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As my hon. Friend says, Ofgem’s recent report on complaint handling showed some very disappointing results of consumer dissatisfaction with suppliers’ performance. It is not sufficient for suppliers to have the necessary systems in place, although that is a start. They need to improve the consumer’s experience of
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those systems. I believe that Ofgem is meeting stakeholders this month to discuss how to ensure that. I agree that price will be the most important factor when consumers choose between suppliers, but satisfaction is also a significant issue, and suppliers have a real interest in getting the procedures working more effectively. I will pursue that issue actively in my discussions with companies and consumer bodies. There may be a case for the regulator to take action where the supplier does not meet the standards that are laid down. Ofgem has powers to fine suppliers up to 10 per cent. of turnover for a breach of these standards.

As regards my hon. Friend’s concern about competition, compared with many markets there is a high level of switching. The process of switching has been made easier. As I mentioned, there are new proposals to make doorstep selling—probably the most controversial channel for switching—much safer for consumers. A small number of consumers are very active, as my hon. Friend says, but large numbers of other consumers have moved to better deals. Those who have not yet switched can still make considerable savings if they do so.

Suppliers have sometimes changed prices within a similar time frame, but they share many of the same cost pressures, particularly movements in wholesale prices. In most sectors, businesses will price with an eye on the competition: this is not proof of a failing market. In fact, when it comes to lowering prices following falls in wholesale prices, it is easy to become concerned if one or two companies do not move with the others. As my hon. Friend says, Ofgem found evidence of unfair differentials in pricing, and it has taken action to prevent this in future; the Government have strongly supported that action. We need to ensure that competition is working and to act where it is restricted, but we need to base actions on real understanding of what is happening, and what is not happening.

Our energy markets in the UK have ensured that over the past decade household consumers have benefited from some of the lowest energy prices in Europe. However, that is history: we need always to be vigilant on behalf of the consumer. I recognise that none of us, least of all Government, can be complacent about the services that paying energy customers receive. I am aiming for the best and the fairest service for all consumers. To achieve that ambition, I shall be calling on the regulator, the energy companies, consumer representation groups and consumers themselves to help me. I take it that I can say with confidence that my hon. Friend is willing to help, and I shall seek support from other right hon. and hon. Members. Regulation needs to be active and effective, attuned to current business and social standards. Where necessary, rules must be amended now and in the future to stop unfair practices. Those investing and operating in the energy sector need to work for the steady improvement of the ways in which the markets function for consumers.

I appreciate the interest that my hon. Friend has shown in the serious subject of protecting current and future energy consumers. I pay tribute to his personal efforts on behalf of his constituents. I hope he can see that I am determined to act upon the issues that he has raised in this debate.

3.4 pm

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).


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