Jacob Rees-Mogg has hinted that government support with energy bills for schools, hospitals and care homes could continue in a year.
The business secretary announced on Wednesday plans to slash the cost of wholesale gas and electricity for businesses and other non-domestic customers for six months from October.
Asked if schools and other bodies would still get help in 12 months, Mr Rees-Mogg told Sky News: “Schools and hospitals and care homes are obviously going to (need to) be able to afford their energy in a year’s time as well as today.”
The cabinet minister added: “I can’t announce future schemes, it would be wrong to do so – but we need to make sure that we use this time to find out where the support is needed.”
Mr Rees-Mogg said the cost of the government’s energy support package would be in the tens of billions of pounds, but that the exact amount was hard to quantify.
“This will depend on where the price of energy goes over the winter, and that’s very difficult to forecast so I can’t give you an absolute cost,” he told reporters. “It will be in the tens of billions of pounds unquestionably.”
Despite Mr Rees-Mogg’s comments, the government insists it will not pre-empt the findings of a review due in three months’ time which will identify “vulnerable” sectors and businesses needing further support.
Liz Truss’s government said the new scheme could roughly halve the price paid for wholesale gas and electricity by non-domestic customers, which include schools and charities.
Ministers said a pub using 4 MWh of electricity and 16 MWh of gas that signed a fixed-price contract in August could see its bill drop from £7,000 to £3,900. But there was no official estimate of the average saving for businesses, due to the wide variation in consumption and contracts.
While some firms are set to make savings of 50 per cent or more on the sums which would have been demanded in the absence of a support package, most will be paying more than they did last year in cash terms.
Business groups welcomed the announcement of support for this winter. But they also warned it is just a “short-term fix” – criticising the lack of detail on which “vulnerable” non-domestic customers will continue to get support beyond six months.
“Six months support is not enough to make plans for the future,” said Shevaun Haviland, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC).
The BCC chief added: “We understand there are a range of unknowns for the government in looking ahead – but without further reassurance very few firms will make plans to invest or grow. Some businesses will still struggle to meet their bills despite this government intervention.”
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) warned of “hardship” for businesses who signed energy contracts before April, since they fall outside the scope of the scheme. The FSB’s Tina McKenzie also called for clarity on which businesses would qualify for support after six months.
“Small businesses are the definition of vulnerable when it comes to these energy price hikes,” she said. “There is no such thing as a ‘vulnerable sector’ when all small businesses with premises have been deeply affected.”
Dr Jackie Mulligan, an expert on the government’s High Streets Task Force, said the announcement had “come too late for many small businesses”, adding: “Most businesses will also be asking, what happens after six months?”
Labour said the support had come too late for some firms. “Businesses have been crying out for detail on these plans and, even now, there are still questions about how much this will cost and who will pay for it,” said shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds.
Payments for the scheme will be made by government to energy suppliers, who will be required by law to pass on savings to customers, with the threat of financial penalties if they fail to do so.
Emergency legislation will be brought in when parliament returns from its conference recess in mid-October, with savings applied to that month’s energy usage in time for bills landing in November.