I took part in the Energy Prices Debate that the Labour party called for today, sadly it was quite a popular debate and I couldn’t give all my speech by this is a section of what I planned to say. It took place just after 4pm. I hope anyone tuning in was able to see some of the debate. I’ve published the transcript of the debate below for those who could not watch:
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Last year, the average household saw energy costs rise by about £300 and Ofgem announced last October that the profit for energy companies had risen to £125 per customer per year, from £15 in June. My contention is not that the cost of energy is rising, but that the big six do not have a great track record of passing on wholesale decreases as quickly as increases.
Today’s wholesale energy prices are lower than they were a few years ago—and lower than they were only a few months ago. According to Bloomberg, the wholesale price for gas in autumn 2008 hit over 70p a therm. If we compare that with 59p per therm last October, we see that wholesale gas prices have actually dropped 15% since then. Similarly, prices in the wholesale electricity market reached £120 per megawatt-hour in autumn 2008. Today, they are just over £50 per megawatt-hour—less than half the price back then. But gas prices have dropped by only 15% and electricity prices by only 11% since last May’s peak. According to Bloomberg, in December natural gas futures declined by 30% compared with 2011. Today, energy companies can buy their gas for 53p per therm, some 9% cheaper than even last October.
The reason for this is sadly apparent. European demand is going down as the continent is moving towards a downturn and productivity is declining. This may be why EDF announced today a 5% cut, but—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) pointed out—the company raised its gas prices last year by 15.4% while future gas derivative prices were falling, and while current market prices are down on previous years.
As a result, there is great suspicion among many, including Ofgem, that the big six have not been passing on wholesale market price reductions, not only last year but this year. These are clear acts of anti-competiveness in themselves, especially towards smaller energy companies, let alone customers and small businesses. For example, section 2 of the Competition Act 1998 prohibits the abuse of a dominant position in a market by one or more undertakings which may affect trade within the UK. I will quote competition law guidelines again as it seems that the Secretary of State did not hear me the last time I did so. They state:
“Conduct may be abusive when, through the effects of conduct on the competitive process, it adversely affects consumers directly (for example, through the prices charged) or indirectly (for example, conduct which reduces the intensity of existing competition or potential competition). A dominant undertaking is under a special responsibility not to allow its conduct to impair undistorted competition.”
I strongly suspect that one reason behind the price rises is probably that the companies have grossly failed to stockpile their energy reserves to hedge adequately against future prices. That could explain why, when future prices have fallen by almost a third, the companies are not passing on the reduction. There may be numerous reasons for that—one reason is probably ineptitude—but I feel that the main answer lies more in the lack of any incentive to pass on substantial price rises.
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My constituents are grossly disadvantaged. The Secretary of State talked about going on the internet, but the low internet uptake in Glasgow—we have one of the lowest uptakes—will not allow that to happen for my constituents. However, I was pleased to hear that he has taken on board the point about severe housing, which is what we have. Efficiency savings cannot be made in concrete housing blocks. In fact, all my constituents seem to do is pay to heat up the concrete blocks in the winter and cool them down in the summer. I therefore look forward to hearing more from the Minister. I hope he will look at the prices, go back to the companies, give Ofgem the teeth that it needs and ensure that the fines that should be imposed on the companies in question are indeed imposed.