|Home Energy Conservation Bill
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I begin by expressing thanks and praise to those who have called for further sittings of the Committee. However, my first thanks should be to you, Mr. Benton. It is a real pleasure to be a member of a Committee chaired by you. I count it as the pinnacle of my careerand I shall tell the Committee why. You and I originate from the same placeBootle, the constituency that has the good fortune to be represented by you. I grew up in
Column Number: 7Bootle knowing that it was the centre of the western world, that Liverpool was its best known suburb, and that the world view that emanated from there was based on generosity, wisdom, kindness and good humour. I see all those merits reflected in the qualities that you will no doubt bring to our proceedings, Mr. Bentonas you have done throughout your time in Parliament. It is a privilege to be a member of this Committee.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown for the incredible amount of work that he has done to bring before the Committee a Bill that has the potential to be truly astonishing. It will help move the Government's commitments forward in a dramatic way. It is about delivery, and I think that he is entitled to bask in the praises that would otherwise go unsung for the huge amount of work that he has done behind the scenes.
It would be crass of me to disconnect those praises from the work that has also been done by Opposition Members, particularly by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed). We have had the most constructive parliamentary support that the House could wish for. The Opposition offer the broad brush of support, but focus on ensuring that the House passes good legislationa Bill that works and is fair. That approach is entirely to the credit of the House.
We need further sittings, because we seem to be in a position similar to that of the Committee that met last year to debate the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill. It is what my mother would affectionately call ''deja vu all over again''. Then, as now, a huge amount of work was done behind the scenes. Then, as now, when the Committee met for its first sitting it was presented with a series of amendments tabled in the Minister's name that seemed to head in a different direction from the comments made by all parties on Second Reading. That had the potential to do serious damage to the competence and relevance of the Bill. Then, as now, there was an urgent need for further sittings in order to iron out those differences and misunderstandings.
In some respects, it would have been better not to have started from this point. We may wish to have started from somewhere else, but we cannot. We have to iron out the problem of starting where we do. To all intents and purposes, the framework agreement reached before Christmas by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown is to be changed by a series of amendments that again appear to head in a different direction. That may be the result of misunderstanding or of mischief.
However, I well recall that at a similar point last year, on a different Bill, the Minister with responsibility for that Bill walked into the first sitting of the Committee saying that everything was agreed and we would all be out of there in five minutes. The rest of the Committee had to say, ''No, Minister, absolutely notthe amendments tabled in your name
Column Number: 8have not been agreed by the promoters of the Bill, and they are not likely to attract support from other members of the Committee.''
The advice on the basis of which those amendments were tabled was either wrong or downright dishonest. Fortunately, the Bill was salvaged by the intervention of the Minister for the Environment, who, happily, is responsible for the Committee today. On his returnfrom Brussels, I think, but I am not sureon the same day, he came into the Committee, looked at the amendments and declared that they did not reflect the Government's determination to eradicate fuel poverty. The Minister for the Environment is an unsung hero of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which sets a target date for the eradication of fuel poverty in Britain. It is in order to give meaning, form and targets to that legislative framework that we introduced this Bill.
In considering the need for further sittings, we must recognise that parts of the civil service are deeply confused about four key areas, although the body politic of Parliament is not. The first of those areas relates to the statutory targets. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire is right to say that if targets are reduced to aspirations, Parliament risks passing legislation that would discredit it. That would provide a poor service not only to the public, but to Members of all parties who have a genuine commitment to eradicating fuel poverty. The issue of the targets and the references to them in the Bill will form the basis of the Committee's future discussions.
Secondly, there is confusion about the position of residential landlords. It would be nonsensical, and would expose the Minister and perhaps the Government to the most wretched criticism, if we were to be disingenuous in our commitments. We should be willing to impose clear duties on private sector landlords. We have already set targets for the public sector, but if the 600,000 properties that have already been transferred to registered social landlords were found to be among the poorest in the housing stock, we would be denounced as having a cynical disregard for those who occupy public sector housing.
That charge would be unanswerable. It is within our power to include provisions in the Bill to deliver what the Minister has regularly told us must be an inclusive framework for the fuel poverty elimination strategy. For me, the suggestion that that should be quietly pushed to one side is incomprehensible. To do so would undermine the progress that we hope to make in respect of the other two sectors.
There is a third case for ensuring that explicit references to fuel poverty are not excluded from the Bill: that issue is the Bill's raison d'etre, and we ought not to walk away from it.
There is a small but significant omission from the Bill of any mention of a start date. I understand the significance of that in a domestic context. The issue is reminiscent of the difference between aspirational objectives and clear targets. The discussions that I have with my 10-year-old stepdaughter about my aspirational desire for her to go bed at the end of the evening require some clarity on the start date for the
Column Number: 9process and the targets governing its completion. I am amazed at her ingenuity and ability to make aspirational moves and incremental gestures, without ever bloody getting there. The clarity that a start date and a target provide is essential to gaining a coherent sense of how our household strategy will work.
The same applies to the strategy that Parliament needs to develop in order to deliver for households across the country by ensuring that the elimination of fuel poverty is achieved by the target date that the Government have already set in the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000. We know we can do it, because we have set the targets and programmes for doing it. I hope that on that basis, the Committee will agree to further sittings, so that we can start at the appropriate point.
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): It is a great pleasure to support the Bill. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire and the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) in congratulating you on your Chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I look forward to the Committee's proceedings.
It seems essential, and both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Nottingham, South have made the point well, that the Bill should be discussed in detail. I am strongly in favour of private Members' Bills. I am a new Member, and Second Reading was my first opportunity to speak on a private Member's Bill. I have always believed that parliamentary business is best conducted, if possible, by consensus. One of the best ways to get round the problem of politicians being held in such low esteem is for Members from all parties to come together on legislation on which they can agree, and push it forward. It was a great example of that when the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown introduced this Bill and worked hard to secure an all-party consensus.
I was impressed that certain of my hon. Friends said that, as landlords, they had nothing to fear from the provisions. Two constituents, however, have contacted me to say that they have concerns about the Bill. They are coming to my surgery tomorrow. I would like to hear their concerns and then be able to reflect them in the Committee, for which purpose I would appreciate the chance of further sittings.
I was interested in what the hon. Member for Nottingham, South said about his stepdaughter. I understand that targets must be clear, and I am rather puzzled by the Minister's actions in tabling certain of the amendments. I know that he favours targets. While listening to the speeches of other Members, I have been wondering how much to quote of the various pronouncements that the Minister has made on the subject of targets. I could flog the subject of how keen the Minister is on targets for hours, but I shall not bother to do so, because I hope that, using the immense wisdom at his disposal, he will reconsider the issue.
The fact of the matter is that targets help. When Michael Heseltine replaced Chris Patten, who went on to become Governor of Hong Kong, as Secretary of State for the Environment in 1992, he started issuing
Column Number: 10decrees in his new Department stating that there should be targets and dates by which it should have accomplished things. I remember reading a long article about that in The Independent, which said that civil servants were warning him, ''Minister, don't you realise? If you come out with all these public declarations that you will do something by such and such a date, you will be exposed, because you might not actually achieve them.'' Michael Heseltine apparently responded by saying, ''Well, you'd better make sure that we do, then, hadn't you?'' There is nothing like giving a public commitment to achieve something for focusing the mind and ensuring that it is actually achieved.
I shall quote from a speech made on Second Reading:
I am astonished by the Government amendments' apparent potential to remove the obligations from registered social landlords. I share the concerns that have been expressed about that. The poorest and most vulnerable people in society will be affected.
On clause 8, which was also mentioned on Second Reading, I believe that registered social landlords should not be exempt from the need to register. I would have thought that if no one, including landlords, need fear the Bill, then registered social landlords need not fear it either. I hope that we will have time to discuss that issue. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) spoke powerfully on the subject of social landlords, pointing out that although many of them are good, others are not. There is a strong case for suggesting that the Bill's provisions should apply to them as well.
In conclusion, I hope that I have added force to the arguments already expressed that we need time to discuss the Bill in Committee in order to ensure that it becomes law. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, who has done such good work so far, should be allowed to steer his Bill through the House. I suggest to the Minister that he consider taking his paws off the hon. Gentleman's good work.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2002||Prepared 24 January 2002|