I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Review: Use of powers to support technical development—
“(1) Within 12 months of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State shall commission a review which shall consider how the extended use of powers provided for in section 1 will support the technical development of smart meters, with reference to—
(a) alternative solutions for Home Area Network connections where premises are not able to access the HAN using existing connection arrangements,
(b) hard to reach premises.
(2) The Secretary shall lay the report of the review in subsection (1) before each House of Parliament.”
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to review how the extension of powers will support technical development of smart meters.
New clause 3—Review: Use of powers to support rollout of smart meters—
“(1) Within 12 months of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State shall commission a review which shall consider how the extended use of powers provided for in section 1 will support the rollout of smart meters, with reference to—
(a) providing for efficient removal and disposal of old meters,
(b) reviewing the exemptions for smaller suppliers from a legally binding requirement to roll out smart meters.
(2) The Secretary of State shall lay the report of the review in subsection (1) before each House of Parliament.”
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to review how the extension of powers supports the rollout of smart meters.
New clause 4—Review of smart meter rollout targets—
“(1) Within 3 months of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State must prepare and publish a report and a cost benefit analysis relating to the Smart Meter Implementation programme and lay a copy of the report before Parliament.
(2) The report under subsection (1) shall consider—
(a) progress towards the 2020 completion target;
(b) smart meter installation cost;
(c) the number of meters operating in dummy mode;
(d) the overall cost to date of the DCC;
(e) the projected cost of the DCC; and
(f) such other matters as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to publish details about the cost and progress of the smart meter rollout with reference to the 2020 deadline.
New clause 5—Requirement on suppliers to provide information on cost of smart meter programme to consumers—
“(1) The Energy Act 2008 is amended as follows.
(2) At the end of section 88(3) (power to amend licence conditions etc: smart meters), insert—
‘(m) provision requiring the holder of a supply licence to include information with consumer bills on the cost to consumers of the Smart Meter Implementation Programme.’”
This new clause would allow the Secretary of State by order to amend licence conditions so that energy suppliers are required to include the cost to the customer of the Smart Meter Programme in all customer energy bills for the period covered by the energy bill.
New clause 6—Smart Meter Implementation Programme: review of cost to consumers—
“(1) Within 3 months of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State shall commission an independent review of the cost to the consumer of the Smart Meter Implementation Programme.
(2) The review under subsection (1) shall include—
(a) a breakdown of the costs to consumers of component parts of the Smart Meters Implementation Programme including the cost of the DCC;
(b) the potential benefits to consumers of information on the cost of the Smart Meter Implementation Programme being included on energy bills and statements;
(c) a longitudinal estimate of the cost to consumers to date and the projected future cost of the Programme; and
(d) such other matters as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.
(3) The Secretary of State must lay a report of this review before both Houses of Parliament as soon as practicable after its completion.”
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to commission an independent review of the cost to the consumer of the Smart Meter Implementation Programme that must consider the potential benefits to consumers of including a summary of the cost on their energy bills and statements.
Amendment 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 12, at end insert—
“(c) in section 56FA(3) after “including” insert “the supply of such meters to energy companies and”
This amendment would allow the Secretary of State by order to add “the supplying of smart meters to energy companies” to the list of licensable activities.
Amendment 3, page 1, line 19, at end insert—
“(c) in section 41HA(3) after “including” insert “the supply of such meters to energy companies and”
This amendment would allow the Secretary of State by order to add “the supplying of smart meters to energy companies” to the list of licensable activities.
Amendment 1, in clause 6, page 6, line 27, at end insert—
“(15) Prior to making modifications under this section the Secretary of State shall commission an independent evaluation on the potential impact the modifications available to the Secretary of State to secure funding of smcl administration could have on consumer energy prices and shall lay the report of the evaluation before each House of Parliament.”
This amendment would require that, before considering modifications to ensure funding of smcl administration, the Secretary of State must seek independent evaluation of the impact such modifications would have on consumer energy prices.
As all the new clauses and amendments are grouped together, I intend to address them in turn. I promise that I will not say anything after this speech, but will instead make all my points in one go.
When the Bill went into Committee, it did two things. However, as the Minister himself agrees, an opportunity was taken in Committee to add to it what is effectively another small Bill, so it now does three things. First, it extends to 2023 the period during which the Secretary of State has powers over the roll-out to organise and command licensable activities. It does so in part because the end date for such control was set out in previous legislation as 2018. It is now apparent that the roll-out will go on until at least 2020 and, depending on progress, perhaps even later. It is therefore not only prudent to change the date but important, because as things stand the power over the roll-out will be lost halfway through its implementation.
Secondly, the Bill provides for the circumstances under which the functioning of the Data Communications Company, which has been set up to manage and co-ordinate all the communications necessary to make smart maters work—the data they are collecting and sending; and the communications within and around the home, and on a wider network—can be maintained in the event that that company goes into administration. That is important because the functioning of the DCC is central to the whole operation of the roll-out and what happens afterwards, and a hiatus in that function while any administration was being processed would be disastrous—so much so that we might question, as we did in Committee, why such a provision was not in the original legislation that set up the procedures for smart meter roll-out, and why it has taken several years of the DCC’s operation, albeit not live, to get around to implementing such a crucial measure.
Thirdly, the Bill now provides for arrangements to bring about the half-hourly settlement of domestic bills, which was hitherto not possible, but has been facilitated by the smart meter roll-out. We welcome this potentially enormous benefit of smart meters, in that it eliminates estimated bills and allows for accurate billing on the basis of what has been supplied each half hour, thereby allowing households to pitch their use at times of best value. The provisions inserted by the Government allow such a system to be organised and regulated.
Altogether, we have a set of proposals relating to the existing smart meter roll-out, which has been under way since 2016, that are uncontentious in the main and, indeed, strengthen the fabric of the roll-out. The Opposition support the objectives of the smart meter roll-out and believe that smart meters will lead to considerable benefits, not only for billing and the use of energy by householders, but for the future operation of the whole system. We share the aim of ensuring that as many as possible of Britain’s 30 million households have a smart meter installed by the end of the roll-out target date, albeit on the clear understanding that this is a voluntary programme and that no one will have a smart meter forced on them if they do not want one to be installed.
Why, then, have we tabled the new clauses and amendments? I assure the House that it is not because we want to derail the roll-out process or to place obstacles in its path. Some real questions are emerging from the roll-out process, and our prime aim is to ensure that those questions are addressed, and that the roll-out takes account of them and their potential solutions.
I have identified six major questions that have appeared as the roll-out has progressed. First, what is the actual progress of the smart meter roll-out, and is it realistically on target to ensure that everyone who wants a smart meter can have one installed by the end of 2020?
Secondly, bearing in mind that the huge cost of installing smart meters now falls on the consumer, what assurances can we have that the cost-benefit ratio of the whole programme remains positive? How can the costs of the programme be properly managed so that it remains positive for consumers in the end?
Thirdly, why have millions of first generation SMETS—smart metering equipment technical specifications—meters been installed to date and virtually no SMETS 2 meters? SMETS 1 meters were supposed to be a small proving mode and SMETS 2 meters were supposed to be the backbone of the roll-out, originally from 2014 onwards.
Fourthly, why has the DCC taken so long to get up and running, and how much of an impediment to the full roll-out of smart meters will that prove to be? If the DCC does go into administration, for whatever reason, what guarantees are there that it will be subsequently owned by a body that has the security and integrity of the programme at its heart?
Fifthly, will everyone be covered by the communications network that is being put in place? Will people who live in blocks of flats, for example, have home-area networks that are fully able to reach them? Will those who live in remote areas enjoy the wide-area coverage that will enable their meters to work reliably?
Finally, what will happen to all the old meters, and indeed to a considerable number of SMETS 1 meters that will be replaced by SMETS 2 meters? Will they be recycled or reused in a suitable way?
I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Does my hon. Friend accept that another problem—I have just had a response to a written question on this issue—is that when some people, particularly in rural areas, have a smart meter installed, their boilers are condemned because they are not compatible? There is no scheme or funding to help those people to put heating back into their houses. Does he agree that that is a significant problem?
I agree that when that occurs, it is a problem, but I am not sure that it is just related to smart meters, so a combination of issues needs to be addressed. We need to ensure that such occurrences happen as little as possible and can be overcome.
Our new clauses and amendments seek to address the six questions that I have identified in the context of the Bill. By doing so, they would considerably strengthen the Bill. After all, as I am sure that all hon. Members will agree, it is important in such a large project that requires public confidence that questions are properly anticipated and addressed, and that assurances are given, otherwise we will have a roll-out that eventually rolls out to not many people, and that fails to achieve the aggregate coverage that will enable the sort of benefits that we would want from the roll-out as a whole.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about public confidence. Is there not a danger that when people with SMETS 1 meters switch energy supplier and lose their smart meter’s smartness, they will lose their confidence in the whole programme?
Like me, the hon. Gentleman sat through many of the evidence sessions during the Committee stage, so he will know that an advanced programme is in place to ensure that SMETS 1 meters are compatible and interoperable, and indeed can work online, to ensure that that problem does not occur. That is a recent development. I agree that if it turns out that many SMETS 1 meters become completely dumb, that might be a problem for the overall roll-out. Perhaps the Minister will have something to say about that later, because it is important that we get this right.
Following on from the previous intervention, does the hon. Gentleman believe that consumers’ concerns about their ability to smoothly switch energy suppliers to keep costs down, and about keeping the system going and keeping providers “on their toes”, are adequately addressed in the Bill, because some people say that they are not?
I will come on to talk about how far more SMETS 1 meters have been installed than was ever intended, which was due to various reasons. The hon. Gentleman is certainly right that if a substantial number of installations eventually give rise to non-smooth transfers when people want to switch, that will be deleterious to the roll-out as a whole. Indeed, that is something that needs to be very carefully and urgently addressed so that we ensure that such switchovers can be as smooth as possible.
When we think about the roll-out, we do not need to look very far into the timescale to conclude that, whatever might be said about the numbers already installed, it is not going well. We are more than halfway through the period originally specified for the mass installation of smart meters, but we are far below halfway towards the target of installing smart meters in 30 million homes. In fact, the latest quarterly installation figures show that only 8.6 million domestic and non-domestic meters have been installed to date. That issue has been exacerbated by the transition from SMETS 1 to SMETS 2 meters. SMETS 1 meters were supposed to be essentially proving meters that would have very little role to play in the overall process. However, the DCC—the body required to set up and implement all the communications systems to allow meters to talk to the system—is now two and a half years behind in going live, and is still not really functioning as intended. Millions of SMETS 1 meters have therefore been installed to make up the gap before SMETS 2 meters can come on stream, and we are still in a precarious position with regard to the new meters, because end-to-end testing of them is still not really available. A programme that should by now have seen the installation of a few SMETS 1 meters and millions of SMETS 2 meters now has the opposite position. To be precise, when I asked the head of the DCC how many SMETS 2 meters had been installed, the figure he gave was 250.
As I recall, that figure of 250 was given to the Committee by the DCC’s chief executive. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Department initially announced last week that it did not know the figure, but then admitted that it was 80, and that most of those meters actually belonged to company officers, not members of the public. Does that not suggest that this programme is woefully off track compared with what was planned?
My hon. Friend gives a very important qualification to that figure of 250. I must admit that when I heard that figure from the head of the DCC, it struck me as being pretty shocking in its own right. It is interesting, to say the least, to hear that the 250 figure is on the optimistic side, and that the number that are actually on the wall and working—in the homes of friends and family, as my hon. Friend says—is only about a third of that figure.
The slippage is reflected in the latest cost-benefit analysis, which is from last year. It shows the cost-benefit gap narrowing, at least in part because of the SMETS 1 and 2 hiatus. The analysis indicated a high spike in proposed installations at the end of 2019, with some 15 million meters needing to be installed at that point. That is a substantial shift in the predicted curve of installations, and an enormous increase in the rate of installations since the time of the 2014 cost-benefit analysis. Sticking by the timetable under these circumstances becomes fairly heroic. Perhaps it can be done, but it is clearly a daunting task.
That is the context in which the change in the date for Government oversight is important—the process of changing the date by which licensable activities will have ceased from 2018 to 2023. Whether or not it was a wholly wise idea, the 2004 and 2008 Energy Acts and subsequent regulations specified a date for licensable activities to end, which means that as things stand at the moment, the Government will have no control over what goes on after 2018. Everybody knows that we will still be at a relatively early stage of the roll-out in 2018, so it is impossible to conceive that it would be wise to continue with the original timetable. We therefore support the idea of specifying a more satisfactory date in the statute book.
The Bill specifies a date of 2023, but that does not appear to coincide with the Government’s publicly stated ambition for the end of the roll-out. I say that with caution, because while their statements about the roll-out have changed over time, they have always revolved around the idea of ending it in 2020, and there has been a lot of talk from the Government about the installation of 53 million smart meters by then. Indeed, the frequently asked questions page of the Smart Energy GB website states:
“By the end of 2020, around 53 million smart meters will be fitted in over 30 million premises (households and businesses) across Wales, Scotland and England.”
That is also the basis on which Ofgem is working in terms of its licence enforcement. However, the Government have changed their position, as they now saying that, by the end of 2020, 53 million customers
“will have been offered a smart meter”.
That is a very different proposition. We could interpret that as 53 million people being offered a smart meter by 2020, but only 10 million having them installed, although I assume that that is not what the Government mean. The statement might be meaningless or meaningful, depending on what happens before the end of 2020 and a variety of issues that will appear along the road. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify those matters today. We surely cannot mean that the whole obligation for the roll-out would be discharged by doors being knocked on and someone saying something. If the smart meter installation programme is pursued on the basis of just making a desultory offer, the result will be way below the critical mass necessary for the overall aggregate data to work properly and lead to decent decisions. At that point, £11 billion or some such amount would have been wasted on nothing much.
The smart meter installation programme is voluntary. But, at the same time, we need a proportion—not 100%, but getting close to it—of smart meters installed in order to make the programme work by having worthwhile aggregated data. Some people have said that we need 70% of smart meters installed and others have said 80%; we need something to make the overall aggregated data significant. We clearly need to put a lot of effort into ensuring that the benefits of the programme are explained to the public.
The evidence suggests that the public overwhelmingly like smart meters when they are introduced and they want to have them in their homes. We therefore need to make a lot of effort over the given period to ensure that the two ends—the voluntary nature of the programme and the need for substantial roll-out—can be reconciled. What do we need to do that has perhaps not yet been done to ensure that the roll-out programme gets its output properly organised and smart meters installed? That is the purpose of new clause 4, which would require the Secretary of State to publish a report to keep us firmly on track. But, of course, much of the progress towards the target at the end of 2020 now depends on how SMETS 2 meters can be rolled out and how the DCC performs.
It was always necessary for the DCC to start its roll-out to enable smart meters that have been installed and those that will be installed to connect with it, and therefore to go live at the earliest possible date. However, the DCC systematically failed to go live when it should have done. It repeatedly announced delays and eventually went live in autumn last year under circumstances in which eyebrows were raised substantially by most of the industry. That was because it went live just before the point at which it would have faced penalties for not going live. It also only went live in part of the country and did not go live with some of its peripheral activities. Indeed, it is still having problems as far as its liveness is concerned. However, the DCC is not a stand-alone company. It was set up in order to run all these things and was then successfully auctioned out to a company that could drive it. And that successful bidder was Capita plc. As far as running the system is concerned, the DCC is effectively a subsidiary of Capita plc. The rest of the smart meter programme now crucially depends on this company. If we look at the timeline of what was supposed to have happened, we see that it presents a really sorry picture.
According to the joint industry level 1 plan, the start of the mass installation of SMETS 2 meters was supposed to be in October 2014, and the DCC was supposed to go live in December 2015. The then Secretary of State approved the DCC re-plan to go live on 1 April 2016, but received a contingency request from the DCC to delay going live until July 2016, and even then to split into core functionality and remaining functionality, which was not supposed to go live on the new date. A further contingency request was made by the DCC for a delay until August 2016, and there were even further contingency requests for delays. The DCC finally went live, in the way I have described, in October 2016. But it was actually only live for central and south England in November 2016 and went live for the north of the country later that month. The remaining functionality eventually went live, but not until 20 July 2017.
I looked at the plans that were put forward when the DCC went live, and they were accompanied by pages and pages of so-called workarounds—that is, things that did not really work. That is still a problem today. A lot of the industry is saying that the DCC is not really live to the extent that it had anticipated, which remains a considerable problem for the end-to-end testing of SMETS 2 meters. That is why, among other reasons, there are currently only 250 or 80 on the wall, depending on whose figures are right.
Is it the hon. Gentleman’s understanding that the DCC is operating—not fully live—for only 80 SMETS 2 meter customers? The SMETS 1 meters do not connect to the DCC.
That is the unfortunate truth, yes. The total number of SMETS 2 meters to which the DCC is connected is 80—or 250, for those who are a little more optimistic. That means that there is rather a long way to go to connect up the rest of the SMETS 2 meters, assuming that they can be end-to-end tested in order to get the right circumstances in the different parts of the country to allow the testing to take place.
Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, and I appreciate that he is dealing with some complex issues that require explanation, but it may have escaped his notice that he has been at the Dispatch Box for almost half an hour. He might not be aware, but I am, that there are other people who wish to take part in this debate, so he might like to consider bringing his remarks on this particular part of the Bill to a conclusion quite soon.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I accept that we are dealing with difficult and rather technical issues, and so I thought it was necessary to try to set out for the benefit of the House how these matters might work, but I will of course be very mindful of your guidance to try to make sure, within the restraints of not getting too over-simplified, that I do indeed bring my remarks to a close.
New clause 2, in essence, asks the Minister to consider a specific review to get these arrangements properly under way.
My final question concerns the meters that have been removed as a result of smart meter installation or will be removed because they are SMETS 1 meters replaced by fully interoperable SMETS 2 meters. This problem is not just theoretical; it is happening now. It has several aspects. What about malfunctioning and existing smart meters that are no longer installed and are now redundant? What about the huge number of existing meters that will be removed and need to be disposed of as smart meters are installed? Those meters are not owned by installers but by meter asset providers that finance and ultimately own the meters that are put in. It has been a long-standing arrangement in the industry that meters are not owned by the suppliers but merely read by the suppliers. That means that when a programme is pursued of removing old meters, whether dumb meters or previous generation smart meters, there is a problem in identifying whose meters they are.
The difficulty that we are facing right now—it is not a problem for the future—is that we might see meter mountains arising in this country because the people who are removing the meters do not know who their owners are or who is going to take them away and recycle and dispose of them. I do not want to see, as a result of this roll-out programme, meter mountains, or alps, appearing across the country. We need to be clear about what method of disposal is going to be the most appropriate and workable. If we are not careful, the issue will overwhelm the roll-out, or at least have a significant negative effect on its overall atmosphere. In Committee, the Minister, encouragingly, agreed to set up a roundtable to consider this issue further. New clause 3 now addresses the issue, and I hope that it will be a way of taking it forward.
I have dealt with a number of important questions that have arisen as the smart meter roll-out has progressed. I hope that the roll-out can proceed to a successful and timely conclusion, because that will be important for the future of our energy systems as well as for the future sustainability of people’s electricity and gas supplies, and their ownership of what their bills will look like in future. However, we should not shirk from addressing the real problems that stand in the way of realising that. It is not sufficient to state that all is for the best in the best of possible worlds, and proceed on that assumption. I know that the Minister is working hard to get this right, as are his team in BEIS. The addition of these amendments would give them greater authority and support in making the roll-out work.
I compliment the Minister and the Opposition Front Benchers for the way in which I have witnessed, as a relatively new Member of Parliament, how a public Bill is progressed through the legislative process. I have learned from observing the Bill Committee that for legislation to have durability and solidity, it is vital that there is strong collaboration between those on both sides of the House. It is in all our interests to make sure that legislation is well constructed and well meaning.
I support the Bill on the basis of a considered view that the roll-out of smart meters is a vital national infrastructure project that will bring benefits to consumers and businesses and to the whole country. I am not entirely convinced that we have done a good enough job so far in selling the proposition to the whole country, and I have concerns about our readiness to meet the Government’s objective. In fact, in the evidence that we heard in Committee, very few of the people we spoke to seem to believe that at the current rate of progress it is possible to complete the roll-out of smart meters by the perceived target of 2020. I want to come back to the target in relation to new clause 4.
None of this sort of work is ever going to be easy, as was highlighted in the evidence that we heard in Committee, but the trick is not to make it harder for ourselves than it would be otherwise. How do we get the job done—the deployment of these smart meters into nearly 60 million premises—in the most cost-effective way? There are still questions that should be asked and considered. We should not lose sight of the total cost of the programme—northwards of at least £10 billion. I think that £1.3 billion has been spent, or is earmarked to be spent, on the DCC alone. We are talking about 50 million-plus—nearly 60 million—separate installations of smart meters.
I have a lot of sympathy for the amendments tabled by the Opposition, because they do tackle issues that are pertinent and relevant to the purposes of the Bill. However, I will not support them if they are pressed to a vote, because I very much hope that the Minister will be able to provide such reassurance that the issues raised will be covered off in some other way than by making changes to the Bill, so there will be no purpose in calling a vote. I am very confident that that will be the case, because that has been the spirit of the process so far.
Both the Government’s and Ofgem’s justification for the smart meter programme is that it is meant to save customers money. If we reach the stage where it is actually costing customers rather than saving them money, will the hon. Gentleman regard that as a failure of the programme?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The purpose of the Bill, in facilitating the roll-out of smart meters, is to create a more energy-efficient economy, which should be reflected in cost savings for families, individuals and businesses. If that was not to be realised through the smart grid, that would be very disappointing.
There is so much in the future in terms of the changes we are seeing in the economy. I think of ultra-low emission vehicles, where there will be a necessity for smart meters and the smart grid for us to cope with the increased load on the grid. In response to the hon. Gentleman, I hope that somewhere in the not-too-distant future is the promise of an energy market that is more competitive and more responsive to its customers’ energy requirements.
Mass usage of ultra-low emission electric vehicles is inevitable. We will get to a tipping point with those vehicles, on account of the cost per unit, improvements in battery technology and the visible availability of the necessary infrastructure for charging at home and recharging away from home. All those things will create new demands on the grid, and all the flexibilities we will need to meet those demands depend on the smart grid and smart meters. Things such as new tariffs, variable tariffs and smart devices that can interact on the basis of the smart grid will all be a feature of the future.
However, there are things referenced in the new clauses and amendments that concern me. We heard evidence in the Public Bill Committee from Dr Richard Fitton of the University of Salford, who is responsible for a task group for the International Energy Agency on the use of smart meter data for determining the energy efficiency of properties. He made the point that for consumers to be fully engaged with smart meters, they need to be able to log on to the smart meter and connect it to smart devices in and around the home. He described the frustration that he and his team of experts have had in being able to make that connection happen. He said:
“a magic black box called the consumer access device…streams real-time data to things such as smart appliances and smart heating systems for homes.”––[Official Report, Smart Meters Public Bill Committee, 21 November 2017; c. 48, Q94.]
He went on to say that neither he nor any of his colleagues had ever been successful at connecting SMETS 2 meters to those devices. That is a concern, but it is not directly related to the amendments, so I will return to them.
There is evidence about the impact of smart meters on consumer behaviour. The literature produced by the Department talks about how these meters will facilitate switching. In fact, all the evidence that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and the Public Bill Committee received suggests that smart meters probably will not have a direct impact on the rate of switching in the energy market. It should change consumers’ behaviour by piquing natural curiosity. When we first get a smart meter and have an in-home display, we can see how the energy usage in our home is affected by using different appliances around the house. That is very interesting and makes us aware of which appliances are the most energy-greedy, which could lead to a change of behaviour.
I would like to make some other points on energy awareness and my concerns that relate to new clause 4, with which I am broadly sympathetic but will not vote for. Even though I have sat through the Public Bill Committee and all the Bill’s stages, I am still not clear exactly what the Government’s objective ultimately is. They say they will make an offer of a smart meter to every consumer by 2020. That seems a rather fuzzy objective. How do we define what it means to make an offer? We could say that by sending out an email, letter or brochure to every household, every energy retailer has fulfilled its obligation to make the offer. I do not think that is really what the Government intend. Given the importance of smart meter installation to the creation of a smart grid, I would think the Government’s objective is in fact to get smart meters into a very high percentage of the total number of properties by 2020, but that is unstated, as far as I am aware. I would be delighted to be put right by the Minister on that.
I am aware, as a listener of commercial radio and television and a reader of the press, that there is currently a high-intensity programme going on to raise awareness among consumers about the availability of smart meters upon request. However, I question whether the case for the importance of smart meters has been well made.
Despite the fact that this subject could sound quite boring, it is actually very interesting, because this infrastructure is the basis for the fourth industrial revolution that will be seen in the homes of our countrymen and women. Given the current level of roll-out and the state of readiness of installation teams, it is highly likely that the Government can achieve their objective of offering smart meters to everyone, but it is highly unlikely that we will achieve anything like 100% installation of smart meters in all possible premises.
So far, somewhere between 8 million and 10 million SMETS 1 meters have been installed. I mention that estimated range because I am not sure what the recent figure is, and the update we received did not have a specific number. I think that it has been proved beyond any doubt that, as things stand, SMETS 1 meters are not interoperable. In other words, they do not communicate with any other supplier than the one that installed them; nor are they capable of sending data to the DCC at present. That is my understanding.
In the Public Bill Committee, we heard evidence about whether SMETS 1 meters could be made interoperable. The burden of evidence seems to be that without some sort of adjustment or update, SMETS 1 meters are not interoperable. That is my experience, which I have related before in a variety of settings, as someone who installed a smart meter and then tried to switch.
I have questions about SMETS 1 meters. How easy will it be to upgrade them at the appropriate time, so that we have the functionality of the new SMETS 2 meters? If they can be upgraded to the same functionality and interoperability, do we need to have SMETS 2 meters? How will SMETS 1 meters be upgraded and when?
There are many interesting points that have been covered by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test and that I have tried to make in relation to the Bill. There are questions that, if answered by the Minister, will facilitate this programme, which I completely acknowledge is of vital strategic importance to the future economy that the Government are trying to build.
I call Steve McCabe.
Order. I am sorry. I had not realised that the SNP spokesperson wanted to come in. It has been so long, we got lost somewhere along the way.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. You and I am sure the House will be relieved to hear that I am going to keep my remarks on Report very brief, because there will be another opportunity to speak and we are all keen, interested and excited to get to Third Reading.
I want to make one or two comments about new clauses 2 and 3, which are very important. I genuinely feel that the deadline to complete the roll-out by 2020 is simply not realistic. Beyond that, I am genuinely concerned that aggressive tactics have been deployed, and the fact that the energy companies face heavy fines if they do not meet this 2020 deadline only makes this more concerning. As I have said to the Minister, I feel there is a genuine conflict between best practice in rolling out smart meters to consumers and the potential penalties imposed on companies that do not meet the targets for the roll-out.
I am very concerned about the deadline of 2020 because the data show that, as of June 2017, only about 7.7 million smart meters had been installed out of a target of about 60 million premises. We know that the first generation of smart meters revealed some issues, and it is not yet clear whether there will be similar issues with the deployment of the second generation. In Scotland, many flats and tenements have banks of meters installed in communal areas, and there does not seem to be a solution for the installation of smart meters in those cases.
New clause 4 would require the Secretary of State to publish details about the cost and progress of the smart meter roll-out with reference to the 2020 deadline, which is very important. It is worth remembering that the cost of smart meters is £11 billion and rising, and that cost is borne by every single household. Not every single household is necessarily told that when they are contacted, but it is important to put it on the record.
Smart Energy GB has referred to a Government cost-benefit analysis. Everyone in the House agrees that there are cost benefits, but the figure of £11 billion is one to watch closely. The UK Government must be transparent and publish the cost and progress of the roll-out, given that the 2020 deadline seems unrealistic to many people, myself included. It seems clear to me that the deadline ought to be reviewed, so that the roll-out is completed efficiently and shields consumers from unfair tariff rises. I urge the Minister to take on board these comments. I will say no more about the other new clauses—time is short, and I will let other Members speak—but I look forward to Third Reading.
I want to specifically oppose new clause 5. Although I have some sympathy with its intentions, I am concerned that, by including the cost of the smart meter implementation programme in billing, there is a danger of misleading consumers about the cost-benefits of the roll-out, as well as of detracting from the overwhelmingly positive impact that the programme will have on consumers’ ability both to monitor their energy use and to manage the cost of their bills in the long term. The programme is clearly in the best interests of the consumer, yielding £1.50 of savings for every £1 invested. Furthermore, I am satisfied that the cost of the overall project is already available to consumers, and has been scrutinised both by Parliament and in the detailed impact assessment carried out by the Department.
I firmly believe that what consumers such as those in my constituency really care about is the savings that can be achieved by having a smart meter installed. By having near real-time information about energy consumption displayed in the home, consumers will for the first time be able to manage their usage properly. If done correctly, that will result in a pounds, shillings and pence saving on their energy bills. I apologise for using pounds, shillings and pence, but it has a big impact. On reflection, the new clause does little to improve the quality of the Bill and I am unable to support it.
In summary, it is clear that smart metering is central to the wider energy revolution currently taking place in Britain, and I commend the Government for the action they have already taken to ensure that we have a cleaner, cheaper and more secure energy future. I am pleased to support the Bill tonight in its unamended form, and I congratulate the Minister and his team on piloting it to this stage.
As they say, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will try that again.
Amendments 2 and 3 would give the Secretary of State the power to license and regulate meter asset providers—or MAPs, as they are more commonly known. They are independent companies that secure funding and provide asset management and meter disposal on behalf of the energy companies. They are the middlemen who have come to play a very dominant role in the development of the Government’s smart meter strategy. We might think of them as being to smart meters what football agents are to the world of football.
I would like to speak briefly on new clauses 2 and 3, which deal in essence with the accessibility of smart meters and their environmental impact.
Accessibility is crucial. Smart meters do make a difference by putting consumers in control of their energy use and thus their energy bills. That gives people the ability to budget better and can help to prevent debt, hence the importance of accessibility for all, which new clause 2 seeks to achieve. I have small rural villages and some very remote properties in my constituency, so I understand the need to prioritise access. Everyone should be able to benefit from smart meters, and it is important to note that those homes often double as offices.
New clause 2 seeks a review to see how we can support the technical development of smart meters to facilitate both greater accessibility for hard-to-reach premises and alternative arrangements for providing a home area network where the standard equipment does not work. My concern about the new clause is that a review would not necessarily affect existing policy, but it would require a great deal of time, resources and management, and might duplicate existing work. We can support and encourage the industry to make advances without calling for a review. While I agree with the aim of the new clause, I do not agree with the means, and I do not think that it would improve the accessibility of smart meters.
In fact, work is already being done with the industry-led alternative HAN forum to monitor activity through wider programme governance, with milestone publications available from quarter 1 of 2019. In addition, work is being done to facilitate supplier innovations to maximise benefits for consumers in no-WAN instances, which are currently less than 1%.
Let me turn briefly to new clause 3, which is designed to make smart meters more environmentally friendly. It must be stressed that the use of smart meters will, by reducing energy consumption, help not just consumers but the environment. The new clause would specifically provide for the efficient removal and disposal of old meters.
Again, while I agree with the principle of the new clause and I do want to ensure that smart meters are as environmentally friendly as possible, the issue is covered by existing waste legislation. In addition, a commitment was made in Committee to a roundtable on recycling issues such as these. That will include representatives from across suppliers, helping to reinforce obligations and highlight best practice in relation to meter recycling and disposal.
The second aspect of the new clause is a call for a review of exemptions for small suppliers from a legally binding requirement to roll out smart meters. Such a provision was tabled and dropped in Committee. However, small suppliers are not exempt from their obligations from 2020, so I am a tad confused by this proposal.
In conclusion, although I have focused on only two new clauses, I shall not support any of the proposals tabled today. I believe that the Bill that sits before us, following its consideration in Committee, is robust and fit for purpose.
May I say what a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, even though it obviously means a higher level of behaviour from all of us, as well as our obeying your edicts on timekeeping and so on? I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate, particularly the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead); the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe); the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson)—I always forget the second bit—and my hon. Friends the Members for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) and for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan).
We have covered a number of areas in our debate, which has built on the consideration given to the Bill on Second Reading and in Committee. The main point about the Bill and the roll-out of smart meters—I am not making light of any of the comments made by Opposition Members, or indeed Conservative Members—is that the prize is a great one: everyone, in their own household, controlling a smart grid that will give them independence, flexibility and consumer choice. In the long run, I hope that that will lead to very significant savings for them. I felt that I should put that into perspective.
I recognise that that is the Minister’s genuine view, but how much should consumers pay for the privilege, and at what point will he feel that they are not getting the benefits they have been promised?
As the hon. Gentleman said, I am convinced that consumers will get the benefit from smart meters. In this day and age, it is absurd that people—I include myself—have to read their meters on their hands and knees, with a torch and a duster to remove the cobwebs and everything else. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that that is an intolerable situation and that smart meters are the cure.
Let me respond to the shadow Minister’s comments about progress to date. There are now over 8.6 million smart and advanced meters operating across homes and small businesses across Great Britain. Nearly 400,000 smart meters—obviously they affect a lot more people, because of the number of people per household—are installed every month as suppliers ramp up their delivery, and that figure is increasing significantly every quarter. The Government are committed to ensuring that all homes and small businesses are offered smart meters by the end of 2020.
Let me turn to new clause 1. Future smart meter communication licensees will need to demonstrate that they are a “fit and proper person” to carry out relevant functions. That will include factors such as the ownership of the proposed licensee, but it is not appropriate to judge suitability solely on that basis, nor to exclude non-GB companies by default. Doing so would risk failing to deliver value for money for consumers, which could undermine the effectiveness of the smart meter system. I also emphasise that the Government take the national security implications of foreign control and ownership seriously. We have powers under the Enterprise Act 2002 to intervene in mergers and takeovers that give rise to public interest concerns, including about national security.
New clause 2 is about the technical development of smart meters. Overall, we expect that more than 99.25% of premises will be covered by the national communications network. In homes, the standard wireless network will serve the majority of premises successfully. We want 100% of energy consumers to be able to benefit from smart meters, but it is true—this was raised by the Opposition—that the physical characteristics or location of a consumer’s home can affect connectivity. Challenges for systems include a diverse range of building types, including those in which meters can be a long way from the living space. We are working with the industry to identify innovative solutions and extend regulatory powers, because it is very important to have that flexibility.
Will the Minister give way?
I will, but I will make some progress first.
New clause 3 concerns the efficient removal and disposal of old meters. My officials have discussed this in detail with those from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as this falls within their remit. This point was brought up very eloquently by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak. I am satisfied that energy suppliers, installation contractors and meter asset providers are already subject to appropriate regulation for the proper removal, recycling and disposal of redundant meters. However, as I said in Committee, we plan shortly to host a roundtable so that interested Members can hear from representatives from across the meter disposal chain. It is my intention that that will allow us collectively to agree some action. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman and other interested Members being there, because the whole supply chain has to fully understand its responsibilities.
I will briefly focus on concerns raised about the programme costs and benefits.
Will the Minister give way?
Yes, I apologise.
I thank the Minister for giving way. What I am concerned about, as always, is the urban-rural divide. We know that many rural areas are still suffering from a lack of access to broadband. Will he assure us that the rural delivery of this project is a priority, given that a lot of people in rural areas suffer because they are off the gas grid anyway?
I totally give that undertaking to the hon. Gentleman, and I apologise for saying that I would take his intervention and then forgetting to do so. I hope he will forgive me.
I said during previous debates that we would update our analysis if there were new and substantive evidence or changes in policy design. As a result of the representations that have been made in Committee and today, I am prepared to go further by committing to publishing an update of the programme cost-benefit analysis in 2019. As hon. Members know, 2018 marks a significant programme transition, with the shift from first to second-generation smart meters, so I think that 2019 really is the time to assess this.
As for new clauses 5 and 6, I do not believe that it is sensible to establish powers that enable the Government to require the provision of information on the costs of the programme in consumers’ energy bills, because I do not understand what benefit such a move would have for consumers. However, it is important that consumers understand the information that smart meters and in-house displays give them, because in that way, they understand the cost of their energy usage in pounds and pence—or as my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) would say, pounds, shillings and pence, and probably farthings. She is a lady after my own heart. That will empower them either to change how they use energy, or to get a better tariff.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak has raised concerns, as he did in Committee, about the MAPs—not pictures of the world, but meter asset providers—because he believes that the provider market is not working to deliver the programme objectives. I remain of the view, however, as I have clearly stated to him before—we will have to agree to disagree, I think—that the market is operating competitively and that there is no need for regulatory intervention. There are currently two typical rental arrangements available: churn contracts and deemed contracts, which he mentioned. Churn contracts are often similar to the original rental agreements, including with the presence of an early-repayment charge in the event that a supplier chooses to remove the meter from the wall early. Deemed contracts do not include that charge, but carry the added risk for a MAP that they can involve higher rental charges. The important point is that the DCC has published its detailed plan for the enrolment of SMETS meters from late 2018, and as progress is made, I fully expect energy suppliers’ confidence in choosing churn contracts over deemed rentals to increase. Initial indications support that expectation.
I turn briefly to the amendment on the draft licence modifications envisaged under a power in the Bill to allow the costs of smart meter communication administration to be recouped from the industry, in so far as there is a shortfall. The potential scale of the costs will depend on a number of factors, including the timing and reason for the DCC licensee entering special administration, and costs arising from any legal and technical expertise appointed by the administrator in support of the execution of its duties. As I committed to doing in Committee, we have formally agreed to consult on these licence modifications. We will consider and set out an assessment of the estimated potential costs that need to be recouped from the industry.
I would like to reflect on the points made about the DCC’s parent company, Capita, and to emphasise that Smart DCC Ltd is required to operate at arm’s length from Capita. Provisions in the licence prevent Capita from taking working capital out of Smart DCC Ltd. Furthermore, the DCC’s financial arrangements are constructed so as to make the risk of insolvency low. Putting in place a special administration regime is entirely precautionary and, I believe, the prudent thing to do.
The smart metering programme will secure an overall net benefit to the nation of £5.7 billion. The Bill is important to ensuring that this vital platform for our smart energy future is rolled out effectively, allowing the Government to respond to developments as the roll-out continues. I hope that these arguments will persuade Opposition Members not to press their new clauses and amendments.
I am disappointed that the Minister did not give us a better explanation and understanding of what “offer” means as far as smart meter roll-out is concerned. Indeed, that question was raised from the Conservative Benches. It might be that the Secretary of State can better illuminate us on Third Reading. Strictly speaking, however, that does not relate to the new clauses and amendments, on which we have had a good debate. If necessary, there will be further such debate in another place. This evening, however, it would not be wise to divide the House, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Third time.
The roll-out of smart meters, on which the Bill is focused, forms an important foundation for the smart systems and flexibility plan, which was published last year, and which sets out a number of actions to deliver a smarter, more flexible energy system that supports innovation in smart products and services. It is part of our industrial strategy ambition to make Britain one of the best places for energy innovation and clean growth, to the benefit of consumers, workers, investors and the environment. More broadly, the roll-out is an important part of our reforms of the energy market, driving engagement and competition. Smart meters will offer consumers much more knowledge about their energy use, which they can use to get the best deals possible. It complements the measures in our forthcoming retail energy Bill, which will protect consumers and ensure that the market is working for loyal customers.
Before I say more about the Bill, let me take a moment to express my gratitude to Members for the way in which they have engaged with the Bill. I thank all Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to its development, especially those who participated in the Committee and Report stages. I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Clerks and the House authorities, the experts who gave oral evidence to the Committee, the organisations that took time to provide expert written evidence, and my officials, who have worked very hard and will continue to do so as the Bill proceeds.
I also thank both Opposition spokesmen. As ever, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) brought to bear his long-standing interest in and deep knowledge of these matters. Members have offered challenges and insight throughout the Bill’s passage, and their contributions—in response to many of which my hon. Friend has been able to make commitments—will aid this important programme.
Debates on a number of amendments have resulted in commitments to publishing more substantive annual reports on the progress of the smart meter roll-out, undertaking a public consultation on the expected cost impact on consumers before laying the licence modifications enabling the special administration regime cost recovery mechanism to take effect, and working with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), to promote best practice in the recycling and reuse of old meters.
The extended regulatory powers proposed in the Bill will enable the Government to continue to oversee and facilitate the smart meter roll-out. It will enable them to maintain appropriate consumer safeguards, and, in particular, to act on the findings of monitoring and a post-roll-out review. It will protect smart meter services for both consumers and businesses by providing the enabling framework for a special administration regime for the national data and communications provider. Having been amended in Committee, it will also support the efficient and effective delivery of half- hourly settlement by the energy regulator Ofgem.
As the House knows, half-hourly settlement is another important stepping stone to that smarter, more flexible energy system. It will help to deliver benefits both to consumers and to the energy system as a whole by incentivising energy suppliers to develop and offer time-of-use tariffs. That will empower consumers by enabling them to use energy when it is cheapest, and reward them for being flexible about when they use energy. It will also help to make the energy system more resilient as we move towards an increasingly low-carbon generation mix.
The Bill will ultimately ensure that this country is more efficient, resilient, empowered and smart in its consumption of energy. I commend it to the House.
My comments will be brief.
The Opposition do not oppose the Bill, and will support its Third Reading. However, there are still a number of outstanding issues, two of which have come to the fore since the Committee stage. First, there is the alarming fact that Capita, which wholly owns the Data Communications Company, has issued a profit warning, and company shares, as of last Thursday, have fallen to a 20-year low. All the communications and infrastructure for the operation of smart meters have been outsourced to Capita, and, in turn, Capita has engaged partners in the DCC to operate aspects of its overall function. As a result of the Bill, a special administration regime will hopefully mitigate the impact on smart metering should Capita’s fortunes worsen, but I reiterate the Opposition’s concern that if the DCC goes into administration, consumers will pay the price through this administration regime. Why should they pay the price for yet another failed outsourcing? I wonder what the Secretary of State’s rationale was for forcing them to pay for such failure.
In the case of the DCC, there will be some protection should Capita fail, but what about the detail, and what about contingency plans in relation to Capita’s other ventures? Indeed, what immediate measures are the Government putting in place for any potential collapse of Capita? Capita is a major outsourcing firm which last year alone was awarded 154 Government contracts. My colleague the shadow Cabinet Office Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), last week said
“that the Government’s behaviour in response…has been marked by indifference to corporate mismanagement, incompetence in office and complacency in the face of a crisis.”—[Official Report, 1 February 2018; Vol. 635, c. 980.]
We need assurances that any contingency plans will protect services and information, guarantee jobs for current employees, and protect the pensions of those employees and the pensions of the public sector workers that the company is managing. Will the Secretary of State in time provide those much needed assurances?
The second development is that the National Audit Office has announced it will be investigating the economic case for the roll-out of smart meters and looking at whether the Government are on track to achieve their target to roll out meters by 2020. The report is expected in the summer of this year. I would not want to pre-empt the National Audit Office, but it would seem that it is not only Opposition Members who are concerned that the Government are on track to miss their target at consumers’ expense. Indeed, it seems extremely likely they will miss this target, given that 40,000 gas and electricity meters would need to be installed per day even on present projections; that is no mean feat and perhaps why the language has changed to state that consumers will be offered smart meters rather than there will be installation per se. It seems irresponsible of the Government to have rejected Labour’s new clause 4, which would require the Secretary of State to publish a report and a cost-benefit analysis relating to the smart meter implementation programme and lay a copy of the report before Parliament within three months of the Act coming into force.
I referred to the energy price cap on Second Reading and I do so again now as it has been three months since then and still no action has been taken. It is estimated that customers are to pay somewhere between £130 and £200 on their bills to recover the costs of the installation of a smart meter on their property. This is in addition to the price increases inflicted by energy providers. The Government have promised a price cap and we have had sight of legislation to implement it, but we are still a long way off an energy price cap having any real impact on household bills. I would like to take this opportunity to say to the Secretary of State that although the days are starting to get longer and the weather milder—although this week is a slight exception to that—we on this side of the House have not forgotten the Conservatives’ promise of an energy price cap, and specifically to knock at least £100 from 17 million household bills.
I join the Secretary of State in thanking all those who have spoken throughout the passage of this Bill and all Committee members who have worked so diligently. I thank the Front-Bench teams for the good nature of the debates we have had on this issue, and especially my Labour colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), an expert who revels in the detail and minutiae of smart meters and has seen not one but two Bills through the House over the last two months—and who could forget his jovial use of the props Gaz and Leccy on Second Reading? [Interruption.] Google it; it is not to be missed. I also thank the Public Bill Office and the Clerks of the House for all their assistance on this Bill.
It is important to point out that we in the SNP accept that there are some real advantages to the consumer in switching to a smart meter and to smart meters in general. However, that does not mean that I suggest that the roll-out will be trouble-free and that I have no concerns about it, because that would not be true. Before proceeding, however, I would like to point out that I accept that the Minister has been receptive throughout to my concerns and the concerns of others across this House in Committee and beyond, and I thank him for that. I know he is keen to get this right, as we all are, and I thank him for his listening, consensual and constructive approach.
In the past, I pointed out to the Minister that I had concerns about aggressive selling which I believe is, as I have said, a result of Ofgem having the power to fine energy companies up to 10% of their annual turnover if they fail to meet their licence conditions—or certainly not assisted by that fact. One of the licence conditions is that each energy company should install smart meters in consumer homes by the end of 2020. Failure to do so can result in a massive penalty for the company. That being the case, aggressive selling starts to make more sense, given the pressure that energy companies are under to deliver smart meters to consumer homes within a rather tight deadline. I continue to detect a level of suspicion and scepticism about smart meters among far too many consumers. I hope that the Minister will accept that the licence conditions place pressure on the energy companies to roll out smart meters by 2020, and that that can place pressure on consumers in turn.
I am sure that, like me, the Minister will have been disturbed to learn of recent reports of energy companies employing salespeople to go out and proactively sell smart meters to consumers. If the reports are true, those salespeople can earn commissions of more than £1,000 week, which equates to bonuses of twice what the average worker earns in a year. Will the Minister acknowledge that this can lead to overbearing and aggressive doorstep selling, which can put consumers under pressure? Does he share my concerns about this? If so, what steps can he take to address it?
Cold calling is a discredited way of selling that puts undue pressure on consumers, particularly vulnerable ones. Does the Minister think that this is an acceptable way to proceed, given the rewards that sales reps can earn if they “persuade” enough people to install a smart meter? Is sending target-hungry salespeople to chap on the doors of the elderly and vulnerable the most desirable way we can think of to roll out smart meters? I would be extremely disappointed if the Minister—and indeed Ofgem—thought so. We know that doorstep energy selling was left with a very poor reputation after a series of investigations by Ofgem led to suppliers being fined millions of pounds for misleading customers over how much they could save. This resulted, between 2011 and 2012, in all the big six suppliers scrapping face-to-face sales practices, but smaller energy companies are now once again sending staff out to knock on doors. Is the Minister entirely comfortable with that? What reassurances can he offer to consumers and vulnerable members of our communities that they have the protection they need from such companies?
The Minister will also be aware of concerns about misleading letters being sent to consumers suggesting that smart meters are compulsory rather than optional. I want to put on record my thanks to the Minister for sending me samples of letters that have gone out to consumers from various energy companies, in order to reassure me. However, very few of those letters point out that smart meters are optional, and that the customer can refuse to have one. All the power companies in the sample of the largest suppliers say absolutely nothing about smart meters being optional. Does the Minister think that that is acceptable? Is he, like me and the trading standards authorities, concerned about this? If so, what action can Ofgem take to address the situation?
What is going on with the “You have been chosen for a free upgrade to a smart meter” letters that some companies are sending to consumers? I wish all consumers were aware that when a business tells them that they have been “specially selected” for something, it usually means that everyone has been “specially selected” for it and that the term is meaningless. Another old favourite involves the words “You are eligible”, which is also misleading, because everyone is eligible. If we all have the option to have a smart meter, why do some companies feel that it is honest and in order to tell us that we have been “specially selected”, or that we are “eligible” for one? Does the Minister have concerns about this way of misleading customers?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. I was trying to attract her attention while she was mid-speech. The type of sales proposal she has mentioned is totally unacceptable. It is not within the regulations, and if she would like to write to me or see me with specific examples, I will take the matter up with the regulators myself.
I thank the Minister for his response, but the information that I am imparting tonight comes from the sample of letters that the Minister sent to me, so some energy companies are clearly using this sharp practice. I would not say that all of them are, but some are certainly not saying that smart meters are optional, instead using language such as “You are eligible” or “You have been specially selected,” which is unacceptable.
Does my hon. Friend share my worry that vulnerable citizens may fall foul of such things? For example, my constituent Mr Vezza ended up with no power for three years when his electricity was cut off due to a misunderstanding because he did not want a smart meter installed. He was so fearful about getting in touch with the energy company that he has been living without electricity for three years.
I am sure that the Minister listened carefully to that intervention, because that is an example of the kind of extreme situation that some vulnerable consumers can find themselves in. The Minister will be keen to investigate such things, because it is simply unacceptable that vulnerable consumers can be left in such dire circumstances.
I have real concerns about the mythology being sold to consumers that smart meters are free. That needs to be addressed, because they are not free. We all pay for them through our energy bills. Why has that not been communicated to the consumer? The Minister and I do not see eye to eye on this, but if there is no intention to mislead, why is the consumer not being told that smart meters are not free—in the sense that a normal person would understand the term? Free means that it costs nothing. Smart meters are being paid for by all of us through our bills. As I said on Report, the cost of smart meters is £11 billion and rising. Smart Energy GB has referred to a Government cost-benefit analysis, but I am particularly worried about the figure. I will not be the only person in the House to be closely monitoring it, because I fear that it may rise, and that goes to the heart of consumer confidence. If there is no intention to mislead, what is the harm in energy companies clearly communicating with consumers about the costs that will be incurred when they get a smart meter? I would be interested in the Minister’s reflections on that.
Some of the letters from energy companies that I have seen about deemed appointment are pushy. One particular company sent a letter to consumers stating that smart meters are flawed and will not work when if they switch supplier, meaning that consumers should not switch after receiving a smart meter. That is what I call the cart pulling the horse. What does the Minister think of that practice? Ofgem talks about the deemed appointment system being acceptable, but I do not agree. Ofgem states that suppliers must ensure that they are compliant with their wider regulatory and other legal obligations and that suppliers should monitor consumer experiences. I wonder, then, what Ofgem makes of letters telling people that it is not advisable to change supplier once a smart meter has been installed because it will not work.
The Minister is well aware of my concerns and of the fact that many people are extremely suspicious about smart meters, not because they do not want to have greater control over the energy they use, not because they do not want to know which appliances are consuming high levels of power, not because they want to put estimated bills behind them, and not because they do not want to see the energy they are using in real time. People are suspicious because of the hard sell and the misinformation telling them they do not have a choice when they know that they do. Reports of target-driven, sales-hungry cold callers will do nothing to dispel that suspicion; it will only increase it.
I will end where I began. Despite everything that I have said, there are benefits to having a smart meter. However, as I have been saying for a long time, the Government and the energy companies need to ensure that consumers are at the heart of the process. Consumers will get on board by having access to correct and accurate information. Misleading information will only further alienate the consumers who could potentially benefit most from smart meters. That cannot be good. Energy efficiency is extremely important, and never more so than in households that are struggling to make ends meet, in which fuel poverty remains at 78%. Smart meters can help people to take measures that may help them and their household to have greater control over energy consumption. That is why we must get this right, and we must take consumers with us. I fear that we have a long way to go, given some of the concerns I have raised.
I urge the Minister to reflect further on the very real concerns I have raised—from my past experience, I know he will—and to do all he can to address them.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
Ownership restrictions to successor licensees
“(1) The Secretary of State may impose conditions on to the future DCC successor licensee as appropriate.
(2) Conditions in subsection (1) may include restrictions to British owned companies subject to the expiry of any contrary obligations under EU or retained EU law, as defined in the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018.”—(Dr Whitehead.)
This new clause would allow the Secretary of State to restrict future DCC successor licensees to British owned companies.
Brought up, and read the First time.
The Bill itself restricts legislation to the circumstances in which the DCC is rescued if it goes into administration. These are reasonable provisions, but they do not really address the current situation with the DCC and the sorry picture that it currently presents to us. The assumption behind the provisions is that the DCC might fail to carry out its functions because contributing bodies—that is, companies engaged in smart meter roll-out—might default on their obligations. But there are now surely two other scenarios in which the clauses in the Bill might need to be actioned: one if the company running the DCC decides to reorganise itself and walks away from the contract; and another if the company itself is unable to trade. Those scenarios are both unlikely, but they do need consideration.
I must say, for the record, that the Government might well have intervened regarding the contract on the DCC. My ideal way of running the DCC would be for it to be a public body, not responsible to a company. The formation of the DCC—maybe at a future date, should the circumstances be different—as a not-for-profit public interest body concerned with the proper administration of the whole smart meter arrangement, in the public interest and for the public good, would be the best way to organise things. That is not the position now, however, and it may not be for some time.
Amendment 1 would address some of those issues, as do new clause 5 and new clause 6, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). New clause 1 would deal with how one might align the public interest and public good with circumstances in which a successor company might be called on in the event of administration procedures. On this occasion, it would give the power to the Secretary of State, as it would give the Secretary of State discretion to look at the circumstances of a tender or a post-administration arrangement—presumably also by tender —in circumstances in which, for example, a non-GB company were to become the successor or putative successor company running the DCC.
Without entering into any great conspiracy theories, we have to have some regard for the ownership and running of an organisation that holds a huge amount of information about what we do, who we are and how we work. That is vital information concerning not just our activities but our aggregate activities. Ensuring that the company running the DCC is working appropriately in the national interest with that information and with that crucial role seems quite an important issue to consider. It would be prudent for the Secretary of State to have that power available to him or her so that we can put our affairs in order concerning what continues to be an unlikely, but not completely impossible, sequence of events. We ought to have it on our minds, however, in case these events occur. In that way, we can rescue not only the position of the administrator, but what the company subsequently does in the national interest as far as keeping control of all this data and running a smart meter programme are concerned.
It will also be important to know what the possible effect on bills will be in the event that the company went into administration. There might be circumstances in which the DCC goes into administration, is rescued in the manner suggested in the Bill, is put forward on a different basis and ends up being a net cost-benefit problem to the public. But apparently we do not know the likely cost in such circumstances or what the benefit might be, and we do not have any mechanism for appraising that against what else is in the cost-benefit analysis. Amendment 1 gives the Secretary of State a tool to do just that.
The DCC will also be crucial to the ability of the system properly to reach to everyone who wants a smart meter installed. The Minister himself accepts that it is by no means clear how we are going to be able to solve some of the problems of the home area network and the wide area network, known respectively as the HAN and the WAN. The home area network deals with the communications between the meter, the house and the immediate external data receiver. The wide area network relates to the extent to which data receivers can operate in certain areas where population is sparse or where there are geographical difficulties in getting coverage and so on. In those circumstances, the Government reported in the documents that went before the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee:
“Smart meters make use of a home area network to link the smart meter to consumer devices such as the in-house display or smart appliances. The technical solutions already being delivered currently apply to approximately 96.5% of premises. In some premises such as apartments in high-rise buildings where there is a long distance between the smart meter and the premises, these solutions are not viable.”
That means, basically, that a number of properties in cities and urban areas will not be able to receive home area networks in the way that we want them to. Also, a number of homes that are not in urban areas but in rural areas will not get any signal at all. We need to make sure that they can receive, on a wide area network basis, the signals that they need to make their smart meters work. The Department considers that
“99% of premises in Great Britain are capable of being connected to the DCC through the wide area network.”
The alternative HAN forum is hard at work on trying to work out how to get smart meter signals into flats. I do not know whether there is an alternative WAN forum working out how to carry out wide area network reorganisation. The Department states:
“A different solution may be necessary to provide coverage to smart meters in the remaining hard to reach premises which the wide area network does not cover. It might be considered appropriate to create a licensable activity”
the same as for the home area network
“that relates to arranging the establishment of communications to these properties.”
The Department has in mind two licensable activities that may arise when those solutions are under way. As regards the wide area network, I understand that technical solutions such as patching—
Smart meters facilitate a smart grid. A smart grid facilitates smart homes, smart businesses and smart communities. There are all kinds of benefits available to consumers from smart meters and the creation of a smart grid, and powerful environmental and conservation arguments stand up in favour of the smart grid. The internet of things will facilitate smart appliances connected to a smart grid, and everything hinges on the flow of data. We are back then to the smart meter.
The most obvious and immediate advantage, which the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) referred to, is the end of estimated bills for those who have smart meters, with accurate meter readings that reflect real-time energy usage. I hope that that will mean there is more accuracy in the adjustments that should be made to monthly direct debits. While I appreciate the importance of spreading the cost of a year’s supply of energy across 12 monthly payments, there should be scope for greater accuracy, with more valid and true information available. The total cost of energy used will, I hope, then be more closely monitored, which should allow direct debits to reflect the true cost of the energy used in a person’s home.
MAPs have established their place in the energy sector by securing the initial funding for smart meters, so that energy suppliers can arrange to have smart meters installed without absorbing the initial costs. The MAPs provide the capital and then rent their meters to the suppliers, which pass the meters on to their customers. I argue that this needs some regulation and oversight because MAPs have emerged as one of the factors leading to the rising costs of the smart meter programme. The rental costs charged by MAPs are increasing and these costs are being passed directly to the customer. The costs are known as deemed rentals.
Where a supplier acquires a new customer and does not have a contract with the MAP that owns the new customer’s smart meter, the supplier has a choice either to pay the MAP a substantially higher rental cost, or to turn the existing meter to dumb mode and, usually, replace it with an identical meter from a different provider. As hon. Members can see, that leads to rising prices, but no customer benefit. Ofgem claims that it sees smart meters as an important step in protecting consumers, but it has done nothing to protect them or suppliers from the rise of the middleman market.
The continuing uncertainty over SMETS 2—we have already heard about that—and the DCC has led to a situation where it is rarely in the interests of the supplier to take on the high cost of the deemed rental on a SMETS 1 meter. They are constantly told that SMETS 2 is just around the corner. Equally, MAPs are going to charge as much as they can get for their SMETS 1 meters because they do not know how long the SMETS l market will last. The unresolved interoperability problems and delays with the DCC are creating a market where the customer is the clear loser. It is absurd that we should end up in a situation where it makes more sense to switch an existing meter to dumb mode and then install an identical one because of the MAP charges.
In the Public Bill Committee, the Minster acknowledged this issue, but he said he regarded it as a technical failure, rather than a market failure. The smart meter industry is of course a technology trade and, consequently, a technical failure must also lead to a market failure. The Minister assured the Committee that the technical interoperability issues would be resolved in the timeframe outlined by his Department. That means that the interoperability problem of SMETS l meters should have been resolved by now. Will he tell the House today whether his confidence has been justified—has it been resolved?
The longer the uncertainty over the roll-out continues, the longer this farce will persist. The constant wavering over the date by which SMETS 1 meters will no longer count towards the 2020 target is part of the problem. As we have heard, the Government have repeatedly revised the date, most recently from July to September this year. Will the Minister say whether this is the last change, or can we expect another postponement?
The Minister will know that the problem of high deemed rentals will not go away, even if he resolves the SMETS 1 interoperability issue, and that many smaller suppliers have already been in touch with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about this, because they fear a similar problem if we ever reach a mass roll-out of SMETS 2.
I understand that, in origin, the issue is certainly a technical rather than a market problem, because unlike mobile phones, which are data-level interoperable, SMETS 2 meters are required to be device-level interoperable. The concern is that SMETS 2 meters might not technically merge at the device level alongside other SMETS 2 meters—for example, there might be no device-level interoperability for electricity and gas meters. That defeats the purpose. The excessively high deemed rentals need to be brought under control. Regulation is essential to protect consumers. The amendments would empower the Government and Ofgem to do just that. If the Minister will not accept them, I hope that the other place will take a serious look at them.
Let me quickly touch on new clause 4, which relates to the legal obligation on energy suppliers to take all reasonable steps to meet the 2020 target of every household being offered a smart meter. New clause 4 simply outlines some reasonable steps for the Government to take to ensure a timely, cost-effective and successful completion of the roll-out—one that protects consumers and ensures that the benefits are fully realised. As we have heard, only about 15% of the 53 million meters that could be installed by 2020 have been installed to date. I am advised by an industry insider that, even if the programme were to achieve unparalleled success from hereon in, the best that could be hoped for by 2020 is 65% to 70% coverage.
The costs have been increasing spectacularly and the roll-out now represents a net cost to consumers, rather than a benefit. We do not know how many smart meters are currently operating in dumb mode. The last figure that the Government provided was 460,000 meters, but some suggest that it may be as high as 20% of all installs—three times what the Government suggested. The costs faced by the DCC—as we have heard, it is basically owned by Capita, whose economic health the Government should now be at least concerned about—have increased by 56% since 2014. There do not appear to be any proper cost controls, so as the cost rises, so do customers’ bills.
The Minister will remember that he promised to
“deliver further information via the annual update of the smart meter implementation programme”.––[Official Report, Smart Meters Public Bill Committee, 28 November 2017; c. 167.]
I do not recall him explaining why publication of annual reports ceased. No doubt it was just a coincidence that it happened when we began to see persistent delays and missed targets. As the failures associated with the programme grow, I believe it is vital that we have an unequivocal commitment to a regular progress report, so that Parliament and the wider world can properly assess the roll-out and cost of the programme. As we have heard, new clause 4 would require the Secretary of State to publish an updated cost-benefit analysis. The last one is two years old. At that time, the net benefits had been revised down by £500 million. Surely the customer and Parliament need to know if we are on course for any net benefits at all.
The Minister will remember that, as we heard earlier, we were led to believe in Committee that 250 SMETS 2 meters had been connected to the DCC network, which at the time everyone agreed was a rather low number. Last week, after first denying in response to a freedom of information request that the Government knew the figure, his Department claimed that it was 80, not 250, and that most of those meters are staff test meters. Does the Minister regard that as the kind of new evidence that he thinks might lead him to think again about a cost-benefit analysis of the programme?
Let me touch finally on new clauses 5 and 6. According to the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill, the purpose of extending the powers is so that the Secretary of State can ensure that the benefits of the roll-out are fully realised and customers properly protected. One way to protect consumers, especially from rising costs, is to tell everyone the truth about what things are really costing. That is what new clauses 5 and 6 are designed to achieve. They would give the Secretary of State the power to amend the supplier licence, so that suppliers included the cost of the smart meter programme in all customer bills. New clause 6 would require the Secretary of State to commission an independent review of the costs to the consumer. Utilita Energy, which supplies part of the prepay meter stock, has claimed that the roll-out cost per household has risen from £5 to £13 over 12 months. As the Minister will know, Centrica says that the cost to its customers is up to about £40 per year for the average household. Almost all the large suppliers now say that the rising costs of the smart meter programme are one of the main reasons for the rise in customer bills.
Of course, were Capita and the DCC to find themselves in financial trouble—something that was ruled out in Committee—that would have serious implications for who would pick up the tab. If the costs of the roll-out continue to increase and visible benefits decrease, this could obviously become a very expensive IT white elephant. I believe that the Government’s position is that they will intervene if they believe the costs to the customer are rising beyond what is reasonably acceptable. Can the Minister say whether he thinks £13 or £40 per year is acceptable, or how much higher the cost has to go before it is not acceptable? Who pays at that point? Will it be the taxpayers? Of course it will, but they are also the customers.
There is still time for Ministers to show that they have not got their heads in the sand on this programme. There is still time for the Bill to be improved and for concern about rising costs and the impact on consumers to be taken seriously. I hope that the Minister will indicate tonight that he is prepared to accept some changes. I regret that we are not pushing harder for them as an Opposition, but I hope that the other place will look seriously at the risks of a technology white elephant, outrageous rises in energy bills and the risk of a failed smart meter programme brought about because some people just will not listen to common sense.