a longer-term solution to price volatility.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I will conclude in just a moment or two. I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. The bottom line is that if we care about the people I have mentioned, who are petrified of getting into fuel poverty, then we must look at all possible solutions. There will be a mix to the answer. I would not rule out anything that the hon. Member said. We will take a look at it.

Of course, if we get hydrogen production right, that also makes enormous sense, because it is absolutely neutral for the environment. Hydrogen is a gas, and we should be thinking about that as a possibility. I conclude my remarks there, Sir Edward. Thank you for your forbearance.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot 2:44 pm, 18th January 2022

The cost of gas and electricity has been a real challenge for my constituents. Although Jamie Stone makes a good point about the rural communities in Scotland, it is not just in Scotland that this is a challenge.

Down in the south-west, we have one of the lowest-wage economies, a very high cost of living, and a disproportionate number of over-65s with complex comorbidities. Our economy depends heavily on hospitality and tourism, and that has been decimated. The hope for recovery over the Christmas period went with plan B.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade Team Member), Chair, International Trade Committee, Chair, International Trade Committee

The hon. Lady is making a very good speech and she is absolutely right—it is not just the north of Scotland that is affected, although I, like Jamie Stone, would argue that that is where things are most acute.

House of Commons Library figures for all the neighbouring countries in north-west Europe show that 11.7% of people in the UK are living in relative poverty by the OECD’s definition, and of the 13 countries that were looked at, the Gini coefficient of inequality is highest in the UK. That puts this problem firmly in the Government’s ballpark; they really have to get to grips with it.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot

The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point—this is a real problem. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross made the clear point that the answer and solution has to be found now.

I look at my constituents—indeed, I was on a telephone call just this morning—and I see that the food banks are doing great business. Increasingly, I am hearing that the people who are using them are not the usual attendees. We are in a state of crisis, which needs to be addressed right now. I have constituents—mostly pensioners—who are ringing my constituency office, and are very concerned. They are worried because of the cost of living and because of everything they hear about the energy costs that they will be facing.

For me, it is that uncertainty that is most challenging, because although the Government, to their credit, recognise the problem, the real issue is that to deal with that fear, we need an answer, a commitment and a solution. Looking at what we might or might not do in April is not soon enough. I am sure that even you, Sir Edward, will have looked at the barometer as you got up this morning. It is now that we are seeing minus temperatures. It is now that people need their heating at night. It is now that they need hot food.

Clearly, it is not the Government’s fault that there has been a global challenge in terms of energy prices. Indeed, they have risen to the challenge and recognised that security of domestic supply has to move further up the agenda. I welcome their investment—or promised investment—in more nuclear. But the real challenge is that despite all those good words and despite the concept of a price cap, which was effectively intended to protect consumers from very challenging prices, consumers are not being protected.

No scheme is perfect, but what happened here is that when it became clear that the prices meant that some of the smaller suppliers would go out of business, those customers were picked up by the bigger players but were inevitably put on the highest tariffs available. Those individuals, having done the right thing by seeking out good policies and good schemes, suddenly found themselves in the worst possible position. Then we hear—understandably, on one level—that the cap will not hold and that we expect that there will be an announcement on 7 February that it will increase substantially, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has already indicated—it will be an extra £700 per household, taking the average bill to £2,000. Suddenly energy costs will be going up 50% overnight.

When the Government set their energy retail market strategy for the 2020s, they set two objectives. The first was that there should be a sustainable retail market, whereby it was easy and rewarding to go green. However, that is not what is actually being delivered. Although they were well intended, many of the tariffs to try to encourage—to nudge, if you like—greener use have effectively pushed people further and further into fuel poverty.

The second objective was that all consumers would pay a fair price for their energy and would be protected from excess charges. Although I appreciate that those are charges for production rather than the other elements—the tax and the levies—it has all come together in a horrible, nightmarish mix, whereby, because of the global cost increase, the Government are now scrabbling to try to honour what I think was their intended commitment to make energy prices affordable by considering some of the things that they can move, which clearly will be taxes and levies, as opposed to some of the things that they cannot move, which include the global price of gas.

Therefore, for me, Government intervention is not optional. As has been said, the number of households in fuel poverty is increasing from 4 million to 6 million. That will affect a very large number of my constituents. The Government have a number of options. They can mix targeted initiatives and universal ones. The comment in the media is that the Government are uncomfortable about solutions that are more universal in nature.

This energy crisis—this energy cost—comes on top of a huge increase in the cost of living. We know from figures out today that people’s wages are not going up to meet those costs, and therefore it is not just the usual smaller percentage of the population that is suffering; it is actually a much larger percentage of the population. People at all levels make commitments, and they are struggling to meet them. They have to meet their mortgages; that is not negotiable. They have to pay their rent; that is not negotiable. Businesses have to pay business rates; that is not negotiable. To be reluctant to reduce, and to resist reducing, VAT from 5% to 0%—the most obvious, quickest and easiest universal solution—is perhaps a little disingenuous. It seems to me that at least 60% of the people who would benefit from that actually deserve it.

The other universal approach is what we do about universal levies. That is something that we will have to review, and we will have to look at how the burden can be moved to general taxation. We need to recognise that those levies are subject to a number of contracts, which means that they cannot be the first thing that the Government fix. None the less, they need to be in the bag of solutions.

The obvious targeted solution—I think that it is an “as well as” rather than an “instead of”—is expanding the warm home discount, changing the eligibility, taking it beyond winter and looking at how we might make it generally taxpayer funded rather than funded by those that contribute to it.

How are we going to pay for this? Of course, it is right that the Government consider that. A number of things have been looked at, including a windfall tax on the oil and energy industry. Only this morning, there have been suggestions that fraudulent covid payments claims, which the Government have committed to claw back and at the moment are estimated at £4.3 billion, would go a long way to covering the most urgent and easiest solution, which is to reduce VAT from 5% to 0%. The VAT bill that the Treasury would have to cover would be somewhere between £1.7 billion and £2 billion. Affordable is the wrong word, but it is the right thing to do, and it is entirely affordable given the likely income that the Government can expect as the economic forecast improves across the country—although, sadly, not in my constituency—and what they might get back from the covid claims.

Of course, the people who are most impacted are the ones who are most vulnerable: the over 65s on fixed incomes and those in poorly insulated houses, which is definitely the case in my constituency. Those people are the most important, but they are not the only ones. I ask the Government not just to look at this as a matter of money, but to ask what is the right thing to do. What is the timeframe in which they must act? It is now—it is cold now. I ask the Government not only to acknowledge that there is a problem but to put forward steps now, before the new cap is introduced—and certainly long before April.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Will Members now keep to about five minutes, so that everybody can speak?

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) 2:54 pm, 18th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I reassure you that I will be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jamie Stone on securing this urgent debate. In Bath, in north-east Somerset, more than 10% of households are already living in fuel poverty and, as we have heard, that is likely to increase dramatically.

The council is working hard to provide a local household support fund, with grants of £250 to help the least well off with their energy costs this winter but, again as we have heard, energy costs are likely to rise by about £600. That grant is something, but it is clearly not what is needed. Many more of my constituents are worried about their next heating bill. What have the Government done to protect them? They have scrapped the programmes to insulate our homes, which would have reduced bills long ago. They have cut universal credit and increased the UK’s dependence on imported gas, rather than investing in renewables: green energy homemade in the UK—something the Minister knows I keep saying in these debates. That is what should have happened a long time ago.

I hear reports that the Treasury is scrapping the energy company obligation scheme, which has been a powerful driver in reducing household emissions. The Government must not touch that scheme. Instead, they should double and extend the warm home discount, as has been said. It cannot be right that gas companies are profiting from record prices, way up from where they were last year, when millions cannot afford to heat their homes. The Liberal Democrats are calling for a one-off windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas firms, to fund support for those who are struggling. Seventy-one per cent. of people support that move, as do 75% of the Government’s own voters. Why are the Government not severely and sincerely looking at the proposal of a windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas companies?

We need a long-term plan to prevent another energy crisis. Where is the urgent plan for a long-term home insulation programme that will cut bills permanently? This is a particular challenge for my constituents in Bath. Bath and North East Somerset Council proposes that the Government require landlords to bring housing up to an agreed energy certification standard, and I urge the Minister to look at that. The Government’s heat and buildings strategy was a missed opportunity for real ambition in this area. We have one of the oldest, least energy-efficient housing stocks in Europe. It is an emergency, and the Government should finally treat it as such.

Liberal Democrats are committed to reducing most emissions by 2030, which means a massive expansion of renewables and the replacement of the gas grid. In the context of this debate, we all know that there are some energy companies leading the way. Companies such as E.ON pride themselves on the fact that nearly all of their electricity is generated from renewables, but the shocking fact is that, while the price of renewables falls continuously, the customers of E.ON and other renewable electricity companies will find that their electricity bills go up by just as much as those of customers who buy electricity from burning gas. I have asked E.ON directly—

Photo of Craig Mackinlay Craig Mackinlay Conservative, South Thanet

The hon. Lady has a high number of listed properties in her constituency of Bath, as I have in mine. Sandwich is the oldest medieval town in the country. Has she considered how old buildings, which are listed or in conservation areas and structurally virtually impossible to insulate, can be dealt with in a way that is affordable or achievable?

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We have had a debate on listed buildings and how we can help owners. It is complicated, but I do believe it is important that owners of listed buildings get proper support, including help from the council to change the structure of their buildings to make them more energy efficient.

As I said, it is shocking that those trying to do the right thing by buying from companies getting their electricity only from renewables are facing the same cost rises as those buying their energy from companies making electricity from burning gas. It is a massive failure of Government, who have set the terms of the wholesale market to ensure that everybody pays when gas prices go up, even if they do not use gas. That is shocking and unforgivable. The Government must urgently look into how this issue can be fixed now.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Labour, Makerfield 3:00 pm, 18th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate Jamie Stone on securing the debate.

People will die. Those are not my words; they are not the words of an Opposition politician. They are the words of Martin Lewis, who was voted the most trusted man in Britain. Heating bills are going up by more than £700 a year in April and they are likely to go up more in October. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 54% of single adults and 25% of single parents spend more than half their income on heating. That is simply not sustainable, especially when they are facing other increased costs. We are in one of the world’s richest economies, yet people are looking at the stark choice of eating or heating.

Wages are not keeping up with inflation, which in particular penalises low-income people, who spend much more of their income on essentials. The solution cannot be an increase in personal debt. Christians Against Poverty has reported a 41% increase in people requesting help from it in January, while searches for fuel help on the Citizens Advice website have gone up phenomenally. We have to find a way to deal with the debt crisis, but the first step is to deal with the fuel price increase. That is urgent. It has been caused by not only the higher wholesale prices, but the explosion and lack of regulation in new energy companies entering the market and offering low and unsustainable prices to switchers. That is supposed to increase competition, but it has always failed the most vulnerable and it penalises many who cannot or do not want to switch. We have to look at that.

What can we do? An immediate cut to VAT on fuel would be a quick fix to start. I agree that it is a blunt instrument, but it is easy, quick and would help a number of people. However, it cannot be the only measure. We need to increase the warm home discount and widen the eligibility for that scheme, and we need to fund it from a different source. It cannot be funded from a levy on all electricity bills, because that will penalise everybody again.

I agree that we have to look at greener and more sustainable means of producing electricity.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade Team Member), Chair, International Trade Committee, Chair, International Trade Committee

The hon. Lady is making an interesting speech. I want to pick up on an interesting point made by Wera Hobhouse. At the moment, the UK consumes about 41.8 GWe. People can check that on their telephone apps quite easily. Some 16.9% of that electricity is from wind, but that figure could be greater. Wind has been supported by the Government’s contracts for difference. Is there not a question as to why wind is being bundled into those energy prices? Why, as the hon. Member for Bath suggested, are companies profiting by bundling it into energy prices, when it is actually supported by the Government? We all know that the marginal cost of producing wind energy is zero. Our wind energy output could be greater, had things been built on the Scottish islands with a minor bit of Government planning over the years.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Labour, Makerfield

We need to look at all the ways in which energy is produced and we need a mix of energy. We have to look at the green levy as well. At the moment it is a levy on all bills, so the poorest are paying the most.

We need to look at a social or below-cost tariff funded by the energy industry: each gas or electricity supplier should pay a sum into a central pot, based on the number of customers, which could then be redistributed to people in fuel poverty. We should not forget the people on prepayment meters; often, they are the poorest and have been in difficulty with their bills before. There is no way that people on prepayment meters should be paying the amounts they are paying for gas and electricity even now. There should be help and adequate protection for those people.

We have to accept that people should spend only a certain proportion of their income on energy. I am not saying where we should draw the line, but more than 10% is far too much—without even getting into the eye-watering figures we have heard from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

People on low incomes budget very carefully, but it is a bit like spinning plates—they pay one bill, they pay another bill, they look at the next bill. With the cost of electricity and gas forecast to increase so much, those plates will come crashing to the ground. That is why we need to act now to make sure that people are not, as one of my constituents said, out of their minds with worry. People need real help to keep the heating on, pay all their other bills and eat properly. If we are not careful, it will not only be free socks that energy companies offer; they will have to offer food parcels as well—ones that do not need heating up.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:05 pm, 18th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. You caught me off guard there; Angus Brendan MacNeil just asked if I was next and I said, “No, I will be at the end.” However, I am pleased to participate at any stage.

I commend Jamie Stone on setting the scene so well. It was a superb introduction, which I think we all endorse and support, because we understand the issues. I am pleased to be here to discuss this important matter. To say I have been contacted by a few constituents about gas and electricity prices would be an understatement. The emails to my office on this are legion, so it is great to be here to air the concerns that are important to the livelihoods of so many. I commend Anne Marie Morris. We all know her position and what happened to her in the last week. In the debate in the Chamber on VAT, the hon. Lady felt constrained and supported a cut. We should put that on the record.

Soaring global gas prices are fuelling a domestic living crisis in the UK and could potentially have economy-wide implications. Energy bills are set to rise by up to £2,000 per year from April, which will be detrimental to those who are already in fuel poverty—people who need help and on whom I will focus. Recent statistic from National Energy Action reveal that an estimated 1.2 million to 1.5 million households across the UK will struggle to pay their electricity or gas bills. Those figures equate to almost the whole population of Northern Ireland, but are spread across the United Kingdom, which is just astonishing. The most vulnerable and those in poverty will be hit.

Back home in Northern Ireland in the past year, gas providers and all six electricity providers have increased their prices. In September, Firmus Energy announced that 50,000 people in its Greater Belfast network would see their gas price rise by a third. SSE Airtricity, which others have referred to, has increased its gas prices by 21.8%, which adds about £112 to the average household bill. Power NI announced that it will increase its electricity price for domestic customers by 21.4% from the start of this month. As we have seen in the press, prices for commercial businesses will also rise by as much as 30% to 40%. Some of the figures quoted by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar tell us just how important this matter is. The figures are truly astronomical and will have a significant impact on those who already struggle to make ends meet.

An emergency fuel payment has been introduced in Northern Ireland by the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, which I welcome. It is a £200 payment made through the Bryson Charitable Group for those who are vulnerable or in special circumstances and need help. We have taken some steps in Northern Ireland to make that happen. However, the Communities Minister and her respective counterpart in this House must take more of a lead, instead of leaving this responsibility solely to charities, which are doing their very best but need help from our Government to deal with the sheer volume of applications.

We must stand up for those who are directly affected. I stated in the debate on VAT on household bills that I support the green energy push as the only sustainable way forward, but at a time when there is a fuel crisis and pressure on those in financial distress, the £750 that has been referred to should be put on hold for a short term to help our constituents find a way forward. Viable ways to bring down prices must be considered. A plan needs to be put in place to assist those who need help. E3G suggests an extension and increase in winter fuel payments to support those on pension credit and low incomes.

The Minister knows I respect him, and he is always very capable and able to answer questions, but we need an indication of what we can do to help. No doubt all Members are hearing concerns about this issue. It is not about politics; it is about helping those who need it most. I look to the Minister and the Government for reassurance that more financial help will be considered.

It is the most vulnerable who will be most susceptible to gas, electricity and oil prices rising more than in other countries. Therefore, more needs to be done—this is an easy point to make, but it is a fact—to help those who need it most amid the rising electricity, gas and oil prices that we face now, and more so in the future. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross referred to new technology. Perhaps the Minister will say something about that. It is not his direct responsibility, but perhaps he could say how we might use new technology to reduce prices.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West 3:10 pm, 18th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate Jamie Stone on securing today’s timely and critical debate.

We should soon, hopefully, begin to see some economic recovery at the end of a very long couple of years. Unfortunately, there are too many people across the UK who cannot wait indefinitely for things to improve. The cost of living crisis is here, and it is not avoidable. When the price cap was reviewed and bills subsequently rose, I was contacted by many constituents who were worried about the impact it would have on their living costs. It came just at the time when the universal credit uplift was removed and furlough ended.

At the same time, the Government were struggling to keep on top of state pension claims, and vulnerable pensioners were waiting months for their first payment. There was nothing to address that in the Chancellor’s autumn Budget, and the national insurance hike was also missing from the announcement. It was not missing from the minds of taxpayers, though, particularly those on lower incomes, where every penny counts.

Next month we will hear from Ofgem, and its announcement that the price cap will rise once more come April will be no surprise. Recent projections estimate that household bills could rise by over £700 a year. In my constituency, that is almost the equivalent of the average monthly rent. It is almost an extra £59 added to bills each month. Some people might be privileged enough not to miss £59 a month, but they are few and far between. The average weekly family food shop is around £63. The average cost of sending one child to five after-school club sessions is £62. Are those the kinds of sacrifices the Government expect our constituents to make to keep the heating on?

A coalition of 25 charities, including Age UK and Save the Children, have warned that the rise could push the number of families living in fuel poverty from 4 million to a massive 6 million. That is 6 million households, not individuals, although if it were 6 million individuals it would not be acceptable either. Industry has warned that it might take from 18 months to three years for the energy crisis to resolve.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Has the hon. Lady experienced in her constituency an increase in the number of people who are referred to food banks, as the hon. Member for Newton Abbot described? I know I have in my constituency, where the figure is up by almost two thirds on this time last year. That indicates that there are real pressures on those who did not apply in the past, but are applying now.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I think we all find the rise in the use of food banks in our constituencies shocking. As Anne Marie Morris said earlier, people who would not normally have to attend a food bank who are having to do so now, so there definitely is a squeeze on people’s incomes.

These households cannot and should not have to wait up to three years for the energy crisis to resolve, so what is the solution? What can the Government realistically do? The answer does not lie in defunding the BBC, or in small changes to the universal credit taper rate. The only way to ease the burden on families up and down the UK is to tackle the energy price crisis in a pragmatic, meaningful way. Many options have been put forward to the Government, and I urge them in the strongest terms to please consider those options as a matter of urgency.

A reduction to the VAT rate on energy would provide some much needed breathing space for those who need it most. The Government are keen to keep repeating that, as an importer, we are held to the whims of the current market’s rapid and substantial levels of demand. To a great extent, that is true, but a VAT reduction is within the Treasury’s gift and should be given. A windfall tax on North sea oil and gas companies would also mean that it is not the most vulnerable paying the price for this unusually and regrettably high cost. After all, those companies are expected to report almost record-breaking profit levels for this financial year. They have unarguably benefitted considerably, whereas our constituents have suffered and will continue to do so. Suspending or reducing green levies on energy bills could help too, as could expanding the warm home discount, which many hon. Members have mentioned, or increasing universal credit.

Whatever route the Government decide to take, they must do something; it would be heartbreaking to hear the same stories from my constituents for another 18 months or three years when there are solutions, should the Government choose to implement them—I hope that they do.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:15 pm, 18th January 2022

I begin by thanking Jamie Stone for securing this debate, and for his excellent introduction to the issues involved. Our constituents are genuinely worried about their gas and electricity bills. In Scotland, 640,000 people —one in seven—find that their energy bills are unaffordable at the moment, and those bills are only going to rise. The energy crisis and the cost of energy have once again thrown into sharp relief the glaring inequalities in our society. Inflation is expected to rise to 6%, energy costs are doubling and the national insurance hike is about to kick in, so there is huge concern. Alongside and because of that, we face a debt time bomb as credit card lending jumped by 41% in recent months. Much of that borrowing was to pay for household essentials.

As things stand, 6 million people will slide into fuel poverty because of the rising cost of energy. That will impact on the wider economy, driving up the cost of food, goods and other services. As petrol prices increase, consumer prices will continue to rise, and at a faster rate. Alongside that, we can expect the cost of mortgage repayments to rise as well. We need Government action to tackle this. It is real, and it is crushing my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran.

We have heard today about the need to cut VAT on energy bills and on the warm home discount, to offer some respite to those who are struggling right now. In 2016, the now Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, said:

“If we vote to leave the European Union, we can cut VAT on domestic fuel to zero and that would save households about £60 a year… that would help the poorest families most of all.”

Let us ask the Minister to do what his Government promised they could and would do. We need action on that.

It is time for the Government to listen to the calls to provide loans to energy companies, which are teetering on the brink, rule out a future rise in the energy price cap and reintroduce the £20 universal credit uplift. Households need help right now. The Scottish child payment could be replicated across the UK, and we could deliver a low-income energy payment, introduce a real living wage and raise the level of sick pay. There are a number of things that the Government could do to help families who are struggling right now.

We heard earlier that there are real, genuine and well-founded worries about cold-related morbidity this winter. In this day and age, in a state as rich as the UK, that is a cause for embarrassment and shame. Even the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng, has admitted that it was a “mistake” to close off the storage sites, which the Government withdrew support from. Although these issues are global and there are many global factors at play, not having sufficient storage for energy leaves the UK much more exposed to price shocks than it needs to be. We have the lowest storage capacity in all of Europe—1% of all of Europe’s capacity. Any kind of protection we might have had from dramatic price shocks has been given away by this Government. That is really not acceptable.

The UK is going through this whole situation while suffering from the worst levels of poverty and inequality in north-west Europe; in-work poverty is at record levels this century. We really need to get a grip here and listen to our constituents’ problems. We need fundamental and radical measures to protect our constituents. Some have no idea how they are going to cope with the price rises hitting their doorsteps. We have heard about the differentials in energy transmission costs. Those need to be tackled, but when will they be? We need an equitable energy policy that works for all consumers, and I am really looking forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:20 pm, 18th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I start by congratulating my dear hon. Friend Jamie Stone on bringing forward this important debate. I also commend Anne Marie Morris, who this week has had the backbone to stand up for her constituents on the cost of living crisis, while the Prime Minister seems to have inadvertently misled himself as to whether or not he attended a party. That does rather stick in the throat and perhaps shows the priorities of this Government.

This issue really matters because it matters to millions. Like many, I have received emails from concerned constituents. One, Margaret, is desperately concerned. Some 3,000 people in Oxford West and Abingdon are already classed as being in fuel poverty, and she is concerned about how many more are going to succumb. She is right to be. Jessica, who lives literally 10 minutes down the road from Margaret, emailed me on the same day. She is already classed as being in fuel poverty. She is considered vulnerable by her energy supplier. She currently pays £85 a month for her energy and has been told that that is going to increase to £200 a month—she says that there is no way she can afford those kinds of prices. Dave, who is on £10 an hour, contacted me with a similar story and Jane, who is a pensioner, told me that when she looks at what she will have to pay, she knows that she simply does not have the money. I ask the Minister: what are these people meant to do?

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Justice)

I also welcome this debate and thank Jamie Stone for securing it. My constituency of Manchester, Gorton has long faced a fuel poverty crisis. In 2019, almost a quarter of families there were in fuel poverty; given current concerns about sky-rocketing fuel bills, the number will now undoubtedly be substantially higher. Does the hon. Member agree that this issue predates today’s cost of living crisis and that this Government have overseen a dramatic rise in fuel poverty without taking any of the action necessary to mitigate it?

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I absolutely agree. I am also deeply concerned that the problem will get worse over the next few weeks. We have only to read the emails or listen to the stories to be moved by them. Martin Lewis, who was mentioned earlier, dedicated an entire episode of his “Martin Lewis Money Show Live” to energy prices the other day. Afterwards, he tweeted that he was “near tears” after being unable to help a single mother, who had recently lost her partner, to afford her energy bills. He called on the Government to do more, and I agree with Martin.

The Minister will have heard many good suggestions today. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross mentioned cutting VAT on bills, a social tariff and an increase in the winter fuel allowance. Age UK has suggested a £50 one-off payment to those eligible for the cold weather payment and a doubling of household support. All those could work, and we have to ask the question: when are they going to come in? People are already hurting now.

There is also a secondary question, and a correct one: who is going to pay for it? Even more galling than all I have discussed is that after hearing all these stories of hardship and heartache, Gazprom announced a dividend of £179 million. Energy giants such as Gazprom are profiteering from the misfortunes of others. Frankly, the Government are complicit because they are letting them.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade Team Member), Chair, International Trade Committee, Chair, International Trade Committee

The hon. Lady mentions Gazprom and how the UK is in hock to such gas producers from outside the UK. If we cast our minds back, do we not see that a mistake of George Osborne’s penny-pinching, bean-counting style of five, six or seven years ago was his reluctance to use the climate change levy to invest in renewables to make us less dependent on energy from overseas and give us more renewable capacity, which could have been built here? For the sake of a few pennies, it was his argument—I disputed it at the time, when I was the Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee—that we should not do so. Now the customers of the UK are on the hook for hundreds and hundreds of pounds each and every year.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. It is for exactly that strategic reason that the Liberal Democrats are calling for a Robin Hood tax on the super-profits of oil and gas companies. This one-off levy would raise over £5 billion to support households in need of help. Surely that is the fairest way to help the worst off.

However, there is a wider geopolitical point. Gazprom, as we know, is owned by the Russian state, and Gazprom, at the behest of Putin, sent 25% less gas than before to Europe in the last year. We all know that Putin is playing politics with our energy prices, and that is making all of us and our constituents suffer. On one hand, the Government say they will not reward Russia for aggression; on the other hand, by doing nothing about the situation, they are allowing Putin to manipulate the energy market and he is being rewarded for it. We believe that instituting a Robin Hood tax would have many advantages, but one would be to send a powerful message to Putin in Moscow: “You cannot interfere with our energy market”.

Fundamentally—this comes to the point that Angus Brendan MacNeil made—in the long term we need to wean this country, and indeed the entire world, off gas and oil altogether as soon as possible. That is why the answer to this problem is not to cut investment in green energy, as some have suggested. Whether it comes into general taxation or there is another way to fund it—that is the conversation that needs to be had—we need to increase investment in renewable energy, because to protect people now we need to think strategically in the medium and long term. The answer is to end our dependency on rogue states and protect the poorest in our communities.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I just wonder how a Robin Hood tax on oil companies operating in the North sea would affect reliance on Putin or Gazprom, or how it would affect Gazprom’s share price or dividend. Those things seem to me to be almost diametrically opposite.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

We need to ensure that there is fairness in the system, and we know that all oil and gas companies have made enormous profits. My right hon. Friend Mr Carmichael made the point earlier about customers who had been loyal to oil and gas companies but who now face high bills, when the companies themselves are profiteering. There are many reasons why a Robin Hood tax would work, but one is the geopolitical point that I am making today.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 3:28 pm, 18th January 2022

It is a pleasure, Sir Edward, to serve under your chairmanship.

As others have done, I congratulate Jamie Stone on securing this debate. He highlighted that the gas and electricity issue is a UK-wide one, but he also made relevant and pertinent points about just how much it affects rural Scotland, and in particular his own constituency. His illustration of the effect that it will have on his constituent who is sitting in the Public Gallery, and on an already struggling hospitality industry, was really stark. I hope that the Minister thought the same and pays heed to what was said.

I thank all other right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. A clear theme seemed to come from all the contributions: basically, we have this cost-of-living crisis and the UK Government are doing nothing about it. The UK Government really need to start taking action.

The UK Government have sat back as household incomes have dropped in real terms by up to £1,200 and energy bills are sky-rocketing. We have had the broken promises about lower energy bills post Brexit, and yet when Labour proposed a 5% cut in VAT in last week’s Opposition day debate, we had the absurd situation of all the Tory Brexiter MPs questioning the validity of such a VAT cut and voting it down. That makes no sense to me, given the broken promises. As a couple of other Members have done, I pay tribute to Anne Marie Morris, who followed the courage of her convictions and voted for something that her Prime Minister had promised us.

To return to the theme, without further action, a real crisis is looming—if it is not already upon us, if truth be told. As others have said, it is not credible for the cap to rise to approximately £2,000 per year in April. Previously, National Energy Action estimated there were 4.5 million fuel-poor households in the UK. When the October cap increased, that added a further 500,000. If the cap goes ahead in April as predicted, we will end up with 6 million fuel-poor households in the UK. That is a 33% increase in the number of fuel-poor households in two overnight increments. It is disgraceful, and something needs to be done to prevent it getting worse.

Worse, National Energy Action previously estimated that there are roughly 10,000 premature deaths a year arising from fuel poverty. How many more premature deaths are likely to occur, given the number of households that will be plunged further into fuel poverty? One cohort who have not been mentioned so far today are the terminally ill, who suffer badly from fuel poverty. I cannot think of anything more distressing than someone who wanted to spend the end of their life in a dignified way in their own home being forced, because of fuel poverty, to spend their final days in a hospice. It is distressing for them and for their family, and that is the real impact of fuel poverty.

A common theme has been the impact of a VAT holiday on fuel Bills, which it is estimated would save £80 a year, so on its own it is insufficient—it is hardly even a sticking plaster—but it could provide a small amount of help.

It is critical that the UK Government take proactive action to ensure that this cap rise is not passed on to consumers in April, so direct intervention is required. Some of that intervention could be in the form of loans, to smooth out the £2 billion of additional costs that are estimated to have arisen from the 28 energy companies that went bust in 2021—money that will otherwise be lumped on to consumers’ bills. Again, that is due to the failure of the Government and the regulator.

As others have said, a proper debate is required about the merits of different levies currently on our electricity bills, which contribute 23% of our bills, according to Ofgem. The reality is that these levies are a regressive tax and general taxation is much fairer. At the moment, the Government are putting out to tender the Contracts for Difference fourth allocation round, which commit £265 million per year for renewable energy projects. I am all in favour of that financial commitment, because we need more renewable energy, but again that money will be lumped directly on to our electricity bills, where it disproportionately affects lower income households and does not form part of a wider just transition.

Last week, the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill was considered on Report. The impact assessment for the Bill estimates the capital and financing costs to be as high as £63 billion for a new nuclear power station. Again, it is proposed that that will be added to our energy bills.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade Team Member), Chair, International Trade Committee, Chair, International Trade Committee

Does my hon. Friend agree that this Government, going back to 2015, have taken their eye off the ball? They have scrapped the Department of Energy and have lost focus on energy. Then they have had 10 years trying to do a smart meter roll-out, which has been bungled, depriving consumers of information about when they could get the best tariffs, which adds to the present problems. The Government have to own the responsibility of the trouble that UK consumers find themselves in at the moment.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I agree wholeheartedly that the Government have taken their eye off the ball. The previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, talked about cutting out all the “green crap”. That set back the renewable industry badly. Not only did they scrap the Department of Energy but, given that we now have a legally binding target of net zero by 2050, it beggars belief that there is not a stand-alone Department for energy and climate change, or for energy and net zero. The Government need to take responsibility on that.

I have a question on nuclear for the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross on small modular reactors. Rolls-Royce is looking for something like £30 billion in capital costs to deliver 15 or 16 small modular reactors. Again, that is money that will be lumped on to our bills. With the financing on top, the costs are eye-watering. Nuclear is not a solution; renewable energy is the solution.

In terms of direct spending, the Treasury allocated £1.7 billion in the Budget for the development of Sizewell C. That is something like £60 from every household in Great Britain going towards a new nuclear station, instead of helping them pay their bills. That £1.7 billion could offset the cap for the estimated 3 million households that are eligible for the warm home discount this year, or completely fund a VAT holiday for one year for everybody. Under present policies, not only are the UK Government not doing anything; they are making things worse with their long-term planning. At the moment, costs will be added to energy bills, making things more difficult.

As the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said, people in the Scottish highlands not only have more challenging weather to deal with and risk being off the gas grid, which makes fuel immediately more expensive, but pay up to £400 more to heat their homes because they are on restricted meters—paying up to 4p more per unit of electricity. Why does the Minister think that it is fair that this surcharge is added to an area that is actually supplying energy to the rest of the UK?

Direct intervention could be paid for through a windfall tax on the Treasury. As our energy bills have increased, so have the VAT returns to the Treasury. As fuel prices have increased, the Treasury has raked in more money in fuel duty and VAT. The November Budget’s Red Book showed that, over the lifetime of this Parliament, North sea oil and gas revenues will contribute an extra £6 billion compared to what was predicted just in March 2021. The Treasury should unlock the extra money that it is getting from the North sea.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Yes. It is the broad shoulders of the UK working in the opposite way from the way in which we are always told it is supposed to work.

By contrast, the Scottish Government are doing their best while operating on a fixed budget. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross can at least tell his constituents in Scotland that they can benefit as follows. The Scottish Government’s child winter heating assistance, introduced in 2020, supports the families of around 14,000 of the most seriously disabled children and young people with automatic payments of £200 a year. Low income winter heating assistance, which will replace the UK Government’s cold weather payment, will give 400,000 low-income households a guaranteed £50 payment, instead of that “maybe” £25 payment.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

There is an economic point here. The money that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, whichever level of Government is giving it to individuals or businesses to see them through all of this, is money that, as well as giving assurance and comfort, ultimately will be spent in shops and other businesses, and will boost local economies. I might suggest that the Government can then recoup that through corporation tax and other means.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I agree. People on lower incomes are the ones who spend all of their disposable income, and they spend it in local businesses and support local businesses. For families in Scotland, there is also the game-changing £20 a week Scottish child payment. As my hon. Friend Patricia Gibson said, that compares with the heartless £20 a week cut to universal credit by the UK Government. Again, that universal credit uplift was spent in local businesses. It was direct support.

It is absurd that Scotland has paid £375 billion of oil and gas revenues to the Exchequer and that it has been squandered over the years. There should have been an oil and gas fund, which would have provided an additional buffer that could have been used in this time of need. It is time that the UK Government take short-term action to deal with the cost of living crisis and energy crisis, but there needs to be a change in long-term planning, for a fair and equitable energy policy. Perhaps that is why Scotland needs independence, so that we can do things differently.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 3:39 pm, 18th January 2022

I congratulate Jamie Stone on securing the debate. I think the best way to sum up this afternoon’s debate is to call it a united front. I was going to say a cross-party united front, but the party that was going to be in that united front is now no longer in that party—Anne Marie Morris had the Whip removed for daring to say that there should be a VAT reduction on bills as a result of the energy crisis. I commiserate greatly with her. It is shameful that she has had the Whip withdrawn under these circumstances. I would have expected hundreds of her colleagues to vote with her on that occasion, because we all know that we have to do something urgently about the perfect storm in energy prices that is coming towards us. It is a perfect storm because it will be added to the ending of the universal credit uplift and other cost of living increases.

As my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue eloquently put it, millions of people in this country are spinning plates every day to keep their bills, rent and other costs under control. To have a £600 increase in their bills coming their way very shortly—the decision may well be made within a couple of weeks—will inevitably cause those plates to come crashing down across millions of households. This is a crisis emergency that we absolutely have to tackle with equal emergency and resolution as the crisis unfolds.

Hon. Members have talked about both the causes of the crisis and the things that could be done about it. I acknowledge that one of the key bases of the crisis is the unprecedented increase in wholesale gas prices coming into the country, which has had a knock-on effect for electricity prices and bills. Of course, the crisis does not involve a spike in price; it is likely to be a price dome rather than a spike, and it will probably last a couple of years.

The Government are not responsible for that, but they are substantially responsible for making the crisis much worse, as a number of hon. Members have talked about. The Government have managed the retail markets with extraordinary negligence over recent years, allowing a large number of companies to come in and sell us gas and electricity, with no hedging and no serious support behind them. Some 28 of those companies have now gone bust, leaving the customer to pick up the bill, and not just for the transfers that they had to undertake.

About 4 million people have lost their supply and are having to transfer to other companies at the price cap, rather than at the prices they were previously charged, so there is an additional increase on their bills. The companies are potentially having to bear the costs, at about £100 per customer, for the carnage that has taken place with the energy companies that have gone bust and the cost of putting those companies into “supplier of last resort” arrangements.

The Government have also been negligent by allowing gas storage effectively to disappear in this country in 2016, putting us at risk, to a much greater extent, of volatility in the markets, as we have seen recently. There are a number of things that can be laid directly at the Government’s door for their stewardship of the energy economy over the last few years, in addition to what we know are the problems of world prices. That is a double reason why the Government have to act now to put right a number of the things that they have so negligently allowed to happen.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the idea of reducing VAT for an extended period while the crisis in gas prices runs through. That could easily be afforded because of the increase in VAT that the Government have received recently. A windfall tax on companies that have been supplying the gas is an important idea. After all, whether it is supplied to the UK from the UK sector, from the Norwegian sector or from liquefied natural gas, the price that it is sold for is the same in the end. International spot prices are the same, whatever the origin of the gas. That is why a number of companies supplying within the UK sector have made super-profits from this episode, and it is right that they should be subject to a windfall tax that can be clawed back for customers to reduce the level of prices that they are likely to pay.

Hon. Members mentioned increasing the level and extent of the warm home discount, which would be a particularly targeted way of ensuring that those who can least afford it—the real plate-spinners in our society—have an additional plate to spin in the shape of a much more generous warm home discount, and one that expands its range.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

Will the hon. Member pick up on a point that I made? Customers who wanted to do the right thing and bought their energy from renewables only should not be subject to energy price rises when renewable prices are falling because energy supply companies can lump the prices together.

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

The hon. Lady has anticipated exactly what I will say in a moment. One of the wider issues about the energy crisis is how, regardless of where someone gets their energy from, what sources they get it from and who makes the energy, it is all delineated in gas prices eventually, so they pay what they would have done had they been a gas-to-electricity customer, even if they are not. Essentially, the whole market is now delineated—the wholesale market and the balancing market—around gas prices being the price-maker.

Hon. Members mentioned that the long-term issue is that we need to get off gas and go further on renewables, but—I put this straight at the Government’s door—we need urgently to reform the wholesale energy market and balancing market so that the market is not delineated in gas and it works in a way that properly reflects the increasingly dominant form of energy production that is renewables. Had we done that, although the gas price issue would have been considerable, it would not have been as damaging and as universal as it has been under the present circumstances.

I call on the Government to undertake measures that will take that terrible burden off the back of customers in the short term, ensuring that they are not subject, as they look to be at present, to the £600 or so increase that is likely to come their way in April, and indeed further increases that are likely to come their way as the price cap reflects the current price dome in gas.

I ask the Government to look seriously in the longer term at how the market has become so dependent on gas, how we have become so vulnerable to it, and how we can take measures to protect our industry and country from such volatility in the future by reorganising our market so that customers are substantially protected from it. This is an issue not just for domestic customers; it is a substantial issue for industry as well, which is groaning under the current price increases and, among other things, needs protection. I personally think that we need a price cap measure on volatile prices from outside the UK coming into the UK for industrial purposes, so that industry can have some certainty ahead of it regarding what prices it will pay for gas.

I hope that the Minister will have answers on all those issues. I know that the Government have been holding discussions with the industry about measures that might be taken, but the concern mentioned by hon. Members this afternoon is that nothing whatsoever has come out of that so far, and time is running out. The longer we do not know what we are going to do, the worse the crisis becomes. I hope the Minister can tell us what is to be done about this energy crisis.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 3:50 pm, 18th January 2022

I congratulate Jamie Stone on securing this important debate. We have heard from across the United Kingdom, from all nations, of constituents’ concerns about this issue, and rightly so, because this is of huge concern to all our constituents.

The recent rise in energy prices has been driven by the global increase in the price of wholesale gas, and the demand for gas that has grown as we and other nations recover from the covid-19 pandemic. Consequently, higher wholesale gas prices have been observed internationally throughout 2021 and into this year. In addition, greater liquified natural gas demand in Asia, upstream gas production, maintenance affecting supply and capacity during last summer, increased demand for gas in electricity generation, as we phase out coal, particularly in Europe, have also contributed to rising prices.

The first point I want to make is that that has not had an impact on our energy security, a point raised by my hon. Friend Craig Mackinlay and others. The Government continue to work closely with Ofgem, the National Grid and other key industry organisations to monitor energy supply and demand. We remain confident that Great Britain’s energy security will be maintained. National Grid’s gas and electricity winter outlooks, published in October, indicate that there will be sufficient gas and electricity supply in all of its modelled supply and demand scenarios.

The first part is all about delivering renewables—

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade Team Member), Chair, International Trade Committee, Chair, International Trade Committee

On the point about domestic security, the Minister will be aware that 5.6 % of the UK’s energy need, according to the GridCarbon app, comes from overseas. Does the Minister not think that, in the next round of CfDs, it should be paramount that the projects that could have happened over the past number of years, particularly in the Scottish islands, actually get under way, so that there is less reliance on the continent and Scandinavia for some of that energy?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

That is exactly what we are doing. The new contract for difference auction that was launched in September is as big as the previous three auctions, when it comes to renewables. Our dependence on foreign gas is less than 20%. Our dependence on gas from Russia within that is less than 3% or 4%. That is action that we have already taken.

Our long-term strategy is about finding effective replacements for fossil fuels, which are reliable and do not expose us to the volatility of international commodity markets. We already have the world’s largest capacity in offshore wind, but we are not resting on our laurels, because we are going to quadruple that over the course of the next decade. That is all a major step towards delivering the Government’s increased ambition on renewables.

In answer to Jim Shannon on new technology, it is both renewables and nuclear, to which I will turn briefly, which is a key plank in the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan in the energy White Paper and the legislation that is passing through the House of Commons. I will return in a moment to the comments from Alan Brown.

In the brief time of six minutes available to me, I will answer some of the points raised. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross referred to his constituent, the businessman Andrew Mackay. I am happy to engage with the hon. Member on behalf of his constituent. Business bills tend to be set on long-term contracts, which give a certain insulation from volatile prices, at least until the point where the contract comes up for renewal.

On rural support, 15% of the energy company obligation—ECO3—must be delivered to households in rural areas. We consulted in the summer of last year on its successor scheme—ECO4—for delivering energy efficiency heating measures in off-grid homes in Scotland and Wales. We are already extending the warm home discount from about 2 million to 3 million households, from £140 to £150. It is worth pointing out, as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun knows well, that the warm home discount is not a zero-cost option. There are people who have to pay additional money on their bills to support recipients of the warm home discount, so it is not something that we can just take action on with the stroke of a pen, like the Labour motion last week—the trebling—without considering the consequences.

Anne Marie Morris is absolutely right on cost-of-living issues, but let us look at a lot of what is happening in this country. We have record figures for those in employment. We have the national living wage increase. We have beneficial changes in the universal credit taper rate and so on. All these things are providing support for people facing cost-of-living issues. I totally appreciate and am totally with the hon. Lady on the impact that energy bills may be having and will be having later this year. On levies and on the heat and buildings strategy, we said that we would publish a fairness and affordability call for evidence, which will set out the options to help rebalance electricity and gas prices and to support green choices, with a view to taking decisions in this year—2022.

Wera Hobhouse said that we are scrapping the ECO scheme. No—as I have already pointed out, we are moving from the ECO3 scheme to the ECO4 scheme. I guess, Sir Edward, technically you may describe that as scrapping it, but we see it as improving it and building on it. The hon. Lady called for a windfall tax. She praised German energy company E.ON for doing a great job, and it does do a great job, but she and other Members have to be careful when they call for a windfall tax while also praising those investing in the energy sector. She has to be mindful of what impact any windfall tax would have on those investment rates.

Yvonne Fovargue made a very moving speech about the situation for low-income households and prepayment customers. There are 4 million prepayment customers. Ofgem obviously put in place licensing conditions to protect prepayment customers at risk—particularly of self-disconnection—including dedicated helplines for prepayment meter customers. There is a lot of support in place, but the issue of PPM customers is something that we keep a very, very close eye on in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and I know Ofgem does as well.

Jim Shannon wanted an indication of what the Government are doing to help. We are doing a lot. We have in place winter fuel payments of between £100 and £300. I have already discussed the warm home discount. There are the cold weather payments. There is the £421 million household support fund. There is a lot of support. I say that while recognising Northern Ireland’s particular status as regards electricity. Obviously, a lot of that is devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive.

Margaret Ferrier called for a VAT reduction. That is obviously, as she rightly pointed out, a matter for Her Majesty’s Treasury. It is not a very targeted way of supporting vulnerable customers. We heard from Patricia Gibson. I do not think this is really the right place for a Brexit debate, but she said that leaving the EU allows us to cut VAT on domestic fuel. Her policy of rejoining the EU would surely negate that policy.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

No. I have only two minutes left. The hon. Lady asked a question about storage, and I repeat that the current issue is not a question of supply. Storage helps if there are supply issues, but we have an issue relating to price. Storage does not protect, generally, from price shocks if the supply is secure, and I have already said that our supply is secure.

Layla Moran made an extraordinary speech, in which she said, I think, a windfall tax would be a powerful message to Moscow. I thought the intervention by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun slightly exposed that. If the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon can show me how to design a windfall tax that would clobber Gazprom, I am all ears. Bearing in mind that our imports of gas from Russia are almost entirely liquefied natural gas and only less than a handful of percentage points, if the hon. Lady can show me how her Robin Hood tax would have an impact on Gazprom, I am all ears. We are not dependent on—she said “rogue states”. More than half of our gas imports come from Norway. I do not think anything she is proposing is going to protect us from rogue states.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun made a number of familiar points on supplier of last resort costs. SoLR is there to protect customers when their energy supplier ceases to trade, so that they can transfer their account.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Order. Minister, do you want to give Jamie a few seconds?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Okay, I will give him a few seconds, Sir Edward. On oil and gas and nuclear, I am constantly baffled by the SNP’s policy. It is anti-oil and gas. It is anti-nuclear. It is hard to know what it is actually in favour of in Scotland when it comes to supporting Scotland’s energy customers and energy suppliers. Finally, I note that we have not heard anything about Labour energy policy in the week since the party’s disastrous four-page, convoluted student union motion in the main Chamber last Tuesday. I thank everyone for participating in the debate, and I look forward to further engagement.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Order. We have to move to the next debate, I am afraid. There is a strict time limit.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).