Clause 154 — Interpretation of part 5

Housing Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:30 pm on 17th November 2004.

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Lords amendment: No. 140E.

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
agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Hon. Members may recall that in our debate on Monday, my guru, my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney, pointed out that there was a typographical error in the amendments on the register of home condition reports moved in this place last week. Lords amendment No. 140E replaces the reference in subsection (7) of the new clause to subsection (3), which relates to the paying of a fee to register a report, with the correct reference to subsection (4).

Lords amendment agreed to.

After Clause 187

Lords amendment: No. 191B.

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
agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 191C.

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

I invite the House to note that the Lords do not insist on their amendment No. 191 and that they have accepted Government amendments Nos. 191B and 191C, which were offered in lieu.

The House will recall that on Commons consideration of Lords amendments it disagreed with amendment No. 191, which placed a duty on the Secretary of State to take reasonable steps to ensure an increase in residential energy efficiency by at least 20 per cent. by 2010, based on 2000 levels. The Government have given further consideration to amendment No. 191. We continue to take the view that its effect will be broadly in line with that of existing policies on residential energy efficiency, and that there has been no weakening of the Government's determination to make serious progress on energy efficiency. However, we recognise the strength of feeling on this issue. We still believe that duties based on specific numerical figures are inflexible and better avoided in primary legislation, but we have decided to accede to the principle of the amendment as providing some comfort that the Government stand by the energy efficiency aim that they have declared. I am pleased that the 20 per cent. energy efficiency target will be included in the Bill. I am grateful to noble Members of the other place, who agreed in their wisdom to the amendment that the Government tabled on this subject.

We listened carefully to the arguments made in this House and elsewhere and we accepted the strength of those arguments. What we emphatically did not take into account was the disgraceful full-page advertisement naming names that appeared in The Guardian newspaper after the vote here. It was paid for by Greenpeace and an organisation called ACT, of which I personally had never heard before and of which I wish to hear no more. The advertisement pandered to the vulgar tabloid theory convenient to at least some elements hostile to the Government that Members of Parliament will always in some knee-jerk fashion cave in to pressures from the Prime Minister. Frankly—I speak as a former deputy Chief Whip—anybody with the most primitive knowledge of recent events in this Parliament will recognise that that is a lie.

The advertisement went on to state that the consequences of the vote would be the deaths of 30,000 people. That statement is outrageous. It is in plain ignorance of the facts of the case. Not even the most passionate advocate of the energy and fuel poverty amendments that we were debating would make such a dishonest claim, and nobody did so. The advertisement also betrayed a total ignorance of the way in which Parliament works.

I shall remind the House and, more to the point, those outside, how Parliament does work. I acknowledge the position of those Members of Parliament who felt that they could not support the position of the Government during the debate, some of whom have a long history of advocacy of the energy efficiency target, but I have to say to the House in all candour—I hope that this message gets through to those outside elements—that the voices to which I listened were the private representations of the colleagues who rightly supported the Government in the Divisions. If a Government are to work, they must depend on the support of Government Members, who continued in this case to make the argument with me. It was precisely because I recognised their loyalty and concern that I worked in Government to accept their argument. They are the Members who succeeded and to whom credit should be paid. There will be no names and no pack drill this time, but they know who they are, and I hope that they will claim the credit.

After the votes in question, one of my Labour colleagues wrote to The Guardian to say that, if anything, the Greenpeace advertisement would be more likely to heighten the Government's resistance to the energy efficiency amendment. I cannot say that I was not tempted. There is something of an object lesson here about the perhaps too easy signing of early-day motions; something along the lines of chickens coming home to roost springs to mind. Personally, as a Back Bencher, I resolved after the 1997 general election never again to sign an early-day motion, and I cannot say that I have suffered much as a consequence.

Nevertheless, we have done the right thing in supporting the 20 per cent. energy efficiency target in residential accommodation. All the evidence suggests that the Government have been working towards the target effectively and that they will achieve if not exceed it. I repeat that agreeing to it was nothing to do with the pathetic stunt by Greenpeace et al. I know that such outfits have to justify their donations by various stunts, but this stunt could well have backfired, and I wonder whether those involved really care about that.

I hope that the House will recognise that amendment No. 191B is a significant concession to colleagues who feel strongly about the matter. We are satisfied that the amendment will not place an additional burden on the Government. We have tabled it to rectify some technical deficiencies in Lords amendment No. 191. The definition of residential accommodation in amendment No. 191B mirrors that in the Sustainable Energy Act 2003 to bring the provision into line with the designated aims, and proposed subsection (2) clarifies that that duty does not affect the duty to designate an aim under that Act. Finally, amendment No. 191C, which amends clause 231, the commencement clause, provides that the new clause introduced by amendment No. 191B will come into force two months from the date of Royal Assent.

I therefore invite the House to agree to amendments Nos. 191B and 191C.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning) 4:45 pm, 17th November 2004

This is the second U-turn. Even Mr. Kidney, with all his powers of spin, will not be able to dress it up as anything other than a substantial concession. We have Lord Bassam's own words. This, he says,

"is a significant concession and . . . evidence that the Government listen."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 16 November 2004; Vol. 666, c. 1397.]

Yes, listen to their own critics on the Labour Benches; yes, listen to the powerful case made by peers in all parties; yes, listen—I think the hon. Gentleman will have to acknowledge—to the Opposition, who have been both consistent and united in their concern to ensure that the Government honour the commitment on which they reneged earlier this year. Let us be frank: they switched the target from 20 per cent. to 16 per cent. It does not do the Minister much credit to get too high-handed about that and about those outside who drew attention to it. At least the Government have returned to where they began and set a target in line with what was suggested by their own advisers, most experts outside and most of those who campaign both for energy efficiency and against fuel poverty.

I make no specific comment about the newspaper article to which the Minister referred, but I do say this. A range of organisations representing some of the most vulnerable of our countrymen have highlighted the fact that the Government were not playing straight when they resisted the Lords amendments initially—organisations representing the poorest of our countrymen, the elderly, vulnerable children and people with a long-standing commitment to the battle against fuel poverty. I understand why the Minister's parliamentary private secretary is embarrassed—

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

The hon. Gentleman is embarrassed, because he initially voted against the Lords. I understand that he has had to see the error of his ways. He is another convert—another sinner that repenteth.

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

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has ever been a sinner in this regard. I rather doubt it, as he has a pretty proud history of standing up for those who fight fuel poverty.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that most of the groups that he mentioned understood the workings of this place and worked within the system to secure the change that we see today?

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If Brian White professes to understand the workings of "this place" why does he think it fit to villify a member of...

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

Yes, they did. I personally received many representations from them, and I am sure that Matthew Green did as well. I know that the Minister did. Of course they understood: they understood that they must put pressure on all of us who were involved in the debate on these matters, and hoped that they could bring about a resolution that was appropriate and deliverable.

Of course those bodies understood how the process worked, but it is a bit rich to pick out an advertisement without paying tribute to some of the organisations that were measured and consistent in their campaign and that did not go over the top in their representations. To counterbalance some of the criticism, let me pay tribute to all those, outside this place and in it, who fought for the cause of eliminating fuel poverty, including all-party groups and, indeed, to those who embarrassed the Government when it became clear that they had started to renege on a public commitment made more than 15 times.

When more than two dozen of a Government's own Members rebel on an amendment in support of the Lords, of course it is embarrassing. [Interruption.] Of course it is embarrassing to Mr. Rooney, who is now chuntering. I understand his embarrassment, and I feel a bit sorry for him, but he has been got off the hook by his Minister. Because the Minister has conceded, there will be a return to the original position of recognising the efficacy of a 20 per cent. decrease in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010, on the basis of the 1990 levels. That is what the Minister's commitment means and, in practice, many of the arguments articulated in the other place and in the House will find a form in the Bill in a clear restatement of policy to do something real and deliverable about emissions, fuel poverty and other issues related to energy efficiency.

Once again, I recognise that the Government have moved, even though it was not of their own volition. However, their move is welcome because it improves the Bill. The measure is by no means perfect—it contains some good things and some very bad things—but the work of both Houses of Parliament, assisted by those outside who have made representations to us, has improved it by forcing the Minister to take note. That does him some credit, but much more to those who forced him to do so.

I am pleased to support the amendment, alongside Members on the Treasury Bench.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister and the Minister in the Lords for introducing the amendment, which will be welcome in the industry and which is a sign of the Government's good work on these matters. They are the first Government to try to tackle fuel poverty. They have a long history of doing so and the amendment is another in a long line of initiatives. That context is important, given the comments of Mr. Hayes, which suggest that the Government have done nothing, whereas they have a long record of tackling fuel poverty.

I am pleased that the Government introduced the amendment. It seems that every time I rebel, the Government table amendments in the Lords, so I hope that they will adopt a quicker method in future. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for clarifying the relationship between the 20 per cent. target and the energy efficiency target in the Sustainable Energy Act 2003. That is useful.

I want to say something about the Greenpeace advert. Last Monday, many people asked me whether they should rebel and I replied, "No, don't. Go and speak to the Minister." Many of my colleagues who had signed the early-day motion chose to make their point to the Minister in the Aye Lobby and they deserve credit for doing so. It is important that the House recognise that a large number of people who could have rebelled did not do so, but none the less made their point to the Minister. I welcome the fact that the Minister listened to them. That was important, and it makes the Greenpeace advert all the more annoying.

I think that Stephen Tindale should resign as director of Greenpeace, because of the damage that he has done. He has attacked his friends—people who have campaigned on environmental issues in the House for a long time—and gave them no help. He did not attack those who have opposed such measures. I could have understood that if he had been a novice campaigner, although I would not have been very happy about it, but he has a long history of campaigning and understands it. As an insider, when he was a special adviser, he was part of the problem so he has a lot to answer for. If he does not resign, Greenpeace should sack him. He has done real damage to—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I understand the hon. Gentleman's comments, but perhaps he could confine his remarks to the amendment.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

I apologise Madam Deputy Speaker.

Many Members have campaigned on this issue for a long time and they may not support future campaigns for fear of being stabbed in the back. The Minister has already told us that he chose not to sign early-day motions when he was a Back Bencher and several of my colleagues may make the same choice, which will be to the detriment of the House. It is important that we use early-day motions to put pressure on Ministers, so I am glad that 340 Members signed the early-day motion and that the Minister listened.

It is also important that we take forward the energy efficiency target. I welcome the fact that the Minister has taken that on board, and hope that his officials will talk with the industry about improving the situation.

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

The Labour party doth protest too much. I had no idea that Labour Members would talk about the Greenpeace advertisement quite so much. They have just given Greenpeace huge publicity, so that may have been counterproductive, unless a real double game is being played.

We are pleased to have helped force the Government into recommitting to a target to which they have previously been committed and into putting it in the Bill. It is a small step forward. It is frustrating that the Government talk the language of energy efficiency but at times they need to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to do anything about it. They have a better record than the Conservatives ever did, but they have not always seemed enthusiastic about it. The Government talk the talk, but they do not always walk the walk. I am glad that, for once, the Liberal Democrats—in conjunction with others—have been able to encourage the Government into walking the walk.

This amendment, like others on the tenancy deposit scheme and empty property management orders, has helped to improve the Bill considerably. We still have problems with home information packs, but much of the Bill is very welcome. Substantial improvements have been made, such as this amendment, and the Minister will be able to look back and be pleased with the Bill. The Liberal Democrats are certainly pleased to have played our part in ensuring that some of the best parts of the Bill, including this amendment, were added to it.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

As one who suffered damage to his reputation by the Greenpeace advertisement that has been mentioned, I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for making it clear that he listened to the representations of Labour Back Benchers who loyally supported him last Monday, as I did, but spoke to him privately about the matter. I am sure that even Mr. Hayes would agree, without spin, that my right hon. Friend has a fine record, in proceedings on this Bill, of accepting good arguments from Labour Back Benchers on a series of issues, including empty homes, overcrowding, park homes and tenants' deposits. That is commendable.

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

I just wished to put on the record that, as I have said previously, I think that the passage of the Bill has been a happy experience. It has shown Parliament working well. The pressure that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and the Minister acknowledged, has come from both sides of the House. We have been helpful to the Government in making this a better Bill, because they will not reach their carbon dioxide emission targets unless they deal with energy efficiency. They will now deal with that and—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. That is rather lengthy for an intervention.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

On that happy note, I shall end.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I note the Government's concession, but we should not get carried away and start thinking that it is a concession of much substance. All that the concession does is require the Secretary of State to take reasonable steps to ensure that by 2010 the general level of energy efficiency of residential accommodation is increased by at least 20 per cent. compared with the general level in 2000. No sanction will apply if that target is not met. There are no stepping stones, interim or otherwise, on the way to that target. We know that the Government have cynically abandoned a range of targets when it has become apparent that they will not be met. Why should we be party to allowing the general public to be duped into thinking that this is a concession of real substance?

The fact that the Minister made such a play of the Greenpeace advertisement shows that the Government are frightened of the Greenpeace lobby and that pressure group. The advertisement obviously got to the Minister in a big way.

Most hon. Members are concerned about the substance of trying to ensure that there are improvements in energy efficiency and reductions in fuel poverty, and we find that the Government talk a good talk, but that they do not deliver the substance. That is why I am slightly disappointed that my hon. Friend Mr. Hayes seems to go along with the idea that a great concession has been made. I am sure that we rightly argued that we want to try to hold the Government to account to a greater extent, and we may have made some progress on that, but I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that we have not got the whole cake.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning) 5:00 pm, 17th November 2004

Let us make no mistake: I do not say for a moment that I would not be a better Minister than the right hon. Gentleman or that we would not manage these matters altogether better than him and his colleagues. Of course, the House and the whole country know that, but when improvements are made, even if they are modest, we have a responsibility to welcome them. The Government have moved in our direction. The Lords amendment is not ideal, but it is better than nothing.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend says that the Lords amendment is better than nothing, and the Bill certainly includes words that were not there before. He is one of the most robust critics of the Government's good-talk-but-no-action policies, and I am sure that he is not really taken in by them. If he thinks that it is better than nothing, I suppose that I will go along with his judgment, but we should not send the message from the House that the Government have made a major climbdown or U-turn. To a large extent, this is an exercise in semantics. There is no point in having targets or commands without sanctions, and there is no sanction against the Government if they do not comply or meet the target.

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

That is true, but my hon. Friend must recognise that the measure of how far the Minister has moved in our direction is that, having consistently argued against our case and the Lords case, he has now written an amendment that is virtually identical to the one that the Lords proposed, which he opposed. There are minor differences, but at last the Bill contains a commitment to energy efficiency that is essential if we are to meet the carbon emissions targets, which we all agree are vital. The concession is somewhat toothless, but not entirely without teeth—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. Once again, the hon. Gentleman's intervention is quite lengthy.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I hope that he can assure me that he feels confident that we know what the general level of energy efficiency was in 2000, so that we have a benchmark against which we can measure. One of the problems is that the Government promote targets, but we find that the baselines for those targets have not been properly defined. For example, the Government certainly kept on saying that they would produce a definition of congestion on the roads, but they never did and they eventually abandoned the target altogether. I shall give way to my hon. Friend again if he can assure me that there is a definition of the general level of energy efficiency in 2000 that would be a proper benchmark.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for painting me as the moderate in such matters. The Government's advisers have been very clear about the benchmark, and we called in aid those advisers when they said that they could not understand why the Government had adjusted their target. So the Government's advice, based on a proper measurement of the current situation, is in line with our thinking, the Lords thinking and the Government's new thinking, and I am therefore confident that we have made progress.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. If he thinks that that is enough for us, let us rest on our laurels, but I certainly predict that, when we reach 2010, the Government will have got nowhere near the target, unless we have a Conservative Government by then to deliver it for us.

Lords amendment No. 191B agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 191C agreed to.