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We should be wary that over-complication and over-prescription could risk the defeat of our own objectives, and lead to our prescriptions to the industry for low-carbon homes being too inflexible and therefore too expensive. More flexibility might enable the private sector to deliver some of the objectives more simply and efficiently.
I shall now talk about smart metering. I was a shadow environment spokesman under the previous Government, and assorted people lobbied me heavily-as they did my opposite numbers, I suspect-about their particular designs of smart meter. I am aware that the field is very competitive. I make no judgment between the different systems, but I am increasingly aware that smart metering covers a multitude of sins. There are tough decisions ahead for the ministerial team about exactly which designs we might favour.
At the most basic level, we are talking about something that just generates information that can be read out on a display, and might be reflected on a bill. That would be useful, but rather limited. More sophisticated systems influence the timing of devices such as washing machines and dishwashers so that they operate at different times and improve the efficiency of the whole household.
The most interactive technology feeds real-time information back to the energy companies themselves and could improve the efficiency of the whole network. I would draw a line at the kind of systematic smart metering that enabled people to switch suppliers minute by minute, which I know has been suggested by some hon. Members. The machine itself searches for the best deal and tariff at any particular minute. That would lead to indescribable confusion over billing and might destabilise businesses from week to week. However, we need to look at the various different technologies and be ambitious about what smart metering can deliver.
On energy markets and pricing, the Minister rightly said that we suffered from a plethora of different energy efficiency programmes under the last Government. Many were well intentioned and individually well designed, but there was a lot of stopping and starting and different, confusing and overlapping requirements. Last Christmas I visited the Cheltenham Royal Mail sorting office and found postal workers falling over heaps of low-energy light bulbs as one energy company in particular had mailed out huge numbers of the things at the last possible moment. I am not surprised that the Minister said that 262 million had been supplied.
In a way, I suppose that the bulbs were a good thing, but they spectacularly missed the point. While price still rewards energy consumption, it will always be difficult to mobilise the energy companies really to get behind energy efficiency. For the longer term, I commend to the Minister one other Lib Dem policy that did not quite make it into the coalition agreement. It was to take energy bills and set a historic baseline amount for each household, taking into account the number of children and so on, which would be reflected in the historic consumption. Thereafter, the cost to consumers would rise if energy consumption rose, but the energy company would not be allowed to profit from that rise.
Instead, the surplus would be taken, for example, into a fund administered by the company for energy efficiency or environmental programmes. At a stroke, that would break the link between profit and increased energy use; it would actually cost the energy company money if energy use rose. The company would have a direct financial business case for increasing energy efficiency. That would be hugely simpler than all the complicated schemes in which the companies were set targets and sought various ways-some of them rather untestable and unverifiable-of trying to meet Government objectives. If the Minister adopts that policy, I really will think that he is turning into a Liberal Democrat.
If the coalition is to deliver on these ambitious targets, and on its ambition to be the greenest Government yet, we will need, in the Minister's words, to change the game and be really ambitious, bold and radical. I fully expect that we will be.
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