I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
If the Bill becomes law, it will undoubtedly improve the quality and well-being of a great many people. I have no doubt that that statement will raise expectations.
People go into politics for all sorts of reasons. I have been in politics for a long time. I decided at the age of 11 that I wanted to be a Member of Parliament, and it was a childhood ambition come true when I arrived in the House in 1983.
As we all know, we are very modest people. None of us really wants to be here; friends, neighbours and relatives twist our arms to stand for Parliament, and hey presto! we arrive here full of modesty. We are all content to be Back Benchers: ambition never enters our minds.
It probably has not escaped the notice of my colleagues that I am neither Prime Minister nor Leader of the Opposition. My mother and my wife still believe that I am a late developer—we shall see what happens—but I believe that, once one realises one's limitations, it is rather churlish to remain here and become bitter and twisted because no one notices the talent that one's relatives alone believe one to have.
When I entered the ballot for private Members' Bills year after year and never got the opportunity to speak, I became rather frustrated. I entered the ballot 16 times and, at last, on the 16th occasion, I was successful. There is no significance in the number 16, but it was third time lucky in this Parliament.
If I had been told that I would have the marvellous opportunity to speak first and not wait to be tail-end Charlie—the opportunity to have a few people listening to what I say, whether the House enjoys it or not and whether or not hon. Members are persuaded to adopt my point of view—I would have said, "How wonderful." However, I never imagined that I would seek leave of the House to present the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill. There were two issues on my agenda that were very dear to my heart: the pro-life issue, and animal welfare.
On the second count, I have convinced myself that I have already done my duty. There is an Act in my name, with which I am sure hon. Members are familiar: the Protection Against Cruel Tethering Act 1988, which prevents horses, ponies and donkeys from being tied up and ensures that they are properly watered and fed. I rather feel that I have done my duty by animals.
I did, however, agonise about the pro-life issue. Would I make a glorious speech, enthral the House, convince it of my argument and win the day? Then, without wishing to stir things up, I pondered on the House as it now is, and concluded that, although I might make a decent speech, I would probably be wasting my time.
I therefore did not have an issue to bring to the House. I found that I had suddenly become popular: people were interested in me. It was a little like the 1992 general election all over again. For 30 seconds, it seemed that the nation's attention focused on my good self. All sorts of organisations and interest groups suddenly wanted to know me.
My decision to present this Bill was made at the eleventh hour. When a Mr. Martyn Williams first came to see me, I was perplexed by some of the language that he used to persuade me of its merits.
A huge number of Members have signed the early-day motion on this matter—I think about 451 have done so—so one would think the Bill has the overwhelming support of the House, but, after 17 years in this place, I am somewhat realistic and know that it is not always easy to convince all Members.
When Mr. Williams started to talk about fuel poverty, I thought, "Goodness gracious. I am a Conservative and he is talking about poverty." I was born in a little terraced house in the east end of London. We did not have a bathroom: we had only an outside toilet and a tin bath on the side of the wall. We did not have a telephone. We used to throw the window open and shout loudly at each other. We did not have a refrigerator—we had a larder—but I did not think that I was poor.
Then Mr. Williams talked about targets. I thought, "Goodness. Targets. That sounds like the new sort of politics that I am trying to cope with." Then he talked duties and regulations. Again, I thought, "I am a Conservative. I embrace private enterprise and such matters," but, in what will be a relatively short speech, I hope to be able to convince all Members that now, although perhaps not exactly like St. Francis of Assisi—I have no brown habit—I am at ease with some of the language; I am entirely enthusiastic about it.
I pay tribute to a number of people. I do not have to be convinced about the merits of the Bill; it speaks for itself. In my previous constituency, I spent a huge amount of time—it contained more than 16,000 publicly owned properties—dealing with heating problems, so I have no doubt there is a job to do in that constituency.
I have moved to what is described as a posh constituency. Labour Members probably believe that it is posh, but I have had more challenges to meet in my present constituency than in my previous one. Yes, there are bigger houses, but I have found that many elderly people, for whatever reason, are not able to heat their properties properly.
I do not wish hon. Members to get their handkerchiefs out, but a constituent died in my constituency. I am not prepared to talk publicly about it because there is an investigation going on and I do not want to be party to any sensationalism, but the constituent died in a cold house. I and the councillor who dealt with the matter feel that that is appalling.
There are two sponsors of my Bill who are not here. One is Michael Colvin. As we know, he died under tragic circumstances. He had been a regular supporter of the Bill. His record on energy efficiency initiatives was there for everyone to see. I pay tribute to his part in the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995.
My Welsh is not that good, but our former colleague, Cynog Dafis, the previous hon. Member for Ceredigion, was another of the Bill's sponsors and another unstoppable campaigner for energy efficiency, warm homes and indeed all environmental matters. I am advised that he will continue campaigning—my goodness, I am using the word "campaigning"—on the measure in the Welsh Assembly.
I pay tribute to a number of other people. Without the hon. Members for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy), the Bill would never have got to this stage. I eat humble pie. I am being honest. I should take no credit for the measure at all. I was just fortunate enough to draw number five in the ballot. I am providing a mouthpiece for the measure to be taken forward. I particularly pay tribute to those two hon. Members for their work.
I draw attention to my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) and for—I cannot remember his constituency at the moment. They drew up a wonderful document in conjunction with the Members whom I have mentioned, using much of their private time. It is called "The Select Committee Hearings Autumn 1999-Winter 2000. The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill. Report and Proceedings of the Parliamentary Advisory Group for the Campaign for Warm Homes". In particular, it addressed how the matter would be funded. I thank them for their work. To unite the hon. Member for Nottingham, South with our former shadow spokesman on the environment, transport and the regions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) must say something about the power of the issue that, I hope, the Bill addresses.
As we know, elderly people are particularly hard hit by the cold. It is an absolute disgrace that we have in excess of 30,000 extra deaths each winter compared with the summer: it has risen to 49,000. I am not going to buy all the business about the flu epidemic because then we would get into party politics. That is a huge number of people. Why does this country have so many more deaths in winter than Sweden and other such countries? There must be something that we are not doing correctly. The reason is that we are not addressing the issue.
The Government whom I supported for 18 years had an excellent range of measures. Indeed, my wife and I went into our loft with whatever we had got for £15 or £20. My hands became allergic to the pink stuff that we used to insulate it. Times have moved on. The Conservative Government did try to do something. Hon. Members are right to challenge me, although they have been gentle, on what my Government did on value added tax. That is another thing that we can argue about, but, given that we are in 2000, all hon. Members must recognise that there is a huge problem.
The Bill places a duty on the Government to deal with the matter over a long period because I am an optimist. I hope that one day soon there will be a change of Government. Governments come and go. What is the good of being a Member of Parliament unless we can encourage Governments to take these matters forward? There is no point being here. What is the point of legislating? We can all find people who would not obey the laws, but we have been sent here to legislate. I hope that, with the wisdom of women and men, we can arrive at good legislation.
I am slightly surprised and, frankly, disappointed that my hon. Friend believes that his main objective and that of Members generally is to legislate. That assumes that all legislation is desirable. Surely, a large part of our duties here is to prevent bad legislation. It is not simply to legislate.
My right hon. Friend speaks a great deal of common sense—which is why he was given the award of Back Bencher of the year. He is a parliamentarian, and he understands better than most how this place works. However, if the arguments that we deploy are not intended to result in legislation, what is the point of having a Government? My right hon. Friend looks surprised. I am with him entirely on the point that we must have good and sensible legislation. That is why I am entreating him to serve, if the Bill receives a Second Reading, as a member of the Committee that considers it.
We can argue about that later. I have noticed that, on previous Fridays, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), with one or two colleagues, has been terribly helpful in suggesting drafting improvements to Bills. We welcome any suggestions that he might make—but I am sure that he is not suggesting that we should have no laws or regulations whatsoever.
That is a more challenging view to cope with, but I am sure that, eventually, I shall think of a smart answer to it.
A few Fridays from now, my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) will be introducing a measure that I am sure even my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will wholeheartedly support. Although I am sure that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members believe that we should have a little bit of legislation, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for drawing that point to the House's attention.
On 26 February—this might please my right hon. Friend—the President of the Board of Trade, at a warm homes campaign meeting in his constituency, said:
Simply shovelling money at people to heat the skies above our cities is hardly a sustainable use of resources. Nor will it help the fuel poor much.
We would all say amen to that. It would be crazy to do that.
I am using the emotive terminology "fuel poor" because we have to identify the issues in the debate. It is generally accepted that the fuel poor are those who must spend 10 per cent. of their disposable income on heating their homes. Other Government schemes help the fuel poor by improving homes and insulation levels. That is a sustainable way of helping to keep people warm, cutting pollution and reducing the emission of climate-changing gases, such as carbon dioxide.
Is there a distinction to be drawn between the poor and the fuel poor, or are the fuel poor a subset of the poor—or the other way round? I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could, with rather greater precision, deal with the definition of fuel poverty. The matter is dealt with in his Bill, but could he help me on it?
I should be delighted to help my hon. and learned Friend on that matter, and on anything else that he would like help with. I shall deal with the definition of fuel poor later in my speech. For now, however, I simply ask him to bear in mind that fuel poverty is generally accepted to affect those who spend 10 per cent. of their disposable income on home heating. If he carefully examines the Bill—he is a lawyer, so he will have done that—he will see that no one will be forced to do anything. I am a Conservative, and therefore do not believe in forcing people to do things that they do not wish to do. Nevertheless, clause 3 specifically deals with that matter. As I do not want to provoke Labour Members, I shall move on quickly.
In October, in his speech to the Labour party conference, the Prime Minister described one of the things that kept him awake at night. As we know, in two months, something else will undoubtedly be keeping him awake. However, in October, he asked:
How many of our pensioners will go cold this winter?
He was right to ask that question.
The answer, according to Government figures, is a shocking 4 million people. Sceptics will say, "Hang on, David, 4 million? That is a huge number of people." I suppose that the situation is a bit similar to the one in which a person whom we know is really ill, but never complains about it, whereas a hypochondriac might always complain about being ill, but live to be 105. Out in the wide world, in winter, a huge number of people go cold for no good reason.
I am delighted to be a sponsor of the hon. Gentleman's Bill, which I warmly welcome. Does he accept that there are geographical concentrations of people who are suffering from fuel poverty, especially those who live in rather sporadic developments, in exposed locations and with low household incomes—such as in the west of Wales, Northumberland and Cornwall? Does he accept that, often, those people are not visible to those who are concerned about these issues? I warmly welcome his Bill, and I hope that he will accept that not only his constituents, but very many others in sporadic developments elsewhere will benefit from the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is probably right gently to point out that I am milking my constituency just a little bit too much. I pay tribute to him as a sponsor of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) has pointed out that there are specific issues to be addressed in the part of the country that the hon. Gentleman represents.
Following that very interesting point, will my hon. Friend explore now the effect of different average ambient temperatures across the country on the phenomenon that is the subject of the Bill? It strikes me as very likely that, in Cornwall, the phenomenon may be very different from that, for example, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). Does my hon. Friend allow that that is a possibility? Will a mechanism to deal with that factor be built into, and support, his Bill?
I am glad that my right hon. Friend has raised that point. However, I am a little nervous that, the more that I put in the Bill, the more fun will be had with it. That is why there is not such a mechanism in the Bill. I live in sunny Southend, but I fully recognise that there are many different climates in the United Kingdom. I am happy to say that the duty of analysing all those matters will be put, fairly and squarely, on the shoulders of the Government.
My right hon. Friend sighs and heaves before he allows me to develop the point. I have spent a great deal of time contacting local authorities of all political persuasions, and I am delighted to say that, across the country, they have demonstrated huge support for the Bill. Some people might say, "Wait until they see how much it will cost," but I am very optimistic that, given local authorities' responsibilities, they will be able to help us in implementing the measure. If my right hon. Friend has any ideas about how he thinks such a mechanism might constructively be built into the Bill, I should be only too delighted to consider them. I am grateful for his helpful suggestion.
May I try to help out the hon. Gentleman a little by saying that a great deal of work has been done in the House on how the wind chill factor should be used as a relevant part of assessments of fuel and housing poverty? Much work has also been done on the SAP—standard assessment procedure—energy efficiency ratings which apply to all new buildings in the United Kingdom. In subsequent dialogue with local authorities, part of our aspiration in dealing with the matter must be to reach a sensible view on how to take account not only of the objective SAP ratings on new-built properties, but of the specific geographical locations in which those properties are built. All of that should be built into the backdrop of consultation and dialogue with local authorities on the Bill's implementation.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) said that much work has been done on the wind chill factor. However, am I not correct in assuming that wind chill factor is relevant only once one is outside one's home, and that the wind chill factor has no relevance in ensuring energy efficiency and heating inside one's home?
The hon. Gentleman referred to regional disparity. Although I have great sympathy with people who live in remote parts of the south-west, the figures for excess winter deaths by region tell a different story. In the past four years, excess winter deaths increased by only 5 per cent. in the south-west—I say only, but it is with some regret—while the north-west had a 35 per cent. increase from 5,000 in 1995 to 7,000 in 1998–99. One would assume that that was related to the fact that we live in the coldest and wettest part of the United Kingdom. However, the figures showed a dramatic fall in all regions in 1997–98. In 1996–97, there were 5,900 excess winter deaths in the north-west, but the figure for 1997–98 was 2,500. One can only assume that that was a consequence of the euphoria following Labour's election victory on 1 May 1997.
I certainly do not agree with that, but I shall resist the temptation to respond to the hon. Gentleman. I have no doubt that he made his point well and it certainly seems much colder up north.
The Bill requires the Government to set a target of their choice and allows that target to be modified in response to unexpected events. The Bill would set the Government's policy in law. When I first adopted the Bill, it had absolutely no guarantee of Government support and I had no discussions with the Government about it. It was certainly not a Government Bill. I am not prepared to take on Government Bills. Indeed, one or two journalists said, "David, you are mad to go ahead with this Bill." However, there have now been a number of meetings. I pay tribute to the Energy Efficiency Minister in another place, as, thanks to his assistance and that of his officials, there has been a meeting of minds in respect of the detail of the Bill.
Let me deal with the Bill clause by clause and attempt to answer some of the points raised by my hon. Friends. Clause 1 defines the terms used in the Bill. The definition of fuel poverty is a general one, but it may be changed from time to time in order better to target people who need help. Clause 2 places a duty on the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales to draft a strategy to end fuel poverty. That strategy must include a final target date by which the problem will have been eliminated as far as is possible.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Will he clarify something that may well permeate the debate that follows? Is it his intention that the Bill will apply taxpayers' money—presumably large sums of it, although I hope that he will clarify that too—to privately owned dwellings as well as those in the public sector?
Of course. The answer is yes. There are all sorts of proposals whereby we shall be able to work in partnership with others. For example, there was a wonderful announcement by Transco yesterday. I know that that was not the precise point that my right hon. Friend was making, but that point is dealt with in the Bill.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman makes that point, but I do not anticipate it happening at the moment. I am sorry, but I had better not get involved in the merits or otherwise of the Welsh Assembly as I would not want to cause offence in various parts of the House.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I apologise for missing the first few minutes of his speech, although clearly I did not miss the meat of the Bill, which he is coming to only now. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) asked whether the Bill applied to privately owned homes, but the relative role of the tenant—of council property, local housing associations or private landlords—compared with that of the owner of the property is not clear from the Bill or from the briefing that was kindly prepared for me. Can the tenant carry out improvements against the wishes of the landlord or force the landlord to carry them out? Can my hon. Friend explain, as I am not clear how their positions balance out?
I am not surprised that my hon. Friend is not clear about that, as it is not mentioned in the Bill. However, I do not believe that those circumstances will arise. The Bill deals with the strategy. Detailed points such as that may be raised in Committee. However, I do not anticipate that a tenant would be carrying out such improvements against the wishes of the landlord, particularly as they would result in savings of at least £400.
Although I am happy to continue to take interventions—
I thought that my right hon. Friend would be pleased about that. However, there appears to be a large number of right hon. and hon. Members wishing to speak, and I would not want to be accused of making the longest speech on a Friday and heavily criticised later. I know that people are giving up a huge amount of their time at the moment.
Is not one of the extra benefits of the Bill, should it become law as I hope that it does, that it will stimulate employment? Is the hon. Gentleman aware of research carried out by the Association for the Conservation of Energy which suggests that a 15-year programme of energy efficiency measures could create some 30,000 new jobs?
I am certainly aware of that and I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting it on record.
I would dearly love to eliminate fuel poverty altogether but, although I hope that the Bill will address some of the problems, some households—perhaps many—will refuse to co-operate with the scheme. Some houses simply cannot be insulated to the necessary standards and some households will be genuinely remiss, but I am advised that the Bill's intention to eliminate fuel poverty as far as is practicable is a sensible test. Following the preparation of the strategy, it must then be implemented. Assessments of progress are required from time to time and the strategy and targets can be eliminated in the light of those assessments.
Clause 3 provides the power to make regulations if required in order to set up the schemes under the strategy.
Will my hon. Friend address my concern about clause 3(2), which is the engine that will drive the legislation? A Government of either political party could produce regulations that fell short of what was necessary, for reasons of their own. Making the Bill subject to negative procedure does not give the House sufficient power to push the Government and make them think again. Will my hon. Friend consider whether it would be realistic to change it to an affirmative resolution so that the House can have greater control and more of a say in what the Government of the day may or may not want to do in those regulations?
That intervention proves the worth of the debate. My hon. Friend has made a splendid suggestion. I know that he is busy, but I hope that he will serve on the Committee if we secure a Second Reading for the Bill, so that he can take that issue forward. I thank him for making it, because the purpose of parliamentary scrutiny is to ensure that the legislation will hold the Government of the day to account.
Clause 4 makes it clear that the Bill will not compel people to participate in schemes, which must rely on persuasion if they are to be popular and successful.
In response to an intervention from the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), the hon. Gentleman talked about people who would not participate. I hope that that does not include private sector landlords, many of whom, in some of the poorer parts of the north-west, still expect their tenants to live in poorly insulated properties.
The hon. Gentleman skated over that point quickly. Has he made an estimate of the cost implications of the Bill? I guess that the cost will be in the region of £100 million. If so, would it not be a good use for part of the money from the climate change levy?
Those who oppose the Bill can put forward any arguments to say that it will cost a huge amount. I have the full briefing. However, those who wish the Bill well can add up the savings in health, insulation and general well-being. Taking those factors into account, not only will the Bill be cost-neutral, there will be money in the coffers for the Treasury. That is why I have been persuaded to support the Bill, as a Conservative. That is how strongly I feel about it.
I was going to go into further detail on clause 5, but I shall rush on now. Half an hour ago, I could not remember the constituency of one of my hon. Friends, but now I can. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and the hon. Members for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), for Nottingham, South and for Plymouth, Sutton, who worked on the Select Committee. They have come up with ideas on public-private partnerships, bond issues, utility regulation and other matters.
Does my hon. Friend appreciate that there is another consequence of the Bill—that there will not be a need to produce as much energy? That will mean that the countryside in Scotland and Wales will not be scarred with dreadful wind turbines—a policy that masquerades as being environmentally friendly, but the results of which damage the environment. The Bill will ensure that the countryside is saved.
I greatly admire my hon. Friend's style. It seems to have met with some good reaction and some adverse reaction in the House. I am trying to be as consensual as I can. I shall reflect on his point.
To sum up, the aim of the Bill is to end fuel poverty and the disgrace of so many people shivering—yes, genuinely shivering—through the winter. It has massive support. I have received messages from a range of organisations: the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, Help the Aged, the Green party, Friends of the Earth, energy efficiency industries, the Royal British Legion, Age Concern, professional footballers, the Royal College of Nursing—[HON. MEMBERS: "Professional footballers?"] I asked why they were interested. Apparently it is a big issue for the new national football stadium at Wembley.
My hon. Friend has been unprepared to put any cost on the exercise over any period, even during the debate today. Does he accept that it is easy to garner support for what appears to be a cost-free benefit? Does he concede that it is just possible that, if he had been prepared to put even a ballpark cost on the proposals and express that in terms of the additional taxation required to fund them, some of the voices expressing support might have been a little more hesitant?
No, I do not accept that admonishment from my right hon. Friend. I would be stupid to give a figure that would be used in evidence against me. We can pluck any figure out of the air.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point far more cleverly than I have been able to. I was hoping that my broad brush statement that the Bill will save money would be accepted. No doubt, the argument will continue.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in addition to the costs that we are talking about, there is a cost in human misery from being fuel poor? The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) will not mention that.
I agree with the hon. Lady. My main interest is health. There is a terrible cost to the health service at the moment. It is not right to analyse the matter starkly. If the Bill became law, it would be cost-effective and a huge number of lives would be saved. If it were as successful as I anticipate, it would bring money into the Treasury.
That shows what the merest twitch in the Chamber can achieve. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. There are various estimates on the issue. For example, savings to the national health service could amount to £1 billion as a result of the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I am disappointed that the House did not think that I had a flourishing end to my speech, and I am now about to deliver it. I was not simply going to sit down.
I am delighted with the huge turnout of Members of Parliament today. Fridays have become rather unpopular and unfashionable for all sorts of reasons. It never used to be like that. Fridays give an atmosphere that enables us to engage in constructive debate, so I welcome this opportunity. I pay tribute to all those who have supported my endeavours. I am very mindful of those who have cancelled constituency engagements or opportunities to spend time with their families. I am only too well aware of all those matters.
I return to my original statement, which seems a long time ago. I never came to the House with great ambitions, thinking that I could change the world. I came to the House believing that I could make a difference. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will join me in making a difference. I commend the Bill to the House.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on raising such an important issue, which affects all of us in our constituency work. I welcome his move from the warmth of Basildon to the cold east coast of Southend. It seems to have sharpened up his politics no end. He sounded semi-socialist at one point, which worried me slightly.
One of my abiding memories of being brought up in Scotland was the cold, crisp mornings when it was a delight to put my clothes on under the blankets. That was absolutely essential. I see that some of my colleagues are remembering their childhoods, too. I remember also when the coalman did not come, and the only chance of getting heat in the house was to find a combustible Englishman. I am only joking, but this is a serious issue.
It is intolerable, degrading and uncivilised that we live in a society where individuals shiver in their homes and beds, and some stay in bed all day because they cannot heat their homes. They contract illness because of that, and that is what I want to speak about. The effect of cold temperatures on human bodies and organs is an under-researched field. We do not know the full effects on our functions and organs, and I am pleased that research councils are now putting resources into that kind of study to reflect the problems of the elderly in society and across the world.
I was stung into action by a recent headline, "Killed by the cold", and a story by Simon Parkin, the local health correspondent for the Evening News in Norwich. This reflects badly in terms of the interest in the elderly in Norwich, Norfolk and society generally. The scandal of the politics of cold is that cold damages people's health, makes them susceptible to infection and causes increased deaths. These effects are accentuated in rural areas such as East Anglia, where many homes predate the heady days of 1945 when Aneurin Bevan built homes in this country at a fantastic rate. Many homes in rural areas and cities predate those days.
I am grateful to a colleague of mine—a consultant for the care of the elderly and elderly medicine at the West Norwich hospital—who has released his research on the subject to me. Much of it has been published in The Lancet. The research concerns death and disease among older people in winter. It is estimated that 20,000 and 60,000 extra deaths occur every winter in England and Wales. The definition used is that of a man called Curwen, who has done the definitive work in this area.
The calculation is the number of deaths in the four winter months from December to March, less the average of the numbers in the preceding autumn, August to November, and the following summer, April to July. Greater numbers of deaths are associated with both colder winters and the increased prevalence of influenza. Some 55 per cent. of those extra deaths are vascular—heart and stroke problems. Some 33 per cent. involve chest diseases. Accidental hypothermia accounts for no more than 1 per cent. and is usually secondary to serious underlying illness, rather than the primary event.
The percentage of excess winter deaths increases from 12 per cent. at ages 45 to 64 to 18 per cent. at ages 65 to 74, to 27 per cent. at ages 75-plus. The elderly are more at risk from winter. There is a tendency also for increasing winter mortality as we move from social classes 1 to 5. Excess winter deaths by country have been mentioned. In England and Wales, the excess percentage is 21, and in Scotland it is 20. Interestingly, in Norway, Finland and Canada, the figures are 7 per cent., 8 per cent., and 9 per cent. respectively. The fact that the coldest countries do not have the worst winter mortality rates has been attributed to warmer housing and behavioural adaptations, including wearing more clothes and being more active when outdoors.
The death rates increase linearly as the mean daily outdoor temperatures fall from 18 deg C to 0 deg C. That reflects on events inside, as well.
Cold-related death rates have been decreasing somewhat in recent years, and this has been attributed to improved home heating and to reduced outdoor exposure. Some argue that it is a result of increased car ownership. The important issue is that the poorest in our society tend to have the most energy inefficient housing—that is, homes that cost more to heat. Another interesting fact is that winter respiratory infections trigger strokes and heart attacks.
Calculations in Norwich show that, over the last winter, there were 200 extra deaths of the elderly, using the Curwen formula. In terms of the data for the year from August 1998 to July 1999, the medical assessment unit at the local Norfolk and Norwich hospital admitted 14,000 emergency patients with acute medical illnesses. The majority were elderly. Using Curwen's formula, we calculated that there were 599 more admissions from December to March than the average in the two other four-month periods. There are 13 per cent. more admissions in the winter.
The recommendations given to older citizens will be known to most hon. Members, but they are only advice. That advice is to keep homes warm, to keep them well insulated, to wear appropriate warm clothing outdoors, to eat a balanced diet, to maintain good energy sources and to get vaccinated against the flu if one is over 75. The trouble with that information is that it centres on individuals taking action. We need collective political action on these issues to take the responsibility away from the individual.
I do not want the dialectic to get in the way of the facts at this stage. I may give way later.
It ill befits politicians and others—some of whom have two or even three well-heated homes—to deny people who do not have one well-heated home the rights and resources to have that privilege.
I wish to pay tribute to three organisations. The first is Age Concern, which has done fine work and given help and advice consistently to the elderly. I want also to compliment my two local councils, because they can stand every compliment they can get these days. Broadlands council, which covers part of my area, has started to attack the problem vehemently. It has accepted standards for affordable warmth, and the standard assessment procedure rating is 55. The council has calculated that 57 per cent. of its housing stock—some 30,000 houses—falls well below that standard. There is a huge mountain to climb in terms of getting those homes up to the right heat and energy levels. The council is making sterling efforts, with grants and by utilising energy conservation legislation.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the public housing stock, but we hear that the Bill will apply to public and private housing. It concerns me that many elderly people—particularly single elderly people—who are just above the threshold for the minimum income guarantee but are in a home that they could have afforded when their partner was alive cannot now afford to insulate their homes to a proper standard, and end up fuel poor. Are there any figures on the private stock? Is not that an important part of any survey?
The hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood the intention of my earlier attempt to intervene. What are the Curwen criteria? The warm homes campaign has alleged that 90 people in my constituency died last year because of excess winter cold. I find that unbelievable. If it is the case, I am surprised that local GPs or the coroner have not been in touch with me or the local press on the matter. Is that figure based on the Curwen criteria? If so, what are they?
I cannot speak in specific terms about the hon. and learned Gentleman's area, but I imagine that the Curwen criteria are used across the country. The scandal is that there are any excess deaths at all in the winter months. That is reflected across the country. The percentages may change a little here or there, but the real scandal is that it happens at all, as it need not. GPs may not necessarily know the figures. Elderly medicine is not a fashionable subject, and it is not something that GPs look into—they accept what happens as the British way of life. The Bill will do much to eliminate that if we ensure that it makes progress today.
The year is divided into three periods of four months. One compares the number of deaths in certain age groups in the winter months with the number in the preceding and the following four months, adding the figures in the latter two groups and taking them away from the winter figure. That gives the number of excess deaths. In every part of the country, there is a winter excess.
It might also help the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) to understand the problem if I tell him that we have a much greater excess of winter deaths than countries such as Norway and Sweden, which are much colder.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the estimated figure for excess winter deaths last year for the London borough of Bromley is 88? Should not the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) ponder that, as his record on energy efficiency is, to be charitable, poor?
Yes, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will have his conscience pricked and that he will support what the vast majority demand and stop playing silly, amateurish games.
Our city council has taken up the issue and put £1.6 million into cavity cladding and insulation. Such enthusiasm and determination are to be applauded. We also need the Government to recognise the problem, support the Bill and develop a strategy to ensure that, in the foreseeable future, headlines such as "Killed by the cold" will disappear.
The elimination of cold homes and fuel poverty would save lives, ease the winter crisis in the health service and, incidentally, improve the environment.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) not only on his success in the ballot but on his perspicacity in introducing such an important and badly needed piece of legislation. I wish him every success in the coming months as the Bill—we hope—passes through both Houses of Parliament and is placed on the statute book.
I know that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, but I want to say how proud I am to be one of the Bill's sponsors, especially as, when I had the privilege of serving on the Front Bench under my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), I was instrumental in securing the support of the Conservative party for the campaign for warm homes and greater energy efficiency.
As the long title of the Bill states, its purpose is:
To require the Secretary of State to draw up and facilitate the carrying out of a programme of action to provide households with a comprehensive package of home insulation, heating and other energy efficiency improvements for the purpose of reducing fuel poverty; to require the setting of targets for the achievement of that programme; and for connected purposes.
All legislation carries that catch-all phrase at the end.
Fuel poverty disproportionately affects pensioners, but it is not confined solely to them, important as it is to improve their situation. Far too many other categories of people also suffer from fuel poverty, including those on low incomes, those on benefits and those who do not have the financial resources to improve their homes or cannot get their landlords to do it. I will return to that when I discuss clause 4(b).
The commonly accepted definition, according to the 1999 energy report, is that a household is in fuel poverty if it needs to spend 10 per cent. or more of its income to provide adequate heat and energy. The report suggests that, on that definition, about one in five households are in fuel poverty, while one in 20 could be described as in extreme or severe fuel poverty because they would need to spend more than 20 per cent. of income on energy to achieve a decent standard of warmth.
In 1991, the English house condition survey estimated that about 7 million households were in fuel poverty on the 10 per cent. of income definition, although subsequent improvements in methodology, as well as in energy efficiency, have brought the figure down to about 6.6 million. That estimate did not include housing benefit as income, although it included housing costs as expenditure. Including the benefit would affect the total income available to households but not their disposable income.
In response to the consultations on the house energy efficiency scheme, many people said that total income, including housing benefit, and total fuel use, including use for household purposes, should be included. The change in the past few years in the number of households in fuel poverty is substantial. Excluding housing benefit, there were 5.3 million houses in fuel poverty in England in 1996; including it, the number would be about 4.4 million.
There is scope for debate about the figures but there can be little argument about the fact that, even accepting the lowest estimate of 4.4 million, the number is unacceptably high. It should be borne in mind that the figure is for England only and excludes Wales—which is covered by the Bill—Scotland and Northern Ireland. That is crucial because, bearing in mind what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said earlier, Scotland and Northern Ireland are infinitely harsher in winter than parts of the south-west, for example.
What is the fuel poverty impact of cold homes? Evidence abounds that fuel poverty affects the health of the nation to the detriment of far too many people. We have evidence that a cold indoor environment increases the likelihood of respiratory illnesses such as influenza, pneumonia and bronchitis and exacerbates heart attacks and strokes. That is a fact. Fatal domestic accidents among the elderly are more common in winter. That is a fact. Cold and damp conditions can promote the growth of fungi and house dust mites, which have been linked to respiratory conditions such as asthma, which is a problem especially among young children. That, too, is a fact.
Does my hon. Friend have any feel for, or indeed facts about, the relative incidence of those phenomena in public as opposed to private housing? Does he make any distinction between the responsibilities of local authorities and housing associations and those of private landlords?
That is an important point. I may disappoint my right hon. Friend because I cannot produce hard facts to answer his question, although I can give him anecdotal evidence and some facts. For several reasons, under Governments of both parties, local authority housing and the public sector have had problems, although those have reduced as a result of energy efficiency measures taken in the late 1980s, in the 1990s and—to be fair—under this Government. When I come on to my local authority of Chelmsford, I shall be able to provide my right hon. Friend with some figures to show the extent of the problem facing what is a relatively small local authority.
Fuel poverty is not confined to local authority housing. For example, although one hears stories of good practice by private landlords in the private sector, one also hears some utter horror stories. Of course, owners of houses have an incentive to adopt measures to improve the energy efficiency and warmth of their homes because they will improve the value of their home and reduce their heating bills. I fear that my answer has been inadequate, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will wait until later in my speech for more details about the scale of the problem in the local authority sector.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the experiment that is being conducted in Cornwall by some GPs who are specifically focusing on child asthma? They are part of an initiative actually to prescribe the installation of home insulation measures to address the ill-health experienced by children suffering from asthma. In the context of evidence-based medicine, it is important to examine the health gain arising from such initiatives.
That is an important contribution to the debate and I trust that if the hon. Gentleman catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will tell us more about that important initiative.
It is accepted that a temperature for the home of between 18 and 21 deg C is a comfortable temperature for families and individuals to live in. A temperature of between 16 and 18 deg C will cause some discomfort, but no serious health risks; between 12 and 16 deg C will cause discomfort and risk of respiratory disease and bronchitis. At 9 to 12 deg C, there is risk of cardiovascular problems, strokes, heart attacks; and, at under 9 deg C, there are serious risks of hypothermia. Sad to say, in this day and age, some individuals and families have to live in homes with temperatures of under 9 deg C, thus exposing them to serious risk of hypothermia.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the key health factors is rehabilitation after patients are discharged from hospital? Much evidence now exists to show that one of the reasons for readmission to hospital is the inability of patients properly to heat their homes.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, although some of those suffering from cold-related illnesses also need physiotherapy, respite care and after-care help. As other hon. Members have said, for many years now, there has been an unacceptable level of deaths associated with fuel poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West mentioned that the figures for the latest year available—1998–99—showed that in England alone just over 45,000 people died from such causes. That figure has risen over eight years from 33,000. Those are unacceptable figures that shame our society.
In my area of East Anglia, between 1991 and now, the death rates have increased from about 1,200 people a year to 2,250. In my constituency, the number of deaths associated with problems of fuel poverty has been estimated at about 50 a year. In this day and age, it is staggering that we cannot get our act together better to reduce those figures dramatically.
The extent of fuel poverty in my constituency is highlighted by figures that Chelmsford borough council has kindly supplied to me. The council's housing stock comprises 7,500 dwellings. It estimates that some 3,500 still require simple energy efficiency measures, including cavity wall insulation, additional loft insulation, and draught-proofing of doors and windows. The council expects to complete those works within the next two years. Approximately 600 solid-walled and prefabricated dwellings in the borough are in need of insulation applied to the outside walls. That work is expected to take in excess of 10 years to complete at current funding levels.
Approximately 2,000 dwellings still lack a central heating system. That work is expected to take more than five years to complete at present funding levels. Some 4,000 dwellings lack double glazing and that work is expected to take more than 15 years to complete. Some 3,500 dwellings have older, less efficient heating systems, but at present resources in the borough are focused on what is called first-time heating, and the older systems will be renewed only when they are beyond repair. It will be necessary, as soon as all dwellings have been provided with some kind of heating system, to start to replace the old heating systems. We are fortunate in Chelmsford that this work is being done.
Chelmsford is not governed by my party and although it was governed by the Liberal Democrats for four years, my constituents saw the light last May and we now have a hung council. The Conservative councillors now have a direct input. I pay tribute to the council, under the Liberal Democrats and now as a hung council, because it is a proactive authority that has done all it can in the past decade to enhance its housing stock and to seek to make homes more energy efficient, for the benefit of the tenants and for the sake of quality of that stock.
Will the hon. Gentleman also pay tribute to the Government for enabling local authorities to give more priority to schemes such as he has described through the release of £3.6 billion of capital receipts?
I certainly do not want to make a party political or partisan speech this morning. I would pay tribute to any Government who acted to enhance the country's energy efficiency programme, in housing or in other sectors, as that would in turn enhance the quality of life and environment for people in local authority housing.
However, we must not forget that not only local authority housing needs to be improved. As I said in response to the intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, there is an urgent need for a rolling programme to bring up to standard the quality of local authority and housing association provision. That is why I so congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West on the Bill. It is another step forward, and it follows previous legislation and initiatives by all Governments.
Private owners in work have a real incentive to improve the quality of their homes. One crude and self-evident reason for that is that improvements enhance a house's value, but they also contribute to our overall environmental commitments by reducing energy wastage. In addition, those home owners benefit financially: on top of the real-terms fall in most fuel prices over the past decade, they will pay less per year on heating and cooking.
Sadly, some people are not able to take the appropriate action to improve their homes and render them more energy efficient, so they do not benefit from savings on their energy bills. For example, pensioners subsisting on the state retirement pension are unlikely to be able to afford the complete package of home improvements. I know that help is provided with loft insulation, for instance, but the complete package is beyond them. Unemployed home owners also lack the financial resources to undertake such work, and people on low incomes may take a long time to raise the finance for improvements to their homes.
I am also worried about privately rented accommodation. Many private landlords have the best interests of their tenants at heart and spend the money necessary to improve their housing stock and their tenants' quality of life. Regrettably, however, some private landlords do not engage in best practice. They want to maximise their rents and to make only a minimum investment in their properties. They have an almost total disregard for the quality of their tenants' lives.
Although clause 3 empowers the Secretary of State to make regulations implementing the Bill and the items specified in clause 2, clause 4(b) states that nothing in this Act shall be taken as conferring
any power to require any person to carry out works.
I assume that the Bill contains that provision so that Governments do not have draconian powers to interfere. However, is it not naive for legislation to rely for its successful implementation on the good nature and public-spiritedness of a private landlord?
I do not want letters of complaint from all over the country, so I repeat that the vast majority of private landlords are extremely good. However, a small proportion is not, and I fear that clause 4(b) could ruin the good intentions of this important Bill.
The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), the promoter of the Bill, said that he was an optimist and that he hoped that landlords could be tempted to undertake the work prescribed in the Bill by the carrot of public funding, as well as out of self-interest. Such carrots include the home energy efficiency scheme and renovation grants. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that there should be sticks as well as carrots?
Logically, the answer is yes, but I cannot suggest to the House today how such sticks might best be devised. The grants that are available can be taken up by good landlords and bad, and ultimately that saves the taxpayer money.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is anxious to finish, so I shall not detain him. However, I am anxious not to sink the Bill, as it is a good measure that I want to succeed. With regard to the sticks that might be employed against bad landlords, does the hon. Gentleman agree that legislation on public health and environmental protection could also be used? Other possibilities include the promised new register of houses in multiple occupation and, more controversially, the use of housing benefit—a potentially excellent tool to persuade private landlords to make improvements.
That is a valid point. I do not want the Bill to be sunk, either, any more than I want to slow down its progress by tampering with clause 4(b). However, I worry that unscrupulous people will drive a coach and horses through the Bill's good intentions by not enhancing housing quality. On the other hand, some people genuinely will not be able to undertake those improvements because they lack the money.
The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) seems to be suggesting that loopholes in the Bill could be blocked by using provisions available in other legislation. That would be marvellous. I am sure that the Minister wants to improve energy efficiency, and that he would approve of any legal method that would achieve that.
My final concern centres around the regulation powers in clause 3. That clause is the engine of the Bill, and it implements the proposals in clause 2. However, I am worried that the annulment or negative resolution procedures of clause 3 would cause this House to abdicate its power to monitor the Executive and hold it to account. That worry would apply regardless of the political complexion of the Government involved.
We all know how the negative procedure works. Statutory instruments cannot be amended; they are dealt with Upstairs in Committee, if they are dealt with at all. I fear that any future Government, regardless of political composition, could use the regulations to dilute the Bill's intentions. Therefore, I urge the Minister to consider reversing the onus in the clause to the affirmative resolution so that the House of Commons could hold the Executive of the day to greater account. It would also ensure that the will of the majority of hon. Members who support the Bill was reflected in the regulations rather than diluted by them.
I am proud to support the Bill, which is long overdue. It comes before the House with a realistic chance of completing all its stages in Parliament and getting on to the statute book. I believe that we all owe it to our constituents and those 4.4 million people who suffer the indignity, problems, discomfort and illness caused by fuel poverty to take a giant leap forward. We must say, "Enough is enough. We are going to deal with this problem." The first step is to put this measure on to the statute book.
I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who, in promoting the Bill, recognises the importance of Government action to tackle the human misery and waste caused by fuel poverty. That is in stark and marked contrast to the characteristically controversial and dismissive comments of Edwina Currie, who was previously one of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends. Her advice to elderly people who were struggling to keep warm was to knit themselves some woolly hats and gloves. The hon. Gentleman shows that we have come some way since that advice was given.
The Bill complements the activity and determination of the Government, who have already taken action to tackle fuel poverty. Cold homes are a major health hazard. They are wasteful in terms of energy and money, as people throw money down the drain—money they can often ill afford—in a vain attempt to heat the unheatable. It is only by tackling the basic problem and ensuring that homes are properly insulated, with the right heating system installed properly and working efficiently, that the most vulnerable people will be lifted out of fuel poverty.
During warm homes week last year, I visited one of my constituents, Helen Townsend, who lives in a lovely terraced house in the west end. I saw and felt for myself how Helen's home had been made warmer and cheaper to heat since she had had a loft insulation grant from the Government's home energy efficiency scheme. When people think about their eligibility for insulation grants, most rule themselves out if they are not pensioners. However, fuel poverty affects all those, including elderly people, who are vulnerable. Helen Townsend is a young woman who suffers from a condition that has left her unable to work and having to claim benefit. In common with others in a similar position, she spends a lot of time at home and, for reasons of health and comfort, needs it to be consistently warm. She should not have the additional worry of paying for it. I was pleased to hear from Helen how easy it had been to get a Government grant. That is another essential factor in making a warm home an achievable reality, rather than something on a wish list. The Bill needs to take that into account.
Last year in the east midlands, there were an estimated 4,200 excess winter deaths, some 88 of which were estimated to be in my constituency of Lincoln. As a result of the measures in the Bill and the Government's current programme, not only will distress be reduced, but lives will be saved. I was staggered to discover that, while the United Kingdom death rate rises in the winter by some 30 per cent., in countries such as Norway and Sweden, where the average temperatures are obviously lower, the rise in the winter death rate is closer to 10 per cent. That information concentrates the mind.
Our fundamental problem is how to tackle the root cause. How do we effectively support those who struggle to pay their fuel bills and cannot raise the capital to make their homes easier and cheaper to heat? We know that heat rises, but it also evaporates. Many people who can least afford it are paying to heat the air outside. That is a complete waste and, for some, a dangerous and sometimes fatal waste.
It always strikes me as ironic that constituents in the most difficult financial circumstances pay the most to heat their homes inefficiently. Pensioners and families on low incomes, and those with disabilities or chronic illness, simply do not have the resources to take the financially sound measures that would result in an affordably warm home. They cannot, in the short term, afford the investment that would bring them the benefits of warmth in the short, medium and long term.
As well as being good for the people who live in them, affordable warm homes release money to spend on other things. Pressure is taken off the health service and the quality of housing stock is maintained—for example, the need for damp and rot-related repairs is reduced. Furthermore, an extended programme of insulating homes and installing new heating systems creates jobs.
I am pleased that the Government understand that the issue of fuel poverty and its effects crosses the desks of many Ministers, including those with responsibility for health, environmental, social security and Treasury matters. The Government have brought those Departments together, with others, to look at their overall strategy on fuel poverty.
I am also pleased that, from April, the Government will for the first time be able to provide grants for central heating systems for older people on low incomes. That is another sensible, practical measure, the like of which is supported in the Bill.
The role of local authorities in ensuring affordable warm homes is crucial. Lincoln city council has joined six other councils and the Energy Saving Trust Ltd. to launch the home energy Lincolnshire partnership. It provides households with a free home energy report, a certificate and access to discounts on energy-saving products. In local authorities up and down the country, officers such as Terry Bentley, the energy efficiency officer at Lincoln city council, work tirelessly to promote understanding of the importance and use of energy-saving measures. We need that kind of approach and those kinds of people to work with the Government to help with the fight against fuel poverty.
The Bill builds on the contribution made by the Government, who have put forward practical measures that will keep vulnerable adults and children in healthy, comfortable and financially sound warm homes. I hope that the House will support the Bill.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on his courage in choosing a Bill whose scope could have an impact both nationally and internationally. I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Bill, and to restate Liberal Democrat support for it.
The debate might be an opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members to reminisce about their own experiences of fuel poverty, particularly as students. I think back to my time at Imperial college and how, when it was winter, I had to keep on my hat, scarf and coat in the room that I rented. It was anything but a favourable environment in which to study. A couple of years later, I moved to Hackney, where, if I left the water in the sink in the evening, the washing-up was frozen into the bowl in the morning. We may all have had a similar experience. Although I am portraying mine humorously, it is not a laughing matter.
I listened carefully while the hon. Gentleman told us that when he was a student he was so cold he had to sit wearing his coat, woolly hat and gloves. In those circumstances, did he find Edwina Currie's advice to wear a woolly hat offensive or sensible?
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, I followed her advice—or rather pre-empted it, as I was a student many years before she made that recommendation.
I shall be brief because I am aware that many Labour Members want to speak, as we witnessed earlier when an inadvertent movement by the hon. Member for Southend, West caused a Mexican wave on the Government Benches. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) sets such store by his commitment to environmental protection and social justice that he has stated that the Bill is crucial for our social justice and environmental agenda. He said that if the Government do not support it, they will stand condemned on both counts.
I tried to obtain advance confirmation from the Government as to whether they would support the Bill, but my telephone call went unanswered. However, I hope that the Government will support it; the Liberal Democrats want that—as do an overwhelming majority of Members in the Chamber today. It is certainly what millions of people living in fuel poverty want.
Environmental issues are often perceived to be the preserve of the chattering middle classes. The Bill gives the lie to that myth. It shows that saving the planet is about saving the people who inhabit it, that environmental and social concerns are inextricably linked and that sustainability is economic as well as environmental. Too often, it is claimed that environmental action loses jobs and slows economic growth. As several hon. Members have already pointed out, that would not be true of the Bill, because it could result in the creation of up to 30,000 jobs.
Fuel poverty is a scandal, as every hon. Member would agree. It represents the failure of successive Governments to ensure that our citizens live in warm, dry homes. Surely, that is one the most basic human rights—on a par with the right to clean water or food. In the 21st century, no one should be denied that right.
Government figures shows that four out of 10 pensioner households live in fuel poverty. Despite the Government's welcome winter fuel payments, millions of pensioners are still shivering in cold, damp homes. Members will be aware of that from their constituency visits. Unless the Government are prepared to guarantee the winter fuel payments in perpetuity—no Government could actually do that—pensioners who are gaining a little warmth at the moment, because of that extra payment, could be shivering in the future, if the money is withdrawn.
Our failure to tackle the root cause of the problem—poorly insulated and poorly heated homes—means that we are heating the air above people's houses. Other hon. Members have told us of the number of UK households that live in fuel poverty and the number of people affected by the problem. The effect on the poor, elderly and disabled is clear. The number of excess deaths in England and Wales was 48,000.
Hon. Members will probably also be aware, from their briefings, that England and Wales have higher excess winter mortality rates than any European countries other than Ireland and Portugal. Our rates are extremely high compared to those in Scandinavian and central European countries, even though their climates are much tougher.
The success of the Scandinavian countries, in particular, in reducing their excess winter deaths must be attributable, at least in part, to their much higher insulation standards. Although the death rate in the UK rises by about 30 per cent. during the winter, in Norway and Sweden, that rise is only 10 per cent.
Does the hon. Gentleman have any information about the source of the investment to produce those much better conditions in Scandinavian countries? Is it because private individuals decide to invest in their homes or because the Government channel taxpayers' money into such measures? I am sure that he will recognise the importance of that question; the debate has not yet scratched the surface of the source of the moneys that would be deployed as a result of the Bill. Who is paying whom?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am not able to give him chapter and verse on the source of the funding for Scandinavian schemes. However, I am certain that a major factor is that those countries have more building regulations and higher standards.
The Bill would undoubtedly reduce the massive increase in illnesses that are exacerbated by cold and damp, such as influenza, bronchitis and asthma. It would certainly reduce the pressure on the NHS, allowing the service's stretched resources—the subject of much comment over the past few weeks—to be diverted away from easily preventable illnesses to those that are more serious.
I regret that there are no official estimates of the cost to the NHS of excess mortality or morbidity. I hope that the Minister will commission some research on that point, or will ask the appropriate Department to do so. Other hon. Members have referred to the figure of £1 billion estimated by the Association for the Conservation of Energy.
As has been pointed out, the Royal College of Nursing drew attention to a programme of home energy improvements in Cornwall. The RCN estimates that, as a result of that programme, the saving to the NHS is about £500 per household per year. That is a substantial sum by anyone's standards. It is always risky to extrapolate figures for the whole country from one study, but if one assumed that similar savings could be made for all households suffering from fuel poverty, the figure could be £3 billion or £4 billion—a large saving.
Many children who live in cold homes underachieve at school, because they have nowhere dry and warm to work. The Bill would go some way to solving that problem.
The Bill is about joined-up government—something that the Government often talk about. It is about social inclusion; it is good for people. It is also good for the environment. Instead of spending money on fossil fuels—the consumption of which contributes to climate change—we should spend money on conserving the energy that we already use.
Yesterday, the Government launched their climate change strategy, which rightly pointed out that reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, in all energy use sectors, would be necessary if the Government are to meet their international commitment to reduce such emissions. The Bill will help to deliver a reduction in emissions in the domestic sector that will enable the Government to achieve not only the legally binding Kyoto commitment of 12.5 per cent., but their 20 per cent. target. Hon. Members should focus on that, as the Government are, rather worryingly, speaking of "moving towards" their 20 per cent. target, whereas they have given a firm guarantee that they will deliver on their legally binding 12.5 per cent. commitment.
The Bill is good for the economy. We have heard that it would create 30,000 long-term jobs. Interestingly, the savings to the Exchequer that would result from those jobs would be about £300 million a year, or £4.5 billion over 15 years at today's prices. I am assured that that is a conservative figure, based on an estimate that the average cost of unemployment for someone who has previously been on average earnings is about £10,000 per claimant. That excludes the effects of a reduction in indirect tax collected, as a result of changed spending patterns once the person becomes unemployed, and other costs such as an increase in demand for the NHS and social services.
The Government have promised to eradicate fuel poverty. Senior Ministers are on record as describing fuel poverty as a scandal. The Deputy Prime Minister rightly said:
One of the obscenities of the 1980s was the failure to tackle the problem of keeping our elderly people warm in winter.
The Environment Minister went further and stated:
The preventable scourge of fuel poverty still remains an indictable menace in our society.
Hundreds of hon. Members have signed early-day motions, written letters, issued press releases and promised their constituents that they would support the Bill. I welcome that.
The Prime Minister said that he wants to end child poverty within 20 years. I welcome that, too, but the Government will not eradicate child poverty unless they also eradicate fuel poverty.
The Liberal Democrats fully support the Bill. We urge the Government to come off the fence and back the Bill, so that together we can embark on a historic, cross-party campaign to put an end to the outrage of fuel poverty.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on the choice of subject for his private Member's Bill. If it does not thoroughly ruin his reputation, may I say that I also approve of the way in which he has taken the Bill that I promoted in previous Sessions and refined, developed and—if I dare use the word without totally ruining his reputation—modernised what we were doing? That modernisation has come about through the work of the all-party warm homes group and the warm homes Bill group, and the hearing to which the hon. Gentleman referred, in which his colleagues, the hon. Members for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), and also the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), participated.
We have been examining the costs in detail. When I first became associated with the campaign and looked into the costs, I was convinced that the Government would not consider putting taxation up to the level necessary to meet those costs, so we had to find other solutions. The all-party group has been working hard on a report, and I particularly welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, who has deployed his considerable experience in the financial world.
Working with the warm homes group has been one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had in the almost three years that I have been in Parliament. The group brings us together to tackle a task described by the director of Ofgem recently as "awesome". Although much has been achieved, much remains to be done.
I pay tribute to the organisations that back the campaign, including the Association for the Conservation of Energy, Church Action on Poverty, the National Housing Federation, National Energy Action, Unison, Friends of the Earth, the National Right to Fuel Campaign and, most appropriately, the Child Poverty Action Group and Help the Aged.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) said that if we were serious about child poverty, we must tackle fuel poverty. The same is true of pensioner poverty.
The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) asked whether there were subsets of the poor; there certainly are. They range from the pensioner who is fairly comfortably off in well-insulated sheltered housing, who may be paying 6 to 7 per cent. of his or her income on fuel—which is the average in the population—to the more common experience among pensioners, where fuel payments take up to 16 or 17 per cent. of their income. As we heard earlier, there are those in extreme poverty who spend 20 per cent. or more of their income on fuel.
I invite hon. Members, as I have done in previous contributions, to consider how they would feel if they had to pay out 20 per cent.—or even 30 per cent., a figure that I have seen—of their income to accommodate their fuel needs.
The Government have already taken significant steps, which makes it difficult to put a price and a time scale on the programme to eliminate fuel poverty. We heard mention of the private sector and the particular challenges there. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) highlighted the difficulties that may be faced in the private rented sector. I hope that we can debate that aspect further in Committee.
The Government have refocused the home energy efficiency scheme on the fuel poor, and from June grants will be increased from £315 to £1,000, or £2,000 for elderly people on low incomes. To qualify for that scheme, a household must accommodate a child under 16 or someone over 60 who is in receipt of various benefits. The scheme will focus on owner-occupiers and the private sector.
The Government have also been concentrating on the repair of local authority housing through the release of capital receipts, to which I referred earlier. In addition, they have reduced VAT on fuel to the minimum level; introduced a tax-free fuel allowance, which has been quadrupled to its present rate of £100; and reduced the gas levy, which is helping to keep prices down.
On the income side, the oldest and poorest pensioners will have an increase of £700 a year for single householders and £1,000 for couples through the minimum income guarantee. The working families tax credit will lift 700,000 to 800,000 children out of poverty. All these policies and others, working together, are beginning to tackle fuel poverty. However, there is still much more to be done, at both national and local level.
Since 1997, my local energy efficiency office, through its home energy action team, has been working with 174 households, 83 per cent. of which are on benefit, and looking not just at what work can be done, but at the impact that that will have. The first results are now available, which show savings of £158.66—three times the figure originally expected. That has an average effect equivalent to an increase of 2.9 per cent. in household income. It also increases comfort levels in those homes and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 1,214 kg per household.
I am pleased that the Government recognise how much more still needs to be done. They have set up an interministerial team, whose remit, membership and programme of work were outlined in written answers to parliamentary questions from me on 21 December and 27 January, which show how serious the Government are about tackling fuel poverty.
However, there is much more to do. The Bill would help to build on that approach through providing for a fuel poverty reduction strategy to be published and laid before Parliament. It will emphasise what energy efficiency can achieve in poverty reduction. I am especially keen on clause 2(2)(b), which would bring in the private sector and enable householders who suffered from fuel poverty to have access to appropriate fuel tariffs.
Some of the big companies, such as PowerGen, TXU Eastern Energy, and Scottish Power have been particularly active in working on these issues and—on energy efficiency though not on pricing—Transco has recently launched a £30 million project, which will help to build on the Bill.
The Bill is a win, win, win measure: it would tackle poverty and social exclusion; it would help us to fulfil our commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions; and it would help to create jobs and move us towards full employment. Furthermore, it would improve health by making savings in the health budget. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned education. Children, let alone more senior students, who live in poverty and cold homes find it more difficult to study and meet homework targets.
The Bill could even be linked with crime reduction. It links all the important issues of employment, health, education, crime and the environment. It would be a key to ending child and pensioner poverty. It is therefore a win, win, win, win, win, win measure, and I support it.
I am grateful to be called early in the debate, and I am especially pleased to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy), whose speech was the sixth in the debate. I pay tribute to all the speakers. We are witnessing a rare occasion when we are almost indulging in an all-party love-in. I hope that we shall be able to persuade the Government to join in this veritable orgy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on drawing no. 5 in the private Member's ballot. That is in contradistinction to my experience; I have been successful only once, in the first Session of my first Parliament 30 years ago when I drew no. 10. I believed that that presaged a rather more successful political career than I subsequently had. I promoted an Urban and Rural Environment Bill, part of which was designed to discourage chopping down trees of amenity value. The excellent measure was lost because of lack of time, which led to the memorable headline in The Guardian "Trees Bill Axed".
Our waste of energy in this country is appalling. People have died or suffered severe illnesses unnecessarily. I was especially interested to read in the seventh report of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit that it believes that that state of affairs is a "continuing national scandal". I therefore especially welcome the Bill, which has a long line of predecessors, because it is flexible to the extent that it is a challenge that the Government can accept.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, who is the promoter of the measure, has not included a time scale. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) pointed out, the Bill contains no guesstimate of its cost. I believe that it will cost a considerable amount of money. I am not an expert on financial matters, but if I had to make a judgment, I would estimate the cost at approximately £500,000 million a year.
I also estimate that a programme of eradicating fuel poverty and ensuring that all the housing stock is satisfactorily insulated would take 15 years. However, I am encouraged by the Labour manifesto for the first Scottish Parliament; it mentioned removing fuel poverty in two terms.
The challenge can be accepted, and if we have the wit and imagination, we can tackle an appalling problem. I have been considerably helped by the briefings that I have received not only from Mr. Charles Secrett of Friends of the Earth and regular correspondence with the director of the Association for the Conservation of Energy, but by correspondence with many other organisations, including Help the Aged and National Energy Action.
More than half of all Members of Parliament have signed the two relevant early-day motions: early-day motion 108 in the previous Session and early-day motion 317 in the current Session. I pay tribute to the work of many people, not least the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson).
I entirely agree. It is a problem that the number of early-day motions increases as Session succeeds Session. It becomes a challenge to discover the early-day motions that we do not need to sign. One of my consolations when I was a Government Whip one cannot get much lower than that—was being disobliged from signing early-day motions. I apologise to the Whip on duty, the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes).
I can be brief because other hon. Members have eloquently made the points that I intended to raise. However, I want to stress the increase in the death rate of 30 per cent. during the winter months in our country, compared with 10 per cent. or less in Norway, which generally has a much colder climate. I am convinced of two reasons why the number of excess deaths is much lower in Norway and the Scandinavian countries than in our country. First, higher building regulation standards pertain in Scandinavia. For example, in Sweden, people talk about the need for triple glazing rather than double glazing. Secondly—this is a personal judgment—I imagine that Norwegians, Swedes and Scandinavians generally have more access to plentiful supplies of timber that they can burn.
The fact that cold homes presage more deaths in the winter is given credence by the rather stark contrast between the number of excess deaths in mild winters, compared with that for extreme winters, in our country.
Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on his point about building regulations? Does he agree that, while this country would benefit enormously from tighter building regulations, that would affect only future homes? We must still tackle the problem of older houses that are poorly insulated.
The hon. Gentleman is right. He is knocking at an open door. When we introduce regulations, which are generally accepted, to make motor vehicles safer, we impose more restrictive regulations on new cars and leave a period of time for older cars to be adapted. We ought to draw the same policy conclusion in relation to the insulation of our homes. There are tighter regulations for new homes, as he says, and it is time to deal with the huge backlog of work in older properties.
Governments of both hues have taken initiatives over the years. For example, the first home energy efficiency scheme, which was a package of work, was introduced in 1991. Before that, there was only qualification for grants, which represented a scatter-gun approach that usually benefited those with more money living in larger houses. I readily acknowledge, as part of this love-in, that matters have been improved by the Government. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton mentioned the new HEES package, which starts in June. I understand that it will involve £300 million over two years, but—I say this relatively, not as a criticism—it will affect only about 500,000 homes at most.
I remember reading a good article by the director of the Association for the Conservation of Energy, Mr. Andrew Warren, who said that that programme, which he welcomed, would certainly alleviate fuel poverty, but not eradicate it. We have needed a comprehensive and co-ordinated approach for some years and I sincerely believe that the Bill is the measure on which such a policy can be hung. My view is that we need to insulate 5 million houses in England more effectively and, at the top end, although I hope that the figure may not be so great, as many as 8 million throughout the United Kingdom.
Of course, I welcome the winter fuel payment of £100 to all those of us who are 60 or over, but again—although I do not wish to belittle that good initiative in any way—I wonder whether a scatter-gun approach is being taken. I ask myself whether all over-60s need £100 and include myself in that observation, but, whatever happens, I do not wish to be churlish. I understand that the initiative will cost about £700 million a year—perhaps the Minister will confirm that—and this on-going policy will be implemented year after year. All the demographic indicators suggest that that figure will rise as the years go by.
There is also a tendency to incite people to burn more fuel, which must be one of the consequences of making available £100 for the elderly. Fuel prices have come down considerably—if I wanted to enter a party note, I would say directly as a result of the privatisation programmes—in spite of the previous Government putting 7.5 per cent. value added tax on fuel. I acknowledge that the present Government reduced that to 5 per cent.
Does my hon. Friend not think that there is a paradox in the argument between, on the one hand, the so-called fuel escalator on vehicle fuels—which I understand was introduced on so-called environmental grounds to deter the unnecessary use of fuel or to improve efficiency—and, on the other, the reduction in tax on domestic fuel, which I understand causes greater emissions and more pollution? Has he been able to work out that paradox? I have tried to get the answer from successive Ministers, but have failed.
I confess that I have not been able to work out that paradox, nor am I too anxious to do so because I am none too keen to go on record as wanting to increase VAT on domestic fuel. However, I recognise not only that paradox, but the paradox in the Government's climate change levy proposals. As they stand, the Government will tax all businesses—from manufacturing down to the corner shop on the energy that they use, although understandably they have had to make concessions to businesses that necessarily have to use a lot of energy to make their goods, but the opposite is happening in the domestic sector.
As we are less than a fortnight from the Budget, I cannot resist the temptation of putting my little point to the Chancellor, albeit via a third party. My advice is that he would do well to cease to bother about the climate change levy. After all, it is meant to be revenue neutral. He should let the planned gas-fired power station programme go ahead and also deal with the whole question of the effect of VAT on the construction industry, not least—and most relevantly in this debate—VAT on insulating or energy-saving materials. Creating an impost and giving it an exception creates anomalies; if those anomalies become too great, they become absurdities. This criticism would also apply to the previous Government: the application of VAT in the construction industry has become an absolute absurdity and I hope that the Chancellor will at least begin to tackle that problem in his Budget on 21 March.
The Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West is the latest in a series that have been introduced over the years. It is a good—I use the word carefully—and noble measure. I was about to say that it will prevent deaths. Although it certainly will, perhaps I ought to be more exact and recognise that we are not immortal. It will at least delay deaths and improve the health of our nation. It is a good measure in relation to the Government's Kyoto commitments on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide, which are a real problem in our country. It offers the prospect of employment in the construction industry and I have heard it suggested that 30,000 new jobs may be created over a period. Although it will be expensive, I also believe that it represents a sound economic investment.
I have referred to the number of Members who supported the early-day motions tabled in this and the previous Session. On reflection, I reckon that more than two thirds of all Back Benchers did so, given that the 100 or so Ministers are not allowed to sign early-day motions. I commend my hon. Friend's Bill to the House.
I sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on his wisdom in choosing to introduce such a worthwhile and much-needed Bill and on the flourish at the end of his speech.
For far too long, many people in this country have suffered the ill-effects of poorly heated homes, which have caused great concern to the elderly and other vulnerable groups. Up to 8 million households in the United Kingdom suffer from cold homes and that figure represents many, many more individuals. Many of those most at risk are afraid to use their heating because they cannot afford to pay for it and many old people in my constituency go to bed early and get up late to save energy costs. That is a form of social exclusion in itself and it can lead to loss of mobility and deep depression.
The very young are no less vulnerable. Many new-born babies come home from a warm hospital to a cold and damp environmnt. Small children lose body heat very quickly, and it is difficult to maintain it when parents are on low wages and cannot affordextra heating.
Much of our housing stock falls below the standard required to provide warm and dry accommodation. As housing chair in the metropolitan borough of Rochdale, I became familiar with the problems caused by lack of investment and lack of improvement in housing in both the public and the private sectors, both pre-war and post-war. Many occupants had developed respiratory tract illnesses as a result of living in damp and draughty houses during the winter months. In many instances whole families were huddled together in the living room, where the only heating in the house was a gas fire. They had to put up with fungus-covered walls, which were the norm on some estates. Any attempt to improve the environment even just by decorating was doomed to failure, as the damp caused wallpaper to peel away. Throughout the winter months, my telephone rang constantly.
The Kirkholt estate in Rochdale was one of the first to attract much-welcomed estates action funds, which financed what became known as the warm and dry Kirkholt project. Central heating systems were installed in approximately 2,000 properties; previously, there had been just two centrally heated properties on the estate. Cavity wall insulation was put in, and properties were reroofed where necessary. New guttering, the repointing of defective brickwork and double glazing, with new window frames, brought the houses up to an acceptable standard. The problem of damp disappeared, and the high level of respiratory tract infections was vastly reduced. The normal winter health problems were all but eliminated, and my telephone stopped ringing so frequently.
Another problem in the area was the number of old terraced properties—a remnant of the industrial revolution, centring on that part of the country. Similar problems to the ones that I have mentioned were common. Grant-supported envelope schemes, and a solution to the problem of cavity-tied wall failure, meant that occupants had an improved home environment that was both warm and dry. A similar improvement in health followed the exercise.
In my constituency, a former Manchester overspill estate, the Darnhill estate—now taken over and managed by the Guinness trust housing association—is the subject of a modernisation programme. More than 400 properties out of a total of 1,100 will have central heating for the first time, and will benefit from other improvements. Housing-associated health problems have been much reduced by remedial action—not just the provision of central heating, but a package of measures designed to tackle each different set of circumstances. It is not just a question of resources in the form of grants; it is a question of improving properties.
It is unacceptable for such circumstances to arise in the year 2000. It is unacceptable that so many people should live in conditions that fall so far short of providing a healthy, warm, dry home. The population is living longer: many elderly people can look forward to 10, 20 or 30 years after retirement. Those years should not be a time of worry about the cost of heating, or the fear of respiratory tract infections as a result of damp and draughts. Such people should not be condemned to stay in bed for many of their waking hours in order to keep warm.
The Government are aware of the difficulty, and have already provided a £100 winter fuel allowance and a reduction in value added tax on fuel, along with other measures. Those are excellent improvements, but if full value is to be gained from them, we need the comprehensive package described in the Bill. That will go some way towards alleviating the unacceptable problems experienced by so many of my constituents.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have given notice of it.
As you will know, last night, the Government suffered a humiliating defeat on the Local Government Bill in the House of Lords. What Lord Whiny described as a central part of the Bill was changed by their lordships. Have you been approached by the Deputy Prime Minister or any of his junior Ministers—one of whom is present—asking to make a statement today, and to tell us whether the Government intend to try to change the Bill again in the House of Commons, where it will shortly be discussed, or whether they intend to recognise the view of their lordships and many in local government that they should be allowed to make their own choices in regard to structures, rather than those structures being imposed by central Government?
I am pleased to offer my support for this crucial Bill. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) deserves great credit for taking up the issue, and for bringing it this far with so much support. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), our party Whip, is a sponsor, signifying the support of the Ulster Unionists. I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson), who have persistently pushed for the Bill to be taken seriously. I am sure that they are delighted by the Bill's progress.
The need to ensure that some of the most vulnerable members of society can be warm in their homes is, I am sure, recognised by all hon. Members. The links between cold homes and ill health are obvious to us all. Those links, however, are not just a question of common sense; they are backed up by scientists and doctors. Numerous reports can be quoted to make those links clear—Sir Donald Acheson's recent report on health, work by the Building Research Establishment and reports by the House's own Select Committees, such as the recent Environment Audit Committee report on energy efficiency.
We should be ashamed of the increased number of deaths in winter. I am appalled by the fact that more than 1,200 excess deaths have been recorded, or estimated, in Northern Ireland. Hon. Members have acknowledged the harshness of our winters, which is comparable to those in Scotland. We should not tolerate the fact that our record is so much worse than that of other European countries—and deaths are only one aspect of the misery that is being caused.
Thousands of people are made ill because their homes are cold each winter. Doctors must despair when they treat people successfully in hospital, curing them of illness, only to have to send them straight back to the cold, damp homes that made them ill in the first place. We must aim, as the Bill does, to tackle the causes of the problems, rather than just treating the symptoms.
The Bill would also have environmental benefits. Insulation helps to prevent energy from being wasted, and that is an important part of our commitment to tackling climate change. While it is always difficult to link particular weather events to climate change, evidence suggests that the recent terrible floods in Mozambique are exactly the type of disaster that we shall see more and more often as the climate heats up. Preventing that from happening is one of the greatest challenges faced by Governments throughout the world.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West again and the many other hon. Members who have backed the measure over the past few years. I wish the Bill well and hope that it will become law. I regret that, too often, Northern Ireland has to wait for the step-by-step procedure to benefit from good legislation that applies in Great Britain. I ask him to consider the position in Northern Ireland and how the measure, when enacted, might, at the earliest possible date, be applied there.
I join Labour Members in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who used his good fortune in the private Member's Bill ballot, being drawn No. 5, to introduce what is a very important and popular Bill. We all owe him a debt of gratitude. Like other Labour Members, I hope that having the support of so many Members on the Government Benches will not ruin his street cred.
I endorse the tributes that the hon. Gentleman paid to my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) and to the Conservative Members who have put so much work into the issue. On a sadder note, let me say that I support the Bill, and so did Michael Colvin. He and I served on the Council of Europe delegation, so I knew him quite well. I think that I speak for everyone on the delegation when I say how sad we were at the death of Michael and his wife Nichola. We will miss them very much.
Members have spoken eloquently about fuel poverty and its effect on people's lives. I shall not repeat the point. I completely agree with all hon. Members who think that it is a scandal that, just as we enter the 21st century, people simply cannot heat their homes adequately because they are poor and so suffer from all those illnesses, some dying unnecessarily.
I will be brief because I know that other hon. Members want to get in. I make just two points. The Bill's greatest strength is that it uses energy conservation and energy efficiency to tackle fuel poverty. Those of us who are of a certain age in the House—the age of wisdom and experience—will no doubt remember the save it campaign of the 1970s. Because of the oil crisis, there was a national awareness campaign. For the first time, many people had to think about where energy came from, how we used it and could save it. It was probably the first time that many people who could afford to do so started to insulate their homes. They began to realise how much energy we were wasting.
Times have moved on. Oddly, I agree with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who said that, if we try to tackle the issue just by lowering fuel prices, we will be in great danger of increasing the pollution that comes about from the energy sources that we use. Grants for people who cannot adequately heat their homes and reducing fuel prices alone will not solve the basic issue. We have to think about where our energy comes from and how to conserve it.
I think that developing renewable energy sources should be a far greater priority, but that is a debate for another day. If I discussed that now, Mr. Deputy Speaker would no doubt quickly rein me in, as it is not the subject of the Bill. Nevertheless, it is an important issue. We have to think about where our energy comes from. The fact that the Bill emphasises energy conservation is its main strength.
The second point is about job creation. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) rightly linked job creation with environment-friendly initiatives and economic development. We have all had the figures quoted at us as to how many jobs the Bill could create if it became law. I am sure that that is true, but the issue is how those jobs are created and where, and whom they will benefit.
I represent an urban constituency in the midlands. For several years, in Wolverhampton and the black country, some extremely effective community business and community enterprise initiatives have got off the ground on some of our poorest and most deprived housing estates. The chances are that people who live on those estates will benefit from the Bill. Community enterprise has demonstrated that unemployed people who live in an area where they have no other chance of securing employment can create their own jobs by providing services that the area has lacked. Home insulation and energy conservation initiatives will not only benefit those people and improve their housing, but will create jobs.
I reiterate that, in the 21st century, people are still suffering from poverty and are unable to heat their homes adequately. I believe that Ministers support the Bill, and I hope that the Bill will not be talked out today. I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Minister say that the Government will, if necessary, support the Bill as if it were their own.
There are often arguments about the definition of poverty and about whom we should consider to be living in poverty. However, if we use the commonly accepted definition of fuel poverty, there can be absolutely no argument about who is suffering from it—it is those living in households that have to spend more than 10 per cent. of their income on fuel to provide adequate heat. That is a sizeable and substantial percentage of household income to spend simply on keeping warm.
Would the hon. Gentleman be surprised to learn that, according to a letter to one of his constituents, at least one hon. Member in the Chamber—the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—does not
accept the concept of "fuel poverty"?
I have absolutely no doubt that my right hon. Friend will be able to make his own views known in his own way and in his own time.
One issue that has been highlighted in the Bill is the dreadful number of people living in fuel poverty in the United Kingdom. According to the Library's figures—which deal only with England—one household in five in England, amounting to approximately 5 million households, are suffering from fuel poverty. However, the problem is even worse than that. As the Library goes on to observe:
About one in 20 households were classed as being in severe fuel poverty, needing to spend over 20 per cent. and 30 per cent.
of household income simply to keep warm.
As one in five households in England are suffering from fuel poverty, every English Member will have many constituents who are living in fuel poverty. We therefore all have an interest in ending it, and an incentive to put the matter right.
The extent of fuel poverty is all the more disappointing because it is occurring against the background of falling fuel prices. Since privatisation, consumers' gas and electricity costs have decreased by about 30 per cent. Moreover, consumers generally have realised other benefits from privatisation.
Recently, the new Director-General of the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets appeared before the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, of which I am a member, and he observed that 5 million people who had
switched gas suppliers can save around £65 each and in electricity 4 million have switched saving £20 a year each.
The director-general also said that, according to their analysis, most of those who have switched supplier, particularly gas supplier, are
the old, the poor and the people in the lowest social groupings.
Nevertheless, 14 million gas customers and 22 million electricity customers have stayed with their current supplier. If they were to switch supplier, they, too, could make savings.
The words "energy efficiency" have often been used in today's debate, and the Bill enjoins the Secretary of State to establish a policy ensuring that people living in fuel poverty are able to keep warm at a reasonable cost. However, the Library's research paper for this debate makes a point that has not yet been made sufficiently forcibly today. A stark sentence in the paper's introduction states:
The solution to the problem lies in the long-term improvement of housing stock.
Housing is not a particularly sexy subject, politically. It does not grab the headlines like health, class sizes or falling police numbers. However, I hope that, at some
stage, the Government will give us some indication of their strategy for long-term improvement of the housing stock. The Bill will not succeed without a long-term improvement of the housing stock, particularly in the public sector.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) gave the Government credit for releasing more capital receipts to local authorities. The Government deserve credit for that, but those capital receipts result largely from the sale of council houses and most of those wishing to buy their council houses or flats have now done so. Money was also released to local authorities for home improvements as a consequence of large-scale voluntary transfers. Those opportunities will not arise again.
It was announced earlier this year that council tax increases would be substantially above the rate of inflation. That begs the following question: where in future will local authorities find sufficient funds to maintain and improve their existing housing stock? Improvements to existing housing stock are not simply a matter of putting rolls of insulating material in people's lofts; they often involve quite expensive local government capital grant programmes of improving windows, doors and so on. We need some indication of the Government's long-term thinking.
My final point relates to the new home energy efficiency scheme, which is rather inelegantly known as HEES 2. The Government are to be congratulated on introducing the programme, and I am sure that Ministers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions have to work hard in the public expenditure survey round with their colleagues in the Treasury to secure the funds. I hope that all-party support for the programme will make their work easier in future PES rounds.
Perhaps when the Minister replies to the debate, he will be able to help me with a particular concern. The Government have embarked on an ambitious programme. We are told that some 4 million households will be eligible for HEES and that the grant maximum for installing insulation and improving household heating will rise from £315 to £700 for households using mains gas, solid fuel, oil or off-peak electricity for heating. In addition, there is a new HEES-plus scheme for people aged 60 and over, for which around 3.7 million households will be eligible.
I have two questions for the Minister. I understand that £260 million has been allocated to the first two years of the programme. However, £260 million divided by 8 million eligible households would provide approximately £32 per household. How will the new HEES programme prioritise? How will people know about it? I am sure that many constituents who read reports of this debate will be interested to know how they can get a grant of £700. Under the new HEES-plus scheme, the maximum grant is £2,000. How will that be achieved? Given that, on the Government's own figures, some 8 million households are eligible for HEES or HEES-plus and only £260 million has been allocated to the programme for the next two years, is the Minister confident that he will be able to extract sufficient money from his colleagues in the Treasury in subsequent years to ensure that the programme will not run until the £260 million is exhausted and then he will say, "Terribly sorry, but that's it"? If we are to achieve long-term improvements in the housing stock, we must recognise that such schemes will be expensive and that it will be a long haul until all eligible households are improved. If we do not, it will be a presentational cheat.
It will be interesting to hear from the Minister what the Government intend to do not just about energy efficiency, but about improving our housing stock, particularly the public housing stock. What commitments will they give to the HEES programme, which has been a central plank of the efforts so far? I very much hope that the Bill gets a Second Reading today, but it will be meaningful only if the Government are committed to the long-term improvement of housing stock.
I shall try to be brief, because I know that many hon. Members want to take part in the debate. I also feel that I have probably had more than my fair share of the House's time since I first raised the matter in 1993. To all those with doubts and misgivings about the details of costs and how such a programme might be financed, I recommend the report of the all-party group on warm homes, which went into great detail about where the costs would occur, how they could be met and where savings were to be found.
I commend the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and welcome his Bill. We often hear the phrase "joined-up government". The Bill illustrates what joined-up government should be about. It is part of a process that connects saving lives, raising the quality of life, addressing environmental damage and its impact and providing a safer environment.
My hon. Friend will have heard general references in the Chamber to climate change savings that would result from the Bill. Is he aware that the potential savings from energy efficiency have been estimated at between 2.7 and 3.8 megatonnes of carbon? That is equivalent to, or greater than, the total savings outlined in the Government's transport White Paper. The worst-off people are likely to spend two or three times more on heating their homes to the same efficiency as more affluent people. Putting those two facts together, does he agree that a substantial joined-up government spin-off could arise from the passing of the Bill?
Yes, I do. My hon. Friend allows me to move on to the sense in which the Bill defines the new virtuous circle. It is a way of addressing a critical problem in society through a series of measures from which we will all be net gainers. I pay tribute to the cross-party work that has been done over a long period on spelling out where those gains are to be found. Some of us have found such gains in some of the previous Government's urban programmes for housing renewal, such as the city challenge initiatives. In my area, we found unexpected gains. Members of the public found that their contribution to reducing energy consumption and climate damage made them feel better as well as warmer. They felt that they were part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
An even more unexpected gain was found by the police. In neighbourhoods with serious housing renewal strategies, local kids were able to find local jobs. They ceased to be a pain in the neighbourhood's backside and instead became the really nice kids who had just put in the double glazing, done the loft insulation or replaced the door. That transformed their position in the process of social renewal. That was the only explanation that the police could come up with for the collapse in levels of neighbourhood crime. We were told that kids who might otherwise be attracted to a life of crime were being drawn into programmes of social renewal, and that criminals do not like vibrant neighbourhoods where work is going on as it is harder to conduct burglaries and get away with it. The crime reduction was a factor that we never considered when we looked at the net gains of the matter.
We were told by health authorities and social services departments that there would be health gains, although not specifically in terms of pensioners and the reduction of the excess winter deaths, which are still a matter of shame and scandal for this country. However, the benefits include raising the quality of life for older people and children.
I pay tribute to the GPs and the primary care groups in Cornwall and Birmingham who piloted some of the initiatives in which people are able to get home insulation on prescription. That addresses some of the challenges mentioned to us by health authorities during winter crises, when they say that their ability to treat patients coming in is constrained by the number of pensioners that they are not allowed to release because local authorities are unable to say that there are conditions at home that are fit and safe for patients to return to. The Bill is concerned with a general raising of the standards and quality of life, as well as with addressing the unsexy issue of the quality of the housing stock in this country. I believe that that will be pivotal to the way in which we address sensible living and responsible environmental duties in the 21st century.
Some hon. Members are concerned that the Bill may be about coercion. In truth, it will be a measure in which the role of Government will be one of co-ordination rather than coercion. There is a huge amount of good will, to which the hon. Member for Southend, West referred, which cuts across the whole of society. People want to play a part in the process, and they want an overall plan. The Bill moves us towards that.
We will be required to come up with strategies to address the needs of people living in private rented accommodation. That was acknowledged at the warm homes hearings. It is not a criticism of the Bill, but it is a way of recognising that we are moving to an overall holistic programme to address the needs of those in private rented accommodation, as well as of those in public sector housing and privately owned accommodation.
The Bill will have the extra advantage of saving us money; I am absolutely certain of that. Every time we have stepped, with trepidation, into issues of how we finance this measure and what the overall cost would be, we have found at every stage that we would get back more than we would be required to shell out. We are not picking up on a definition of the fuel-poor families and whether they are the same as the poor in society, but we are addressing a long-term commitment to raise the quality of housing stock in which all families can have rights and aspirations to live sane and sensible lives.
For some time, Britain has been almost alone among EU countries in not having an overall housing strategy aimed at the elimination, as far as practicable, of housing poverty. The Bill sets out a framework within which we will be able to pull together a raft of other Government initiatives—all of which have been moving in that direction—to put together a complete jigsaw. The fact that we are setting ourselves a target of eliminating fuel poverty in Britain will be one of the best hallmarks of any legislation—whether Government or private—on which we could go into the 21st century. The Bill deserves the support of the House, and I hope that it will receive it.
After three hours of debate, the salient points have been well and truly covered, so I shall not go over them again.
Initially, I had grave reservations about the Bill, but I have revised my judgment significantly. There is a school of thought that says that this is a centralising measure, increasing Government activity and responsibility and allowing the state further to intrude into matters that are rightly the concern of the individual. That argument does not stand up to investigation.
I want to draw attention to a deficiency in the Bill which has been given some consideration. In the debate it has become clear that the cost of investment that the programme will require is a great unknown, as are the source of the money, how it will be deployed and what will be the demand on the taxpayer. It is important for those questions to be answered in Committee.
I have revised my opinion on the Bill and hope that it will proceed to its Committee stage, because the principle behind it is extremely important. It should be given a fair wind, for one overriding reason: the percentage increase in deaths in winter is nothing short of a national scandal. The statistics have been repeated time and again. The comparison between this country and others is frightening. Any measure that earnestly seeks to solve that problem deserves to proceed.
There are also indirect and incidental reasons for supporting the Bill. One is the effect on national health service spending. We have heard that the cost of treating cold-related illnesses is approximately £1 billion a year. If the number of such illnesses can be reduced, clearly funds can be released for other areas of health expenditure, which will be immensely beneficial. There will also be a great indirect benefit to the environment. With effective insulation and other measures, there will be a reduction in polluting acid rain and greenhouse gases.
The approach of supplementing income is essential for the time being, but I do not believe that it is the most sensible and effective method for the long term. It is immensely beneficial for some, but it does not represent the most efficient use of energy and money. The way forward lies in extending domestic energy efficiency. The Bill is designed to achieve that. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) claims that it will, and I believe that he deserves a fair hearing in Committee. I wish him luck.
The Bill is only short and the speeches have got shorter as the morning has worn on because many of the points have been covered.
Fuel poverty is a terrible problem, but it has many solutions and we can tackle it. I used to think that if a measure was sensible it could be effected quickly, but I have learned that the magic wand theory of politics—we want it to be done, therefore it shall be done—is perhaps a touch naive. I still find it strange that something that is so obviously good for everyone involved seems to be so difficult to implement.
I congratulate all my hon. Friends who have introduced similar Bills in the past, and I am happy to support the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) today, although we are not natural allies and this will probably be the only occasion on which I do so.
It is hard to accept that, with our climate, we have such badly insulated homes. To echo the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), insulation is not sexy. No one can say that loft insulation is glamorous, but it can make a huge difference to the warmth of a house. Why do we still allow energy to escape through roofs, windows and doors? It is a terrible waste, both for the individual household and for the environment.
The £100 winter fuel payment for all pensioner households is great, but let us consider how much further that money would go if homes were properly insulated and effectively heated. We have to stop being careless with our energy resources for the sake of those who suffer from the cold, and for our environment. Less wasted energy would lead to lower emissions of CO, and other greenhouse gases, and that has got to be good.
Cold is a horrible, miserable thing to suffer. Like the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), I can say that I have been there, done that and bought several T-shirts. Our first home did not have central heating and it was miserable and painful to live there in winter. We were lucky, because we were young—so the House can tell how long ago it was—and we were working so we could remedy the situation, which we did as soon as possible.
For the elderly, with less mobility and fewer resources, a cold home is not just miserable—it can be life threatening. We have heard this morning about the number of excess winter deaths, which stands as a testament to our failure to insulate our homes. It is unacceptable that one elderly person dies of cold, let alone the nearly 15,000 who died in the south-east in 1998–99. That is a tragedy for all their families and shameful for our society. As we have also heard, it costs £1 billion a year to treat cold-related illnesses. As the hon. Member for Banbury suggested, that money could be used in many other ways by the NHS.
As a society we should be able to organise ourselves to do something about that problem. We need a nationwide strategy and, as the Bill says, the best agency to draw up and ensure the implementation of that strategy is the Government. That will ensure that everybody is included and that provision is delivered equally throughout the country. With insulated homes and energy efficiency, we could—as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) said—have a win-win situation. We could save lives and fuel, create work, help the environment and ease the winter pressures on the NHS.
I have always believed that prevention is better than cure. Our climate is no secret. For goodness sake, the Romans put in central heating when they were here. The solution is achievable. We know how to solve the problem. The Bill has overwhelming support, so let us get on with it.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Romford (Mrs. Gordon) for reminding us about the Romans and their central heating, but I remind her that the Romans also had a fondness for square sewerage pipes that led to all sorts of difficulties. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on his luck in coming far enough up the ballot to be able to introduce the Bill and on the Bill itself.
My hon. Friend claimed in his speech that he was a man of no political ambition whatever. I suppose that I must believe him, but I applaud his enthusiasm and sense of humour. Hon. Members driving private Bills through the House need a good deal of both, from time to time, but they also need ambition. I am reasonably sure that my hon. Friend is not without any of those three qualities.
This Bill has the support of hon. Members from all parties, but it is also the occasion of sadness. Today's debate gives me my first relevant opportunity to pay a quiet tribute to my late friend Mr. Michael Colvin, who was also a sponsor of the Bill. I am sure that the House will join me in passing our condolences to his family.
Like all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, I want to promote public welfare and health in this country. If the Bill achieves that, it deserves applause. It is clearly motivated by a worthy aspiration, but I hope that that can be translated into real Government commitment. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West distributed a briefing at the outset of the debate, which states:
The Government has promised to eradicate fuel poverty. Labour's manifesto for the Scottish Parliament promised to do this in two terms. Senior Ministers are on the record saying fuel poverty must be ended, that it is a "scandal" and a "preventable scourge". Recently, an "Inter-Ministerial Group" has been set up to look at the problem and set a target date to eradicate fuel poverty.
Despite this, the Labour leadership has a poor record. Ministers have effectively "removed" over 1 million households from fuel poverty by attempting to change the definition.
I share the aspiration behind the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will be able to demonstrate that the Government are prepared to put that aspiration into direct effect.
The Bill has a broad sweep, and perhaps it could not be otherwise. It is not detailed, and that causes me some concern. Clause 3, for example, deals with the power to make regulations, and I must confess that I hate Bills that allow Ministers to make regulation. I believe that legislation should be passed in this House, not at the whim of a Minister in a Committee Room upstairs.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) made a good point about the negative resolution process, and I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West has been attracted by that point. The House appears to be prepared to give Ministers a lot of regulatory powers these days. If we are not to have primary legislation on this matter, I hope that the House can have a little more power over what goes on in its name.
I do not want to criticise the thrust of the Bill, but a couple of matters deserve comment. They reflect what my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) said a moment ago. When I first came across the Bill, I had grave misgivings. Some remain, although many have been mitigated during the debate. However, I am worried about the absence of information on the costs involved.
Hon. Members are the protectors of public money, if nothing else. Our constituents will be the ones who pay for the Bill, and the ones who will benefit. Although I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West does not have the resources of the civil service to help him provide the details, the House and the public must, as soon as possible, be given the necessary information about the costs likely to be borne by the public in implementing the proposals.
I also have misgivings about the use of figures relating to "excess winter deaths", as they are called. Earlier, I intervened on the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), for whose scientific and medical knowledge I have great respect. I was particularly struck when, about two or three weeks ago, a journalist from my local newspaper, the Leicester Mercury, telephoned me to tell me that the warm homes campaign was suggesting that up to 90 people had died in my constituency last winter as a direct result of cold. My constituency is unusual in one sense, in that it returns a Conservative Member of Parliament. It is not unusual in that it is reasonably prosperous. There are obviously pockets of poverty and deprivation, but it is not the sort of place where one would expect two bus loads of people to die every year as a direct consequence of cold.
The campaign for warm homes does itself a disservice if it misuses, or allows other people to misinterpret, what may otherwise be accurate statistics. I have no doubt that 90 elderly people died in my constituency last winter—probably rather more. Indeed, every time I look at the electoral roll to see how quickly it changes, I am not at all surprised to find that large numbers of people in my constituency die during the winter.
It is suggested that in 1998–99, the deaths of 4,200 people in the east midlands came within the definition of excess winter deaths. I do not know what the figures are for the city of Leicester. I do not even know what they are for North-West Leicestershire, whose Member of Parliament I see in his place. However, I do know that if 90 people in my constituency had died of hypothermia or cold-related diseases, or as a direct consequence of lack of heating, the general practitioners in my constituency, with whom I am in close and regular touch, would have told me. I am also reasonably sure that, if those people had not been in regular touch with their doctor before they died, the coroner would have been informed and the Leicester Mercury, the other local newspapers or the local radio station would have been on to me for my opinion. They have not been. We must be very careful about misusing highly emotive figures such as these.
I have great respect for the hon. and learned Gentleman, and I am sure that he is not being deliberately disingenuous. Is not the campaign based on the fact that, statistically, up to 100 elderly people in each constituency die each winter who would not die if the pattern of deaths were more evenly spread, as it is in countries where housing and energy provision is more satisfactory? Even in the relatively affluent part of Leicestershire that he has the privilege to represent, there are pockets of poverty, to which he referred. Individual deaths that are related to cold homes will not necessarily hit the headlines. It will not always be obvious—that is the whole point.
I am not quite sure what lesson I am supposed to draw from that intervention, save that the hon. Gentleman kindly says that he respects me. May I return the compliment?
This is a simple point, and I do not need to labour it. It is merely that bald figures are useless unless we understand what is behind them. Before right hon. and hon. Members rush headlong into enthusiastic support for the Bill, they must be more careful about the statistics that they use to bolster that enthusiasm. I share the enthusiasm for the promotion of public health and welfare, but I want it done on a rational basis, not on the uncertain basis of figures that have been conjured up out of the air.
Does my hon. and learned Friend further agree that unless we know a lot more about the individual patterns of expenditure and disposal of income of each of these people, we should not rush to judge what was the main contributor to their unfortunate and regrettable demise? It seems rather odd to draw a general conclusion without knowing the very relevant circumstances of those people—how they spent their money and what their priorities were. Unless we know a lot more about that, the conclusions will be even more suspect that my hon. and learned Friend suggests.
May I finish my reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)? I shall then give way to the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell).
If an elderly lady in my constituency who slipped on an icy pavement and broke her thigh, went to hospital and died from pneumonia contracted as a consequence, would that be an excess winter death? I do not intend that example to be flippant. It would undoubtedly be a tragedy, but it would have nothing to do with the real message that the campaign is trying to draw out. I pose that rather ridiculous question to illustrate my concern about the use of statistics.
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. Will he reflect on the fact that no serious academic source has challenged the methodology by which excess winter deaths are calculated? A similar calculation prevails in Scandinavian countries. If the same methodology is used in both cases, and deaths in those countries are less than in the UK, that is a cause for concern—whatever the end figure. Surely, that should be the focus of the debate.
I am neither an academic nor an academic institution, but I am sure that I am not the first person to express concern about such use of statistics. The hon. Gentleman and I are probably on the same side of the argument as regards the passing of the Bill into law, so I do not want to pick an unnecessary fight with him. I simply express a concern that we are allowing ourselves to be bamboozled by statistics—by hard numbers—without really understanding what lies behind—
May I finish my sentence before I give way to my Scottish—but northern English—right hon. Friend?
I apologise for repeating myself, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We need to be a little more careful in such matters. The subject is highly emotional. The death of any large group of people must be a matter of public concern. Like all hon. Members, I want to get the measure right, but I do not want us to be pushed along a road that is right-headed but wrongly premised.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for giving way. I am following his speech carefully. It may help him if I quote the definition of excess winter deaths given by the director of the Office for National Statistics. He states that they are
the difference between the number of deaths during the four winter months (December to March) and the average number of deaths during the preceding autumn (August to November) and the following summer (April to July)—[Official Report, 20 December 1999; Vol. 341, c. 436W.].
The danger is that we have made the assumption that all excess winter deaths are due to hyperthermia or to cold, rather than to other illnesses or diseases, which we may contract during the winter months because of our climate but which are not necessarily cold-related or related to cold homes.
My right hon. Friend and I would probably agree that excess winter deaths are not the result of sun stroke.
I have some concerns about clauses 1 and 2. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West pointed out that clause 2 contained the guts, if not the engine, of the Bill. How can my hon. Friend's aspirations in the Bill be measured?
Several hon. Members read out the accepted definition of fuel poverty. I asked the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) whether there were subdivisions of poverty; whether those who are fuel poor were also to be described as poor; and whether all poor people could be described as fuel poor. Those of us who were taught maths in the 1960s learned about Venn diagrams. Does the universe contain separately identifiable groups, or is fuel poverty merely one of those new jargon expressions that we shall have to get used to?
My hon. and learned Friend will be familiar, as I am, with the Office for National Statistics family spending survey, which has just been published. It shows that for the group with incomes in the lowest 10 per cent., expenditure on fuel and power is 7 per cent. of their expenditure, on drink and tobacco it is 7 per cent. and on food it is 23 per cent. Does not that suggest to my hon. and learned Friend first, that there is a much more important potential problem of food poverty than of fuel poverty, as food is just as vital to life, and secondly, that many people are making a discretionary choice to spend as much on alcohol and tobacco as on fuel?
My right hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point, but whether it is relevant to the discussion about cold homes, I do not know. Clearly, a number of people who die during the winter are elderly and die of heart and lung diseases, partly as a result of smoking and possibly partly as a result of the cold. It is possible that the aggravation to their constitution caused by smoking was exacerbated by the cold, and vice versa—the effect of the cold may have been aggravated by smoking, a habit that I heartily condemn.
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. To counter the point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), may I suggest that it is possible that the people who are dying of cold are not the same people as those who are consuming alcohol and cigarettes? Is it not also likely that as the people in question are very poor, small percentages of income represent very small sums of money indeed? The people who are suffering and dying are not the same people as those who are living a lavish life style, no doubt with good claret.
I have no idea what the answer to those questions is, and I do not suppose that the hon. Gentleman has, either.
I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West to bear in mind that we need closer definitions of some aspects of the Bill. We heard a definition of fuel poverty, and I made known my criticisms of it.
I am concerned about the impact of VAT on some of the proposals. My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) is an expert in this field, and I am sorry that I was absent during his remarks. He may have been able to advise the House about the impact of VAT on, for example, the home insulation and other energy efficiency measures to which clause 1 refers.
Whether the Government are the paymaster for these improvements or local authorities are to pay for them, I hope that the Government will not pay out on the one hand and take in on the other, by requiring VAT to be charged on those necessary and sensible improvements.
Clause 2(2)(b) was mentioned by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy). It requires that the strategy referred to in the preamble to the clause shall include
measures which the appropriate authority believes are required to ensure that households in fuel poverty have access to appropriate fuel tariffs which encourage the efficient use of energy.
I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West—or, in his temporary absence, the Minister—would explain whether that means that there
will be subsidies for energy companies such as gas, coal or electricity suppliers, to enable them to reduce the tariff to a particular section of society, whether the individual consumers of those energy products will get the subsidy directly, or whether there will be no subsidy at all. It is unclear what is meant by
appropriate fuel tariffs which encourage the efficient use of energy.
It may well mean that the cost should increase rather than decrease to discourage inefficient use of fuel. Again, I would be grateful for an explanation.
I do not want to delay our proceedings with further rambling, but I wish the Bill well. I do not speak from complete ignorance. As I said earlier, my constituency, though prosperous, has pockets of deprivation. It may amuse some hon. Members to know that I am perhaps one of the few Conservative Members to have been a coalman. In my university vacations, when I had to get a job to pay off my overdraft and restore my bank balance to credit, I worked for Charringtons, a coal merchant's in Harling road, which is between Thetford and Attleborough in Norfolk. Consequently, I visited many homes in south-west Norfolk—another prosperous part of the country—and saw the conditions in which many elderly people lived in that rural part of England.
When delivering coal to those elderly people, I would sometimes put it in the bath, on the kitchen floor or in a proper coal bunker in the garden. However, in every case of a poor elderly person, the house was not properly insulated and heat conservation was inefficient. The householders lived a less healthy and less enjoyable life because of their inability to pursue a sensible approach to energy consumption.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West on his success so far. I wish him every success in the future.
I support the Bill because it requires a plan to change the quality of life of the most vulnerable and to tackle key aspects of fuel poverty, especially energy conservation, which is critical. It also raises the equally important issue of fuel tariffs. It could improve quality of life by granting the basic right to warmth to millions of people who are deprived of it. It could improve health, prevent deaths, create up to 30,000 additional jobs and benefit the environment.
The Bill would benefit Liverpool, where the combination of long-term poverty and poor housing affects many people's lives. A fuel poverty survey was carried out in March 1998 in Liverpool. It identified households where 17 per cent. of income was spent on fuel, but, because of the inadequacy of the buildings, people were often still not warm.
The survey also identified people who suffered most from fuel poverty. They included lone parents; people with large families; people who, for whatever reason, were poor; disabled people; and long-term unemployed people. It also focused on the critical issue of housing conditions. It showed that poor housing conditions, whatever the type of tenure, had a direct bearing on fuel poverty.
According to the survey, people were at risk in council houses that had been neglected, houses at the end of terraces, houses owned by private landlords and houses in the private sector. The private sector constituted a particular problem. Houses in the private sector in Liverpool are twice as unfit as those in the country generally.
The survey also raised the important issue of self-disconnection. It was found that approximately 82 per cent. of people who suffered from fuel poverty disconnected their energy supplies frequently and were therefore cold. It drew attention to the extra cost that is incurred by pre-payment meters, to which so many poor people are vulnerable. The key concern was the evidence that three quarters of the households eligible for assistance under Government schemes were not aware of the existence of those schemes.
I support the Government's programme for improving energy conservation and tackling fuel poverty through that. I welcome the additional money that is to be made available—the budget of £75 million will increase to £125 million this year and to £175 million next—and the broadening of the criteria, which will make more people eligible. I also welcome the establishment of the interministerial committee, which will, among other things, point to the energy regulators shouldering their responsibility.
In Liverpool, Riverside—my constituency—£1.2 million has already been spent through the Government's energy conservation scheme and almost 9,500 households have been helped. There have been savings on bills and 10,783 tonnes of carbon have been saved from release into the atmosphere. I support the Bill because it will make progress not by pious words, but by insisting on action and a strategy and by saying who should put that strategy and its targets together. It will also give the Government responsibility and point to responsibilities for local authorities as well.
The regional dimension is also important. We must ask the utilities and their regulators to report to regional chambers and assemblies so that their responsibilities can be monitored.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way because, as she knows, that point arose earlier. Does she agree that, as the Bill is developed in Committee and on Report, it might be proper for the regional element to be strengthened simply because, self-evidently, even a small country such as ours has considerable variations in climatic conditions, ambient temperatures and the like? That may mean that, instead of taking a blanket national approach, which could be wasteful, the Bill should be more sensitive to regional variations.
The problem is national and should be tackled nationally, but measures should often be implemented locally. We have to monitor the results of actions taken and the regional level is important in that. The utilities and their regulators should have to report to regional forums so that they have to face up to their responsibilities.
I support the Bill because it is about action and drawing national attention to a national scandal and because it suggests a plan to eliminate it. I hope that all Members will support it and look forward to the time when the scandal of fuel poverty has gone.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on his success in the ballot. I hope that I shall not have to wait 16 years to achieve such success. He told us that he had succeeded previously, despite not winning a ballot, with a Bill on tethered donkeys. I can well understand why he chose to focus on the need for warm homes and energy conservation rather than the needs of Labour Members, who are tethered by their pagers to their masters in Millbank, although we all think that they are sorely in need of better treatment.
I declare an interest. For a long time, I have been the unpaid director of a company that provides low-cost housing to rent. It has an excellent record of meeting all the reasonable requirements of its tenants for home improvements, energy conservation and warmer homes. I speak as a former Paddington councillor. Many of those I represented were tenants of houses in multiple occupation that had inadequate heating. Paraffin burners were their source, but they were not only unsatisfactory and expensive, but somewhat dangerous. One of the previous Government's achievements was ensuring that more and more fire regulations came into force to take away that danger. However, we must be conscious that removing that form of housing created other housing difficulties in London. The problems of homelessness are sometimes accentuated if the improved standards that we all want are not achieved at the same time as the provision of increased resources to ensure that sufficient housing is available.
The hon. Member for Romford (Mrs. Gordon) told us that she had started life in a home without proper heating, as I did with my wife when we were first married and lived in a multiple-occupation house in Paddington. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) spoke of those who use coal. Many of those whom we are discussing today are elderly people who still rely on a bucket of coal to keep them warm in the evenings. Unsatisfactory though that may be, we should bear in mind that such people tend to be creatures of habit, and may tale a great deal of persuading to give up the customs of a lifetime. If the Bill is enacted, that aspect must be handled sensitively.
It is, nevertheless, a simple matter of thermodynamics that a central heating system normally provides adequate background heat more cheaply than trying to heat a home for a few hours each day with gas or coal fires. It is to the previous Government's credit that, during their 18 years in power, the percentage of homes benefiting from central heating rose from 60 to 90. It is also to the credit of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West that he has presented a Bill that is part of a long Conservative tradition. It began with the Housing Act 1961, which required landlords to provide adequate heating for their tenants. My hon. Friend's Bill is another milestone on the way to improving the lot of those experiencing fuel poverty.
The hon. Gentleman says that it may be the habit of a lifetime to choose to heat a home by gas or coal. Is not the real problem the capital cost of installing central heating? Is that not what deters people? Indeed, the capital cost of a variety of energy advances is a problem, underlying which is the problem of insufficient capital investment.
Capital cost is indeed the unspoken burden of the legislation. My hon. Friend has been careful not to put a cost on the Bill, but there will indeed be capital costs. When we were in government, however, we discovered that, if the right incentives were provided, housing associations and private landlords, as well as councils, could find the means to deal with the capital costs of improving homes if housing benefits were increased in line with those costs.
It would be naive to suppose that a sensible, serious programme under the Bill could be enacted without a knock-on cost to the housing benefit bill, but that may be a sound course to adopt. As well as capital costs, there are long-term savings to be made in the running of a home. However, those savings are shared between occupier and owner—in the case of tenanted properties—or used by an owner-occupier. In a free society with free access to capital, the sensible option is to make the investment, because in the long run it will pay for itself.
Briefings on the Bill suggest that the payback period for the typical cost of the programme envisaged in it might be 15 years. In a period of low inflation—that was another achievement of the last Government—long-term capital investment might indeed involve a 15-year payback, but we should not forget the gain in terms of human capital. The most telling arguments fo r the Bill refer to the number of lives that it would save.
It is hard to quantify the capital cost in monetary terms because the technology is changing so fast. There is a report in today's newspapers about a boiler that is also an electricity generator. It is envisaged that such boilers will typically be installed in people's homes and, in a more energy-efficient manner, meet both heating and electricity requirements. We would not have thought that possible a few years ago. If that is the way of the future, that shows how difficult it is to assess the true capital cost. With new technology, it may prove to be a lot less than some people now believe.
Clause 2(4) states:
In preparing a report … the appropriate authority shall consult—
(a) such organisations as appear to it to represent—
(b) such other persons as it sees fit.That must clearly refer to private landlords. As a result of the previous Government's reforms, there is a growth in provision by private landlords of homes to rent. We should encourage that. There is still far too little of that form of housing provision. It enables the economy to be more flexible. People can make changes in their lives far more easily if they can go in and out of rented property. If such rented property is to be improved for those in fuel poverty, the Minister will need to say how he proposes to ensure that housing benefit will be adjusted to reflect improvements in the fuel efficiency and warmth of homes of people who rely on housing benefit to pay their rent.
In a number of instances, landlords have, on behalf of tenants, negotiated to make improvements and have sought the agreement of the rent officer on how that will be paid for. Of course, payment will come in housing benefit, not out of the pocket of the tenant whose life has been improved. When the improvements have been incurred at a cost of several thousand pounds, the housing benefit department has said that it is not prepared to meet the revenue cost of servicing that capital improvement.
It will obviously deter private sector landlords from making such improvements—however much they want to do so—if they cannot afford them. That leaves them in an awkward position, so a firm statement by the Minister on his Department's attitude to housing benefit, where such improvements have been made by private sector landlords, would do a considerable amount to benefit those in fuel poverty, whom we are all concerned about.
I represent Guildford, a seat in Surrey, but for many years I lived in Cornwall. I was interested in the points about the incidence of fuel poverty-related deaths. There is no doubt from the statistics that those who live in the west country are far less exposed to the risk of that tragedy than those who live in the part of the world that I represent. Many delicate flowers flourish in Cornwall that are killed off by the frost in the south-east. Similarly, people in delicate health, of whom there are many, are much more at risk in the south-east than in other areas.
Of course, the one contribution that the Government have made to cutting fuel costs has been their 3 per cent. cut in VAT on fuel, but that cut was financed by abolishing health insurance premium tax relief for the over-65s. The knock-on result is that the elderly in my constituency have seen only a fractional decrease in the cost of heating their homes, but a massive increase in the waiting lists at our local hospital—waiting lists that have themselves, sadly, cost far too many lives; deaths that have to be laid at the door of the Government and their ill-conceived collection of policies.
We should recognise that the 30 per cent. cut in energy costs that has been accomplished by the previous Government's liberation of energy companies is a much more significant factor in creating savings for those who are living in fuel poverty. I hope that that cut will not be reversed by the cack-handed way in which the Government are pushing through their Utilities Bill—which may over-regulate the sector and, in the long run, lead to much higher fuel costs not only for those who are in fuel poverty, but for everyone.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a certain irony in the fact that we are debating the issue against the background of secular falling fuel prices; the reduction in taxes on domestic fuel—which, as I said in an earlier intervention, has a dubious logic to it; and global warming—if one believes in that concept—and climate change. Against the background of those changes, is it not ironic that we are being asked to accept that the problem of alleged fuel poverty is as great as, or greater than, it was?
My right hon. Friend is perhaps confusing two issues: a reduction in fuel costs, and energy conservation measures. Part of the Bill's thrust is energy conservation, which is a vital part of fulfilling our commitment, at Kyoto and before, to reduce energy consumption. However, the Government have undermined that commitment by their switch from gas-fired to coal-powered electricity stations. That was a retrograde step, and I hope that the Government will rethink it. If we are serious about energy conservation, we should be serious about how we produce energy. To that extent, I agree with my right hon. Friend.
My right hon. Friend should be aware of another trend—our growing awareness as a society of the needs of those in fuel poverty, and our desire as a society to take action on it. It would be a gain for society if not only that investment and those long-term savings in energy use could be made, but if lives could be saved. We require a concerted approach in achieving those goals and cannot rely on ad hoc measures.
The measures introduced incrementally by the previous Government did much to tackle those problems. In establishing the overarching policy by region that the Bill seeks to establish, we should not ignore the vital importance of micro-policies that could make specific improvements for specific groups in fuel poverty.
I have taken up enough of the House's time in emphasising my deep commitment to the Bill's principles. I hope that I have also highlighted to the House some of the issues that will have to be addressed in Committee if the Bill is to achieve the objectives that so many of us support.
Like many other hon. Members, I feel that I cannot begin my speech without congratulating the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on addressing an important issue in his Bill. I should also not like to miss the opportunity of congratulating my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) on all their work on this very important issue.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) mentioned the Library's excellent briefing on the Bill. Much of that briefing has been used in the debate by hon. Members speaking in support of the Bill, and I shall not rehearse those arguments.
Another Opposition Member said that the Bill is good and noble, and it is. The Bill has wide support, and it is very convincing in its attempts to target energy conservation and insulation programmes.
I really hope that the Government find the Bill acceptable as it has many attractive qualities, not least its flexibility. It provides that the Government can set and revise targets, so long as any revisions are reported to Parliament. It is important to ensure that the programme is a success because of the substantial capital costs involved, so it is good that the Government can organise the funding rather than having to stump up all the money themselves.
The Bill provides tremendous scope for the private sector. Everyone—particularly Labour Members—would agree that the Government have worked successfully with the private sector and have raised capital for a variety of public sector projects. The Bill also provides scope for consultation, as has been mentioned. Its flexible framework is an advantage that will make it attractive to the Government.
The Bill has multiple targets; it is indeed a Bill for all seasons. It reduces fuel costs for poor households, which then have the option to invest the money that has been saved in other housing maintenance projects. That has the effect of driving up the value of their homes as well as enabling them to live more comfortably. As a result, poorer housing, often in urban areas, is improved and that helps to stop migration and increase vitality in urban areas.
There is also a knock-on effect on housing planning pressures. Poor houses are often in cheaper areas. When they are done up and made more comfortable they become accessible to first-time buyers who have a limited budget. That is in addition to the other many and varied benefits that we have heard about today, including helping to meet the Kyoto targets, reducing costs to the national health service, reducing crime and providing significant potential for job creation.
It has been asked whether the Government have the will and the credentials to make the Bill a reality. I would say that they most definitely do. They certainly have a good track record thus far. We have already discussed the excellent home energy efficiency scheme, which has now been refocused and provided with additional resources. Our policies on SAP, winter fuel repayments and the minimum income guarantee for pensioners and the £3.6 billion in capital receipts will substantially improve housing stock. The Government certainly have the right credentials, but as one Opposition Member rightly said, there is still a massive deficit. So much rests on the Government.
I am encouraged by the establishment of the interministerial group to examine fuel poverty, not least because it is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, who certainly has a track record for seeing projects through, not least in getting to grips with pensions mis-selling.
As the hon. Member for Southend, West said, this is a good and noble Bill. It has been estimated by the Association for the Conservation of Energy that in the long run it will be cost neutral, but I think that it is a policy with profits. It certainly will not be neutral to the beneficiaries who will be able to live in more comfortable and secure homes. Being cold and living in poor housing is the pits. It makes people ill, miserable and unable to function. The Bill is the vehicle to address their basic needs.
I add my voice to the many that we have heard from both sides congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). He has presented a good case very well. Several Labour Members have praised him and expressed the worry that, by doing so, they may damage his reputation among Conservatives. I am happy to assure them and my hon. Friend that, despite all the congratulations that he has received, we shall all still love and revere him as much as we always have done—indeed, possibly more so, because the Bill is in such a good cause. I feel strongly that the principles behind the Bill are very good and I hope that the Government act on them. I am also speaking on behalf of the Conservative party, which is in favour of the principles of the Bill and believes that it should receive a Second Reading this afternoon. If it proves necessary, I shall accompany my hon. Friend into the Lobby to vote for it.
The Bill gives rise to issues across a range of policy areas. Oddly, the environmental issues have not been widely discussed this morning, but the social issues have excited the interest of hon. Members on both sides. There are also funding issues, which need to be addressed, as well as the question of the Government's record and, more important, their intentions towards the Bill and the principles that lie behind it.
Given the tone of the debate, it may be surprising that the Front-Bench speeches come from the environment teams, because environmental issues have not dominated the debate. It has sounded more like a social security debate. Apart from the important social issues relating to fuel poverty, there are clearly significant environmental issues. I agree with Friends of the Earth, which has said:
the elimination of fuel poverty is essential to meet Britain's international climate change obligations. … A policy of paying people to heat the skies above their homes is simply unsustainable.
We could stretch the use of the word "unsustainable", because the policy is unsustainable not only environmentally, but economically. We are in the slightly absurd situation of people receiving benefits from the public purse to spend on fuel that does not heat their home but is simply burned, with the warmth going out of a badly insulated house and damaging the atmosphere that we all breathe. It is hard to define a worse use of taxpayers' money.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) gave some vent to the issue of using taxation for environmental purposes and how the Bill will affect that. Hon. Members on both sides will agree that, just as emissions from business and motor vehicles are a serious cause of environmental pollution, so are domestic emissions.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that the contribution of poor people to global warming is proportionately far less than that of most of us? Poor people spend less on vehicles and other pollutants. A pensioner with a one-bar electric fire does not contribute as much to global warming as any of us. Will he bear that in mind?
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. It would be a more sensible use of public policy to prevent as many people as possible—the poor pensioner surviving on not enough fuel or anyone else—from contributing to global warming. There are ways—the principles behind the Bill support them—in which we can improve our environmental performance without disadvantaging anyone.
Those of us in the Opposition who have opposed the climate change levy, which puts a burden on businesses, and the Government's wild increases in petrol duty—which fall on many poorer people, particularly in rural areas—are consistent on this matter. We do not think that just using higher taxes is the way ahead. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West has proposed a far-sighted solution with the Bill which avoids higher taxation. That is one of the reasons why I welcome the principles behind the Bill.
The issue of tackling fuel poverty should not divide the House. Governments of both parties have introduced measures to try to tackle the issue. The previous Government introduced the home energy efficiency scheme in 1991, which produced a range of useful measures including loft insulation, cavity wall insulation and draught-proofing. I welcome the fact that the scheme has been updated by the Government and I know that they are thinking of ways to improve it further. As technology advances, we can all think of new ways of improving the energy efficiency of homes. That need not divide us.
The Minister and the Government will recognise that the measures the Government have introduced so far do not measure up to the scale of the problem of fuel poverty in this country or to their own rhetoric. My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) mentioned the problem of the definition of fuel poverty. The Minister will be aware that the Government have changed the definition in a way that reduces the numbers who are said to be in fuel poverty. One is perhaps entitled to ask, slightly cynically, why the Government chose to go down that route. I hope that that does not indicate any Government hostility to the Bill.
Our national commitments are not an issue of disagreement in the House. The previous Conservative Government signed the Rio convention and did much of the groundwork that led to the commitments that the present Government signed up to at Kyoto, which we welcome.
One of the points at issue about environmental policy is that a better use of energy can and should involve a public expenditure saving in the long run, and even in the not-so-long run. Treating illnesses caused by fuel poverty costs the NHS about £1 billion a year. Reducing—and, if possible, eliminating—that NHS expenditure would be doubly beneficial.
There are other areas where public spending savings can be made by better energy policy. Studies have shown that fitting energy efficiency measures cuts the management and maintenance costs of a dwelling by £300 to £400 a year because of reduced repair bills caused by the absence of rot and mould. Tenants who feel warm, and therefore more comfortable in their homes, move less regularly, causing fewer voids and less paperwork. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions estimates that at least 1.4 million public sector homes in England are in fuel poverty. The calculation can be made that improving only those homes could save £490 million per annum, with consequential savings in other parts of the UK. I am sure that the Minister is aware of those important financial arguments.
The environmental impact of the Bill is positive, but clearly the social effects of fuel poverty have caused most passion in the House and outside. Several hon. Members have referred to cases of individual distress in their constituencies. We are all keen to eliminate such distress in our constituencies.
I am sure that many hon. Members have received the postcard suggesting that the average of avoidable deaths per constituency is 90 every winter. We have had some discussion of regional variations, but that is a second-order issue. Even if the figure is imperfect, it is clearly not acceptable to have such a level of avoidable deaths in an advanced country. I am sure that the Minister will accept that the Government have an urgent duty to tackle the problem.
I hope that the Minister will explain how the Bill intersects with the Utilities Bill. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) spoke of clause 2 being somewhat opaque; it becomes even more so when considered in conjunction with clause 78 of the Utilities Bill, which talks about what the Secretary of State may do if he considers that members of a disadvantaged group
of customers of persons who supply gas are treated less favourably than other customers of theirs …
That clause is designed as an attack on fuel poverty, and it is not immediately clear what would happen if it intersected with clause 2(2)(b) of this Bill. One would not want any incoherence in the attack on fuel poverty.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is not being frivolous when he says that if the House supports the Bill—as I hope it will—we need to think through the taxation and spending consequences. The House would be guilty of a dereliction of duty if we did not do that. I have asked similar questions to his about the possibilities for funding large-scale projects.
The warm homes committee set up by both Government and Opposition Members has been examining the funding options to avoid the Treasury having to indulge in more public spending and increase taxation because of the Bill. Various members of the committee, including my hon. Friends the Members for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) have been inventive in finding ways in which public finance initiative-style mechanisms can be used—issuing bonds, perhaps—as is done in the health and transport sectors. The financial mechanisms could be discussed in Committee.
The Government have announced their intention to abolish fuel poverty—the precise objective of the Bill—so I assume that the Minister will confirm that they have already made a commitment to obtain the necessary finances. A serious commitment of taxpayers' money to tackle the problem of fuel poverty is already in the Red Book. Those who support the Bill contend that if we must spend taxpayers' money we should do it effectively. We are spending large sums clearing up the problems, but it would be much more effectively spent in preventing them.
We will need to investigate the various private funding methods. I am sure that if my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst takes up the brave offer from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West to sit on the Committee that will consider the Bill, my right hon. Friend will be assiduous in ensuring discussion of cost and methods of funding.
It is significant that among those who have expressed public support for the Bill is the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. In fact, he complained to the campaign in support of the Bill that he had not been listed as a supporter in the literature that many of us have been sent. He said:
I have always tried hard to be as supportive as possible—this is why I am surprised to see that I am not listed as being supportive in other ways.
Now that he is Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he has every chance of being as supportive as he could want to. Responsibility has been accepted by the Cabinet Minister responsible for controlling public expenditure, so he must know how the aims of the Bill can be achieved without increasing public expenditure. Otherwise, the figures that the Chief Secretary has published would be misleading, and that cannot be the case. I hope that the Minister will enlighten the House about the funding mechanism and how it fits in with the Government's current spending targets.
Responsibility now lies firmly in the Government's hands. If they want this Bill or a version of it to reach the statute book, they can make it happen. They have promised to eradicate fuel poverty and senior Ministers are on the record as saying that fuel poverty must be ended, that it is a scandal and a preventable scourge. Indeed, they have set up an interministerial group—the acme of action for this Government—to consider the problem and to set a target date for the elimination of fuel poverty. I hope that the Minister will also enlighten us about that target date and the work of the interministerial group.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West deserves the congratulations and the gratitude of the House for choosing this measure. Helping the old and poor to live in greater comfort and warmth is a noble cause. After all the rhetoric we have heard from Ministers on that issue, they will be judged on whether they help to deliver the Bill. I support my hon. Friend's Bill.
The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) has raised an important issue with his characteristic flair. Not only will energy efficiency help to reduce heating bills, it will—as the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) was right to emphasise—also bring environmental benefits.
As was evident during the debate, the Bill has support on both sides. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) said, the debate was in danger of becoming a bit of a love-in, with the exception of the legendary scepticism of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), without whom no debate of this nature would be complete.
I also wish to acknowledge the role played by my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford)— who has the second and third Bills this afternoon, which are both relevant to this issue—has also long taken an interest in energy efficiency.
The Bill places a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and publish a strategy and targets, with the intended aim of reducing the incidence of fuel poverty in England and Wales, and to implement the strategy thereafter. That is a worthwhile and necessary aim. As hon. Members have acknowledged, tackling fuel poverty has been a Government priority. I was a little disappointed to hear the hon. Member for Ashford say that the Government's measures do not measure up to the scale of the problem. Perhaps they do not, but they do measure up to the record of the previous Government.
According to recent estimates, at least 4.3 million households have difficulty with fuel bills. As hon. Members have said, many poor people have to make choices between being warm or sacrificing spending on other pressing priorities. Their problems arise from the combination of low incomes, poorly insulated housing and expensive-to-run or inadequate heating systems. Under-occupation can also be an issue.
Research indicates that cold homes are the major domestic health hazard, and that tackling fuel poverty requires improvement in the energy efficiency of the homes of vulnerable households. That is why the Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty and are taking a range of measures actively to alleviate it.
Perhaps I can set out the progress that we have already made. We have cut value added tax on fuel and on energy efficiency materials supplied through Government schemes, so that people can now better afford to heat and insulate their homes.
We have established the new home energy efficiency scheme which, from June, will provide comprehensive packages of heating and insulation improvements to households most at risk from cold-related ill health—the elderly and families on low income, the disabled or chronically sick. The scheme will include efficient central heating systems for people over 60 on low incomes. It will offer grants of up to £2,000 per household, in contrast to the £315 available under the current scheme, which still leaves many people in difficulty. The scheme will focus particularly on the private rented and owner-occupied sectors. They account for about 70 per cent. of fuel-poor households and are missed by the current programme. In England, the new scheme will have a budget of about £260 million for the first two years, and is expected to assist about 460,000 households. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will have their own schemes.
I wish to alert my hon. Friend to a possible problem that may evolve in the scheme being introduced in England. Government policy places emphasis on getting new deal people on to training schemes. However, the energy action grants agency will employ its own surveyors, and the people doing the installations—the companies involved in training—will not know whether they will be allocated contracts until those surveyors have reported back to the agency. Until then, people on the new deal will have nothing to do but sit around. In Scotland, the installers can carry out the surveys as well. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that option.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We shall certainly do our best to learn any lessons from the Scottish experience.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) asked how we would prioritise matters. It is our intention to establish referral networks, in which local authority health and social services departments will try to identify the 460,000 most-in-need households that we hope to deal with in the scheme's first two years.
The Government have also provided substantial extra resources for housing investment by local authorities through the housing investment programme. That amounts to £3.6 billion over the three years to 2001–02, and will be used to tackle the backlog of renovation work needed in social housing. These resources should have a significant impact in tackling fuel poverty, through improved energy efficiency, which is one of the priorities of strategic stock maintenance programmes. We are asking local authorities to report on their policies and achievements specifically in combating fuel poverty, in conjunction with the reports that they already prepare under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 on the implementation of their home energy conservation strategies.
We have introduced, and subsequently increased by 400 per cent., winter fuel payments for pensioners. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet asked what the cost was. In 1999–2000, it was £675 million. Next year, when payments are extended to the over-60s, the total cost will be £850 million. The hon. Gentleman also made a point about VAT on home improvements, to which I am sure many right hon. and hon. Members will be sympathetic. I hear what he says, and I will pass the message on to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.
We have introduced the minimum wage and the minimum income guarantee for pensioners. Those measures should also have some impact on the ability of poor people to pay for heating.
The inter-ministerial group, chaired jointly by the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in the other place, will consider the impact of these programmes. The group met for the first time in January this year. It will seek to develop a more accurate picture of the extent of the problem, how quickly it can be addressed, and at what cost. It will also develop and publish a strategy setting out the Government's fuel poverty objectives, and how they will be achieved.
Alongside these Government actions, the electricity and gas regulator has announced that he is continuing the energy efficiency standards of performance scheme for the electricity industry to 2002, and extending it for the first time to gas consumers as well. After 2002, there are provisions in the Utilities Bill for the Government to take over responsibility for setting standards, as part of the climate change programme, with continuing emphasis on help to pensioners and low-income consumers. All those measures represent part of a significant package that should have a marked effect on tackling fuel poverty and improving energy efficiency.
As I mentioned a few moments ago, the aim of the Bill is both worth while and necessary. It mirrors the measures that we already have in hand. It would play a part in our fuel poverty programme, ensuring that the most vulnerable households need no longer risk ill health due to a cold home.
The hon. Member for Southend, West would, I think, be surprised if I said that the Government were entirely content with the Bill. We will need to look at the detail of the drafting to ensure that it accurately reflects Government policy. We have to consider provisions for bringing the measure into force and, bearing in mind the Government's current spending commitments and reviews, we want to consider carefully the references to time scales and targets.
To those Conservative Members who have been Ministers, that sounded very much like code for "the Government intend to kill off the Bill on Report." We have been through that before. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the Government do not intend to give the Bill a fair wind now, with the intention of killing it off on Report and Third Reading?
I do not think that I will dignify that with a response.
A number of hon. Members have asked about cost. Nothing in the Bill would increase spending per se. In any case, the Government have greatly increased spending in this area, as I have outlined. The Bill would enshrine existing commitments.
We accept that the Bill has merit, and I am glad to be able to advise the hon. Gentleman that the Government will support it, subject to amendments on matters of detail.
It seems strange to follow a Minister in debate, as we can do on Fridays. I welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I feel privileged to speak in the debate. I am a former member of the housing committee in Bolton, an officer of the warm homes group and a member of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit.
The Bill has a fair wind behind it and, as we have just heard, the Government will put their force behind it too. In November, I received a document about the warm homes campaign, which included a nice photograph of the Bill's promoter, the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). The campaign reminded us that 434 people were behind the Bill.
The Environmental Audit Committee recently produced one of its best-received reports—on energy efficiency. The report pointed out that it is a national scandal that about 8 million households in Britain cannot afford to pay for the warmth they need. People on incomes of less than £5,000 a year certainly cannot afford to heat their homes. The plight of the elderly has rightly been stressed in the debate. They suffer ill health and death because of the problem.
In addition, I draw the House's attention to the cause of lone parents and families with children who are caught in the poverty trap. More than a third of lone parents lack even the most basic forms of insulation in their homes.
In Bolton, 51,200 people—19 per cent. of the town's population—are aged over-60. One third of the town's households include a pensioner. Across the country, 62 per cent. of pensioner homes fail to meet the standard assessment procedure minimum levels of heat retention or of efficiency in their heating systems.
More than 13 per cent. of people in the north-west pay for their fuel in pre-payment meters. More and more people are going on to such meters. In February, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in York published the findings of a research study undertaken by the university of Newcastle into access to energy—among other matters.
That study made a good point, which has not been referred to in the debate. It noted that those of us who are fairly well off are made even better off by the utilities, because they make it cheaper for us to pay for energy through banker's drafts or standing orders. However, those who cannot afford to buy fuel have to go on to those wretched pre-payment meters. They have to pay more for their fuel than those of us who are more affluent. Furthermore, they often disconnect themselves, either accidentally or because they have no money—usually the latter.
Several of my constituents have complained to me about access for renewing their cards—even supposing that they have the money to do so. They often have to travel to an adjacent town. I have even given people lifts so that they could renew their energy cards. It can often cost £1 each way for one of my constituents to go to one of the energy providers in town just to put about £5 on the card—that is all they can afford. It costs them £2 to load the card with £5 of energy. That cannot be right. I hope that this Government, or a future Government, will tackle that.
The link between bad housing and bad health is indisputable and has frequently been referred to in the debate. Every drop of 1 deg C below the winter average results in 8,000 avoidable deaths. That is a scandal. In the north-west alone, there were an estimated 2,830 excess deaths in the winter months of 1998–99.
In 1986, I was elected chairman of Bolton housing committee. At that stage, we were spending £15,000, which was then a considerable sum, totally refurbishing public sector houses in selected areas of the town. I stopped that because people all over Bolton were complaining about damp homes. I decided to launch two programmes, which have been highly successful.
One programme was to give every council house tenant a modular heating system—modular, because we found that many of them could not afford to run full gas central heating systems at a cost of £300 to £500 a year. With our modular systems, they could turn on as many of the units as they could afford. That programme was completed early, and now the older heating systems are being renewed.
The second programme that I introduced was to refurbish the exteriors of all the houses that needed repair, with new roofs, cavity wall insulation and double-glazed windows, at a saving of between £5 and £7 a week for all the council tenants who benefited. I am pleased to say that that programme is also almost complete.
Bolton has set itself a target of 20 per cent. energy savings in a 10-year energy strategy that has been drawn up recently with the help of an energy consultant. We heard references to cost during the debate. I can give some costs for our town. The implementation of that strategy will cost £187 million at today's prices. To achieve the Government's target of 30 per cent. energy savings, an additional £81 million would be necessary to provide condensing boilers throughout the borough.
A quarter of households in Bolton do not have adequate loft insulation. It would cost only £200 per household to provide it, and would result in annual savings of £65.
Bolton is a member of a consortium of 12 other local authorities, one utility company, one manufacturer and three private contractors, who have successfully bid for Government funds for a project appropriately named Millenergy. The group will raise awareness of energy saving and promote a bulk discount purchasing scheme for energy, along with a home energy efficiency grant top-up scheme.
Bolton is also a member of the north-west energy forum, which will act as a regional pressure group for the purpose of attracting funds to the region, and it is a leading authority in promoting the local Agenda 21 strategies.
Fuel poverty can be tackled by various measures, including the renovation and insulation of homes and the promotion of all forms of energy efficiency. That is good for the economy, creating, as we have heard, 30,000 new jobs and many new small and medium-sized enterprises. I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Minister say that he supports the Bill, and I wish it well.
In that case, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall make a contribution to the debate. I shall be brief, as the subject has been well aired and the Bill looks as though it is about to receive a fair wind.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on his Bill, and thank my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) for the tremendous work that they have done.
Many more of my hon. Friends from north of the border would have been present today, but they are attending the Labour party conference in Scotland. My hon. Friends the Members for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) and I have made the effort to be in the House today.
One of the underlying problems causing modern social ills is poor housing. That has been said time and again. Most hon. Members will have had contact with constituents who have complained bitterly about their home, whether on a housing estate in a town or city, or in the countryside, perhaps a property privately rented from the local estate.
Living in poor properties can lead to despair. Inadequate, or—even worse—inefficient heating, damp and poor maintenance leads to poor health and all the social problems that flow from such conditions.
I welcome many aspects of the Bill, especially those that mirror parts of Government policy. It is appropriate to tackle fuel poverty while protecting our environment. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is anxious about the Bill, especially its financial aspects. However, a warm and dry home should be a basic right in our country in the 21st century.
I shall confine my remarks to the subject of alleviating fuel poverty. Although the number of households that have to spend more than 10 per cent. on fuel fell by approximately a fifth between 1991 and 1996, we are in no position to be complacent, especially when many more than 4 million households can be classed as fuel poor. I appreciate that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would argue against the concept of fuel poverty.
Far too many elderly people are at risk, and the dangers of hypothermia, asthma and respiratory infections as well as coronary heart disease are far too common. We have an average of 30,000 more deaths each winter than would normally be expected. Approximately 90 per cent. of those deaths are of people who are over 60. It is a blight on our communities. As we heard earlier, the figures for many Scandinavian countries are lower than those for the United Kingdom. That is simply because they appreciate the social benefit of better heated and insulated homes.
The Government have taken action to assist the most vulnerable through the reduction of VAT on domestic fuel to 5 per cent.; a 5 per cent. VAT rate on specific energy-efficient materials; winter fuel payments for our 7 million pensioners and cold weather payments for many vulnerable groups. Those are only a few examples.
I appreciate that the Bill is relevant to England and Wales, but it is appropriate briefly to mention that the Scottish Parliament, in tackling fuel poverty, has committed a further £300 million to housing in Scotland. That will enable us to build and improve some 18,000 homes in the next three years and will target improvement and repair grants at those who are least able to pay. The Scottish Parliament's new housing Bill offers a tremendous opportunity to give young people a great start in life by living in a home that is free from damp and cold conditions.
Energy efficiency can provide a permanent solution to the problem of fuel poverty, benefit the environment through reduced carbon dioxide emissions, create jobs in the insulation industry, reduce expenditure on housing maintenance and repairs, and cut the cost of treating cold-related illnesses. It can also reduce fears of debt and disconnection for low-income families through making the cost of heating their homes more affordable.
The Bill has genuine potential, and I hope that the House will support it.
|Division No. 101]||[2.9 pm|
|Allan, Richard||Hill, Keith|
|Allen, Graham||Hopkins, Kelvin|
|Amess, David||Horam, John|
|Austin, John||Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)|
|Baldry, Tony||Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)|
|Barnes, Harry||Humble, Mrs Joan|
|Beggs, Roy||Hunter, Andrew|
|Beith, Rt Hon A J||Hurst, Alan|
|Benton, Joe||Iddon, Dr Brian|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Jack, Rt Hon Michael|
|Berry, Roger||Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)|
|Best, Harold||Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)|
|Blackman, Liz||Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)|
|Breed, Colin||Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)|
|Brinton, Mrs Helen||Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa|
|Brooke, Rt Hon Peter||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Brown, Russell (Dumfries)||Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)|
|Buck, Ms Karen||Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)|
|Burnett, John||Khabra, Piara S|
|Butler, Mrs Christine||Kidney, David|
|Cable, Dr Vincent||King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)|
|Casale, Roger||Ladyman, Dr Stephen|
|Cawsey, Ian||Laing, Mrs Eleanor|
|Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)||Lansley, Andrew|
|Chaytor, David||Lepper, David|
|Clark, Paul (Gillingham)||Linton, Martin|
|Cohen, Harry||Livingstone, Ken|
|Colman, Tony||Loughton, Tim|
|Connarty, Michael||Love, Andrew|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||McCabe, Steve|
|Cormack, Sir Patrick||McCafferty, Ms Chris|
|Cousins, Jim||McIsaac, Shona|
|Cox, Tom||McNulty, Tony|
|Cryer, John (Hornchurch)||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Darvill, Keith||Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)|
|Davey, Edward (Kingston)||Merron, Gillian|
|Dawson, Hilton||Miller, Andrew|
|Dean, Mrs Janet||Moran, Ms Margaret|
|Dobbin, Jim||Mullin, Chris|
|Dobson, Rt Hon Frank||Naysmith, Dr Doug|
|Dowd, Jim||O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)|
|Drown, Ms Julia||O'Neill, Martin|
|Efford, Clive||Öpik, Lembit|
|Ellman, Mrs Louise||Paice, James|
|Evans, Nigel||Palmer, Dr Nick|
|Foster, Don (Bath)||Perham, Ms Linda|
|Gale, Roger||Rammell, Bill|
|Galloway, George||Randall, John|
|Gardiner, Barry||Rendel, David|
|Garnier, Edward||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Gerrard, Neil||St Aubyn, Nick|
|Gibson, Dr Ian||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Gilroy, Mrs Linda||Shipley, Ms Debra|
|Gordon, Mrs Eileen||Skinner, Dennis|
|Green, Damian||Stunell, Andrew|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||Swayne, Desmond|
|Hall, Patrick (Bedford)||Taylor, David (NW Leics)|
|Harris, Dr Evan||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)||Taylor, Sir Teddy|
|Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)||Waterson, Nigel|
|Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)||Whitehead, Dr Alan|
|Todd, Mark||Wilkinson, John|
|Tonge, Dr Jenny||Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)|
|Tredinnick, David||Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)|
|Truswell, Paul||Winnick, David|
|Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)||Wise, Audrey|
|Turner, Neil (Wigan)||Wray, James|
|Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)|
|Tyler, Paul||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Vis, Dr Rudi||Mr. Simon Burns and|
|Walker, Cecil||Mr. Alan Simpson.|
|Tellers for the Noes:|
|Mr. David Maclean and|
|Mr. Eric Forth.|