Decent Homes Standard for Social Housing

Orders of the Day — Housing Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:30 pm on 8th November 2004.

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Votes in this debate

Lords amendment: No. 190.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I beg to move, That this House
disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Yes, it is me again. The new clause proposed by the amendment would require the Secretary of State to ensure that, by 2016, all existing social housing stock should, as far as is reasonably practicable, achieve a SAP rating—an energy rating under the standard assessment procedure—of no lower than 65, which would amount to a change in the decent homes standard. I refer to that point because material circulated among Members recognises that the decent homes standard is the Government's vehicle for the delivery of heating and thermal comfort.

I remind Members that the decent homes standard aims to tackle the worst problems. It triggers action; it is not a standard to which work is done. I also remind Members, as I have on earlier occasions, that when the Govt took office in 1997 no fewer than 2.2 million social homes were non-decent and there was a £19 billion backlog of work. The work we have done, and are continuing to do, tackles a range of problems that affect housing—leaking roofs and mould and damp in kitchens and bathrooms that have not been touched since the homes were built, which in some cases was the 1930s. Our work is having a huge impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of society who have lived, or who currently live, in non-decent homes. I said "have lived" because, since 1997, we have reduced by 1 million the number of homes below the decent homes standard—a fact that we celebrate and rejoice in on the Labour Benches.

The decent homes programme is helping to rejuvenate some of our most deprived communities and is contributing towards improving public health and the well-being of tenants. By tackling poor housing, we are facing head-on a problem that is rife in the most disadvantaged communities and that affects the most disadvantaged groups. By making homes decent, in many cases alongside wider regeneration work, we are making whole areas more attractive places in which to live.

I should like to quote some of the tenants whose lives have been changed as a result of the decent homes programme, such as a tenant on a Walsall estate—not in the constituency of my hon. Friend David Winnick, who is in the Chamber, but in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mr. George—who said:

"For many years the residents of Delves West felt like they were forgotten. We never seemed to get any investment in our homes. Thanks to the Decent Homes programme we are now making a real difference. Residents are getting the decent homes they've waited for, for so long."

In Redcar, some tenants were "over the moon", and a resident in Kensington and Chelsea, visited by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister in May, said:

"It was absolute murder before and now it's a godsend".

Amendment No. 190 picks up on one aspect of the decent homes programme—improving the thermal efficiency of homes and, in doing so, contributing to reducing fuel poverty and thereby increasing energy efficiency. We take seriously our responsibilities for alleviating fuel poverty. However, I remind the House that the decent homes programme has four elements: meeting the current statutory minimum standard for housing; achieving a reasonable state of repair; ensuring reasonably modern facilities and services; and providing a reasonable degree of thermal comfort. The programme therefore aims to tackle a wide range of problems and to prioritise the worst homes, of which there remain 1.4 million; including a SAP rating of 65 would add a further 1.7 million households, of which, as I shall demonstrate, only 120,000 would be fuel-poor.

We cannot seek a policy of perfection in regard to one of the four elements of the decent homes standard—thermal comfort—and disregard our obligations to tenants to make more basic improvements. For those people who live in non-decent homes, works such as mending a leaking roof, replacing rotten windows and tackling unsafe electrics matter more than focusing purely on energy efficiency.

Before I continue, it would be useful to explain to the House what fuel poverty is and how many people it affects. Fuel poverty occurs where those in a household spend more than 10 per cent. of their income on heating their home to an adequate standard of warmth. That is generally defined as 21° C in the living room and 18° C in the other occupied rooms. Fuel poverty affects 350,000 social sector households in England. Of course, the Lords amendment applies to the social sector. About 120,000 of those households meet the decent homes standard and about 230,000 households are currently non-decent homes.

We expect that the work done to those 230,000 social homes under the decent homes programme will bring most of those households out of fuel poverty. The work done by authorities is expected to raise the thermal efficiency of those homes well above the minimum that triggers action. The guidance that we have issued recommends that, when loft insulation is fitted, authorities should take the opportunity to improve energy efficiency and install it to a much greater depth than the 50 mm that triggers action and that, when new heating is installed or systems replaced, landlords should install energy efficient boilers where possible. Energy efficient boilers have a SEDBUK—seasonal efficiency of domestic boilers in the UK—A to C rating. We also recommend that landlords take advantage of DEFRA and DTI sponsored programmes that require suppliers of gas and electricity to achieve energy efficiency targets by helping landlords to take up energy efficiency measures.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I see that the hon. Gentleman is bestirring himself; and, of course, I give way to him.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

I thank the Minister for giving way, but does he accept that not all the 230,000 households that he says will be raised to the decent homes standard will necessarily reach the SAP 65 rating? Many of those homes may well have to be revisited in future to get them up to that level. In fact, we are talking about guidelines, so some councils—perhaps those facing financial pressures—will not go the whole hog; they will do just enough to meet the decent homes standard without hitting the higher rating.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

Unusually for the hon. Gentleman, he is labouring under a misapprehension. He is usually very precise. In fact, very few of those 230,000 homes are likely to reach the SAP 65 level. That is exactly why I explained that the requirement for SAP 65 would not only embrace the 1.5 million so-called non-decent homes that we propose to tackle using the decent homes programme up to 2010, but entail a return to a further 1.7 million social sector homes that do not attain the SAP 65 level. The important thing to remember is that fuel poverty relates to the percentage of income that is necessarily expended to achieve a decent level of thermal comfort.

Many householders who live in homes that do not have a SAP rating of 65 are not in fuel poverty because they do not spend a sufficiently high proportion of their incomes on the issue. It is terribly important for all hon. Members to bear it in mind that fuel poverty is a factor of not the physical fabric of a property, but the relationship between thermal comfort, or the need to compensate for heating loss, and income. The truth is that only a small proportion of those in fuel poverty live in social homes that are below the decent homes standard—about 120,000. Many people who live in fuel poverty might live in homes with a SAP 65 rating, which is why our fundamental argument is that it would be an immense over-reaction to insist on the SAP 65 standard across the board to lift households out of fuel poverty. It would be like using a JCB to smash a nut.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes 8:45 pm, 8th November 2004

Tackling fuel poverty is a key objective for the Government. However, they have several other objectives, such as reducing CO 2 emissions, which SAP 65 would help us to achieve. The Minister is missing the interaction between the objectives.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I disagree with my hon. Friend, although I do not often do that because we have a good relationship both inside and outside the Chamber. We have dealt with such matters already. I have demonstrated that the Government are clearly committed to, and on route towards, achieving their carbon saving and energy efficiency targets. We mislead ourselves if we confuse energy efficiency and fuel poverty because they are different issues that we must separate in our minds.

The Government's argument is that the small numbers of households in fuel poverty should be dealt with individually. Interestingly, such households are characteristically not made up of senior citizens. They tend to be made up of people on low incomes living in three-bedroom houses. It is clearly possible to devise strategies to deal with such individuals. Indeed, the fuel poverty action plan has been designed to ensure that fuel poverty will be eliminated in such vulnerable households by the year 2010, and a report is due later this year. For all those reasons, although I take my hon. Friend's point about energy efficiency on board, we need to focus carefully on the precise sources of fuel poverty.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

My right hon. Friend is one of the more lucid, rational, thoughtful and, especially, numerate Ministers—he is no doubt set for further promotion. Does he agree that if the only available options to address local authority tenants facing fuel poverty are stock transfer, the private finance initiative and arm's-length management organisations, all of which are more expensive than conventional local authority methods of raising houses to a decent standard, fewer houses will be tackled with the available pot of money than would have been the case if he had delivered option four, as he told the fringe meetings at the party conference that he would?

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who teases me. Although I know that there is an undercurrent of great seriousness in his observations, I sometimes feel that the fourth option is to him what King Charles's head was to Mr. Dick in "David Copperfield". I decline to be sucked down that vortex.

We have issued guidance that is designed to improve energy efficiency. The effectiveness of what is being done to improve heating and insulation under the decent homes programme is demonstrated by what our tenants say about it. A tenant in my hon. Friend's and mine beloved east midlands said:

"At last I have decent heating and a radiator in every room, meaning my home is not only warm and cosy but actually cheaper to heat than before."

Another tenant in Chelmsford—I like to demonstrate a regional reach in my examples—described how her heating bills dropped from £35 a week in winter to £8 a week all year round.

We are working very hard to ensure that the Government meet their target on alleviating fuel poverty and improving energy efficiency, but I recognise that about 120,000 householders who live in homes that are above the decent homes threshold are in fuel poverty. However, it is not necessarily the very poor energy efficiency of the homes that is the main problem. As I have said, most of the households are single non-pensioner households on extremely low incomes living in three-bedroom homes. There are other issues to tackle beyond work to the physical fabric of the home.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will make progress because other colleagues want to contribute. I am conscious that I have spoken at some length on this amendment and others. I dare say that he will have his opportunity later.

Amendment No. 190 wants us to tackle the problem of having around 120,000 households in fuel poverty in the social sector by increasing by 1.7 million the number of homes that would need work in accordance with the decent homes standard. Those homes are currently decent but below SAP 65, and they would more than double the number that we still have to tackle under the programme. The amendment would require the minimum standard that triggers action to be SAP 65. That would cost—I say this in all earnestness—£28.5 billion to solve a problem in 120,000 homes. That is roughly equivalent to 8p on the basic rate of tax. This is more than a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The amendment is a JCB. Indeed, a JCB might be the only solution for many homes if all social housing is to achieve a SAP 65 rating. An estimated 400,000 homes could not be brought up to that level of energy efficiency. For those, demolition and rebuilding would be the only solution at a cost of more than £20 billion, excluding any costs of re-acquiring property.

For the homes that could achieve SAP 65, some would require additional work over and above basic measures to improve their energy efficiency. For example, we would have to carry out insulation to the solid walls. That would cost £6 billion. Then there are those homes that would not be in the decent homes programme since they already meet the current levels of thermal comfort required. Work in those homes would include replacing boilers that are still functioning, modifying electric immersion heaters and installing double-glazing, which would cost £2.5 billion.

The grand total comes to an astonishing £28.5 billion. Demolition and rebuilding would cost more than £20 billion. Tackling hard-to-heat homes would cost £6 billion. To cover homes that do not currently come under the decent homes programme would cost £2.5 billion. That extra expenditure would cripple the budgets of local authorities and many housing associations. It would mean that work on wider regeneration work, including security measures and environmental improvements, would go undone. Those things matter to tenants, and how would we explain to them that those priorities would no longer be addressed? The new target would amount to moving the goalposts for social landlords who have been working hard to achieve the decent homes standard. Planned programmes of works would need to be rescheduled, which would disrupt not only landlords but tenants.

Even if it were possible to achieve SAP 65 for the social sector at a reasonable cost, it would still be unwise to fix that in statute. The standard assessment procedure measures energy efficiency on an index calculated by considering the annual space and water-heating costs for a standard heating regime. It is a constantly evolving mechanism that will change in response to new energy efficiency technology and changes in fuel prices. We have a huge range of social housing stock in this country, and a SAP target of 65 would be expensive, unachievable and inflexible. We prefer action on achievable targets to aspirations that, frankly, have not been properly thought through. We want to deliver on our decent homes programme by 2010, not see it jeopardised and perhaps put back to 2016. Above all, we cannot choose one part of our decent homes programme and promote it above everything else. We have a duty to tenants, and must provide them with the improvements in their living conditions that really matter to them. While energy efficiency may be the primary concern for some people, it is certainly not the primary concern for all social sector tenants. Our efforts in this area should remain focused on delivering the essential work needed to make all homes decent, and in doing so we must always maximise energy efficiency and promote the alleviation of fuel poverty. However, to put those two concerns above all else would be unrealistic.

In conclusion, a target of SAP 65 for all social sector homes would cost the taxpayer about £28.5 billion. The Government are committed to dealing with fuel poverty and to improving energy efficiency. However, we are not committed to doing that in an impractical and ludicrously expensive manner, as the amendment suggests. It is for those reasons that I invite the House to disagree with the amendment.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

The Minister said that the amendment, which was supported in the Lords by Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Cross Benchers, but not by members of the governing party, was a sledgehammer to crack a nut. He said that it was like using a JCB or a juggernaut to deal with a problem that could be dealt with much more lightly. However, it has managed to attract the support of no less a group of people than the National Pensioners Convention, Shelter, Age Concern, Help the Aged, the National Right to Fuel Campaign, WWF, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the all-party groups on warm homes and on intelligent energy, the Association for the Conservation of Energy and National Energy Action. Most people who are concerned about the welfare of some of our most vulnerable citizens, as well as most people who are concerned about energy conservation, disagree fundamentally with the Minister's analysis.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

If the amendment is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, it is supported by a considerable number of people worth listening to, perhaps including the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

I was chairman of housing when the Conservatives were in power, and I suffered a 75 per cent. cut in funding for both the private and public sectors. Having listened to the hon. Gentleman, may I ask whether, if they regain power, the Conservatives would commit themselves to a SAP rating of 65?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

The hon. Gentleman is a wise and shrewd enough parliamentarian to know that you would not permit me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to detach myself from the proper consideration of the amendment and meander into a debate about the history, interesting as it may be, of his service in local government, or indeed into a fanciful discussion about what may happen at a distant time in the future—although in fact I do not expect it to be very distant, as I should be replacing the Minister in a few months' time if what we read in the press is true.

I will be absolutely straight with the hon. Gentleman, who speaks with great passion about these subjects: the Conservatives, if I have anything to do with it, will take the issue of fuel poverty seriously. I believe very strongly in the warm homes agenda, and I will certainly, as Minister, review what he has said and done with a view to making significant progress in the campaign against fuel poverty. That is said genuinely; I am not trying to evade his point. He would not expect a bigger commitment than that, given that I am the Opposition spokesman, not the Minister, but I assure him that I will address the issue of fuel poverty when I become Minister and get the red boxes, the car and all the rest of it in a few months' time, and when the Minister begins to enjoy his long retirement and is relieved of the appropriate pressure that is being brought to bear on him.

The amendment demands that all social housing should meet the standard assessment procedure rating of 65. That is the measure of energy efficiency in homes that is agreed by the Government and recognised elsewhere. There are two aspects to this debate: one concerns carbon emission targets, and the other fuel poverty. Both were well aired in the other place. Perhaps I may beg your indulgence for a second, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to pay tribute to Baroness Hanham and Lord Hanningfield, who did much good work there, together with noble colleagues from other parties. I single them out for particular praise because they did their very best to improve the worst aspects of the Bill. Lord Hanningfield pointed out that the Government had a manifesto commitment to decrease CO 2 emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010 based on 1990 levels; that from 1990 to 1997 carbon emissions decreased by 13.1 megatonnes of carbon; and that since this Government were elected in 1997 they have remained virtually static, while in three of the past four years they have increased. In August this year, the Environmental Audit Committee reported that the Government's latest forecasts indicate that carbon emissions by 2010 will be 8 megatonnes more than the target—a 25 per cent. shortfall.

The amendment calls for a 20 per cent. improvement in domestic energy efficiency by 2010, based on 2000 levels. That is equivalent to the saving of 5 megatonnes of carbon emissions from the domestic sector by 2010 that the Government originally stated as their intention and is the target that they assured the public no fewer than 15 times would be set as the energy efficiency aim under the Sustainable Energy Act 2003. A range of Ministers assured both Houses that that would be the case, until April this year when they reduced it to 16 per cent.—a saving of 4.2 megatonnes.

The original target is supported by the Energy Saving Trust, the Government's official adviser on energy efficiency; the Cabinet Office performance and innovation unit, the Government's advisers on energy policy; and the Sustainable Development Commission, the Government's advisers on sustainable development. It is also supported by a large number of Members on both sides of the House, particularly on the Labour Benches, who have taken fuel poverty, carbon emissions, the relationship between the two and the need for better energy conservation very seriously, campaigned on it, spoken on it and made their position patently clear, whereas the Government's position on this is not at all clear. There are fundamental contradictions between what they have said in the past and what they are saying now; but even more than that, there are—heaven forbid—contradictions between what different Ministers say about it.

The Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment said that

"research has shown that bringing homes to a SAP rating of 65 is a level at which there is a minimal risk of a household being in fuel poverty."—[Hansard, 19 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 138W.]

Lord Whitty expressed sympathy with the amendment. On 19 October, at a meeting of the all-party warm homes group in Committee Room 17 in the House of Commons, the same point was made to him. He replied:

"I have sympathy with this . . . I am not defending ODPM."

It is clear that the ODPM and the Minister stand alone in the matter. Even his ministerial colleagues are not prepared to line up alongside him and defend the change of policy. Apart from concerns about emissions and the Government's failure to meet their targets, there are even more profound anxieties about the impact on many vulnerable people.

The Government have a legal duty to end fuel poverty under the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000. The Minister has spoken about the meaning of fuel poverty and made it clear that he shares the commitment to combat it. However, the Government have agreed that a SAP rating of 65 is needed to achieve that objective. Other Ministers have made it clear that the only way in which the Government will achieve their aim is by adopting a different policy—that which is outlined in the amendment. The Government's figures demonstrate that. In 2001, the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions consultation on the decent homes standard stated:

"Twenty-five per cent. of social sector tenants living in homes with these stock measures"— insulation and heating measures that comply with the current decent homes standards—

"are still fuel poor."

Twenty-five per cent. is approximately 650,000 or 1.4 million people, based on the national average of 2.2 people per household.

The latest figures suggest that more than 1.141 million homes fall below standards on the ground of thermal insulation. The current policy is to bring those homes up to a decent homes standard, which will not necessarily mean that they escape fuel poverty. It is not good enough for the Minister to say that the Government are committed to decent homes. Of course it is right to improve the stock of social housing in all sorts of ways but it is unacceptable not to tackle the fundamental issue of insulation and fuel poverty as part of that, in order to deliver the Government's stated aims.

The House of Lords debated the matter in a measured and reasoned way. The debate showed the passions of Members from across the political spectrum. It was not simply a matter of knockabout, Opposition versus Government, politics. Any reading of the debate reveals a genuine commitment on behalf of hard-pressed people.

The gist of the Government's case is straightforward. They have effectively reneged on their original commitment. They have lowered the bar because they know that it will be difficult to reach the standard that the amendment demands of them. The excuse that the Minister gave initially in his contribution was that doing so would mean taking their eye off the ball for other aspects of the decent homes standard. However, he gave the game away at the end of his speech by saying that it was all about cost. He thus confirmed what was said in the Lords. In answering the proponents of the amendment, Lord Bassam said that it would focus on one aspect of decent homes to the detriment of others. He said:

"That is what the amendment would do, but at a potentially huge cost . . . bringing all social housing up to a standard of SAP 65 could add £3 billion to £5 billion to the cost of the decent homes programme."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 3 November 2004; Vol. 666, c. 379.]

It is not as simple as that, however, because failing to support this amendment will waste vast sums of public money. The Government will ensure that works are undertaken on all social homes to bring them up to the decent homes standard, but they will still leave a large number of people in fuel poverty. The law will require them to address that issue at some stage in the future and to spend additional sums to take those people out of fuel poverty. The truth of the matter is that this is a false economy. If the Government were to get this right now, they could fulfil their legal responsibilities in one coherent and consistent programme. Instead, however, what Lord Hanningfield has described as the "double visit" to the project will cost more and be extremely wasteful. The Government's argument about money does not stack up, given that they have acknowledged their overriding legal duty in this regard.

More than that, I disagree fundamentally with the Minister on this. This is a very important issue indeed, and not to address fuel poverty would be a dreadful shame that the Minister and the Government would have to carry.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

I apologise to the hon. Lady, but I am about to finish. I am usually very generous with interventions, as she well knows, but I want to give other hon. Members time to speak. Perhaps she will be one of them.

The freedom from fear and the freedom from want are fundamental objectives of any decent Government, and this Government should live up to those principles—[Interruption.] Well, Clive Efford may chafe, but there are people on this side of the Chamber—and, I am sure, on his side—who believe that the mitigation of disadvantage is the greatest purpose of politics. I believe that to be the case, and I make no bones about stating it. I have always believed it, and I have said so many times. This is not a recent conversion for me.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

I am not going to give way, so I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman is standing.

We have been told that the Minister is a literate, numerate and rational man. I think that he is also a good man, and that he will want to be remembered as a good Minister. On that basis, and in the spirit of agreement that he called for at the beginning of tonight's proceedings, I ask him to support the amendment and to adopt this standard, thus gaining the support of the broad consensus of opinion. His doing so would cast the Government in an entirely different light.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

I shall be brief, because I know that at least one other hon. Member would like to speak.

I have a little bit of sympathy for the Minister's position on this amendment; I am perhaps not as dogmatic as others on the issue. However, in attempting to fight it, he has done himself no credit whatever. Uncharacteristically, he has read things into the amendment that are not there, and cited figures that I do not think he could defend on closer examination. For instance, he talked about demolishing large numbers of homes in order to meet the standard, when the amendment says only that it should be met

"as far as is reasonably practicable".

I do not think that anyone would find it reasonably practicable to demolish lots of houses and build new ones. That takes £20 billion out of the £28 billion that he cited. I will not start delving into the rest—perhaps other hon. Members will want to tackle the question of the remaining £8 billion—but the figure certainly drops dramatically with a more accurate reading of the amendment.

The Minister is on difficult ground with this issue. As he himself explained, the definition of fuel poverty involves the amount a household spends on fuel in relation to its income. However, fuel prices are rising, and they are likely to continue to do so. Many people in the House, myself included, do not think that that is necessarily a bad thing, from an environmental viewpoint. However, by definition, it causes a problem, because if things stand still more people will be put into the fuel-poor categories. The figures that the Minister accounted for—the 120,000, the 240,000 and the 1.1 million people—could all increase.

There is a great danger that the advantage that the Government have had for the past few years, largely as a result of low fuel prices rather than Government intervention, will disappear. The Minister will be Minister for Housing and Planning when more people enter fuel poverty. Rather than taking an aggressive attitude against the amendment, which is well-meaning and has good practical thoughts behind it, and setting himself dogmatically against it, he should perhaps have moved some way towards meeting it, as it is clear that increasing the SAP rating of properties where it is relatively practical to do so does, as the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment has made clear, bring people out of fuel poverty.

I am saddened that the ministerial response has been so dogmatically against the amendment. I shall go against the Government tonight, because I want them to make some move to suggest that they are aware of the gap between where they are and where they will be—it will be a problem—in a couple of years with the continuing rise of fuel prices. I hope that we hear from the Minister that he at least acknowledges that there is such a problem and that he has some action plan to deal with it.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South 9:15 pm, 8th November 2004

I have no doubt that both Opposition parties will vote in support of the Lords amendment and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the comments made by both Front-Bench spokesmen, but I must point out in terms of questioning the depth of this commitment that not a single Opposition Back-Bencher has been present throughout the debate on this clause. That is not the case in respect of Labour Members, and I want to address Labour's commitments in my remarks.

The Minister rightly said that a number of different objectives are built into the decent homes standard. I do not think anyone in the House would dispute the value of that, but it is not true to say that the Government can then use that as a pretext for getting out of what we have set for ourselves as the non-negotiable obligation to eradicate, in its entirety, fuel poverty by 2016.

The Minister will know from a number of delegations that I have been involved with, particularly from the parliamentary warm homes group—I brought them to see him to discuss this matter—that we have also tried to explore other choices that the Government have. By and large, we have taken a twin-pronged approach to the eradication of fuel poverty: one through the warm front programme and the other through income support measures, involving the Chancellor and the Treasury. However, it is absolutely right to say, as Matthew Green did, that the viability of that intervention in income support will be put seriously to the test.

We have seen the end of the era of low energy prices; we are knee-deep in an era of dramatically increasing energy prices. None of us should kid ourselves that it will come cheap to the Government to intervene to pay people to throw money out of poorly insulated properties for no gain at all. There will certainly be a negative consequence of massively undermining our commitments to carbon reduction targets. The best way to tackle this is to address the structural condition of Britain's housing. As other Members have mentioned, on 19 April this year my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment pointed out that the best way to do that would be to set a minimum SAP rating of 65 for all social housing.

I suspect that if we were to do that, some other points that have been made to the Minister would come in on the shirt tails of it. He could, for example, also meet the fuel poverty reduction targets by making those standards apply to the private rented sector. We have tried to make the same representations. But we see in subsequent clauses that we will not go down that path either. We could, as my hon. Friend David Taylor pointed out, give a fresh remit to local authorities for a new era of council house building, which is by far the cheapest and most effective way of intervening in the social sector. As yet, however, none of the promises of a level playing field in respect of local authority housing are in the framework for delivery by either the Minister for Housing and Planning or other Ministers.

What should we do to meet our existing legal obligations to eradicate fuel poverty? The Government's Fuel Poverty Advisory Group is now saying, in consistent terms, that we are not on track to meet our legal targets. We have choices about how we can meet those targets, but one choice that we do not have is to do nothing. Unfortunately, one of the ways in which we have built up cost consequences is by structuring the warm front programme so badly in the first instance that we are duplicating costs. We began by quoting numbers of households in fuel poverty that we have helped—we never said that we were not helping them out of fuel poverty, but we said that we were helping them in it.

The reality of the fuel poverty benchmark will not go away. The amendment gives the House the chance to address a structural issue with a structural solution. I beg the Minister to take that on board, not as a threat or challenge from the other place, but as a way of helping us out of a hole into which we have been digging ourselves.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I had not intended to contribute to the debate today, and only the challenge from Mr. Hayes made me feel that it was worth saying something in support of the Government's position and opposing that of the other place.

It seems to me that the Conservative party has completely misrepresented some of the basis of tackling fuel poverty and of the intent of the decent homes strategy, for two reasons in particular. First, we needed a decent homes strategy because of the legacy of disrepair that we inherited when the Conservative party left government. I was a council leader in one of the areas with some of the worst social housing in the country, and I recall how those homes were starved of funds, the price paid in terms of the discomfort of people living there and the real hardship of thousands of families in social housing that was on the skids. We needed a decent homes strategy so that social housing could approach a reasonable level after all that disrepair.

Like so many things that the Government have done, that strategy might not seem the most wonderfully heroic new socialist dawn. Given what we took over, however, it was a supremely ambitious programme, and extremely difficult to deliver. Once it is achieved, which I am sure it will be, the Government will have every right to be extremely proud of it. The only way to achieve our decent homes target is to balance the key measures that make homes unpleasant and unfit for people to live in. That is a question not just of technical standards but of what happens to the people who live in those properties and what they need.

Secondly, when we came into power we were confronted by massive fuel poverty, particularly among the old. A key factor in fuel poverty, which the Minister addressed and the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings did not, was income. That is why we introduced the winter fuel allowance, which the Conservative party opposed bitterly. It ill behoves a party that so opposed the winter fuel allowance to preach to anyone about fuel poverty. The reason why it is residual groups such as single people on low incomes, households with families or people with disabilities who are in fuel poverty is that we dealt with fuel poverty among pensioners with the winter fuel allowance, which has been increased year on year.

If we are talking seriously about tackling fuel poverty, I can certainly describe my wish list—as the Minister well knows, for I have berated him about housing improvements on several occasions. We should think not just about social housing but about private housing. Social housing sometimes has to be knocked down and replaced, but we must also deal with fuel poverty in the private sector—[Interruption.]—I see that I am now being asked to finish my speech.

There is a huge agenda to be tackled. I agree that we should keep to the programme that we have set and observe the priorities involved in it, but we should not lose sight of bigger goals. I do not think that the amendment would help us to achieve those goals, on which I am sure we all agree.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

I want to make three brief points.

I am concerned about fuel poverty. My right hon. Friend the Minister said that 120,000 people were in that position, but I believe that a 10 per cent. fuel price increase would return 500,000 people to fuel poverty. We are on a treadmill, and I remind my right hon. Friend that fuel companies are making obscene profits: I think they amount to £8 billion. I hope that he will discuss with his friends on the Treasury team the possibility of a windfall tax so that we can really help those who are being subjected to fuel poverty by price increases. I have signed an early-day motion on the subject.

I raised the second point in Committee. We are setting different decent home standards for the public and private sectors. I am grateful for what the Government are doing in the private sector. Improved building control procedures are beginning to deliver better decent home standards, along with better architectural design and other features, but we are not catching up with that in the public sector.

The third point is this: we have wasted an awful lot of money trying to bring homes up to a decent standard in terms of fuel efficiency. We began with draught stripping, then dealt with cavity walls and UPVC double glazing. We improved central-heating systems in a thousand and one different ways. My plea to any Government, including this one, is that they take a holistic approach rather than persistently going back—three or four times, in fact—to trying to bring houses up to decent home standards.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I shall try in the short time available to me to respond to all the points that have been raised.

Mr. Hayes expressed his personal passion for the warmer homes programme, but as my hon. Friend Alan Simpson, observed, that passion was clearly not shared by his Tory colleagues, for the Tory Benches were empty throughout his speech. In fact, his colleagues missed the wrong speech on the wrong subject. However, since despite his weasel words and disavowals he spoke in favour of the amendment and is likely to divide the House, I think we can assume that he has committed the official Opposition to expenditure of at least £28.5 billion to achieve SAP 65 rating. No doubt the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Letwin, will be most interested to learn of that not insubstantial spending commitment. The hon. Gentleman may find himself out of a job rather sooner than he has a chance to succeed me in mine.

I was grateful for the "little sympathy" expressed by Matthew Green. He drew attention to the qualification

"as far as is reasonably practicable" in the amendment, and argued that it would mean lower costs than I had identified. But where does that observation get us? It is as long as a piece of string. The amendment either indicates a serious attempt to attain a SAP rating of 65 or it does not. I have described the financial implications of taking it seriously, which are immensely costly. I have argued that it is a misplaced policy because, in the social sector—the amendment refers to the social sector—fuel poverty is a limited phenomenon that can be tackled by individual households.

That brings me on to the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South. He is right. We have spoken about the matter on many occasions. I respect his commitment and his long-term campaign on these issues.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings drew attention to observations by ministerial colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, DEFRA has not said that a SAP rating of 65 is necessary in all stock. What it has said is that removing fuel poverty depends on the characteristics of the individual household, but that SAP 65 is the level at which there is a minimal risk of a household being in fuel poverty. The precise answer given by the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment to Sue Doughty was that removing fuel poverty depends on the characteristics of the individual household. I recognise that we may be in an era of rising energy prices, but we cannot base an expenditure commitment of that scale on a relatively unquantifiable guess.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South rightly talked about the warm front programme, but I remind him that that programme deals exclusively with the private sector and that that is where the problem of fuel poverty is immensely more extensive. My hon. Friend Ms Keeble was right when she identified that the kernel of the fuel poverty issue is in the private sector, but the amendment is about the social sector, not the private sector. My contention is that, because the standard is much higher in the social sector, the issue is much more manageable through interventions other than this blunderbus approach to SAP 65. I was grateful to my hon. Friend, a distinguished former housing Minister, for her support and for exposing the hypocrisy of the Conservative party.

I say to my hon. Friend Dr. Iddon that I will certainly draw to the attention of colleagues in the Treasury his observations about fuel prices and a windfall tax. I thought that he was wrong when he said that we were not catching up with the private sector. For all the reasons that I have mentioned, I believe that we are doing and will do better in the social sector. However, as he demonstrated to me when I visited him in the Haulgh in Bolton, it is best to do it together. I accept his observations about a holistic approach.

I know that, in some respects, my response will be a disappointment to colleagues on the Labour Benches, but I have attempted to be precise and accurate and to demonstrate the Government's commitment to dealing with fuel poverty. It will be dealt with in the social sector by techniques that are different from those proposed in the amendment. For all those solid reasons, I invite the House to disagree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Question put, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 265, Noes 156.

Division number 313 Orders of the Day — Housing Bill — Decent Homes Standard for Social Housing

Aye: 265 MPs

No: 156 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment disagreed to.