Home Energy Conservation Bill

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The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): This has been one of the more interesting debates that I have heard on a sittings motion. When I learned of the intentions of the Bill's promoter, I expected that we would sit for only a few minutes, but I am now speaking 51 minutes later. None the less, this has been an interesting and rewarding discussion, and, in some sense, a re-run of Second Reading.

After the eulogy from the hon. Member for Nottingham, South on your chairmanship, Mr. Benton, there is little for me to add, other than that I am pleased to see you in the Chair. I, too, pay a real and sincere tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown for introducing this important Bill, to which I am pleased to be respond on the Government's behalf.

The Bill is complex, and several hon. Members have raised valid issues that we can discuss further. An unusually large number of amendments have been tabled, many of which are drafting amendments, but many of which are not. I look forward to discussing them.

Reference was made to the importance of private Member's Bills. I am one of those who think that such Bills should play a bigger role in Parliament than they traditionally have. There is a belief that the Government virtually monopolise the legislative timetable. They obviously have a strong role in that regard, because they are elected to legislate. However, private Member's Bills play an important role. The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 was groundbreaking, although it had some unfortunate flaws. The Bill seeks to redress some of those, while building on the Act's strengths. In addition to this Bill, we have had the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 and the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill, which is currently going through the House. I have had the privilege of playing a role in all of the last three provisions. I want the tradition of well-prepared, well-documented and well-resourced Bills to which the Government can respond to grow.

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Obviously, the Government will accept only Bills that are broadly within their strategic objectives—there can be no dubiety about that. At the same time, there are real opportunities to make advances that are consistent with Government priorities, and the Bill is an excellent example of that.

The Bill is ambitious and radical, and I shall respond as positively as I can to it. I shall, of course, refer to the Government's record and to the fact that we have revamped the home energy efficiency scheme. The scheme that we inherited had a ceiling of £300 a household, which we have increased to £2,000. In April, we will introduce the energy efficiency commitment for the next three years, which is an extremely important way to ensure that electricity and gas suppliers provide the type of projects on behalf of householders that will improve energy efficiency.

Above all, we have made a clear and ringing commitment to end fuel poverty for all the priority households—those of pensioners, the disabled, the chronically ill and families with young children on low incomes—by 2010. We stand by that. The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) will quote me as saying that I commit myself to that target. I entirely agree with Michael Heseltine in that targets are important, and we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to that goal and will achieve it.

I want to comment on some individual points. The debate is on the sittings motion, so it would be inappropriate for me to go into too much detail. I shall make a few preparatory comments on which I shall expand later. The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 is groundbreaking. As all hon. Members recognise, it is flawed in important respects, especially in terms of targets, enforcements and time scales. Significantly, the Bill contains no targets, which was suggested in the guidance. As a result of that guidance, the reports drawn up were variegated. Some were good, some ambitious, some highly aspirational, some modest, and some contained no targets. A handful of local authorities did not produce reports at all. When considering enforcement of the reports, we have to ask what is the best means to do so, as the Government have had to do.

If there is common ground about the flaws in the Bill, we must agree on the best mechanisms with which to correct them. I enter unreservedly into the spirit of trying to achieve worthwhile targets and the enforcement mechanisms to ensure that they are met. If that cannot be done as is proposed in the Bill, rather than give a negative response and wash my hands of it, I want to propose a way in which we can do so better. I accept the target, and I want to propose a way to best achieve the objective of everyone who has spoken today.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire made a constructive speech, and it is striking that all parties represented in the Committee are united in support of the general purposes of the Bill. He made one or two taunts about what he thought were the inadequacies in the Government's response to the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South took a rather different tack by hammering me with praise and asking

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how I could conceivably do other than wholeheartedly support the Bill, given my unsung record. Between that Scylla and Charybdis, I will do my best to navigate a happy and agreeable course.

I will not strain your patience, Mr. Benton, by going into detail, but I want to touch lightly on the key points. I shall deal first with the enforcement of targets. I can tell the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire that we are not eliminating greater enforcement powers, or ''filleting'' part 1 of the Bill—that is based on a total misunderstanding. I accept the necessity to have an adequate means of enforcement. However, my point—perhaps he has not had an opportunity to take this on board—is that we have to be clear about what it is that we are enforcing, and that what we are enforcing will produce the objective that we want. That is the issue to which I would ask the Committee to give further thought.

10.30 am

Secondly, I come to the responsibilities of registered social landlords, which include energy conservation, safety from fire and so on. The Housing Corporation, as hon. Members know, regulates the RSLs and sets energy efficiency standards, and it is working with colleagues in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions on aspects of the Bill that relate to RSLs.

Of course, I reject the canard that we are, somehow, imposing obligations on private landlords but are excluding RSLs. That is not the case. Again, the issue is how best to ensure that RSLs are committed to and will achieve the energy standards that we set them. I have a proposition to put to the Committee that I believe will meet that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South raised the question of targets—with delightful references to his 10-year-old stepdaughter, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting at a recent wedding. He is right that it is important to ensure that the target that we set has a target date and that there are mechanisms in place to give plausibility to the belief that the target will be met in time. I accept that. We believe that, in setting the date for 2010, we can achieve that. We also believe that we must have testing targets for the Bill in terms of home energy conservation as well as the mechanisms for enforcement.

The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 does not include any figure; the figure of 30 per cent. appears in only in the guidance. Indeed, there is not even a requirement in the guidance to meet 30 per cent. within 10 years of that guidance, which would be 2006. It talks about ''at least substantial progress'' towards that. For those of us who are keen on targets, that is an inadequate way of expressing a target. Does it mean 15, 20 or 25 per cent.? We need to be clear; I want to be. I want to have targets and I want them to be crystal clear. I shall propose ways in which we can achieve that.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, I thought, skated on thin ice in talking about fuel poverty. I do not want to disturb the cross-party consensus by engaging in partisan politics, but I think that it is a little rich—given that fuel poverty tripled during the

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18 years when we were in Opposition—to goad us by saying that he cannot believe that we are still discussing fuel poverty. We are still discussing it because we were left with one hell of a problem and we are trying to deal with it. It did triple in those years—we intend to eliminate it by 2010. We are not taking it out of the Bill. I think that, again, he has misunderstood.

We are committed to tackling fuel poverty; that is obvious. We have recently—at the end of November or in early December—set up a fuel poverty advisory group to supervise the carrying out of the policy to end fuel poverty. The Bill, as it is proposed to be amended, would give powers to provide guidance to authorities on fuel poverty in relation to the HECA. We believe that we do not need a separate section on fuel poverty. Indeed, to add legislation on fuel poverty in England and Wales, which is what the Bill will do, could be taken to imply that existing legislation did not cover the position in Scotland or Northern Ireland. I am sure that the Bill's promoter would not wish that, nor would the Government. However, we can return to those matters.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Norfolk for what he said on targets. I accept that one could say that it would be a rod for one's own back, but it would be unwise—a slightly cynical response. I would prefer to be absolutely honest and up-front and to focus minds. I would much prefer to set a target and just fail to reach it, yet make a serious attempt, than to avoid setting a target and produce a wet and feeble response. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I shall abstain from quoting myself. I leave that to him, but there is plenty of evidence to support my view.

I endorse what was said by the hon. Member for Guildford on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. She has an honourable record on this matter, and she is right to say that we should try to use the Bill to get this issue properly settled in an agreed cross-party fashion, so that we do not need further Bills on the elimination of fuel poverty, on which we all agree.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) referred to his experience of houses in multiple occupation. It is a complex issue, but exceedingly important. People who live in HMOs are in many ways at greatest risk. Again, in the manifesto, the Government indicated their commitment to introducing wide-ranging measures to deal with it. Ministerial colleagues in the DTLR have made clear that they are seeking agreement to bring forward as soon as possible a housing Bill that will deal with the whole context of measures, not just the limited measures included in the Bill. It is an important area, but we believe that the Bill can pave the way for the wider contextual measures that we intend to introduce.

I am grateful for what said by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron). I am glad to know that the Bill has the general support of landlords. It is not intended to make life difficult for them, but to ensure proper protection for tenants, and I think that they wholeheartedly agree. The hon. Gentleman said that

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guidance needed to be strengthened, and spoke about amendments to part 3, particularly on fire safety. I look forward to hearing his suggestions.

This has been an unusual debate on the sittings motion. I warmly respond to the consensus that exists. The Government certainly wish to be part of that consensus, but we propose ways that perhaps have not yet been fully understood on how to progress the objectives that we wholly share with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown. Once again, I congratulate him.

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Question put and agreed to.


    That, if proceedings on the Home Energy Conservation Bill are not concluded at today's sitting, the Committee do meet on Tuesday 5th February at half-past Ten o'clock and half-past Four o'clock.

        Further consideration adjourned.—[Dr. Desmond Turner.]

        Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock till Tuesday 5 February at half-past Ten o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Benton, Mr. Joe (Chairman)
Bacon, Mr.
Baron, Mr.
Best, Mr.
Cable, Dr.
Doughty, Sue
Drew, Mr.
Edwards, Mr.

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Gibson, Dr.
Griffiths, Jane
Lepper, Mr.
Meacher, Mr.
Rooney, Mr.
Sayeed, Mr.
Simpson, Mr. Alan
Turner, Dr. Desmond

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