Clause 19 - Supplier obligation

Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:30 pm ar 23 Tachwedd 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 2:30, 23 Tachwedd 2021

I beg to move amendment 15, in clause 19, page 16, line 11, at end insert—

“(4A) Revenue regulations may make provision to prevent electricity suppliers from recovering the costs of paying a revenue collection counterparty from customers who qualify for the Warm Home Discount Scheme.”

This amendment would mean that electricity bill payers who qualify for the Warm Homes Discount scheme would not be liable for levies on their bills that pay into the RAB revenue collection fund.

Amendment 15 relates to the latter end of clause 19. Hon. Members will see that the clause suggests that revenue regulations may make provision for electricity suppliers to pay a revenue collection counterparty for a number of purposes, including

“to hold sums in reserve; to cover losses in the case of insolvency or default of an electricity supplier.”

According to our shared understanding of how the RAB would work, the regulations would require electricity suppliers to pay into a revenue collection counterparty for those purposes. Thereby, as the RAB consultation makes clear, if that company has been required to pay into the revenue collection counterparty, the company could make restitution for the money it had paid into the revenue collection counterparty by adjusting its bills to reflect that fact.

We are in exactly the same territory as contracts for difference, where there is a levy on customers and the supply company recovers the money that it has paid into the levy fund by passing that levy on to customers in their bills. We have a problem with placing additional levies on already sky-high bills, but that is how this arrangement will work. We question how that process will work. As hon. Members will also know, we currently have within our electricity supply arrangements a warm home discount scheme, which provides for a number of bill payers to get £140 off their bills each year if they qualify. There are some issues about the size of the company relating to that obligation but, in principle, pretty much all customers on a low income or a guaranteed credit element of pension credit will, or should, receive that warm home discount.

The energy company has to supply that discount to its customers. It may socialise the costs through its overall bills as a sort of secondary levy, but it gives a proportion of electricity customers a permanent reduction in their bills due to their particular circumstances, such as—as the discount suggests—particular fuel poverty-type issues in heating their homes and meeting their fuel bills.

The effect of a levy—in this instance, quite a substantial levy—to customers under these circumstances, particularly during the construction phase of a regulated asset base operation, would be to put, say, an extra £10 on the bill of someone who is already receiving a warm home discount, so that their fuel bills go up. A number of people would be placed in fuel poverty as a result of that difference, and therefore, ironically, it is quite possible that more people would be eligible for the warm home discount as a result.

When and if this levy comes on stream, we do not think that the process should include the supply company passing on that increase to those people who are already paying their bills but have a warm home discount. Those companies should not be able to recover the cost of payment into the revenue collection counterparty by passing it to those people receiving warm home discount. This would mean a socialisation of that cost to other bill payers, but the warm home discount would nevertheless remain at the right proportion of the bill, not diminish in value because that person was required to pay that levy to the energy company so that it could recoup its costs related to the revenue collection counterparty.

This is quite a simple amendment to try to return that warm home discount to the position that it would have been in before that levy was introduced. I would suggest that it is in line with what the Government intended for that warm home discount in the first place. Although other customers may pay a little more on their bills, it would maintain the relative billing position for the poorest and most vulnerable customers, including those in receipt of a guaranteed credit element of pension credit, helping those who have considerable difficulties in paying bills and are perhaps in fuel poverty as a result. We would like this power to ensure that energy companies do not incorporate those customers into the arrangements for collection and distribution of money coming into the revenue collection counterparty.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I will just say a couple of things. I was listening to the arguments and if the amendment goes to a vote, I will be happy to support it and do anything I can to try to support the most vulnerable and not create any more fuel poverty. Listening to the arguments, they seem to confirm that the concept as a whole is a costly burden on consumers. As the shadow Minister said, it creates a levy that will put more people into fuel poverty. The levy will not just last for a few years; it starts with a construction period of 10 to 15 years in all likelihood and then a 60-year contract. Rather than tinkering at the edges, protecting some people and pushing other people into fuel poverty, the heart of the matter is that this is a costly white elephant exercise. That said, I would still support the amendment for what it aims to do.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

As has been stated, amendment 15 looks to make provision to exclude from the RAB charge those consumers who are eligible for the warm home discount scheme. I understand the good motive and the effect of what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test is proposing. For background, the warm home discount is a Government initiative to take £140 from the energy bills of consumers who receive the guarantee credit element of pension credit, or who are on a low income and receive certain means-tested benefits. We have already proposed increasing the value of the rebate to £150 per annum in any case.

As we have discussed, if a new project is funded through the RAB model, suppliers will be obliged to pay towards it. It is expected that the suppliers will pass these costs on to consumers. While I do not intend to go back over the arguments in favour of the RAB model, we believe the arrangement will facilitate private investment while also reducing the costs of delivering new nuclear projects. I understand the Opposition’s desire to protect consumers on the lowest incomes, which is what the Government are already doing. The Opposition are proposing to increase that element of protection. Of course, these consumers can spend a disproportionate amount of their income on energy costs. As we all know, energy bills are regressive.

However, a large-scale project funded under the scheme will add, at most, a few pounds a year to typical household energy bills during the early stages of construction and less than £1 per month on average during the full construction phase of the project. The Government have taken a number of actions to protect low-income households from energy costs, as laid out in our updated fuel poverty strategy. That includes not only the warm home discount but cold weather payments and the household support fund.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Isn’t the problem with some of the schemes aimed at protecting the most vulnerable that they are paid for by other consumers? By default, the schemes are always creating another cohort to move into fuel poverty, because actual schemes to help people are paid for by other consumers.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but I do not think the amendment in any way answers his question. In fact, if I have understood the amendment correctly, it would probably make those who are not on the warm home discount pay even more, so I am afraid he is making a speech against the amendment, however inadvertently.

As set out in the heat and buildings strategy late last month, we will also publish a fairness and affordability call for evidence to set out the options for energy levies and the obligations to help rebalance electricity and gas prices and to support green choices, with a view to taking decisions in 2022. We are looking at the totality of how these schemes work, then looking at the consultation and then taking decisions on the wider nature of these schemes next year. It is right that broader conversations about how to deal fairly with customers’ bills are dealt with as part of this process, rather than by taking a narrower approach for each technology and funding scheme, which the amendment seeks to do.

As we know, the legislation obliges the Secretary of State to have regard to consumer interests and costs when setting up the RAB. As part of that, the Secretary of State will monitor any cumulative impact from multiple RABs being in operation.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 2:45, 23 Tachwedd 2021

The Minister has just mentioned the obligation on the Secretary of State that is in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test made the point that this levy may be £10 a year on average, or it may be more. Have the Government made any assessment of the number of customers that that increase will potentially tip into a qualifying benefit, therefore making them eligible for the warm home discount? Have they assessed what a nuclear RAB might do to the number of people who are eligible for that discount? The argument we are trying to make is that there is potentially a saving for Government here by socialising the risk among non-warm home discount consumers when it comes to funding these types of projects.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question, which I would answer in a couple of ways. First, this issue is best considered in the round as part of the process we have outlined, with the consultation and decisions to be made next year. Secondly, the actual amount would depend very much on the nuclear project in question. What we have shown is that we believe the RAB model will make bills overall less expensive to the consumer by roughly £10 a year for an average dual-fuel bill payer, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out. However, that amount will ultimately depend on the size and scope of the nuclear plant that is proposed. I think a better way to deal with this issue is to deal with it in the round, in the way the Government are proposing. I stress that the RAB is designed to save consumers money over the life of the plant; that is one of the key reasons why we are proposing it.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test for tabling this carefully considered amendment and for raising the important issue of energy costs for low-income households. Nevertheless, I hope that I have shown both that the Government are already taking action to help this group and that this clause forms part of a wider conversation about how we transition our energy system away from fossil fuels in a way that is fair and affordable for all. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I am not sure that the Minister quite gets this. The warm home discount was introduced in 2011 and has been at the level of £140 since then, so the Government suggesting that it should be increased to £150 is not an action of unparalleled generosity: it actually just catches up with inflation over the period that the warm home discount has been in place. That discount has been decreasing in value in real terms over the years, so increasing it is simply a matter of reasonable housekeeping, rather than innate generosity.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Scottish National Party, Aberdeen North

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; apologies to my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun for getting in first. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, given the massive increases in energy prices that we have seen—way outstripping inflation—this increase does not touch the sides of what is needed?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The hon. Member is absolutely right. I am sure that we could do some back-of-a-fag-packet calculations about what we are going to need from the warm home discount, given the rises that are likely to occur under the fuel price cap in the coming spring and over the next six months, but it will certainly be rather more than £10.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that another odd aspect of the Minister’s argument is that raising the warm home discount to £150—an extra £10—is really significant and helps people, but an extra £10 on their bill is okay and something we do not need to worry about? The two cannot both be right.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The hon. Member makes a very interesting point, which I was rather slower than him to get to. He is quite right: if this is going to be £1 a month during the construction phase, therefore adding only £10 to £12 to the bill per year, it is contradictory to say that one is insignificant while the other is very significant.

There is also the fact that £12 a year, or £10 a year or whatever, will affect different people’s bills in different ways, because the bill for a large family, or someone with a large house, will be higher in total, and the £12 nuclear levy will be a smaller proportion of it than for someone who is eligible for the warm home discount—perhaps a single pensioner living in a small house, with a lower bill but nevertheless without the wherewithal to pay it. That £12 would be a higher imposition on their bill than it would on other people’s bills.

I think we all agree that the warm home discount is an important actor in combating fuel poverty and ensuring that the most vulnerable people in our society as far as energy costs are concerned do not have it even worse than they do at the moment and are given some assistance with their bills. We all ought to be very mindful of that when we put levies on people’s bills. What the Minister says about who we do and do not put into fuel poverty when we change levies on fuel bills is true, but that is an argument for better indexation, not for continuing with the warm home discount in the way that we are.

I am sorry to say that we will have to divide the Committee, because we think that this is an important principle that ought to be upheld. We do not want to the effects of the levies, which of course may be much more than £12, depending on how the allowable costs ceiling goes, to directly affect the warm home discount, which we think is a very important part of the energy landscape and the battle to combat fuel poverty. We would like it to be on the record that we did not simply allow this to be brushed under the carpet, and therefore wish to vote on the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Rhif adran 3 Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill — Clause 19 - Supplier obligation

Ie: 6 MPs

Na: 7 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 7.

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I beg to move amendment 20, in clause 19, page 16, line 25, at end insert—

“(6B) Prior to making provisions by virtual of subsection (4), the Secretary of State must consider—

(a) the number of customers the supplier has;

(b) the level of bad debt from customers;

(c) the liabilities of the electricity supplier including any renewables obligations due and what levels of collateral will risk the supplier’s operations as a going concern;

(d) the impact on consumer bills of upfront payments to the revenue collection company; and

(e) the value and extent of forward hedging the supplier has in the market.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to consider the matters listed before requiring electricity suppliers to provide financial collateral to a revenue collection counterparty.

The other day, the Minister challenged us in the SNP to table amendments, so in that spirit of co-operation—given that I am fundamentally against the Bill but have still tabled amendments to improve it—I look forward to him accepting them.

Clause 19 further confirms the Government’s desperation to provide unlimited guarantees and support mechanisms to get nuclear projects—as we know, that means Sizewell C —off the ground. For me, the clause is further proof of how ill-thought through the Bill is, and how loosely many clauses have been drafted. This clause will be blindly accepted by Government MPs without further thought or debate apart from some challenge from this side of the Committee.

Yesterday, energy supplier Bulb Energy, which has 1.7 million customers, effectively went into administration. Given that 23 energy suppliers have gone bust since August of this year, it beggars belief that the UK Government have introduced clause 19, which may require energy suppliers to pay money up front. Cash flow insolvency is a major issue in the energy supply market at the moment, but the Bill could place further demands on suppliers.

The clause will allow the revenue collection counterparty to set the form and terms of the financial collateral that it demands from electricity suppliers. There is no guidance or controls; there is simply the concept of a nuclear project being so important that revenues must be guaranteed for the nuclear company. Subsection (2) is the start of what I have no doubt will be an accountant’s field day. Subsection (2)(a) is a typical catch-all, as it states that revenue may be collected under

“such…descriptions of its costs as the Secretary of State considers appropriate”.

As an aside, will the Minister tell us whether it is really the Secretary of State who will make those assessments, as the clause states, or will it actually be the regulator?

Subsection (2)(b) and subsection (4) refer to holding sums in reserve and to suppliers providing financial collateral. The kicker with the financial collateral is that subsections (6)(a) and (b) state that the revenue collection counterparty may

“determine the form and terms of any financial collateral” and may “calculate” the payments that are due. There seems to be no independent scrutiny and no way to challenge those demands. Then, for good measure, subsections (8) and (9) provide for the revenue collection counterparty to make demands on interest, debt collection and further add-ons. That certainly seems very balanced towards the assessments that the revenue collection counterparty makes.

Paragraphs (c) and (d) of subsection (8) mention “references to arbitration” and “appeals”, but what will those processes and procedures look like? Yet again, there is too little detail. Without suitable protections and considerations, the clause and its consequences could damage well-run energy suppliers and those that are struggling to get by, and that is if they get through the ongoing crisis.

Why should energy suppliers pay up front to cover RAB payments? It might suit the Government to have clauses to protect funding for new nuclear, but that could lead to massive cash flow issues for the electricity supply companies that I mentioned earlier. As they would be paying in advance of receiving income from customers, they would need to manage that credit issue by servicing debt costs. Those costs would then be passed on to consumers, further raising the cost of our bills.

I have already stated my opposition to the Bill and to a new nuclear power station, but from my perspective as a consumer, the Government want me to tie into the construction costs payments for 10 to 15 years in a 60-year RAB contract, which will go beyond my lifetime. Then, just to be on the safe side, my electricity company, to which I pay money, will possibly have to provide money up front, which will cost me, as a consumer, more money. That is a ridiculous concept; it just does not make sense.

Although I am against the principle and poor drafting of the Bill, it is important that we debate clause 19, which is why I have tabled the amendment. I hope that paragraph (a) of the amendment is self-explanatory: any collateral or money that is asked for would need to be pro rata based on the energy supplier’s ability to pay, which would be based on its customer base. In paragraph (b), I highlight that bad debt needs to be considered, because some companies have much higher numbers of vulnerable customers, which means that they are likely to carry more bad debt. That dynamic could change further with the collapse of so many energy supply companies.

Paragraph (c) says that the revenue counterparty needs to look at the other liabilities that companies might be carrying. It is interesting that, when we have been debating the energy retail market and energy supplier crisis, the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box accepted that companies go bust every year and said that part of that was that suppliers tend to go bust at the time their renewables obligations become due. I thought that that was a very flippant attitude, and that is not right. It also seems bizarre to accept that companies will go bust rather than pay their renewables obligations, when the Bill demands that payments be taken from companies up front to ensure that the RAB payments are secured for the nuclear company.

Paragraph (d) further highlights and forces consideration of the cashflow and credit costs that will be imposed on customers by the demand for any up-front collateral. Finally, paragraph (e) looks at forward hedging. The whole point of hedging forward for, say, a year in advance is to secure energy at a given price so that companies know that they have stability in terms of what they have paid and that they can pass that price certainty on to the customer. If a company is hedging forward and has to use its cashflow and securities to do that, that needs to be taken into account before any other moneys are demanded up front to cover the RAB payments.

I hope that I have again made my concerns about aspects of the Bill clear. There are genuinely unintended consequences that could flow from the operation of clause 19 and demanding collateral up front. As I said in my optimistic opening sentences, I look forward to the Minister accepting the amendment and saying, “Well done and thank you.”

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:00, 23 Tachwedd 2021

I am very sympathetic to the amendment, although I do not think that it will do exactly what the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun would like. It would be helpful to have some clarification from the Minister as to exactly how the payments will be organised by the revenue counterparty body.

Although those payments are up front, in that the electricity supply companies would be required to make a payment on behalf of the customer into the counterparty before the power station had been built, that does not mean that the payment would all be up front. It means that the payment would be staggered over a period, which might be the whole of the production period of the nuclear power plant, according to what was required at particular times of the construction, so that the counterparty had sufficient funds to meet those calls from its revenues at any one time, but did not have a large surplus against calls. The counterparty would therefore have to modulate and regulate its calls on the energy supply companies as the process of construction continued.

Presumably, then, a company’s health would not be set against an overall up-front payment in that instance. All companies would be required to pay into that levy arrangement regularly, so there would not be a greater demand on one company than another or a large amount of money demanded in one go. That is my understanding of how the system would work, but I appreciate what the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said about the 23 companies that have gone bust recently. As the energy market stabilises, I think there will not be many companies to take a levy from in the first place. Those companies that are able to pay a levy will by and large be those that were in sufficiently robust health in the first instance to weather the storm of high gas prices and high energy costs—there are a number of other reasons why companies may or may not be reasonably robust but that is a debate for another day.

Overall, I do not think that the amendment does exactly what it is intended to do.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I think I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but subsection (4) says:

“Revenue regulations may make provision to require electricity suppliers to provide financial collateral to a revenue collection counterparty (whether in cash, securities or any other form).”

I still read that as meaning that cash could be asked for to be paid up front.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Indeed, and that is why we need better clarification from the Minister. Is there a distinction between cash up front in general—that is, one pays before getting any result from a nuclear plant that is being built—or cash up front in the sense of taking all the stuff in the agreed revenue allowance? Would that be taken either mostly up front, all in one go, or at level that an energy company would find unaffordable during particular elements of the process? There is still some uncertainty about exactly how that process would work.

I have a lot of sympathy with the argument of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudon. If the revenue counterparty decided that it was going to take a very large amount of levy early in the process to have lots of money in the bank and to be able to cover any eventualities connected with the construction process, that would be a pretty unreasonable imposition on energy companies, particularly in the present circumstances. However, I think there are least implied elements of regulation in the Bill that would prevent that from easily happening, and I would be interested to hear whether the Minister thinks that is the case. If he does, where in the Bill is that, and which arrangements would be preferrable in terms of the revenue collection counterparty operating on a more equitable basis as the construction period progressed?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I thank the hon. Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun and for Aberdeen North for tabling their amendment. Of course the Government welcome all Opposition parties tabling amendments; that does not necessarily mean that we will agree with the aforementioned amendments, but it is a useful process to test and probe the Bill, and I think our publics would like to see a process whereby all Opposition parties tabled amendments to test the Government’s proposition. I fully buy into that process, but I do not happen to agree with this amendment.

The amendment addresses how the interests of suppliers and their customers should be considered when making provision in regulations for the supplier to pay the revenue collection counterparty. It would also require the Secretary of State to have regard to the other liabilities of electricity suppliers—the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun talked with topicality about that—as well as to the impact that collateral requirements will have on a supplier’s operation. I thank the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady for ensuring that the Government consider the impact on suppliers and consumers when establishing the RAB revenue stream.

I reassure Members that the Government intend to act in a way that effectively manages the payment obligations on suppliers and, through them, consumers. We do not believe, however, that the amendment is the best way of ensuring that. First, the provision of collateral by electricity suppliers is a form of security that has been administered very successfully in the contract for difference regime. As I said on clause 15, the regime seeks to replicate that tried-and-tested regime, which has functioned effectively to bring investment into new energy projects for the last eight years.

We have been clear that in designing the RAB revenue stream we are seeking to replicate many of the provisions of contracts for difference to help to provide a familiar and workable framework for suppliers, but it is not just about supporting investment. We will protect suppliers from paying unreasonable amounts of collateral and ensure that overpayment of collateral is returned to suppliers.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

What is there in the Bill that protects suppliers from having to pay too much collateral?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The protection in the Bill is through the regulation of the process and the oversight, for example by the authority, in this case Ofgem, which will ensure that any amounts paid to the generation company are reasonable. The hon. Gentleman is right to ask who will set the parameters, the Secretary of State or the regulator. The Secretary of State sets the initial licence conditions; however, it is the authority, in this case Ofgem or its equivalent, that will ensure that any amounts are reasonable and in the interests of existing and future consumers. That is very much in the Bill.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Scottish National Party, Aberdeen North

Could the Minister provide more information on that, in the form of a letter perhaps? We have raised concerns on how companies, and therefore consumers, will be protected. I appreciate what he says, but that was not obvious to us, so a response in writing would be hugely helpful.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

That is a reasonable request. I am saying that this is a tried-and-tested process that has been there throughout the contract for difference regime. Paying in collateral, and the way that collateral operates, is something that has been around for decades, but if it is helpful I am happy to write to the hon. Lady and copy in members of the Committee to explain in more detail how it works in the CfD regime and the Energy Act 2013. I should also make it clear that the Bill provides a framework for the RAB revenue stream and requires that the detail of suppliers’ payment obligations is set out in the secondary regulations that will need approval from both Houses. Ahead of that, and as required by the Bill, we will publish and consult on the draft regulations. We will include British energy suppliers within the consultation, so they will have the opportunity to feed in any views from an energy supplier perspective.

In the context of protecting our most vulnerable energy consumers, which was the subject of the previous amendment, I refer Members to my comments in that debate setting out the numerous actions that the Government are taking to help low-income households, including the warm home discount, cold weather payments and the household support fund. I hope that I have assured the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun that the design of the RAB revenue stream will ensure that the interests of consumers are protected and that mechanisms are in place to protect suppliers from disproportionate requirements that would affect their ability to operate. As such, I believe that the amendment is unnecessary, and I hope that he will withdraw it.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

It was no surprise that the Minister did not accept the amendment. It will be no surprise to him that he has not completely satisfied me either with his explanation. We keep hearing the argument that we are trying to replicate the CfD model, which is interesting considering that we are introducing the RAB model. It was said that CfD would not work for nuclear, but now we are trying to replicate certain things. He said that there will be consultation and secondary legislation, but there are no guarantees on what the Government will do or how they will respond to any consultation. Secondary legislation can easily get steamrollered through this place anyway. Given that, I would prefer to press my amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Rhif adran 4 Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill — Clause 19 - Supplier obligation

Ie: 2 MPs

Na: 7 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 7.

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:15, 23 Tachwedd 2021

I beg to move amendment 16, in clause 19, page 17, line 2, at end insert—

“(10) Persistent non-payment of sums owed to the counterparty by an electricity supplier may be referred to OFGEM, which may in such circumstances place the electricity supplier’s licence under review.”

This amendment would allow cases of persistent non-payment of sums owed to the counterparty by an electricity supplier to be referred to OFGEM.

The amendment follows on quite well from our previous debate. Although the issue is not entirely certain, the collateral expected to be paid by energy supplier companies would be required in a measured way. The Secretary of State would make sure that the revenue collection counterparty did not try to scoop up huge funds in one go—not that I think that very likely—and would regulate the collateral so that it was more or less allied with the calls on it by the nuclear company at that stage.

If the revenue collection counterparty had a large pot of money sitting in its bank account at any stage, one would expect that money to be redistributed to the supplier companies from which it had been collected, and one would hope that in the end it would be redistributed back to customers. I think that there is still some way to go in deciding how exactly the regulation is to be set up, but I welcome the Minister’s statement that that is roughly how the Government assume the process will be undertaken. That being the case, there is then the question of what happens if supplier companies do not pay what the revenue collection counterparty has required of them, assuming that it is a reasonable payment. That leads on to some existing issues with how levies are collected by counterparties.

There has already been some mention of what happens with Ofgem’s collection of the renewables obligation, and of the collective obligations of energy companies to supply the right amount in buy-outs, renewables obligation payments or whatever. For those who think that the renewables obligation is done and dusted and that it came to an end in 2017, I should mention that it is still alive in a ghostly fashion and is collecting money until 2027, I think, so the obligations continue.

If one were being very unkind, one might say that a barometer of the health of some of the smaller energy companies that have recently been involved in the struggle to stay afloat has often been whether their renewables obligation payments were outstanding at the time of closure, which I think is the end of each October. There were reports from Ofgem, I think in September, that x number of companies had not paid their renewables obligation levies, and that if they did not do so by the closure date, it is conceivable that action would be taken—which could include, in the end, the removal of the company’s licence to operate.

One could say that that is what happened over the recent period, in that companies that knew they were in some difficulty with their renewables obligation payments at the end of October folded pretty soon afterwards because they were not going to pay them. That has had the unfortunate side effect that that non-payment has had to be socialised among other energy companies in order to ensure that the fund is the right amount to meet the renewables obligation certificates going around. Nevertheless, the regime appears to have a sanction relating to an energy company’s licence, so that we can ensure that payments are brought in, or that there is fairly swift closure relating to the outstanding amount, so we at least know roughly where we are regarding the payment pool at a future date.

As the Bill stands, that does not appear to be the procedure that will be adopted regarding levies into the revenue collection counterparty. Indeed, the Bill states that if payment is not received, collection will be a civil matter. In the amendment, we suggest that we adopt a similar procedure to that which is in place with Ofgem concerning non-payment of renewables obligation payments. In the case of persistent non-payment, a sanction should be available regarding the continuation of the company’s licence. The Minister may say that going through the civil courts is just as good. What concerned me about the arrangements in respect of renewables obligations was that some energy companies were borrowing their payments in order to stay in business. That is not what a healthy energy company should do, long term; it will not result in a secure landscape as regards collateral inputs to a counterparty.

A better way of proceeding would be to have in place the sort of regime that we have for the RO. The amendment would allow the Secretary of State to introduce that kind of arrangement, if he thought it a good idea for the stability of collateral payments. It gives him an extra option, and goes beyond the regime set out in the Bill, so that we can ensure that payments are properly levied, paid on time, and not resisted.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

As the hon. Gentleman outlined, amendment 16 addresses how the obligations of suppliers under revenue collection contracts should be enforced. Clause 19 deals with suppliers’ obligations in relation to the RAB. It lays out what the revenue collection regulations may provide for. This includes how the obligations placed on suppliers by RAB revenue collection contracts can be enforced by the revenue collection counterparty. The powers in clause 19 are supported by clause 22, entitled “Enforcement”, which states:

“regulations may make provision for” obligations under revenue collection contracts to be enforced

“by the Authority as if they were relevant requirements…for the purposes of section 25 of the Electricity Act 1989.”

This means that a breach of such a contract can be treated as if it were a breach of a licence condition, and this allows the authority to obtain an order to secure compliance and impose financial penalties.

The amendment would set up a different enforcement route, outside the regulations, by allowing the revenue collection counterparty to refer suppliers who persistently fail to meet their obligations to the authority—that is, to Ofgem. Ofgem could then consider whether to remove a supplier’s licence. Of course, I welcome the Opposition’s focus on ensuring adequate protection from non-compliance. Creating strong enforcement procedures will be vital to give investors confidence that the RAB will function and that the project will receive the funds to which it is entitled. However, the amendment leaves out much of the detail necessary for a clear understanding and the smooth functioning of the enforcement procedure. For example, it does not clarify what should be classed as “Persistent non-payment”, or the process for referral. It also does not make clear what Ofgem would take into account when reviewing a supplier’s licence, or the process for appeal.

The hon. Gentleman feels that a supplier’s failure to make payments to the counterparty should have consequences for their licence, but those concerns are adequately addressed by clause 22, which states that the regulations may make provision to treat non-compliance as if it were a breach of a licence condition, and to allow the imposition of suitable penalties against suppliers through tried-and-tested, long-standing legislation. This will ensure compliance, and will mean that obligations under revenue collection contracts are met.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s constructive contributions, his proposing the amendment, and his recognition of the need for strong enforcement provisions, but I hope I have convinced all hon. Members of the appropriateness of the Government’s approach, which already treats non-compliance in the way that is suggested in the amendment, but in a far more watertight way, and that the hon. Gentleman therefore feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The Minister talks about taking action in a more watertight way, and suggests that we look at clause 22, which relates to clause 25, which relates to a series of clauses relating to the Electricity Act 1989. It is a sort of Marx brothers’ “A Day at the Races” form guide arrangement, whereby in order to understand a guide, a person needs another one, and so on endlessly—and they end up missing the race.

The Minister will be aware that there are a number of instances in which we are asked to go way back, via regulations, into Acts such as the Utilities Act 2000 and the Electricity Act, and we are reluctant to do that. Indeed, there are a couple of quite incomprehensible repeals at the end of the Bill, to which I might draw the Committee’s attention; one has to go through four or five stages before one can understand what on earth those are about.

In this instance, it is possibly true that we could, by regulation, apply the provisions of section 25 of the Electricity Act 1989 relating to licence modification or removal; but that provision is not in the Bill, but possibly applied by regulation. In the Bill there is one remedy, and one remedy only. The Minister may say, “Trust us; we may produce regulations that have the effect that I have suggested.” However, it probably would have been wiser for some of those things to be in the Bill. Of course, the amendment does not do all those things that the Minister mentioned. I fully accept that it is deficient from that point of view, because it does not mention the four or five other pieces of legislation that have to be taken into account, amended or consequentially changed. It merely allows us to make the point that these things ought to be in the Bill, so it is a probing amendment.

I hope that the Minister will think about whether there are better ways of getting those different forms of regulatory certainty than this extended process of referring to other pieces of legislation, which may become more or less opaque as one reads them. It would be much more straightforward for this provision to be in the Bill and clear for everyone to see. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.