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11.45 am

In the course of pulling those points together and putting targets in the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown once said to me in the midst of negotiations that appeared to be going nowhere, "Listen. I am only trying to be helpful, damn it." He has been damnably helpful throughout the process in trying to put those targets in the Bill. So why should we impale ourselves on proposals that fail to refer to targets or time scale?

As the Minister said, in part, the argument is about money. It is also about whether the particular Ministry concerned has the power to set that target in its Bill. However, there is great confusion in the arguments that have been presented to the Minister. Whether or not he or his Cabinet colleagues will be convinced of them when they have had greater time to scrutinise them is another matter.

Sue Doughty: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, during the passage of the Bill, the Minister and his Ministry seemed to query how much the proposal

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would cost and then pick out of the air the figure that they liked best—up to £1 billion? Had we behaved like that in previous lives and adopted such weak management techniques in trying to establish the cost of a programme, we would have been out of the door fairly quickly. I am curious to know how the Department did not know the cost of implementation during the passage of the Bill.

Alan Simpson: That is a fair question. It is important to recognise that the figures have often been used in a somewhat vicarious fashion. If it suits to have a low figure, a low figure has been proposed. If it suits to have an exorbitantly high figure, that has been thrown in to block the idea that it is a meetable target. We may be frightened by the wildest target of £1 billion, but it will not be too long before we have a duty as a House to reflect on who will meet the £80 billion residual costs of public liability that we propose to relieve British Nuclear Fuels of. Whose budget will that come from, or does the Minister have it in his? I am not sure whether he has the answer tucked in his pocket somewhere, but my point shows that we can make commitments in principle, even though we do not know entirely where the costs will be met from. However, it is right to do so.

My worry about new clause 1 is that it probably takes us further back from, and weakens, HECA. New section 2A(1) of amendment No. 11 states:

it should be the duty of—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing amendment (a) and amendment No. 11, not new clause 1.

Alan Simpson: I am grateful for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wanted the House to be aware of the gaps that the amendment will seek to cover.

We have signed up to a change of wording that no longer requires authorities by law to produce a report. We have now said to them, "Where you do produce a report, for the time being, you shall have a duty." So authorities that no longer produce reports do not have a duty. Only measures that are likely to result in the target being met are then required.

What if an authority sets a target of zero? It will not fall foul of the new requirements. It will not be possible to write guidance that says, "Where are you in respect of the 30 per cent. targets?" What if they set the Maldon target? Maldon is often cited as an authority that has done very little to meet the targets set out in the guidance notes. What would happen if Maldon said that its target was to deliver not very much and that its progress report would say only that it was doing so not very quickly? That approach would be compliant with the Bill as amended.

The saving grace was always the provision that allows the Minister or Secretary of State the power to intervene. If it stated that this particular Minister for the Environment had power to intervene, I would be happy, as I have inordinate confidence in his inclination to intervene in entirely beneficial and laudable ways, but the Bill leaves things much more open and the amendment seeks to narrow that provision in important ways. It does not narrow it as much as I would like, but I shall deal with that point in a moment.

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I am worried that the Minister appears to have been told that he needed to change the Bill that has returned to the Floor of the House because of the provision in clause 1 stating that energy conservation authorities

That was the position under HECA and the provision was intended simply to make it statutory. I think that the Minister was told that he could not introduce such provision, however, as he would fall foul of the "new burdens obligations" that have mysteriously entered into the language of governance.

The suggestion about telling authorities that they will not be required to do what they are supposed to be doing and about the risk of incurring extra costs is a strange notion. My question is: why are they not already doing what they are supposed to be doing? It seems bizarre to talk about an existing responsibility not being incorporated in the framework of all the programmes that the Government have presented to the energy conservation authorities and on which many of them have indeed delivered. I find bizarre the reinterpretation of that requirement as a new burden.

Sir Sydney Chapman: The hon. Gentleman's knowledge about energy efficiency and all the matters under discussion is instanced by the fact that he is chairman of the all-party group on warm homes. Will he confirm that of about 360 relevant authorities, some 350 have agreed targets? Only about 10 or a dozen do not have such targets. If the amendment were accepted, the 350 with targets would be completely let off the hook and there would be no possibility of requiring the recalcitrant 10 or a dozen authorities to set targets.

Alan Simpson: I am not certain about that. Worryingly, it appears that a new loophole might be introduced by including in the Bill the phrase

The provision leaves it open to the 350 energy conservation authorities that already have targets to say that they will stop their work to achieve them. What action can be taken if there are no targets for the time being? There is great confusion about the meaning of the wording that has been presented to the Minister to be tabled in his name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown at half-past the eleventh hour.

That is one of my great complaints about the overall process. By and large, although Ministers may not be the last to see the amendments that are tabled in their names, they may see them only just before the rest of us get to do so and are asked to approve them. That is a very poor way of exercising a parliamentary duty of scrutiny in delivering good legislation. I am deeply worried about the quality of the advice that is being given to Ministers and which the House is being asked to endorse. My concern is based not only on the technical quality of the advice, but on whether there is a sub-agenda about which the House should be even more concerned. We are told about the problem of obligations that introduce new burdens, but I think that we are caught between a misunderstanding of responsibilities and an uncomfortable reality—a misunderstanding of what the new burdens obligation might mean and the stronger reality of the no-burdens inclination of those who advise the Government.

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When the original HECA reports were scrutinised by Ministers and other hon. Members, a huge discrepancy was clearly evident; many authorities had failed to deliver very much at all. In response, the Minister for the Environment said in opening the consultation that he would be looking for a more robust set of targets, which reflected the fact that the worst had to be required to catch up with the rest.

It was in that context that the Minister was subsequently advised that he could not take such action because of the new burdens obligation. The consultations with local authorities and other organisations overwhelmingly favoured the introduction of tougher targets. Local government, communities and those campaigning on fuel poverty all wanted such targets. However, it was suggested by civil servants in his Department that, rather than strengthen the targets, we should do away with them altogether. It was argued that targets got in the way, which flew in the face of the remit that he had set for the consultation process.

It is sad that the same civil service rewording of that inclination has returned to the House in the form of amendment No. 11. What has happened may be the result of a bizarre sense of self-protection, on the basis that the departmental record of implementing the 1995 Act shows that very little has been done to monitor the reporting that should have taken place. The requirement was one of those reluctant obligations that have only latterly been taken on board. When the Minister began to see just how wide the disparities in performance were, he was the one who said that the regime had to be toughened up. Institutionally, however, if he had not driven the requirement, it would not have gone anywhere.

As I said, the consultations related more to ways in which targets could be avoided than to how they could be delivered. Furthermore, I think that they were underpinned by a bizarre presumption that civil servants can best protect Ministers by giving them the fewest possible obligations. It is presumed that that approach will protect Ministers' backs against criticism; how can one be criticised for not delivering something to which one was not committed? That is an interesting notion of survival, but a poor way of giving the answers that the public want from us in terms of delivering an end to fuel poverty.

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