Orders of the Day — Homes Insulation Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th May 1978.

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Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South 12:00 am, 19th May 1978

The Opposition welcome the Bill in principle. We regret that illness prevents the Under-Secretary of State from joining us this morning.

It is appropriate first to review the background before we look at the specific proposals of the Bill. It is disappointing that it has taken five years, since the oil crisis in the autumn of 1973, for us to get really substantive action out of the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), who is not with us this morning, has consistently over the years sought action from the Minister. The Minister has ignored my hon. Friend's requests on more than one occasion, but, perhaps more surprisingly, the Minister's Department started its own programme for better insulated houses in 1973, to discover the energy savings which could be achieved if wall and roof insulation were substantially increased. I think that we should have been able to expect some action by 1975, or at the very latest by 1976, because the preliminary data was available by then.

The Bill's modest proposals—I think that the Minister would accept that they are modest—have to be seen in the context of what our European partners are doing in this area. I am very much indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) for his very persistent questioning of the Government. Probably the most illuminating Question he asked was on 25th November 1977. It produced some fascinating information which indicated that other members of the EEC with similar climates to ours are taking matters a lot more seriously.

In both Belgium and Denmark there is a 25 per cent. grant for insulation expenditure. As the Minister will know, in Belgium it is a means-tested benefit. In France there has been concentration on the pre-1948 dwellings, with special subsidies for thermal improvement. In addition, there are tax credits for insulating the main residence, and there are plans to extend this by further tax incentives.

In Germany there are substantial tax allowances for older buildings, and there is a proposed 20 per cent. grant for insulation and modernisation. In cost terms it is substantially more generous than that what is being offered in this country. The proposed assistance in Germany is in the range of DM 4,000 to DM 12,000.

Each of these schemes is, I accept, totally different from ours and probably attuned to the housing stock in each country, but the key point is that each is considerably more generous than has been offered this morning. Certainly the other schemes have been driven forward with a greater degree of purpose than we have seen to date in the United Kingdom. As the Minister has said, we have to date very much relied on exhortation through the "Save It" campaign, which has cost several million pounds. We all have to recognise that it has not succeeded in this area.

Perhaps surprisingly, when we look at the Bill in greater depth than a first cursory reading we find that home owners are not being as fairly treated as the Government would have us believe. The private sector has had to wait longer than the local authority tenants. As the Minister knows, his own Circular 23/78, which implemented insulation proposals for council houses, was introduced in March this year, but the Bill was published in May and will not, presumably, be on the statute book until later in the summer.

Perhaps more importantly, the private sector will have to wait a great deal longer, as the Minister has indicated this morning, before there is a comprehensive programme of insulation for home owners. Circular 23/78 put forward, quite rightly, a global approach. It divided work into primary and supplementary categories, both of which were admissable expenditure for local authorities.

The first or primary category included roof space insulation, cold water system insulation, and hot water system insulation, all of which are common to the scheme, but in addition there was draught-stripping to doors and windows.

The second phase, which is again admissible expenditure, included expenditure on lofts—in terms of making access hatches—roof space ventilation, disused fireplace blocking, the closing off of air bricks, and door ironmongery. In some cases the point was made that repairs would be admissible. There is a contrast in emphasis between the two schemes.

Another important point is that the Government's programme for council housing, which we accept and support, calls for 200,000 public sector houses a year to be insulated at an average unit cost of £100 to £125. That compares with the Government's contribution in the Bill of £50 a house. I hope that the Minister will explain why we have this variation of financial benefit between the two categories of houses.

With regard to timing, as we understand it, this is the first scheme, and the Minister should recognise that there is an urgency about getting it on the statute book. We shall certainly make sure that we give all possible assistance to him in this respect. The reason for the urgency is that 90 per cent. of the industry's sales are made from the beginning of August, continuing through the winter. The industry—I am talking about insulation materials for the roof—is working at well below capacity. The Minister gave a disappointing answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) when he said that the Government had no draft proposals for extending the scheme beyond this first phase.

Let us look at the scheme. We know that it is concerned with roof spaces and certain water installations. There is little arugment about water installations and the benefits to be gained from their insulation. Therefore, I do not propose to continent further on that aspect. But I feel obliged to look more closely at the Government's choice of roof space insulation.

It is true that in 50 per cent. of centrally heated homes the roof is probably the most cost-efficient area to be insulated first. Indeed, we now have that clearly on record from the interchange between the Minister and my hon. Friend.

But if we look closer at the non-centrally heated sector, the evidence is not so clear. We are talking primarily about a home where the living room and probably the kitchen are heated. The kitchen is more naturally heated because of the cooking. The living room is the one room that is heated, probably by some form of gas or coal fire. There is increasing evidence that a strong case can be made out for a combination of double glazing and draught exclusion for the living room.

I should like to refer briefly to double glazing, which is traditionally thought not to be a cost-effective manner of insulation. Recent work by the industry and interested parties, including the Government, shows that about 80 per cent. of housing stock could cost-effectively have the living room double glazed. The point that I make strongly is that for the non-centrally heated house it is probably at least as cost effective as roof insulation.

Who are the people who usually live in non-centrally heated houses? They tend to be poor people, the less well off, the older people. Should we not give first emphasis to such people, because they are in greatest need?

I turn next to the point commented on briefly by the Minister regarding draught exclusion. Draught exclusion is most likely to be beneficial in older houses. By definition, they tend to be occupied by a fair number of old people. We are talking not only about draught strips around doors, but probably about joinery work. The Minister has in his constituency a number of houses in which the joinery is probably the best part of 100 years old and allows a great deal of heat to escape.

The Government commissioned a survey by the Research Institute of Consumer Affairs on the cost of insulating old people's houses. The Government promised the report by last winter, but it has not yet been published. Where is the report? When will it be published? My information is that the report recommends that it will probably cost £250 per unit to get comprehensive draught-proofing of these older houses. That is an important dimension.