23 November 2023
Aldous calls for immediate action to ensure an energy social tariff can be in place for 2024/25

Peter Aldous makes the case for the introduction of an energy social tariff to protect vulnerable households in an era of high energy bills and backs calls for a consultation on the form that the tariff should take to be undertaken straightaway.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir George. I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing this debate and setting out in comprehensive detail the evidence base for an energy social tariff. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate.

Everyone should have access to a warm and secure home. For the majority of people, that will be provided through the marketplace, although our energy market is imperfect and invariably, at all times, in the interest of fairness, there is a need for Government intervention. Before the current cost of living crisis, that intervention was provided predominantly through the energy price cap, which, while not perfect, performed an important role. The energy price cap has been increased today, although from what we have heard from the hon. Lady, and from the feedback that I am receiving, that will be of limited relevance to many of those who are struggling with their bills.

The dramatic increase in energy prices, primarily caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has necessitated a different approach, and to their credit the Government have stepped in with more direct support over the past 18 months to two years. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer continued with that strategy yesterday in his autumn statement, and I particularly welcome the increase in the local housing allowance. I have also heard that, as the hon. Lady has outlined, there is some concern as to whether he has done enough. I think he has tried, and I hope he has done enough, but in many ways I am on tenterhooks to see whether he actually has.

That said, it is clear that in the medium-to-long term—when I talk about the medium term, realistically I am now talking about 2024-25 onwards—a different approach is required to protect the most vulnerable. The energy price cap on its own has run its course, and it is thus appropriate to consider a social tariff, which can provide longer-term, more targeted support for the most vulnerable households.

The fact that we need such support is clear from the evidence base we heard about from the hon. Lady and from the feedback that we all receive in our constituencies from those who come into our surgeries, often with heartbreaking stories of the challenges they face. Those messages are reinforced by the briefings we all received ahead of this debate—as the hon. Lady said, we have received a great many of them—from such organisations as Citizens Advice, Mencap, Marie Curie, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and Scope. All those organisations have one thing in common: their clients—the people they look after, whom they support and whose needs they articulate to us as Members of Parliament—are the most vulnerable. They are the people who are the most challenged at this time.

It is also important to thank those churches and other faith groups, charities and volunteers, aided by local councils right throughout the country, who have reached out and are supporting those who are struggling with their energy bills. A network of warm rooms has now sprung up across the UK, which shows British society operating at its very best.

From my perspective, as I have said, the case for a social tariff is proven. It is now necessary to move on to the more complicated and difficult challenge: how to design that tariff and then introduce it. We have received a great many representations ahead of this debate; the one I found particularly interesting and relevant was the report of the Social Market Foundation from March this year, entitled “Fairer, warmer, cheaper”. That report is a good starting point for the discussion about the form that a social energy tariff might take.

As we have heard, the Social Market Foundation concluded:

“The current system of policies supporting households with high energy bills is inadequate for an era of high energy bills”—

one that is, I fear, likely to continue for the foreseeable future. It recommends a social tariff arrangement whereby households that spend an excessive proportion of their income on energy bills should receive targeted financial support to reduce those bills in the form of a social tariff. The Social Market Foundation also points out that the precise form of the social tariff warrants further consideration, but its own analysis suggests that the most progressive and fiscally efficient form is a lump sum payment. I will return in a minute to the precise form that the tariff might take.

The Social Market Foundation believes that the social tariff should be funded from general taxation—a view that the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw articulated and with which I concur. It also rightly emphasises that at the same time as we introduce an energy social tariff, we need to significantly expand the energy company obligation scheme so as to improve the energy efficiency of homes. As we have heard, we have a very leaky housing stock; we have made some progress in improving it, but there is a long way to go. It is absolutely vital that we are not diverted from that pressing and crucial task, and we must significantly step up our efforts in that regard, with funding for the ECO continuing to be raised via on-bill levies.

As I have mentioned, the issue on which there is some dispute and where there is a need for discussion is the form that the tariff should take: whether it should be a social tariff or what is known as a block tariff. That is a complicated debate and I am not going to go into it in any great detail now—that is why we need the consultation that I am going to plead for in a minute, and which the hon. Lady already asked for. National Energy Action, which does great work in this field, favours a social tariff: it believes that a block tariff would be distributionally unfair and would create very vulnerable users. The counter- argument in favour of a block tariff is that it would incentivise energy efficiency, which should be a long-term goal and objective and is a challenge we must not shirk.

In conclusion, although I shall not go into any detail as to the design of the tariff, we need to get on straightaway and talk about it. It is ironic that, as the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw said, we are having this debate the day after this year’s autumn statement. If we go back a year to the autumn statement of 2022, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor undertook to

“develop a new approach to consumer protection in energy markets, which will apply from April 2024 onwards.”

That commitment was reiterated in the April just gone by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, which set out the intention to consult this summer.

This is a very important task, as well as an incredibly complicated one, and we need to be getting on with it as quickly as possible. April 2024 is six months away, and I am not sure that that provides us with sufficient time to have an energy tariff in place for 2024-25. I know that there will be other distractions but, for an awful lot of vulnerable people, it is vital that we put that longer-term arrangement in place. I am not begrudging the support that has been given—the sticking-plaster approach of short-term support—but the longer-term approach is vital.

I would be grateful if, in her summing up, my hon. Friend the Minister, who does great work in this policy area, could provide us with details of when the consultation will get under way. Time is of the essence. We will not have it in place this winter—no way— but we do need it in place for 2024-25.