Clause 3 - Failure of an authority to implement measures

Home Energy Conservation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:00 pm on 5th February 2002.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

With this we may take new clause 1—Failure of energy conservation authority to implement measures—

'Where the appropriate authority is satisfied that an energy conservation authority is failing to comply with section 1, subsections (5), (6) (9), (11), (12) and (13) of section 15 of the Local Government Act 1999 (which empower the appropriate authority to give directions to defaulting best value authorities as to the exercise by them of their functions or to transfer their functions to another person) shall apply in relation to that energy conservation authority.'.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

The new clause is designed to deal with enforcement in respect of authorities—the Maldons of this world—whose progress is nil, as it would encourage them to meet the excellent standards of the most successful authorities. It is necessary because the clause is poorly drafted and says nothing about how enforcement will be achieved. The new clause ties enforcement to the best-value regime.

Is the new clause necessary? Once energy conservation has been made a statutory duty, the question remains whether the best-value regime bites automatically or applies only to a specified list of local government duties. I would appreciate it if the Minister could elaborate on that point. We must know whether best value will apply automatically. If not, the new clause is absolutely necessary.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment) 12:00 pm, 5th February 2002

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown had finished speaking when the sitting was suspended, but I am quite prepared to comment on new clause 1.

The new clause would give the Secretary of State the power to take action using the best-value provisions under the Local Government Act 1999 if she considered that an energy conservation authority was failing to take such measures as were reasonably practicable to comply with its duties under the Bill. The Government consider that it is unnecessary to restate the powers that already exist. Energy conservation authorities are subject to the duty of best value, and the Secretary of State has a range of powers under the 1999 Act that enable her to ensure that the authority continues to improve the provision of its services, including those relating to home energy conservation. The 1999 Act includes the power for the Secretary of State to intervene when she considers that an authority is not complying with the Act and, in particular, the best-value duty.

My point is that it is unnecessary to restate those powers here. However, I am keen to do what I can to ensure that appropriate enforcement mechanisms are included in the home energy conservation legislation. I emphasise that, because I seem to be widely disbelieved by Committee members and various lobbying organisations. The Secretary of State already has powers of direction on authorities' duties under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, and I shall consider what powers of direction it might be appropriate for the Secretary of State to have in

relation to the new provisions on setting and achieving targets, which I shall propose on Report. I hope that that commitment meets the requirements of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown and that he will feel able to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

I am grateful to the Minister for those comments; he has assuaged my concerns. It is true that best value regimes currently embrace energy conservation, so in one sense new clause 1 should not be necessary under present circumstances. However, signal changes in the White Paper state that the range of local government duties to which best value review regimes apply will be restricted. I am happy to hear the Minister commit to an amendment that will ensure that provision is in place should that happen. With those words from the Minister, I am happy not to press new clause 1.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

I am also pleased with the words used by the Minister on the new clause. It is worth putting into context the current situation and why the new clause was tabled, and I hope that this will form part of the Minister's appraisal of whether the current arrangements are as comprehensive as he believes. If HECA contains the power to ensure that the worst performing authorities meet the standards being set by the best, we must check whether that is being delivered in the current HECA reviews.

Before tabling the new clause, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown took the opportunity to take advice from parliamentary counsel about whether the existing arrangements could deliver the job. The advice was that they could not and that there were limits to the current arrangements that needed to be understood and closed or tightened if we were to deliver our proposals. I shall quote the salient parts of the advice. The adviser says:

There are performance indicators set by the Secretary of State which include 2 relating to energy efficiency and conservation but these are not specifically related to the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995.

The general scope of the 1999 Act is wide enough to cover the HECA functions since it relates to local authorities and their functions generally. But the implementation of the 1999 Act suggests that it is not concerned with HECA compliance as such.

The adviser says that in her search,

Of some 1000 inspections reports on the net, only 15 appear to be concerned with energy efficiency.

Of those, only one was found that mentions HECA. It is clear that under the existing arrangements the provisions are not working. Towards the end of her advice, the adviser says,

In any event if the inspections carry on as at present the emphasis will continue to be broadly on whether the authority has good HECA policies in place rather than how they are moving towards meeting the targets.

We could unwittingly find ourselves in a trap whereby the existence of policies was seen to be synonymous with evidence of targets being met. The adviser concludes:

In part this must be because of the nature of the existing HECA legislation which is itself not very specific so far as the meeting of targets is concerned.

We understand that and we seek to move on from it. That is the loophole that we need to close.

I ask the Minister, as he carries out his appraisal of the effectiveness and comprehensiveness of the existing provisions, to look at the implications of the White Paper issued in December 2001 by DTLR, specifically at paragraphs 3.63 and 3.66. Both relate to proposed changes in best value reviews and planning. Paragraph 3.63 states:

Best value reviews are becoming more strategic and fewer in number. We will introduce further measures to reinforce a more challenging and strategic approach.

It refers not to a comprehensive approach but to a strategic approach.

Paragraph 3.66 states:

high performing and striving councils will have greater flexibility to determine their review programmes in the light of our intention to remove the requirement to review all of their functions over a five year period.

We need to be clear whether the functions that we want local authorities to carry out will be increased by including the requirement to meet the HECA target, or whether the probable direction of change will exclude that.

It would be against the Minister's intentions and the Committee's desire were we to find that the provision affected the Government's ability to influence the 100 or more authorities that have made less than 1 per cent. energy efficiency gains in the five years or so since HECA was passed. An inability to influence those authorities on best value practice would be a severe limitation, not least in requiring them to meet the energy efficiency targets and make the efficiency gains within their existing budgets. Ironically, were we not to have that power, the Minister would be exposed even more to the legitimate fear that he expressed this morning that the targets could be met only if the Government made out a large cheque.

I hope that I am not alone in the Committee in thinking that if the rigours of the best value review process are applied to the worst performing authorities, that will help get the message across that the energy efficiency target is not optional, nor one that will be met only on the back of a large Government cheque; that the Government expect the target to be met within the terms set by the best value review. I hope that the Minister will take those factors into account and rigorously test them when he reconsiders the comprehensiveness of the existing arrangements.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Sayeed Mr Jonathan Sayeed Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire 7:15 pm, 5th February 2002

I understand the clause to enable the Government to ensure that local authorities take their duties seriously by using a standard enforcement clause that applies to many functions of local government. The Minister suggested that there were other ways to skin this particular cat, and that this might not be the best way.

I want the Minister to respond to part of the advice that a parliamentary counsel gave, with which the hon. Member for Nottingham, South did not deal. The counsel said that the best value regime was unlikely to provide the route to enforcement of HECA targets, as

the Government were asking the Audit Commission to move away from individual inspections of specific functions, as is happening with housing, and to move towards inspecting authorities and their functions across the board. The plan was also to grade authorities roughly as excellent, good, OK or poor and to concentrate the inspections on the bottom two grades. However, as those grades would be determined on the basis of functions across the board, HECA functions might not be inspected where they most needed to be.

We all agree that the HECA functions are important. It is important that we do not merely compile a list of best behaviour but that we can check properly whether authorities are doing what they are meant to do. I would like the Minister to persuade me that his proposal deals with the concern about HECA targets, and with the problem that the parliamentary counsel highlighted.

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

The hon. Gentleman made two interesting points, which I should, and will, take into account. I said that I would consider the powers of direction in relation to authorities' duties under the 1995 Act, but I understand what my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South said about paragraphs 3.63 and 3.66 of the White Paper

published in December 2001, which he quoted. I should carefully examine that further, and I will. I also take the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire about the advice from a parliamentary counsel that the best value regime may not be able to drive the HECA targets in the way in which we think. The counsel suggested that the Audit Commission was moving away from individual local authority inspections to a broader brush approach. Those are valid questions, and rather than give a snap answer, I undertake to examine carefully what has been said and, if need be, to respond on Report. I insist that clause 1(3) is unnecessary because it is already covered by existing powers. If those powers are insufficient to drive up HECA standards, the Government will have to examine the position and introduce further proposals. I acknowledge both points, however, and will reflect carefully on them.

Clause 3 disagreed to.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

Thank you for your patience and genial chairmanship today, Mr. Benton.

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

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Seven o'clock till Tuesday 26 February at half-past Ten o'clock.