HC Deb 16 September 2004 vol 424 cc1447-8
8. Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West) (Lab)

If she will take steps to increase the powers available to the Gas and Electricity Consumer Council for protecting gas and electricity consumers.␣[189177]

The Minister for Energy and E-Commerce (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

The powers of the Gas and Electricity Consumer Council—Energywatch—were set out in the Utilities Act 2000. I have no plans to increase them.

Mr. Best

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is growing anxiety in the public mind, especially in the older section of our community, about energy prices and contracts? Will he give further consideration to the council's powers to be pre-emptive and ensure that people who may be vulnerable to being drawn into contracts that are not in their best interests are protected?

Mr. O'Brien

Under the Utilities Act 2000, the aim was to create a regulator with substantial powers and a consumer investigator—essentially, Energywatch. Ofgem obviously has the powers—it is the regulator—and is able to intervene if necessary, but we have found that, in practice, Energywatch can deal with such issues by entering into discussions with the various electricity companies. If such issues need to be addressed, using the energy investigator to engage successfully with the companies would be one way forward, but if problems are arising I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss them.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con)

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position; we very much look forward to working with him. I pay tribute to his predecessor's work, especially the confirmation he gave the Opposition when we discussed the Energy Bill in respect of our proposals about vulnerable customers whose electricity or gas is about to be cut off. Apparently, many of those who would wish to intervene to help them are prevented from doing so by the Data Protection Act 1998. Will the Minister give his urgent attention to ensuring that no vulnerable customer is placed at such risk in future?

Mr. O'Brien

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments about my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, who did a superb job as Energy Minister; I hope that I can begin to fill his shoes in that role.

The hon. Lady makes a good point. Following extensive work earlier this year, the industry agreed and issued guidelines on disconnections, which will ensure that, as far as possible, no vulnerable customer is disconnected. If there is evidence of wrongful disconnections, Ofgem has the power to act. I understand that, thus far, Energywatch has not provided evidence of that happening widely, but it will continue to watch and monitor the position because, as she rightly points out, this is an important issue.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree with the statement made by Allan Asher, the chief executive of Energywatch, that the opaque nature of the wholesale gas market, which is now a European market, is such that the only serious avenue open to protect consumers is an investigation by the European competition authorities or the Competition Commission?

Mr. O'Brien

Other avenues are open, including discussions between the various Governments and engagement with private sector companies. However, we can also use routes through the European Union to ensure that the consumer is protected. Obviously, wholesale prices, especially for gas, have been increasing, which partly reflects upward pressure on prices in continental Europe, where gas prices are contractually linked to high oil prices. We are continuing to watch the position very carefully, and we want to ensure that, throughout the process, the consumer is protected in so far as that is possible.