Westminster Comment by Sir Robert Smith MP: The spotlight is now on energy bills

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Since my last column the spotlight has been on energy bills at meetings of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee.

First we had the regulator, Ofgem, before us where the issue of how quickly our electricity and gas bills rise and fall was raised. There is a concern that that prices rise quickly when wholesale costs rise, but are slower to fall when wholesale costs are cheaper.

The regulator highlighted the important role switching suppliers can play in keeping prices down. The Competition and Markets Authority are currently investigating the gas and electricity markets to see how fairly they operate.

Last Tuesday we returned to the issue when we had the main switching websites before us to discuss concerns that they had not been clear about the best deals on offer. Several of the sites also compare other products such as insurance.

The sites take your details and then list the deals on offer from the energy companies. If you choose to see deals that they can switch you to you will only be shown the deals that earn the site commission and not necessarily the cheapest deals. If you chose the whole market you do see all the deals, though the best deal may require you to contact the energy company directly.

The concern was that the sites were not transparent about showing the best deal when users chose to see only those deals that the switching site could organise on behalf of the user.

The switching sites have started to improve their wording following the announcement of our enquiry. Given the importance of switching to keeping bills down it is important that these sites are clear and transparent about the way they present their deals.

Last Tuesday I took part in a debate on rural phone and broadband connectivity. During the debate I made the fundamental point that in some rural areas, including parts of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, businesses and families are being left without even a basic phone line. This is not good enough and it is important that Openreach’s performance is monitored to ensure that people are not left without even a basic landline connection.

In the event that problems do occur customers should receive compensation. It is important that people receive recompense for a failure to deliver, particularly as it can be a very frustrating and inconvenient experience to have to wait for months for a connection to be installed.

There are many oil and gas businesses operating in the North-east that deal with large amounts of data.

A number of these companies are based in rural parts of Aberdeenshire and it is essential that they have good connectivity. As the oil and gas industry is put under increased pressure as a result of the downturn in the oil price, it is all the more important that the North-east remains an attractive place for companies.

The North-east needs to be competitive with other oil and gas provinces and so the money that the UK Government has provided needs to be used by the Scottish Government to deliver on the ground. This will help to support the industry and keep it anchored to the North-east. As well as connectivity improvements, investment in infrastructure to improve transport links is also needed.

Responsibility for delivering phone and broadband connectivity lies with the Scottish Government and I have called for them to deliver improvements for rural communities. Phone and broadband connections should be viewed as being essential utilities like electricity and water and much more needs to be done to ensure that rural homes and businesses are connected.

On Sunday I attended the Founder’s Day service for the University of Aberdeen.

It was a reminder of the benefit we have received from the foresight of previous generations. I would like to pay tribute to the excellent performance by the choir at the service.