Clause 204 - National Warmer Homes and Businesses Action Plan

Energy Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 13 June 2023.

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

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

The Government have carefully considered the effect of the clause, which was added on Report in the Lords. On 17 May, I tabled an amendment indicating my intention to oppose the clause. The Government do not consider that it would be effective in helping to deliver our commitments to improve the energy performance of buildings and to deliver net zero. However, I know that opinions among Committee members differ, and I look forward to the discussion that we may well be about to have.

The heat and buildings strategy, published in autumn 2021, sets out how the Government plan to reduce emissions from buildings and provides a clear long-term framework to enable industry to invest and deliver the transition to low-carbon heating. The Climate Change Committee already plays a key role, providing independent advice and scrutiny, and holding the Government accountable by publishing statutory progress reports to Parliament. Those are comprehensive overviews of the Government’s progress. The clause would simply duplicate those efforts.

The Government have already set out our aim to phase out the installation of new and replacement natural gas boilers from 2035, in line with natural replacement cycles, while scaling up the installation of low-carbon heating. We recognise that there are many options with the potential to play an important role.

The Government remain committed to the aspiration for as many homes as possible to reach energy performance certificate band C by 2035 where cost-effective, affordable and practical, as set out in the clean growth strategy. There has been good progress towards achieving that aim, with 47% of homes in England having reached EPC band C, up from a measly 14% in 2010.

In our net zero growth plan and energy security plan, the Government announced that we will publish a consultation on options for upgrading houses in the owner-occupier sector by 2023. The content of the consultation has not yet been finalised, and we need to gather further evidence on the potential impacts of interventions in that sector. More time is needed to ensure thorough consideration of options in this area, and the clause would not allow that time.

We are also taking significant steps to encourage businesses to reduce their energy demand through voluntary schemes and regulations. In the 2020 energy White Paper, the Government proposed that the trajectory for the minimum energy-efficiency standard for non-domestic rented buildings should be EPC band B by April 2030, with an interim milestone of EPC band C by April 2027.

We are evaluating the responses to our consultation and will publish the Government response in due course. It is important that the impacts, such as those on business and supply chain readiness, can be fully considered. The clause would pre-empt the response and commit the Government to a timeframe for implementation different from the one that has been consulted on.

The Government have set an aspiration to introduce the future homes standard by 2025. We will publish a full technical consultation for it in 2023. We intend to introduce the necessary legislation in 2024, ahead of implementation in 2025.

I thank Baroness Hayman and Lord Foster of Bath in the other place for raising these matters.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 2:30, 13 June 2023

We are in a curious position with this clause, which is a bit akin to my writing to the then Energy Minister to ask him to reintroduce the Bill as soon as possible. The Government at the time seemed not to want to introduce their own Bill as soon as possible, whereas we wanted them to do so. Clause 204 was introduced as an amendment in the House of Lords, so it has come to us as a substantive part of the Bill. We therefore find ourselves in the position—if I can persuade Opposition Members to vote accordingly—that we support the Bill as it stands and the Government apparently do not.

That is made more curious by what the clause actually says. With one small exception to do with dates, it takes things that the Government have already agreed to do—by the way, as far as I know, the future homes standard is not an aspiration; it is something the Government have already said will be mandatory by 2025—and says that the Secretary of State must produce an action plan for how they will be done. That seems to me a pretty good idea in any legislation, and in anything that anybody says will be the case in legislation. It is really not good enough to go around saying that things may well happen and that there might be legislation, and then not have any idea how that legislation can be properly discharged.

The clause puts that right by making sure that there is some kind of plan in place for these things to be achieved. It draws attention to the following targets: achieving

“100% of installations of relevant heating appliances and connections to relevant heat networks by 2035,” which is in the energy security strategy; achieving

EPC band C by 2035 in all UK homes where practical, cost effective and affordable,” to which the clean growth strategy and the heat and buildings strategy contain specific commitments; achieving

“EPC band B by 2028 in all non-domestic properties”— that is in a consultation that has already taken place, and the Government intend to produce either regulations or legislation to ensure that it happens, as I have mentioned—and introducing

“Future Homes Standard for all new builds in England by 2025,” which the Government have already said they want to do.

In a sense, the clause is a bit of a break with how things have been done before, but in another sense it is not, because it just recapitulates things that already exist, puts them in order and states that we need some form of plan to ensure that they happen. Frankly, I am really surprised that the Government have decided that they want to knock the clause out. It is not superfluous. In fact, it supports the Government in delivering their plans and ensures that we all know where we stand.

That brings me to the purpose of this Committee. The amendment that the Government tabled to remove the clause has not been selected, which means that the only way for them to achieve their desired outcome is for the Committee to vote against clause stand part. That puts Committee members in a different position from that of voting on an amendment.

The likelihood of anybody having a go at any member of this Committee for voting in favour of this Bill is remote. Therefore, I would have thought that Committee members should be allowed to exercise their own judgment as to whether they support or oppose the clause. By asking us to vote against clause stand part, the Government are in effect asking the Committee to vote against itself. If members on both sides of the Committee support the Government’s targets and aspirations—and I would have thought that everybody does—and if they think that it would be a good idea to encapsulate them in an action plan, I do not think that they should be sanctioned for voting in favour of that and, in a sense, securing Government policy.

That is code for saying that no one should be pulled up by the Whips—although perhaps the Whips have a different idea—if they vote in favour of the Bill. I assume, although I do not know this yet, that every Opposition member of the Committee will vote to retain the clause, and I would hope that every Government member will also—

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

Order. May I gently suggest, Dr Whitehead, that you have moved away from the substance of the clause and are somewhat straying into whipping arrangements?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

As always, you are right, Ms Nokes, so I will temper my remarks. I hope that common sense will prevail and that a thumping majority will ensure that the clause is retained so that the Bill can progress to its next stage intact. The clause is important to Government policy, so it should not be taken out and disabled in the way suggested.

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Labour, Sheffield, Hallam

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I rise to speak in defence of clause 204, and I agree with the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test, that the Government have suggested an interesting tactic.

Our housing stock has been described as the least energy-efficient in Europe. That means we are the least prepared to absorb future price hikes, like those experienced in recent years, and to address future temperature changes. In England alone, more than 13 million homes—59% of them—are below a C rating on the energy performance certificate standard. As a result, housing is one of the main sources of carbon emissions in the UK, accounting for around 20% of total emissions.

We should be making massive efforts and strides to improve in this policy area, yet energy efficiency programmes have been cut and home insulation rates have plummeted over the past decade. In 2013, the coalition cut energy efficiency programmes, after which insulation rates fell by 92%. The number of energy efficiency insulations peaked at 2.3 million in 2012, yet fewer than 100,000 upgrades were installed in 2021. That is rather pathetic, it has to be said.

The Bill and clause 204 in particular provide a golden opportunity to put in place the financial structures and programme to give the necessary upgrades to the 19 million homes in our country that are below band C on the EPC scale. Clearly, that is what a Labour Government would do.

Photo of Mark Jenkinson Mark Jenkinson Conservative, Workington

Has the hon. Lady heard of our ECO4 scheme?

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

Has the hon. Lady heard of the issues with the ECO4 scheme? The energy companies have not met the target number of properties because it needs to be rewritten.

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Labour, Sheffield, Hallam

Those are the exact problems. In recent years a number of Government schemes have either failed because they have not had the workforce to deliver them, or experienced challenges because people have been drawn into other roles, particularly in the building sector and in relation to cladding issues and so on. That is exactly why the Opposition would be very pleased if the clause were protected. We need that action plan. Delivery is only worth something when it happens. We cannot just have targets that we repeatedly continue to miss. It would be exceedingly challenging to argue to the public that we should not prioritise getting their bills down by £1,000 a year or come up with an action plan to deliver that.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

Yes, the British public would experience significant benefits through bill reductions as a result of insulating their homes, but who is the hon. Lady suggesting should pay for the intervention that would produce that benefit? It would be a significant scheme, especially given that 30% of the housing stock is really old. Who would foot that bill?

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Labour, Sheffield, Hallam

Moving away from this Bill, Labour has a fully costed plan for achieving that and it is targeted at the 19 million homes.

Photo of Andrew Western Andrew Western Labour, Stretford and Urmston

Does my hon. Friend agree that although the Government are reticent about placing this clause on the statute book, surely the fact that they are Government targets means the money will be found anyway?

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Labour, Sheffield, Hallam

Absolutely, and I will come to that point. This issue is so significant: it is important that we find the funding for these sorts of interventions because almost 9,000 neighbourhoods in England and Wales have very low incomes but higher than average energy costs because of poor insulation. That requires Government action, and I fully support Labour’s plans, which I believe would cost £12 billion a year—I might be wrong about that.

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Labour, Sheffield, Hallam 2:45, 13 June 2023

Sorry, £6 billion—I have doubled my ambition. That is a large amount of money, but it would be very welcome in meeting the challenges we face.

I am not alone in my concerns about delivery in this space. In January, the Environmental Audit Committee rightly said that we need a national war mobilisation to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon. The public are crying out for action to address fuel poverty and household emissions: 80% of respondents to National Energy Action’s polling supported funding retrofits for those on low incomes and, according to the New Economics Foundation, 64% of Conservative voters and 65% of people in the north support a national retrofitting taskforce.

Without the clause, the Bill will be another missed opportunity to tackle the cost of living crisis, to bring forward the emergency energy efficiency measures we need, and to start a national 10-year mission for home insulation. Delivery is important, and without an action plan I am not clear how those millions of homes, and the millions of people living in them, will benefit from better energy efficiency. We need to get on top of our carbon emissions and we need to ensure that housing is not forgotten, given its vast contribution to emissions.

It would be a mistake for the Government to remove the clause. All it is asking for is a warmer homes and a business action plan to set out how His Majesty’s Government intend to deliver energy efficiency. It is important to keep that clear ask in the Bill. I will be deeply regretful if the Government do not support the clause, because it will be another missed opportunity.

Photo of Andrew Western Andrew Western Labour, Stretford and Urmston

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. At the risk of repetition, I too rise to defend clause 204. It is interesting that, in my first Bill Committee, we appear to be having something of a groundhog day moment. When we had a similar discussion about low-carbon heating last week, the Minister stood up and gave us various assurances that these things would be done, while resisting with all his might any attempts to compel the Government to do that in law.

It is incredibly challenging when the Minister says that superb progress is being made on these issues and that we have gone up to 40% over the past 13 years. In fact, on current projections we have something in the region of 200 years to go to upgrade the energy efficiency of the UK’s draughty housing stock. National Energy Action says that progress on energy efficiency is too slow, and the UK Business Council for Sustainable Development has calculated that the pace of the Government’s recently announced scheme would take almost 200 years to reach homes in need of upgrade. It is clear why the Opposition are so keen to see the targets in the Bill; clause 204 is therefore so important.

I warmly welcomed the addition of the clause in the other place because although the Minister talks about the energy White Paper, the net-zero strategy, the heat and building strategy that was published alongside it, and the future homes standard, none of those things actually compel the Government to act. That is the problem. The Government can miss their targets time and again because there is nothing that forces them to take the action needed. Warm words will not provide warm homes—it is that simple. This will not get us where we need to go unless it is on the statute book. We know that because we are already missing the targets.

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

I respect the hon. Gentleman greatly. Obviously, it is a matter of political debate whether he accepts the warm words of the Conservative party—that is a legitimate, democratic debate that we should have—but what exactly does he propose would be the remedy for his not trusting the Minister’s word? Ultimately, that is his political point. He is entitled to make that point, and he has made it clearly, but trust cannot be legislated for, so I gently suggest that he accept that some things will always be a matter of political debate. I trust the Minister’s word. The hon. Gentleman does not have to do so, but that is ultimately what we are in politics to do—to argue and debate these things.

Photo of Andrew Western Andrew Western Labour, Stretford and Urmston

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but whereas trust cannot be legislated for, targets can. It would be a very simple remedy to place the targets in the Bill in order to remove any question of trust, and to give the industry and homeowners struggling under the weight of high energy bills certainty that the Government are taking the action required. In fact, I do not see this as a question of trust: it is a practical step. Indeed, if Conservative Members are so satisfied that the Government will take the action needed to meet the targets, why be fearful of their inclusion? If they have no issue with hitting a target, why not place it in the Bill? That is the fundamental point.

By not including the targets they have set, it opens up the argument that the Government do not feel they will meet them. In making that argument, I remind colleagues of the words of the National Infrastructure Commission, which says:

“Government is not on track to deliver its commitments on heat or energy efficiency…A concrete plan”— which is what the clause would require the Secretary of State to introduce within six months of the Bill becoming an Act—

“for reducing energy demand is required, with a particular focus on driving action in homes and facilitating the investment needed.”

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

I share the hon. Gentleman’s zeal and passion for insulating the UK’s homes, but he has referred again and again to a concrete plan and investment, and I cannot believe that either of those things come with a price tag of zero. Given that it is important to be fiscally responsible, will he outline how he plans to fund the implementation that he wants to write into the Bill?

Photo of Andrew Western Andrew Western Labour, Stretford and Urmston

The same applies to the Government’s targets. The fact is that we are being asked to take the Minister’s word that the Government will deliver on the targets, so there must already be a plan to do so. There must already be the funding to deliver, so what is the problem with enshrining this in law? That is the point we are advancing. Either the Government are putting the targets forward in a performative way, with no hope, plan or funding to deliver on them, or they are so assured that the targets will be achieved that there is no need for them to be placed in legislation—it is one or the other. Either way, I am sure that Conservative Members would want to satisfy themselves that the funding is in place; otherwise, the targets are a total waste of time anyway.

When we hear from the Minister, I would be grateful to know where the funding will come from to achieve the targets. Indeed, can we stand by the targets in any way, shape or form? That is the central point that I do not understand, because if the Government are going to deliver on this, what is the problem? If they are not going to deliver, all Committee members should be seeking to hold the Government’s feet to the fire.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I was not going to speak, but the more this debate has gone on, the more confused I have got, so I thought I may as well throw some words out there anyway. Obviously, it is the job of the Opposition to hold the Government to account, but I find it bizarre that it now seems to be the job of the Opposition to make the Government stand by their own targets.

I understand that the clause was inserted in the other place. The Government keep telling us that the other place is very important and that we should rely on the expertise in the Lords, which is supposed to be a revising Chamber. That is ironic, because it was the Lords who brought forward the Bill in the first place. If we have to trust their ability and that it is a revising Chamber, it would seem logical to agree with the revisions that the Lords make. Otherwise, it undermines the point of having the Lords in the first place—which takes us to the position of the SNP: we would abolish it—but the Government tell us that it is an important place. We have heard only this week about how many people are scrambling to get into the Lords and are disappointed not to get in. Then we talk about trust and not being about to legislate for trust. Ironically, Nadine Dorries seemed to be saying yesterday that there is a real lack of trust in this Government.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

Order. I gently suggest that we need to be debating this clause, not the aspirations of some former Members.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

I know; I was just linking to where the clause came from and wanted to put these matters out there.

I do support the clause, although the future homes standard is effectively only for England. I have already raised my concerns that the Government are not moving fast enough, because they are still at the consultation stage. Subsection 1(d) is really important. The Government should publish an action plan showing how they are going to bring forward the future homes standard. That will give certainty to developers. They need to plan ahead for the technical requirements that they need to apply to new housing developments. It is important that a look-ahead is given to developers as soon as possible.

In terms of all the other targets, given that some of them go beyond the life of this Government anyway, I find it hard to understand why the Government are so reticent to accept the targets for energy efficiency installs. We can argue about whether Labour did more installs than are currently happening in terms of the number of energy efficiency measures, but the most important thing is the upgrading to EPC band C, to which the clause refers.

The Government can talk about the progress they have made in getting properties to EPC band C, but it is still only hovering around the 50% bracket, and that is after 12 years in government. If they are going to hit the target by 2035, there is no doubt that much more structured delivery plans will have to be put in place. Clearly, the properties that we can tackle today are the ones that are most easy to upgrade. It is going to get harder and harder the further into the programme we go. It is important that the Government are held to account on their targets and that they come forward and say how they are going to meet those targets.

Finally, on ironies, I agree with what the Labour party has been saying on energy efficiency, but this has come just after it has done a U-turn on the green new deal and the green investment it promised us all. I will leave it there, but there are a lot of contradictions on both sides, I would say.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

It is a pleasure to respond to the debate. There is some confusion at the minute. Indeed, I was slightly confused at the beginning of the debate, given that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test seemed at one stage to be whipping on behalf of the Government and giving advice to Conservative Members— I urge all colleagues on this side not to listen to his words. If I am not mistaken, he was suggesting that the clause we are against was tabled by the Government in the other place; Baroness Hayman is a Cross-Bench peer and Lord Foster of Bath is a Liberal Democrat peer.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

For clarity, I did not say that it was introduced by the Government, nor would I say that, because it certainly was not. The point I was trying to make was that it is now a part of the Bill, not that it was introduced by the Government in the other place.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I am glad that is clarified for the Committee. For further clarification, we are seeking to revise the Bill back to its original state as drafted and remove an amendment that was made by Cross-Bench and Liberal Democrat Members of the House of Lords. I believe that is a relatively regular occurrence for the House of Commons. There should be no confusion on that.

Again, as they were when we were talking about smart meters, the Opposition are such a glass half-empty kind of party. We have made huge progress in the energy efficiency of UK homes. I understand why the Opposition do not want to speak about this: when they left office only 14% of homes had an EPC grading of course; now, after 13 years of Conservative Government, the proportion stands at 47%, and we are driving forward to get it over 50% soon. As for the suggestion that we do not have a plan to move forward, the Government do have a plan. We have set out a heat and buildings strategy and we have announced further measures in the net zero growth plan, which was announced just recently.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero) 3:00, 13 June 2023

I thank the Minister for giving way again. In this clause that the Government are trying to take out, there is reference to upgrading homes—it is a condition that the Government must abide by—

“where practical, cost effective and affordable”.

Can he provide a definition of what is practical, cost-effective and affordable? I could not get that out of the previous Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

What is practical and affordable will obviously be determined by individual circumstances and the market conditions at the time. Let me also say that I would have welcomed any acknowledgement from the Scottish National party, who are in government in Scotland, that we are working together across these islands to improve insulation and that we have made great progress as an island nation in getting towards 50% of all homes being rated EPC level C or above.

As I was just going on to conclude, we will take no lectures from the Labour party on the costings of projects, given that just last week it had to announce a staggering U-turn on its £28 billion investment in green technology and jobs, and it is yet to come up with any answer about how it will fund the £100 billion of pledges that it has announced thus far.

In terms of costings, a plan, moving this country forward, delivering on insulation and delivering on this entire green strategy, I have much faith in the Government’s position and in what we are seeking to do here today. That is why I advise all my colleagues to vote with the Government this afternoon.

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

Division number 5 Energy Bill [Lords] — Clause 204 - National Warmer Homes and Businesses Action Plan

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 204 disagreed to.