Home Energy Conservation Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee on 24th January 2002.

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[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown 9:30 am, 24th January 2002

I beg to move,

That, if proceedings on the Home Energy Conservation Bill are not concluded at today's sitting, the Committee do meet on Tuesday 5th February at half-past Ten o'clock and half-past Four o'clock.

As members of the Committee will observe, there are a considerable number of amendments, and that implies that more time will be needed to consider them than is available in a short morning sitting. The sittings motion allows us to reconvene on 5 February, with morning and afternoon sittings available.

I am not aware that anyone has departed from the political consensus on the Bill on Second Reading, which was fairly remarkable by the standards of private Members' Bills. The Committee will try to resolve drafting problems.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Sayeed Mr Jonathan Sayeed Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

It is a pleasure to serve under your esteemed chairmanship, Mr. Benton, and it is important that we have adequate time to discuss the Bill. I begin by reiterating the general support offered to the Bill by the Conservative party. As I stated on Second Reading, any Bill that aims to make further provisions for energy conservation and the eradication of fuel poverty certainly deserves the support of the House and the Committee.

On Second Reading, many hon. Members expressed measured support for the proposal to establish a registration and licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation. My party recommended several courses of action to strengthen and improve the Bill, and I appreciate the fact that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) has subsequently agreed to address those suggestions through amendments. We need time to discuss those amendments.

As we know, part 1 concerns home energy conservation. The Bill proposes to achieve the 30 per cent. target of improvement in energy efficiency in residential accommodation by 2010, the aim set out in the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. As we consider that, it is important to recognise that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has stated that

''The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 requires all UK local authorities with housing responsibilities to prepare, publish and submit to the Secretary of State an energy conservation report identifying energy conservation measures, which it considers practicable, cost-effective and likely to result in a significant improvement in the energy efficiency of all residential accommodation in its area.''

It is important that we have time to consider that against some of the Government's proposals in their amendments.

DEFRA has also said that

''The Act covers all residential accommodation across all ownership and tenure. It defines residential accommodation as 'premises occupied or intended to be occupied as a separate dwelling and forming the whole or part of a building.' Mobile homes are specifically included.

The Energy Conservation Act 1996 extends the definition of residential accommodation in the 1995 Act to include houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) and certain house-boats''.

Although many hon. Members expressed concern that some provisions of the Bill would encourage a bureaucratic approach by local government, this part of it would consolidate the powers of local authorities and help them to be guided by more influential targets. Previously, the requirement to achieve the target was set by ministerial guidance only.

The explanatory notes make it clear that energy conservation authorities have insufficient powers to monitor or co-ordinate efforts to meet energy efficiency guidelines. We must hope that HECA officers will be given greater enforcement powers, and it is highly surprising that the Government have tabled amendments to eliminate that possibility. They also aim to leave out the clause that details ways of encouraging the better co-ordination of energy efficiency schemes, and have, in effect, filleted part 1.

One third of the nation' s fuel poor population is in registered social landlord tenure. Despite that, the Government have tabled an amendment to remove registered social landlords from the obligation to meet energy efficiency targets. The largest proportion of those who live in fuel poverty or with inefficient energy systems is made up by the most vulnerable people in society, such as the young and the old, and also includes those who live in social landlord properties. We need time to discuss the Government's intention to ensure that the vulnerable are assisted. We need time to discuss the Government's amendment, which makes a mockery of their energy efficiency targets and makes the Bill inequitable.

We need time to discuss the indisputable aims of part 2. As the House concurred on Second Reading, it is hard to believe that we are still discussing attempts to combat fuel poverty. Again, we should allow the statistics to speak for themselves. Data from the 1996 English house condition survey, which I hope that we shall discuss, show that 4.3 million households out of a total of 19.6 million were regarded as fuel poor. The UK energy report for 2000 states that half the households in fuel poverty contain people aged over 60. One in six fuel poor households contain young children. More than half of the fuel poor are owner-occupiers, about a seventh are in the private rented sector and the remaining third are in local authority registered social landlord tenure. We need time to discuss why the Government intend to take them out of the Bill.

The Conservative party has made substantial efforts to reduce the high number of winter deaths through measures such as the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which my hon. Friend the

Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) introduced. The Conservatives introduced the Gas Act 1986, which privatised British Gas, although I should say in parenthesis that the current Prime Minister and Chancellor voted against it. Domestic gas prices are estimated to have decreased by 29 per cent. in real terms as a result of that Act.

The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act stated that it should be the duty of the appropriate authority to prepare and publish a strategy and targets to ensure that, as far as possible, the homes of persons in fuel poverty were kept warm at a reasonable cost. The Act bound the Government to implement a strategy to end fuel poverty in 15 years and aimed to resolve the lack of co-ordination between local and central Government. Only last year, the Minister stated:

''This Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty, particularly among those households most at risk to ill health due to cold homes; the old, children, the disabled and the chronically sick. The two main causes of fuel poverty are low income and poor energy efficiency in the home.''—[Official Report, 6 April 2000; Vol. 347, c. 548W.]

We need time to discuss why the Government tabled amendment No. 36, which would omit the Bill's fuel poverty provisions entirely, despite the fact that Age Concern statistics showed in November last year that 77 per cent. of single pensioners and 43 per cent. of older couples, at least one of whom is of pensioner age, are fuel poor.

The Bill gives local energy conservation authorities an increased sense of purpose and the conviction to ensure that the fuel poverty strategy is adhered to and that targets are met. The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown deal with the issue by handing the Secretary of State's powers of enforcement to the appropriate authorities, and that is right.

We can expect most debate to revolve around part 3 and the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. The Government have yet to fulfil their promise, on page 26 of their 1997 manifesto, that:

''We will provide protection where most needed: for tenants in houses in multiple occupation. There will be a proper system of licensing by local authorities which will benefit tenants and responsible landlords alike.''

No such legislation has been forthcoming, although there has been some consultation on licensing landlords in low-demand areas.

In April 2000, the Government published a Green Paper on housing, which reiterated their intention to legislate to introduce licensing for HMOs. It states:

''Both physical conditions and management standards in the sector are often worst in houses in multiple occupation . . . such as large nineteenth-century buildings converted into bedsits. These can also pose more severe fire risks to occupants. We are already committed to introducing, as soon as Parliamentary time allows, a compulsory licensing system for HMOs, and to modernising and rationalising the confusing mass of controls in this area.''

The Conservative party supports greater protection for tenants in HMOs that do not meet acceptable health and safety standards. However, we need time to ensure that the regulations are not excessively

burdensome on responsible landlords; otherwise the availability of affordable rented accommodation could be restricted.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown intends to introduce provisions to allow a maximum threshold for registration fees. A Residential Renting article that I quoted on Second Reading raised concerns that a similar initiative to licence HMOs in Scotland had resulted in major differences in charges by local authorities. It stated that:

''landlords were consulted but were then effectively sidelined. The remit and scope for licensing ballooned as activists took over on a costs no object basis.''

The article also stated that local authorities in Scotland had been left to determine their own licence fees, which varied greatly. I am therefore pleased that we shall have time to discuss the issue, which the Bill will tackle, to ensure that landlords are not subjected to unco-ordinated or unjust registration schemes. The hon. Gentleman also noted my concern that an effective appeals procedure should be implemented to prevent good landlords from being unfairly penalised.

More recently, the Bill came under scrutiny in an article by Lorna Bourke in The Sunday Telegraph. According to the Small Landlords Association, a

''landlord who owns a property that has become a designated HMO will not necessarily get planning permission to withdraw from the market and sell their property.''

Shelter has confirmed that some local authorities have refused planning permission when landlords have applied to convert an HMO into a single dwelling. The Local Government Association has implied that local authorities have the jurisdiction to refuse planning permission for conversion back to single dwelling status, where their housing development policies so require. It is clear that that is currently a local planning authority issue, but we must recognise that the Bill may impose on landlords new costs that they may not be able to afford.

In summary, the Conservative party offers its support for the part of the Bill that deals with the elimination of fuel poverty. We offer our support in principle to the part of the Bill that deals with home energy conservation, although we want some clear indication that the Government are committed to achieving the targets of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. We appreciate that the sponsor of the Bill has accepted many of our concerns, but we shall await events before deciding our position on that part of the Bill that deals with licensing. Although we support the principle, we all know that, in Committee, the devil is always in the detail.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South 9:45 am, 24th January 2002

I begin by expressing thanks and praise to those who have called for further sittings of the Committee. However, my first thanks should be to you, Mr. Benton. It is a real pleasure to be a member of a Committee chaired by you. I count it as the pinnacle of my career—and I shall tell the Committee why. You and I originate from the same place—Bootle, the constituency that has the good fortune to be represented by you. I grew up in

Bootle knowing that it was the centre of the western world, that Liverpool was its best known suburb, and that the world view that emanated from there was based on generosity, wisdom, kindness and good humour. I see all those merits reflected in the qualities that you will no doubt bring to our proceedings, Mr. Benton—as you have done throughout your time in Parliament. It is a privilege to be a member of this Committee.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown for the incredible amount of work that he has done to bring before the Committee a Bill that has the potential to be truly astonishing. It will help move the Government's commitments forward in a dramatic way. It is about delivery, and I think that he is entitled to bask in the praises that would otherwise go unsung for the huge amount of work that he has done behind the scenes.

It would be crass of me to disconnect those praises from the work that has also been done by Opposition Members, particularly by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed). We have had the most constructive parliamentary support that the House could wish for. The Opposition offer the broad brush of support, but focus on ensuring that the House passes good legislation—a Bill that works and is fair. That approach is entirely to the credit of the House.

We need further sittings, because we seem to be in a position similar to that of the Committee that met last year to debate the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill. It is what my mother would affectionately call ''deja vu all over again''. Then, as now, a huge amount of work was done behind the scenes. Then, as now, when the Committee met for its first sitting it was presented with a series of amendments tabled in the Minister's name that seemed to head in a different direction from the comments made by all parties on Second Reading. That had the potential to do serious damage to the competence and relevance of the Bill. Then, as now, there was an urgent need for further sittings in order to iron out those differences and misunderstandings.

In some respects, it would have been better not to have started from this point. We may wish to have started from somewhere else, but we cannot. We have to iron out the problem of starting where we do. To all intents and purposes, the framework agreement reached before Christmas by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown is to be changed by a series of amendments that again appear to head in a different direction. That may be the result of misunderstanding or of mischief.

However, I well recall that at a similar point last year, on a different Bill, the Minister with responsibility for that Bill walked into the first sitting of the Committee saying that everything was agreed and we would all be out of there in five minutes. The rest of the Committee had to say, ''No, Minister, absolutely not—the amendments tabled in your name

have not been agreed by the promoters of the Bill, and they are not likely to attract support from other members of the Committee.''

The advice on the basis of which those amendments were tabled was either wrong or downright dishonest. Fortunately, the Bill was salvaged by the intervention of the Minister for the Environment, who, happily, is responsible for the Committee today. On his return—from Brussels, I think, but I am not sure—on the same day, he came into the Committee, looked at the amendments and declared that they did not reflect the Government's determination to eradicate fuel poverty. The Minister for the Environment is an unsung hero of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which sets a target date for the eradication of fuel poverty in Britain. It is in order to give meaning, form and targets to that legislative framework that we introduced this Bill.

In considering the need for further sittings, we must recognise that parts of the civil service are deeply confused about four key areas, although the body politic of Parliament is not. The first of those areas relates to the statutory targets. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire is right to say that if targets are reduced to aspirations, Parliament risks passing legislation that would discredit it. That would provide a poor service not only to the public, but to Members of all parties who have a genuine commitment to eradicating fuel poverty. The issue of the targets and the references to them in the Bill will form the basis of the Committee's future discussions.

Secondly, there is confusion about the position of residential landlords. It would be nonsensical, and would expose the Minister and perhaps the Government to the most wretched criticism, if we were to be disingenuous in our commitments. We should be willing to impose clear duties on private sector landlords. We have already set targets for the public sector, but if the 600,000 properties that have already been transferred to registered social landlords were found to be among the poorest in the housing stock, we would be denounced as having a cynical disregard for those who occupy public sector housing.

That charge would be unanswerable. It is within our power to include provisions in the Bill to deliver what the Minister has regularly told us must be an inclusive framework for the fuel poverty elimination strategy. For me, the suggestion that that should be quietly pushed to one side is incomprehensible. To do so would undermine the progress that we hope to make in respect of the other two sectors.

There is a third case for ensuring that explicit references to fuel poverty are not excluded from the Bill: that issue is the Bill's raison d'etre, and we ought not to walk away from it.

There is a small but significant omission from the Bill of any mention of a start date. I understand the significance of that in a domestic context. The issue is reminiscent of the difference between aspirational objectives and clear targets. The discussions that I have with my 10-year-old stepdaughter about my aspirational desire for her to go bed at the end of the evening require some clarity on the start date for the

process and the targets governing its completion. I am amazed at her ingenuity and ability to make aspirational moves and incremental gestures, without ever bloody getting there. The clarity that a start date and a target provide is essential to gaining a coherent sense of how our household strategy will work.

The same applies to the strategy that Parliament needs to develop in order to deliver for households across the country by ensuring that the elimination of fuel poverty is achieved by the target date that the Government have already set in the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000. We know we can do it, because we have set the targets and programmes for doing it. I hope that on that basis, the Committee will agree to further sittings, so that we can start at the appropriate point.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

It is a great pleasure to support the Bill. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire and the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) in congratulating you on your Chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I look forward to the Committee's proceedings.

It seems essential, and both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Nottingham, South have made the point well, that the Bill should be discussed in detail. I am strongly in favour of private Members' Bills. I am a new Member, and Second Reading was my first opportunity to speak on a private Member's Bill. I have always believed that parliamentary business is best conducted, if possible, by consensus. One of the best ways to get round the problem of politicians being held in such low esteem is for Members from all parties to come together on legislation on which they can agree, and push it forward. It was a great example of that when the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown introduced this Bill and worked hard to secure an all-party consensus.

I was impressed that certain of my hon. Friends said that, as landlords, they had nothing to fear from the provisions. Two constituents, however, have contacted me to say that they have concerns about the Bill. They are coming to my surgery tomorrow. I would like to hear their concerns and then be able to reflect them in the Committee, for which purpose I would appreciate the chance of further sittings.

I was interested in what the hon. Member for Nottingham, South said about his stepdaughter. I understand that targets must be clear, and I am rather puzzled by the Minister's actions in tabling certain of the amendments. I know that he favours targets. While listening to the speeches of other Members, I have been wondering how much to quote of the various pronouncements that the Minister has made on the subject of targets. I could flog the subject of how keen the Minister is on targets for hours, but I shall not bother to do so, because I hope that, using the immense wisdom at his disposal, he will reconsider the issue.

The fact of the matter is that targets help. When Michael Heseltine replaced Chris Patten, who went on to become Governor of Hong Kong, as Secretary of State for the Environment in 1992, he started issuing

decrees in his new Department stating that there should be targets and dates by which it should have accomplished things. I remember reading a long article about that in The Independent, which said that civil servants were warning him, ''Minister, don't you realise? If you come out with all these public declarations that you will do something by such and such a date, you will be exposed, because you might not actually achieve them.'' Michael Heseltine apparently responded by saying, ''Well, you'd better make sure that we do, then, hadn't you?'' There is nothing like giving a public commitment to achieve something for focusing the mind and ensuring that it is actually achieved.

I shall quote from a speech made on Second Reading:

''I have no doubt that making the achievement of the targets mandatory will focus minds and will assist the local authority officers responsible for achieving the targets in negotiating for resources and delivering what they are required to deliver.''—[Official Report, 30 November 2001; Vol. 375, c. 1259.]

As Sting said, if one cannot recycle one's own songs, it's a pretty poor show. That quotation was taken from my speech. I said that because it was plain to me from discussions that I had had and from letters that I had received from local authorities—I believe that many hon. Members received similar letters—that the authorities wanted mandatory targets to enable their officers to do their job. South Norfolk district council wrote to me asking me to support the Bill, as did many of my constituents. The mandatory targets are what will make the difference. We need time to discuss the issue in depth in Committee.

I am astonished by the Government amendments' apparent potential to remove the obligations from registered social landlords. I share the concerns that have been expressed about that. The poorest and most vulnerable people in society will be affected.

On clause 8, which was also mentioned on Second Reading, I believe that registered social landlords should not be exempt from the need to register. I would have thought that if no one, including landlords, need fear the Bill, then registered social landlords need not fear it either. I hope that we will have time to discuss that issue. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) spoke powerfully on the subject of social landlords, pointing out that although many of them are good, others are not. There is a strong case for suggesting that the Bill's provisions should apply to them as well.

In conclusion, I hope that I have added force to the arguments already expressed that we need time to discuss the Bill in Committee in order to ensure that it becomes law. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, who has done such good work so far, should be allowed to steer his Bill through the House. I suggest to the Minister that he consider taking his paws off the hon. Gentleman's good work.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford 10:00 am, 24th January 2002

Having heard such wonderful words about you, Mr. Benton, I look forward to working with you.

I also support the views already expressed on the need to spend longer on this vital Bill. On the one hand it is good that it is on its way, but on the other hand it is sad that we are in this position yet again. For years, as a member of the public, I signed petitions about the subject matter of this Bill. It is ironic that the whole thing has not been wrapped up by this stage. We need to consider what the Bill is for, what it represents and where it sits in terms of the Government's thinking as a whole. It does two things. It addresses both poverty, in particular fuel poverty, and substantial environmental concerns, which, according to the Government's 1997 declaration, are at the heart of Government.

The Bill sets out a commitment to the eradication of fuel poverty. That needs to be delivered in many different ways. The Bill includes the setting of targets for its implementation, and also specifies who should be covered by its provisions. It is a short Bill, but it is complete. It goes to the heart of where the need is, but agreement on that is not total. Amendment No. 28, which seems to cut right across the Bill's aims, will require much consideration before we reach a satisfactory conclusion.

As I am sure the Committee is aware, the Liberal Democrats have been consistent supporters not only of this Bill but of its previous incarnations. We are pleased to be here today supporting it again.

Where are the targets in the first amendment? As a new Member—I am sure that other Members found this when they first entered the House—one sometimes reads a Bill and asks, ''Where does it say what's going happen?'' In response, someone will say, ''There will be guidelines to deal with that.'' Away from the House one might ask why a certain provision was not implemented and be told that it was only in the guidelines. Provisions are not implemented on bodies such as school organisation committees because the guidelines that contain them are not enforceable. We need to examine how on earth guidelines for local government can be enforceable.

One of the nice things about being a new Member is that people beat a path to one's door. People are very encouraging, but they want to know that the new Member knows who they are and how he or she can help them. Among the first to visit me was the local representative of the Energy Saving Trust, who brought along with him the Home Energy Conservation Act officer for Guildford, who promptly told me that this Bill was coming up and urged me to support it and give him the targets and tools to finish the job. Those involved in energy conservation do not feel that they have the necessary tools. They do not feel that there is any enforcement, and clearly there is not.

In my previous incarnation as an IT manager in a fast changing industry, I was regularly required to say what I was going to do and when I would do it by. I had to set targets. Those of us who have been on the dreadful management treadmill will be familiar with that. In the early days, the targets were always a problem. People learned quite early on that they

should not set targets that they could not achieve, but rather ones that they could and should achieve. That is why the idea that we should not set targets in case we fail is such an outmoded way of thinking. We should be setting correct achievable targets, which people should be seen to be achieving—and if people fail to achieve their targets, we need to see that as well, for heaven's sake.

The targets are important, but the route by which we attain them must also be measured. Finding out three months before the end of the project, as happens so often in Government, that a target is not going to be achieved, is too late. It does not help the very people whom the Bill is intended to support. We are letting them down. We need the targets and we need them to be realistic, measurable and achievable. We do not need to duck the whole issue. Without clear measurement and reporting on the route to attainment of the targets, anything is possible and anything can be hidden. The removal of the targets would completely neutralise the Bill.

I have a lot of sympathy for the hon. Member for Nottingham, South on the subject of his stepdaughter. My words of warning are that as stepdaughters get older, the job gets tougher. Progress needs to be measured; otherwise, in my experience, one gives up on the task, particularly if one is not the custodial parent. If the Bill is emasculated and does not include provisions for the recording of progress, and no one is required to report on it, we will end up with the Minister saying, ''We had hoped to deal with that. I thought that that would work.'' Ministers regularly say such things in Select Committees and in the Chamber. At a community health council meeting a former Minister will sometimes say, ''I had hoped that that would work.'' We do not have a choice. We do not want to hope that the Bill will work; we want to force it to work, because it is essential.

On Second Reading, most of the time was not spent on the first part of the Bill, because it was assumed that that was in the bag. It is amazing that measures that have already been discussed are coming back as an amendment. However, Part 3 contains many issues that need consideration. Without rehearsing points that will be discussed later, I can say that that was clear from the amount of time taken up in discussing landlords and multiple occupancy, who was in or out, the necessity of ensuring that the Bill was not a problem for good and just landlords and could be implemented by them, and ensuring that it would not reduce the number of properties on the market in this important sector.

However, more work is required. We need sufficient time to consider matters in order to ensure that the Bill does not have to come back again in three years' time under another private Member's banner, after a ballot, to correct a problem that developed at this stage. We would do ourselves a lot of favours if we gave the Bill the necessary consideration on this occasion. I hope that all the people who have been working towards this for so many years will not find themselves depending on yet another ballot.

The Government have set themselves the target of being a green Government and working towards ending fuel poverty. This legislation is very important. It will test our mettle and show us where we want to be in terms of delivery. I hope that we get the time that we need to debate the Bill. I look forward to working on it, and to producing a good piece of legislation on behalf of the people who elected me.

Photo of Mr Harold Best Mr Harold Best Labour, Leeds North West

I join those who have welcomed you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. I am sure that it will be a pleasure for us all to consider the Bill under your chairmanship.

I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, and I am delighted at his determination. We shall need to make a considerable effort to meet those collectively accepted objectives. In that regard, I also welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. We have grounds for being hopeful about a broad spectrum of consensus on the development. I also welcome the observations of the Liberal spokesperson, the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty).

As I said on Second Reading, in a short time my constituency has seen radical changes, which have been driven by the dramatic growth in the number of houses in multiple occupation. We are not dealing only with the prospects for landlords and tenants, important thought they are—together with the need for energy efficiency, that is the core of the Bill. We are also dealing with the fact that communities that have been severely disturbed by the reckless expansion of HMOs might reasonably hope to see their quality of life restored. The Bill certainly opens up that possibility. It may have to be tackled in other legislation, but the density of HMOs can have a devastating effect on close communities. The seasonal use of HMOs, with vacancies for four months of the year, is an issue that might more properly be addressed in planning and other legislation.

Today is a day of hope. When I was first elected to the House in 1997, I joined others to see what might be done about the need to legislate in that area. There have been moments of real despair, when it seemed that we would make no progress. The good luck of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown in coming so high in the ballot for private Members' Bills has opened up a fortuitous opportunity—one that we should not miss.

There is broad agreement about the complexities of such issues, and I share some minor anxieties that some of them may not be easy to resolve. About four weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a small group of landlords from my constituency who had been expressing alarm about the decline in the general property status of the area for several months. Those people have been in the business for many years, and they want standards to be raised so that they can have a traditional relationship with their tenants. The Bill offers the prospect of higher standards in properties, not only in comfort and heat conservation, but in the general safety of gas and electrical supplies, which are crucial to the safety of the people who own them and of those who live there.

I am a keen supporter of the Bill. I agree that we need more time. I shall resume my seat because many of the things that I might have said have already been said. However, I should like to add my voice to those expressing the need for further sittings and I look forward to that suggestion being accepted so that we can bring the Committee's good intentions to fruition in a measurable result.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Billericay 10:15 am, 24th January 2002

It gives me great pleasure to support the Bill, for two reasons. First, I consider it an important Bill, as it deals with poverty. Secondly, this is an occasion on which politicians from every party are working together for a common purpose. I welcome the opportunity to be part of that initiative in an important area. The Bill is important because it deals with an aspect of poverty. It has three parts: to provide reasonable targets for home energy efficiency, to help eradicate fuel poverty and to license houses in multiple occupation.

In essence, we are dealing with poverty, the relief of which should be one of the main objectives of politics. The vast majority of hon. Members would agree with that; it is just that we sometimes disagree about how best to achieve that objective. However, it is pleasing that on this Bill, politicians from all parties can co-operate for the common good.

I have to declare an interest, Mr. Benton, as I did on Second Reading. I am a landlord who rents accommodation. I should like to put it on record that I have no problem at all with the Bill—on the contrary, I welcome it. Landlords have suffered in the past and had a poor reputation because of a few unscrupulous ones who have sought to exploit their tenants and their situation. The vast majority of landlords would welcome the Bill because it would demonstrate once and for all that they wish to be good landlords, do not wish to exploit their tenants and will adhere to safety standards, particularly fire safety standards, and ensure that they are met. As a landlord, I wholeheartedly welcome and support the Bill. It will do the profession a lot of good.

I should like to reiterate the comments of other hon. Members in saying that it is important that we should have enough time to discuss the aspects of the Bill that require clarification. For example, target dates are important. Without them, nothing will change. If the Government's amendments are agreed, the law will not change. Local authorities need more help in instigating the targets that we have set, and following the guidance that we have produced, but the process needs to be firmed up—without targets, the law will not change.

Part 3 needs a little more clarification; there is a range of issues to be discussed. One of my concerns is that there is a danger that if we introduce too much red tape and cost, we could force private landlords out of the market. That would be a great shame. Such people provide a lot of accommodation across the country; if we force them out of the market, there is a danger that

we will create homelessness for many tenants. I ask the Committee to give sufficient time to the consideration of that matter.

The experience in Scotland was mentioned, and lessons can be learned from it. There were concerns that costs were becoming a key factor in people's decisions about whether to continue as landlords or, indeed, to go into the market at all. We must learn from the Scottish experience, and we have sufficient time to do so.

Important amendments have been tabled, not least of which is my amendment on smoke detectors. It is crucial that we deal with that issue, because statistics strongly suggest that tenants in HMOs face a far greater risk of dying in a fire than other tenants. This is not the time to discuss that important matter, but I hope that we shall have sufficient time to do so later.

As a private landlord, I wholeheartedly support and welcome this important Bill, and I hope that we shall be given enough time to discuss its various aspects.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

This has been one of the more interesting debates that I have heard on a sittings motion. When I learned of the intentions of the Bill's promoter, I expected that we would sit for only a few minutes, but I am now speaking 51 minutes later. None the less, this has been an interesting and rewarding discussion, and, in some sense, a re-run of Second Reading.

After the eulogy from the hon. Member for Nottingham, South on your chairmanship, Mr. Benton, there is little for me to add, other than that I am pleased to see you in the Chair. I, too, pay a real and sincere tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown for introducing this important Bill, to which I am pleased to be respond on the Government's behalf.

The Bill is complex, and several hon. Members have raised valid issues that we can discuss further. An unusually large number of amendments have been tabled, many of which are drafting amendments, but many of which are not. I look forward to discussing them.

Reference was made to the importance of private Member's Bills. I am one of those who think that such Bills should play a bigger role in Parliament than they traditionally have. There is a belief that the Government virtually monopolise the legislative timetable. They obviously have a strong role in that regard, because they are elected to legislate. However, private Member's Bills play an important role. The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 was groundbreaking, although it had some unfortunate flaws. The Bill seeks to redress some of those, while building on the Act's strengths. In addition to this Bill, we have had the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 and the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill, which is currently going through the House. I have had the privilege of playing a role in all of the last three provisions. I want the tradition of well-prepared, well-documented and well-resourced Bills to which the Government can respond to grow.

Obviously, the Government will accept only Bills that are broadly within their strategic objectives—there can be no dubiety about that. At the same time, there are real opportunities to make advances that are consistent with Government priorities, and the Bill is an excellent example of that.

The Bill is ambitious and radical, and I shall respond as positively as I can to it. I shall, of course, refer to the Government's record and to the fact that we have revamped the home energy efficiency scheme. The scheme that we inherited had a ceiling of £300 a household, which we have increased to £2,000. In April, we will introduce the energy efficiency commitment for the next three years, which is an extremely important way to ensure that electricity and gas suppliers provide the type of projects on behalf of householders that will improve energy efficiency.

Above all, we have made a clear and ringing commitment to end fuel poverty for all the priority households—those of pensioners, the disabled, the chronically ill and families with young children on low incomes—by 2010. We stand by that. The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) will quote me as saying that I commit myself to that target. I entirely agree with Michael Heseltine in that targets are important, and we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to that goal and will achieve it.

I want to comment on some individual points. The debate is on the sittings motion, so it would be inappropriate for me to go into too much detail. I shall make a few preparatory comments on which I shall expand later. The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 is groundbreaking. As all hon. Members recognise, it is flawed in important respects, especially in terms of targets, enforcements and time scales. Significantly, the Bill contains no targets, which was suggested in the guidance. As a result of that guidance, the reports drawn up were variegated. Some were good, some ambitious, some highly aspirational, some modest, and some contained no targets. A handful of local authorities did not produce reports at all. When considering enforcement of the reports, we have to ask what is the best means to do so, as the Government have had to do.

If there is common ground about the flaws in the Bill, we must agree on the best mechanisms with which to correct them. I enter unreservedly into the spirit of trying to achieve worthwhile targets and the enforcement mechanisms to ensure that they are met. If that cannot be done as is proposed in the Bill, rather than give a negative response and wash my hands of it, I want to propose a way in which we can do so better. I accept the target, and I want to propose a way to best achieve the objective of everyone who has spoken today.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire made a constructive speech, and it is striking that all parties represented in the Committee are united in support of the general purposes of the Bill. He made one or two taunts about what he thought were the inadequacies in the Government's response to the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South took a rather different tack by hammering me with praise and asking

how I could conceivably do other than wholeheartedly support the Bill, given my unsung record. Between that Scylla and Charybdis, I will do my best to navigate a happy and agreeable course.

I will not strain your patience, Mr. Benton, by going into detail, but I want to touch lightly on the key points. I shall deal first with the enforcement of targets. I can tell the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire that we are not eliminating greater enforcement powers, or ''filleting'' part 1 of the Bill—that is based on a total misunderstanding. I accept the necessity to have an adequate means of enforcement. However, my point—perhaps he has not had an opportunity to take this on board—is that we have to be clear about what it is that we are enforcing, and that what we are enforcing will produce the objective that we want. That is the issue to which I would ask the Committee to give further thought.

Secondly, I come to the responsibilities of registered social landlords, which include energy conservation, safety from fire and so on. The Housing Corporation, as hon. Members know, regulates the RSLs and sets energy efficiency standards, and it is working with colleagues in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions on aspects of the Bill that relate to RSLs.

Of course, I reject the canard that we are, somehow, imposing obligations on private landlords but are excluding RSLs. That is not the case. Again, the issue is how best to ensure that RSLs are committed to and will achieve the energy standards that we set them. I have a proposition to put to the Committee that I believe will meet that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South raised the question of targets—with delightful references to his 10-year-old stepdaughter, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting at a recent wedding. He is right that it is important to ensure that the target that we set has a target date and that there are mechanisms in place to give plausibility to the belief that the target will be met in time. I accept that. We believe that, in setting the date for 2010, we can achieve that. We also believe that we must have testing targets for the Bill in terms of home energy conservation as well as the mechanisms for enforcement.

The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 does not include any figure; the figure of 30 per cent. appears in only in the guidance. Indeed, there is not even a requirement in the guidance to meet 30 per cent. within 10 years of that guidance, which would be 2006. It talks about ''at least substantial progress'' towards that. For those of us who are keen on targets, that is an inadequate way of expressing a target. Does it mean 15, 20 or 25 per cent.? We need to be clear; I want to be. I want to have targets and I want them to be crystal clear. I shall propose ways in which we can achieve that.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, I thought, skated on thin ice in talking about fuel poverty. I do not want to disturb the cross-party consensus by engaging in partisan politics, but I think that it is a little rich—given that fuel poverty tripled during the

18 years when we were in Opposition—to goad us by saying that he cannot believe that we are still discussing fuel poverty. We are still discussing it because we were left with one hell of a problem and we are trying to deal with it. It did triple in those years—we intend to eliminate it by 2010. We are not taking it out of the Bill. I think that, again, he has misunderstood.

We are committed to tackling fuel poverty; that is obvious. We have recently—at the end of November or in early December—set up a fuel poverty advisory group to supervise the carrying out of the policy to end fuel poverty. The Bill, as it is proposed to be amended, would give powers to provide guidance to authorities on fuel poverty in relation to the HECA. We believe that we do not need a separate section on fuel poverty. Indeed, to add legislation on fuel poverty in England and Wales, which is what the Bill will do, could be taken to imply that existing legislation did not cover the position in Scotland or Northern Ireland. I am sure that the Bill's promoter would not wish that, nor would the Government. However, we can return to those matters.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Norfolk for what he said on targets. I accept that one could say that it would be a rod for one's own back, but it would be unwise—a slightly cynical response. I would prefer to be absolutely honest and up-front and to focus minds. I would much prefer to set a target and just fail to reach it, yet make a serious attempt, than to avoid setting a target and produce a wet and feeble response. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I shall abstain from quoting myself. I leave that to him, but there is plenty of evidence to support my view.

I endorse what was said by the hon. Member for Guildford on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. She has an honourable record on this matter, and she is right to say that we should try to use the Bill to get this issue properly settled in an agreed cross-party fashion, so that we do not need further Bills on the elimination of fuel poverty, on which we all agree.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) referred to his experience of houses in multiple occupation. It is a complex issue, but exceedingly important. People who live in HMOs are in many ways at greatest risk. Again, in the manifesto, the Government indicated their commitment to introducing wide-ranging measures to deal with it. Ministerial colleagues in the DTLR have made clear that they are seeking agreement to bring forward as soon as possible a housing Bill that will deal with the whole context of measures, not just the limited measures included in the Bill. It is an important area, but we believe that the Bill can pave the way for the wider contextual measures that we intend to introduce.

I am grateful for what said by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron). I am glad to know that the Bill has the general support of landlords. It is not intended to make life difficult for them, but to ensure proper protection for tenants, and I think that they wholeheartedly agree. The hon. Gentleman said that

guidance needed to be strengthened, and spoke about amendments to part 3, particularly on fire safety. I look forward to hearing his suggestions.

This has been an unusual debate on the sittings motion. I warmly respond to the consensus that exists. The Government certainly wish to be part of that consensus, but we propose ways that perhaps have not yet been fully understood on how to progress the objectives that we wholly share with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown. Once again, I congratulate him.

Question put and agreed to.


That, if proceedings on the Home Energy Conservation Bill are not concluded at today's sitting, the Committee do meet on Tuesday 5th February at half-past Ten o'clock and half-past Four o'clock.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Dr. Desmond Turner.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock till Tuesday 5 February at half-past Ten o'clock.