Fuel Poverty Bill

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 1:05 pm on 20th March 2009.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change 1:05 pm, 20th March 2009

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will be brief, as the Minister and possibly other colleagues are still to speak. As I was saying, coal was one of the three, because energy and the ability to keep warm was fundamental to everyone's happy existence.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Heath on introducing his private Member's Bill, which he said would be good for the vulnerable, good for health within the UK, good for our environment and good for the economy. It rises to the four great challenges of our age: we need a more equal society, to which the Minister and the Government are committed; we need to protect our environment, to which the Minister has shown a lifelong commitment; we need to rescue our economy from its difficult times; and we need to give maximum employment to people—and there is no more obvious contribution to getting us out of a recession than expanding the construction industry. The Bill's objectives will allow us to save carbon, save money, save jobs and, most importantly as my hon. Friend said, save lives.

Members have put the situation we face on the record. Dealing with inadequately heated homes—fuel poverty is the technical term, but I am never very comfortable with it, because it is not the sort of phrase people use on the Old Kent road—has been a challenge for decades. As my hon. Friend Paul Holmes said, it was that problem that brought him and people like him into politics in the '80s.

There is the old phrase that "An Englishman's home is his castle"—it applies in Scotland, too, and to a lesser extent in Wales—but castles were often draughty. Although most Englishmen and women do not live in castles, the reality is that most of their homes are still draughty and not well insulated. After an exchange at Question Time on 20 January, the Minister for Housing wrote to me, confirming that only 1 per cent. of current housing stock in the country reaches the rating of 81 on the standard assessment procedure, which is recognised as the best way to assess what counts as a satisfactory energy-efficiency rating. Thus only 1 per cent. of our housing stock is adequately insulated and 25,000 people or thereabouts die every year unnecessarily—and we should not pass over such figures lightly. Many more people are ill and are looked after at huge cost to the NHS. We must not forget to put the costs of the current position on one side of the balance.

Furthermore, figures are available showing how many people are in fuel poverty in every single constituency in the country. I looked at the figures for London and found that 15 out of 100 homes in the Minister's Lewisham, Deptford constituency are in fuel poverty. The figures for the two other constituencies in my borough—15 in Dulwich and West Norwood and nearly 15 in Camberwell and Peckham—are about the same. Most amazingly, although there is an explanation for it, my constituency with 13 out of 100 has the least fuel poverty in London. I think that the explanation is that we have the largest amount of council housing stock. If anyone ever wanted an argument that council housing has been good for people, there it is, as it is much better heated than privately rented or owner-occupied property. The figures are there for all to see.

To any colleagues in the House who are nervous about the Bill, perhaps including Stephen Pound and the hon. Member for Hendon, I would say that where there is a will, there is a way. We have to take this Bill and turn it into legislation that can deliver what we want, which is a job for a Committee, not for proceedings here. I endorse what Mr. Cox and Charles Hendry said about the inadequacy of the present system. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome is seeking to deal with a system that is not just piecemeal but confusing.

There are three failures. There is the problem that although some people are being targeted who should be targeted, others are being targeted when they should not be. Apparently, more than 100,000 households with a combined income of more than £100,000 a year receive the winter fuel allowance every year. Members of the House of Lords have told me that they receive it because they are pensioners, but clearly they do not need it. That is a nonsense of a system.

Secondly, the explanation of the tariff options is very confusing. I looked at the Consumer Focus website, which customers are supposed to consult. With the best will in the world, I do not think that people should require a table that takes up an entire page. The eventual figures depend on whether people are low, medium or high users, on whether they use gas, electricity or dual fuel, and on who supplies their fuel. Then there is the small print. If any of us tried to read all that, we would be lost for accurate answers.

The third failure—Fiona Mactaggart made this point very tellingly—is the prepayment meter system, under which in many instances the poorest and those who use least will pay more.

We live in a country that provides us with huge amounts of our own fuel—gas, oil and coal—along with the potential for renewables. We also face a huge challenge in dealing with carbon emissions, 27 per cent. of which emanate from domestic households. What should we do now? Mr. Amess introduced a similar Bill in 2000, and my hon. Friend Andrew Stunell introduced another in 2004. The Bill presented today by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome seeks to pick up where the law appears to have left off after last year's High Court judgment—which, I should point out to the hon. Member for Hendon, is currently on appeal. We do not know what the final judicial decision will be.

As other Members on both sides of the House have observed, this is exactly the sort of Bill that gives credibility to Parliament. These are the issues that matter to our constituents. The Bill is central to what we should be doing. It is in the great tradition of the social legislation that gave us pensions, national insurance and the national health service. We have a job to do in dealing with the social issues of the day, and the Bill gives us an opportunity to do that job now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome referred to the huge amount of support that he had received. I echo the tributes paid to Ron Bailey and others. The fuel poverty charter movement involved a range of supportive non-governmental organisations. Members in pretty well every corner of the House have signed the relevant early-day motion: many Labour colleagues, Conservative colleagues, Plaid Cymru colleagues, Democratic Unionist colleagues, Scottish National party and Social Democratic and Labour party colleagues, and independent colleagues, as well as a large number of my Liberal Democrat colleagues.

I commend the local press—many local papers have taken up the issue—and the national press, particularly Nigel Nelson and the Sunday People. As soon as my right hon. Friend Mr. Clegg became leader of our party, he chose this as the first subject on which to challenge the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time. We have published our proposals, which, like those of Charles Hendry, include a national programme to ensure that not a single household would not benefit from the scheme, except those that did not wish to do so. The finance can be raised by the utility companies, and the system would save money as it proceeds.

Finally, let me point out to the hon. Member for Hendon and others who are worried about the duty in this Bill that the Climate Change Act 2008 clearly imposes a duty on Government. If we are determined together to implement the Government's policy, we must set ourselves a duty. The wording may need to be changed, but I hope that today we will have the conviction—

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