Fuel Poverty Bill

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 11:44 am on 20th March 2009.

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Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North 11:44 am, 20th March 2009

We heard earlier that the temperature in Dartmoor was rather chilly. I hope that the windows would have not only bars but double glazing.

In one of the many passages of great passion in the speech of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, he referred to the contrast between the Scandinavian countries and ours in relation to heat poverty. However, only some northern European and Baltic countries meet the standard to which he referred. The fact that they do so is a result of more than 100 years of building regulations and, in the case of Sweden, at least 100 years of building regulations and practices that include the use of extremely sound insulation. The situation in some of the Baltic countries that do not meet those standards—I will not even mention Kaliningrad—is quite the opposite, however. I refer to countries where great chunks of mastic are missing from the joints of building systems and constructions and where the gas fires and paraffin heaters can be seen pumping heat out into the air. There is a genuine issue there of building construction, to which I hope to return in a few moments.

As we know, the Government have spent more than £20 billion on fuel policies and programmes since 2000, and one of the most important is the winter fuel programme, which entered into our earlier discussion. I understand that winter fuel payments are contentious in one way: some people say that if winter fuel payments are increased, it simply increases the ability of the suppliers to ramp up the prices because they know they will be met. I shall not refer more than once to what I consider an extremely unfortunate statement from the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench team that the winter fuel payment was

"a gimmick of a policy, and we should look at how much it is costing in bureaucracy."—[ Hansard, 18 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 648.]

I hope that the Liberal Democrats have resiled from that position and recognised that the winter fuel payment is not a gimmick; it is in many cases a lifesaver. More than 12 million people were kept warm last year by winter fuel payments. I entirely understand that some people who may be swimming in cash are actually receiving them, but the fact remains that an enormous number of people are heating their homes with the aid of the winter fuel payment.

What sort of homes are they heating? For many years, I was a housing officer in Camden, where I received constant communication from the MP representing that area. One of the points that he made, which I then had to deal with, was that even if people had completely adequate heating, they might not use it properly or they might not allow for an element of ventilation or they might use clothes dryers in the kitchen, pumping water into the building, resulting in damp, condensation and ultimately a dangerously cold place in which to live. That is a significant element of the problem.

Energy suppliers have also been mentioned. Negotiating with energy suppliers cannot be the easiest job in the world, but let us at least give the Government some credit for the fact that they have actually negotiated 800,000 social tariffs for individual customers. That means 800,000 people—double the number since March 2008—have had a social tariff negotiated on their behalf with the energy suppliers. These are voluntary agreements with the energy companies. I have a great deal of sympathy, as in all matters, with my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley, and there is something wonderfully simplistic about the idea of a windfall tax—it worked in 1997, and we saw the benefits of it. I think that everyone would agree, however, that if we could have a voluntary system backed up with the threat of a windfall tax, it would be extremely positive. I agree that the idea of forcing the energy suppliers without some form of sanction is a bit too hopeful, and I would not propose it.

Let us move on to the decent homes programme. Like every single MP, I have seen the advantages stemming from it. The programme addresses one of the core problems—the condition of our housing stock. Given that our country is relatively old as we had the industrial revolution before anyone else and we had larger cities before most other countries, we suffer from a residue of older housing—badly built, too close together, inadequately ventilated and with an absence of all the facilities we would now expect. The decent homes programme may not be able to create garden cities all over the place from Somerset to Ealing, but it does provide the basic underpinning of a modern home by providing a degree of insulation and energy efficiency. Again, I believe that the Government should be given some credit for introducing it. In addition, the carbon emissions reduction target allows households to access free or discounted insulation and other energy-efficient measures, and 40 per cent. of CERT money is specifically targeted at low-income households.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is also well aware of the community energy saving programme, which by this autumn will have provided whole-house treatment to more than 90,000 households. The Warm Front scheme has assisted some 2 million households in England. We assisted 270,000 last year.

The point that I am trying to make is that, although no one could possibly disagree with the hon. Gentleman's intentions, we are already doing the very things that he wants us to do. The Government are acting along precisely the lines that he recommends. We are all travelling in the same direction. We are doing what he says we should do, and we are doing it willingly. We are keen to do it. I am extremely grateful for the assistance and advice that he has provided, but why do we need the Bill to underpin the action already being taken by the Government?

The hon. Gentleman's answer to that question is "belt and braces", an approach with which I have a degree of sympathy. Trust in any Government does not come naturally to any true democrat. But is it really necessary to have a Bill of this size—and I would not add the word "complexity"; it is not a single-line Bill—when we are already working along precisely the lines that it proposes? I remain to be convinced either way. I have absolutely no intention of trying to obstruct the Bill. I may even have signed the early-day motion; I rather believe that I may have done so. I am in sympathy with the Bill's proposals, but I think that we should ask ourselves a fundamental question: why, when we all agree on the same thing, do we need a separate Bill which could, in fact, slow down the delivery of what we are already undertaking?

As I said earlier, we use energy inefficiently in this country. We waste heat and power to an alarming extent. It is estimated that the average household in England wastes more than £300 a year simply through living in inefficient buildings and making inefficient use of them. Energy efficiency is a key part of the Bill. What it does not propose, however, is an educative programme to advise and assist people, as the Government are doing but presumably, according to the hon. Gentleman's logic, should be doing more, faster and more accountably. We should be explaining more to people how they can make the most of what they have, and how they can avoid causing problems by using too much power and pumping too much energy into the atmosphere.

While we know that 47 per cent. of the United Kingdom's carbon dioxide emissions result from heat generation, it is not widely known that, notwithstanding all the discussions that we have about airports and motorways, about a quarter of that is domestically generated. Our target is an 80 per cent. reduction in emissions by 2050. If we are to achieve it, we must virtually eliminate domestic heat waste. I mentioned targets earlier. This is a crucial target. We must direct everything that we are doing in government towards meeting it. As Members know, it is higher than the original target. It was raised so that it would become aspirational, and we all know what dire consequences will follow if we do not achieve it. The Minister has said that achieving it would require an energy revolution, and I do not resile from that, but is such a thing possible?

A range of actions can be taken. The Warm Front scheme enables 10-year-old boilers to be replaced. District heating is another option. There is an extraordinary scheme in, I believe, Aberdeen, where 4,500 flats and 59 multi-storey blocks now benefit from a district heating scheme. We should be working towards schemes of that kind, but we do not need a new Bill to tell us to do what we are doing already. We do not need new legislation to say that we should be moving in a direction in which we are already moving. We do not need more law when all of us are doing precisely what that law tells us to do. I am not arguing that the Bill is otiose, but I am arguing that it is almost superfluous.

That brings me to the one thing that the Government are doing that chimes exactly with the hon. Gentleman's ambitions and intentions. I refer to the heat and energy-saving strategy. He will doubtless say that the strategy is not as ambitious and not as tightly timetabled as it should be, and it does not feature the interesting sanction of the Secretary of State voting for my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras from his prison cell. However, the strategy sets out short-term action, plus serious sustainable long-term proposals. It also contains targets, if targets we must have: by 2015 to deliver comprehensive whole-house solutions to 400,000 homes a year; by 2020 to save up to 50 million tonnes of CO2 a year, equivalent to 33 per cent. of 2006 emissions; by 2020 to have comprehensive whole-house solutions for 7 million homes; by 2030, as we arc on through the decades, to make available cost-effective, energy-efficient measures to—there is not a number—all households. As I said earlier, another target is to reduce our emissions by 80 per cent. by 2050 and to move as close as possible to the figure of zero. The heat and energy-saving strategy sets out a long-term vision and constitutes part of the energy revolution that the Minister has referred to.

We also have consultations on increasing carbon emissions reduction targets by 20 per cent. and on the community energy savings programme, which is set out in the short-term plan for households. Most important, we are aiming to have zero carbon for all new non-domestic buildings. That is entirely achievable. We understand that finance is a key issue and the problem was raised earlier about the individual costings of that. I do not want to be seen to be agreeing with almost everything that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, but it would be hard not to. The idea that we can save energy, reduce the pain to individual constituents, yet finance new jobs and create the virtuous cycle whereby people get jobs, spend money and the economy grows cannot be anything other than immensely desirable. It is right that he has mentioned that in introducing the Bill.

Renewable heat is another key issue that has not been mentioned. We are particularly looking at the new renewable heat incentive to encourage more heat to be generated from renewable sources. However, the Government, being the Government, also have to consider the position of industry in the years before the renewable heat incentive comes into force.

There are parts of the market, however, that require additional attention and support. The Government are proposing stronger incentives to move to a low-carbon future, with which I cannot believe anyone would disagree, and to help people to change their behaviour and to take action. I would like to refer to the home energy audits and the joy of real-time displays. We have heard much about prepayment meters. I sadly come from a generation where tanners and two bobs were kept in cocoa tins on the mantelpiece, the meter would go at some stage and we would then put another two bob piece, or florin, into the meter. It was remarkably useful in many ways because we knew what we were spending; we did not have a bill and we were able to control our expenditure. The slight difficulties were that we paid more than anyone else and any passing ne'er-do-well knew damn well that most of the houses in the part of London where I was brought up had a row of cocoa tins on the mantelpiece stuffed full of two bob bits, which represented a fairly target rich environment, but there is a joy in real-time displays. The industry has responded on the issue of smart meters. It can centrally recalibrate meters, rather than individually calling at every home. Those are positive steps that have been achieved.

There is the proposal for what I originally read as a meat markets forum—it is in fact a heat markets forum—which includes regulatory arrangements for buying and selling heat. That would protect consumers who buy heat from district heating networks, a matter that has been raised on the Floor of the House many times. The issue of combined heat and power and surplus heat has been mentioned in passing. I think that virtually every major city in this country is now looking at combined heat and power.

All in all, I feel that the present list of the achievements of this Government should inspire, if not adoration, at least respect. We have recognised the problem, and we have addressed the key issue, and we continue to do so. We have done that through a combination of measures that bite now, in the medium term and the long term, in recognition of the fact that when we are talking about fuel poverty, we are also talking about energy efficiency and all the consequences that were so graphically illustrated in the Stern review.

We cannot afford not to address this problem on both a micro-level and a macro-level. In his speech, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome spoke with dramatic passion about the individual constituent—whether, for instance, a pensioner or a person with disabilities—shivering and only being able to heat one room. That is the reality on the micro-level, and we cannot ignore it. I respectfully suggest that we are not ignoring it; we are addressing it, and are doing our level best to end the horror of, for instance, a person living in a single room in a two-bedroom house. All of us know of such situations as none of us is unaware of the realities of constituency life, and many of us have actually experienced them. On the macro-level, we clearly cannot continue to consume non-renewable resources and to heat up the planet in the way that we are. I therefore respectfully suggest that we already have a policy, and that it is attainable and costed.

The hon. Gentleman has done a great service by bringing much more new information before the House. He has had a series of meetings with a great number of actors in this area. In moments of weakness, I sometimes dream about a real Government of all the talents—in which, rather than bringing people in from the City, people are brought in even from the wilder reaches of Somerset, because we clearly need this sort of thinking and we are enjoying the benefits of it in this debate and in the Bill. I am still not entirely convinced that we need a separate Bill, however.

The hon. Gentleman blended pragmatism with passion in his presentation. He was pragmatic in that he talked about realities; he talked about the reduction from bands B and C to band C, amendments he could accept, and changes that he would be happy to consider if the Bill progressed. Underpinning everything he said, however, is his passion, and I respect and admire that. However, I would try to persuade him that that passion is not unique to the Liberal Democrats, as I think that almost all Members of this House are passionate about wanting to end fuel poverty, and none of us ever wants to have to face situations such as visiting a constituent who is wrapped in blankets and trying to keep warm in front of one bar of the electric fire. We have all had to face such situations, and we all know the realities of that, and none of us wants to see that continue, as it is wrong at every level. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's fury for change and passion for the energy revolution, which the Minister referred to earlier, will energise every one of us and is inherent in the ambitions of us all.

The hon. Gentleman has distilled much of the thinking on this matter in what is a very good private Member's Bill. I thank him for introducing it, and I hope that by the time this debate finishes—which may not be too far away—I will be convinced of the need to support him. In the meantime, I simply say that his passion, as much as his pragmatism, has won him even more admirers in this House than he had before.