Speakers in this debate:
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Lord Prior of Brampton) (Con)
My Lords, I beg leave to repeat, in the form of a Statement, the Answer given to an Urgent Question by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the other place.
“Mr Speaker, the Competition and Markets Authority, following a two-year inquiry, found that energy customers on standard variable tariffs were paying on average £1.4 billion a year more than would be the case in a competitive market. That is completely unacceptable, so my party’s manifesto committed to introduce a safeguard tariff to extend the price protection currently in place for some vulnerable customers—those on pre-payment meters—to more customers on the poorest-value tariffs.
The energy regulator, Ofgem, has the powers necessary to act to impose such a price cap without delay. I wrote on 21 June to the chief executive of Ofgem asking it to use the regulator’s powers to do that. Today, the regulator has replied and has announced that it will work with consumer groups to take measures, including extending the current safeguard tariff for those on pre-payment meters to a wider groups of consumers, and to move urgently to implement these changes. I welcome this initial proposal—it is a step in the right direction—but I will wait to see the actual proposals and to see them turned into action to cut bills.
The test of whether the regulator’s changes go far enough is whether it moves sufficiently to eradicate the detriment to consumers that the CMA has identified. I remain prepared to legislate if it does not, and I hope that such legislation will command wide support across the House”.
I thank the Minister for that Statement. Does he accept that, during the election, his party placed the promise of a cap on energy prices at the centre of its manifesto? Does he recall that the Prime Minister stated:
“So I am making this promise: if I am re-elected on June 8, I will take action to end this injustice by introducing a cap on unfair energy price rises. It will protect around 17 million families on standard variable tariffs from being exploited with sudden and unjustified increases in bills”?
Although these are welcome suggestions on safeguarding tariffs and on capping warrant charges for the installation of pre-pay meters, these measures would affect only 2.5 million customers, leaving more than 14 million standard variable tariff customers completely unprotected from price rises over the next period. Does he accept that the response to the letter to Ofgem of 21 June on energy prices falls far short of implementing that promise? Although welcome, extending the safeguard tariff to more customers will not end the injustice of an excess £1.4 billion a year being paid on standard variable tariffs or bring about a competitive market.
Can the Minister confirm that the letter of 21 June does not ask Ofgem to consider introducing a general price cap? Can he explain why not, even though the CEO of Ofgem confirmed earlier this year that Ofgem would have the discretionary power to implement an energy price cap? Will the Government now be asking Ofgem to consider introducing a price cap? Is legislation coming or is the Minister content to ignore his party’s election promise of an energy price cap? What does the Minister have to say to the millions more people on standard variable tariffs who heard the Prime Minister’s remarks and may now be feeling misled and betrayed by the Conservative Government?
My Lords, in my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for BEIS’s letter to Dermot Nolan, the chief executive of Ofgem, he says:
“You will have seen that the Conservative manifesto proposed to ‘extend the price protection currently in place for some vulnerable customers to more customers on the poorest value tariffs’”.
That is what my right honourable friend has asked Ofgem to do. It will now go through a period of consultation and decide how best to do that.
My Lords, on this side of the House we appreciate and welcome the measures that are obviously designed to help poorer customers. I will ask the Minister two questions. How much of this £1.4 billion does he assume is going to be redistributed back to customers as a result of these measures, and what is the shortfall on that? Secondly, his party, despite its election manifesto, has never seen a way of resolving these problems by price cuts. What is he going to do to improve competition? That is the way to control prices in this sector, and clearly they are not going to be controlled when you have a six-body cartel that is operating against customers’ interests.
My Lords, the Secretary of State has made it clear that, in judging whether Ofgem’s proposals go far enough, he will be looking at that figure of £1.4 billion—which, as the noble Lord knows, was identified in the CMA report of 2014. Clearly that is the figure that the Secretary of State has in mind. The noble Lord is absolutely right, though, that for the long term getting real competition into the market will drive prices down. Some 20% of the market is now supplied by companies other than the big six. I think that they now number 50, so there are signs of growing competition. The CMA is quite categoric in its diagnosis that customers are not yet feeling sufficiently well informed or enabled to make the switch. I went on to uSwitch today to have a look and I can understand that—one’s brain sort of hazes over a bit when you go into this sort of field. So I think it will take some time before competition really works in this market—which is why the Secretary of State decided to ask Ofgem to review the situation today.
My Lords, perhaps I could pursue the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham. The reality is that the CMA inquiry found that the standard variable tariff, which is the bulk of the market, was being exploited by the oligopoly that runs most of our energy supply. It was an absolutely condemnatory finding. Unfortunately, the remedies proposed by the CMA did not add up to very much, which is presumably why the Prime Minister thought she had to make clear that heavier government action was necessary.
If my noble friend Lord Grantchester is right that the remedy proposed in the letter to Ofgem affects only a minority of those consumers, and that in any case it depends on Ofgem finding a way within in its existing rules to implement it, that total market distortion is not going to be resolved by the relatively slow creep of greater competition; it is going to require some clear and probably legislative action by the Government. None of that was reflected in the Queen’s Speech. Can we therefore expect that, if Ofgem gives an unsatisfactory answer to the Minister, we will get legislation on this basis in this Session of Parliament?
My Lords, I think the Secretary of State made it clear that, if there is an unsatisfactory response from Ofgem, he will resort to bringing through legislation. I should add that we should be careful about the law of unintended consequences in this case. It is very easy to win a headline with a blanket price cap and to reap adverse consequences later when the distortions that you bring into the market through that price cap make it worse for consumers rather than better.