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Yasmin Qureshi rose—

Mr Davey: I am going to make some progress.

In fact, the current law allows the regulator to do more than just fine a company. Let us take an example. Ofgem can issue provisional orders that require a range of things, including banning a company from taking on new customers and setting specific behaviour that it must meet so that it is no longer in breach of licence conditions, including the standards of conduct. A final order can be issued when Ofgem believes that the same licence contravention is likely to continue, and in doing so Ofgem can look at the pattern of behaviour of previous breaches. Breaching a final order could then trigger a licence revocation, even if that remains an extreme circumstance. The powers that the right hon. Lady is talking about already exist in the form that I have described, where orders happen and improvement orders are required and they are not complied with.

This looks like a regime that is working today and it was not working under Labour. If the Opposition are proposing to lower the bar for a nuclear option, it is incumbent on them to explain exactly when that would be used, because consumers and businesses need to know exactly where the line is drawn. Perhaps the right hon. Lady wants to clarify her position now; she failed to do so, despite being intervened on by myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat).

Let me give the right hon. Lady an example. Would she have expected Ofgem to have closed npower down by now? More complaints have been made about npower than any other energy company. It is under investigation. Does she think her new power should have been used to revoke npower’s licence? A simple yes or no would suffice, if she is willing to give us an example. She is not, and the House will have noted that.

Yasmin Qureshi rose—

Mr Davey: I will not give way. The right hon. Lady is seeking to allow Ofgem to close down a firm more rapidly than it can now. She wants to lower the bar for the nuclear option.

Yasmin Qureshi: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. The right hon. Gentleman is not giving way.

Mr Davey: The right hon. Lady really must tell the House, would she have pressed the nuclear button yet? Is there one example of energy company bad behaviour that she thinks would have merited her policy?

Ofgem could close an energy company down, but it would have to give that firm the chance to improve. If a company ignored improvement orders, Ofgem could then issue a final order, and if that was ignored, it could then close the company down under current law. But the right hon. Lady seems to want the regulator to be able to intervene before an improvement process has been gone through—before a final order.

Caroline Flint indicated dissent.

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Mr Davey: Well, if the right hon. Lady does not want that—if she is still expecting a process of orders and final orders—the House should be clear: she is proposing absolutely nothing new of substance. This whole debate is a fabrication. But if she does want Ofgem to be able to close a company down earlier—if she does not want Ofgem to go through an improvement process with a firm that has behaved badly, as now—she really has to tell us how her proposal will work, and how it will be different in substance to the current system, and she has failed to do so.

I do not question the right hon. Lady’s motives or commitment in initiating this debate; I agree that there is a problem, and we both want the same thing. We want a consumer-focused market in which bills are kept as low as possible and the energy companies provide a high-quality service. The question before us is, what is the right way to achieve that? The Government favour a balanced approach of competition, technology and regulation, giving people the choice to move to new suppliers with better service and better deals. Under this Government, the new independent suppliers that we have encouraged regularly top the best-buy tables and the tables for best customer service. People are voting with their feet thanks to our increasing competition and punishing bad service. The new independents are growing rapidly, with more than 2 million customers, and the big six are losing market share every day.

We can improve services for customers with technology, bringing the digital revolution to the energy market so that information is more accurate and easier to understand. Smart meters could do for energy what the smartphone has done for mobile communications. Regulation is vital, and we are making sure that we have an active and engaged regulator with the right balance of powers to effect change. There is a basket of powers that we have strengthened, such as criminal sanctions where appropriate, powers to fine companies and compensate customers directly, and the ability to work with companies with poor customer service and help them to improve. As a very last resort, with the bar set high, we have the power to revoke a licence where there has been a serious breach of conduct. That is the picture under this Government.

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Yasmin Qureshi rose

Huw Irranca-Davies rose—

Mr Davey: I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend, and then to the other hon. Members. I have just described the picture under our Government.

David T. C. Davies: I appreciate that, and the right hon. Gentleman is making some very good points, but I have to pick him up on one thing. If smart meters are such a good idea, can he explain why the Government are having to sell them to the public using Bob Geldof and two cartoon characters? If smart meters are as good as smartphones, why are the public not willing to go out and buy them?

Mr Davey: Obviously, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful comments. Smart meters have been well tested, and there is a lot of enthusiasm for

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them. One million have been rolled out, and consumers have embraced them. I was asked to quote Sir Bob Geldof at the launch of Smart Energy GB, but I do not think I will. I promised to give way to other hon. Members.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The right hon. Gentleman has been very courteous in giving way. I suggest to him that he does not close his mind entirely to our proposal because what he has described in some detail is, in effect, a series of yellow cards, following which there is no red card—there is nothing more serious. It is like saying to a player each time, “You have committed a misdemeanour, and now we will wipe the record clean.” The result of that would be appalling behaviour, and that is what we are seeing in some parts of the energy sector. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to keep an open mind because we want an escalation that is clear to energy companies, to consumers and to the investor community.

Mr Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his measured comments. The process in the law that I have described does end in a red card, and I hope that when he and the right hon. Member for Don Valley look at it in more detail, they will see that it can result in a red card. I said that I would give way to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi).

Yasmin Qureshi: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Eventually.

Yasmin Qureshi: I thank my hon. Friend for that. There seems to be a difference of opinion. We say that the grounds on which a licence can be revoked are very limited and technical. If I understand the Secretary of State correctly, he is saying that there are much wider grounds for revocation. Perhaps the way to resolve the dispute would be to take advice from expert legal counsel as to whether, legally speaking, our position or that of the Government is correct, because that way—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I appreciate that the hon. Lady waited a long time to make an intervention, but it is not a speech.

Mr Davey: I reassure the hon. Lady that we have legal advisers in the Department, as does Ofgem.

Looked at together, the Labour party’s proposals—not just the one before the House today—are clearly designed to upset the current balance between competition and regulation. Labour seems to want to rely on more heavy-handed regulation and even price controls to try to micro-manage energy costs and customer service standards from the desk of the Energy Secretary in Whitehall. We know what the consequences of that approach are because we have seen them before: distorted markets, reduced competition, poorer service and lower investment.

Let me gently remind the right hon. Member for Don Valley of her party’s record in government and, indeed, in opposition. The Labour Government set up Ofgem and decided what powers it would have, and when they realised they had got it wrong they reformed Ofgem.

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In opposition Labour decided it would scrap Ofgem. Now it seems to have U-turned and is looking at Ofgem’s powers instead. First, Labour proposed making Ofgem force companies to track wholesale prices in their retail prices, something which would destroy forward markets and force energy companies to purchase energy in the short-term markets. That is bad news for their customers, as I demonstrated the last time we debated energy policy. It is a recipe for chaos and yo-yo bills, with prices as volatile as the wholesale markets themselves, and on average higher than now.

Now the right hon. Lady proposes to lower the bar on the most extreme sanction the regulator has—revoking a licence, putting companies out of business, reducing competition and causing chaos for their customers. One has to think very carefully before changing the existing power to revoke a licence.

Caroline Flint: A final order could include a company being told to change the telephone script that it uses in its sales work, and it could comply with that order. Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that if the same company slightly breaks the rules again or undermines its service to its customers in a different way, the present guidance to Ofgem does not enable it to show that company the red card and deal with repetitive abusive behaviour that is slightly different from investigations that have led to sanctions in the past? Does he accept that that is a loophole in the current system?

Mr Davey: No, I do not because if a situation gets to the point of a final order, the regulator will look at other behaviours, but it will judge that particular breach. The right hon. Lady gives one example, but we could give many more. For example, we have heard from npower and Ofgem today that npower has made the improvements that were required of it. Presumably, if it had not done so, there would have been another improvement order and, potentially, a final order. Of course, it does not automatically follow that after a final order we go to revocation of a licence, but it is a process that could result in revocation after the matter has been properly investigated. I am glad that I have had a chance to explain that to her.

So far today the right hon. Lady has not been able to come up with one circumstance in which her proposal would be used. She has not given us one example of a case in which Ofgem has fined a company and she thinks that, under her power, Ofgem should have closed it down. She has simply failed to make the case for reforming the existing power. She has failed to make the case for lowering the bar. I have shown that this power exists but it is a nuclear option, and rightly so because the consequences of its use are so severe.

I say to the House that we have the right balance. We are making progress and have achieved more competition, tougher regulation, more choice and higher fines. People are able to punish firms themselves, without having to wait for the Government to do something. But when the regulator does punish a firm, under this Government, there is real financial redress. I thank the right hon. Lady for giving me this chance to show that not only do we take this issue seriously, but we have acted. I say to

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her and the House that the nuclear option of revoking a licence should remain, but it should remain one of last resort because that is in the consumer interest.

1.59 pm

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): The first thing that would be of interest to the House in this debate this afternoon would be to find out what the Secretary of State really thinks about this matter. I was at an interesting meeting yesterday when I was privileged to hear the Secretary of State speak. First, he effectively apologised for being a Minister in the coalition—[Interruption.] I was there; I was listening to it. To put the record entirely straight, what he said was not exactly couched in terms of an apology, rather, “Here are the limitations under which I work as Secretary of State when we are addressing the issues that are coming forward from questions.” Then the Secretary of State said, “Well, of course, I want to cut loose from this; I want to tell you what I would really do were I really a Liberal Democrat.” The Secretary of State then had some interesting things to say, a number of which I agreed with, and I would be interested to hear more about the Liberal Democrat policy on these matters.

Even in the context of what was said at that meeting yesterday, I cannot really believe that one half of the Secretary of State’s hat is entirely comfortable with the other side of his hat as he speaks this afternoon. He probably really agrees with what is being put forward this afternoon, and the circumstantial evidence for that is to be found in the meandering circumlocutions that we heard from him today as to why the present system of regulation is pretty dead good and really can do the things that the Opposition are suggesting that it ought to do in any event, even though the Secretary of State accepts that in fact there is not a power in reality to revoke the licence of a supply company or electricity distribution company, on the basis, effectively, of cumulative offences.

Huw Irranca-Davies: In fairness to the Secretary of State, does my hon. Friend suspect that one of the limitations to which he refers might be the bizarre rule on regulation that is now imposed across Whitehall? It was one in, one out, but now I understand it is one in, two out. So even if there is good, proportionate, sensible regulation, it is damn hard to get it on the statute book.

Dr Whitehead: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Given where the regulations stand now, it is quite possible that the introduction of the regulation that my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) suggests, would lead to several other regulations being removed, so therefore would meet the golden rule of one in, two out. It is something that I can recommend right now to those on the Government Front Bench as a way of earning additional deregulation brownie points.

I mentioned the Secretary of State’s circumlocutions and made considerable play of the fact that, because the regulator can undertake a final order, that is the nuclear option. The Secretary of State will be aware—he has received legal advice to this effect, although I do wonder whether the legal advisers did this during their lunch hour to assist him—that clause 25(1) of the Electricity

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Act 1989, from which the final order derives, before Ofgem was introduced but the powers were incorporated into its powers, states that

“where the Director is satisfied that a licence holder is contravening, or is likely to contravene, any relevant condition or requirement, he shall by a final order make such provision as is requisite for the purpose of securing compliance with that condition or requirement.”

According to that piece of legislation, one is required to find out what any relevant condition or requirement is. In order to do that, it is necessary to refer to schedule 2 with the imposing title “Revocation”. We may want to look there to find out how nuclear that final order is. The final order not only has to relate to the relevant conditions or requirements, it has to stick to the relevant conditions or requirements. That is what it says in the legislation.

As the Secretary of State has said, there are a number of circumstances under which the licence can be revoked. Where someone has not paid their fine and it remains unpaid, a final order can be issued. If a final order is issued and the licensee fails to comply with that final order, which is something of a tautology, that licence can be revoked. But in order not to comply with the final order the licensee has not to comply with something within the revocation schedule in the first instance. If the licensee refuses to pay the financial penalty, that triggers a final order. Various orders were made under the Competition Act 1998 relating to unfair competition. If the licensee does not supply any electricity within a year or has stopped supplying electricity to a property, a final order can be levied against it. If the licensee is unable to pay its debts according to the Insolvency Act 1986 or has an administration order, or a receiver has been appointed, the licensee may have a final order levied against it. Obviously, if it is insolvent and has ceased trading, it is hardly likely to comply with the final order so its licence would be revoked.

The revocation schedule, upon which the Secretary of State’s magnificent argument about the final order rests, simply states, as has already been rehearsed, that various things could lead to revocation if they are not put right. That seems to be the central point that is being addressed this afternoon. These are all things that might be levied against a company and could be put right, and if they are not put right a nuclear option of revocation can be undertaken. But if those things are put right, case by case by case, section by section by section, that final order cannot be used. So the entire basis of the Secretary of State’s argument, that that really exists to enable Ofgem to revoke a licence for the sort of cumulative issues that we have been discussing this afternoon, simply falls down. We must accept that there simply is no such power in reality, by implication, in legislation or by regulation.

That makes the case fairly simple. Yes, it is true that with regard to competition, the problem of losing a number of customers may cause an energy company to think again about certain of its actions. The possibility of losing all of one’s customers might make one think rather more seriously about the problems being faced and how to deal with them, in addition to the fact that some customers may be lost through competition.

There we have it, in terms of the difference between the present position and a significant change in what Ofgem would be required to do under the proposals set out this afternoon. They require Ofgem to take account

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of cumulative bad behaviour—of a company getting away with it, not putting right things required under legislation, and living to fight another day and do it again.

David Mowat: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman and I think he is right about this being an additional power. The question that therefore arises is: what problem are we trying to solve with the additional power? In the 20 or 30 years since privatisation, when companies have apparently been running amok, in which instances would he have liked the power to be deployed? In particular, would it be appropriate for npower no longer to have a licence?

Dr Whitehead: The existence of a power in legislation, and of a regulation attached to it, provides a framework that companies subject to it must address. It is academic for the hon. Gentleman to ask whether a company would have had its licence removed when it was not subject to the conditions and when the framework did not exist—it is just a debating point and not a real challenge at all.

David Mowat: There is a logical error in what the hon. Gentleman says. In the absence of the power, when all the energy companies have apparently been running amok, surely we would have expected them to exhibit the egregious behaviour that would cause the power to be used. Can he give me an example of that?

Dr Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman will understand that saying “enough is enough” when there is not enough in the first place is a logical impossibility. The power provided under the proposal would enable Ofgem to say “enough is enough”. I cannot look into a crystal ball to say what enough might consist of, but a power to deal with repeated abuses of licence arrangements and repeated failures to learn from transgressions that had been put right but had not led to a sanction being levied would in the long term have more effect on energy companies’ operations.

David Mowat: Let us be clear: these are repeated abuses—which, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the power takes into account—of a type that we have not seen in the past 30 years. Otherwise, he would be able to give examples of when the power should have been deployed.

Dr Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman misses my central point—that it is difficult to say there has been cumulative abuse of a licence when the licence contains no means of judging that. Without such means, it is difficult to make those judgments. Members across the Chamber will agree that if a company that flagrantly and repeatedly abused its licence conditions faced the ultimate sanction of having its licence removed, it would think long and hard before sailing too close to that circumstance.

I questioned whether the Secretary of State’s heart is in the debate. I do not know whether his brief for the debate was one of specificity or one of principle. Did it say, “In the circumstances where it appears we might have the power, you can walk around the issue by talking about a final notice”, or, “Under no circumstances should the regulatory system for utilities or associated

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bodies enable the removal of licences, so defend the fact that the licence cannot be removed under existing regulations”?

I wish to draw attention to another note on compliance and ultimate sanctions, which states that

“licence holders must also, at all times, satisfy the four authorisation criteria. . . insurance, financial fitness, good repute and professional competence. If we have serious doubts about whether you comply with any of these criteria, we may make further enquiries.”

It concludes:

“If you do not comply with your licensing obligations we will consider enforcement action. This may ultimately result in the suspension or revocation of your authorisation.”

That guidance is issued not by Ofgem but by the Office of the Rail Regulator, so there is a regulatory arrangement—presumably agreed and authorised by the Government—that enables the ultimate sanction of a licence being revoked. Did the Secretary of State defend the lack of such an ultimate sanction on the grounds that it is a bad thing? If so, such a sanction already exists. However badly the railways are regulated, at least regulations are in place that allow for that ultimate sanction.

Graham Stringer: My hon. Friend is, as ever, making a profound speech, enabling the House to benefit from his considerable knowledge. Does he believe that the people of Warrington South, Southampton, Test and Manchester would dance in the streets at the prospect of Centrica, British Gas or npower being threatened with the removal of their licences because of their appalling behaviour over the past 20 years or so?

Dr Whitehead: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Were I to knock on doors in Southampton, Test and refer people to the rail regulator’s compliance arrangements and relate them to Ofgem and ultimate sanctions I might get a fairly dusty response. If I were to say to them, “Energy companies appear to have been ripping you off over many years in many different ways and the huge fines levied on them don’t appear to have made any great difference, whereas now it is being proposed that they may simply be told to leave by the back door with their possessions and not supply you with energy any more”, then they would indeed be dancing in the streets. I can only say in my defence that I am not a dancing in the streets kind of politician, but others might wish to do that on my behalf.

We are aware that regulatory arrangements exist for other industries and that they should therefore exist for this industry. That is the nub of the issue, and I hope that Members will support that simple, central point on the regulation of electricity and gas in the future.

2.19 pm

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I begin with an apology to the House because, as I mentioned to Madam Deputy Speaker earlier, I am meeting a representative of the National Association of Probation Officers trade union in a few minutes. I am sure that Labour Members would not wish that meeting not to take place. It will shorten my speech considerably, but I hope that Members will forgive me because it was arranged before I knew about the change in timings.

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Let me make another apology for being one of the Members of Parliament who voted for the Climate Change Act 2008, which underpins some of the issues alluded to by Members in all parts of the House. As the Secretary of State said in his closing remarks, what we want now is cheap energy prices for people. Of course, we have to take the energy companies to task over bad behaviour. There has apparently been some confusion as to whether Ofgem does or does not ultimately have the power to remove their licences. He says that it can. He challenged, unsuccessfully, the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) to say under what circumstances she thought that it should have further powers. She did not wish to reply, so I am inclined to agree with him on this occasion. It does have the power, in the most extreme circumstances, to remove licences, and it is absolutely right that it should. It is not a power, though, that should be used lightly.

The real concern is that energy prices are too high. The reason is that all of us—or most of us—voted for the Climate Change Act, which has forced the Government to bring in all sorts of green taxes and subsidies that have pushed prices up. The Government now have a policy of rolling back some of the green taxes which Labour Members enthusiastically supported and which have pushed up prices. There is no getting away from that. Labour Members will not be able to do anything about the wholesale price of fossil fuels or of any other energy source, but they could do something about taxes. Any sustainable cut in prices to the consumer and to businesses will have to be underpinned by cutting back on green taxes.

I welcome the fact that the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow climate change Minister are trumpeting these issues. That is absolutely fantastic. It plays straight into the hands of people such as me—climate change sceptics—that Labour Members are making a huge issue out of energy prices. They are no longer worried about trying to outbid the Government on who has the greenest policies but trying to show who is going to deliver the cheapest energy prices. I say, “Great”, because I know that whoever is in government at the next election will be able to do that only by cutting back on green taxes.

Graham Stringer: I did not vote for the Climate Change Act, knowingly. Whatever one’s position on green levies, it is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to support a Government who have fixed energy prices for the next decades when nobody can predict the price of energy. That guarantees that people will pay higher prices or greater subsidies because of the strike price. The latest predictions of Aurora, a well-known consulting company, suggest that prices are likely to be half what the Government say, and that will mean larger subsidies. Does he still support the Government on those policies?

David T. C. Davies: No, I do not. I have a great deal of respect for what the hon. Gentleman says. I do not support the Government at all on this particular policy. I think it was a huge mistake—

Chris Ruane: Minister, take note!

David T. C. Davies: Yes, please do take note. People should not think I am saying anything now that I have not said before. Indeed, I more or less said it a few months ago at a meeting with the Global Warming

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Policy Foundation at which the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) was present. I am absolutely not going to hide my views on this.

Most Members are completely wrong on energy policy because they have all bought into the idea that we are going to suffer runaway global warming, and the reality is that that is not happening. We are being told to look at the evidence. The evidence is clear: there has been no increase in temperature since 1997. We are told that in the 1800s we started putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is of course true, that carbon dioxide is a global warming gas, which is true, and that therefore CO2 has been responsible for the very small increase in temperature that has taken place since then. However, if one looks at the evidence, one can see that there has not been a straightforward rise in temperatures; they fell between 1940 and 1970. That proves that something else was affecting them. As we started to industrialise, we were coming out of a particularly cool period that climatologists call the little ice age, so there had to be some increase in warming anyway.

Since 1997, as I said, there has not been any increase in temperature. That proves beyond all doubt that something other than carbon dioxide is affecting the climate, and nobody can say what that is. Nobody has been able to tell me what it is, and I have had meetings with people at the Met Office and all sorts of other people. It is therefore foolish of us to levy on our industries all sorts of taxes and subsidies that are affecting manufacturing and pushing up prices for home owners, and then to try to put all the blame on to the big six energy companies, as we are doing now, using them as a kind of whipping boy for the sins of those of us who have bought into the big green theories.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is equally foolish to say, “It doesn’t matter then. We’re not quite sure why the climate is changing, so we’ll carry on pumping out CO2 and pollutants into the atmosphere without any concern about what we’re doing to the world, because maybe, just maybe, it’s not having an effect”? Maybe it is having an effect? Is it not equally foolish to do nothing?

David T. C. Davies: Maybe it is and maybe it is not. Maybe, as the Prime Minister has suggested, we should be looking at dealing with antibiotics and the rise in diseases that are resistant to them. Maybe we should be doing something about a comet strike, which may or may not happen. Maybe we should be worried about a complete economic collapse—which, incidentally, is made far more likely by the policies of spending money that we do not have that are propagated by Labour Members. That is far more likely to keep me awake at night. Of course, we should also be very concerned about terrorism.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): On the first point, I remind the hon. Gentleman that this Government have doubled the national debt. On the second point, in relation to industry, although the level of energy prices is a major issue, it is actually Government policy that has put energy-intensive industries in a bit of hole. The carbon floor pricing scheme that this Government unilaterally introduced has a compensation programme that does not come in until 2016. An even bigger issue is the explosion in non-EU imports into the UK market in the past year.

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David T. C. Davies: The hon. Gentleman is certainly right about the strike price, but may I remind him that his party has supported all sorts of environmental measures? It is no good attacking me for something that I do not actually agree with. I am quite up-front about this. I think that most of us have made a big mistake in bringing in taxes that have affected home owners and businesses, particularly large-scale manufacturing companies—cement manufacturers, steel manufacturers, and others.

Tom Blenkinsop rose

David T. C. Davies: Broadly speaking, I am agreeing with the hon. Gentleman, so I do not know why he is trying to pick a fight with me over this. The point is that we should not be doing these things because we do not have a problem. There has been no increase in temperatures since 1997, so our whole discussion is based on a false premise.

Tom Blenkinsop: The point of having a carbon price across the EU market is to ensure that countries do not isolate themselves or make themselves less competitive in the EU. We had the EU emissions trading scheme and then added our own tax, which other EU nations did not do. That happened under this Government and was one of the first measures that the Chancellor set out.

David T. C. Davies: I am not going to defend that. I think there is—shall we say?—a change in mindset going on at the moment. It is obviously happening in the hon. Gentleman’s party as well, and that is why we are having this debate. Front Benchers on both sides of the House seem to agree that we should be making energy as cheap as possible. Everyone is absolutely right about that. However, we are not going to do that by attacking the big six energy companies. The only way we will be able to bring about a sustained decrease in energy prices is by reducing the taxes and other regulations that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Graham Stringer: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the most significant point about green taxes, whether my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) is right or wrong, is that they are not working? This country and the European Union are now responsible for more carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere than they were before. Emissions have gone down, but because of imports we are importing embodied carbon dioxide. These policies therefore have a perverse effect, whether or not one agrees with the global warming theories.

David T. C. Davies: That is absolutely right. I do not wish to stray too far from the debate, but it is interesting what has happened in Germany, where people decided to get rid of nuclear power stations in order to follow a more environmental policy and ended up burning large quantities of lignite, which has increased their carbon dioxide emissions. That proves that these green policies do not even end up having the consequences that those calling for them want.

It is also very interesting that the people who are shouting loudest for such policies are the quickest to distance themselves from the consequences. With all

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due respect to Members on both Front Benches, who are pandering to Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, the reality is that Friends of the Earth are very quick to attack the Government—they will attack the Opposition as well—for anything that increases energy prices to consumers: they ran a campaign against increased energy prices. The Secretary of State is trying to placate these people, but they are never, ever going to support him, whatever he does, so there is no point in even trying, in my opinion.

The Secretary of State mentioned smart meters earlier, but the energy companies have said they may not work. The Government are spending a vast amount of money trying to persuade every home owner in the country to accept smart meters. I am always very suspicious when Governments start trying to persuade me to do anything, particularly if it involves Bob Geldof, a quango and two cartoon characters. The Government have said that smart meters will cost £11 billion. I assume that those costs are relatively easy to predict, because they involve the cost of the meters. Incidentally, I am sure that somebody has done very well out of that. I saw in, I think, The Times yesterday that one of the smart meter companies had posted huge profits. I would be interested to know who bought shares in such companies before the EU introduced the regulation that brought all of this about, but I digress slightly.

The Government have said it will cost £11 billion to introduce smart meters by 2020—I assume that that estimate is reasonably accurate—and that the benefits will be about £17 billion. I have managed to get hold of the National Audit Office report, and lo, it is not quite as straightforward as it seems, because the benefits will not be seen until 2030, so we are putting in £11 billion for a possible £17 billion at least a decade later.

When one looks at how the benefits break down, one sees that 48% of the benefits are due to cheaper costs for the energy companies, which I suppose is fairly accurate: there will be fewer visits—and fewer jobs probably, but there we are—and a cut in bureaucracy. That accounts for about half the cost, but that is still only about £8 billion-worth of benefits. The rest all seem nebulous: 33% of the benefit will be due to people using less energy because it will cost more. In fact, therefore, it is being counted as a benefit that people will use less gas and electricity partly because the price of the smart meter will have been added to their bills. A further 8% of the benefits will be due to the fact that somebody somewhere along the line will pay lower carbon taxes on energy that will not have been used. If that is a benefit, the solution is very simple, isn’t it? Don’t bother with Bob, Leccy, Gaz and the quango—just cut the taxes in the first place and leave it all out.

I find this very difficult to accept. It is not simply due to the European Union coming up with a grand plan. I am worried that one of the so-called advantages of smart meters is that they will allow the big six energy companies to turn off people’s gas and electric remotely. Of course, there may be a good reason for doing so if they have not paid their bills, but it may also be convenient for the companies to do it if they decide that they do not have enough electricity at a particular moment to feed the grid and therefore cut off people they think are using too much gas or electricity.

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Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting speech. If an energy company is found guilty of persistent and repeated offences against the consumer interest—for example, mis-selling, predatory pricing or giving the wrong advice—and has had fines and possibly a final order but still carries on in a slightly different way, does he think that the ultimate sanction should be for it to lose its licence as a supplier?

David T. C. Davies: According to the Secretary of State, that is the ultimate sanction.

Dr Whitehead: No, it isn’t.

David T. C. Davies: That is what the Secretary of State said. Who am I to question him on that particular issue?

Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman’s response is helpful, because it shows that he does believe there should be an ultimate sanction. If we can prove that it is not available, does he agree that there should be a change to the revocation regime under which Ofgem works, to make sure that it is made available?

David T. C. Davies: The right hon. Lady was asked twice by the Secretary of State whether she agreed that that ultimate sanction exists but cannot be used lightly, but she did not respond. I am left wondering why she is suddenly picking on me. I am not the Energy and Climate Change Secretary. I wish I were—we would have some very different polices if that came about, I can tell you. I see that the Whip sitting in front of me is writing loads of notes as I speak. I hope he will feed back the suggestion that I am open to offers as far as the climate change role is concerned. In the meantime, I suggest that the right hon. Lady deals directly with the Secretary of State.

To return briefly to smart meters, according to the NAO report the net benefits may not be as high as £17 billion anyway; they may be only £12 billion, which means that over a period of 10 to 15 years we will save ourselves £1 billion, most of which—or a lot of it—will come from the fact that people will not be able to afford their energy bills, partly because we will have installed smart meters everywhere.

I did not get a mobile phone until about 1997. I got one because other people had one and I thought, “That’s a good idea: I want one.” If smart meters are a good idea, my neighbours will get one, I will have a look at it and if everyone down the pub says it is a good idea I will get one. What I am suspicious about is the fact that vast amounts of money are being spent on telling me and every member of the public that we all have to have one by 2020.

It is not rising temperatures that are causing people angst at the moment; it is rising energy bills. There seems to be widespread recognition of that. I am only a Back Bencher and I am sure I will stay one for many years to come, if the Whips have their way. I have to say that we all, including me, got it wrong on climate change. I have looked at the evidence and the evidence is not there to support the policies we have all put in place. Although others might not be able to come out and say, “We got it wrong: the temperatures aren’t rising,” the fact that we are now talking about energy

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bills and increases in costs rather than increases in temperature suggests that we are heading slowly in the right direction with this particular argument, so I would welcome many more debates such as this one.

2.36 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I rise to speak in this very important debate because people are telling me time and again just how worried they are about this coming winter. We were very lucky last year because it was a mild winter, but obviously that does not happen every year and people are really worried that, yet again, prices will go up this autumn by 8% or 9%.

Over the past four years, there have been horrific price rises in this country. Of the world’s major industrial countries, our electricity price rises of 23.5% are second only to Ireland’s. We are also in the top few for gas, with horrific rises of nearly 34%. That is coming out of the budgets of people who are not earning more, because wages have scarcely risen. This is a very serious issue for many households, and anything we can do to stop the energy companies ripping people off has to be welcome.

I would like to see a cross-party consensus whereby when a good idea is suggested by one side of the House, the other side can adopt it. There is no shame in doing so. Good ideas can push forward and strengthen legislation so that these companies, which have been getting away with things for far too long, can be brought to book.

The problem is that competition is not working effectively, because it is so very difficult to switch. I come from an area—south Wales—where it is particularly difficult to do so. The options are very limited and a significantly smaller number of people are switching. There are huge difficulties, not only in terms of accessing information, particularly for the large numbers of people, especially older customers who do not have access to the internet, but in terms of which tariffs are actually available and their confusing nature.

It says something when Which? magazine tells us that 75% of consumers are actually on the most expensive tariff. What does that say about how the energy companies are working? It tells us that they are working very well for their shareholders and for making profits, but it is the consumer who is missing out. That 75% of consumers are paying the highest tariffs does not seem in any way to be a fair deal for consumers.

We must tackle these absolutely greedy energy companies. Let us be honest about it. What happens when they are fined? They have apparently been fined on 31 occasions, with fines amounting to some £90 million, but who has paid that £90 million? It just comes back to the consumer. We do not notice that energy companies’ profits are going down; in fact, their excessive profits are announced in the press year on year.

Consumers are feeling extremely hard done by, particularly when they are trying very hard to cut down their energy consumption. It seems that the energy companies want to take the same amount of money off them year after year, even if they cut back their consumption, and that particularly affects low energy users.

Energy companies try all sorts of ways of imposing costs on people. For example, there is a move to a higher standing charge. That is the charge we have to pay, regardless of whether we use any energy, simply for

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our home to be supplied. Astonishingly, SSE does not give any discount for taking both gas and electricity from it, whereas some companies do.

My reading of the increase in the standing charge is that the energy companies fear our getting into government and imposing an energy price freeze. The increase is a way of trying to get out of having to lower prices, because the standing charge will remain. We need to be aware that whenever we try to regulate companies, they look for every loophole—every possible way of mis-selling, using misrepresentation, hiking prices and inventing charges—to try to circumvent the rules.

We need a really tough regulator with a really tough ultimate sanction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) said, if we have only yellow cards and no red cards, with energy companies going back to a clean slate every time they behave badly, there is absolutely no motivation for them to stop doing so. All they will do is to try everything they can to bend the rules every time, because that is in the interests of their making profits. Doing so will not affect their shareholders, because any fines they are given are simply put back into hiked prices. It is therefore essential to have a way to strike off such companies, as would happen in any other profession that a company was continually bringing into disrepute.

Far too many things have happened, such as the whole issue of incorrect billing. Companies have taken lots of money from people through direct debits without advising them that because their consumption has gone down, they could pay less. We have seen energy companies raking it in and banking huge amounts of cash, but only when a very savvy consumer challenges them about their direct debit do they do anything about it. We have seen all sorts of inappropriate ways of billing—making it very difficult for people to read bills and to understand exactly what is being charged for—and of mis-selling. Disadvantaged groups, such as those on prepayment meters, have very often not been able to benefit.

It is quite extraordinary that we were told that £50 would be taken off the bill of every consumer, with costs falling on general taxation rather than a green levy on the energy companies, only for us to find out that the energy companies have absolutely got away with it. Four of them have not even attempted to pass the £50 to their fixed tariff consumers—in fact, they refused to do so—and the Government have never chased that up. Wonderful statements were made by the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), and the Prime Minister about this not being acceptable, but nothing has actually been done about it.

Many people have not had the £50 back, but all of them who are taxpayers have contributed to general taxation, from which the shortfall is supposed to be made up. The energy companies are therefore laughing all the way to the bank. Unless we have the ultimate sanction of the power to revoke a licence—saying, “You can no longer have that customer base or business”—I suspect that energy companies will continue, as they have done over the past few years, to make the consumer pay in this, that or the other way.

The energy companies often tell us that they need to charge lots of money because they are investing in new ways of generating electricity. However, we have not seen them rushing to build power stations, so that is all a bit of a smokescreen. Another important reform we

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are proposing is the separation of supply businesses and generating businesses, which will make such matters much more transparent. It will make it much more difficult for companies supplying the consumer to pretend that they are somehow raking in vast profits in order to invest when such investments are not taking place.

That is why we want to give the regulator real teeth—the extra power to revoke licences. Then if companies break the rules, they will not just be able to pay the fines and carry on, but may be struck off and not allowed to supply consumers.

We need much greater transparency in the whole market so that people are much clearer about where their money is going. We are proposing that if we win the general election next year, we will freeze energy prices until January 2017 for both ordinary households and businesses. It will save households perhaps £120, and save businesses an average of perhaps £5,000. During the energy freeze, it will be very important to reform the energy market. We want to break up the energy companies to increase transparency and to separate supply businesses from generation businesses, with a company having separate licences for each task.

We will build a structure that allows the regulator to revoke licences for specific tasks. The obvious case, which is referred to in our motion, is the power to revoke an energy company’s licence to supply consumers if it repeatedly breaches the courtesies and standards we expect them to offer those consumers. We also require a much simpler tariff structure. That is another way of saying, “This is what we anticipate or expect consumers to be able to enjoy”, and if supply companies do not comply with a simple tariff structure, the regulator will have the power to revoke their licence.

It is extremely important to implement the series of measures that will protect the consumer. We have said it is important for the regulator to force companies to lower prices when wholesale costs fall. Time and again, people see something on television about wholesale costs falling, and they are very angry that their bill does not fall. They feel very strongly about it.

The Prime Minister said he would make sure that companies reduced prices when costs fell, but he has never done so. He said that in opposition, but once in government he never made it happen. It is pretty clear to us that we therefore need greater powers than those that exist. One way in which we can strengthen the regulator is by allowing it to revoke licences. If a company decided not to pass on any falls in wholesale prices that we were lucky enough to have, the regulator could then revoke its licence.

The other important area that we want a strong new regulator to deal with concerns off-grid issues, which are prevalent in rural areas, particularly where new estates have been built and a supplier has a monopoly over a group of houses. It is difficult to break out of such contracts. It is important that the regulator has the power not just to tackle off-grid issues, but to revoke the licences of off-grid suppliers.

We want to be absolutely certain that the regulator has every single tool in the toolbox that it needs to deal with the abuses that energy companies impose on consumers. Of course, that has to be managed properly.

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As my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said, there has to be a proper procedure. There would be an appeals procedure, a notice period and protection for consumers to make certain that everybody was transferred to an adequate supplier before a company ceased to supply their energy. Those things really do matter. There are models, to which other hon. Members have referred, such as those in the United States where such powers work.

This is an additional power that we think is very important. It is clear that without it, energy companies have got away with hiking prices, mis-selling, misrepresentation and ripping off the consumer. We want to see an end to that. We want the regulator to have a proper footing that enables it to say, in no uncertain terms, “I have the ultimate power. I can simply stop you trading. You are warned that any further breaches that damage the consumer in any way will not be acceptable.” That, we hope, would have the effect of bringing the companies to heel and getting a much better deal for consumers.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. Before we proceed, I should point out that, although there is plenty of time for this debate and a relatively small number of colleagues have indicated that they wish to speak, the speeches so far from the Front and Back Benchers have been so extraordinarily long that I have to ask Back Benchers to please keep their speeches to around 10 or 11 minutes. If they show that courtesy to other Members, everyone who wishes to speak will have a chance to do so.

2.53 pm

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Ten minutes should be fine.

The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) told me in an earlier intervention that the constituents of Warrington South are interested in energy companies being struck off. What they are interested in is lower energy prices and better customer service. They are not interested in posturing, which has made up much of what has been said today.

When I first read the motion this morning, I thought, “I wonder whether we will oppose this,” because, on the face of it, it is reasonable. I read it quite carefully. Even when I came into the debate, it was not clear to me what we were opposing. However, what the Opposition have failed to do in the motion is to articulate what the problem is that they are trying to solve that cannot be solved in other ways. Apparently, in the past 30 years—in which time, the power did not exist—there have been no instances of behaviour that would have required it to be used. It is fair to say that I am looking at the past and that we should legislate for the future. However, the shadow Secretary of State was twice asked to give examples of the sort of behaviour that would cause the power to be used, over and above the behaviour for which fines of 10% are allowed. Many of the arguments that I have heard today seem to be arguments for increasing the fines. If customer service is poor and behaviour is inadequate, that should happen. However, to take a company out of the market and to reduce choice and competition is the nuclear option, and we

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should be very clear about why we are using it. The least the industry could have expected the Opposition to do was to give an example of the sort of behaviour that would require this power. We have not heard that.

The analogy of yellow and red cards is an interesting one, but it is not right. Broadly, we understand what a yellow card offence or a red card offence is. There is a progression. If anything, the analogy gives power to the Secretary of State’s point that there is already such progression in the regulation of offences.

The example of Pennsylvania has been given and a couple of Members have talked about the United States. I would be interested to hear, in his response to the debate, whether the shadow Minister can say whether the Pennsylvanians have invoked these powers. I genuinely do not know the answer to that, but my guess is that they have not. The Opposition should understand that the market in Pennsylvania consists of one or two suppliers. In such a market, where the problem of losing customers does not exist to the same extent, it is appropriate for such powers to exist. It is certainly more appropriate than it would be in our market.

The Secretary of State is right to say that when energy companies perform badly, as they have done in many instances—I will not defend that and neither will any other Government Member—they must be held to account. They should be fined more and, if necessary, should pay fines of up to 10%. However, posturing and coming up with things that sound attractive on the doorstep but that do not work is not the way to deal with the problem.

I will talk a little about the need to reduce energy prices. We do need to keep a cap on energy prices. However, the one thing that we never discuss is the fact that over the next decade, we will have to replace about 20% of our generating capacity. That seems to be of little concern to the Opposition because they never raise it in these Opposition debates. We have many, many Opposition debates on energy. It is Wednesday afternoon and I feel quite comfortable being here discussing energy. However, we never discuss our generating capacity, even though £110 billion of expenditure is needed.

By 2017, our capacity margin will be lower than 2%. Nothing is being built at scale at the moment, other than some nuclear stations that will not fill that gap. Demand-side measures have been brought in by the Government, but they will not be enough. Certain nuclear stations were closed over the summer because of safety concerns. Had that happened in the middle of a hard winter, it would have had a profound effect. I would be interested to hear anybody’s comments on that.

Graham Stringer: The hon. Gentleman is making interesting points, as always. Does he agree that the Government should look for a derogation from the EU’s large energy plant directive, which will close down some of our fossil fuel plants unnecessarily and exacerbate the situation that he is describing so accurately?

David Mowat: I am sympathetic to that view. Countries are acting increasingly unilaterally in the area of climate policy. The fact that the Germans, the Dutch and other countries are building unabated coal power stations at scale raises that question. My honest answer is that we should look at how things develop. Later, I will discuss

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a vote that took place on 4 December, in which the Opposition went through the Lobby—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman did—in support of a Lords amendment that would have accelerated the closure of our power stations by bringing in the emissions performance standard for existing stations, rather than just for old stations. That was an extraordinary thing to have happened. The Opposition’s position on coal has, in many respects, been extraordinary.

I want to respond to the remarks of the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) on energy costs. There is a difference between gas and electricity prices. This morning, table 10.2.1 on the website of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, showed that our gas prices for 2013 were lower than median prices in the EU. That is not the case for electricity, and I am pleased that the Secretary of State has asked the Competition Commission about that. However, if we are to debate these matters incessantly on Wednesday afternoons, I think it is worth having a debate based on the facts. I will say this again—hon. Members can intervene on me if they believe it not to be the case—this country has among the lowest gas prices in the EU. If that is the case and if a cartel is in operation, as I have said before, it implies that it is a pretty bad cartel. Nevertheless, let us investigate the industry and have a look.

As I have said about my constituents in Warrington South, what matters are lower prices. The Government have addressed that, just as the Opposition have made suggestions. We want to simplify tariffs and encourage new entrants. We have acted on green levies, and I think the point made earlier about it all being switched to general taxation was wrong. We want better and faster switching.

It is true that the market has been sticky—I am not defending that and it needs to work better. We must make it easier to switch, and some of the things introduced in the Energy Act 2013 regarding compensation to consumers are to be welcomed. In my view, the Opposition policy has three prongs. One is the price freeze, which has been mentioned. The second is what I would generally describe as name calling—describing energy companies as cartels and referring to price fixing and secret deals. All those things are illegal, and if evidence for them exists, it should be brought before the courts. These are public companies, and directors should go to prison if such things are happening. I repeat that if they are happening in the gas market, it is a pretty ineffective cartel, but let us have a look.

The third strand of the Opposition’s policy is that they vote for higher prices whenever there is a vote in this place on how we can influence energy prices. Let me give some examples of that. In 2011, the then Minister was trying to reduce the subsidy for solar panels—solar PV tariffs—from six times grid parity to something like three or four times grid parity. Solar electricity would no longer be six times as expensive as everything else, but four times as expensive. We had a vitriolic response from the Opposition who said that that would see the end of the solar industry and that such subsidies were absolutely necessary. Labour Members trooped through the Lobby to vote against that policy, which was an attempt to minimise the amount of subsidy being given and to reduce energy prices. Well, so be it. That is what happened.

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Similarly, we had a debate on the 2030 carbon target. Earlier, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) intervened on the carbon price floor. I will not defend that; my view is that it is wrong, but it is also wrong for us to impose unilateral carbon targets. These are not EU laws; the EU is not doing this. Again, however, when the issue was debated on the Floor of the House, Labour Members trooped through the Lobby to oppose it. I can only imagine that there are two Labour parties, and I really believe this to be the case. There is the Labour party up in Hampstead—let us call it the north London set of the Labour party—which thinks all this stuff is great, and the other part of the Labour party that represents constituencies where there is energy-intensive industry, and where 700,000 people have jobs that depend on energy prices. If I were one of those people in the Labour party, I would be a little more sanguine.

Tom Blenkinsop Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

David Mowat: Certainly. I was hoping somebody would intervene.

Tom Blenkinsop: Let us return to the hon. Gentleman’s point on solar panels. By removing the subsidies from solar panels, the Government decimated the solar panel construction industry that supplied panels to UK homes. We now have massive imports of Chinese products, which mirrors what is happening in the rebar steel industry where there has been an explosion of more than 20% in the number of steel products coming from China. That did not exist two years ago.

David Mowat: That is not the intervention I had expected or hoped for. The hon. Gentleman mentioned solar PV, but that policy is not directed at Chinese manufacturing, or anybody else. We do not subsidise British versus Chinese manufacturing, or whatever.

Tom Blenkinsop: I am chair of the all-party group for the steel and metal related industry, which met yesterday. We met an industry leader who works at Celsa Steel in south Wales. He commented that what the industry wants is consistency in prices that is long-term and set out, irrespective of whether prices are lower or higher. What we have are fluctuations and the market lacks confidence because it does not know what Government policy is.

David Mowat: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and ask him to reflect on the fact that I am also chair of an all-party group—the all-party group for the UK aluminium industry. Industry wants lower prices and not higher prices regardless of whether those prices are static or not. Perhaps if he were to reflect on that, he would see that I am right.

The third instance of Labour Members voting, whenever they get the chance, for higher energy prices occurred on 4 December 2013, and this is perhaps the most interesting example. We heard earlier about the closure of coal stations in this country because of the large combustion plant directive. On that day Labour Members went through the Lobbies to support a Lords amendment on the emissions performance standard that would have required all existing stations to stop burning coal within

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a short period. That would have accelerated the rapid closure of our coal stations, and apparently for green reasons. That was an extraordinary thing to do, and the cost to generation would have been extremely high. As I said, I do not know which part of the Labour party did that, but it is an odd thing to have done.

Before I conclude, I ask Opposition Members to reflect on the three policies they are suggesting: the price freeze, the name calling about persistent cartels, and the fixing of prices and all that goes with that. More importantly, whenever we get a vote in this place, they should think about the impact of that vote on their constituents, and stop supporting unilateral action. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) because we need to take our climate change obligations seriously and follow the EU on that. However, we do not need to continue acting unilaterally in the way that we are doing.

Tom Blenkinsop: That is one point on which I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The carbon price floor scheme was unilaterally introduced and no conversation was held with industry. That was introduced by this Government. Labour policy, along with our EU colleagues and within a market, was to maintain a framework whereby we would not make ourselves less competitive than our closest EU competitors.

David Mowat: If you will indulge me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s point. I have a lot of sympathy with that, but all I would say about that policy, which has now been capped, is that at least it resulted in revenue for the Treasury, which I know is generally regarded as a bad thing by Opposition Members. That is part of what we had to do to pay off the debts we inherited. The other green levies that were voted for and that I mentioned are straight subsidies and they do not result in that and are unnecessary in terms of our carbon commitments. Finally, our carbon per capita and carbon per unit of GDP is lower than the EU average, and a third lower than that of Germany.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I remind the House of what I said a few moments ago. Let us aim for 10 minutes please.

3.8 pm

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I do not intend to detain the House for long because I am not an expert on energy regulation. However, I want to support the motion because of my constituents’ great concern about the way they have been treated by energy companies and the rise in energy prices.

This goes back in time, because I was one of those who agreed to change their supplier after a doorstop seller convinced me not only that I would be better off getting both my gas and electricity from one supplier, but that the new supplier—unlike my supplier at the time—would not raise its prices. I therefore swapped, and guess what? A few weeks later my new supplier put up its prices as well.

I accept that when shoddy practice has been exposed, changes have been made, either by legislation or by fining the companies concerned. Clearly the current

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powers to fine companies are not working. If they were, companies would not be repeating their offences, and we would not have to continue to fine them time and again for exhibiting the same behaviour.

I was confused by the Secretary of State’s speech. He said the regulator had the powers we were asking for, but then said what we were asking for was wrong. Both cannot be true. I can only assume, therefore, either that he is protecting energy companies and their abusive behaviour, rather than getting a grip, or that he has been misled about what is in place and what we are asking for. It seems the Government think it okay for energy companies to break the rules again and again and for the supplier to pay the fine and wipe the slate clean. Why will he not agree that a company that persistently breaks the rules should know that its licence is on the line? The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has the power to revoke a supplier’s licence when it breaks consumer protection law. In April, its chairman, Robert Powelson, warned that as many as seven suppliers could lose their licence as a result of unscrupulous or fraudulent business practices. Why will the Government not agree that that is exactly the sort of tough regulatory approach that my constituents and every other consumer in Britain would benefit from?

As others have said, over the past 13 years, the regulator has imposed at least 31 fines worth at least £90 million, and more than a dozen investigations are still on the stocks. If fines alone are not enough of a deterrent to make energy companies treat their customers fairly, we need to take further action. Why should energy companies be able to behave in the same way time and again and only face the same fines? If the Secretary of State is correct that such a company could have its licence revoked, why does he oppose our motion explicitly stating that a company treating its consumers poorly could have its revoked? I do not understand his opposition. If he says the power exists, why does he oppose an explicit reference to it? I can only conclude that a company continuing to abuse its customers would not have its licence revoked under the current system.

The Government hide behind the power of the consumer to swap supplier. First, not all consumers can swap. If they are in debt, they cannot switch unless they pay off their debt, but if they could pay off their debt, they would not be in debt, so that seems to be nonsense. Perhaps more importantly, if we do not have robust policies to stop such behaviour, how can a consumer ensure they will not face exactly the same problems with their new supplier? Already, some people cannot afford to heat their homes. A constituent visited me a few weeks ago in my surgery to talk about her situation. She was recovering from cancer and had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but she was terrified of turning on her heating because of the exorbitant energy cost. This woman, who was recovering from a serious operation and had a serious, long-term condition, was sitting in a cold, damp house out of fear of getting into debt.

Since the last election, energy bills have risen twice as fast as inflation, four times faster than wages and faster than in almost any other developed country in the world, which is why we need the price freeze and market reform that Conservative Members reject. Funnily enough, the energy companies do not like the notion of a price freeze either—of course, they want to continue driving up their profits and exploiting energy consumers. It is

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time the House did something about it, and that is our commitment. I look forward to a Labour Government next May saying, “We will freeze energy prices. You cannot continue to abuse consumers like this.”

I and my colleagues in the Labour party are not against energy companies, but we are on the side of consumers. Fines are not stopping the abuses by companies and simply get passed on to the consumer anyway. Surely, it makes sense to provide the regulator with a power to revoke the licence of energy companies responsible for deliberate and repeated breaches of licence conditions that harm the interests of consumers. Good companies have nothing to fear; bad ones will have to change their practices or face the ultimate sanction. I believe the motion should be supported by both sides of the House.

3.14 pm

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I rise to speak because South Derbyshire is one of the fastest growing districts in the whole of the east midlands, and probably in the midlands and the whole country. One thing driving that growth in our economy is the massive manufacturing in our patch, and that is reflected in our need for more energy provision. We have given planning permission for two new power stations, and lots of conversations are being had with the people who are going to build them—some of the companies have been mentioned already, but others are new.

Why put at risk that growth and new build, those jobs, that fantastically efficiently produced new energy, that amazing amount of new income and regeneration, this amazing opportunity for new jobs and greater investment and confidence in an area with a superb history of coal production—not to mention the industries that went with it, such as clay, potteries and so on? Now we have car and other manufacturing industries, food and engineering industries—Rolls-Royce, JCB, Futaba; I could name so many, but I do not need to. Why risk all that by dangling this carrot of super new regulation? Why put at risk this incredible opportunity for new investment in South Derbyshire? “Nothing happened in 13 years. We didn’t get it right then. You’ve had four years and you haven’t got it right either”—that is the sort of tit-for-tat gesture politics that business people do not understand and which makes them so angry.

Julie Hilling: I do not understand the hon. Lady’s argument. Is she saying that new companies will not come into the market for fear of losing their licence if they abuse their consumers? Presumably, no company wants to enter the market believing it will abuse its consumers.

Heather Wheeler: I wish the hon. Lady was speaking from the Opposition Front Bench. The difficulty is we have not been told in what circumstances the Opposition Front Bench team would impose this regulation. They have not given us any examples—[Hon. Members: “Yes, we have!”] No, no, we have not had a direct example. They have been asked two or three times. Will the shadow Secretary of State give us some examples?

Caroline Flint indicated dissent.

Heather Wheeler: Apparently not. There we have it again. For the fourth time—

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Caroline Flint rose

Heather Wheeler: Of course I will give way.

Caroline Flint: It is not the job of politicians to pick companies in any area of regulation. It is up to the regulators. As the hon. Lady will be aware, the regulator currently has a power to impose a fine that is 10% of a company’s global turnover. It is not for politicians to decide which companies the regulator should fine or investigate. We are saying that the regulator should have a sanction to remove a licence to supply where there is evidence of repeated behaviour contrary to customers’ interests. They already have a code and a threshold setting out what constitutes abuse.

Heather Wheeler: The right hon. Lady still has not got to the nub of today’s debate. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat): regretfully, this is gesture politics at its worst. I have had the pleasure of sitting in the Chamber since just before 2 o’clock—and that is absolutely fine; it is what we are paid to do—but I have heard the most vacuous debate I think I have heard in my four years here.

Caroline Flint indicated dissent.

Heather Wheeler: I thoroughly enjoy the right hon. Lady’s company outside the Chamber, but this was the most vacuous debate I have heard in the four years I have had the pleasure of being a Member. What I want to hear from Members is new ideas. Who knows what might be in manifestos next May, but businesses need to know that if they are to make major investments—whether it is American, German, French or Chinese companies building these power stations in South Derbyshire—they are not going to get hoicked out over some peccadillo. It might be the Charity Commission going off on one and having to be reined in—giving power to quangos is a frightening thing. I think she is genuinely missing the point about what our constituents want in life. They want good jobs, steady incomes and good, solid power stations coming online, so that they know what they are doing. They do not want threats hanging over them that mean that investments will not be made. I am afraid the right hon. Lady has made a mistake with today’s debate.

3.19 pm

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Following the excellent speech by our shadow Secretary of State, this debate wandered into the metaphysical question of whether a power of revocation exists or not, and, if it does exist, in what way it is demonstrated. The point that those of us on the Labour Benches have made very clearly—and which will resonate outside this place—is that such a power needs to exist and that a system of escalation needs to be put in place so that certain companies, whether in the energy industry or any other sector of the economy, can be held to account for their actions and behave within the regulations. It is the old philosophical debate between those of us on the Labour Benches and those on the other side of the House. We want regulation; they consistently argue against it—in particular, prior to the 2007-08 financial crash, when they were asking for less regulation in financial services. [Interruption.] I thought I would just throw that one in to provoke debate.

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If we are talking about vacuous or tokenistic politics, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) was, I would like to read out a few things that the Prime Minister has recently said on this question. For example, at Prime Minister’s questions in October 2012, he announced that he would be legislating to require energy companies to put all their customers on the lowest tariff, saying:

“We have encouraged people to switch, which is one of the best ways to get energy bills down. I can announce, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome, that we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers”.—[Official Report, 17 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 316.]

The Prime Minister has since repeated that promise 12 times. However, the Government’s own Energy Act 2013 gives the Secretary of State the power to require a supplier to change a customer’s tariff only when a customer is on a closed tariff. As a result, only people who are on dead tariffs—which are the most expensive and more expensive than the standard evergreen tariffs—will be moved to a cheaper tariff. Based on figures provided by the big energy companies, that is estimated to affect less than 10% of people. If we are talking about meaningless gestures or tokenism, I would highlight that as a prime example, but there is more.

Julie Hilling: Before my hon. Friend moves on, will he acknowledge that if everybody had to be on the lowest tariff, there would only ever be one tariff, which would always be the lowest, even though it could be much higher than the current low tariffs?

Tom Blenkinsop: Yes. I totally agree with my hon. Friend.

In December 2013, the Government announced changes to green levies on energy bills. The Prime Minister repeatedly claimed that that would save all consumers £50 on their energy bills. He told the House:

“It is on this side of the House that we have delivered the £50 off bills by rolling back the cost of the green levies.”—[Official Report, 12 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 846.]

On another occasion he said:

“we have also cut energy bills by £50 by rolling back the cost of some of the green measures”.—[Official Report, 22 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 300.]

However, much to the Prime Minister’s consternation, four of the big six energy companies—npower, Scottish Power, E.ON and EDF—refused to pass on the full £50 reduction to customers on fixed-price deals. In January 2014, the Government said that if the energy companies failed to pass on the savings of the changes to the green levies, that would not be acceptable. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) told the BBC’s “You and Yours” programme that he was unaware that some suppliers were not passing on the reduction and that this “would not be acceptable”.

Despite that, the Government have taken no action to force energy companies to pass on those savings to customers on fixed-price deals, with an estimated 3.8 million households missing out on the Prime Minister’s promised £50 saving as a result. Furthermore, the Government’s own figures show that the energy companies should be cutting their prices even further, after the big six saved more money than first thought from the reductions in green levies. In their response to the consultation on the

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future of the energy company obligation, the Government admitted that the changes to the scheme were likely to mean that the energy companies would make more money. In fact, their document, “The Future of the Energy Company Obligation: Government response to the 5 March 2014 consultation”, says:

“ECO companies are likely now to be in a position to make greater savings than they had originally projected in December.”

However, rather than setting out concrete plans for how they would recoup those savings, the Government merely invited the energy companies to let them know.

Let us look at another area. Under this Government, fuel poverty is most definitely getting worse. The latest annual poverty statistics report shows that the number of households in fuel poverty is projected to increase to 2.33 million in 2014, while the average fuel poverty gap—the difference between people’s bills and what they can afford—has grown to £480 in 2014.

There are a number of areas, which I have highlighted, that show where the Government could now be taking action far more stridently. The argument being made by Labour Members is about having a power of revocation as a final threat or market check. As I have always said—and as I am sure many of my Labour colleagues believe too—the market makes a fantastic servant, but a terrible master. At the moment, the market, in whatever dimension and by whatever name—I would probably hazard the description “oligopolistic”, rather than “free market”—is behaving in an oligopolistic manner and needs to be held to account far more appropriately.

I remind hon. Members that Labour is making that argument, while those on the Government Benches are arguing for the status quo. Indeed, I would be interested to know whether any Government Members would be prepared to engage in a similar debate—not just in this House, but on the doorsteps in their constituencies—because I imagine that if their average constituent was told about the content of the argument they have been making, they would look at them far more sceptically at the next general election.

3.26 pm

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): Three-hundred and forty-five days. That is not the current average time it takes a new Tory MP to decide that they want to stand down from Parliament; it is how long since the Leader of the Opposition first announced Labour’s radical plans to reform the energy market and freeze energy prices while we do it. Yet 345 days on, this Conservative-led Government still cannot offer a credible response to our plans.

The Government started by telling us that switching was the answer. They have flirted with the idea of taking stronger action. They told us they were against the calls to refer the energy market to the Competition and Markets Authority, before they eventually changed their minds. All the while, the British public have felt the relentless squeeze of higher energy prices, with no apparent end in sight, so here we are again.

It is true that this is one of many debates we have had on the subject of energy prices on the Floor of the House. I for one make no apology for that. Any of us who visits a pub, café or working men’s club or goes to a football match or anywhere else will find that the public out there are more than happy to talk about energy

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prices too. Quite frankly, when people find out we are MPs, it is actually quite hard to avoid a conversation about energy prices. People will tell us that they are sick and tired of their bills always seeming to go up when wholesale prices rise, but never down again when they fall. They will tell us some awful stories about poor customer service, and they tell us that, when wrongdoing is discovered and bad practice identified, the punishment never seems to deter the offending companies from doing it again. That is what we are here to discuss today.

Alongside our other reforms—the ring-fencing of the generation and retail arms of energy companies, the open pool for electricity trading and the new regulator with real powers to take action—we also believe there must be powers to ensure that regulatory fines are not simply seen as the cost of doing business. Instead, intervention from the regulator should ensure problems are put right and should act as a real deterrent. The figures revealed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) are damning. Despite at least 31 fines being issued by Ofgem since 2001, totalling at least £90 million, energy firms are facing a further 15 probes into mis-selling, poor customer service and other bad practice. By giving real powers to the regulator, and borrowing from the best practice we can see in other jurisdictions, we can prevent such poor behaviour being repeated. Making clear that we will not tolerate persistent bad practice, by giving the regulator the ultimate power to revoke licences, will be a substantial step towards providing customers with the protection they desperately need and the energy market they deserve.

We have heard some fantastic contributions in today’s debate. Let me start by responding to some of the Secretary of State’s claims. He started out by saying it was all about competition. The Opposition of course recognise the importance of the role of competition, but let me respectfully tell him that his job cannot be simply to make it easier to switch; it should be to ensure that there is someone worth switching to. People do not feel that that is happening at the moment.

The Secretary of State mentioned smart meters, the smart meter roll-out and the role of technology. We have offered bipartisan support for that programme, as we can see the benefits, too. He mentioned the need to improve and compete on customer service. Of course we agree with that, and I hope that he will recognise the benefits of our proposed performance score card for energy companies, so that people can easily see how those companies are performing.

Apart from that, it seemed from the Secretary of State’s speech that the Government were trying to fabricate some excuses to oppose our policy. At the moment, we agree that the regulator can impose a fine or a final order to change specific behaviour—it could be to change the telephone script or billing method. However, providing the energy company pays the fine off and complies with the order, the regulator has no power to revoke its licence. The obvious problem is that, if companies break different rules, or the same rules in a different way, providing they comply with any penalty given, the regulator can never revoke their licence. By contrast, under our proposals, even if a company complied with a fine or a final order, if it carried on breaching the terms of its licence, that licence would be on the line—a significant and welcome difference from what applies at the moment.

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A number of Members tried to intervene to raise specific questions about the scope and application of that new power. Of course revoking a licence would apply only in cases of serious malpractice and the utilisation of the power would, of course, be for the regulator to decide. However, it would clearly be a back-stop power, much like the current ability to levy fines at 10% of global revenues. This is about providing a deterrent, which clearly and unfortunately does not exist at present.

Today, we have heard many of the Government’s classic lines in response to Opposition-led energy debates. The Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) claimed that the big six were created under Labour, but Government Members should look at the facts a little more closely. It is true that, before the big six, there were once 14 electricity supply companies, but those 14 were regional monopolies—there was no market and no competition taking place. It was, of course, John Major’s Government who first allowed vertical integration to occur. Significantly, consumers could not even switch electricity supplier until after the Labour Government were elected in 1997.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) asked us to consider who the Secretary of State really is. I have never considered him to be an international man of mystery until now, but that thought will linger. My hon. Friend was forensic in taking apart the Secretary of State’s case.

I am not quite sure where to begin when it comes to the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). Let me respectfully say to him on the issues of climate change—without going too far away from the motion—that the 10 warmest years on record are clearly those of recent times. People who express climate scepticism—I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not mind me saying this—are likely to be those who are relatively sceptical about the powers of big government. The hon. Gentleman probably does not believe that making direct state interventions is the way to solve the world’s problems. He mentioned the smart meter roll-out in that context. If we look at the countries involved in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—countries as diverse as Switzerland, China, Australia, Japan, the USA, India, Germany, Russia and Norway—is it possible or conceivable that the scientists from all those countries have got together and decided to hoax us in this grand fashion? I cannot believe that anyone with the hon. Gentleman’s scepticism would accept that position so readily.

On smart meters, any big Government programme risks some problems, but if the hon. Gentleman were to look at the number of complaints to energy companies that result from inaccurate billing, which smart meters will resolve, at the voluntary consumption that the evidence shows comes about when people are more visually aware of their energy use, or at the improvements in social justice, particularly for people who use prepayment as a method, he will find considerable benefits to us all in ensuring that smart meter roll-out goes nationwide in the proposed fashion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) talked about company behaviour, its consistent tendency not to get better and the need for a strong regulator to clamp down on companies’ actions. I absolutely agree with her.

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The hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) raised a number of issues, to some of which I shall return. He specifically mentioned the large combustion plant directive, which, as he knows, regulates emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, diesel as well as carbon emissions. The directive was intended to ensure that pollution abatement equipment was fitted; otherwise, the running hours of the large stations would be limited. I know that the hon. Gentleman has one in his constituency, which I imagine is where his interest lies. He will surely recognise that there was a major loophole in the Lords amendments in that certain refurbishments were not covered. It seems to me entirely reasonable to try to provide a consistent level playing field, which is what we tried to do in the debate on the Lords amendments.

I thought my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) had one of the best lines of the debate when she asked how the Secretary of State could simultaneously say that the proposed power is wrong while admitting that it already exists. I am sure that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) could have enjoyed the debate. There was considerable merit in the debate and she could have enjoyed it. She specifically mentioned investment risk and the consequences for South Derbyshire. I do not follow her line of argument that stronger regulation of the supply side of businesses will affect investment in the generation side. Surely she would recognise that investment risk as it is normally understood relates to factors that are outside a business’s control. How energy companies perform and treat their customers is surely completely within their control, and they would be at risk of losing their licences only if they repeatedly and deliberately broke the rules in ways that caused serious harm to their customers. If they do not do that, I cannot see that they have anything to fear.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) wonderfully highlighted some of the inconsistencies behind Government policy on quite a few issues. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) and, indeed, the hon. Members for Monmouth and for Warrington South repeated what has become the siren call from the Tory right—perhaps soon to become the UKIP left—arguing that the pressure on energy prices is somehow related to the conversion to renewable energy. I am afraid that those claims do not add up. The Government’s figures on policies such as the renewable obligation cannot possibly explain the rise in energy bills that we have seen in recent years. Through such policies, we get safety in energy and obtain much greater energy security. What is more, renewable energy sources have nothing of the price volatility we see in international gas markets. As Dale Vince, the chief executive of Ecotricity, recently remarked,

“the cost of wind energy simply does not go up.”

The so-called green taxes that so many Government Members seem so keen to mention are in the main energy efficiency measures that reduce consumption across the system, which clearly benefit us all in respect of the burden put on generation and safeguard, if they work, some of our most vulnerable people. I think that should be a feature of our energy system.

We have had another good debate on the energy market today, but once again only Opposition Members seem to be offering any solutions. We believe that the Government must take stronger action to restore trust and help mend our broken energy market. That would

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help to tip the balance back in favour of the consumer, which is exactly where it should be. Energy suppliers, with the tacit support of the Government, are the ones in the driving seat at the moment. They are the ones doing well out of the status quo, while their customers are not. Judging by their number and the ones likely to come, it is clear that financial penalties are simply not currently enough of a deterrent to bad practice. We have to start putting that right. Inaction and bluster are not enough.

This is a serious and considered proposal—one that already exists in other parts of the world—and it is not enough for the Government to reject it just because Labour is proposing it. Every time there is regulatory action and every time a fine is levied or Ofgem makes an intervention, we all get asked to respond on the media programmes, and we all get asked why this keeps happening. If the Government vote against this proposal to create a real deterrent today, we will point out on those programmes, on every occasion where that happens again, that this Government failed to provide the measures properly to hold those companies to account.

David Mowat: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned me twice, and I have been reflecting on whether I actually said what he said that I said. At no point did I say that the green levies constituted a big part of energy bills. I merely said that whenever the House had an opportunity to vote on whether to increase energy prices, the Opposition wanted to go further—for example, in the case of the accelerated removal of solar subsidies, or on the occasion of that terrible vote on 4 December on a Lords amendment proposing the accelerated closure of coal-fired power stations.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will respond to a specific point that I made in my speech. We have lower than median gas prices in the European Union. If the market is so “broken”, how has that happened?

Jonathan Reynolds: There is not a tension between the pursuit of affordability and the pursuit of decarbonised energy supplies—or, at least, there is not a problem that we cannot resolve. Yes, renewable energy is more expensive than, for instance, coal, on which the hon. Gentleman may be particularly keen, but surely that makes the transparency of our energy market more rather than less important. The need for us to ensure that there is a downward pressure on energy prices becomes more of an imperative when we are making that transition.

I am sorry that I did not respond to the hon. Gentleman’s point about solar tariffs. No one opposes the digression in tariffs and subsidy structures, but surely he recognises—

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con) rose

Jonathan Reynolds: I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment.

Surely the hon. Gentleman recognises that the way in which Governments do that is important—and this Government have been notorious for chopping and changing policy on so many occasions. A business that is trying to invest and to provide jobs in this sector simply cannot continue unless the Government make the position clear.

David Mowat rose

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Jonathan Reynolds: I am afraid that I must now give way to the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who is, I believe, the longest-serving energy Minister for a decade. I certainly cannot allow the debate to end without allowing him to intervene from the Back Benches.

Gregory Barker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He says that no one would oppose the digression in solar tariffs. May I point out that the entire Opposition Front Bench opposed it, and that their opposition would have forced up energy bills? He may not have been on the Front Bench at that time—it was some time ago—but I am sure that he would have been among the serried ranks of Labour Members who voted to keep bills higher.

Jonathan Reynolds: I was there on that day, and I am sorry that the former Minister cannot remember that moment. Let me simply say to him, again, that the way in which the Government have gone about policy changes of that kind has caused terrible damage to important low-carbon parts of our economy. Let us look at what has happened quite recently. Let us look at the green deal for home improvement. There have been quick changes in policy which businesses cannot survive and with which they cannot contend. The same thing happened in the case of the energy companies obligation.

Gregory Barker rose

Jonathan Reynolds: I will give the right hon. Gentleman one more go, although he has not been present during the debate.

Gregory Barker: May I make one last point? The hon. Gentleman says that the digression that we imposed caused terrible damage. May I point out that since we reformed that feed-in tariff, more than 3 GW of solar have been added? Ours has been among the fastest-growing solar markets in Europe, and it is a legacy of which I am incredibly proud.

Jonathan Reynolds: The right hon. Gentleman and I have had this discussion before, and he knows that I am always keen to give credit to the Government for the increase in solar. By that, I mean the Chinese Government. They have done fantastic things to bring prices down, and we in this country have been able to benefit from that.

I will end my speech soon, Madam Deputy Speaker. Let me end by saying that if the Government vote against our proposal to create a real deterrent, we will point out— every time further action is taken—that they did not use the opportunity to give the regulator real power to hold companies to account. Labour candidates for constituencies up and down the country will make clear that they support the measures that we propose. We will also tell people not just how long we have been discussing these issues, but how long it will be until the next general election, because then, and only then, will we have a chance to change the energy market, secure a good deal for customers, and make a switch that will truly count—the switch to a Labour Government, a Government who, for once, will be serious about taking on the issues.

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3.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Amber Rudd): As usual, we have had a wide-ranging debate on energy issues. In the short time available to me, I shall deal with as many as possible of the points that have been raised.

First, let me refer to the motion itself, starting with the facts. Ofgem has issued fines or obtained redress in 39 cases; £55 million-worth of fines have been imposed, and nearly £60 million-worth of redress has been obtained. That amounts to a total of £115 million. Under the last Administration, in the eight years following the establishment of Ofgem in 2001, the regulator took enforcement action in just 10 cases. Since 2010, Ofgem has taken action in 29 cases, levying fines amounting to £50.9 million and forcing suppliers to provide nearly £60 million in redress for consumers who have been harmed. Only today, it announced that EDF would pay £3 million to benefit consumers following complaints of mishandling.

The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and her colleagues may suggest that that is evidence of increasingly poorly behaved energy companies. I believe it demonstrates that we now have a regulator which, in the last few years, has been increasingly prepared to take action when action is required. It is noticeable that nearly 80% of the total amount of money being paid by suppliers directly to consumers who have been harmed by their actions has arisen from cases settled since 2013. It is no coincidence that it was in the Energy Act 2013 that we gave Ofgem powers to require energy suppliers to make such payments. For the first time, payments are being made directly to consumers. That contrasts with Labour’s failed voluntary approach, which did not support consumers in the same way.

Ofgem now has the ability to prevent suppliers from taking on more customers until they have cleaned up their act, an approach that it used most recently to force npower to improve its billing performance. Following the action that we have taken, we have a tough independent regulator which is willing to act to protect consumers against badly behaved energy companies.

The Opposition ask, “Why not give Ofgem powers to revoke licences when companies repeatedly breach the terms of those licences?” It would be right to give such additional revocation powers only if we would be prepared to back their use by the regulator in the circumstances set out in the motion. Nothing that has been said today has convinced me that the right hon. Lady and her team fully understand the consequences of a licence revocation. Someone would need to take responsibility for the suppliers’ consumers. That could be one of Labour’s big six, taking them on as a whole, but whichever we chose, we would be handing it a huge increase in its customer base without its having to compete.

Caroline Flint: Is the Minister aware that the regulator can currently revoke a licence if, for example, a fine is not paid, if a final order is not complied with, or if a company goes into administration? There are already procedures allowing a trade sale to take place and other suppliers to be found. Why can revocations not be applied when there is repeated evidence of harmful and abusive behaviour towards customers?

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Amber Rudd: That is an interesting point and one that, in a sense, we have explored earlier, in relation to the terms on which a revocation would take place. However, what worries me about the right hon. Lady’s proposal—which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has called the “nuclear option”—is that it is sudden and dramatic, and would have a very bad effect on consumers. What worries me is that she is being cavalier with consumers. She will be handing one of the big six an increase in its customer base without its having to compete, and with very little notice. That is the problem. If she has answers to some of those questions, it is disappointing that she has not set them out.

Caroline Flint rose

Amber Rudd: I am going to proceed with my speech. [Interruption.] Unlike the right hon. Lady, I have only 10 minutes in which to conclude my speech, and I am going to continue.

An alternative would be to split the portfolio between suppliers, but deciding who would get which segment of the portfolio would be a time-consuming process and, again, would raise significant competition issues. And what about the impact on individual consumers? Leaving them on their same tariff is not likely to be workable under the limited tariff rule—and we should remember that we now have just four, not the 400 we had under Labour. Putting them on a deemed contract, however, could lead to an increase in their bills; and allowing businesses to keep their same contracts may not be compatible with their new suppliers’ business model. Our concern, therefore, is that the overall result of a licence revocation—the so-called nuclear option—is, at least in the short term, likely to be reduced competition and higher bills for consumers. That is why Ofgem only has the powers to take such a step in the most serious cases. What we do not want is Labour’s knee-jerk simplistic solutions. This Government are instead focused on taking real actions that will make a difference.

Dr Whitehead: Will the hon. Lady reflect on the fact that earlier this afternoon the Secretary of State said this could be done, that there was a nuclear option and that it could be undertaken? The hon. Lady is now saying that if what the Secretary of State said could be done was done, it would have terrible harmful effects and therefore should not be done. Does she not see some contradiction in that position?

Amber Rudd: I am happy to clarify that for the hon. Gentleman. The current set-up is that there is an option for the licence to be revoked, but it happens over a much longer period and is likely to take longer. The concern I have over this proposal is that it is a nuclear option that would be so dramatic that it would impact deleteriously on consumers. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Don Valley asks how I know that, but she has not made the case to the contrary; that is the concern I have.

We have strengthened the powers of the regulator. I have already mentioned the Energy Act 2013 powers that enable Ofgem to require suppliers to compensate directly consumers harmed by their actions. We shall also be giving Ofgem the power to send to jail people found guilty of energy market abuse or manipulation,

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in the same way as those who manipulate the financial markets face criminal sanctions, but the effective markets we need to deliver for consumers are not just achieved through enhancing the powers of the regulator. The Government believe that vigorous competition in the energy markets is the best way to sustain downward pressure on prices and deliver a better deal for consumers. I say that this is the Government’s view and I want to reassure the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) that we cannot get a cigarette paper between me and my colleague the Secretary of State. We are agreed on the need to oppose this motion. We know what we are doing, and I am sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman felt the Secretary of State was putting an argument he did not believe in, but I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are agreed on this.

The hon. Gentleman endeavoured to clarify the circumstances in which the nuclear option could be required by referring to the legal document, but he decided to take issue with the Secretary of State’s interpretation—an interpretation he will not be surprised to hear that I support. As with his colleagues, however, we did not hear an example of when this nuclear option would be required, and I feel this was the weakest part of what we heard from the Opposition in general.

My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) made some important and interesting comments about energy prices. I would like to reassure him about smart meters. I say to him, “Have no fear” because our smart meter programme is part of helping consumers reduce their usage and be in control of their spending and, ultimately, of bringing lower prices.

David T. C. Davies: If that is the case, why are the Government having to sell this? They do not have to sell other services to consumers, so if smart meters are a good idea, why not let the consumer decide whether they want them?

Amber Rudd: It is always partly carrot and stick, is it not? We have to make clear to consumers what the opportunity is; otherwise, they are going to be reluctant to change. However, I am sure that we can, and I hope to win over my hon. Friend’s support in due course.

The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) spoke about her concerns for consumers, and she has done so on many occasions. I am just concerned that she feels so strongly about this one motion and feels that the proposal would be a silver bullet to sort out the problems for consumers. I cannot share her view.

It was a pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), who is very experienced in the market in general. He made the point that the Opposition’s proposal, although worthy of consideration, completely fails to convince because it has no example and therefore no factual base. In his focus on lower prices for consumers, he pointed out we have the lowest gas costs in Europe. He demolished Labour’s energy policy with particular focus on how it lets consumers down.

The hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) again focused her rationale on the Labour proposal as though it were some sort of silver bullet to rectify the entire market. We are taking action to rectify that market and we are making progress. She insists that this

3 Sep 2014 : Column 342

power is needed while failing—as did her fellow Labour Members—to give an example of which company would be liable to this nuclear option and why.

I was delighted to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) who made a powerful speech, as always, about the importance of investment in energy in her constituency, and expressed her concern that this Opposition proposal is gesture politics and would undermine crucial investment that we are securing from international investors.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) chose to comment on the difference between our parties regarding regulation. I cannot let that pass. He had the temerity to refer to the regulation of the banks in 2007. The banks were regulated by the Bank of England for decades until Labour’s tripartite arrangement, which was an unmitigated disaster. If the House needs evidence of the results of Labour’s regulation, it need look no further than the banking crisis. The hon. Gentleman was also wrong on fuel poverty, which is falling, and wrong on the support that we are rightly giving to consumers.

Gregory Barker: First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on a fantastic debut at the Dispatch Box? She is going to make a great Minister. She is also absolutely right to draw the House’s attention to Labour’s knee-jerk reaching for regulation. We on this side of the House are committed to helping the consumer by creating dynamic competition and crowding in disruptive new entrants, whereas Labour will always reach for the red tape and regulation that are anathema to the real interests of the consumer.

Amber Rudd: I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks. I am delighted to be following on from the good work that he has done.

It is good news that our work to break down barriers to entry in the retail energy market in order to create greater competition has resulted in an unprecedented number of suppliers operating in that market. Since May 2010, 12 new companies have entered the market, challenging the status quo, competing hard with the large established players and offering choice to consumers. During this period, more than 2 million electricity customers have switched to independent suppliers. The big six bequeathed by Labour are being replaced by the new challenger companies. We are driving competition in the market, and delivering more choice and a better deal for consumers. In 2010, there were just seven independent suppliers, all of which had fewer than 50,000 customers. Now, there are four independent suppliers with more than 250,000 customer accounts each, compared with zero in 2010. In that year, the share of the market held by the independents was around 1%, but it now approaching more than 7%.

We know that competition is not working as effectively as it should be, which is why we commissioned the first ever assessment of competition in energy markets from the competition authorities. It is also why we support the subsequent decision of Ofgem, based on a thorough, evidence-based assessment, to refer the energy markets to the Competition and Markets Authority. Tackling concerns about competition through a formal reference process undertaken by the expert authority will provide

3 Sep 2014 : Column 343

consumers, companies and investors with confidence that the process will be evidence-based, fair, transparent and free from political interference.

This Government are taking real action to make a real difference to hard-working households and businesses. We will continue our work to identify and address barriers to entry and growth, and to provide the right environment for the investment needed for the future. We will continue to build on the reforms that are already giving people a better deal on their energy bills. These include taking about £50 off average household bills, and introducing faster, easier switching and simpler tariffs and bills. We will allow the expert competition authorities to undertake their forensic examination of the energy markets. We must insist that reform of the market is driven by facts. We will not resort to the knee-jerk responses that we so often see from an Opposition seeking a headline. This motion epitomises such a response, but it would fail consumers, fail the market and fail in what it sets out to do. The Opposition have failed to make any sort of case in support of the motion, and I urge the House to resist it.

Question put.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

The House having divided:

Ayes 214, Noes 298.

Division No. 43]


3.59 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Abrahams, Debbie

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Ashworth, Jonathan

Austin, Ian

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Balls, rh Ed

Barron, rh Kevin

Bayley, Hugh

Beckett, rh Margaret

Betts, Mr Clive

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blears, rh Hazel

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Campbell, rh Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Gregory

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Caton, Martin

Champion, Sarah

Chapman, Jenny

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Sir Tony

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

David, Wayne

Davies, Geraint

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobbin, Jim

Dobson, rh Frank

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Dowd, Jim

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eagle, Maria

Edwards, Jonathan

Efford, Clive

Elliott, Julie

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Engel, Natascha

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Farrelly, Paul

Field, rh Mr Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flint, rh Caroline

Fovargue, Yvonne

Gapes, Mike

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Goodman, Helen

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hamilton, Mr David

Hamilton, Fabian

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harman, rh Ms Harriet

Havard, Mr Dai

Healey, rh John

Hendrick, Mark

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Hermon, Lady

Heyes, David

Hillier, Meg

Hilling, Julie

Hodge, rh Margaret

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Hopkins, Kelvin

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jackson, Glenda

James, Mrs Siân C.

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Mr Kevan

Jones, Susan Elan

Kane, Mike

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lavery, Ian

Leslie, Chris

Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Long, Naomi

Love, Mr Andrew

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Mr Khalid

Mahmood, Shabana

Malhotra, Seema

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCabe, Steve

McCarthy, Kerry

McCrea, Dr William

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonald, Andy

McDonnell, Dr Alasdair

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Alison

McKinnell, Catherine

Meacher, rh Mr Michael

Mearns, Ian

Miliband, rh Edward

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morden, Jessica

Morris, Grahame M.


Mudie, Mr George

Munn, Meg

Murphy, rh Paul

Nandy, Lisa

Onwurah, Chi

Owen, Albert

Paisley, Ian

Pearce, Teresa

Perkins, Toby

Qureshi, Yasmin

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reed, Mr Steve

Reeves, Rachel

Reynolds, Emma

Reynolds, Jonathan

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Dame Joan

Sawford, Andy

Seabeck, Alison

Shannon, Jim

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Sheridan, Jim

Simpson, David

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Smith, Nick

Smith, Owen

Spellar, rh Mr John

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thornberry, Emily

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, rh Keith

Vaz, Valerie

Walley, Joan

Watson, Mr Tom

Watts, Mr Dave

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Williams, Hywel

Williamson, Chris

Wilson, Sammy

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Woodcock, John

Woodward, rh Mr Shaun

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Ayes:

Phil Wilson


Bridget Phillipson


Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Amess, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, rh Norman

Baker, Steve

Baldry, rh Sir Tony

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, rh Gregory

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Brake, rh Tom

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brokenshire, James

Brooke, rh Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burstow, rh Paul

Burt, rh Alistair

Burt, Lorely

Byles, Dan

Cable, rh Vince

Cairns, Alun

Carmichael, Neil

Cash, Sir William

Chishti, Rehman

Clark, rh Greg

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Crouch, Tracey

Davey, rh Mr Edward

Davies, David T. C.


Davies, Glyn

Davies, Philip

Davis, rh Mr David

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen

Dorries, Nadine

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duncan, rh Sir Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Mr Nigel

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Featherstone, rh Lynne

Field, Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fuller, Richard

Garnier, Sir Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, rh Damian

Greening, rh Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Hague, rh Mr William

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, rh Matthew

Hancock, Mr Mike

Hands, rh Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Hayes, rh Mr John

Heald, Sir Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Holloway, Mr Adam

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Huppert, Dr Julian

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, rh Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Jenrick, Robert

Johnson, Gareth

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Sir Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Lancaster, Mark

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Dr Phillip

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Sir Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lloyd, Stephen

Lopresti, Jack

Loughton, Tim

Luff, Sir Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Maude, rh Mr Francis

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

McVey, rh Esther

Menzies, Mark

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, rh Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, rh Nicky

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mulholland, Greg

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Opperman, Guy

Ottaway, rh Sir Richard

Paice, rh Sir James

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Pawsey, Mark

Penning, rh Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pritchard, Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Sir John

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, rh Sir Hugh

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Sir Bob

Rutley, David

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Shepherd, Sir Richard

Simmonds, Mark

Simpson, Mr Keith

Smith, Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Mr Graham

Stunell, rh Sir Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Syms, Mr Robert

Teather, Sarah

Thornton, Mike

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Truss, rh Elizabeth

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vickers, Martin

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Walker, Mr Charles

Wallace, Mr Ben

Ward, Mr David

Watkinson, Dame Angela

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, rh Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Willetts, rh Mr David

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, rh Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Harriett Baldwin


Mark Hunter

Question accordingly negatived.

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