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The Parliament Brief: “How do you sleep at night?” MPs ask energy bosses

Community support groups are predicting this winter could be worse than the last.

By Megan Kenyon

Welcome to the Parliament Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, digests the latest and most important committee sessions taking place across the House of Commons and House of Lords. Previous editions can be found here.

Who? The Commons’ Energy Security and Net Zero Committee.

In the first half of the session, MPs heard from: Adam Scorer, the chief executive of National Energy Action, Gillian Cooper, the head of energy policy at Citizens Advice, Simon Francis, the coordinator at the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, Matthew Cole, the head of the Fuel Bank Foundation and Roni Marsh, a money and cost-of-living team manager at South West London Law Centres.

In the second half of the session, MPs heard from: Chris O’Shea, the chief executive of Centrica, Philippe Commaret, the managing director customers at EDF, Simon Oscroft, the co-founder of So Energy, Chris Norbury, the chief executive at E. ON and Rachel Fletcher, the group director of policy and regulation at Octopus Energy.

When? 6 September at 10am

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What was discussed? The lessons learned by government, community groups and energy companies last winter on how to properly support people through the coldest part of the year.

Why did this come up? Last year households struggled amid rising energy prices, forcing the government to intervene to cap prices and offer financial support to cover part of the cost of significantly higher bills. The Energy Security and Net Zero Committee has launched an inquiry in order to establish how the government, energy companies and consumers can best prepare before colder weather sets in once again.

So, what did they say? The session, overall, was bleak. Simon Francis, the coordinator of the End Fuel Poverty coalition told MPs that “despite huge levels of government intervention” excess deaths from living in a damp or cold home were up by over a thousand from 3,186 in 2021 to 4,706 in 2022.

And according to Matthew Cole, the head of the Fuel Bank Foundation, last year saw a sizeable increase in people making “dangerous choices” about how to heat their homes or cook meals due to unaffordable energy costs. These methods included using the oven instead of turning on the heating or cooking meals on a BBQ. This was accompanied by an “explosion in the mental health crisis” with residents becoming increasingly anxious or depressed due to not knowing how they could afford to pay their bills.

All five witnesses in the first half of the session reported seeing drastic increases in the number of people turning to them for help. They called on the government to give them a “direct line” to the energy companies, to improve their ability to give people support. The discussion became more heated later in the session, when the committee’s second panel of witnesses gave evidence. Representatives of the country’s main energy companies faced a tough line of questioning from MPs over their making record-breaking profits, and improvements to their customer services.

Vicky Ford, the MP for Chelmsford began by asking Centrica boss, Chris O’Shea, “how do you sleep at night?”.

The panel were also quizzed on their progress on several measures put forward by the energy regulator, Ofgem, in July this year to improve customer services. Barry Gardiner, MP for Brent North, asked each of the witnesses how much progress they had made on implementing measures, such as keeping phone enquiry lines open longer for customers, 24/7 emergency support and improving support for those struggling with their bills.

On several of the measures, Gardiner was told the witness would need to “come back to” him on that. Reprimanding his witnesses as if they hadn’t handed in their homework, Gardiner responded: “There are six things [Ofgem] have asked you to do. It was pretty blindingly obvious that we were going to ask you for it today. And yet, much of it, you haven’t been able to provide.”

“That isn’t very good prep, guys. It really isn’t,” he added.

Any conclusions? The first set of witnesses, who have been offering energy support to those on low incomes, predict this winter will be worse than the last. Yet, despite Ofgem’s clamouring, energy companies don’t seem to have woken up to the severity of the circumstances their customers face. MPs will need to hold both them and the government accountable on this issue in order to make real progress.

What next? The committee will hear more evidence over the coming weeks from Ofgem and government. They hope to produce a report collating their recommendations before the frosty weather eventually creeps in.

[See also: The grim consequences of Sunak’s green scepticism]

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