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Housing Energy Efficiency

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 11:34 am on 30th March 2000.

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Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat 11:34 am, 30th March 2000

Yes, and in the '70s, too. At that time, there was little understanding of the concept of fuel poverty and an absolute denial of the existence of excess winter deaths. It took a long time for that concept to be understood and appreciated by government. Every year, 430,000 Scots die from the cold. That is hardly understood in Scandinavia; Norwegians and Swedes do not appreciate that there could be such a problem, as it does not exist in their countries.

Just as there was no recognition of fuel poverty or excess winter deaths, there was no understanding of the NHER scheme. At one time, the gas industry regulator actually abolished the contribution made from gas bills to schemes such as HEES. That was a retrograde step. The previous gas regulator felt that millions could have been invested in energy efficiency.

I recall the debate on VAT on fuel. I facilitated the "VAT on Fuel—Scotland Says No" campaign. One of the primary reasons for taking that stance was that there was no reinvestment of VAT in energy efficiency or fuel poverty measures. It was simply a tax grab by the Government of the day.

HEES has been important, and I commend the work of Energy Action Scotland in developing it over many years. The previous Government facilitated the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, which was introduced by my federal party president, Diana Maddock, and received all-party support.

We are making progress. It is important to recognise that. Standards-of-performance payments are made from the electricity industry and, more recently, from the gas industry towards efficiency schemes. That is helpful, but I hope that the rate of £1.20 per consumer will rise in years to come.

There is growing cross-party agreement that fuel poverty must be given careful attention. At £12 million, the warm deal has been a useful start and the emphasis on owner-occupiers is to be welcomed. As the minister said in reply to Lloyd Quinan, the evidence comes from Scottish house condition surveys, which show clearly that private rented accommodation has the worst NHER of all homes in Scotland. It is important to switch resources in that direction.

It is also important to recognise that the warm deal is over target this year, at 31,000 homes. I cannot overemphasise the importance of training, however. It is no use just throwing money at the problem; there must be adequate training. I shall illustrate that point with an anecdote that I heard recently from a constituent. Her loft had been insulated, but she had not removed her luggage. When she went up into the loft, she saw that it was perfectly insulated, with the luggage in the middle and the insulation fitted neatly around it. When she challenged the operative, he said, "I'm a loft insulator, not a porter, madam." Training is important because the job must be done correctly. There is still some way to go.

The tolerable standard must be raised. It is ridiculous that that has not been addressed and I hope that the minister will take that on board. Building regulations have been amended, but they are not retrospective. Why can building regulations and the new standards therein not apply to refurbishments? We should tell the chancellor that, although it is good to take VAT off the energy efficiency products that go into homes, we also need to take VAT off refurbishments. The raising of energy efficiency standards during refurbishments could be built into building regulations.

It is fine to insulate a house, but if the heating appliances in it are useless or are at the end of their life, nothing will have been achieved for the comfort levels there. For years during my previous professional career, I argued that the quality of appliances should be addressed in the Scottish house condition survey. I wish I had £1 for every occasion on which a tenant came to me and said that they were living with a 20-year old appliance that could no longer be repaired on a care-and-maintenance basis. We have to invest in appliance quality.

I accept that, with a change in occupancy, an energy rating should be applied. Stock transfer provides an ideal opportunity to provide targets for improving the quality of homes. We can eliminate fuel poverty in Scotland. A 15-year target is appropriate, and I am pleased that my party leader, Charles Kennedy, committed my party to that at our recent conference in Dundee.