Clause 1 — Targets for Energy Efficiency Improvements

Home Energy Conservation Bill – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 10th May 2002.

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Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown 10:30 am, 10th May 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 1, line 4, leave out from beginning to end of line 17 on page 2 and insert—

'(1) After section 2 of the principal Act there is inserted—

"2A Energy efficiency reports

(1) Where a target applies for the time being to an energy conservation authority in England and Wales, the authority shall prepare a report in accordance with this section.

(2) The report shall set out the energy conservation measures that the authority considers practicable, cost–effective and likely to result in the target being met.

(3) An energy conservation authority in England and Wales shall, so far as is reasonably practicable, implement so as to meet the target any report which it has prepared in accordance with this section and published.

(4) In this section a target means a requirement to achieve an improvement (which may be expressed as a percentage) in the energy efficiency of residential accommodation in the authority's area within a specified time.

(5) A target applies to an authority at any time when—

(a) the Secretary of State, after consulting the Local Government Association of England and Wales, has made a determination specifying the target and providing for it to apply to the authority or to authorities including the authority, and

(b) the target has been published in any manner the Secretary of State considers appropriate.

(6) The Secretary of State may by a further determination made after consultation with the association and so published vary any previous determination and any target shall have effect accordingly.

(7) Subsections (3) to (7) of section 2 apply for the purposes of this section.

(8) On the application to an authority of a target under this section, this Act so far as it relates to reports under section 2 ceases to apply in relation to the authority".

(2) In sections 3 (functions of Secretary of State) and 5(1) (modification) of the principal Act, after each mention of "section 2" there is inserted "or 2A", and—

(a) at the end of section 4(2) there is inserted "for the purposes of reports under section 2",

(b) after section 4(2) there is inserted—

"(2A) The Secretary of State may give energy conservation authorities in England and Wales such guidance as he considers appropriate in relation to the exercise of their functions under section 2A and (so far as relating to that section) section 3(2)(a).",

(c) in section 5(2), for "subsections (2) to (6) of section 2" there is substituted "sections 2 and 2A".

(3) In section 6 of the principal Act (supplementary), after subsection (2) there is inserted—

"(3) An energy conservation authority in England and Wales must—

(a) at all reasonable times keep a copy of any report under section 2 or 2A, and of any report sent to the Secretary of State under section 3(2)(a), available for inspection by members of the public free of charge, and

(b) provide reasonable facilities for members of the public to obtain copies of such reports on payment of a reasonable charge.

(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument require registered social landlords to provide each energy conservation authority in England and Wales within whose area they have residential accommodation with prescribed information, in the prescribed form, as to the levels of performance achieved by them in relation to the energy efficiency of the accommodation.

(5) A registered social landlord who, without reasonable excuse, fails to comply with a requirement imposed by regulations under subsection (4) is guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.

Proceedings for an offence under this subsection may only be brought by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

(5) In this section, "prescribed" means prescribed by regulations under subsection (4) and "registered social landlord" has the same meaning as in the Housing Act 1996; and a statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (4) shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament".'.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment (a) to the proposed amendment, in line 1, at beginning insert—

'(A1) The appropriate Minister shall in exercising any functions under this section or under the principal Act, and in considering whether or not to exercise those functions, have as a principal aim the achievement of an improvement in energy efficiency in residential accommodation of at least 30 per cent. by the end of 2010, taking 1st January 1996 as the base line date.'.

Government amendments Nos. 12 and 8.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

I think that all hon. Members agree that targets are an essential part of delivering the energy efficiency and the fuel poverty components of the Bill. To some extent, I share the disappointment of other hon. Members that the Bill contains no specific targets, in terms of percentages. However, more importantly, Government amendment No. 11 contains a mechanism to make energy conservation a statutory burden on local authorities. At present, it is an optional activity that some authorities pursue with more vigour than others.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

I also join hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Gentleman on promoting this important Bill. He mentioned concerns about non-statutory requirements, but does he share my concern that the amendment will mean that it will no longer be a statutory requirement on the Government to set targets in that area, even at a level that meets the performance and innovation unit recommendations?

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

I do not in practice share the hon. Gentleman's concern, because whether we are talking about the HECA target or the PIU target, they mean the same in practice. They will deliver the same total quantity of energy conservation if they are achieved. No one disputes the desirability of achieving that target or the consequences of not doing so. Anyone who set out to try to achieve a lesser overall target would, rightly, be scorned. That is not going to happen. It is unthinkable.

The 20 per cent. PIU target and the 30 per cent. HECA target may not be formal Government policy, but they are the centrepiece of everyone's thinking on energy conservation. They have effectively been endorsed by Ministers from all the Departments concerned, so it is inconceivable that they would not form the working aim. I wanted to put it in the Bill that the Secretary of State should have the PIU target as his aim. I chose the PIU target, but the Liberal Democrats have tabled an amendment, in the same words as my original amendment, that refers to the HECA target. They come to the same thing.

I know that it is psychologically important to have one of those targets in the Bill and I would have preferred that to be the case. However, British Governments, whether Tory or Labour—probably even Liberal, back in the dim and distant days when we had such things—will not allow figures to appear in Bills. I find that extraordinary, but it is true. The only examples of Governments being prepared to put figures in a Bill are Finance Bills, which obviously would not mean much without them. In reality, those targets are the principle aim of everybody involved and will inform the targets set by the Secretary of State to achieve that aim.

Amendment No. 11 makes provision for setting targets as necessary, according to the local authority. Some authorities have done outstandingly well in energy conservation, and that is not necessarily correlated directly to their political complexion. There are good Conservative-controlled authorities, good Labour- controlled authorities and, probably, good Liberal- controlled authorities. There are also bad examples of authorities of all three political colours. It depends on how the local authorities set their political priorities.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

I accept the broad thrust of my hon. Friend's remarks. However, some local authorities, including mine, face a further challenge. If 86 per cent. of the population are home owners living in properties that do not meet any of the necessary criteria, it is difficult for local authorities to make significant headway.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention because it enables me to point out how local authorities in that position can make progress towards the targets. HECA officers, in good authorities, have an excellent record of effectiveness. They lever in funds for the purpose that amount to 10 times more than their employers need to put into the operation, because funds—not only from Government schemes, but from the energy industry—are available.

Those funds can be directed at owner-occupiers of limited means. They are not excluded from the Government's energy-saving, energy-efficient schemes. That is an important point. Private home owners who are poor can receive substantial grant assistance. Enthusiastic HECA officers have proved themselves good, adept and successful in co-ordinating and directing such funds to where they can do the most good. I submit to my hon. Friend that his constituency has precisely the sort of local authority where these measures can make a difference.

My main point is that the really significant provision to be included in the Bill is not the national overall target, because that is so clearly understood, but the fact that it sets in place the mechanism for giving the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, which we all applaud, a statutory responsibility for implementation of those targets at a local level on local energy authorities. That provision does not exist at present. If it were not for the Bill, the Government would, sooner or later, have to do something similar. Otherwise, my supporters and I are certain that we will not achieve either the HECA or the PIU target. We estimate that we will fall short of them by about a quarter. That represents a hell of a lot of tonnes of CO 2 that should not be omitted and a lot of homes using and wasting a lot more energy than they should. By dint of these provisions, we will be able to plug that gap. I count that as a truly significant gain—pretty reasonable for a private Member's Bill, if the House accepts it.

The amendment also brings into the scope of legislation the energy conservation activities of registered social landlords, a point that has been made by colleagues, people outside the House and private landlords. Registered social landlords would be brought into the net under the amendment.

I have said all that I intend to say in support of the amendment. Let me say to the Members who have put their names to amendment (a) that I totally empathise with its intentions. In the greater interest of ensuring that the Bill becomes law, I respectfully ask them not to press their amendment to the vote. However, the point in the amendment is very well made. I hope that the House will accept amendment No. 11 and that it will not have to make a decision about amendment (a).

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

Amendment No. 11 is the heart of the Bill—the key issue—and I am glad to support it. It effectively replaces clause 1, as agreed in Committee, with the exception of clause 1(7). It sets out the Bill's key provisions in relation to improving domestic energy efficiency. It amends the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, making it more effective and giving it more teeth. That is something that we all want, and I am pleased that we can use the Bill to do it.

Before I consider each of the amendment's proposals in detail, I shall explain why, in the Government's view, it is necessary to amend the Bill in this way. It would be an understatement to say that my hon. Friend Dr. Turner and I have considered this amendment at great length. I sometimes felt as though I had been in continuous session. The amendment is the outcome of many hours of discussion, deliberation and hard work.

Hon. Members will recall that the Committee agreed an amendment that put targets into the Bill. At the time, I made it clear that I could not support it. It went further than I was able to go without knowing fully what the financial implications of such a duty would be for local authorities.

Amendment No. 11 would introduce, in effect, a new HECA regime. Authorities would be required to prepare and implement new, more rigorous reports so as to achieve statutory targets. These targets would be set by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in England and the National Assembly for Wales, following consultation with local authority representatives. However, because the Government would not place a new burden on authorities without offering the funding to meet it in full, targets would not be set until the necessary funding could be made available. Until such time as targets were set, no new duties would be imposed on authorities.

Photo of Colin Challen Colin Challen Labour, Morley and Rothwell 10:45 am, 10th May 2002

On the financial cost of targets, I was very grateful to my right hon. Friend for writing to me in March about the possibility of including targets in the Bill. He referred to the 600,000 home insulation grants that the Government were funding, at a possible cost of £2,000 each. Has any assessment been made of the impact of those grants over the next three years on possible targets under an HECA regime?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

As I indicated in my remarks on new clause 1, that is, in effect, an essential part of the Government's commitment to the fuel strategy target of eliminating fuel poverty by 2010. Because, under the warm front team, it is a response to demand—in other words, it is for householders, social workers, doctors or others in the locality to make an application for the work to be undertaken—it is impossible to make a precise calculation of the overall effect, particularly over a 10-year period. However, there is no doubt that the majority of what remains to be done in meeting the fuel poverty strategy and improving home energy efficiency will be achieved by the warm front team and the energy efficiency commitment, as well as by upgrading local authority stock. I cannot give the exact figure, but it is certainly a major part of the cost.

The potential cost of the Bill to authorities is critical. There is an accepted principle in Government that local authorities must be fully funded for any new burdens imposed on them. A new burden on local authorities is defined as any policy or initiative that increases the cost of providing local authority services. So, for example, when new legislation creates extra responsibilities on councils, the Government fund those responsibilities.

Under this procedure, an overall policy objective can usually be met by securing appropriate funding within the spending review process. Crucially, however, when a new burden is introduced between reviews—as in this case—a transfer of funds needs to be made within existing totals to ensure that local authorities are properly funded.

For each initiative, an identifiable Department is in the lead. Where an initiative emanates solely from one Department, that will be the lead Department. In this case, my Department is responsible for any new burdens that will be imposed on local authorities as a result of new domestic energy efficiency and fuel poverty duties.

I wholly understand that some Members may take the view that the reasons for implementing the Bill are so important that local authorities should implement its provisions within existing resources. That argument was played out in Committee. In other words, the matter should be prioritised. However, we must not consider general efficiency savings—however desirable they may be—within local authorities as an available source of funding for new burdens. Nor should we assume that authorities can absorb the cost of a new burden through reduced expenditure on existing functions.

In the context of the Bill, unless action is taken that clearly reduces local authority costs in other matters concerned with energy efficiency targets, I am responsible for finding the budget to reimburse all their costs. Without that funding, local authorities will have to secure provision from other budget hits. Many of them will simply say that that is not acceptable.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Sayeed Mr Jonathan Sayeed Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

It has been suggested that the extra burden on local authorities will be about £29 million. Does the Minister confirm that figure? Does he agree that it is about right? Is he saying that he does not have access to that amount to reimburse local authorities?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I do not confirm the figure of £29 million. Several rough and ready estimates have been produced, for example by the Local Government Association and the Association for the Conservation of Energy, for which we are grateful: the possible costs range between £29 million and £1 billion. That is an enormous range, so one can hardly give credence to £29 million. Even if the figure were £29 million, however, everything that I have said continues to apply. I should have to find a way of reducing expenditure for local authorities by that amount, especially in the energy efficiency field. I repeat that no one has suggested how that can be done fairly or properly, or, indeed, that it would be right to do it.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

I am a little confused. The Government set a target of 30 per cent. by 2010. My right hon. Friend has made the criticism that local authorities have not been meeting that target. Is he saying that the Government have not made available the money to meet that target?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I am saying that the Government did not set the target of achieving a 30 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency in domestic housing stock. That target was set by the last Conservative Government as an aim, not a statutory requirement, and they provided no money with which to achieve it. That is the situation that we inherited and we have to confront it. Are we serious about the issue? I do not think that the last Government were serious. We are trying to confront the situation. We believe that there needs to be an improvement in energy efficiency, especially among the laggard local authorities—those who have achieved hardly anything. Some have obtained good results, but many have not. If we are to make those improvements, we have to find the extra money. That is the problem.

The Government provide money through the spending review. We are currently in the third year of the 2000 spending review, and there will soon be an announcement—presumably in the summer—about the 2002 spending review. Those reviews are carefully prepared and a private Member's Bill, such as this one, would insert a requirement for an unspecified sum, perhaps between £29 million and £1 billion. That is where the problem lies.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

The House understands that on money matters, the Minister can say only what the Treasury authorises him to say, so if we argue with him we are really arguing with the Treasury and we are actually on his side. We hope that he will be successful. Can he tell us, in plain language, whether the Government have that aim, or not?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the aim of a 30 per cent. improvement in home energy efficiency, I repeat that that aim was set by the previous—[Interruption.] Let me answer in my own way. That aim was set by the previous Government, but they did not provide the money for it. If I am to take over that aim, I have to explain to local authorities where the money is to come from. It is an aspiration. I should love to have an improvement of 30 per cent., but I cannot simply declare it with a wave of the wand, and say that the Government accept the target unless I can say where the money will come from. The proposition in the amendment is that we shall make the best endeavours to achieve that aim, but only when I have the money available for the improvement. That is the only possible way forward.

I am not resiling in any way from an improvement of something in the order of 30 per cent. but there is no point in pretending that one can pluck a figure from the air unless one can say where the money will come from. It is not a quarrel with the Treasury: the Government are united in the view that if we commit to something, we have to say how it will be achieved and where the money will come from.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I am being extremely generous to the hon. Gentleman, as I hope he realises.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

I accept that.

As I made plain, I am not making a personal attack on the Minister, but are the Government saying that the aim of the previous Conservative Government is not currently their aim?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

The hon. Gentleman has heard me say in words of one syllable that that is not the case. I am saying that no responsible Government—and I think that the previous Government were irresponsible on this point—[Interruption.] It is not right for the Government to set a target, and to give guidance to local authorities drawing up their energy efficiency reports by mentioning a figure of 30 per cent., without saying where the money is to come from. That is not responsible. All I am saying is that this Government are not going to do that.

I want a big improvement in energy efficiency. We are already massively committed to that, through the home energy efficiency scheme, the energy efficiency commitment and the upgrading of local authority housing stock. That will have a massive effect, so any suggestion that we need to be prompted to accept a 30 per cent. target is beside the point. We are going far in that direction, but if I am to give a commitment that by a certain date we shall have achieved exactly that target, I repeat—for the last time—that I have to say where the money will come from, and when we are between spending reviews, I am not in a position to do that.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I warn hon. Members that my speech is very long, so this must be the last intervention. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Sayeed Mr Jonathan Sayeed Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

What the right hon. Gentleman has just said leaves me, as well as some of my hon. Friends and others, perplexed. In paragraph 3 of a letter of 18 September 2001 to the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Nigel Griffiths, the Minister said that the Government

"asked authorities to prepare strategies for making at least substantial progress towards a 30 per cent. improvement in 10 years from 1 April 1996".

That sounds a bit like a target. In the penultimate paragraph of the same letter, the right hon. Gentleman talks about making the 30 per cent. target more robust. Clearly, for some months, the right hon. Gentleman has been asking local authorities not only to set themselves targets but to fulfil them. So what has changed?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment) 11:00 am, 10th May 2002

That is exactly what the HECA was designed to do. It asked, not required, local authorities to make substantial improvements in energy efficiency. The previous Conservative Government set a 30 per cent. target, but did not provide the funding to implement it. That letter of September 2001 is exactly within the parameters of the HECA. This Bill goes further than that and requires the achievement of particular targets, which I am all in favour of if I can fund it.

Since taking office, we have provided good grant increases. In the main, councils have used that money to improve services in our priority areas of education and social services, but any unfunded new burdens will result in local authorities looking to other areas of their services. The environmental protection and cultural services block of the revenue support grant, which covers many of the areas for which my Department is responsible, such as waste management, is often viewed as a source of provision which is raided to pay for pressures that councils face.

When I put on another hat and debate waste management legislation, many hon. Members rightly complain about our low recycling achievement. Local authorities say that we require them to achieve a doubling or trebling of recycling targets—as I do—and they in turn expect us to fund that, and that is exactly what we did do. In the third year of the spending review 2000, the current year, the increase in the EPCS block is £1.1 billion, which is large. It deals with much more than environmental issues and waste management. But if one suggests taking money from that in order to achieve the Bill's target, there will be complaints that local authorities are not adequately funded for waste management. We cannot have it both ways. If hon. Members want this as devoutly as I want it, they must explain where the money will come from.

In order to establish the likely costs that the Bill, agreed in Committee, would impose, my Department commissioned an independent study. As I have already said, that produced wildly different results—somewhere between £29 million and £1 billion—so it is difficult to put much reliance on any figure.

If the Bill had been part of the Government's programme—a key point—its funding would have been an integral part of policy development and included in the spending review process, but that is not the case for a private Member's Bill. The Bill's essence is that a private Member, with the best motives, which I strongly support and for which I respect my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown, seeks to insert a demand for a significant stream of Government expenditure, of an unspecified total, in between what the Government have already planned for in their spending review. That is the problem.

If DEFRA had to find the money for the Bill, it could be done only by reducing expenditure on other energy efficiency programmes. I do not believe that any hon. Member would think that that was the right way to proceed. There would then be no resultant gain in energy efficiency because other programmes would have to be reduced so that this one could grow. That is not the way to proceed.

In accordance with the local government White Paper, our priorities and the policy areas where we want to set targets for local government will be brokered through the spending review and the national public service agreement for local government, not locked in through legislation. That is the central point. The approach set out in the amendment achieves that aim. Once full funding is available, we will set statutory targets for local authorities, which they will have to meet by given deadlines. That is the significance of this Bill over the HECA. Local authorities will be given the funding and support that they need to undertake the new task, and that is what my hon. Friend, I and other supporters of the Bill hoped that it would achieve from the outset. It will achieve that. I undertake to start discussions with the Local Government Association as soon as resources are available. I can also say that targets will help to ensure that every authority makes a contribution to conserving natural resources and reducing greenhouse gases and fuel poverty.

Once a target had been set for an authority, that authority would be under a new duty to prepare an energy efficiency report. That would set out measures that the authority considers practicable, cost-effective and likely to result in the target being met. That differs from the energy conservation reports prepared under the old HECA, which did not require the achievement of any given target. That is the crucial point. Instead, they had to set out measures likely to result in significant improvement in energy efficiency, hence my letter of September 2001. The Bill would move away from that imprecise requirement to a much stronger statutory duty to have a report that will achieve a given percentage improvement in domestic energy efficiency by a given date.

Most of the improvement will in fact be made, as I keep on saying, through non-local authority programmes, such as the energy efficiency commitment and warm front, as well as action by millions of individual householders. The role of authorities is to facilitate and encourage take-up of those programmes and activities as far as they can, and to take action with regard to their own stock. They do not have to achieve the whole target on their own. I fully realise that, but it is difficult to establish the residual amount that will be needed to achieve a 30 per cent. target, if that is what we would like to achieve, after warm front, the energy efficiency commitment and the upgrading of local authority stock have been fully implemented. That is why the requirement would be to achieve the target as far as is reasonably practicable.

The amendment requires the Secretary of State in England and the National Assembly for Wales to consult the Local Government Association in England and in Wales when setting domestic energy efficiency targets for energy conservation authorities. Those targets would include a date by which the given improvements were to be made and could be varied. That means requiring a bigger improvement from those authorities that have done the least up to now.

We all know of authorities that have decided that improving domestic efficiency should be a priority in their area. In that respect, they are good local authorities. They recognise that that can bring about social, economic and environmental benefits for their community. The Bill is not aimed primarily at those authorities. Nor is it aimed at those authorities that have tried hard to make improvements but, because of local conditions, have not been as successful as they hoped. No; it is aimed primarily at authorities that have not even prepared an energy conservation report, and there are some of those. It is aimed at those authorities that have not set a target. There are more of those. It is also aimed at those authorities that have set targets without doing anything to achieve them. It is certainly aimed at them.

Strictly speaking, all those things were allowed under the HECA. That was not the wish of the Act's promoter, but the way in which it was drafted allowed local authorities that gave low priority to such measures to do so with impunity. That was one of the faults of the Act. However, I recognise that it is not in the spirit of the Act, nor does it provide communities with the leadership and the services that one would expect from local authorities.

I do not want anyone to think that the Bill is an excuse to stop doing anything until the targets are set. That is an important point. We shall be pursuing local authorities, as we already are, under the HECA. This Bill is not a laggard's charter. Authorities should continue to work towards their existing targets until new targets are agreed, and we shall be chasing them to ensure that that happens. This Bill sends clear signals to authorities currently not taking their responsibilities seriously that this is not acceptable. Authorities that have made little progress to date will have considerably more to do in the future.

I do not accept the argument that authorities do not have the resources to improve energy efficiency now. Some authorities have been able to make considerable improvements through proactive and imaginative use of existing financial provision. It is important to remember that authorities will not have to meet the full cost of improvements—far from it. The gas and electricity suppliers and warm front will maximise the improvement of energy efficiency in their area.

A further important element of the proposed approach to target setting is that the targets should be established in consultation with representatives of local government. There are a number of reasons for that. The first is that merely imposing targets on local authorities from above is not compatible with the Government's view of the desirable relationship between central and local government. It is crucial that local authorities take ownership of the targets. The active participation of local authority representatives in developing them will help to achieve that aim, and to ensure that we get robust and stretching targets that deliver the improvements that we all want.

Variation is another important aspect. Targets can be varied as necessary. The need to improve domestic energy efficiency will not suddenly stop in 2010. Authorities should not rest on their laurels once they have met their targets. Some authorities have attained 20 per cent. improvements, so they are already well on their way. The amendment will allow the targets to be revised as necessary, following the same consultative approach. That will make the HECA a more flexible tool to help to deliver national objectives. For example, under the climate change programme we will systematically have to move from the Kyoto protocol target of 5 per cent. or the United Kingdom's commitment to 12.5 per cent. towards 40, 50, 60 or 70 per cent. over the next few decades, and energy efficiency is a key part of achieving that.

In addition to introducing a new HECA regime once targets are set, the amendment also makes changes to two provisions agreed in Committee.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I shall finish this rather technical little section, and then I shall give way to my hon. Friend.

Clause 1(6) requires authorities to keep a copy of any report available for inspection by the public. Clause 1(4) deals with the duty on registered social landlords to provide information to local authorities to help with their HECA reporting. It was agreed in Committee that it would be good practice for authorities to keep a copy of any HECA report available for inspection by the public free of charge. Under the 1995 Act, authorities are already obliged to publish their reports, but that is not to say that they are always readily accessible to interested members of the public. That point was made in Committee, and I agree with it. It would be in the interests of local accountability and access to information for those documents to be open to public inspection.

On further reflection, we agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown that it would be good practice for authorities to allow members of the public to make copies of reports. They can be quite lengthy and detailed, and it is not always possible for the public to find all they want from the reports at one sitting. They may also want to compare different authorities' reports, and that can be done only if they can take away copies of the reports. Rather than allowing them to be taken away, which runs the risk of their not being returned, it seems sensible for the authority to provide copies if required.

It is important to balance these interests against the potential additional burden on authorities of meeting this new requirement. No one would want authorities to be faced with demands for high numbers of copies at their own expense. It is only right for authorities to be able to make a reasonable charge to cover the cost of providing copying facilities. I stress the word "reasonable", because this should not turn into an important source of income. It is meant merely to cover their costs, and no more. It would be for authorities to determine their own arrangements.

I am sorry that it has taken so long to give way to my hon. Friend Dr. Iddon.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East 11:15 am, 10th May 2002

I am concerned about paragraph (5) of the amendment. Listening to my right hon. Friend, I get the impression that each local authority will be allowed to negotiate its own target. Is that the case, or will the Local Government Association, in liaison with its local authority members, set a national target that all local authorities will be expected to meet? If they do not meet the target, what sanctions can the Government apply?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I know that there has been concern that, by inserting a requirement that there should be consultation with the LGA in England and Wales, individual local authorities or the LGA might have a veto. I do not for one second believe that that would be the case. Under the amendment, the proposal is to provide an income stream so that local authorities are able to achieve this improvement in energy efficiency, which will reduce the cost of keeping their housing stock warm. I do not think that there is any question of a veto.

The target will be set not by the LGA, but by the Secretary of State in consultation with the LGA. The key point is that the measure will be funded, so it will be a statutory requirement. Like every statutory requirement, local authorities will be obliged to achieve it. So long as funding is available, I see no reason why they should not achieve it.

Photo of Colin Challen Colin Challen Labour, Morley and Rothwell

Is it conceivable that a local authority or the LGA could set a target higher than 30 per cent. by 2010 and expect the funding for it?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

The target will be set by the Secretary of State, whose primary concern will be to achieve an improvement in the energy efficiency of local authorities that up till now have had a poor record—anything from 0 to 5 per cent. is a poor record, given that the Act came into force six years ago.

I think I can say without fear of refutation that the Secretary of State will not, at this stage, set targets beyond 30 per cent. However, as we begin to move in that direction across the country, targets can be varied. If it is the intention after 2010 to go significantly further—I can well believe that it will be—a target may well be set beyond 30 per cent., but we are a long way from achieving that. Achievement towards the 30 per cent. target after six years is about 6 per cent. on average, with some local authorities achieving 20 per cent. If they get up to 30 per cent., there is no reason why they should not, for their own good reasons, go beyond that, but that is different from the Government setting that as a target.

The amendment would enable the appropriate Minister to require registered social landlords—which is the phrase used to describe housing associations—to copy to the local authority information relating to the energy efficiency of their housing stock in the area. The proposed amendment achieves the objectives of clause 1(4) as agreed in Committee, but more simply and straightforwardly.

As currently drafted, clause 1(4) links the duty of registered social landlords to provide information to local authorities with section 35 of the Housing Act 1996 and the information provided to the Housing Corporation under that section on a number of aspects of performance, including energy efficiency. More specifically, as currently drafted, clause 1(4) links the duty of registered social landlords to provide information to local authorities with the power in section 35(2) for the corporation to issue a direction to registered social landlords to provide information. Local authorities need this to assist with their duty under the HECA to draw up progress reports in relation to the residential accommodation in their areas. By providing for local authorities to receive copies of information already provided by registered social landlords to the Housing Corporation, we believe the burden on registered social landlords will be lessened.

Some registered social landlords work across a number of local authority boundaries and will be required to disaggregate the information about their stock at local authority level. However, we aim to mitigate the burden of this as far as possible by providing for the appropriate Minister to prescribe in secondary legislation the information to be provided by registered social landlords, in what form, the timing and so on. We will be consulting representatives of local authorities and registered social landlords on all of these details.

After that lengthy comment on amendment No. 11, I shall now respond to amendment (a) to amendment No. 11. This amendment would have the effect of including a statement in the Bill that it is a "principal aim" of Government to achieve an improvement in domestic energy efficiency of at least 30 per cent. by the end of 2010. The persistent interventions by the hon. Member for Woolwich—

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I am going back several elections. His interventions may be the answer. I cannot accept the amendment. My first reason is that it would lead to odd legislation. It is not appropriate to make general statements about aims or principles in legislation. I recognise that that is not without precedent, but a principal aim is not binding on the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales. The whole point of the Bill is to have binding commitments. The measure would be simply presentational; there is nothing wrong with that, but that is all it would be. Nor do the Secretary of State or the National Assembly need powers to make statements of general principle. I wonder what useful purpose that would serve, other than a presentational one.

There are also difficulties in terms of policy. It would be premature for the Government to make a statement of principle about the target we hope to achieve in relation to improving domestic energy efficiency at this stage. My Department is currently preparing our domestic energy efficiency strategy. This is in response to the performance and innovation unit's energy review, which recommended that the Government should develop a long-term framework. I am sure that that is right.

The PIU has suggested that the framework include an aspirational target, not a binding target. It is also a report to, and not by, Government. The aspirational target is for a 20 per cent. improvement by 2010 and a further 20 per cent. improvement by 2020. That is desirable, if we can achieve it. However, before the Government respond, we have to decide how that will be funded. For those reasons, I do not support the amendment.

Another reason is the impact the amendment would have on the consultative process. As I have said, the Government will have to consult the LGA on the targets, which will also have to be commensurate with the funding available. It would be odd to dictate, as the amendment suggests, by an overarching statement in this way, prior to the funding being available. That might undermine the consultative approach to target setting.

I wish to speak finally to Government amendment No. 12, which deals with a relatively technical matter. The purpose of this amendment is to delete lines 19 to 22 of clause 1. These define various terms used in the Bill, as agreed in Committee. The definitions are not necessary, since the Bill would amend the original HECA legislation and these terms are already defined there.

Government amendment No. 8 is a technical amendment to the long title of the Bill. It is more appropriate to use the broader term "residential accommodation", as defined in the HECA. This reflects the fact that the Bill also covers houses in multiple occupation, caravans and houseboats.

That is not exactly a ringing declaration on which to end a speech on what I genuinely think is an important part of the Bill, which I hope has widespread support. It will provide for the first time the basis for the setting of statutory targets that local authorities will be obliged to achieve in terms of improving energy efficiency within a given guideline. As soon as the Government have the finance to do that—I am very keen that we have that finance—we will implement this important part of the Bill.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I rise to support amendment (a) to amendment No. 11, tabled in my name and supported by numerous colleagues. I also wish to make a number of direct points about amendment No. 11, tabled in the Minister's name.

I hope that amendment (a) will win widespread support; it deserves to. Its origins lie not with me, but with Dr. Turner, the promoter of the Bill. I pay full and warm tribute to the hon. Gentleman for all he has done to bring the Bill through the House, but I cannot agree with his sad conclusions about this crucial clause.

There has been a very large degree of cross-party consensus on this Bill. Its aims have found vocal support right across the Chamber; indeed, among its earliest supporters was the Minister. But if the Government will not accept my amendment, all the hard work that has gone into the Bill, and all the hopes and aspirations invested in it, will have been totally and utterly wasted.

We all want a step change in Britain's energy efficiency, and we all want to end fuel poverty, but it is simply no good to will the end if you refuse to will the means. Mouthing the mantra is simply not good enough. Without amendment (a), the Bill is a toothless sham and the Minister knows it. The difference between amendment No. 11, in the Minister's name, and amendment (a) in mine is like the difference between black and white: it could not be starker.

If passed, amendment No. 11 will gut this Bill. It will allow the Secretary of State to set targets for local authorities entirely at his or her discretion. It does not require him or her to set any specific target; we are all left just hoping the Minister will set one. Amendment No. 11 allows the Minister to set any target or none. There is no mandatory benchmark or statutory commitment.

The Government amendment dilutes this Bill into wishy-washy good intentions, totally reliant on ministerial discretion. Amendment (a) by contrast, would set a statutory requirement for the Secretary of State to set meaningful targets. He would still have the freedom to set different targets for different authorities, but the amendment would require him to have a "principal aim " of a 30 per cent. improvement between 1996 and 2010; exactly what the Government guidance already calls for.

The drafting of amendment (a) also allows the Secretary of State to increase the scale of central programmes, perhaps under the warm homes strategy, and reflect that in the targets that he sets, over which, under amendment (a), he would still have huge flexibility and discretion. Without amendment (a), I would have grave doubts over whether amendment No. 11 will in any way improve local authorities' performance under the 1995 Act.

The Minister's amendment effectively rewrites part 1, and does so in such a way that if the Secretary of State does nothing at all, he or she will not be in breach of the legislation. That is the Government's wrecking amendment in a nutshell: the Minister may do nothing—absolutely nothing at all—and still not be in breach of the Bill. Is that truly what Members on both sides of the House have worked so hard for?

I know that the Minister will want to assure us that he will not take that route, that he intends to act and that arch sceptics who doubt him are simply being unfair. I fully accept that he is personally committed to environmental protection, including energy efficiency, yet when the House passes a law, we should not, in my view, leave so much discretion to the Executive, whatever their political complexion. A law that says, "You can do this or not do it—it's entirely up to you," is not much of a law. In fact, its passage through the House would be a complete waste of time.

Photo of Colin Challen Colin Challen Labour, Morley and Rothwell 11:30 am, 10th May 2002

As a fellow member of the Environmental Audit Committee, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares my healthy scepticism about the meaning of targets. Our meeting on Wednesday went into that point in great depth. If he is asking the House to agree to his amendment, he should give some idea of its financial cost. It would also help me, as one who is genuinely torn on the subject, to hear his assessment of how much progress has been made in the seven years since the 1995 Act was passed.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I shall certainly come to the progress, but I cannot give any further indications, other than the £29 million to which my hon. Friend Mr. Sayeed referred. As colleagues on the Environmental Audit Committee, we saw how the Minister shies away from meaningful targets when we quizzed him on the meaning of life indicators. On that, I believe, the House should hold him to account.

In the Standing Committee, the Minister began by recognising the flaws in the HECA, which the Bill is intended to address:

"The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 is groundbreaking. As all hon. Members recognise, it is flawed in important respects, especially in terms of targets, enforcements and time scales."

He continued by offering his support in solving these flaws:

"I enter unreservedly into the spirit of trying to achieve worthwhile targets and the enforcement mechanisms to ensure that they are met . . . it is important to ensure that the target that we set has a target date and that there are mechanisms in place to give plausibility to the belief that the target will be met in time. I accept that. "

Terrific words, Minister, yet amendment No. 11 sets no statutory target and no statutory target date, and includes no statutory mechanism whatever to ensure that targets are met.

The Minister told the Committee he would

"much prefer to set a target and just fail to reach it, yet make a serious attempt, than to avoid setting a target and produce a wet and feeble response. "—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 24 January 2002; c. 16–18.]

What on earth has happened? If this is not a "wet and feeble" legislative response, then I do not know what is. If the Government crush amendment (a) and in so doing completely fillet the Bill, it will look to the entire outside world as though the Government's greenest Minister has been nobbled.

Of course, the House needs to be certain that the principal aim of a 30 per cent. improvement is realistic and achievable. It is, but let me remind the House of several points. First, the 30 per cent. target that I recommend has been in Government guidance since the HECA was passed and implemented. Although local authorities have set slightly varying targets, 30 per cent. is the average in their strategies. Plainly, central Government think the target achievable, or they would not have guided councils to meet it. Equally plainly, the vast majority of local authorities have plans to meet the target—it must be achievable.

Furthermore, the recent performance and innovation unit report, which the Minister referred to, calls for a 20 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency by 2010 from current levels. While at first glance that appears to be a smaller target, the PIU is calling for it to be achieved in just eight years, as it expects an improvement from current levels. The 30 per cent. target required by amendment (a) and in HECA guidance is based on a 1996 baseline, giving 14 years for it to be reached. With some progress already made, effectively the two targets are identical.

There are controversial points in the PIU report, but the energy efficiency targets have not been regarded as controversial. The Environmental Audit Committee thought those targets pretty tame. By supporting amendment (a) the Government would show that they were taking the energy report seriously; opposing ambitious statutory targets would suggest that the report was a waste of time.

Since 14 April, 211 hon. Members have signed early-day motion 1136, which was tabled by the promoter of the Bill. Indeed, 146 Labour MPs have signed up to a motion that welcomes the 30 per cent. target and calls for the Bill to

"make the targets statutory thus ensuring that they are met".

That is the crux of my amendment—giving the Bill the teeth it was always intended to have. I hope and trust that all colleagues right across the House will make good their public support, and support amendment (a).

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

I begin with praise and some thank-yous. Despite all the areas that we need to address and which may be contentious, we ought to recognise how much has gone into bringing before the House a Bill that it is important to pass. In recognising how we have reached this point, we must pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend Dr. Turner, who has sweated blood to get the legislation here in any form. The whole House owes him great praise and credit for that.

I also put on record my praise for the Minister. All the way through, he has been a stalwart campaigner on our objectives of eradicating fuel poverty and addressing the climate change targets which the Government have already set for themselves. It would be wrong to dress this up in any way as an act of last-minute betrayal by, I think, probably the best Environment Minister that the House has ever had.

While I am singing praises, it would be remiss not to recognise the contributions made by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, during proceedings in Committee and work done in the all-party warm homes group, which I have the genuine privilege to chair, towards building a huge cross-party consensus on supporting our shared objective of ending fuel poverty in Britain. It has not been an issue where we have fallen out on party lines.

The question that we have sought to deal with over the 10 years that I have been in Parliament, moving it on year by year, stage by stage, has been whether we can set the objective of eradicating fuel poverty and, now that we have, trying to be clear about the mechanisms for doing so.

Every part of the political process in the House has played a constructive part, as have many organisations outside, which have given us amazing backing. The Local Government Association, the National Federation of Housing Associations, environmental groups, poverty groups and responsible landlords have, in bringing this Bill back before the House, played constructive parts. With or without the shortcomings of amendment No. 11, it is important to recognise that there are massive gains in passing a Bill that specifically refers to fuel poverty and that does something specific about what is arguably the hardest sector of housing for fuel poverty: houses in multiple occupation. I do not intend to speak on those proposals, but I wanted to say how important they are as benchmarks of achievement.

The central issue is about targets and time scale. Last night my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown thanked Members who had helped him to bring the Bill this far. I am sure that he will not mind me telling the House that he thanked them for the individual parts that they had played in giving him what he described as a genuinely life-shortening experience. The life- shortening part has been the frustration of negotiations about the adequacy and accuracy of clauses that were to be included in the Bill. It has been a mind-bogglingly frustrating experience, but it is still possible for us to improve what is a worthwhile Bill to make it a genuine tribute to the whole House.

Whether they are dealt with in the Bill or not, the issues surrounding targets and time scale will be the ones that dog us in the debate about the elimination of fuel poverty. They will dog us in every constituency, in every debate and in every Government policy. Unless and until we deal with them, we will not be perceived as credibly committed to delivering what we say we are committed to on paper and within our legal framework.

The original intention of the Bill was to try to fill a gap. At one stage, when my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown was looking at the gaps that the Bill was trying to fill, he told us that we were currently committed to the eradication of fuel poverty in Britain within 15 years. Thanks to the case that Friends of the Earth brought before the High Court, we now know that that is the eradication of all fuel poverty—not some, a lot or the majority, but all. We have a legal duty to deliver on that target.

We also know the Government have made commitments on climate change obligations and the Kyoto targets, and that part of the legacy of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 was the ministerial guidance notes that said clearly that we were committed to 30 per cent. improvements in energy efficiency by 2010. Those guidance notes remain in place and continue to be the ones that local authorities across the land attempt to work to. The Minister is right that many of those local authorities have not only taken those guidelines seriously, but attempted to deliver on them. We should not malign local authorities by saying that they treat the guidance as disposable. Many of the best local authorities have given a lead that the House should pay tribute to and feel proud of.

In the course of pulling those points together and putting targets in the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown once said to me in the midst of negotiations that appeared to be going nowhere, "Listen. I am only trying to be helpful, damn it." He has been damnably helpful throughout the process in trying to put those targets in the Bill. So why should we impale ourselves on proposals that fail to refer to targets or time scale?

As the Minister said, in part, the argument is about money. It is also about whether the particular Ministry concerned has the power to set that target in its Bill. However, there is great confusion in the arguments that have been presented to the Minister. Whether or not he or his Cabinet colleagues will be convinced of them when they have had greater time to scrutinise them is another matter.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford 11:45 am, 10th May 2002

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, during the passage of the Bill, the Minister and his Ministry seemed to query how much the proposal would cost and then pick out of the air the figure that they liked best—up to £1 billion? Had we behaved like that in previous lives and adopted such weak management techniques in trying to establish the cost of a programme, we would have been out of the door fairly quickly. I am curious to know how the Department did not know the cost of implementation during the passage of the Bill.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

That is a fair question. It is important to recognise that the figures have often been used in a somewhat vicarious fashion. If it suits to have a low figure, a low figure has been proposed. If it suits to have an exorbitantly high figure, that has been thrown in to block the idea that it is a meetable target. We may be frightened by the wildest target of £1 billion, but it will not be too long before we have a duty as a House to reflect on who will meet the £80 billion residual costs of public liability that we propose to relieve British Nuclear Fuels of. Whose budget will that come from, or does the Minister have it in his? I am not sure whether he has the answer tucked in his pocket somewhere, but my point shows that we can make commitments in principle, even though we do not know entirely where the costs will be met from. However, it is right to do so.

My worry about new clause 1 is that it probably takes us further back from, and weakens, HECA. New section 2A(1) of amendment No. 11 states:

"Where a target applies for the time being" it should be the duty of—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing amendment (a) and amendment No. 11, not new clause 1.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

I am grateful for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wanted the House to be aware of the gaps that the amendment will seek to cover.

We have signed up to a change of wording that no longer requires authorities by law to produce a report. We have now said to them, "Where you do produce a report, for the time being, you shall have a duty." So authorities that no longer produce reports do not have a duty. Only measures that are likely to result in the target being met are then required.

What if an authority sets a target of zero? It will not fall foul of the new requirements. It will not be possible to write guidance that says, "Where are you in respect of the 30 per cent. targets?" What if they set the Maldon target? Maldon is often cited as an authority that has done very little to meet the targets set out in the guidance notes. What would happen if Maldon said that its target was to deliver not very much and that its progress report would say only that it was doing so not very quickly? That approach would be compliant with the Bill as amended.

The saving grace was always the provision that allows the Minister or Secretary of State the power to intervene. If it stated that this particular Minister for the Environment had power to intervene, I would be happy, as I have inordinate confidence in his inclination to intervene in entirely beneficial and laudable ways, but the Bill leaves things much more open and the amendment seeks to narrow that provision in important ways. It does not narrow it as much as I would like, but I shall deal with that point in a moment.

I am worried that the Minister appears to have been told that he needed to change the Bill that has returned to the Floor of the House because of the provision in clause 1 stating that energy conservation authorities

"shall take all . . . steps as are reasonably practicable to implement the measures set out in any energy conservation report prepared by the authority."

That was the position under HECA and the provision was intended simply to make it statutory. I think that the Minister was told that he could not introduce such provision, however, as he would fall foul of the "new burdens obligations" that have mysteriously entered into the language of governance.

The suggestion about telling authorities that they will not be required to do what they are supposed to be doing and about the risk of incurring extra costs is a strange notion. My question is: why are they not already doing what they are supposed to be doing? It seems bizarre to talk about an existing responsibility not being incorporated in the framework of all the programmes that the Government have presented to the energy conservation authorities and on which many of them have indeed delivered. I find bizarre the reinterpretation of that requirement as a new burden.

Photo of Sir Sydney Chapman Sir Sydney Chapman Conservative, Chipping Barnet

The hon. Gentleman's knowledge about energy efficiency and all the matters under discussion is instanced by the fact that he is chairman of the all-party group on warm homes. Will he confirm that of about 360 relevant authorities, some 350 have agreed targets? Only about 10 or a dozen do not have such targets. If the amendment were accepted, the 350 with targets would be completely let off the hook and there would be no possibility of requiring the recalcitrant 10 or a dozen authorities to set targets.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

I am not certain about that. Worryingly, it appears that a new loophole might be introduced by including in the Bill the phrase

"where a target applies for the time being".

The provision leaves it open to the 350 energy conservation authorities that already have targets to say that they will stop their work to achieve them. What action can be taken if there are no targets for the time being? There is great confusion about the meaning of the wording that has been presented to the Minister to be tabled in his name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown at half-past the eleventh hour.

That is one of my great complaints about the overall process. By and large, although Ministers may not be the last to see the amendments that are tabled in their names, they may see them only just before the rest of us get to do so and are asked to approve them. That is a very poor way of exercising a parliamentary duty of scrutiny in delivering good legislation. I am deeply worried about the quality of the advice that is being given to Ministers and which the House is being asked to endorse. My concern is based not only on the technical quality of the advice, but on whether there is a sub-agenda about which the House should be even more concerned. We are told about the problem of obligations that introduce new burdens, but I think that we are caught between a misunderstanding of responsibilities and an uncomfortable reality—a misunderstanding of what the new burdens obligation might mean and the stronger reality of the no-burdens inclination of those who advise the Government.

When the original HECA reports were scrutinised by Ministers and other hon. Members, a huge discrepancy was clearly evident; many authorities had failed to deliver very much at all. In response, the Minister for the Environment said in opening the consultation that he would be looking for a more robust set of targets, which reflected the fact that the worst had to be required to catch up with the rest.

It was in that context that the Minister was subsequently advised that he could not take such action because of the new burdens obligation. The consultations with local authorities and other organisations overwhelmingly favoured the introduction of tougher targets. Local government, communities and those campaigning on fuel poverty all wanted such targets. However, it was suggested by civil servants in his Department that, rather than strengthen the targets, we should do away with them altogether. It was argued that targets got in the way, which flew in the face of the remit that he had set for the consultation process.

It is sad that the same civil service rewording of that inclination has returned to the House in the form of amendment No. 11. What has happened may be the result of a bizarre sense of self-protection, on the basis that the departmental record of implementing the 1995 Act shows that very little has been done to monitor the reporting that should have taken place. The requirement was one of those reluctant obligations that have only latterly been taken on board. When the Minister began to see just how wide the disparities in performance were, he was the one who said that the regime had to be toughened up. Institutionally, however, if he had not driven the requirement, it would not have gone anywhere.

As I said, the consultations related more to ways in which targets could be avoided than to how they could be delivered. Furthermore, I think that they were underpinned by a bizarre presumption that civil servants can best protect Ministers by giving them the fewest possible obligations. It is presumed that that approach will protect Ministers' backs against criticism; how can one be criticised for not delivering something to which one was not committed? That is an interesting notion of survival, but a poor way of giving the answers that the public want from us in terms of delivering an end to fuel poverty.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

The hon. Gentleman has talked about commitment. The Minister for Industry and Energy told the Environmental Audit Committee last week that, with commitment, the 30 per cent. target could be achieved. The argument of Alan Simpson leaves us wondering whether the Treasury has lost the will to realise the Government's commitment. The point about whether it should be specified in the Bill is underpinned by the question whether the Government have the commitment that, according to the Minister for Industry and Energy last week, is needed to achieve the target. Without the commitment, how can the target be achieved?

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

I do not believe that the Treasury has lost the will or that the Minister has lost a battle with the Treasury. I do not believe that a battle has taken place. There is a different, legitimate problem of confusion about how modernised government works. I shall consider that shortly because it is an important obstacle that we must tackle, not only in the Home Energy Conservation Bill but in others.

I am worried that the use of parliamentary counsel and the drafting and timing of amendments has worked to the serious disadvantage and disempowerment of Parliament and Ministers. That is why I speak in favour of amendment (a), which is a good amendment. I know that because my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown drafted it. Apart from a change of wording to provide for the original HECA targets rather than those set out by the performance and innovation unit—they are pretty indistinguishable—amendment (a) is almost exactly the same as the amendment that my hon. Friend drafted through parliamentary counsel.

The amendment was not dreamt up on the back of a cigarette packet. My hon. Friend had the wit and wisdom to assume the right to go to parliamentary counsel to get amendments drafted to ensure that they were good. We were fortunate in having someone who had been a parliamentary counsel for more than 20 years and drafted Treasury Bills to produce the wording that we are considering. It is therefore not fly-by-night wording; it was produced by parliamentary counsel in good time, circulated for consultation, and not rushed at the last minute. That is the opposite of using parliamentary counsel to undertake a last-minute hijack of Ministers and Members of Parliament.

However, if we are considering overcoming the problem of not being able to tackle targets because they are connected to budgets, let us do a reality check with other Government commitments. We are committed to ending child poverty in the decade, we have a legal commitment to end fuel poverty in 15 years and it is Government policy to meet the Kyoto targets. None of the moneys for those commitments is currently in the budget of the Minister for the Environment or that of anyone else, but that does not stop us making them. They are commitments in principle to deliver an outcome. The timetable will be measured against the outcome.

The most important reason for accepting the amendment is that it is wrong to say that a commitment cannot be made in principle because the money is not in a single Department's budget or because we would fall foul of the new burdens obligation if we did otherwise. There are many ways in which the costs can be met. Proposals in part 3 to introduce a national licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation will, through regulation, make massive contributions towards the 30 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency. The money will not have to come out of the Minister's budget but be found as a result of Government legislation.

Stock transfers have already taken place. The Minister spoke about requiring the Housing Corporation to account to local authorities. The same duties will be placed on housing associations and the Housing Corporation. They welcome that because the money will come from their finances and commitments.

Most important, we know from the consultations of the warm homes group that the private sector is desperately keen for us to set targets and time scales. Through its energy efficiency contributions, it is an active and willing partner of local authorities in the energy partnerships that it is constructing. My hon. Friend Mr. Bryant asked how, in areas where 80 per cent. of the worst properties are privately owned, we persuade or put an arm lock on people from the private or public sector to do something that they have no legal duty to do. The answer is probably to use the same methods as under the Clean Air Act 1956, which provided for statutory duties.

The energy industry has said that if we provide the targets and timetable, it will not have to cajole people into being more energy conscious; it can offer solutions. Unless we offer targets and timetables, the industry is perceived as bullying to sell its products. That is hopeless. The industry has asked for the targets so that it can help to foot the bill.

I should like Mr. Barker to be right that amendment (a) will put an arm lock on the Government and teeth into otherwise toothless legislation.

In truth, however, the amendment being proposed is much more modest and limited than I would wish it to be. It talks only about a "principal aim", not about a statutory duty. The idea of putting a principal aim on the face of the Bill was, in fact, undertaken by the Government in 1995—the same year the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 was passed—in the Environment Act 1995. Section 4(1) of the Environment Act states:

"It shall be the principal aim of the Agency . . . "— the Environment Agency

"so to protect or enhance the environment . . . as to make the contribution towards attaining the objective of achieving sustainable development".

A principal aim is set out in that Act, and that is all that this amendment would achieve. It would not compel a Minister to say or do anything at any particular time. It would simply make a requirement that, when the Secretary of State chose to say anything about energy efficiency targets, it would be against the benchmark measure of meeting

"an improvement in energy efficiency in residential accommodation of at least 30 per cent. by the end of 2010, taking 1st January 1996 as the base line date."

That is not a draconian power. It simply asks the Minister to accept the duty to say something useful, when he chooses to say something. It suggests, to echo a phrase from the Clinton campaign, that we put on our ministerial or parliamentary wall a plaque that says, "It's targets and time scales, stupid." That is what the public expect us to do, it is what the amendment asks us to do, and I hope that the House will have the sense to do it.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Liberal Democrat, Gordon 12:00 pm, 10th May 2002

I rise to support amendment (a), which puts back into the Bill a measure that reflected the prime purpose of the Bill in the first place. While I understand the Minister saying that he has good intentions, and that if he could find the money, he would want to meet the targets—I think that we all agree that he, personally, means that—we would need a piece of legislation to achieve that, as Mr. Barker has pointed out.

Indeed, it is often ministerial practice to resist amendments by saying, "I give you my assurance that the Government are committed to this." The purpose of legislation is to commit every Government—and, of course, local authorities—to achieving objectives, and we need legislation to be specific. As has been said, the Minister for Industry and Energy has suggested that the target that is, for all practical purposes, contained in this amendment is achievable in the time scale, "with commitment". Obviously, the matter for concern here is whether that commitment exists in the Government to deliver on that target.

I can understand the reticence of Ministers in relation to targets. I can specifically understand the reticence of this Minister in that respect. He is probably responsible for more targets than anyone else, many of them imposed from the EU and elsewhere, and he is finding it difficult to produce answers to demonstrate that those targets are being met. I say that in good faith. Targets being missed, however, are not the same as targets being irrelevant. Targets are there to be hit, but, sometimes, underachieving does not mean that we are not making progress. So long as there is a genuine drive to achieve the targets and a policy to ensure real movement towards them, a substantial percentage of what we are trying to achieve will be delivered. Not having targets, however, leaves us wondering why we are all here.

This is another issue on which the Minister is unable to provide any useful figures. Alan Simpson has suggested that, in any case, even at the global top end of the figures quoted, they would not all be from central Government. There would also be private sector figures, and figures from local authorities with different budgets. So, even at the top end, the figure is not terrifying. The data are also spread over a substantial period of time.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Foster has suggested, there never seems to be any constraint when we need to go to war. The Government like to talk about a war on poverty. Indeed, the Minister's Department has spent billions of pounds dealing with BSE and foot and mouth disease; that was not budgeted for.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Liberal Democrat, Gordon

Fridges have not yet cost billions, although millions have certainly had to be found to deal with the problem.

There is a serious point here. I am entirely unconvinced that the money constraint is legitimate. I believe that the amount we are discussing is achievable, and would enable us to give the authorities responsible for reducing fuel poverty the further momentum that they need, while also inspiring those suffering from fuel poverty with the hope that there is a real will to end it.

I represent a Scottish constituency. The Bill applies only to England and Wales, but for that very reason I consider the amendment exceptionally helpful. If legislation for England and Wales sets a target, Scotland and Northern Ireland can hardly ignore the implications of that signal. I am not suggesting that they do not want to deal with fuel poverty.

This is a United Kingdom problem. Scotland and Northern Ireland are experiencing some of the worst climatic conditions in the UK, and have some of the worst-insulated houses. They have a real stake in the momentum behind the campaign. I do not think that the Bill is relevant only to England and Wales.

As I said on Second Reading, I am depressed to note that, after the more than 20 years that I have been involved in, and campaigning on, energy and fuel-poverty issues, we seem to be just as engaged with the severity of a problem that we should have solved years ago. It appears to be a peculiarly British problem. Other countries with climates just as severe as ours seem to have managed, partly through good building design and partly by taking measures to insulate homes, to provide the necessary protection against wasteful, inefficient and expensive forms of heating that poor people cannot afford. It is deeply disappointing that, having gone this far down the road with a Minister who we all agree has a genuine dedication to the cause, the Government seem unable to accept a commitment that would make the Bill meaningful.

As the hon. Member for Nottingham, South said, there is a real danger that if the amendment is not passed, it will be assumed that we can ease up on the pressure we are already applying. Nothing could be worse than our passing legislation that put us into reverse. Let me tell Dr. Turner that, of course I want the Bill, of course I want the declarations of good intent, and of course I note the Minister's assurance that he will come up with targets and will find the money. I am sure that the Minister means that, but—I mean no disrespect to him—he may not be the Minister this time next year. He may well have been replaced by someone who does not have his commitment.

I do not want to be too sensitive about this, but the difficulties that we sometimes experience with the Minister are caused not by him, but by his inability to translate his will into practical action because of those around and above him. He is not well served by his Department or by his ministerial colleagues—I name no names. That has resulted in the present position.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, South almost provoked me into saying that the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has taken us less than 12 months, while the campaign to abolish the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food took many years. The campaign to abolish DEFRA is already in full cry. The Department should never have been created: it does not work, it is a shambles, and it needs to be abolished as soon as possible.

The environment, and the commitment to deliver policies that will make a real difference to people's lives, require a Minister of the standard of the Minister we have, with a Department behind him that is willing to make that happen. If the House is serious about what it is trying to do, it will support amendment (a).

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East 12:15 pm, 10th May 2002

Like Malcolm Bruce, for several decades I have been surprised by the slowness with which successive Governments have addressed the difficult subject of fuel poverty and energy efficiency. They appear to have been dragged kicking and screaming into the new century. Most of the progress in these matters has been made by the introduction of private Member's Bills in 1995 and 2000 and now in 2002. I endorse everything that my hon. Friend Alan Simpson said about my hon. Friend Dr. Turner and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, for whom I have a great deal of respect.

I always find it surprising that Governments have not grasped this issue and published a Government Bill dealing with all energy policy, including the branch that we are addressing today. We should bear in mind the fact that the Bill has the support of more than 100 local authorities, including my own. Not one of those local authorities has expressed the view that the targets that were originally set out in the Bill are unachievable.

I am concerned by what my right hon. Friend the Minister said this morning, as it will send the wrong signals to people out there who are involved in this policy area. The figure of 30 per cent. by 2010 was set by the Conservative Government in 1996. Earlier in the debate, my right hon. Friend said that the Conservatives did nothing about that target and made no money available. However they had just one year—1996–97. We have had a Labour Government for the past five years, so my right hon. Friend's criticism of the Conservative Government went a bit over the top and was an implicit criticism of our own Government, who have not made sufficient progress. My right hon. Friend has admitted that by his criticism of the targets.

Throughout the process, the 30 per cent. figure has been highlighted. It has been in the headlines and the literature; it has been pushed to local authorities and mentioned in debates in the House. I was not a member of the Standing Committee, although I understand that there was some backing off there, but this is the first time on the Floor of the House that the Government have backed off from the 30 per cent. target, which I still think is achievable.

I am torn between the two amendments. My heart tells me to support amendment (a) to amendment No. 11. I signed early-day motion 1136, which referred to the target of 30 per cent. as achievable. I am firmly behind the target and I thought that the Government were too.

We have been reminded today that it is not a target, but an aim. I certainly saw it as an achievable target, but now the word "aim" is being used. I am concerned that today's debate is sending the wrong signal to all the people who have been struggling to achieve the 30 per cent. target, whether or not we are now behind in terms of achieving it.

I have to ask my right hon. Friend where the money has gone. He will no doubt remind us that for two years we continued to operate the Conservative budget; but we have had our own budget for three years now. The comprehensive spending review is currently under discussion and the results will be published this summer. If we are behind the target, I must ask my right hon. Friend—I am sure that he has done this—whether he has put up a vigorous argument to the effect that we must put money behind our political will to deliver the target of 30 per cent. by 2010.

Like others, I am concerned that if we accept amendment No. 11 the figure of 30 per cent. will no longer be in the Bill. What does my right hon. Friend propose to do to avoid sending out the wrong signals today? Is he going to campaign vigorously for a figure of at least 30 per cent., or do I detect a change of policy? Are the Government backing off from that figure? The Minister must be categorical about the matter, otherwise many outside the House will be very disappointed with his comments. That said, I genuinely believe that he is committed to delivering on the environment, and I have a great deal of respect for him.

In conclusion, there is one thought that might persuade me to vote for amendment (a): if we have a Conservative Government by 2010, it is they who will be stuck with the 30 per cent. figure.

Photo of Sir Sydney Chapman Sir Sydney Chapman Conservative, Chipping Barnet

I should point out to Dr. Iddon that it was a Conservative Government who introduced the target. However, I agree that, if that Government were still in power today and had not made financial provisions to promote the target, the Minister's criticism would be correct. The reality is, however, that the Minister was being a little unfair.

My hon. Friend Mr. Barker, who introduced amendment (a)—of which I am a sponsor—has virtually said it all, and the hon. Members for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), and for Bolton, South-East have said the rest. I shall sum up by making three points. First, the amendment would reintroduce a provision that was included in the original Bill. Secondly, although we could have watered down the phrase to "an aim", the correct phrase is "principal aim", given that the aim is indeed principal to the Bill. Having said that, I would have preferred the phrase "statutory duty". Thirdly, Government policies are littered with targets—from the promotion of health care to the Kyoto commitment—and I see no reason why Government policy should require them to resist amendment (a).

The Minister has rightly been praised for his record on matters environmental, but if he cannot accept this modest amendment, I am afraid that just a small blot will appear on his otherwise luminous green escutcheon.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Sayeed Mr Jonathan Sayeed Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

I begin with a little consensus. Her Majesty's loyal Opposition are happy to accept Government amendments Nos. 12 and 8. Here endeth the consensus.

The Minister's reaction to any form of justified criticism is outraged bombast. I must warn him that my remarks will raise his blood pressure, so I hope that he has his tablets with him. First, I offer particular congratulations to my hon. Friend Mr. Barker, who has done this House a considerable service by speaking extremely cogently to amendment (a) to amendment No. 11, and by persuading Members on both sides of the House of the merits of his case.

One person whom my hon. Friend did not have to persuade, however, was Alan Simpson. He has been an extraordinarily doughty fighter in the warm homes group, which owes him a considerable debt of gratitude. He has generously praised my party for doing its level best to support the Bill in every way through all its stages, and in doing so to improve it, and I thank him for that.

The Bill was first published on 18 July 2001. It received its Second Reading on 30 November 2001. Despite the fact that it was published some eight months ago, it was only some 26 hours ago, on Thursday morning—at the last moment possible—that substantial amendments to the Bill, tabled by the Government, were published. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South touched on the question of why it has taken so long for the Department to produce substantial amendments. I know that discussion has to take place between interested parties, but it is a disgrace that the amendments have been tabled in a way that makes it almost impossible to ensure proper understanding of them or to table subsequent amendments. It is a shabby abuse and misuse of parliamentary procedure. It is designed to stifle dissent, inhibit comment and curtail debate. The Minister should have dealt robustly with those civil servants and other Ministers who have brought him to this pass.

The Government have acted in that way because they do not dare to be seen to kill a Bill that seeks to promote energy conservation, to eradicate fuel poverty and to drive out bad landlords. The Minister has permitted the Bill to be gutted of much of its meaning. I am deeply disappointed by the Minister. He knows that in Committee—on which the Labour party had a substantial majority—the Government's proposals were defeated by 12 votes to two. So on Report the Government have tabled amendments that strip out much of the meaning of the Bill.

The evidence is clear. We rightly wanted the Bill to contain statutory, enforceable targets with stipulated time scales. Indeed, we were led to believe that that is what the Minister wanted. After all, it was the Minister who tabled a new clause that said:

"Every energy conservation authority shall take all such steps as are reasonably practicable to implement the measures set out in any energy conservation report prepared by the authority."

In speaking to that amendment in Committee, the Minister said:

"There is a good reason for tabling such an amendment. The original Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 did not contain targets. In setting targets, we need to take into account the fact that the performance of local authorities across the country varies enormously."

I agree. Some have announced that they have achieved a 15 per cent. reduction, but others have improved energy conservation by only 0.003 per cent. Others have not even bothered to report at all, so the Minister was right.

The right hon. Gentleman also said that the amendment

"represents a considerable step forward from the current HECA requirements. As hon. Members will know, the 1995 Act places a duty on authorities only to prepare energy conservation reports and then report progress. It does not provide a clear legal duty to implement any measures in their reports, which means, paradoxically, that they can make virtually no improvements yet still comply with the legislation. That is clearly nonsense and the amendment is designed to put that right."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 5 February 2002; c. 25-26.]

Those were the Minister's words. He inserted that provision because he thought that without it, the Bill was clearly nonsense. The fact is that he is now stripping out that provision by this amendment.

I could go on: I could give many other examples of occasions when the Minister demanded that targets be used. He talks about targets being the "linchpin of the Bill". He said:

"I would much prefer to set a target and just fail to reach it, yet make a serious attempt, than to avoid setting a target and produce a wet and feeble response."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 24 January 2002; c. 18.]

There were many other occasions on which the Minister assured us that targets were fundamental and deeply important. Yet, under the Bill, they will be meaningless unless amendment (a) is accepted.

Why has the Minister changed his mind? I am not sure that he has. I think that his environmental heart is in the right place. I think that he has, however, been overruled by his civil servants and by the Minister for Local Government. So the Minister may huff and puff about the environment, but, as Malcolm Bruce said, other Departments always seem to blow him down. The Minister has become an environmental fig leaf for the Government because, by their actions, they have shown that they do not give a fig for the environment.

Finally, I should like to read out a letter sent to the Minister on 4 February 2002 by HECA Partnership for 30 Per Cent. It says:

"Dear Michael . . . We are writing to you as the organisations that form this Partnership to promote the achievement of HECA targets. This is an aim that we all believe you subscribe to—indeed we were heartened to note your comments to Nigel Griffiths MP last September that although local authorities performance under HECA was 'wholly inadequate' you were interested not simply in condemnation but also in seeing that targets were made 'more robust' and also, importantly, in giving local authorities the tools with which to deliver them.

This is a view we share—and it is for this reason that we support the Home Energy Conservation Bill, which makes the targets a duty rather than a discretion . . . Your amendments remove all of these provisions. We are deeply saddened by them—all the more so because we know you to be a friend and an ally."

That letter was signed by Andrew Warren, the director of the Association for the Conservation of Energy, William Gillis, the director of National Energy Action, Charles Secrett, the director of Friends of the Earth, Michael King, the chairman of the National Right to Fuel Campaign, Mervyn Kohler, head of public affairs for Help the Aged, Andrew Cooper, the UK HECA forum representative, Baroness Maddock, the promoter of HECA 1995, Dick Barry of Unison, Stephen Hale of the Socialist Environmental Resources Association, Penny Kemp, the chair of the executive of the Green party, Duncan Borrowman of the Green Liberal Democrats and Nick Wood-Dow, chairman of the Tory Green Initiative.

If these able and knowledgeable people were deeply saddened by what the Minister proposed then, they would be furious at what the Government are doing now. They would be right to be furious, because the Government are gutting the Bill.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment) 12:30 pm, 10th May 2002

I have not heard so much arrant nonsense for a long time—even from the hon. Gentleman. To suggest that the Government are gutting the Bill is not only parliamentary exaggeration; it is utterly ridiculous. The Government have got behind the Bill; we are putting in a statutory requirement for local authorities to meet a significant improvement in the HECA record on energy efficiency, and supplying the money—when it is available—to do so. That is the only responsible action for any Government and we are taking it.

Under the Conservative Government, there was a complete dereliction of such action during 18 years. They did nothing of the kind, and fuel poverty increased. There is no point in Conservative Members shaking their heads—we all know their record.

We heard some colourful language from Mr. Barker, who described the Bill as wishy-washy, toothless and a waste of time. That is utter rubbish. For the purposes of his speech, the hon. Gentleman used language for which there is not the slightest justification. Anyone who has considered the Bill or who listened to my lengthy speech introducing amendment No. 11 will know that.

The hon. Gentleman's point is that if amendment (a) is accepted, we would not be gutting the Bill; it would no longer be wishy-washy, toothless and a waste of time. What utter balderdash! There is no logic in that at all. The amendment would provide no statutory requirement whatever. In my opening remarks, I pointed out that the amendment was purely presentational—and it is.

The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot say that the Government are gutting the Bill and that the insertion of amendment (a) would change that. It would do nothing of the kind. We are not gutting the Bill. As a result of the Government's support, the Bill is substantive. There is no profound objection to the amendment but, for the reasons that I gave earlier, it is not appropriate. It certainly would not provide a statutory requirement; it would not add force to the Bill.

I have listened to the comments of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. No one—with the possible exception of Malcolm Bruce—has addressed the question of finance. There is no difference between us as to what we should like to do—we all want a substantial improvement on the gradual improvements that have been made under the HECA. However, the only certain way to secure that improvement is through statutory means, and that has to be funded. That is the central question. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle did not mention that.

In opposition, it is easy to make great claims, to set fantasy objectives and to throw confetti goals around the Chamber and tell the Government that they are not going for them. Everyone knows that it is different in government. In government, the buck stops here. If we make a commitment, it has to be responsible and we must be able to justify it with the income stream necessary to deliver it. That is the difference. It is utterly irresponsible to come to the House and make grandiose and grandiloquent gestures without backing them up with the one thing that matters—the money to achieve them.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I am sorry to hear the Minister go on so intemperately. Is he aware of the newly published independent research carried out by the Association for the Conservation of Energy which shows that the cost would be £29 million, but that if the Government spent that amount it would be ratcheted up more than 10 times by other moneys from the private sector? Has the Minister actually seen that research? Has he spent any time examining it?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

Of course I have seen it. I cannot remember whether the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber when I made my opening speech, but I referred to it at some length. I said two things about it. One was that that estimate is at the bottom end of the range of estimates that has been produced. It is, as the authors will recognise, a fairly rough and ready estimate for the second reason that I am about to come on to. The top figure of the range is £1 billion. It may well be that the real figure is towards the lower rather than the higher end—I suspect that it is—but if the accurate figure is of the order of £100 million to £200 million, which is perfectly plausible, the question is where that money will come from.

My second point was this, and it is important. Sue Doughty asked why the Government could not come up with a figure that they were sure about. The answer is, to use a phrase sometimes heard in universities, that the figure is a residual variable; it is the cost that will remain when all the other costed programmes have been carried through.

Until we have seen the results of the home energy efficiency scheme over a period of 10 years and the effect of the energy efficiency commitment between 2002–05, which will probably be extended although the Government have yet to take that decision, and until we have seen the results of the upgrading of local authority stock, which obviously improves energy efficiency within those buildings, it is impossible to be clear, beyond a fairly wide margin of error, how much will still remain to be done to meet a given target of, say, 30 per cent. We cannot know for certain how much will remain undone, and to be done under the Bill. I certainly believe that the cost will be significant, but I cannot put a figure on it. However, whatever the figure, even if it is only £29 million—I believe it would be more than that—where will that money come from?

The hon. Member for Gordon rightly drew attention to the fact that the Government can, under pressure, produce money rapidly when they have to. For example, in the event of unpredicted disasters, such as the outbreaks of BSE and foot and mouth, of course the Government must provide funding, but that is completely different from funding a desirable objective. All Departments and Ministers have their shopping list of desirables, but the Treasury and the Chancellor would rightly say that there must be firm prioritisation in terms of the Government's overall accounting.

There is pressure from my Department to ensure that we have more money for energy efficiency, and that is why I am in no way foreclosing on the possibility that we can make some progress, possibly fairly quickly, although I do not know. We certainly want to. However, what I cannot do is tell the House today that I have the money in my back pocket so that I can, with assurance and certainty, back a Bill that will cost at least £29 million and possibly £100 million or £200 million. I simply cannot do that. I appeal to all hon. Members to recognise the constraints under which Ministers act.

Photo of Jim Cousins Jim Cousins Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne Central

If an aspirational target were included in the Bill, would that help or hinder the Minister in his arguments about funding?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

To put an aspiration in the Bill does not alter the position one way or the other, as I have already said. An aspiration is not a statutory requirement. It could be construed as constraining the fixing of targets over the period. It is not a requirement; it merely sets the backdrop against which those targets might be measured and assessed. It does no more, but I suppose no less, than that.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle made the fair point that, if the Secretary of State were to do nothing, absolutely nothing would happen and there would be no advance under the Bill. In a technical, legal sense that is perfectly true. However, Governments do not responsibly commit themselves to such a Bill—as I have on behalf of this Government—and make it clear that they will move as soon as they have the money, but then completely neglect to do so. Governments do not do that, and we will not do that.

My hon. Friend Alan Simpson made a fair and balanced speech, and I am grateful as always for the generous things he said about me. He raised the issue of new burdens, as if this is a new doctrine that has come down from the heavens and descended on Government and we are beholden to it. I do not think that it is all that new, although it has been sharpened under the Government. The view taken by previous Tory Governments was that they could place extra obligations on certain bodies, such as local authorities, but did not need to provide extra funds as the necessary measures would be funded by efficiency savings. There is some truth in that, but to continue to impose such obligations, as they did repeatedly, was nonsense, and was recognised as such. We have tried to correct that. Local authorities have pressed us to accept that if we want them to do something, they are prepared to do it but we must provide the funding. That is a perfectly fair doctrine.

We could continue with the HECA as it is, under which improvements have been made. Some authorities have done extremely well, and have achieved improvements of up to 20 per cent. They have done so voluntarily, because they have made that their priority. I am sure that we will continue with that, and that there will be further improvements whatever the Government do and whether or not this Bill goes through.

Mr. Sayeed referred to authorities that have achieved only a 0.003 per cent. improvement. Some have not even produced a report; some have produced a report but have done nothing about it; and some have produced a report with a tiny target and that is all they have achieved. Those are the authorities that we should aim at, which is why we need a statutory requirement, and I fully accept that. If it is a statutory requirement, it is also an obligation, which is not currently the case. If we are to require local authorities to do something over and above what they are already doing, which is the purpose of the Bill, they must be funded. It is as simple as that.

Sir Sydney Chapman asked whether we were letting 350 of the 360-odd local authorities off the hook. No, we are not. We are concerned about the large proportion of them—a quarter to a half—that have done miserably. But it is not just those that have hardly done anything or have not produced a report: we are concerned about laggard local authorities that are nowhere near the level of the best and are not performing adequately to achieve the target set by the Tory Government in their 1996 guidance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South unfairly drew attention to the quality of advice that I have received. He said that the drafting of amendment No. 11 was therefore very late. The reason that it was produced so late was that there was endless negotiation with the promoters of the Bill over changes. At least three times I thought that agreement had been reached, but then there were further discussions and more changes. It was only when the Bill came into play that instructions to parliamentary counsel were finally drawn up, and as a result amendment No. 11 was produced. I am sorry that it was late, but that was because of the constant pressures and demands for further changes to the Bill.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons) 12:45 pm, 10th May 2002

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. So far in this small debate, the Minister has spoken for 58 minutes. We know that the Government do not like the Pensions Annuities (Amendment) Bill, but for the Minister to talk for so long is unfair to all those pensioners and others who are relying on that Bill making progress.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

The hon. Gentleman is concerned purely with reaching another Bill. I will say nothing about its merits or otherwise. He is uninterested in this Bill and sees it as something he has to step over to get to his preferred alternative. That is contemptible. His Front-Bench colleagues have repeatedly told the House how incredibly important this Bill is and how the Government are failing to carry out important objectives. We now see the other face of the Tory party, which wants to get rid of the Bill and move on to the real business of the Pensions Annuities (Amendment) Bill. That is despicable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South said that the advice I get is simply to minimise my commitments so that I will be held to the least account. That is not fair. My civil servants know extremely well that I am keen to advance the environmental agenda and, where necessary, to set targets and commitments. They know that perfectly well, and I believe that the advice I get is proper and balanced in order to enable me to reach the right conclusions, not to minimise my commitments.

On funding, I appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for Gordon. The money is being found to deal with child poverty, fuel poverty, climate change and the Kyoto targets precisely because they are Government targets that are part of our policy development process. They have been planned over years and years and written into spending reviews to meet policy programmes and objectives.

The difference here, as I have tried to explain, is that this is a private Member's Bill—it is meritorious and worthy, and has entirely proper objectives—that is being inserted between spending reviews when there has been no planning for it within Government at all. It could be financed only by reducing other commitments—presumably in energy efficiency but maybe in other areas—by the same amount as the measure costs. That is not a proper or desirable way to legislate.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Liberal Democrat, Gordon

Does the Minister accept that the Bill is one of a series that have come to the House over many years with all-party support? All sides of the House are telling him that there is an overwhelming demand that the Government have that target. By accepting the Bill, they would have.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I accept the Bill; I make that clear. I am seeking support from across the House for putting it through today. What has emerged clearly today is that there is support from both sides of the House for a marked and substantial improvement in energy efficiency. I say to all Members that the way to achieve that is to support the Bill as it stands, so that what all Members want is achieved.

My hon. Friend Dr. Iddon asked if I was backing off the 30 per cent. target. The 30 per cent. figure was never a statutory target. It was set by the previous Government in the guidance that they gave to local authorities in terms of drawing up reports about how local authorities should improve energy efficiency in their areas. It has never been a statutory requirement. I am keen to have the highest targets that I can fund and that I can therefore justify. I repeat that I do not have the funding at this point to justify setting a target at 30 per cent. That does not mean that I would not like to reach it or that the Government do not want to achieve it, but I must have the funding before I can commit to a particular target.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire rightly said—I think we agree—that we want enforceable targets and time scales. However, all I would say to him, if he is responsible and if he aspires to government, is that it is also necessary to have the funding that will deliver the agreed objective—a statutory requirement in a certain time scale. He must accept that.

The hon. Gentleman also referred, very generously, to my being overruled. That is absolutely not the case. I repeat: the problem is not other Ministers, who want the Bill as much as I do—there is no doubt that all Ministers want it, including those at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—but the funding, which he never speaks about and gratuitously avoided. It has nothing to do with being overruled.

The hon. Gentleman also made generous comments about my being an environmental fig leaf. Well, this pretty good environmental fig leaf has produced the climate change programme, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, the home energy efficiency scheme, the energy efficiency commitment and a commitment to end fuel poverty within 10 years. Those are enormously powerful objectives and if that is being a fig leaf, I am extremely happy so to be.

On that basis, I commend amendment No. 11 and ask for support from across the House, as I believe that it is the heart of the Bill and that it will deliver exactly what all Members on both sides want.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

On some Friday mornings, it is a pity that we cannot keep the Front Benchers quiet, because they cannot resist shooting at each other and that obscures what we are trying to achieve through a private Member's Bill.

I fear that Mr. Barker is wrong to suggest that amendment (a) would give the Bill teeth—it would do no such thing. I should know because, as he rightly said, he cribbed the words from an amendment that I did not pursue. He changed the PIU target of 20 per cent. between now and 2010 to the HECA target of 30 per cent. between 1996 and 2010. That is the only change.

Hon. Members also pointed out that that is window dressing. They are absolutely right, and I should know that too, because I was responsible for it. The proposal was intended as window dressing—constructive window dressing, but window dressing none the less. It has no statutory meaning whatever. I have just taken advice from a learned Queen's counsel colleague, who confirms that that is the case. It is also the opinion of the independent parliamentary counsel who drew up the words.

I appeal to all Members of all parties on both sides who want the Bill, and I say to Malcolm Bruce that accepting amendment No. 11 would constitute not a reversal, but a massive step forward. It is the means by which we shall reach the targets that we all want and achieve energy conservation and safety standards in houses in multiple occupation, which is a long-standing, treasured ambition of all in the House. It is the means by which we will make further inroads into fuel poverty. In all earnestness, I ask the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle and his supporters not to press amendment (a) to amendment No. 11. If they do, I ask all hon. Members who really want what this Bill has got—and it has got a hell of a lot—not to vote for that amendment. If they do, they will be walking into a trap. That is my appeal to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Amendment proposed to the proposed amendment: (a), in line 1, at beginning insert—

'(A1) The appropriate Minister shall in exercising any functions under this section or under the principal Act, and in considering whether or not to exercise those functions, have as a principal aim the achievement of an improvement in energy efficiency in residential accommodation of at least 30 per cent. by the end of 2010, taking 1st January 1996 as the base line date.'.—[Mr. Barker.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House proceeded to a Division.

The House having divided: Ayes 87, Noes 62.

Division number 234 Home Energy Conservation Bill — Clause 1 — Targets for Energy Efficiency Improvements

Aye: 87 MPs

No: 62 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Amendment No. 11, as amended, agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 12, in page 2, leave out lines 19 to 22.—[Mr. Meacher.]