Clause 4 - Assessment of property etc

Energy Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee on 9th June 2011.

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Amendment proposed (this day): 36, in clause 4, page 6, line 11, at end insert—

‘(9A) The ninth condition is that the assessment must clearly detail those energy efficiency improvements that qualify under the Green Deal and when making an assessment the assessor must—

(a) include all energy efficiency improvement options that qualify under the Green Deal;

(b) identify energy efficiency improvements that—

(i) sit outside the Green Deal; or

(ii) collectively exceed the total amount qualifiable under a Green Deal plan, where this is clearly identified on the assessment.’.—(Luciana Berger.)

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Nadhim Zahawi Nadhim Zahawi Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon

May I say what a pleasure and privilege it is to serve under your incredibly disciplined and focused stewardship, Mr Leigh? As I was saying before we adjourned, the danger of the amendment is that, rather than the intended purpose of people being able to think outside the box and beyond the green deal, we could end up with a situation that deters people from going forward with any improvements that they may decide to make because we try to overcomplicate and belt-and-brace the legislation. The law of unintended consequences then kicks in. We already know, from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, that it is already a big challenge for 14 million homes to be looked at by 2020. We also know that, since 2004, fuel poverty has been going the wrong way. I am a novice at this, but I would counsel the Minister to be careful.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

I am grateful my hon. Friend and am in accord with his train of thought—he is right. It might be useful to refresh our memories. I think that I was in the course of closing the debate on the amendment. To briefly summarise, the amendment raised the distinction between the green deal plans and the energy plans, and the importance of assessors providing a comprehensive assessment. As I said, the language is parliamentary counsel’s drafting, and is designed to reflect the innovative aspect of the green deal mechanism, which is repayment through energy bills, fixed to the meter. I hope that I have made clear that our intention is, and always has been, for the assessment to be robust,  impartial and comprehensive. The hon. Member for Wansbeck had considerable concerns about cold calling in his constituency, which I share. I confirm to the Committee that we will not permit cold calling by assessors. That will be enshrined in the code of practice that regulates them.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Leader of the Green Party

The Minister used the word “comprehensive”. It seems to me that that is exactly what the amendment seeks. I would support the amendment because it talks about a comprehensive energy plan and the different measures that a householder could take irrespective of whether they meet the much narrower criteria of the green deal finance. We are wasting a valuable opportunity of assessors going through the doors of a property if they do not do a comprehensive assessment of all the measures that could be taken, and then a subset of those being eligible for green deal finance.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

I will have to disagree with the hon. Lady. It is important that we protect and preserve the integrity of the green deal offer. We should remember that the green deal accreditation, for various technologies, interventions and measures that are applicable, will be a permissive list. As prices come down, I hope that more and more innovative technologies will be added to it—it is by no means a static list. The green deal list of measures will, in itself, be comprehensive, and it will be up to the assessor to pick from that list which measures are most appropriate to that home. The idea that there are other sensible measures that could not be included in the green deal is, I think, slightly spurious. If they are good measures, they should be applicable for green deal consideration.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

This is a vital point that we do not want to move off from for the moment. We are talking not about a spurious list, but about a cross-governmental, cross-Whitehall list of recognised and certified technologies relating to things such as water efficiency. If the Bill were amended, such technologies could be pulled off the shelf and put into secondary legislation, and the Minister would be able to amend the list over time. I hope he understands that we are talking about extending not the green deal, but the range of additional technologies relating to things such as water efficiency. For years, Whitehall—I understand its situation—has struggled to find an opportunity to do that, but the Minister now has that opportunity right in front of him.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

The coalition is very interested in finding new ways to drive forward water efficiency measures, but we are simply not in a position to add them to the green deal. It would be to misunderstand the green deal if we tried to place such things firmly within its structure. Work is going on in the Government to find a blue deal—that is how it is becoming known—that would work. However, energy efficiency in respect of water is in a totally different place from energy efficiency in respect of electricity or heating, because only 30% of the country is currently metered; everybody else just pays a standard charge, and it would be difficult at this stage to extrapolate any economic benefit for the household from making savings. When the country is largely covered  by meters, we will be in a different space. We could come back to the issue in a few years, but we are not in a position to incorporate water saving measures into the economic structure that is the current green deal.

Similarly, I am worried that the amendment could be used to include measures that people deem are energy saving, but which do not pass the accreditation and testing regime that we will have for green deal measures. It could encourage unscrupulous salesmen—they need not be unscrupulous; they could just be over-enthusiastic—to sell the person having the green deal assessment measures that will not pay for themselves, which will push up the household’s energy bills, which will involve up-front costs or which will lock people into expensive consumer purchase agreements that attract a higher rate of interest than is available through the green deal. If a measure is sensible, offers a payback within 20 years and incorporates a reliable technology, it will sit in the green deal and have robust guarantees and warranties and a higher level of consumer protection. Trying to blur the edges between what is in the green deal and what sits outside it, will undermine confidence in what is offered by assessors.

It is within the remit of a green deal assessor to advise on the potential for renewable energy, for example; that will be part of the assessment, and, as part of the green deal assessment, they will—we have future-proofed the Bill to allow for this—advise on the potential for feed-in tariffs or renewable heat incentive-supported technologies. There is therefore that more holistic approach. If members of the Committee think that they will, in the same breath, be able to push technologies that do not involve the same element of consumer protection or rigorous testing, that could be dangerous, and I do not think that that is really what is intended by the amendment. That is why we are cautious and why we do not propose to accept the amendment.

Photo of Simon Wright Simon Wright Liberal Democrat, Norwich South

We have spent a lot of time talking about the physical, structural and technological recommendations that an assessor could make, but does the Minister agree that, in many cases, behavioural change can be just as important? Does he feel that the assessor could play a role in discussing with households what behavioural changes might be implemented as a result of going through the process?

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

Absolutely. I am sure that the training of an assessor will include recommendations for not only how the individual customer should use the specific equipment, but how they should expect to live in their home. They will explain to them carefully that, as part of the golden rule, they need to use heating in particular, as well as lighting, responsibly and in a certain way in order to capture the savings implicit in the measures being installed. Behaviour will be key to ensure that they capture those savings.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

At the start of the debate, the Minister drew an analogy with an MOT test. He suggested that people are told that their clutch needs replacing, but the clutch is not part of the MOT test. A good, qualified mechanic would say to someone whose car was being serviced in their garage, “Look, you need to be aware that your clutch may need to be replaced. Here’s your MOT certificate, but you also  need to think about that.” That is exactly what we are saying. Within the parameters of the green deal, an expert might say, “While I am here, as an expert—perhaps the only one you ever ask to come into your house—you might want to think about doing these other things.” We understand that some people mis-sell and put on the hard sell, but somebody who has the technical ability and the brand as a real expert could give that advice. That is all we are saying should be put into the Bill.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

Of course, they will not be prohibited from doing that. They will have a commercial incentive to sell as much as they can to that individual, but we must make absolutely clear to consumers what is included in the green deal and what is not. If we blur that on the assessment and it is not really clear, people will end up paying for things that do not offer a proper return on their outlay. They will end up with more expensive things and people will be encouraged to add on. I do not know how we could have such a comprehensive assessment—a juggernaut of an assessment, covering every product and topic under the sun—without boundaries. The boundaries for the green-deal-approved interventions will be clear and robustly tested. The amendment could end up as a giant mis-selling proposition, rather like the Australian experience, which we are all keen to avoid.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

If the Minister is so concerned that the bill payer may end up paying a lot more, which is not part of the green deal, would he consider introducing legislation to ensure that the assessors cannot do that?

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

Do not misunderstand me—there will be opportunities to sell additional services and to offer other products, but we do not want the consumer to be under any illusion in relation to additional services. If Marks and Spencer, or any other retailer, went into someone’s home to offer them a green deal, I am sure that it would also take the opportunity to market wallpaper, carpets and, if the walls are being lined, curtains and perhaps a sofa. This is a huge opportunity for home improvement, which will not be lost on responsible retailers. They will offer not just additional energy measures, but a whole package of other home improvement measures in a commercial atmosphere. What we must be clear about is what sits in the green deal—what offers the promise of no up-front cost and golden rule savings, and what sits outside. A wider assessment that is blurry could get us into dangerous territory.

Photo of Tessa Munt Tessa Munt Liberal Democrat, Wells

To return to the MOT analogy, some things get one through the legal necessities, while others might be attached to energy saving. For example, somebody using a condensing dryer might appreciate the advice to get something that, instead of being D-efficiency rated, is A-efficiency rated. Marks and Spencer might want to sell them a more efficient condensing dryer. Surely the most important thing is for the consumer to be completely aware of what the legal necessities are and what the add-on bits are. In the same way as I suggested earlier, a 14-day cooling-off period might make that clear. People might be given two documents—letters or offers—that clarify what is green-deal necessity stuff and what are the other ways in which they might improve their energy consumption.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change 1:15 pm, 9th June 2011

That is exactly what would happen as the Bill is arranged. There will be a clear delineation for the green deal and further suggestions that could relate to energy savings. However, if they related to good energy-saving propositions, they would by definition be included in the green deal. The only reason why something could not be in the green deal would be because either it did not meet consumer standards or warranties, or it did not offer money savings over a 20-year period. We are not giving a very narrow definition of what can or cannot be green-deal approved. We want it to be a real stimulus for innovation. We would receive a clear paper from our assessor, which would list what was recommended for the green deal. That would attract a cooling-off period, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wells suggested but, in addition, a range of other extras could be offered at the same time, which would be regarded as useful advice.

That will be covered by a code of conduct or practice, but I am reluctant to see such a process formalised as part of an assessment, as that could mean that some people think that other things that are part of their assessment are part of the green deal. Unless there is clear delineation between what is part of a useful and helpful retail offer and what is part of the green deal, I can see matters ending in confusion.

This has been a valuable discussion which has helped us to thrash out exactly what we mean by assessment. We attach importance to the high standards of consumer protection, which is why I agreed this morning to meet the hon. Member for Ogmore and others to discuss impartiality. I confirm that, over lunch, I instructed my officials to open discussions with parliamentary counsel about what could be included sensibly in the Bill in response to this morning’s debate, and I am certainly ready to take matters forward. On that basis, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Photo of Luciana Berger Luciana Berger Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

I have listened carefully to the Minister. Before lunch, he compared the green deal assessment with an MOT, which was interesting. I was looking at the internet at lunch time and read about some worries that consumers have about MOTs. There were some startling figures from Which? that millions of drivers were ripped off by dodgy garages. Likewise, the result of another inquiry was that 14 million victims believe that they have been ripped off by dodgy mechanics. To draw a comparison with an MOT ignites worry, given that that is a relatively small cost compared with a charge of up to £10,000 on a home. The hon. Gentleman referred earlier to an assessor as a salesman, which is a concern. The amendment is as much about the cheapest solutions as it is about expensive solutions. I drew attention earlier to thermostats. I do not expect to take a green deal package out on a thermostat that might cost me £70.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

But the hon. Lady would take out green deal finance on a whole package of measures, such as thermostats that added up collectively to £10,000. A range of individual line items would form part of the total green deal package.

Photo of Luciana Berger Luciana Berger Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

To give a personal example, I live in an energy efficient B-rated home. I would not qualify for microgeneration under the green deal because it  would be too expensive. I do not have a south-facing roof. However, I could benefit from a few small cost-saving measures that do not exceed £100. I do not have a thermostat, so I would not take out a green deal package for £100 in that respect.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people to have someone come to their home. The Minister said that various measures would be pushed through the deal. The amendment seeks not to push but to suggest other measures that could go below or beyond the green deal. The amendment says that the assessor must

“identify energy efficiency improvements that—

(i) sit outside the Green Deal; or

(ii) collectively exceed the total amount qualifiable under a Green Deal plan, where this is clearly identified on the assessment.”

The Minister discussed measures that have not yet been proven to save as much energy, but there are lots of microgeneration measures that might go beyond the green deal. This would be a fantastic opportunity for those households that could afford it to take them up.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

Microgeneration will form part of the green deal assessment.

Photo of Luciana Berger Luciana Berger Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

From my understanding, it will not sit within the green deal package for those households where it exceeds the cost.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

It will not form part of the green deal finance, but it will form part of the green deal assessment, which will include energy-saving measures that will be financed under the Bill. In addition, the assessment will include recommendations for renewable heat technologies and microgeneration technologies. The hon. Lady does not quite appreciate what the green deal is about. There is a difference between the assessment and what is actually paid for.

Photo of Luciana Berger Luciana Berger Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

The point about the amendment is that the assessment is as wide-ranging as possible to include all those measures that might be possible. I appreciate that renewable heat and microgeneration might be included, but there are other measures that go beyond that for those households that do not qualify or suit either of those technologies.

We have listened carefully to the Minister’s response. However, having spoken to my colleagues, I can say that he has still not reassured us. If the amendment is not quite right, will the Minister agree to work with us, without guarantees, to discuss it in detail with a view to revising it at the next stage? We are looking forward to working with the Government on an earlier amendment about disclosing the relationship between the green deal assessor and the green deal provider/installer.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

As the hon. Lady knows, I am prepared to be collaborative wherever possible, but on this issue, she and her colleagues have not correctly understood what we are discussing and they have not grasped the differentiation between the green deal finance mechanism and the green deal assessment. We are in a good place here in terms of the Bill, and I urge my colleagues to vote against the amendment.

Amendment negatived.

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

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

We have had a good debate on the clause. The Committee will be glad to know that I do not intend to detain it too long, as we have gone into details that we have not seen before, which has been very helpful.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

On a point of order, Mr Leigh. Will you advise the Committee as to whether the Minister can take verbal advice from the civil servants? My understanding of the normal processes is that any communication should come via the Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

That is correct. Perhaps we can just stick to notes, Minister. Notes can be passed to you via your PPS.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

On a further point of order, Mr Leigh. May I say that that comment is entirely outside the collaborative spirit of this Committee? It completely clashes with the way in which I am trying to deal with the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. If he wishes me to do it in a more formal way, it will restrict my ability to respond to Members. He is entirely, informally, out of order.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

The rules are the rules of the House. I am afraid that the Opposition Whip is correct. We must stick to notes. Those are the rules of the House and we cannot escape them.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

On a further point of order, Mr Leigh. I am rather concerned about what was effectively a veiled threat from the Minister. I served under the previous Government, and it was made clear to me that that is how the process is done, in exactly the same way as in the Chamber. It does not in any way stop us acting collaboratively. The fact that the Minister thinks that this will stop us doing that is a sign of weakness on his behalf.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab) rose—

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

Does Mr Jones wish to take part in this point of order? That point of order is now disposed of. My ruling is, for better or for worse, that the rules of the House state that Members of Parliament may not receive verbal briefings on the floor.

Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

On a point of order, Mr Leigh. The Minister has just said that it restricts the debate within the Committee, but surely the point is that what he is suggesting would restrict the debate for the country. This debate is for the country to witness. If he is going to restrict it, it is not only this Committee but the UK public who will be denied a debate.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

That is a point of argument, not a point of order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

I am back on my feet, but I am happy to swap positions with the Minister. It was one the highlights of my career as a Parliamentary Private Secretary to be in that position and to negotiate with insightful civil servants. I will move on.

I do not want to delay the Committee for too long, but there are some important points that need to be clarified before we head on to later stages of the Bill. It is appropriate to do so in the debate on clause 4 rather  than that on clause 5. We have been through a great discussion on the finance and the cost of the entire package. I want to thank outside organisations for helping me with some of the comments that we have not yet covered. We have talked about how the entire cost of the financial package should be within what the customer sees. There should not be any hidden costs or subsequent additional costs loaded on to them, including administration charges.

I am seeking the Minister’s clarification, or at least his thoughts, on whether there will be a clear differentiation in the Bill—this comes back to the points made on the amendment earlier—between the interest charges and the substantive part of the green deal, so that the consumer knows precisely what they are paying. I know that there are issues regarding people’s ability to understand complex bills. I am sure that the Minister is working through that with his team. It is vital for transparency that the customer knows that.

To go beyond that—we did not deal with this earlier—if all the costs at the point of declaration, with nothing hidden or bolted on later, are rightly included in the package, what does that do to the viability of the green deal? I wish to test the Minister’s assumptions on whether the green deal works, if all the cost elements are included within it. We want it to work, but what are his calculations?

I have asked whether the Minister can confirm that estimates and charges under the green deal will include the interest element. Research by the Great British Refurb campaign suggested that some 11% of those surveyed would consider taking out a green deal package if the interest rate was 4% or below—not if the interest rate was 5%, 6%, 7% or 8%. What are his calculations telling him?

Those examples all have slightly different modelling, which is why we need to know where the Minister is on this. Analysis by E3G suggested that a 25-year green deal package of £11,000, which would achieve 50% energy savings, is only able to meet the golden rule over the lifespan of that investment if the interest rate is 2% or less. If the interest rate is higher, it will not meet the golden rule. Friends of the Earth has suggested that a package with total measures of £8,223 only just meets the golden rule at a 4% interest rate over a 30-year period. Are those calculations completely wrong? Can the Minister reassure us about what modelling he has done?

We have not yet seen detailed modelling in Committee, even if we take into account what the Minister said during an earlier sitting about variable interest rates. If variable interest rates are included as a possibility, it is difficult to see how the integrity of the golden rule can be maintained over a sustained period unless additional head room is built in to ensure that it works with variable rates. However, I might be missing something. How is it possible to communicate the total cost and likely instalments on variable rates at the outset of a green deal that might last 15, 20 or 25 years or more? How will homeowners know what they are taking up and what the lifetime interest payments will be if they are not clear where the interest rate is set?

All those questions are still outstanding. How does the Minister think it possible to ensure that the total cost is presented at the outset to establish the golden rule, along with the instalments for each year, if the interest rate is not known? We have only just started to  scratch the surface of the clause. The issue was not debated in so much detail in the other place. They had a good debate, but not in such detail.

We must know the Minister’s thinking. Has he done any modelling? Can he share it with the Committee so that we know before we come on to later stages of the Bill? If we assume, based on what I said, that a successful green deal will depend on relatively low interest rates to make it work, if 2% or 3% rates are not necessarily provided by open competition, some other support will be needed, possibly from the green investment bank. The Deputy Prime Minister hinted as much when he said on 23 May:

“We are also looking at the potential for using the Bank to help deliver the first stages of the Green Deal.”

Is that true? It might be a way forward. If so, wonderful; let us hear it. At the moment, as I understand it, the green investment bank will be a reasonably well-funded but independent bank, run by independent financiers rather than civil servants, that will invest in proven technologies in energy generation—it will be an investment bank, not a grant-giving mechanism. At the same time, it will help new technologies that are not proven get off the ground. If it will also support the green deal, that is a heck of a task. Will the green investment bank underwrite interest rates on the green deal? That would, in fact, make it work.

It would be similar to the German approach. The KfW bank has been making energy efficiency loans at less than 3% to German householders for full house refits. Is there clarification on that? The green investment bank is triple A-rated and can guarantee low-interest loans. Neither utility companies nor any other private company can do that. If we get it right, the Minister’s aspirations for the green deal can be delivered. If not, the golden rule and the possibility of including all the cost elements within the package look precarious.

The Government are caught on the horns of a dilemma. I understand that the Minister wants to ensure that all the costs are included, and he has undertaken to continue the discussion in Committee, but if they are, how will the golden rule work? I know that during debate on subsequent clauses and amendments, we will discuss incentives. Perhaps that is part of the way forward, but on the specific questions that I have asked, the Committee deserves clarity. I know that the Minister and his team have been working hard, and I am sure that he can give it to us.

Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons) 1:30 pm, 9th June 2011

On clause 4, one big issue involves the independence of the assessors and their advice and assessments. What safeguards will be in place to prevent mis-selling and improve trust so that the green deal can be successful? That is a key question that we are all asking. Green deal assessors need to be genuinely independent of providers.

In the debate in the Lords, Lord Marland said that

“assessors can come from all walks of life. They could be quantity surveyors, representatives of B&Q or representatives of a supermarket, but”— crucially—

“they have to retain an independence and fulfil the standards”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 January 2011; Vol. 724, c. GC55.]

The Bill does not seem to mention independence in relation to the green deal. In a press release in 2010, the Secretary of State stated that there would be

“an independent energy survey of the property”,

but the word “independent” does not appear in the Bill. There is general concern that the independence that we are all seeking will not transpire.

That will have knock-on consequences; it is not just about words in a Bill. Which? research recently found that only 23% of customers trust their energy supplier to sell them the right tariff and that 77% do not, which is extremely concerning. Four of the big six energy suppliers are under investigation by Ofgem to determine whether they are complying with the new obligations to prevent mis-selling, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore mentioned.

There are other real concerns, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree touched on the issue of what is and is not sold. One subject that has not come up in the debate is reverse cross-selling of what is not in the green deal. If salesmen have the opportunity to gain entry to a property, they can advise that they are also green deal assessors or part of a green deal provider package. If, for example, they sell smart meter installations, that gives them access to a property, and leads to their making contact with a customer and providing the green deal. It is therefore important to look at what is not in the green deal.

The Minister has said that, through statutory instruments, the list will be revised to include all devices providing energy improvements. We should, however, look at technologies outside the green deal that may be used in reverse to gain access to properties, which is a key point. That might happen with the energy company obligation. We will encourage people to enter properties under the green deal and under ECO targets, although the Minister has said that with the green deal the two might go together. If ECO providers are the first in, as statutory providers through the energy companies, that gives them a preferential position as green deal providers, because they are already providing the ECO. We need to be mindful of reverse cross-selling, and I have real concerns about the link between assessors and providers.

In the last few minutes, the Minister announced that there will be protections against cold calling: he said that it will not be allowed. However, there is the further problem of tied assessors. I am concerned that, when there are tied assessors and providers, commissions will be involved, which might lead to the mis-selling of green deal products. It is well known that a huge amount of doorstep salesmen’s pay is in commissions—Which? estimated that 40% to 50% commissions—which is a cause for concern.

I return to the debate in the Lords in which Lord Marland said:

“There is one point which I would like to reflect on and come back to my noble friend Lord Teverson on…and that is the role of commissions. My noble friend has raised a very important point where we need to work out”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 January 2011; Vol. 724, c. GC55.]

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

Order. This is a clause stand part debate. We have already had wide debates on amendments, but I have allowed a clause stand part debate. The Committee must discuss the clause, and not commissions, cold  calling or anything else. The hon. Gentleman must always refer back to the clause in a clause stand part debate.

Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

Thank you, Mr Leigh. I was trying to say that we must be careful how property assessment is carried out. If people make contact with customers to assess a property, we must have a clear framework that protects customers and provides a basis for trust. We may debate the involvement of commissions later in our proceedings, but it is worth mentioning that that is a concern.

I shall touch on a couple of points that I could not make during our debate on the previous amendment. The Minister said that the list would be prescriptive and that there would be no flexibility. I am concerned that the Government might lag behind in innovation and that green deal providers will be selling old technology because the list will not be up to date with new technology. I am sure that the Government will respect that matter, but I am concerned about how fast we can react to the innovation and technology which the green deal itself will create. Ideas will flow even faster as the scheme increases supply and demand—I hope that old technology will not be sold.

Finally, will the Minister comment on the fact that the clause makes no mention of guarantees on products? If windows are installed that last only 10 years, how will they be part of a green deal assessment that may be for 25 years? Some products will have a limited lifespan. Will that matter be reflected in further legislation?

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

Some interesting points have been made in this short debate. The hon. Member for Ogmore referred to the analysis by E3G and to its calculations of what may or may not be financed through the golden rule. The trouble with that analysis is that it took no account of the energy company obligation. We fully accept that some home owners—particularly the fuel-poor and those who live in hard-to-treat properties—will be unable to install all the measures that would be required to bring their homes up to a good standard simply through a commercially based, paid-through-savings model, however robust and innovative such a model may be. That is precisely the reason why we have the ECO, which will deliver, over a decade at least, year on year, billions of pounds of support for exactly those measures. The E3G model completely ignored that provision.

The golden rule, which is the principle that the charge attached to the energy bill should not exceed the expected savings at the time of the assessment, will take account of the total cost of the green deal package. Interests rates are an integral part of that calculation, which is why we will insist on taking a conservative view on likely interest rate costs and on the paybacks of any particular intervention or technology. In addition, as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, said so eloquently, a sensible view must be taken on any given tariff.

The tariff will include the expected costs of finance, including interest rates, as well as labour and products. At the outset of a green deal package, it would need to be made clear, not so much to the consumer but to the lender, that even if there was a flexible interest rate—we will have to thrash out in secondary legislation whether  such a rate can be incorporated—there would be a finite amount that the variable interest rate could capture from the finance plan, because it would be possible to calculate the available returns at the beginning. However, there is more work to be done and we need to talk in more detail with, and properly consult, the finance industry about the exact mechanism for ensuring that we capture as much of the market, and offer as much consumer choice, as we can, so that consumers get the best deal.

On the interest rates likely to be offered, the honest answer is that no one really knows for sure yet what the mean interest rate is likely to be across a spread of the products. There are divergent views in the industry. Some reports have mentioned an 8% interest rate, but I have spoken to other major financiers who have predicated a much lower rate. Given the regulated nature of the payment stream and the much lower default risk, there is ample reason to believe that when the scheme comes into existence, and particularly when it builds up to scale and is able to access the capital markets when the debt is securitised, there will be access to rates that are far closer to mortgage rates than to conventional, personal loan interest rates. That is certainly our expectation, but I cannot say, hand on heart, exactly where that will lie.

That is why the Deputy Prime Minister rightly said in a speech to Climate Change Capital some days ago that we would stand by to see, particularly in the teething stages of the Bill, if there was a role for the green investment bank. However, I do not think that he or anyone else in Government anticipates that we would use the green investment bank in the same way as KfW uses, on a large scale, subsidised loans direct to the consumer. What we might envisage is some assistance in securitising a number of the initial players together and introducing some liquidity into that market to try to put a bit of va-va-voom into access to the lower interest rates that we have in the capital markets.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change) 1:45 pm, 9th June 2011

I thank the Minister for those helpful clarifications. We are starting to get a real picture of this now. What modelling has he done or commissioned, or is the industry doing, on the market or customer sensitivity to different interest rates? He must have some idea—and we need to have an idea—about what terms customers are on and what terms they can get on the green deal.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

We have not done any specific modelling in the way that the hon. Gentleman conceives, but we have a good stakeholder or industry forum, which has been discussing the issues.

The important thing to get across to the Committee is that the interest rate is just one variable factor in the total cost of the green deal package. It is easy to focus too much on the interest rate; that is the sort of thing that some unscrupulous salesmen do. They offer a 0% finance deal on something they charge a high price for, compared with a reasonable interest rate but a much better deal on the commodity price. The important thing for the customer, ultimately, is the total value of the package: the total repayment cost of the intervention—the installation of the products—versus the savings made. The interest rate is an important variable factor  in that overall equation, but by no means the only one. If some groups offer the package at a slightly higher cost but with a much better value product or lower labour costs, the different sides of the equation can cancel each other out.

The beauty of the green deal is that it allows genuine competition and allows the market to come to bear. It is not like the old one-size-fits-all Government programmes. We will see innovation, with firms large and small competing to serve consumers in new ways. There is more work to be thrashed out, and ahead of that secondary legislation I hope that all members of the Committee will take the opportunity to contribute to the thinking on it as part of the consultation over the summer.

The hon. Member for Hyndburn made a number of points. He particularly focused on the provider-assessor split. I must tell him that when I first conceived of this policy, my initial thoughts were that there would be a complete separation between the person coming in to do the assessment and the provider/salesman who came afterwards, for exactly the reasons that he suggested. However, when we looked in more detail and spoke to market participants, it became apparent that if we wanted to see as many new entrants into the market as possible—to drive customer choice, to drive down the cost of these products and services to consumers and to have real competition—we had to make it attractive for them. We have not yet pinned down the cost of a green deal assessment, but there will be a cost to having it done. Given that cost, the ability to get back some of that cost will be important.

That is why we concluded that it would be acceptable for an assessor to act on behalf of an accredited green deal supplier, provided there were robust consumer protections such as a cooling-off period, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wells; such as a clear declaration of who they are acting for; and such as total transparency, in terms of the commission paid and the ability of the consumer easily to take that assessment, which must be done to a uniform standard, to two, three or perhaps even more providers and easily obtain a compatible, complementary quote, which we would expect and encourage all consumers to do.

Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry Conservative, Devizes

The Minister is demonstrating that he is listening to the points being made by all members of the Committee, and I strongly hope that we can get back to a mood of co-operation and enthusiasm for this incredibly important piece of legislation. May I just put on record that if the country saw the rather ridiculous example of old, petty politics, they would expect us to grow up and move on?

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Those consumer protections will include declarations on commissions and a ban on cold calling. I hope that will reassure members of the Committee. In respect of guarantees, as I said this morning, we plan to require green deal providers to provide a single guarantee to their customers. Hansard contains the full statement on that. That requirement for a single guarantee will make it so much easier for consumers, particularly when there is a range of different products on offer.

Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

I welcome the Minister’s comforting words on this issue. It is reassuring to know that he is considering these matters. Would he consider one other finite matter when he talks about a choice of assessors—a choice that I welcome—and a range of innovators? When an assessment is made, who owns that assessment? Will it be owned by the assessor and the company that they work for, or will it be owned by the participant?

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

That is a very easy question to answer. The assessment will be owned by the person whose house has been assessed and who has paid for the assessment. They will hand over their money, they will receive the assessment, and it will be theirs either to act on with the assessor’s company or to take to another supplier and assessor. I hope that I have reassured hon. Members on a number of important issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

Before I come to clause 5, this is just a rather old, boring rule of the House, but I am afraid that tea and coffee are banned substances as far as the rules are concerned. If anybody has any tea or coffee, could they please hide it?

Photo of Tessa Munt Tessa Munt Liberal Democrat, Wells

I suspect that that is directed at me. It is water.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady and apologise. [ Interruption. ] Neither is alcohol.