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16 Dec 2008 : Column 1036

Mr. O'Brien: The Government want to ensure that people pay fair prices. As my hon. Friend knows, the energy companies buy much of their gas, the price of which feeds into electricity prices, on the forward market. The energy chief executives tell us that that operates about six months ahead, so the prices that we are paying this winter tend to be based on the ones that they paid a few months ago. Changes, therefore, take time to feed through. That is a problem for us, but when he asks whether we are determined to do everything we can to ensure that we get energy prices down to a fair level, the straight answer is yes, we will.

We will ensure, too, that Ofgem does everything it can. This has been a hard year for householders and businesses, with price rises and dramatic fluctuations in energy costs. Earlier in 2008, there were dramatic price rises in oil, gas and electricity, and more recently, some of the wholesale prices have fallen, and oil prices have fallen from $147 a barrel to about $40 a barrel—it varies. Petrol and diesel prices have now fallen below £1 a litre in most places. This Friday in London, Energy Ministers will meet to discuss the oil market and how to stabilise prices and improve transparency, and I was fascinated to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire had to say. He raised some interesting points about the commodity market, and I would like to look at those in more detail.

I mentioned prices falling, but that cannot be said yet about electricity and gas retail prices. Wholesale prices have fallen, but as I said, it is the forward price that is important. That is starting to go down, and I have met the chief executives and most of the main energy companies in the last week and clearly told them that we want them to bring down prices as soon as possible. They were able to give notice of price rises, and we want some notice of when they are going to bring down prices. We want a greater degree of transparency in the wholesale market because it feeds into the retail market. The pre-Budget report asks Ofgem to provide quarterly reports showing the relationship between wholesale, hedged-wholesale and average retail prices. That will make it clearer whether companies are passing on the benefits of downward price changes or not. It is important that falling wholesale prices are passed on to retail customers, particularly when they are under so many financial pressures.

Alan Simpson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I am pressed for time, so if my hon. Friend will forgive me—[Hon. Members: “Oh, go on!”] I will give way.

Alan Simpson: From the discussions that the Minister is having with the energy company chief executives, he will be aware that their profits in the last year have doubled from £2.1 billion to £4.6 billion, while their contributions to fuel poverty have reduced from 2.1 per cent. to 1.2 per cent. The energy company executives whom I have spoken to about fuel poverty targets and obligations on social tariffs have said that they would move on these issues if instructed to, but so far neither Ofgem nor the Government have been willing to issue such instructions. Will the Minister at least consider doing that?

Mr. O'Brien: If my hon. Friend speaks to chief executives, he will find that different ones give very different messages. Some of them favour a statutory or
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agreed basis for the licensed system of social tariffs, and others do not. Some of the energy companies did not have a social tariff, such as Scottish Power last year. The energy companies adopt different policies. I am anxious to ensure that we bring about a more sensible regime on social tariffs, because at the moment it is difficult for those on low incomes to work out who is the best person to go to. People claim to have large discounts, but as the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) rightly said, some of those with the apparently biggest social tariffs charge the biggest prices. The deduction comes out of such prices and people end up paying more. It is a very complex matter. We have to ensure, however, that the energy companies are not making false profits and that they are not ripping off the consumer, and we intend to do so.

Ofgem has received a lot of criticism, and I understand that this House holds a critical view of Ofgem, and I think that Ofgem now understands that. If it had not before, it will as a result of the debate. I understand it, and I want to ensure that confidence in Ofgem is resumed. It has recently announced that it wants to eradicate unreasonable premiums, and that it will change some of the licensing rules to prevent such premiums from recurring. It has given companies until February to respond on licence changes, and to implement some of the changes in full. It tells us that there have already been £300 million of reductions in prices for consumers, and that a further £200 million need to be made by February.

Ministers have met the main energy companies’ CEOs and emphasised our determination to legislate unless they show that they have acted to end discrimination against prepayment meter payers and standard payment customers, as well as to deal with some of the other anomalies that have crept into their pricing programme.

Legislation does not happen overnight in this place, but we are preparing to legislate should we need to do so. A referral to the Competition Commission, as suggested by the Conservatives, is an option, but it would involve a lengthy wait. CC reports can take 12 months to two years, so that would not help customers by February. It is a slow-lane response and it is not a sensible approach at present. Let us see if we can get this done; let us see if we can get some action from the energy companies and make sure that Ofgem keeps the pressure on them—with the hobnailed boots that Alistair Buchanan talked about on the radio this morning. We want to get this done without referring the matter to the CC, which may take two years. Ofgem has clearly said that it wants all these changes to be in place by February and we want that, too. Ofgem wants to get these reasonable results by February, but it also wants to sort out some of the licensing conditions and I want to be very clear on this: we will legislate if Ofgem does not get the changes it needs through.

I am today placing in the House of Commons Library a comparative annual bill for each of the six energy companies based on a departmental analysis of the premiums they are charging for different kinds of payment based around the comparator of dual-use payments. For example, for average annual usage of electricity and gas, the highest annual dual-use bill is £1,240 from British Gas and the lowest appears to be EDF Energy at
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£1,168. On premiums paid for prepayment meters, British Gas came out the highest again at £158 and EDF was again the lowest at £78.80. On premiums above the cost for dual use on direct debit, customers paying by standard credit—those whom some people, including the Select Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), have indicated are a major issue—are likely to be paying more by between £109 with Scottish Power and £27 with E.ON. These are significant premiums and I want to be sure that they are justifiable. At present I am not entirely sure that they are; Ofgem seems to some extent to be sure, but I want to be sure that we are also happy with the figures.

There are different ways of cutting these figures, and as there is competition they change regularly. When Members look at them, they will be comparing prices as of this week, and in many cases the sums are lower than they were some weeks ago when premiums were higher. However, although some of the companies have changed their prices in the past few weeks, Ofgem is still looking at them to ascertain if they are justifiable. The main justification for the expense of prepayment meters has been that they must be checked regularly. That was certainly true in the past when they were mostly coin meters, but nowadays they are often prepayment cards and the customer pays in advance, which brings a benefit to the company. Although Ofgem seems to some extent to be content with this, I am not convinced. Having seen today’s Ofgem announcement, I want to drill down further into the justification for such a premium, which often falls on low-income people, and I have asked officials in the Department and Ofgem to look at this as a matter of urgency.

I am conscious of the time, but I have not had an opportunity to deal with some of the key issues raised. We want to ensure that direct debit payments are looked at properly. I have some concerns and I have raised them with the chairman of each of the companies I have met. I have said I want them to justify some of the changes.

In terms of our keeping the lights on, there is another energy gap—that which is in Opposition policy. I will not go into that now; we can leave for another day discussion of their failure to support the renewables obligation, and their opposition to coal-fired power stations, planning legislation and a number of international initiatives. Before they start criticising us for an energy gap, let me say that as far as we are concerned there are 10 GW of consents in process and 7.5 GW in planning. Even if the energy crunch does create some delays—we are looking at this with concern and I say to the Select Committee Chairman that since I gave evidence we have had some indications from some chairmen that a tightness is now developing in the market—we believe that there will continue to be investment. We are getting reassurances from the chairmen on that, too.

On gas storage, the National Grid has as of yesterday updated its figures; its 2008 report indicates there is likely to be substantial new storage. I can go through some of the figures, but I am conscious of the time: 4.4 billion cu m existing; 1 billion cu m in construction; 3.3 billion cu m with planning consent; 1 billion cu m awaiting planning consent; and 12 billion cu m proposed, but planning not yet applied for. We therefore have quite a lot of interest in developing our gas storage.

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I would want to test some of the points raised by the Opposition spokesman if I had the time. The Government are committed to dealing with fuel poverty, to ensuring we keep the lights on, and to ensuring we have sufficient capacity to do so. The Government have every intention of delivering on that.

Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54(4)).

8.6 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the past 30 minutes the Metropolitan police have issued a statement as a result of their receiving the report of the Chief Constable of the British Transport police into the matter relating to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). However, I have tried to get hold of a copy of the report, but they say they are not publishing it. I then asked for a copy of their statement to be e-mailed to me, and by the time I came to the Chamber that had still not been forthcoming. Clearly, it is essential to Members that we have at least a copy of their statement, bearing in mind the clock is ticking and the recess is approaching, so time is short for Mr. Speaker to consider applications or submissions on whether this is a matter of privilege. Between now and 10 o’clock would it be possible for the Speaker’s Office or the Clerk, perhaps, to use their good offices of leverage on the Metropolitan police to cede two things, the first of which is that there is available in the Vote Office or on the internet a copy of the Metropolitan police statement that is being issued to journalists as we speak? We need to have this tonight, not tomorrow. It is a matter of discourtesy that it is not being made available. I ask if there is any way in which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, can help in this matter because we should have it available now.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I, too, am aware of the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman has just raised. At 7.45 pm I wrote to the Speaker because I believe this matter pertains to the privileges of this House, and the complaint I have issued in respect of the matter concerning my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) is a matter of privilege. I, too, endorse the idea that we should ask for and/or demand a copy of this report forthwith and that it should be placed in the Library, and I have been asking the Library—as has the hon. Gentleman—for the last half hour to make provision for it to be supplied in the Vote Office or the Library. First, however, it seems to me that it might be appropriate for the Speaker to make inquiries and to insist it is made available to us because of the short time before the House rises.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I say to both hon. Gentlemen that I have no knowledge of the matter they have raised. Clearly, this is an important issue and the House will want to study the statement. Both hon. Gentlemen can make their inquiries in the usual way, and their points of order are clearly on the record. Front Benchers of both main parties are present, so I trust the usual channels will take note of what they say.

16 Dec 2008 : Column 1040

department of Health

Dental Services

[Relevant Documents: Fifth Report from the Health Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 289, on Dental services, t he Government response, Cm 7470, and the Department of Health Departmental Report 2008, Cm 7393. ]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

8.9 pm

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): It might be helpful if I give some background to the report that we are now going to debate—sadly for somewhat less than two hours, as a result of the Government statements this afternoon. The Select Committee on Health published its fifth report of 2007-08, on dental services, on 2 July. We took evidence from a range of witnesses, including dentist campaign groups, primary care trusts, commissioners of dental services, public dental health experts, the British Dental Association, the Dental Practitioners Association and the British Orthodontic Society, as well as patient groups and practising dentists. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), who sits on the Front Bench tonight, also gave evidence, as did the chief dental officer.

One of the Committee’s findings was that the nation’s oral health has improved significantly since the establishment of the national health service general dental service or GDS in 1948. That is not surprising, given that most other things in society have improved since then. As recently as 1968, the proportion of the adult population in England and Wales who were edentate was 37 per cent. The latest figure is estimated to be about 6 per cent, so there has clearly been a massive improvement in dental health in recent years.

Nevertheless, by the 1990s there was a powerful case for reform of the GDS contract. It was widely agreed that although the provision of NHS dentistry was good in some areas of the country, overall it was patchy. Moreover, the payment system lacked sufficient incentives for the provision of preventive care and advice. In addition, the Department argued that there were too many incentives to provide complex treatments. In April 2006, the Department reformed the GDS contract, making a number of far-reaching changes: primary care trusts were given the power to commission dental services; the patient charging system was simplified; and under the terms of a new dental contact, dentists were remunerated according to the number of units of dental activity—UDAs—completed. The Department issued a number of criteria for success: patient experience; clinical quality; NHS commissioning and improving dentists’ working lives.

Our inquiry found evidence that the new contract had failed to meet the Department’s criteria for success in a number of areas. However, the Committee argued that with more good will from dentists and the Department,
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the contract could be made to work. The Committee’s main findings were that access to NHS dentistry was not as good as it was said to be, and that the total number of dentists working for the NHS and the number of treatments they provided had fallen slightly since 2006. There are many reasons why dentists moved away from the NHS, one of which was the income available in our society now. This move happened in the parts of the United Kingdom—it certainly happened in England—where one would have thought that there were bigger incomes and more better-off people compared with other parts. In such areas, dentists on some occasions moved wholly into the private sector.

The total number of patients seen by NHS dentists fell by some 900,000 between December 2005 and December 2007. The latest figures for the period from April 2006 to April 2008 show a decline of some 1 million in the number of patients seen. It is possible that patients have good dental health, so it is not necessary for them to be seen. I know that call-backs for people with good dental health are few and far between compared with a few years ago, when there were regular call-backs.

The Committee also found that PCTs had performed patchily in how they commission services. For example, whereas in some areas, such as London, access was good, in others, such as Devon and Kent, it remained difficult for patients to find an NHS dentist.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): My constituency borders Devon, and I must report to the right hon. Gentleman that we find exactly the problem that he is describing: a shortage in the availability of NHS dentists. Does he agree that, in many cases, even if the area is relatively well off, there will be people within it who are not and who are suffering?

Mr. Barron: That is true. We took evidence, which was more than anecdotal, suggesting that some dentists who wanted to move into the private sector were saying to people, “We will take your children as NHS patients, but only as long as you take out private insurance on your cover.” Hon. Members will see what our report said about that, but I must say that not many people defended that practice—I include the professional organisations in that comment. However, unfortunately the practice still goes on.

In addition, the Committee found that strategic health authorities were poor at managing PCTs and gave a dentistry a low priority. We also found that the number of complex treatments, such as extractions and root canal work, has fallen under the new contract by 50 per cent. That was seen to be a consequence of the contract not providing dentists with sufficient incentives to carry out this type of work. That is one of the areas about which we were concerned. I have some views about it, given what the Department has announced in the past few days that it will do to address the situation, as we hope it will.

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