‘(1) Before making the first framework regulations the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a report on what, if any, steps the Secretary of State has taken to encourage green deal installation apprenticeships.
(2) A “green deal installation apprenticeship” is an apprenticeship which provides training on how to install energy efficiency improvements at properties.’.—(Gregory Barker.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: new clause 8—Support from the Green Investment Bank
‘(1) The Secretary of State must, within six months of this Act receiving Royal Assent, report to Parliament with proposals on the ways in which the Green Investment Bank could maximise the take up of the Green Deal.
(2) The report required by section (1) shall include an examination of the extent to which action taken by the Green Investment Bank could—
(a) reduce interest rates linked to the repayment of Green Deal loans and the impact this may have on consumer demand;
(b) support the research into and development of technologies which could increase household energy efficiency.’.
Government amendment 29.
Amendment 26, in clause 3,†page†4,†line†29, at end insert—
‘(j) Prohibiting the sale of products and services during Green Deal assessment and installation visits which are not eligible for Green Deal financing unless those products are recognised as being able to reduce household CO2emissions.’.
Government amendment 30.
Amendment 49,†page†5,†line†2, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘will’.
Amendment 28,†in clause 4, page†6,†line†16, at end insert—
‘(9A) The ninth condition is that the green deal provider meets any requirement specified in the framework regulations as to the level of interest charged on the plan’.
Amendment 50,†page†6,†line†16, at end insert—
‘(9A) The ninth condition is that the green deal provider meets any requirement specified in the framework regulations to enable the consumer to compare recommendations and estimated costs and savings.’.
Amendment 27,†in clause 5, page†6,†line†34, at end add—
‘(e) a term permitting the improver to specify whether the instalments will be paid via his electricity bill or his gas bill;
(f) a term permitting the improver to change his decision taken pursuant to paragraph (e).’.
Government amendments 31 to 34.
Amendment 45,†in clause 18, page†15,†line†4, after ‘may’, insert ‘and may not’.
Government amendment 36.
It is a pleasure to be back in the House to debate this historic Energy Bill one last time before it moves back for the last time to the other place. To better inform the debate on the amendments before us, I shall update the House briefly on the progress made over the summer on a number of issues that were raised in Committee.
We had a lively discussion on measures eligible for green deal finance. That was led by Huw Irranca-Davies, who championed the power shower. I committed to an early refresh of the Government paper to take into account queries about our position on water efficiency and recommendation of measures outside the green deal. That has been done. After our exploration in Committee of the detail of the energy company obligation—an important part of the Bill—I agreed that my officials would meet Dr Whitehead to discuss our brokerage proposal. That has been done.
The private rented sector was another important subject of debate—fruitful debate, I hope—with contributions from Tessa Munt, among others. I shall say more about that later. My officials are setting up a new workshop to look specifically at how the provisions can best work with older buildings, which present a challenge to the green deal, particularly older historic buildings.
Lastly, I am pleased to report progress on energy efficiency for service family accommodation, following the excellent suggestion of my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith. My officials have had a number of meetings with their counterparts in the Ministry of Defence and, having agreed the shared objective of improving the energy efficiency of accommodation, are investigating the best ways to achieve that. As I mentioned in Committee, it is a complex problem owing to the unique nature of service family accommodation. None the less, I am optimistic that a solution will be found to satisfy the House and, most importantly, service families.
We have a large group of amendments, not all of which were tabled by the Government. I propose to speak to the Government amendments in my opening remarks and address the other amendments in my closing remarks, rather than pre-empt them before the Members who tabled them have spoken. That should make for a more orderly debate. There is nothing more annoying than having one’s arguments addressed before one has even had a chance to make them to the House.
The Government amendments are largely technical. Government amendments 31 to 34 cover disclosure. They enable the Secretary of State, if necessary, to require a green deal provider to produce a further document containing information about the green deal plan as part of the confirmation process. This would be in addition to the energy performance certificate. Both documents would then have to be disclosed to future bill payers. These amendments therefore enable the Secretary of State to require, if necessary, additional information about the green deal plan to be given to future bill payers as part of the disclosure process. This small amendment responds to the concerns of stakeholders and the concerns that were expressed in Committee about consumer protection, particularly in the rented sector. We have moved to tighten that up.
On the transfer of payments, Government amendment 29 is a technical amendment which makes it clear on the face of the Bill that when collecting payments, energy companies are acting in an agent and trustee capacity for the green deal provider which, in many cases, will not be the energy company itself. This is in line with the policy that I set out in Committee. Liability for green deal payments should sit on the balance sheet not of the of energy companies, but of the green deal provider.
Without this clarification, there is a risk that payments received would be the property of the energy company until they were remitted to the green deal provider, which might enable an administrator to claim green deal payments in the event of energy company insolvency. Through the amendment we can minimise this risk and, as with all risk minimisation in this process, help to push down the cost of green deal finance.
On assessment and installation, I shall deal with a number of Government amendments relating to the role of professionals operating under the green deal, and consider them with amendment 26, tabled by Caroline Lucas. Amendment 26 and Government amendment 30 relate to the role of professionals and the importance of protecting customers, while allowing the green deal to thrive. I apologise for breaking the rule that I said I would abide by in my opening comments, but this makes more sense, so I hope the hon. Lady will forgive me. I am grateful to her for raising the issue of cross-selling.
It is important to consider how and when green deals are likely to take place. Many will come about as a result of other activities, such as the installation of a new kitchen or boiler in a home. We do not wish to limit these trigger points. They will often be important opportunities to promote the green deal alongside other renovations or improvements that are happening in the home, which the householder may not have considered ahead of planning for a new bathroom, kitchen or other improvement.
Also, our market research has shown that customers would welcome and are therefore more likely to trust the involvement of local authorities, community groups and third sector organisations when thinking about entering into a green deal. This was a recurring theme in Committee, when we all agreed that the involvement of local authorities and community groups was vital to ensure the successful large-scale roll-out of the green deal. Such organisations may see participation in the green deal as a way of making people aware of other valuable services—for example, loft clearance for the elderly is an essential prerequisite for putting in insulation. Some voluntary or community groups might offer such a service in some areas at no cost or at a reduced cost.
A blanket ban could reduce the willingness of these organisations to play a full and positive role in the green deal. This could be especially detrimental to vulnerable groups such as the elderly, who are most likely to benefit from energy efficiency. It could also affect the ability of enthusiastic volunteers and community groups to encourage their neighbours by knocking on their door, sharing their enthusiasm and urging them to join in community projects. Members of a community or neighbourhood group are more likely to go round and speak to their neighbours individually, rather than e-mailing or writing to them. We are concerned that a blanket ban could be detrimental.
Our approach is therefore to be mindful of the points raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion. She is right to identify the need for strong consumer safeguards, but we believe the right way forward is to build on existing regulations which protect customers, and set out a clear enforceable framework within the green deal code of practice for such activities. This will be clearly set out in our consultation and we will seek further views on this important aspect then.
Does the Minister agree that there is a world of difference between a community group knocking on a door in order to clear a loft so that loft insulation can go ahead, and selling wallpaper, carpets and sofas, which was the example that the Minister gave in Committee? Would he come some way towards supporting my amendment, given that it clearly says that it is permissible to knock on people’s door if the aim is to reduce CO2, but not if the aim is to sell a sofa?
I am sympathetic to the thrust of the hon. Lady’s amendment, but it is not illegal to sell things door to door. There is already a code of practice for that, but we do not live in a country where it is illegal for people to sell products door to door. That is already a fact of life and we do not propose to alter it; however, we do think there should be a strong code of practice. However annoying and regressive such practices may be, trying to address them outside a code of practice—that is, through blanket legislation—could affect not just loft clearance services, but the ability to go door to door, just as we as politicians go door to door trying to convince people of our ideas.
The mobilisation of community groups across a range of issues is important. We are seeing the involvement of a number of new social enterprises and community partnerships, some of which the hon. Lady is encouraging in her constituency. Indeed, one of the most exciting things about the green deal is its potential to give rise to new third sector involvement in delivering energy efficiency services. I appreciate the intention behind her amendment 26, and although I cannot support it, I hope that she will engage with us on the consultation that we will undertake in the autumn on strengthening the code of practice. Her input will be valuable, as it has been for other elements of the Bill.
We believe that existing legislation and the green deal code of practice will protect consumers while encouraging a healthy promotion of the green deal. However, we are also clear that elements of the green deal process must be impartial if consumers are to trust the information with which they are provided. That is particularly true of the assessment.
On the code of practice, will the Minister ensure that all lessons are learnt from the failure of the energy companies to act properly on the doorstep—a fact that they are beginning to recognise themselves by abandoning doorstep selling—and that none of the bad practices from which constituents have suffered in the doorstep selling of energy are transposed into the green deal?
Yes. I have a great deal of sympathy with that point. We believe strongly that high-pressure sales tactics, which cold callers sometimes use illegally, should be prevented. When I referred previously to cold calling by assessors, that is the kind of activity to which I was referring and is, I think, what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion was thinking of too.
That is a good point. We certainly do not anticipate that assessors would be able to go door to door, give an assessment and then have people sign up there and then. There will be a cooling-off period. We considered in Committee whether an assessor could also be a representative of a commercial organisation or company. We came to the view that that could be possible, but that there would have to be a clear distinction between the roles they performed. An assessor would have to make their assessment on a uniform format and to the same standard right across the industry, so that it could be taken to other providers of green deal services. We would encourage all consumers to get a competitive quote before committing. If consumers wish to go with the first person who knocks on their door or the first person whom they invite in to make an assessment, it is obviously their right to do so. However, we are building in apparatus to ensure that that is not encouraged.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he is being extremely generous. Will he confirm whether he believes it would be possible under the legislation for an assessor, who is there to give impartial and independent advice about one’s energy consumption, also to be a representative of an energy company and to engage in the selling of energy to the consumer? It would be dangerous if the legislation permitted that.
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that an assessor would knock on someone’s door, undertake a green deal assessment and, at the same time, encourage them to switch to another tariff? [ Interruption. ] He is suggesting that they would switch hats and do that. I do not expect that to happen, not least because the assessment must be independent. However, there can be a degree of cross-selling, provided that the independent assessment is truly independent. However, I shall clarify that when we come to the technical detail of the Bill. I understand that what the hon. Gentleman describes is possible, but energy company practice would be covered by the regulations, such as the code of practice. We shall have an opportunity to look at the detail of what they can offer under the code of practice, but I would expect that type of activity to be strongly regulated.
However, it would not be impossible—indeed, it would not necessarily be a bad thing—for people to be able to switch to a better tariff at the same time as they were considering their energy usage. We are encouraging consumers to switch. Far too many families in this country are on the wrong tariff and do not take advantage of the cheaper tariffs that are available, often from their own supplier, particularly by switching to a direct debit. I would therefore not want to rule out the possibility of
a consumer taking a green deal assessment and, at the same time, switching to a cheaper, more appropriate tariff. Indeed, that might seem quite sensible, but it will be covered by the code of best practice.
Although I agree that it should always be open to people to switch to a cheaper tariff, I am sure that the Minister would agree that energy advisers operate in an independent capacity and therefore engage with the consumer in a capacity of trust. Will he therefore ensure that if any energy adviser offers advice about switching tariffs, they will have to offer independent advice and will not be able to give it as a tied agent? Otherwise, there will be a perverse incentive for the energy companies to use a new doorstep sales technique, which will involve getting through the door as an independent adviser, switching hats—which will not always be obvious to the consumer—and then selling their own product.
I will need to consider that more carefully, because we accept that assessors can be part of commercial organisations. It is not a requirement of the green deal legislation—we went through this in detail in Committee—that they have to be totally impartial and that someone else should act as a salesman. For example, gas boilers have to be fitted to the high and rigorous standards set out in CORGI guidelines, and that work must be done independently. When we take our cars for a service and MOT, that must be done impartially and to a certain standard; yet at the same time, those doing that work are selling a service. Indeed, there are several examples of where it is quite possible for professional bodies to undertake professional services independently, transparently and to a uniform format, but where at the same time they have opportunities to sell.
Indeed, that is part of the attraction of the green deal. There is a quid pro quo at work: we are using the power of the market to scale-up the deployment of energy efficiency. Although we hope to go for an ambitious and large-scale eco-subsidy to work with the green deal, ultimately we are talking about a private sector proposition. We are creating a new market, but the investment that will drive take-up will come from the private sector, and obviously those making that investment will be attracted by more than just lagging. That is a good thing, because it will drive innovation and drive prices down as it increases competition, opening up energy services from the big six companies to a new array of retailers and, we hope, small and medium-sized enterprises and local groups. Competition will be good, but for competition there must be something for people to compete for. I hope that that reassures Barry Gardiner, but I will perhaps come back a little later to the point that he has raised.
Government amendment 30, which relates to the impartiality of green deal assessors, is a result of a commitment I made in Committee, given that so many Members were seeking reassurance on this point. It clearly sets out our intention to ensure the impartiality of the assessment process, and I urge the hon. Member for Brent North to look at it closely. We believe that it should be possible for assessors to be employed by a green deal provider, allowing for a more holistic service for consumers, but that should not interfere with the
impartiality of the assessment process. The code of practice for assessors will therefore include robust requirements for green deal assessors to act in an impartial manner and declare to consumers any links that they have with green deal providers—or, indeed, energy companies. That is vital in order to retain consumer confidence in the information that they are being provided with.
The green deal seems to be a financial services product, and there will be similarities between selling that and, say, selling an ISA, rather than double glazing. This process will certainly involve selling a financial services product. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that, if the proverbial little old lady who lives alone is sold a product with a usurious interest rate, she will have recourse to the financial services ombudsman? Also, is there any intention for the Financial Services Authority to regulate the funding providers?
As this is defined as consumer finance, it will be the Office of Fair Trading, rather than the FSA, that will regulate this market. My hon. Friend makes a good point, however. It is our intention that there should be robust consumer protection, and we expect that the guidelines will be improved and refreshed to reflect the green deal. We will also expect the Office of Fair Trading to take a robust line from the very start, to ensure the integrity of the selling, and to ensure that any mis-selling is stamped out at the outset and full compensation is paid to any victims.
One of the problems with energy mis-selling was that it was a long time before many of the cases came to light. Does the Minister have any thoughts on ensuring that the standards that are to be imposed on those selling green energy are regularly inspected to ensure that any problems can be detected at an early stage, rather than finding a huge range of problems several years down the line, which is what happened following the doorstep mis-selling in the past?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will keep all elements of the green deal under close review. We are embarking on a really new, large-scale proposition; there is nothing quite like it anywhere in the world. We are pioneering a new model for energy saving, at scale, and as a result, we will need continually to monitor all aspects of it, especially those relating to selling and mis-selling. We will need to ensure that the legislation that we have put on the statute book, the codes of practice that underpin it and the secondary legislation that we will introduce in due course before the launch of the green deal remain pertinent. If we identify any areas in which we think improvements can be made, we will not hesitate to make them.
Given the Minister’s response to the question from Andrea Leadsom, it would be useful to know whether there have been any developments over the summer following our discussions on the golden rule. The distinction between the green deal and other financial products is that the cumulative cost of the rate of interest and the
cost of the installation should not exceed the amount that people are currently paying on their energy bills. We discussed that in Committee, and it would be useful to know whether there have been any developments on that front.
There has not been any substantive development on that because we have not yet undertaken the consultation on the secondary legislation that will bring in the regulations. We have begun to hold discussions with stakeholders, and we will consult on the detail of the golden rule because it forms an important part of the measures, but there was no substantive movement over the recess.
The Office of Fair Trading will regulate the contracts. Has the Minister been in contact with his counterpart in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to check on the reduction in the number of officers who are able to enforce the measures? The process will put a considerable new responsibility on to the OFT.
I have not raised the matter in person, but my officials are working closely with a number of Departments—including, importantly, BIS—on that important element of the green deal proposition. We are satisfied that the OFT will have sufficient resource properly to monitor the green deal, and we will keep that under review as the green deal rolls out.
I will deal now with new clause 10 and the consequential amendment 36. The new clause has been tabled to replace the Opposition’s amendment on green deal apprenticeships, which we accepted in Committee—a great personal victory for Luciana Berger. As I said at the time, it is important that we take expert drafting advice on any amendment to a Bill, however well intentioned it might be. I reiterate that we fully support the creation of apprenticeships in green deal-related trades, and we will be happy to report to Parliament on our progress, as the hon. Lady requested. We believe that the new clause captures the spirit of her amendment; it simply clarifies a couple of technical matters regarding the exact nature of the new obligation. It requires the Secretary of State, before making the first framework regulations, to report to Parliament on the steps that he has taken to encourage green deal installation apprenticeships. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Lady.
Taken together, these are important measures in what will be the most ambitious home improvement programme since the second world war, and I hope that the whole House will support them. There are other amendments in the group that I have yet to address.
Getting back to the financing of the green deal, is the Minister aware that 1.9 million people are in arrears with their energy bills, and that that number is increasing by the day because of the increasing price of energy? Is he also aware that 5.5 million people are living in fuel poverty, and that that figure is also rising by the day because of the problems with the energy companies? Will not those people who have been unable to pay their bills have difficulty in gaining access to finance for the green deal?
Of course they will have access, although it might vary in individual cases—I cannot give a universal commitment. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise fuel poverty, and in the Adjournment debate this evening called by his hon. Friend John Robertson we will be able to debate the matter more specifically. Importantly, for the most fuel-poor there will be the energy company obligation. We fully recognise that a significant number of families will simply not be able to afford to pay for the green deal interventions through paid-for savings, because if they cannot afford to spend the money on heating in the first place, they will not capture the savings. We will therefore ensure that the very substantial energy company obligation will be directed towards meeting the needs of those vulnerable consumers.
The energy company obligation does not wholly focus on the people I mentioned, though. My worry is that the 1.9 million people in arrears and the 5.5 million people in fuel poverty—the poorest and most vulnerable, many of whom are elderly—will not be able to get finance under green deal. I am worried that that will create more poverty and do great harm to those who need help the most.
One or two, or small numbers, may fall through the net, but by and large we have to think about how the green deal will be implemented. Many of the families and individuals the hon. Gentleman is worried about will be captured by community roll-out and street-by-street roll-out of energy efficiency improvement schemes. We have the ECO so that we can offer whole communities the same service on an equal footing, regardless of their ability to pay. We will have to think about how to ensure fairness, because we want to include people living in isolated communities or those living in a relatively prosperous areas in a detached home, perhaps on their own, but I think the vast majority of the types of vulnerable consumer the hon. Gentleman is worried about will be captured by the whole-community approach that we anticipate will be taken up by many local authorities in street-by-street approaches. We need the ECO to be able to offer insulation and home improvements to whole streets, regardless of income, to ensure that we do these things at scale. I do not pretend that we have the perfect solution, but I believe that what we have is by far the best approach in comparison with anything tried before.
With that, I will finish. I will respond to the other amendments raised by hon. Members when I wind up the debate on this group.
We are delighted that the Government are keeping the amendments proposed in Committee. We accept the proposals to make the provisions more workable, as the Minister set out.
I say at the outset that I think the green deal is a fantastic idea. As we went into the election campaign, I was very enthusiastic about it and I found a lot of support for the concept on the doorstep. I pay tribute to the ministerial team for bringing it forward so quickly and in such a concise manner. It is especially important
because it provides for improved energy efficiency of our housing stock, which is vital to protect not only the environment, but residents. It will also have the benefit of reducing carbon emissions and hopefully, if it works correctly, insulate our residents and consumers against rising energy prices. If the “pay as you save” model works as envisioned, many more homes will be made much more energy efficient than could have been achieved under the previous schemes, whose limitations anyone who has served as an MP or a local councillor will have seen. This model is a great improvement.
Affordability is massive issue for our constituents, as no doubt all of us have seen over the summer, with a large amount of correspondence in our postbags arising from various energy companies raising their prices. Citizens Advice has informed me and other Members that there has been a 78% increase in hits to its advice websites compared with a year ago. That clearly demonstrates how welcome is any measure that helps to bring down prices and encourage energy efficiency. It is in all our interests that the green deal works properly and effectively and is accessible to as many residents as possible on an equal basis.
There are some concerns—the Minister probably heard them in Committee—about the attractiveness of the green deal to certain sections of our constituents. The Great British Refurb campaign has said that although the green deal is attractive, mass demand will be contingent on a number of factors. I believe it surveyed about 2,000 people across the UK and found that whereas 56% of respondents saw the green deal as attractive, only 7% said that they would be prepared to take it up if a 6% interest rate applied. That is why my amendment focuses on interest rates.
We need to ensure that the interest rates are as low as possible to make the scheme as attractive as possible to as many people as possible. That is what amendment 28 would allow. The advantage of setting a single scheme interest rate is that it will stimulate demand from as many people as possible while forcing green deal providers to compete directly for customers based on the cost and quality of the energy efficiency measures and installation, rather than on the headline interest rate of the finance. I believe that it will also help to increase transparency and empower consumers who would find it much easier to compare different offers and the services provided by different companies.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the people most likely to be impacted by high interest rates are the poorest, so having a level playing field will ensure that everyone gets the same deal rather than only those who can afford it getting the best deal?
I thank my hon. Friend. I am aware of his work in this area. He has said exactly what I am going on to say. It is important to ensure that the scheme is as attractive as possible to the poorest households, which, as he knows, are at the greatest risk of fuel poverty.
The alternative to a single scheme interest rate is risk-based pricing. In my view, green deal finance providers must not be able to price green deal finance packages based on the perceived default risk of the original occupier, given that the work done will stay with the
property probably long after that household has moved on, sold up or moved to a different private rented property. It would be unfair and illogical to allow that to happen, given that there is no way of predicting the default risk of any future occupants. We cannot price with accuracy on that basis.
I perfectly understand the hon. Gentleman’s point that the debt will be tied to the property and that the rate should be based on an average, but does he not accept that there is a very real tension between the need to persuade householders to embark on the green deal in the first place, which will happen only if they can see financial gain for themselves over the period that they propose to occupy the property, and the potential financial gain to the average family in the future? His proposal may create tension between the ability to sell the property and fairness to subsequent occupiers.
That, of course, is exactly what the golden rule is designed to protect against. My concern is that we offer residents—people living in the properties now—an equal interest rate across the whole area. We need to avoid people in more affluent areas being encouraged to take up the green deal by a lower interest rate than is offered to people in poorer areas or those perceived to be a higher credit risk, particularly tenants. There is a risk that landlords might be put off the green deal if they perceive that the cost is based on the occupancy of a particular tenant.
I very much support the tenor of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and I wonder whether he supports my new clause 8, which would serve to make the green investment bank a vehicle whereby we could ensure that a common and low interest rate—one that is subsidised—is applied?
I looked at the hon. Lady’s new clause and amendments, which are interesting. I look forward to hearing the debate and listening to the Minister’s response to them. I am sure that he will say something to reassure her.
I am concerned that landlords might be unwilling to take out a finance package if they perceive it as reducing the market value of their property. Under risk-based pricing, those with a poor credit rating—often people on low incomes, who are at the highest risk of being in fuel poverty—might find themselves, by accident rather than design, excluded from accessing a green deal finance package. Tenants in the private rented sector may be at a high risk of exclusion from green deal finance, because the underwriting process for mortgages is such that home owners are likely to have a better credit rating. The Minister rightly said that we should extend as much choice as possible to residents. We need therefore to ensure that as much choice is offered to tenants in the private rented sector as is offered to property owners, and that is, I am sure, what the green deal is intended to do.
I am very sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that there should be a non-discriminatory interest rate
across green deal finance, but does he not accept that the golden rule itself is, to an extent, a measure of mitigation of what may well be universal high interest rates, set by green deal providers on the grounds that they are private companies providing finance? Does he accept that ensuring that there is a level playing field for finance in general does not resolve the problem that the golden rule may result in very few changes being made to a property as a result of high interest rates, and that additional measures such as green investment bank intervention may well be needed?
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point and will be interested to hear Ministers’ response to it. Although we understand how the green deal must operate, we all want to ensure that it is made as attractive as possible and that there is as much choice as possible. What worries me is that if we go down the route proposed, poorer households and, in particular, landlords may be put off.
With risk-based pricing, I fear that people with short tenancies may be charged a higher interest rate than owner-occupiers or tenants who have lived at the same address for a long time. Short-term tenants who default may be difficult to pursue and may already have a chequered credit-rating history. More important, however, is the fact that risk-based pricing is probably unnecessary. As others have pointed out, the golden rule should mean that no one, whatever their credit rating, ends up paying a higher energy bill than they would have without the green deal.
If risk-based pricing is permitted and finance providers try to charge households with poor credit ratings higher interest rates, the total cost of the measures could exceed the golden rule threshold, with the result that such households are likely to be refused green deal finance altogether. I think that that is the point that Dr Whitehead was making. Although it is possible that the golden rule will hold interest rates at a reasonably low level for most consumers, it will not do that for all of them. As the Minister said, other options are available, but while the energy company obligation may help the very poorest, some consumers could be trapped between the two. I should be interested to hear his response to that as well.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, we must design a system which, as well as being future-proof, can be drawn as widely as possible. I represent a great many people in private rented accommodation, particularly in Goole, and much of it is of poor quality, consisting of single-skinned brick terraced houses to which earlier schemes could not be applied because they had no cavity walls. I do not want private landlords to be deterred from encouraging tenants to take up the green deal because they fear that their properties will be devalued in the future as a result of the higher energy costs.
Many tenants have told me that they have huge problems with damp, so that there are rooms that they cannot use. Their houses are crying out for energy efficiency measures. I do not want them to be the ones who do not benefit from the green deal, while constituents living in leafier areas who happen to own their properties do benefit from it, and I know that the Government do not want that either.
That is entirely the right principle. The communities to which I have referred, many of whom I represent, risk fuel poverty because they live in the very worst properties with the very worst energy efficiency ratings.
I will not press my amendment to a vote because I think that the green deal is an exciting proposal, I strongly support it, and constituents to whom I have spoken find it very attractive. However, I shall be interested to hear what assurances Ministers can give me and people outside that the scheme will be designed to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, and that it will not exclude anyone. No matter how small their number—it may be just the odd one or two—there are people who are very much at risk, and they must be drawn into the scheme by some means.
My name is attached to five of the 15 new clauses and amendments in this group. New clause 8 would require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament within six months of the Bill’s becoming an Act with proposals on how the green investment bank could maximise take-up of the green deal.
Much more needs to be done to make the green deal as attractive and appealing as possible. Given that the energy companies have found it difficult to give away energy efficiency measures in the past, I fear that the “pay as you save” mechanism, as currently designed, will not be enough to drive the level of adoption, or the depth of the improvements that are needed for the delivery of huge emissions savings from our housing stock. In Committee we discussed possible drivers, including council tax or stamp duty rebates linked to the green deal, and reduced VAT rates for products bought under it. I support all those options, but I think that we should chiefly explore the idea of using the green investment bank to subsidise the interest rates, for all the reasons given by Andrew Percy.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned a survey. I have figures from the same survey. A key statistic that the hon. Gentleman did not mention was that about a third of home owners said that if the interest rate were set at 2% per annum, they would be “very” or “fairly” likely to take up the green deal. As the hon. Gentleman said, the figure fell to just 7% of home owners when an annual interest rate of 6% was suggested. It is clear that if the Government are still considering interest rates above 6%, they will face real challenges in attempting to drive sufficient take-up.
In Germany—which I realise operates a different scheme—an energy efficiency household loan programme offers publicly subsidised interest rates of 2.65%. That programme has achieved 100,000 residential retrofits in a year. The Government must achieve 145,000 every month if they are to fulfil the ambition that they set out at the beginning of the process, and they are intending to do that at market interest rates, which are much higher. I do not see how that will work.
It is not correct to compare the two schemes. The German scheme consists of a normal personal loan, secured in the normal way. It must be applied for through the banks, and in the case of a successful application the interest rate is subsidised. That is the nub of the programme, which I have discussed in Berlin with the German environment Minister. There is a great deal more to the green deal, which involves substantial subsidy not of the interest rate, but of the interventions themselves. We expect that most solid wall installations will attract a substantial element of subsidy, and that other interventions for fuel-poor households and more vulnerable customers will also be able to attract subsidies. Customers may pay a competitive interest rate, but they will be doing so on a significantly subsidised final bill, and I would have thought that it was much better to pay a competitive interest rate on a smaller bill than a subsidised interest rate on a higher bill.
This is a fundamentally different proposition, therefore. The German scheme simply involves subsidies of existing loans. What makes the green deal unique is that it is not a personal loan in the way the German scheme is. It will be secured against savings on future energy bills. It will not add to the personal debt of the individual who benefits from the installations, and it will remain with the home. There is also the golden rule. I apologise for making such a lengthy intervention, but it was important to put that on the record.
We discussed this matter in Committee, so I know that the Minister and I do not agree. I still do not think that the measures under the green deal will be significantly subsidised. I agree that we have the ECO pot of money for the fuel poor and hard-to-treat homes, but the figures that have been discussed in respect of the ECO are about £1 billion to £2 billion, which is a small amount given that we hope there will be mass take-up of the green deal. Most people who take up green deal provisions will therefore not feel that they are being significantly subsidised. I still do not agree with the Minister that this proposal will in its current form be attractive enough.
In the light of the Minister’s intervention, the hon. Lady might want to point out to him that the logical consequence of setting a market rate in respect of the green deal and the golden rule is that a significant proportion of those who cannot access the green deal at a market rate will be pushed into the ECO. That underlines the point made earlier about the purpose of the ECO: is it a fuel poverty device, or is it a device to mop up, as it were, those people who cannot afford the green deal at a market rate, which the Minister appears to think is the case? If it is the case, perhaps it ought to be clearly spelled out in our discussion.
I am extremely grateful for that helpful intervention. It focuses on some of the contradictions in respect of the purpose of the ECO, and I hope that in this debate we can make clear what exactly the ECO will be for, how big it is going to be, the extent to which it is intended to subsidise those who are in genuine fuel poverty, the extent to which it is intended to subsidise those who cannot afford market interest rates, and the extent to which it is for hard-to-heat homes. There is a lack of clarity, and I worry that ECO is being used as a
kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, in that whenever there is a difficult question, the ECO tends to be the answer. There simply is not enough money in the ECO for it to be the answer, however. The financial community has much less appetite than has been suggested for providing affordable green deal finance, which is why the green investment bank must step in.
“‘the City is practically champing at the bit to finance the government’s green deal.’”—[Hansard, 10 May 2011; Vol. 527, c. 1059.]
That sounds very good, but the Secretary of State failed to add that Mr Hennebry went on to say:
“Financing the green deal is absolutely possible for us”—
“but whether the figures will stack up for you is a different matter.”
That is the crux of the issue: will the figures stack up in respect of rolling out this programme as widely as possible? I do not think they will. It is not at all clear that the figures will stack up for householders, unless there is Government support through either the green investment bank or the ECO. If the ECO is to be used, that is fine, but we must make it an awful lot larger and make its provisions a lot clearer.
No matter what interest rate is applied to the loans, it is vital that consumers have confidence that their rights will be protected if they take up a green deal offer, and I seek to strengthen those protections in amendments 26, 49 and 50. Amendment 26 would ensure that only products and services that reduce household emissions could be sold during green deal assessments and installation visits. Amendment 49 would ensure that consumer protections on the repayment of a green deal loan are extended to energy advice services or energy plans that are not specifically green deal plans. Amendment 50 would ensure that the Secretary of State can make regulations to ensure that quotes provided for green deal goods and services are easily comparable.
The Minister mentioned amendment 26 on what can and cannot be sold as green deal assessors go house to house. I do not propose a blanket ban. The amendment has changed since Committee. It is perfectly okay for somebody to knock on doors if they are talking about measures to reduce CO2 emissions, but it is not okay if they want to talk about wallpaper, for instance. I do not mention wallpaper in order to be frivolous. Rather, I wish to remind the Minister of what he said in Committee:
“If Marks and Spencer, or any other retailer, went into someone’s home to offer them a green deal, I am sure that it would also take the opportunity to market wallpaper, carpets and, if the walls are being lined, curtains and perhaps a sofa. This is a huge opportunity for home improvement, which will not be lost on responsible retailers. They will offer not just additional energy measures, but a whole package of other home improvement measures in a commercial atmosphere.”––[Official Report, Energy Public Bill Committee,
I am not at all relaxed about that, because I think it will lead to the pressurised mis-selling of products unrelated to energy efficiency, and that could completely undermine the green deal. There have already been similar problems
in the small-scale renewables market, and they must be prevented in the context of the green deal. Sales in the home do not happen in a commercial atmosphere. Green deal assessors or providers are invited in because consumers are interested in energy efficiency. It is vital to ensure that commercial enterprises do not abuse the terms of those visits by pushing products that will not improve a home’s energy efficiency. I agree with Barry Gardiner, who pointed to the danger of some enterprises using the opportunity of being in someone’s home to try to persuade them to change to a different tariff as well.
The hon. Lady will remember that when the financial services regulations were introduced, banks had to declare up front whether they were providing information and advice to their customers in an independent capacity or as a tied agent for themselves. Does she agree that it is also important in terms of the green deal that people who have gained a householder’s trust and entered their home on the basis that they are providing impartial and independent advice do not, once inside the front door, switch hats and start offering advice as a tied agent of another service provider?
I completely agree. Trust is crucial if the green deal is to be successful. We want people to be talking about it, telling their friends and neighbours how great it is; we want there to be a real buzz and momentum behind it. If there are just a couple of cases of such mis-selling, the whole process will be undermined.
I also seek to extend the same consumer protections for the repayment of a green deal loan to energy advice services or energy plans that are not specifically green deal plans. If a householder decides after the initial green deal assessment to pay for the services up front without the need for a green deal loan, they ought to be eligible for the same kinds of protection they would receive if repaying the loan in a different way. If the clause in question is left in its current form, regulations regarding protection and redress will hang not on what a consumer buys, but on how they pay for it. That is perverse. If the consumer pays up front, the protections and regulations will not cover them. Only if they take the green deal loan will they have those protections. If people are not protected until they have signed a contract, how will that help consumers during the advice and contracting stage when they may not have decided to pay for green deal services yet, let alone how to pay for them? Also, who can the consumer complain to about pressurising sales tactics if they walk away before they have signed the contract? Will consumers choose the financial option that is best for them if they have to use green deal finance to get ongoing support from the advice line and redress scheme? I hope the Minister will address those questions in summing up.
My final concern in relation to this group of amendments is about the comparability of green deal quotes. It is vital that consumers are in a position to make an informed choice about which green deal is best for them, and that could be nigh impossible if the different quotes received are hard to compare. I should like the Minister to address this by ensuring that all green deal quotes are provided in a way that makes them very easy to compare with one another, to judge and to assess.
I have detained the House for some time so I shall conclude. My final amendment in this group would give consumers the right to choose which energy bill their green deal loan repayments would be applied to. In 78% of occupied British buildings, heating and hot water are provided by natural gas, so that is the fuel most likely to be reduced after a green deal makeover. It therefore seems logical for customers’ gas bills, where possible, to carry green deal loan repayments because if the golden rule is working, their gas bills will not become more expensive after the green deal repayments have been applied. It is there that the advantage of the green deal will be most apparent to householders.
If the repayments are added to electricity bills, those electricity bills are not likely to fall so much after a green deal makeover unless a home’s space and water are heated by electricity, but far fewer homes are heated by electricity than by gas. That means that in the vast majority of cases, green deal customers will potentially have lower gas bills but higher electricity bills. That makes it harder to see whether the golden rule is working and risks undermining the central pay-as-you-save principle, as well as eroding customers’ confidence in the value of the deal. I hope the Minister will therefore consider allowing consumers to choose which bill they want their green deal payment to be applied to so that their management of the green deal is as straightforward as possible.
I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend Caroline Lucas, who has made a very informed speech about exactly the points at the heart of the measures. I, too, want to address the green deal to dig out more about the golden rule and the energy company obligation. We all agree that it is right that energy efficiency improvements should be provided at no up-front cost. That is a good thing that we all support across the House and want to see implemented. As has been pointed out, however, the loans will be provided at commercial rates through the green deal and will attach to the property, not the householder, for up to 25 years.
The golden rule has been introduced to require that all green deal loans are less than the repayment cost resulting from the installation of the measures. The qualifying energy efficiency improvements will be determined through the energy performance certificate. This means that any savings will be estimated and based on standardised use. As a result, there are no guarantees that actual savings will match or better the estimated savings, as I pointed out to Andrew Percy. The Bill’s central premise is that consumers will save more on their energy bills than they will repay in loan costs and that that will be enough to drive consumer demand. However, the Bill provides little detail about how demand for the green deal will be driven beyond that basic finance mechanism other than through the introduction of the new ECO, which will underpin the deal and subsidise properties that require energy efficiency improvements but for which the golden rule would not be met.
It is estimated that the green deal will reach more than 40 million homes by 2020 and a further 12 million by 2030. That amounts to the retrofitting of 1.7 million
homes a year—that is 4,800 a day—between 2012, when the green deal starts, and 2020. The Committee on Climate Change has estimated that, between 2012 and 2022, we would need to insulate 8.3 million lofts, 5.7 million cavity walls and more than 2 million solid walls to meet the UK’s carbon budget. The Government’s expected take-up of those measures, through the green deal and the extension of the carbon emissions reduction target, misses those requirements by 3.8 million lofts and 2.7 million cavity walls.
Although I support the aspiration behind the green deal, it is difficult to see how it could be achieved under the proposals. Indeed, the Committee on Climate Change’s third progress report to Parliament concluded that the Government proposals should help to strengthen incentives for the take-up of energy efficiency measures. However, there is a significant risk that they will not adequately address the range of financial and non-financial barriers. I do not want to talk the measures down because Members on both sides want them to work, but it is important that we are realistic about their likelihood of success.
The economies of energy efficiency retrofits at today’s energy prices simply are not attractive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion has pointed out. That is because of the gap between projected returns based on current energy prices and the cost of borrowing—a gap that can be met only if substantive subsidies are applied. Recent analysis by E3G has highlighted that at today’s prices and with the commercial interest rates that the Government intend to apply to green deal financing, the golden rule cannot be met on a 25-year loan. The Government have quite rightly identified that the up-front costs of improvement and access to capital are significant barriers to the uptake of energy efficiency, but we should be clear that the green deal alone will not overcome them. Without intervention to limit the cost of borrowing, consumer demand for green deal programmes could be very low indeed.
Furthermore, access to capital is not a universal problem. For those who can afford them, savings, mortgage extensions and personal loans have long been readily available to provide up-front capital for energy efficiency investments, yet they have not been used on any scale, despite the fact that many people are able to procure those borrowings at 5% or 6%, let alone at the 11% that the Government are suggesting. Financing through the green deal simply does not stack up for the rational investor, and particularly for low and middle-income households.
Let me give an example. The annual energy bill for an average household is calculated at £1,029 a year. A good whole-house retrofit would be expected to save approximately 50% on the average energy bill—in this case, just over £500 a year. Solid wall insulation was identified by the Committee on Climate Change as the main energy efficiency measure that could usefully be financed by the green deal, but according to DECC’s own analysis, the capital cost of solid wall insulation ranges between £7,600 and £12,600. Let us take the cost of £12,600 and the maximum saving of £500 a year; in fact, DECC’s analysis estimates that solid wall insulation would save only £400 a year, but I give it the extra £100. Through the green deal, if we pay back £500 a year, through the savings on the energy bill for that average
house, against the £12,600 loan over 25 years, we still do not pay back the full amount. That deal fails the golden rule.
An energy company obligation is being introduced to subsidise the difference, reducing up-front costs to the point that they are less than the energy savings. The Committee on Climate Change estimates that up to £17 billion of support will be required through the ECO to insulate 2.3 million solid walls by 2022, but the Government have estimated that the total ECO support would be only £1 billion. The fact that the golden rule cannot be met even before the cost of finance is factored in is a matter of huge concern.
The Government have calculated that the green deal’s financial cost will be cheaper than a market personal loan, but they concede that it could mean rates of up to 11%. At today’s energy prices, to drive demand by meeting the green deal’s golden rule, 25-year loans would need to be offered at rates of 2% or less. E3G’s recently published analysis concluded that a £15,000 loan at 0% over 25 years for changes that delivered a 50% energy saving and lifetime savings of £2,461 could meet the golden rule in year 8, but that the same loan offered at just 2% would incur losses of £1,747 over that 25-year period, whereas a similar £15,000 loan for changes that delivered just a 35% energy saving would not break even at all even with interest at 0%.
At more commercial rates, the economies of the green deal are simply unmanageable. Households with access to capital—those with the option of using savings, mortgage extensions or personal loans—are not using it for this purpose and will not be incentivised to do so under the Bill. Low-income households could require up-front grants of 55% of the overall cost of making energy efficiency improvements, simply to reduce costs to a level where the remainder of the capital could be borrowed at commercial rates over 25 years without any negative impact on annual household outgoings. For many investments to break even over that 25-year period, they would need a significant subsidy via the ECO.
The ECO’s objective is to support low-income and vulnerable households and properties that need energy efficiency measures that do not meet the golden rule. The cost would be recovered from increases in consumer bills. That is a worryingly regressive means of funding energy efficiency measures, particularly given the likely subsidy that will be required to make the green deal viable. In my example, under the ECO, many households that do not benefit from energy efficiency improvements could subsidise those that do.
The ECO will be accompanied by the withdrawal of the Warm Front scheme by 2014. It will be replaced by the affordable warmth element of the ECO, the purpose of which is to provide up-front support to help households heat their homes affordably. In 2009-10, Warm Front delivered more than 21,000 cavity wall and 40,000 loft insulation measures, as well as 80,000 boiler replacements. I should be grateful to the Minister if he clarified what proportion of the overall ECO will be targeted at the affordable warmth element and the criteria that he will apply to determine what low-income households will be eligible and how many retrofits the Government estimate will be carried out under the affordable warmth obligation.
It is helpful at this point to refer to the Treasury levy cap, which has not yet been mentioned. We will not know for some time whether the Office for National Statistics will determine that the ECO should be considered in the same vein as the warm homes discount, the feed-in tariff and the renewable obligation. If it does, the ECO could be even more constricted and less than the figures that my hon. Friend is talking about.
The shadow Minister is absolutely right that there has yet to be clarity on the issue, and clarity is vital. If we are to meet the targets that the Committee on Climate Change has set and the budgets, we must know that sufficient funds are available for the ECO to meet those targets. At present, my analysis and other analyses are quite clear that up to £22 billion is required, although an absolute cap of £1 billion might be provided under the ECO. As my hon. Friend suggests, that £1 billion might prove not to be a full £1 billion after all.
On new clause 9, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has estimated that the green deal will lead to employment in the sector increasing from 27,000 jobs currently to something approaching 250,000 jobs by 2020. That involves the creation of 27,875 jobs every year from the start of the green deal until 2020. Double the number of jobs that currently exist must be created every year. We heard earlier at Prime Minister’s Question Time about the latest unemployment figures and particularly the problems of youth unemployment. Of course, if those jobs were created, we would all welcome them, but there must be a doubt about these provisions.
In opposition, the Prime Minister called for a revolution in skills and training, so that the skills system responds far more effectively to the needs of individuals and businesses in a greener economy, but the recent green economy road map recognises the importance of that and refers to the introduction of new skills for a green economy and the grouping of sector skills councils to help businesses understand the changing skills requirement. It is crucial that that new grouping of sector skills councils supports the development of the additional 27,875 jobs every year between now and 2020. It would be of considerable interest to the House if the Minister explained what financial provision will be made to the sector skills councils to enable that sort of expansion—a tenfold expansion—to take place in the next nine years.
I should like to start by thanking Caroline Lucas for tabling amendments 49 and 50 and my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) for tabling amendment 28.
Amendment 49 would require that any energy efficiency services provided or products sold by green deal participants, in addition to those paid for with green deal finance, should be subject to the green deal regulatory framework. It is important to note that the green deal is an innovative form of finance agreement that is attached to the meter and therefore passes between bill payers. I think that we all understand that. So it needs specific protections, which are not necessarily relevant to those who do not take out the green deal.
I should like to assure hon. Members that we intend to require customers to be made fully aware of the difference between offers that fall under the green deal scheme, with all its specific safeguards, and those that fall outside. However, many of the forms of mis-selling that rightly concern the House can be prosecuted already under existing general consumer protection legislation. We will not accept companies using green deal accreditation as cover for less appropriate goods and services.
Amendment 50 would ensure that recommendations and estimated costs and savings are clearly and transparently communicated to the consumer as part of the green deal plan, thus enabling customers to compare offers. I should like to reassure hon. Members that we intend to require green deal providers to set out clearly how the proposed savings and costs meet the golden rule principle, as enabled by the power in clauses 4 and 5. I urge hon. Members to look specifically at clause 5.
In addition, the Consumer Credit Act 1974 will apply to domestic green deal plans in full, bar a few essential amendments, thus ensuring robust consumer protection, and it already regulates the provision of information to consumers who enter into credit arrangements.
I wonder whether the Minister can clarify things a little further. On amendment 50 and comparability, is he saying that there are some guidelines somewhere that will ensure that many different green deal providers will be required to present the savings that are likely to accrue from investing in a green deal package in a similar way, so that they are genuinely comparable? On amendment 49, if a green deal assessor goes in and after a big assessment the householder decides not to take a green deal finance package but to pay up front, will they be unable to access things such as an advice line?
Such people can certainly access the advice line. If people choose to pay in full and not to take finance agreements, they will not be any less covered by the accreditation of all green deal service providers and the protection and warranties that go with all green deal products. We must not forget that the green deal is not just about financial arrangements where consumer protection kicks in. We will set out in further detail in secondary legislation, which hon. Members will thoroughly scrutinise, and go to great lengths to ensure that there is a rigorous consumer protection element to the accreditation of all services that are green deal applicable. That will apply whether or not they are financed by consumer credit. Obviously, all products must be specified and approved for use under the green deal to ensure that they meet the golden rule.
I welcome the fact that the Minister has said that customers and consumers will be protected by consumer credit legislation, and I welcome the fact that robust secondary legislation outlining further protections will be put in place. Will he tell the House at this stage whether he believes that consumers will be protected by the legislation that applies to the financial services industry so that an adviser can act either as a tied agent or as an independent agent, but not mix and match the two roles—at least not in the same consultation?
If that protection is not provided by existing legislation, will he ensure that it is introduced in the secondary legislation to which he referred?
We will have to disagree on this. I understand the protections that the hon. Gentleman is trying to insert into the Bill, but I take a slightly more optimistic view of the potential both for introducing competition in the green deal process and for home improvement.
The biggest driver for take-up—and this is different from the German experience—is not concern about climate change and, surprisingly, it is not even concern about saving money on energy bills. The consumer research that our stakeholder forums have commissioned is revealing, because the majority of consumers said that the biggest factor in their taking up the green deal would be a desire to make their home nicer. That may seem counter-intuitive and surprising, given the high cost of energy, but more than half of respondents indicated that home improvement was the driving force. We need to harness that, and it is little wonder that people failed to respond to energy companies that were not in the home improvement game. They will be responsive, however to new entrants to the market such as B & Q, Marks and Spencer, John Lewis and so on, which excel in offering aspirational consumer propositions. Many people will seek to improve their house, and see no contradiction in making improvements by purchasing new wallpaper and carpets while, at the same time, undertaking energy improvements. I regard this not as an either/or conflict, but as an opportunity to ride on the back of that motivation. Rather than offering a hairshirt proposition, we should harness the inherent instincts of the British public to improve their home, and make it both nicer and warmer.
I welcome the arrival in the market of a host of new players offering additional propositions for home improvement that fall outside strict energy efficiency measures, because that will draw in more people and catch their interest, but—and it is an important but—we must ensure that the integrity of the independent assessment is upheld. We must ensure that there is no inappropriate cold calling or hard selling in the home, which is why we will thoroughly review the measures that are in place. If the evidence shows that they are not sufficient, we will introduce strong codes of practice and ensure that assessments are thoroughly independent. However, I do not share the pessimism of Barry Gardiner, or his reluctance to introduce the two measures alongside each other. As long as that is done in a thoroughly transparent and responsible way, it could be a benefit, rather than a negative.
The Minister has effectively said that in his view, the green deal is market driven—that is a fundamental difference from the German scheme—so investment by commercial companies will propel the scheme forward. He is telling the House that, in a sense, it is driven principally by the profits that those companies will make. It is not driven by the imperative of increased energy efficiency, or by the need to meet the carbon budgets set by the Committee on Climate Change, or by the need to address fuel poverty. It is driven by the
profit motive. I am willing to capture the drive that the market can bring, but the focus of the scheme, as set out by the Minister, is fundamentally wrong.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is not quite an unreconstructed, planned-economy socialist, but he is confusing means with ends. The purpose of the green deal—our starting point and our end point—is to meet our carbon budgets and fulfil our legal and statutory obligations under the Climate Change Act 2008, which was introduced with the support of Members in all parts of the House. For decades, we have singularly failed to drive effective home energy efficiency and, come to that, energy efficiency in the business and industrial sectors. Given the size of the deficit and the burden on the public purse, we are living in cloud cuckoo land if we imagine that we would drive down carbon emissions and transform home and business energy efficiency if we left the private sector untapped. We will achieve our objectives only if we harness effectively the power of the private sector. Of course, people will make profits, but provided that that is transparent and fair, I do not have a problem with it. It is called job and wealth creation, and spreading that widely. We do not have enough wealth creation in the UK—we need more—and the green deal will be an incredibly important vehicle in helping us to rebalance our economy and making us more efficient.
We should not ignore that, but it does not detract from the fact that the central aim of the legislation is to allow us to meet our stretching carbon reduction targets. The coalition is absolutely committed to doing so, and the green deal is the means to that end, so we should not confuse the two as the hon. Gentleman did.
Amendment 28, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, seeks to ensure that we have powers to place restrictions on interest rates that can be offered as part of the green deal plan. I understand the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole articulated in his thoughtful speech, but I can assure him and other hon. Members that clause 5(1)(b) already provides the power—we accept the point that the hon. Gentleman is making—to limit interest rate structures that can be applied to green deal plans. It will not be possible to create a valid green deal plan, unless it specifically complies with the conditions contained in, or made under, clause 5.
The green deal is a market mechanism, and the golden-rule principle will create a natural incentive to drive down costs, so the Government do not intend to place restrictions on the level of interest charged. However, we are considering broader restrictions to ensure that green deal plans are equitable not just for the first but for all subsequent bill payers. This could mean limiting interest rate structures offered to domestic customers to those with the greatest likelihood of the golden rule being met in the first and subsequent years, and we will be consulting on what is quite a complicated area, not just with stakeholders in the financial services sector, but with all concerned stakeholders.
I would certainly welcome the thoughtful input from Members on both sides of the House into this important area of how we ensure we get the most competitive interest rate for the consumer. I invite my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, the hon. Member for
Manchester, Withington, and other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate and expressed legitimate concerns, to meet my officials so that we can ensure that we take notice of their concerns and take advantage of some of their ideas. I hope that I have been clear throughout proceedings on the Bill that we do not have a monopoly on the best ideas. As we develop the fine detail of the green deal, I am more than happy to work with them.
We recognise that the interest rate is only one of the drivers of affordability. We do not want unnecessarily to focus just on the interest rate. The actual cost of the products, particularly things like solid wall insulation, will be a key driver. Replacement windows are in a very exciting place. For the first time, because of technical innovation and the increased thermal value of new glazing, and because prices are coming down, we can anticipate that we will be able to include glazing in windows. Consumer-facing home improvements will come within the remit of the green deal, and make it much more attractive. The green deal will not just be about out of sight, out of mind, hidden interventions in a household, but about things that people will really value on a day- to-day basis.
The hon. Gentleman’s question is predicated on a misunderstanding. It will simply not be possible for any consumer, poor or rich, to disaggregate their bill payments for the green deal, other charges and the energy consumed. There will not be that opportunity to withhold green deal payments, just as one cannot refuse to pay transmission charges or other levies that are included on the consumer bill. That will not be an option for them.
That is a very important point. I do not rule it out completely. It is unnecessary to do so at this stage. But we do not anticipate that it will be necessary, and it is certainly not part of our planning and budgeting. Rather than the green investment bank subsidising interest rates at the consumer end of the journey, it is more likely that it will play a role in helping to pump-prime the liquidity in the bond market when we first see companies taking these aggregated packages of green deal finance and seeking to offer them into the bond market as new securitised products. In the long term, there is an exciting future, and there will be a lot of strong institutional demand for such products.
The conversations that we have had with the largest city institutions and banks have been encouraging and we have set up a working group. Short-term interventions to aid initial liquidity are more likely to be a fruitful use of green investment bank money. Although the coalition Government have promised £3 billion, substantially more than anyone anticipated at the general election, to fund this new important piece of financial architecture
in the City of London, which will make a substantial difference to our economy and drive green growth, that money can be spent only once. The key to the green investment bank priorities must be to address market failure. We cannot keep spending that money time after time. There are many demands on the green investment bank funding, and if the market, as we believe, is capable of supplying competitive interest rates in a way that is affordable to most consumers, supported by the ECO subsidy, it would be quite wrong to use green investment bank money when we clearly need to prioritise other areas of the low-carbon economy as well.
Likewise, as the hon. Lady can imagine, DECC is pushing for an ambitious ECO. This is a huge opportunity that is extremely cost-effective, and in terms of the hierarchy of spend on the low-carbon transition, the ECO represents incredibly good value, particularly compared with forms of low-carbon generation; but, again, the ECO comes out of consumers’ bills, and there is a balance to be struck. We cannot keep pushing up the ECO, because ultimately that will start to become regressive. When the coalition came into government, we took steps to reduce consumers’ bills by taking off the cost of funding the CCS programme and taking it into general taxation. We took measures to ensure that the renewable heat programme would not be funded through consumers’ bills but out of general taxation, and that is a progressive measure. We have to ensure that we get the right balance and have an ECO that is good for consumers and does the job. We cannot treat it as a magic pot of money. It is paid by every energy bill payer, and more than ever, as world energy prices go up, they are scrutinising bills to ensure that they are getting good value for money.
When the Minister says that he is pushing for a generous ECO, does he mean that he is pushing the Treasury to raise the cap that it has set on levies; that he is trying to ensure that the ECO is as generous as possible within the cap; that the ECO should remain outside the cap and therefore can be as large as he might wish to make it; or that the cap overall ought not to be referred further to the Office for National Statistics for a determination on whether the ECO is inside it at all?
All of those issues are the subject of a constructive and thoughtful conversation between my Department and the Treasury.
The Minister has said that interest rates are just one element, and we have argued that it is integral and crucial to whether the green deal will deliver, not only because of the affordability of products—if the interest rate is 8% or more, very few products will fall within the golden rule, and if it is 6% or more, a few more will be added but some of the more ambitious measures would not be included—but most importantly because of public uptake. According to the Great British Refurb campaign study and polling of the public, just 7% of the public said that they would take up the green deal if the interest rate was 6% or more. The Government will not meet their ambition of reaching 14 million homes by 2020 if the interest rate is too high.
There will be a commercial consideration involved, because those matters are not lost on participants who want to carve out a large piece of what will be substantial market. The interest rate is only one element of the cost. If the product bought is expensive, it does not matter if the interest rate is low. If a product is £1,000 and one is asked to pay an interest rate of 7%, would that be preferable to a product that costs £600 on which one pays 8%? There are many more variables than the absolute interest rate.
Customers will be looking for the absolute savings, taking into account the overall desirability of the package that they are being offered. The industry and new entrants will be looking at which of the levers they are most responsive to. I have no doubt that some companies will offer zero interest rate propositions. It is already possible to grab a sofa in the market and pay nothing until Easter or bank holiday Monday next year, and even then it may be with 0% finance. However, we know, because we are not stupid, that we invariably pay more in such offers than the actual price being offered. A sophisticated blend of different costs will be taken into consideration.
I understand what the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree says, but ultimately consumers will want to know that the actual savings they make will be substantially greater than the cost of doing the green deal, and then of course they will want to unpick the green deal to ensure that they will get value right the way through the chain. Incidentally, I have here the latest draft of the new energy performance certificate, which I am really pleased with. It is still a work in progress, but I will happily share it offline with hon. Ladies and Gentlemen.
I think that the competitive market will be rather more sophisticated and will be able to fish out where consumers will look. I am not dismissing the hon. Lady’s claims. If borrowing is not available at competitive rates, that will clearly have an impact on the green deal, but our working assumption, which is based not on pie-in-the-sky figures formulated in DECC but on the detailed work done by our stakeholder working groups, with financial sector involvement and with my excellent officials, is that the interest rate, although challenging, will not be a barrier to successful take-up of the green deal.
We are obviously aware of the stakeholder groups and the consultations going on in DECC, but as far as I am aware only one or two consumer groups are involved, and the majority of organisations taking part in those discussions are businesses. None of the businesses I have spoken with has indicated that it will seek to present a 0% interest rate on its green deal package. Returning to the polling I just asked the Minister about, does he accept the polling from the Great British Refurb campaign, which indicates that only 7% of the British public would take up the green deal if the interest rate was 6% or more? All the organisations we have spoken with have indicated that the interest rate would be at that level or above.
I am afraid that the hon. Lady is wrong. We have a huge degree of engagement with consumer groups. All the obvious consumer groups
have been involved heavily in formulating different parts of the green deal, and that work is ongoing. I have not seen the particular research she mentions, but we have certainly had involvement from Which?, Citizens Advice and Consumer Focus, as well as from sophisticated investors and institutions in the City of London. I do not expect offers to appear until October next year, and it is most unlikely that ambitious new entrants in the market will declare their hand so far in advance: they will wait to see how the market shapes up and look at their competitors before revealing their offers. That is my expectation, which is based on observing what else happens in the market, rather than on what stakeholders have said to me at DECC.
The Minister has explained candidly that the ECO is a regressive measure that will be imposed on general utility bill payers and that it will be an additional cost for them. He has also alluded to the fact that the Government removed the cost of carbon capture and storage from those bills on coming into office. Will he give an undertaking that the additional amount he proposes to impose on bill payers through the ECO will not be greater than what he and his Government have already taken off bill payers through their previous measures? He talks of securitisation in the bond markets, but will he explain how a default rate can be estimated, given his assertion that there will be no possibility of defaulting on that part of the bill?
The default rate will be the same as the standard default rate for electricity bills generally, which is a very low percentage. It is probably higher in the present economic circumstances, but when averaged out over a decade, it is very low compared with other instances, and it will not be extrapolated out of that. On the ECO, the hon. Gentleman seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it. The bottom line is that there is no magic source of money; it all has to come from somewhere and ultimately that is the taxpayer and the consumer, who are basically the same person in this context. We have to be very responsible and we are constantly looking for ways to lighten the load for hard-pressed consumers, who are concerned about rising energy costs.
We will publish in the autumn our expectations of how DECC policies, taken together, will impact on consumers through to 2020. The results of the early work are extremely encouraging. These things must be seen in the round—one strand of policy cannot be taken out as though it was part of a Woolworths pick ’n’ mix. We have to take the energy efficiency measures, the levies and our other measures to encourage greater competition in the energy sector as a whole. We will publish that in the autumn, when I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to quiz the Secretary of State.
The Minister rightly says that there is no magic pot of money, but there are certainly progressive and regressive ways of doing this. Does he agree that putting a levy on all consumer bills, irrespective of the financial situation of the householder, is inherently regressive? Indeed, the impact assessment of the 2009 extension of the carbon emissions reduction target showed that using a levy actually pushed more people into poverty than were pulled out as a result of the CERT money.
The hon. Lady makes an indisputable point. We are mindful of the mistakes made by the previous Labour Government, which resulted in a succession of levies being put on consumer bills without any thought to the long and short-term impact on the vulnerable. That is one reason why we saw such a steep rise in the number of people living in fuel poverty, which increased by millions during the last Parliament alone. It is a difficult balance to strike, and I can understand why Ministers took those decisions, because they had to find the money from somewhere. We are certainly very mindful of the point she raises, which is why, as the hon. Member for Brent North said earlier, we have taken steps to remove the levy for CCS and the renewable heat incentive levy from the bills. The Treasury will insist on clear value for money and due consideration of the impact on those who are least able to pay when we finally settle on the exact figure of the ECO, which will replace the CERT funding.
Amendment 27 tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, and amendment 45 tabled by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington, deal with the collection of green deal payments. Allowing either energy bill to be used to collect the green deal charge looks attractive. I asked the very same questions myself and got exactly the same initial response as the hon. Lady, but the devil is in the detail and close analysis reveals significant problems. Requiring gas suppliers as well as electricity suppliers to facilitate the collection of green deal charges, which seems the obvious thing to do, given that heating is the larger element, would substantially increases the implementation costs.
I really pushed back on that in the early stages of policy implementation, but our findings indicate that it could increase the implementation costs by up to 50%, which would ultimately be passed on to consumers. mainly because most energy suppliers have separate gas and electricity billing systems. Introducing a choice between collection of the green deal charge via electricity or gas, however desirable—I am all in favour of greater consumer choice—would require regulating two groups of companies rather than one, which would increase the risk of implementation failure and potentially cause a delay to the launch of the green deal in autumn 2012. Auditing payment flows would also be more difficult, because there would then be two possible routes through which the funding might flow.
The idea of allowing the occupier of a property with a green deal plan to switch collection methods at any point also prompted considerable concern in the industry. It would increase the possibility of billing inaccuracies, which in extreme cases could increase disconnections, which I know we all want to avoid, as well as increase the overall risk premium and push up interest rates, which we obviously want to keep as low as possible. I will return in a minute to the issue of disconnection.
That leaves collection only by electricity or by gas; fundamentally, it comes down to an either/or situation. I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion that gas seems the obvious choice, but collection via gas bills would automatically exclude the possibility of billing in that way the 4.3 million households that are off the mains gas grid when they access green deal finance for energy efficiency measures. Many of those properties are in rural communities, and it is important to the
coalition that the green deal be available to both rural and urban communities. In contrast, almost all properties in Great Britain are connected to the electricity grid.
The change proposed would also raise the possibility of customers paying summer gas bills that are significantly higher than those before the green deal plan was taken out, which could be very difficult for many low-income families who are prepayment customers and not used to paying large amounts on their gas bill over the summer months. Many breathe a sigh of relief as they reach spring and have that little extra give in the family budget as a result of not having constantly to load their gas prepayment meter. It would be most problematic for prepayment customers on gas, who would then be expected to carry on paying charges equally through the summer, when normally they do not.
We still have a lot more work to do to deal with the iniquity of billing, whereby people on prepayment meters and low incomes often end up paying higher tariff, so for the foreseeable future it makes sense to ensure that the charge is levelled out across the electricity bill, where we see far fewer lumpy payments, spikes and troughs.
Does the Minister accept that, if we are really to reduce fuel poverty, we need to place the first units on the cheapest tariff, so that those who use least energy pay least for it, instead of, as happens now, their paying most for the first bundle and paying less the more they consume? They should pay least for the smallest amount and, as they increase their consumption, pay more per unit.
I am of course familiar with that argument of rising block tariffs, but that too has unintended consequences, which often hit pensioners in particular. However, I think I would be ruled out of order if I lurched into a discussion of tariffs, which are not necessarily the subject of the amendments before us.
We are left with collection via electricity bills as the only practical solution. The Government accept that that requires measures to strengthen the cognitive link between the green deal charge and energy savings, which in many cases will be realised on the gas bill. That is why the Government plan two requirements to increase the link between the two. First, for the 14.8 million households that receive their gas and electricity from the same supplier, the Government plan to introduce a requirement on energy suppliers to provide a combined energy bill, with the charges for gas and electricity supply and the green deal charge clearly identified on the front page. Secondly, the Government will introduce a requirement for electricity suppliers to reproduce the estimated savings from the green deal assessment on the green deal customer’s annual energy statement.
On the issue of disconnection, it is important that the green deal charge is treated in the same way as normal energy bill payments, so that defaults are kept to an absolute minimum and low-cost finance can be offered. I do not expect the green deal to increase disconnection, given the protection of the golden rule principle.
I shall give way to the hon. Lady, but then I really do need to make some progress so that we can get on to other parts of the Bill.
I am grateful to the Minister for stating the developments for those customers who have the same energy provider for their electricity and gas supply. He says there are 14.8 million of them, but my question, which came up in Committee, is about those customers who have different providers for electricity and for gas. What will happen to them? How will they be able to measure the savings across their two bills? My conversations with many energy providers tell me that their systems do not currently speak to each other, and that to make them to do so would cost a great deal.
There will be access to the energy annual statement, which will make that crystal clear.
Energy suppliers are already prohibited from disconnecting households in the winter months when they know or have reason to believe that the customer is a pensioner or lives with pensioners or with those under 18 years old. We plan to extend those protections to the non-payment of green deal charges.
We have had a very good debate. I have commented on the green investment bank to make clear the Government’s views on what appropriate interventions for the green investment bank would be. Although we understand the intention behind new clause 8, we will not support it. I hope that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion is reassured by my explanation and will not press her amendments 26, 27, 49 and 50 or new clause 8; and that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole are similarly reassured on amendment 28. I hope also that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington found my explanation regarding amendment 45 equally compelling and will not press that, either. I urge the House to support Government amendments 29 to 34 and 36 and new clause 10.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 10 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.