Fuel Poverty Bill

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 1:51 pm on 20th March 2009.

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Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Energy and Climate Change) 1:51 pm, 20th March 2009

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's willingness to work with the Government. Unfortunately, I think that he has been poorly advised. As I will go on to say, the point central to his Bill and how it is framed, as he acknowledged today, is that there is an absolute duty. The other issues are to do with the consultations being conducted, which cannot be prejudged in respect of our adopting a new and different fuel poverty strategy from that which exists under current legislation.

Fuel poverty and energy efficiency are huge and complex subjects of which we now have considerable experience. When I became a Minister at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, I was delighted to have the portfolio because it is an important part of the Government's progressive agenda for people and the environment. It quickly became apparent that the huge rises in fuel prices had driven the achieving of our targets off course.

I share the concern of all those both inside and outside the House for people whose lives are blighted by living in the cold. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said so passionately in his opening remarks, it cannot be right. I share the genuine sentiments expressed by Members on both Opposition Benches and I thank them for their compliments. It is because we are deeply concerned that we have had, and continue to have, a raft of measures in place and have increased funding in the current spending round.

Understandably, however, non-governmental organisations with an interest in the field have spoken up on behalf of their constituents. That is their job and we respect them for it, but the Government have to take decisions for the whole country and the whole economy. That is why when the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 came into force, it set targets that the Government had to reach

"as far as reasonably practicable".

That is all any Government could commit to do in primary legislation.

The Bill would remove that consideration from the duty on Government and I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore for so clearly setting out why the Bill would not work. Under existing legislation, a person is defined as living in fuel poverty if they are a member of a household living on a lower income and in a home that cannot be kept warm at reasonable cost. The Government's fuel poverty strategy sets out that being fuel poor means spending more than 10 per cent. of income on fuel to maintain a satisfactory heating regime, generally defined as 21° C in the living room and 18° C in the bedroom.

Fuel poverty is not just about income, however; it is a complex interaction between fuel costs, household income and household energy efficiency. All three factors are variable, in that households can go into and out of fuel poverty, as Charles Hendry effectively outlined in his speech. A person on a low income with an unclaimed benefit entitlement can be taken out of fuel poverty simply by making a successful claim and, as he suggested, a person who is not in fuel poverty could become so on the loss of their job.

Critically, if fuel prices rise dramatically, as they have done in recent years, large numbers of people will become fuel poor regardless of all other circumstances. My right hon. Friend Frank Dobson made a powerful speech on the subject of fuel prices. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has used his very best efforts for an international agreement to put controls on the steep rises in the price of the energy we all require. Furthermore, we now face unprecedented times of global recession.

Our first and overwhelming objection to the Bill is its attempt to impose an absolute duty on Government. Clearly, that is a response to the recent High Court judgment, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon referred.

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