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House of Commons

Friday 30 November 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Orders of the Day

Home Energy Conservation Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I was pleased to draw a high place in the private Members' ballot. I was determined to put my good luck to good use and I am confident that the Bill, if successful, will do just that. We all know that getting a significantly useful piece of legislation through the House via the private Member's Bill route happens only once in a blue moon—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Thank goodness.

Dr. Turner: But today is lucky: astronomers call the second full moon of the month, which happens today, a blue moon. I hope that the shadow Leader of the House agrees that is a good omen for my Bill.

I am grateful to the many hon. Members who have given up valuable time to be here this morning, and deeply appreciative of the support I have had from a wide range of non-governmental organisations and pressure groups outside the House that have supported, promoted and assisted in the preparation of the Bill. I shall not read out the list of organisations because there are too many, but it is noteworthy that they include 96 local authorities that have formally expressed support for the Bill, and interesting that Conservative Future also appears on the list. I do not know of many Bills that can unite young Conservatives and young Labour, but mine appears to have done so—surely another favourable augury.

There is consensus on the need to achieve a 20 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Although considerable progress has been made towards that target, there is clear recognition of the contribution needed from energy saving in the home. That recognition was encapsulated in the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995—HECA—which was itself a private Member's Bill. The HECA target is a 30 per cent. saving in energy consumption in homes by 2010.

HECA depends for its efficacy on local authorities. My Bill would strengthen existing legislation in that respect. The fact is that some local authorities are more enthusiastic than others about working to achieve their HECA targets.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): When preparing for today's debate, I investigated the position in Wales, where

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there are about 220,000 eligible households. If the current rate of awarding grants in Wales continues, 67 years will have elapsed before all those households have received grant for insulation work. There is a great need to act.

Dr. Turner: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention because he emphasises my argument that we have to put some backbone into the effort. If we were on track to achieve the target of a 30 per cent. reduction by 2010, local authorities overall would have achieved an 8 per cent. reduction by April last year, but the answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) revealed that most authorities were falling short of that figure, some seriously so, notably Maldon district council, which had achieved a glittering 0.09 per cent., and Nuneaton and Bedworth council, which had achieved 0.2 per cent. About 100 authorities had reported progress of less than 3 per cent.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I hope that the hon. Gentleman intends to address the fact that, through his Bill, he will be urging local authorities to pursue landlords to ensure compliance with the regulations, and that the Bill will impose a further regulatory burden. Will he undertake that the Committee on the Bill will work to ensure that the regulatory burden on individuals and on people who run homes is not awesome? His proposals are worthy, but even the Government have been unsuccessful in their energy conservation programmes—in some Departments, energy use has increased. He is proposing further regulation in an area in which the Government themselves have failed miserably.

Dr. Turner: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. He rightly makes the point about regulation. The regulation that emerges from the Bill should be as much as is needed and not excessive. We do not want to drive landlords out of business by over-regulation. I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I will strive to ensure that the regulations are reasonable.

The Government's performance in meeting HECA targets in other departments is beyond my influence. Where the Government have failed, they should take note and do something about it.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it will be offensive and difficult for private landlords, many of whom are responsible landlords, if they feel that they are being lectured or got at, either by central or local government, when public bodies are themselves delinquent in respect of their own targets?

Dr. Turner: That is a fair point. In terms of home energy conservation, many social landlords and local authority landlords are doing rather well and setting a good example. That is what we want to see throughout.

Meeting the HECA target is not going very well. The picture is clouded by the fact that it is difficult to interpret or compare the reports that local authorities submit to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. There is no consistent basis for the preparation of those reports. We cannot compare like with like, but part 1 seeks to address the problem.

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Achievement of the HECA target is not a statutory duty on local authorities. Clause 1 aims to remedy that by making it a statutory duty, and by setting out minimum requirements for energy authorities in pursuing this purpose. It gives the Secretary of State the power to require other bodies, such as registered social landlords and managers of Government energy efficiency programmes, to assist the work of local authorities with the provision of information on energy efficiency measures that they have taken.

In respect of stock transfers from local authorities to registered social landlords, clause 1 would ensure that home energy conservation matters form part of such agreements.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Many of us live in boroughs where stock transfer has already taken place. Will the hon. Gentleman assure us that his Bill will bite—and not merely, as clause 1(3) seems to imply, to new transfers that are about to go through?

Dr. Turner: The hon. Gentleman will know that it is difficult to make things work retrospectively, but every other aspect of the Bill will, we hope, bite on the stock to which he refers.

Clause 1 also makes provision for the Secretary of State to issue guidelines to local authorities so that their reports can be prepared on a consistent basis, and so that progress towards the HECA target is made much clearer. In future, we would have a reasonably consistent and comparable reporting procedure that would mean something.

Another difficulty is that not all local authorities have an officer with clear responsibility for the HECA. Clause 2 would ensure that each authority at least identified a designated HECA officer. He or she would be responsible for their functions under the HECA and under the Bill, if it is enacted. Local government officers who are currently undertaking the work have said forcefully that that would give them more clout within their authority and greatly facilitate their work.

The purpose of clause 3 is to give the Secretary of State powers to act when local authorities seriously fail to meet their HECA targets.

The intention behind part 1 is not to be prescriptive in respect of local authorities, but to give them more support in carrying out their HECA duties. What matters is achieving the target for their area: how they choose to do that is down to them. If they achieve the target, that is fine. That will satisfy the proposed legislation.

Part 2 deals with fuel poverty, which is a matter of great concern to the Government, as we can see from the recent publication of their fuel poverty strategy. The Government estimate that 4 million households are still in fuel poverty. Once again, a private Member's Bill has blazed the trail. The provisions of part 2 are designed to bolster the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which was piloted through the House by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). It would ensure that there was greater progress in meeting the provisions of that Act, and it would make the discharge of the Act's responsibilities a statutory duty on local authorities. It would give the Secretary of State the power to assist authorities with guidance in achieving the objectives of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act.

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It is important to note that 39 per cent. of people in the private rented sector are in fuel poverty—a higher percentage than in any other housing sector. The worst accommodation, in terms of energy conservation and fuel poverty, is to be found in houses in multiple occupation. I shall refer to them hereafter as HMOs.

If the objectives of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act and the HECA are to be achieved, their reach must be extended to HMOs. Given the difficulty that local authorities have in achieving anything with HMOs, it is essential that something is done with HMOs. That is what makes part 3 vital: without it, we do not stand a chance of achieving the objectives of parts 1 and 2.

The link between HMO registration and the energy aspects of the Bill are clear enough justification for including it in the Bill in its own right, but a host of other reasons give me particular pleasure in introducing the Bill. My constituency and the city of Brighton and Hove have many HMOs, in which about 25,000 people—about 10 per cent. of the population—live. As we do not have a mandatory registration scheme, it is difficult to be accurate about the numbers; they are guesses, but they are reasonably accurate.

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