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Age Concern recently conducted a survey of pensioners from which it emerged that they badly need advice. They need some sort of agency to give better advice on their options. One of the suggestions made by Age Concern was that pensioners could be encouraged to move to smaller accommodation, although such a proposal would have to be examined much more closely. Furthermore, a strategy published in November redefined the criterion for energy poverty, which, I think, was said to exist when more than 10 per cent. of the household budget is spent on fuel. I do not know whether that is the right criterion. We all have our own views about that.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): There is clearly widespread support for the Bill inside and outside the House. It is part of a series of such Bills that have been introduced by Back Benchers in the past few years. They have been promoted by Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and now by a Labour Member. Indeed, the sponsors of this Bill and the speeches that have been made so far demonstrate that it deals with an issue that hon. Members are anxious to address. Some of us feel somewhat frustrated that Government policy is not being prosecuted with the same enthusiasm as hon. Members in all parts of the House seem to share about the issue.
I hope that when the Minister replies, she will not only deal with the content of the fuel poverty strategy but state that the Government accept that we have much to do to achieve even an approximation of the targets. It is not good enough to set targets when the policies that are being pursued have no chance of meeting them. Back Benchers and the Government need to ensure their achievement together.
It is inevitable that a private Member's Bill cannot always have the required force behind it. That is why the measure expanded to 43 clauses and then contracted again. People wanted a Bill that would be genuinely effective. I commend the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on his approach, which has two benefits. First, it greatly increases the chances of the Bill becoming law. Secondly, it increases the partnership between Back Benchers and the Government, who will implement the measure.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who is not in his place, raised the practical point that many local authorities have transferred their housing stock to other agencies. I understand the reason for the Bill's concentration on those that have not yet done that, because it is possible to incorporate a condition in the measure. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend made the valid point that we need to work out how to deal with the problem that a large amount of rented stock in the affordable sector has been transferred from local authorities but requires the same attention as the Bill applies to housing stock before it is transferred.
Fuel poverty has been the subject of many debates in the House. In the 18 years I have been a Member of Parliament, and before that, I have been involved in many discussions and debates about it. It is sad that we continue to discuss fuel poverty with such intensity and that it remains a big issue. I should have liked to believe that, by now, the phrase would have dropped out of current parlance.
Fuel poverty peculiarly affects this country. The term does not register in continental or Scandinavian countries, because the phenomenon hardly exists. In the past, Scandinavian countries have had cheap energy, but they have also had efficiently designed, built and insulated houses. Consequently, they do not suffer the same problems as we do.
In the mid-1970s, when the activity of the oil and gas industry in the North sea was expanding rapidly and putting a lot of pressure on local authorities in my part of north-east Scotland, we imported 500 houses by ship from Norway. They were erected in the village of Kemnay, which was then in my constituency. Twenty-five years later, those houses remain the warmest and most energy efficient in the north-east of Scotland. They have a special characteristic that surprises door-knockers and canvassers: the doors open outwards for the good reason that they are designed to sweep the snow away. They are also effective at sweeping away canvassers and unwanted intruders. We need to improve not only the design of new housesperhaps we are better at that than we werebut existing stock, which is clearly not up to standard. That is a substantial problem.
I am conscious that the Bill applies to England and Wales and that I speak for a Scottish constituency. However, we all acknowledge that the problem is United Kingdom wide and that we must look to best practice wherever it occurs. If Scotland has encountered some difficulties, doubtless England, Wales and Northern Ireland can learn from them. However, I accept the intervention of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who said that the problems may not be as great as has been reported. When the Bill is enacted, as I hope it will be, perhaps it will provide for practices that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will try to improve on. We are working together to try to achieve the best results. We need a UK-wide definition of fuel poverty. We must stop arguing about it, agree a UK definition and provide for polices that will clearly and measurably reduce it.
The Bill is described as an energy conservation measure. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown made it clear, however, that it is fundamentally a social measure that happens to have important energy conservation implications. That is the right approach. We are all concerned because too many households struggle to stay warm and have to juggle family budgets between food, other priorities and staying warm. We need to find a system that enables people to keep warm.
In many cases, if we improve energy efficiency, we will not necessarily reduce the energy bill. However, we hope to ensure that the people who spent 10 per cent. or more of their income on fuel and were still cold will be warm and comfortable, even if they spend the same amount of money. They will also be healthy, or healthier, and less inclined to contract illnesses. The figures on which we concentrate are those for deaths that are related to the weather or fuel poverty. Most of them inevitably occur among elderly people. However, we must not underestimate the number of people who may not die as a result of living in damp and cold homes, but who suffer illnesses that have a serious effect on their well-being and involve a cost to the rest of society through lost working time and burdens on the health service.
A pilot scheme was tried out in the south-west of England, allowing general practitioners to prescribe home insulation as a requirement for some patients. They could say, "The main reason the patient is in my surgery is that his home is damp and cold. Solving that problem would improve his health." What assessment has been made of the scheme? It has clearly not been extended and perhaps it needs to be modified. However, health is a legitimate consideration in the context of home energy conservation.
There are several proposals in the UK fuel poverty strategy that most of us welcome, even if they are modest. They involve better methods of insulating and improving fuel efficiency to benefit the fuel poor. I hope that the Minister will forgive me for saying that although I welcome the pilot scheme for microscale combined heat and power, I do wonder how it will work against the current background of arrangements that have caused a collapse in take-up. Sixty to 80 per cent. of installed CHP schemes are not generating electricity for the benefit of the grid. The problem is that the same companies, which use the same adapted technologies, will want to develop the proposals. It is important to get CHP back on course as a major contributor to energy efficiency at all levels.
The microschemes mean that one can envisage having a CHP boiler in a household or, perhaps even more appropriately, in a household in multiple occupation, which can generate the required warmth more efficiently and contribute to the electricity needs of the household. It may, in due course, be able to export electricity to the national grid. That is a genuine energy conservation measure, which also provides a reduction in fuel poverty. I welcome the Government's commitment to the scheme, but CHP industry specialists must be able to perceive CHP as a growing sector, and not an option that, for technical reasons, is not being taken up in the way people initially hoped for.
The Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill, which is a further step in the direction of eliminating fuel poverty. We need to ensure that we continue to co-ordinate our actions across the United Kingdom, adopt best practice and strive to achieve genuine reductions in fuel poverty and improvements in the quality of life of people who live in homes that are damp and hard to heat. We also want to make an important contribution to energy conservation that will uphold our wider energy policy. That is the fundamental aim of this highly commendable measure. I hope that hon. Members will support it today.
Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), not only on securing such a high place in the private Members' ballot but on choosing this Bill to steer through the process.
I was pleased to be asked to sponsor the Bill, for a number of reasons. My hon. Friend has already referred to the serious safety hazards in some of the worst houses in multiple occupation. As honorary secretary of the recently formed all-party group on gas safety, I believe that the measures in the Bill will be of great interest to those of us across the parties who support the initiative on that issue.
I am especially pleased to sponsor the Bill because of its importance for the constituencies that my hon. Friend and I represent in the city of Brighton and Hove. He has already referred to the housing situation there; it is one that makes these measures particularly important. Forty-two per cent. of the city's housing stock is pre-1919, which is twice the national average. Many of those houses are in a severe state of disrepair; many are old, rambling buildings converted into bedsits and flats.
Brighton and Hove city council's admirable housing investment strategy document for 200106appropriately entitled "The Well-Being of the City"recognises the importance of improving the housing stock, whether council or privately owned, as central to the well-being of our citizens. The authors of that strategy also say:
The council is already working with landlords to encourage investment in the housing stock, and improvements are happening. They have jointly published a good landlord guide, whose emphasis is on work under the terms of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. In its fifth progress report on the Act's provisions, the council states: