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Government mishandling smart meter roll-out, says committee

The Science and Technology Committee accuses the government of being unclear on the benefits of gas and electricity smart meters, and mishandling aspects of the national roll-out

The government is failing to accurately put across the benefits of smart meters, and has incorrectly overstated the potential cost-savings to individual consumers, according to recent analysis of the ongoing project by the Science and Technology Committee.

The committee’s interim chair and member of Parliament (MP) for Twickenham, Tania Mathias, said the government had listed 11 different objectives for the smart meter project, including saving money on energy bills, but this was a comparatively low-value benefit.

“It would be easy to dismiss the smart meter project as an inefficient way of saving a small amount of money on energy bills, but the evidence suggests there are major national benefits, including establishing a smarter, more secure energy grid,” said Mathias.

“The government needs to have more clarity around this so householders are clear about the true benefits.”

More valuable long-term benefits would be seen around enhanced energy security for the UK into the future, and the urgent reduction of carbon emissions by optimising energy generation and supply, said Mathias.

Mathias went on to highlight the need to ensure that consumers are more engaged with the much-delayed smart meter roll-out, particularly given the target of fitting 50 million units by the end of the decade – now just over three years away.

“The evidence shows that homeowners and businesses need to receive tailored advice about how they can benefit from smart metering. The ‘smartness’ comes from what customers can do with them – fit and forget would be a wasted opportunity,” she said.

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The committee also noted that a number of early adopters – those who received upgraded smart meters during the roll-out’s initial phase five years ago – were at risk of losing the smart functionality altogether if they switched supplier, which could affect up to three million units, and said the government was failing to address this.

Additionally, having consulted with experts from GCHQ, Mathias said the government needed to be more proactive in convincing and reassuring consumers that smart meters were safe from being hacked.

However, she added that GCHQ’s involvement in the design of the system had given the committee a certain measure of confidence that security issues were now being competently handled.

Delays and confusion

This is the first evidence check report that the Science and Technology Committee has conducted on the smart meter programme, and it set the government the task of preparing statements on its evidence base for nine policy areas.

However, the committee said it encountered frustrating delays in getting responses out of the government, and in two statements, ministers were unable to supply statements where a lead department could not be identified.

This raised concerns among committee members about the government’s ability to effectively communicate the evidence behind its own policies, at best suggesting departmental inexperience and at worst, suggesting that the evidence didn’t exist to start with, said Mathias.

“Evidence should be at the heart of government policy. It is a serious concern that the government struggled to respond to our requests for evidence, and this can weaken trust in the government. Whitehall needs to improve how it communicates its evidence base and hopefully will learn from this exercise,” she said.

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