Home Energy Conservation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 26th February 2002.
I do not intend to move amendments Nos. 20 to 25, as they would cease to be relevant if new clause 8 replaced clause 4. Some believe that clause 4 is unnecessary, as its provisions are already in legislation. Although clause 4 contains weaknesses, I am confident that it is necessary. However, I am not confident that the drafting makes explicit the duty on local authorities with regard to fuel poverty.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to take new clause 8—Fuel Poverty—
'(1) It shall be the duty of every energy conservation authority, so far as is reasonably practicable, to—
(a) discharge its functions under sections 2 or 5 of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 (preparation of reports or further reports), and
(b) carry out its duty pursuant to section 1 of this Act in such a way as to complement and support the appropriate authority's strategy for the time being for the eradication of fuel poverty made under the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000.
(2) The appropriate authority may from time to time give guidance to energy conservation authorities in relation to the discharge of their functions under subsection (1) above (and such guidance may differ for different authorities or different types of authority).'
New clause 8 makes explicit the link between the role of local authorities and the implementation of the Government's fuel poverty strategy. The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000—another private Member's Bill—drives that strategy. We therefore continue to build on private Member's legislation, which has dominated the field.
Local authorities should have a pivotal role in delivering the strategy. After all, they best know the circumstances of their boroughs and cities, and are best able to do what is necessary to co-ordinate available resources and to direct them to best effect. New clause 8 would not call upon fresh resources. We would get into difficulty with the Government if we implied that the Treasury would have to spend vast extra sums for which it had not budgeted. The new clause would make more effective use of the resources that are already available under the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 to remove fuel poverty. It would also give the Minister the power to issue guidance to local authorities on how best to achieve such a result.
I hope that the principles in the clause will be acceptable to the Committee.
I do not intend to sound a note of dissension in what has been an harmonious Committee, but there is some order, counter-order and disorder about what has been going on, especially if we bear in mind that it is a few days since the Committee's last sitting. I hoped that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) and the Government might have come to a clearer decision about which clauses and amendments we would be considering. However, I do not want to introduce a sour note, as I am pleased to continue to offer my party's broad support for this part of the Bill.
Members of the Committee have commented on the quality of the constructive dialogue and the cross-party support. Today's debate will prove crucial in that respect as we attempt to analyse the Government's suggested amendments to parts 2 and 3. It was evident in our debate on part 1 that hon. Members were not prepared to let the Government pledge one thing in public and do the opposite in the quiet of the Committee Room. I am pleased to note that the Government spectacularly failed in their attempt to neuter the Bill's provisions for energy efficiency.
The Government sought to omit the fuel poverty section of the Bill entirely and I am perplexed about why they should have attempted to do so. In
November, Age Concern statistics showed that 77 per cent of single pensioners and 43 per cent of older couples, of whom at least one is of pensioner age, are fuel poor. In Committee and on the Floor of the House, members of the Committee have praised the Bill's attempt to give local energy conservation authorities an increased sense of purpose and conviction to ensure that the fuel poverty strategy is adhered to and that targets are met.
As the explanatory notes set out, the Government must implement a strategy to end fuel poverty within 15 years, yet local authorities have identified problems in relations between local and central Government that have led to an unco-ordinated approach in efforts to meet that target. Indeed, the promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, subsequently sought to strengthen the Bill's impact in that respect and tabled amendments to replace all references to powers of enforcement from ''the Secretary of State'' with references to the ''appropriate authority'', although I recognise that his little speech a few moments ago may slightly amend that. However, ''appropriate authority'' is in the text of new clause 8.
The problem of governmental co-ordination has been highlighted for some time. Warm Zones Ltd., commenting on the difference in approaches to the eradication of fuel poverty by various local authorities, stated:
''The fuel poverty return has been ignored by many local authorities. The consistency, adequacy, monitoring and enforcement of local authority performance on both fuel poverty and energy efficiency appear to need thorough review.''
The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), bound the Government to implement the previously mentioned strategy, which aims to end fuel poverty within 15 years. Until very recently, the Government were in agreement with the scope of the Act. In April 2000 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.]
In February 2001, the Government launched a 10-year plan costing £1.5 billion a year that was designed to ensure that pensioners and other vulnerable people in England did not die of cold in their homes, reiterating their intention to eliminate all such deaths by 2010. Using statistics that showed that up to 50,000 elderly people may be dying in Britain every winter from cold, the Minister dramatically confirmed that the Government were declaring war on fuel poverty. As recently as December 2001, the Minister stated that the Bill would be helpful in further integrating local authorities' activities on fuel poverty and energy efficiency. However, the Government seem now to have decided on a more lackadaisical approach to the eradication of fuel poverty. Amendment No. 36 seeks to omit entirely the fuel poverty section of the Bill.
In the pre-Budget report 2001, commenting on winter fuel payments available for pensioners, the Government stated that
''the winter fuel payment currently benefits around 8 million households with someone aged 60 or over each winter. The Government has already announced that the winter fuel payment for this year will be set at £200. To ensure that these households continue to receive help, the winter fuel payment will be maintained at £200 for the remainder of this Parliament. This will provide extra reassurance and security for all pensioners over the coming years.''
Despite the Government's winter fuel payment strategy, last winter 22,700 older people in England and Wales died from cold-related causes. Commenting on that statistic, Mervyn Kohler of Help the Aged said:
''This 'bulge' of winter deaths is a peculiarly British problem. When countries with much more severe winters than ours have much lower winter death rates, it becomes obvious that something is badly wrong. And behind these stark figures there must be an uncountable cost of extra illness, discomfort and sheer misery for our older population.''
Fuel poverty is defined as the need for people to spend more than 10 per cent. of their household income on fuel to keep warm. Help the Aged affirms that the Government's strategy falls short on systematically attacking the problem of sub-standard housing and sub-standard heating facilities. The Government's winter fuel payment policy costs several times more than the amount earmarked for housing and heating improvements. While the winter fuel payment scheme has made an appreciable difference to many older people 's lives, it is wasted if it goes up the chimney or through the roof.
On the announcement of a fuel poverty strategy, the Minister admitted that the targets were ''challenging'', and continued to herald it as an important element of the Government's programme to tackle poverty and social exclusion. The provisions of the Bill would allow that challenge to be met. The Government's insistence on dropping the fuel poverty section of the Bill is inexplicable, especially in light of the Minister's argument in letters to the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) and my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and Ipswich, North (Sir Michael Lord), on 14 December 2001 that
''the Bill would help further integrate local authorities' activities on fuel poverty and energy efficiency. This would be helpful.''
The Minister now appears to believe that including fuel poverty in the Bill is unnecessary and can be dealt with under the existing powers of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, known as HECA. That is not only inconsistent with his earlier position, but incorrect. It has been suggested that provision in the Bill is unnecessary because such guidance can already be given under HECA and may imply that the guidance cannot be implemented under HECA, thereby adversely affecting the power to give guidance in Scotland, where the Bill does not apply. However, the advice of two lawyers with experience in judicial review and administrative law is that that is plain wrong. Indeed, that is clearly demonstrated by section 4(1) of HECA. Under HECA, guidance can be given, but only about what should be included in reports. Section 4(1) reads:
''The Secretary of State may, from time to time, give to energy conservation authorities such guidance as he considers appropriate
in relation to the preparation of reports under section 2 or reports under section 3(2)(a).''
In other words, the guidance powers under HECA are confined to HECA reports, and do not extend to guidance about implementation or mechanisms or co-ordinated action on fuel poverty, which is covered by new clause 8. Indeed, the Government's fuel poverty strategy points out in paragraph 3.13 that local authorities
''have a role in tackling fuel Poverty'',
but it also points out in paragraph 3.14 that currently local authorities' HECA activity
''will not always be targeted only at the fuel poor.''
What new clause 8 does is simple: it requires that HECA activity,
''as far as is reasonably practicable'',
complements the Government's fuel poverty activities. I believe that that is worth while. The current fuel poverty strategy has little about local authorities' role in the important matter of ending fuel poverty. True, there is the beacon council approach regarding best practice, but we want to ensure that all authorities, not just the best, act to eradicate fuel poverty. Local authorities need pushing to do what is right. The Government issued guidance in the year 2000 asking local authorities to report on fuel poverty activity under HECA. By the middle of last year, only 40 authorities had done so.
Many local authorities want these provisions in the Bill. They support the Bill, which includes the fuel poverty clause. A letter from Oldham council on 13 September 2001 stated:
''Many families and individuals in this Borough suffer the effects of poverty e.g. poor housing and health. Therefore Oldham strongly supports any measures which will help alleviate poverty and deprivation.''
So why remove references to fuel poverty? On 1 November 2001, Oxford council said:
''This Bill would help Oxford City fight fuel poverty, improve home energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.''
Again, the importance of fuel poverty is stressed. A letter from Dover district council on 6 November 2001 stated:
''The Bill reinstates the 30 per cent. energy improvement target and provides for full co-ordination between local and central government . . . we strongly ask for your support to ensure that this Bill becomes law.''
We should note the phrase
''provides for full co-ordination between local and central Government''.
That is what new clause 8 requires.
Manchester city council wrote on 6 November 2001:
''The Bill would certainly be of benefit to the City Council . . . in reducing C02 and ending fuel poverty.''
So why delete references to fuel poverty? A Hackney council resolution of 14 November 2001 stated:
''Many people in Hackney suffer from fuel poverty with the elderly and young especially badly affected . . . the implementation of this Bill will improve their quality of life.''
Again, the need to ensure co-ordinated action on fuel poverty is emphasised. That is exactly what this part of
the Bill is about. I could quote from East Lindsey, Havant, Shrewsbury and Atcham, Sunderland and many other councils, which strongly support the Bill, particularly part 2. The Committee should take those remarks as read.
Not much more needs to be said in defence of the inclusion in the Bill of provisions relating to fuel poverty. It is extremely important that the Bill contains those provisions and I hope that the Committee will support their inclusion.
I should like to cover one other area under this part of the Bill. For some reason the Government have decided that registered social landlords should not be included in the provisions of the Bill that concern fuel poverty. That is wrong. As I will point out later, when we debate part 3, registered social landlords should be subject to the same standards and targets as any other home owner, and I urge the Government to include them in the provisions of part 2.
I am left in something of a quandary. I do not understand the Minister's volte-face. As I have shown, it cannot be because the section is unnecessary and such guidance can already be given under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. It cannot be because to include provisions for such guidance in the Bill might imply that it cannot be done under HECA, and would thereby adversely affect the power to give guidance in Scotland, where the current Bill does not apply. I have dealt with that. It can only be that the Minister has been poorly advised. One should not be surprised, considering that his Department presided over flooding, fridges and foot and mouth, but I am. I believe that the Committee will show that we are disappointed in the Minister and require the Government to reconsider. It is for us on this Committee to put the matter right and to include in the Bill measures to eliminate fuel poverty.
I shall be relatively brief. Many of the views expressed by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) will be shared by both sides of the House and by all members of the Committee. I want to put this in a slightly different context. I am loth to blame the Minister for our predicament although we could have done without the confusion about the Committee's sittings, especially the Minister, whose time is probably under greater pressure. Our predicament does not reflect a lackadaisical approach by the Government to the commitment to eliminate fuel poverty. The Minister has probably done more than anyone to ensure that fuel poverty is on not just the political but the legislative agenda of this Parliament.
The issue of definitions to which the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire referred is important. It is also contentious. I have sheltered behind the Minister at several conferences where the passionate views about the importance of getting the definition right come over with a degree of enthusiasm that is not far short of vehemence. I am pleased that the Minister, and not I, has to take that flak. The Minister more than anyone is aware of how important it is that we get the issue of fuel poverty right.
I suspect that the problems that we faced as a Committee result partly from confusion about whether clause 4 or new clause 8 is a duplication of what we can already do. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire was right to spell out in detail why that presumption was based on a misreading of the provision under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. I was involved in taking that legislation through the House and the powers that were given to Parliament under that Act were about the production of reports, not the delivery of a strategy to eliminate fuel poverty, which is the object of the Bill.
The Government have already made a commitment to eliminate fuel poverty within 15 years, which is why the words originally used by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown sought to spell out the connection with fuel poverty in the Bill and why, in perhaps more eloquent terms, they are also included in new clause 8. I am not particularly precious about which of those alternatives should be used, but I endorse the point that it is essential for the credibility and parity of the Bill that we do not leave out references to fuel poverty. It is not an optional add-on or cake decoration, but central to one of the most important policy commitments made by the Government, which as yet awaits clarification not about their determination to achieve it, but about the mechanisms that they will use to achieve it. That is why it is important that, in one way or another, the Committee ensures that a clear reference to the elimination of fuel poverty is contained in the principal terms of the Bill.
I add my support and that of my colleagues to the comments of the hon. Members for Mid-Bedfordshire and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson). They have covered much of the ground and we do not need long speeches on fuel poverty, so I shall simply make a few remarks.
As the hon. Member for Nottingham, South stressed, we are debating a procedural problem and trying to find the best way of pushing forward the issue. There seems to be strong support from action groups, charities and local authorities in favour of the approach of incorporating, either in clause 4 or new clause 8, specific and strong powers on fuel poverty. I support that strongly.
On the broader issue, I simply make the point that it is easy to be complacent about fuel poverty. I believe that it is under control and that we are making good progress. However, I emphasise that the most recent studies that I have seen that compare British performance with that of the rest of Europe show that we are far behind countries such as the Netherlands and Germany on tackling fuel poverty. We stand as one of the weakest countries in Europe, alongside Ireland, so there must be constant pressure for action.
One reason why local authorities are so keen to have enhanced powers is that they are dealing with generations of neglect. Since building regulations were first introduced in the 1860s, the emphasis has been on
sanitation and damp for generation after generation. It was only recently that warmth became a central issue, so we have a large backlog of houses, many of which were put up hurriedly in the 1950s and 1960s because of the pressure of demand, and local authorities are now struggling with them. We need a sense of urgency to tackle the problem with the physical stock.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown made the point in his introduction that the new clause would not impose costs on Government or compliance costs on other authorities. We must bear in mind that as long as fuel poverty is neglected, there are costs to society. The national health service suffers costs, as do social landlords, who constantly have to deal with the problem of people seeking transfers. There is a cost issue, but it weighs in favour of strong action and legislation.
I simply reiterate the point that has already been made. I have looked through HECA and the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 and, as far as I can see, nothing in those two pieces of legislation gives powers of guidance or co-ordination. That is what we want, not the old process of issuing reports. Clause 4 and new clause 8 give those powers, which is why there is support for them on both sides of the House. If the legislation is to have real meat and teeth, one or the other must be included.
I apologise for being a few minutes late. I was unavoidably detained. I missed what my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown said, although I can probably imagine what that was.
I shall read with interest in the printed version what my hon. Friend said.
I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South, and to the hon. Members for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and for Mid-Bedfordshire. I wish that the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire had not stumbled over himself repeatedly by making narrow political points. However, I accept the key point made by hon. Members that there is a general wish that the Bill should refer to the eradication of fuel poverty. I am sympathetic to that wish, and I believe that we can find a way to fulfil it.
The aim of clause 4 is to give the Secretary of State powers to direct energy conservation authorities on discharging their functions under the 1995 Act to help to implement the Government's fuel poverty strategy. Section 4 of the Act already confers on the Secretary of State the power to issue guidance on the preparation of energy conservation reports. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire said that it did not refer specifically to the eradication of fuel poverty. That is true, but the reports are drawn up in accordance with the Secretary of State's guidance, and there is no reason why they should not contribute to eradicating fuel poverty.
Amendment No. 36 proposes that clause 4 should be removed, as it is unnecessary. My amendment No. 31 makes it clear that the Secretary of State's powers should be extended so that she may give guidance on implementation of the measures in the report. We
expect the implementation of those measures to benefit the fuel poor. The fuel poverty strategy will therefore be a relevant consideration when the Secretary of State decides the appropriate guidance to energy conservation authorities. The amendment should not be interpreted as the Government backing away from their commitment to tackle fuel poverty.
I will not rise to the bait when the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire talks about a volte-face. The only volte-face performed in the Committee is the hon. Gentleman's suddenly having an expedient interest in the eradication of fuel poverty. That interest was not reflected in the actions of the Conservative Government during their 18 years of office. The hon. Gentleman should not lead with a glass chin. As I said several times, fuel poverty tripled under that Government, and I will not take any lessons from him. As they say in another book, however, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 just men. It is excellent if the hon. Gentleman has joined us in our concern for fuel poverty.
I have not committed any volte-face. I am grateful for the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South, and I hope that what he said is true. I have done what I believe is necessary to make it true. We are deeply committed to seeking an end to fuel poverty, and I do not see how anyone could seriously deny that. Our fuel poverty strategy was published in November 2001, and we set a target to deal with most fuel-poor households, which include those of pensioners, the disabled, the chronically sick, and families on low incomes with children. One of the most effective ways of achieving that target is to improve the energy efficiency of homes. It is true that the Chancellor has made a welcome increase in fuel payments at Christmas. However, we do not want to assist the fuel poor to pay their bills when they are in badly insulated homes where most of the energy is wasted through the roof, doors or windows. We want, through energy efficiency, to reduce their fuel use while increasing the money that they have for fuel.
To help achieve that target we have established several domestic energy efficiency programmes. We have redesigned and increased the amount of money available under the old home energy efficiency scheme, a good scheme that we inherited from the previous Government. We have raised the limit for an individual household from £300 to £2,000. The new programme, which is marketed as warm front, provides considerably bigger grants for packages of insulation and heating improvements, including the installation of central heating, to those most vulnerable to cold-related ill health in the private sector. We have committed more than £600 million by 2004 to warm front. In addition, under the new energy efficiency commitment, which comes into effect in April, we have set a testing target for electricity and gas suppliers to achieve improvements in domestic energy efficiency; 50 per cent. of those energy savings must be directed at low-income consumers.
With that record, no objective person can say that our commitment is lackadaisical. It is the reverse of that. We are the first Government to put in place a target to end fuel poverty. As my hon. Friend the
Member for Nottingham, South said, we want to achieve that by 2016, and to put our money where our mouth is in supporting those major schemes.
I am happy with the new clause, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown. It takes account of my concern that the existing clause 4 was over-prescriptive and it meets other requirements in that it does not repeat existing legislation. I can therefore embrace it in policy terms. My problem, which is one that all Governments must concern themselves with, is that any clauses that go into statute must be acceptable to parliamentary draftsmen. Unfortunately, the new clause was tabled rather late in the day—I make no criticism of that—and the response that I received from the parliamentary draftsmen on the new clause came just before the start of the Committee. Their opinion is that there are unresolved problems with the new clause, in terms not of policy but simply of terminology. Most of those problems are technical and I hope and believe that they can be readily addressed. One problem that they identify is that it imposes a statutory duty on authorities, which they say is unacceptably vague. It requires authorities to exercise their functions in ways that would ''complement and support'' the Government's fuel poverty strategy. Parliamentary counsel asks what that would mean in practice. The phraseology is not as clear as it needs to be. If we give people statutory duties, they have to know without dubiety what they are expected to do.
I apologise to members of the Committee that I have unfortunately not had the time to discuss the amendment and its full implications as I would have liked, with the promoter of the Bill and with parliamentary counsel. I was recently abroad on departmental business for a week and we then had the half-term break. I would like to do further work on the new clause and if, as I believe that we can, we find a satisfactory phraseology that builds the eradication of fuel poverty into the Bill—which I favour—I would ask my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown not to press his new clause. I will then withdraw my amendment, with the intention of tabling another new clause on Report that fully meets his policy requirements as well as those of the parliamentary counsel.
The Minister said that he intended to introduce on Report a clause that seeks to build into the Bill the eradication of fuel poverty. Opposition members of the Committee take the Minister at his word. If that is his intention and if it achieves the aim of assisting the eradication of fuel poverty, we will accept his assurances. On that basis, I leave it to the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown to decide whether to support clause 4.
I thank the Minister for his helpful response to new clause 8 and for his generosity in accepting its policy principles. I also thank him for his offer of mutual withdrawal—[Laughter.]—so that we may join together to press the parliamentary counsel to produce a new clause that will be even better than new clause 8. I remain convinced that new clause 8 is an advance on the present clause 4 because
it is much clearer. If parliamentary counsel can provide a means of injecting even greater clarity, I have no problem with that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. That is precisely the import of what will happen. If the Minister's amendment and my new clause were withdrawn, clause 4 as drafted would stand. The attack on fuel poverty would therefore still be built into the Bill. I would expect the Committee to accept nothing less. I am happy to accept the Minister's assurances. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire for his generous attitude. I hope that we can retain the spirit of harmony that has pervaded the Committee throughout its proceedings. I accept my half of the mutual withdrawal.