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Standing Committee Debates
Home Energy Conservation Bill

Home Energy Conservation Bill

Column Number: 23

Standing Committee C

Tuesday 5 February 2002

(Morning)

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Home Energy Conservation Bill

10.32 pm

The Chairman: I apologise to the Committee for being slightly late.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That, if proceedings on the Home Energy Conservation Bill are not concluded at today's sitting, the Committee do meet on Tuesday 26th February at half-past Ten o'clock.—[Dr. Desmond Turner.]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I am content with that proposal, but I rise to present briefly our attitude to the Bill. We had a useful exchange of views at our first sitting. I welcome the opportunity to consider the Bill in detail. I stress that the Government are pleased to support the Bill, which covers the most important issues of domestic energy conservation, fuel poverty and houses in multiple occupation. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) for introducing the Bill and for the considerable amount of work that he has done. I say that sincerely, not symbolically.

There has been some unscrupulous and irresponsible lobbying about the Government's attitude to the Bill, and I want to set the record straight. As we discuss each clause, members of the Committee will understand how wrong some of those suggestions are. There have been some suggestions that the Government are trying to scupper the Bill. Let me make it clear that the Government continue to support the proposal. I have gone out of my way to support it, and it remains in accord with its overall aims. We have been working hard to make the legislation more effective, so that we can achieve the desired outcomes of improved domestic energy efficiency, fewer people living in fuel-poor households, and better conditions for people living in houses in multiple occupation.

We are strongly committed to improving energy efficiency and ending the blight of fuel poverty. Energy efficiency is one of the most effective ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling climate change. The domestic sector makes a significant contribution to the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions. Slightly more than a quarter of such emissions come from homes. Domestic energy efficiency is also one of the ways in which we can reduce the problem of fuel poverty. We have set a target in our fuel poverty strategy, which was published in November, to deal with the vast majority of fuel-poor homes by 2010. We have set a challenging target in the new energy efficiency commitment for electricity and gas suppliers to improve domestic energy efficiency. The commitment will come into effect in April. Under those proposals, 50 per cent. of energy savings must be directed at low-income consumers.

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The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995—HECA, as we all call it—attempts to tackle the problem of domestic energy consumption. We all agree that it was not as successful as was hoped, and that something needs to be done. That is common ground. The Government therefore welcome the aims of the Bill, but we must be careful that in our enthusiasm we do not pass a sloppy Bill. That would not help to improve domestic energy efficiency. It is the Committee's collective responsibility to pass legislation that is legally correct and watertight. It should complement and augment existing legislation, not repeat it, which could lead to problems. HECA covers England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but this Bill addresses only England and Wales. New legislation that draws attention to action already covered under HECA could undermine that legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland by giving the wrong impression that the action was not covered in the original Act in those areas. That would be unhelpful.

Cost is critical. I am urgently considering how much it would cost local authorities to implement the various proposals. I am sure that the Committee would not expect the Government to impose new burdens on local authorities without being able to offer funding to meet them. However, the Government cannot sign a blank cheque. Those are the key issues behind the Government's amendments in parts 1 and 2. Some are purely technical and are designed to address issues about how the Bill is drafted. Others are intended to tidy up the Bill to reduce overlap with other legislation. All the amendments are intended to ensure that we end up with new legislation that is legally watertight and effective. I have been working especially closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown on the energy conservation aspects of the Bill, and I hope that we can make real progress towards legislation, of which we can all justly be proud.

Part 3 seeks to address some of the most serious problems of the private rented sector of the housing market, which affect many of the most vulnerable in our society. Members of the Committee will be aware of the Government's commitment to tackle those problems. Our plans for licensing the houses in multiple occupation sector, in tandem with reforms to the housing fitness standards and other measures to tackle problems in the poorest areas through the selective licensing of landlords in areas of low demand, will achieve our aim of promoting a healthier private rented sector.

So, while the measures in the Bill will not fully meet our commitment to legislate to achieve these wider goals, they will deliver an important step towards achieving our ultimate goal. I commend my hon. Friend for his work with my officials and me, and for his commitment to ensure that the Bill delivers what many people—I hope, all of us—want.

I say all that to repudiate the thoroughly unscrupulous and irresponsible claims made in some quarters that the Government want to undermine or scupper the Bill. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the Government's response on each of the commitments will show.

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Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): I reiterate the general support that we have offered at each stage of the Bill. It has the potential to become a good Bill. We particularly support parts 1 and 2 on energy efficiency and fuel poverty. We have reservations about part 3. We support the general aim, but specific aspects such as the redefinition of houses in multiple occupation require considerable debate. I support the new sittings motion tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, which will allow us to reconvene on Tuesday 26 February at 10.30. I understand that the hon. Gentleman wants the Committee to reach the end of part 2 today. We can then debate part 3 in detail.

I should like to give the Committee the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon). He was keen to attend today, but Her Majesty the Queen is visiting his constituency to open a new police headquarters. He is attending upon Her Majesty and cannot be with us in these august surroundings today.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1

Targets for energy efficiency improvements

Mr. Meacher: I beg to move amendment No. 28, in page 1, line 4, leave out from 'shall' to end of line 17 and insert—

    'take all such steps as are reasonably practicable to implement the measures set out in any energy conservation report prepared by the authority.

    ( ) Where any measures set out in such a report have been modified by a further report, the measures referred to in subsection (1) are the measures as modified.'.

The Chairman: With this we may take the following: Amendment (a) to the proposed amendment, in line 4, at end insert—

    '( ) Where the report includes any energy efficiency target, however expressed, and a date or a time-scale set by the authority for meeting any such energy efficiency target, the requirement in subsection (1) to implement the measures in the report is a requirement to implement those measures by that date or within the time-scale.'.

Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 5, leave out 'achieve' and insert—

    'ensure that'.

Amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 6, leave out 'it'.

Amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 7, leave out '('the 1995 Act')' and insert—

    'are met'.

Amendment No. 4, in page 1, line 10, leave out 'Secretary of State' and insert—

    'appropriate authority'.

Amendment No. 5, in page 1, leave out lines 13 and 14.

Mr. Meacher: The amendment would require energy conservation authorities to take all reasonably practicable steps to implement the measures in energy conservation reports, including any modified reports. It represents a considerable step forward from the current HECA requirements. As hon. Members will know, the 1995 Act places a duty on authorities only

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to prepare energy conservation reports and then report progress. It does not provide a clear legal duty to implement any measures in their reports, which means, paradoxically, that they can make virtually no improvements yet still comply with the legislation. That is clearly nonsense and the amendment is designed to put that right.

I accept that that does not go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown and several other hon. Members would like. I agree with the principle that authorities should have worthwhile targets and should achieve them. However, we need to be clear what the targets are and to come up with proposals for the best way of achieving them without imposing excessive costs on local authorities.

In the time available we have not been able to assess fully the likely cost implications for authorities of placing on them a duty to meet energy conservation targets. I assure the Committee that this is not for lack of trying. I simply have not had the means to reach those estimates until now. We are examining the matter, but until the information is available, the Committee will understand that I cannot make any more specific commitment.

10.45 am

However, I undertake that, subject to a full consideration of the costs, the Government will table on Report an amendment that will have the effect of requiring authorities to set and then take all necessary steps, so far as reasonably practicable, to meet the targets set out in the energy conservation reports. The reports and targets would need to be drawn up in accordance with guidance provided by us. The amendment would therefore introduce a new requirement for authorities to set a target and to take the necessary steps to meet it, but the Bill will not specify what the target should be.

There is a good reason for tabling such an amendment. The original Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 did not contain targets. In setting targets, we need to take into account the fact that the performance of local authorities across the country varies enormously. We should not be blind to some of the practical difficulties in giving authorities a duty to set and meet targets. The 1995 Act and guidance make it clear that some of the measures that will help achieve the improvement target will be outside authorities' control. Most of the improvements will be made through non-local authority programmes—as I mentioned in my comments on the sittings motion—such as the energy efficiency commitment and the warm front schemes, as well as through action by millions of individual householders.

The role of authorities is to facilitate and encourage the take-up of the programmes and activities so far as they can, and to take action in their own stock. They should not have to achieve the whole target on their own. It should be possible to estimate for any local authority how much will be achieved through the energy efficiency commitment, which is due to start in two months' time, how much can be achieved through the home energy efficiency scheme and the warm front

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programme, and then to look at the increment that the authority has to achieve and to cost that. We shall need to address that issue carefully in our amendment and in guidance.

I am also aware that authorities' targets vary considerably and that energy conservation reports have been drawn up to reflect differing local circumstances. They are based on different assumptions and information, they vary in technical merit and they have differing levels of ambition and realism. Some may not even have set targets. I believe that a handful have not drawn up reports. We shall address those issues in our amendment and in guidance so that we and energy conservation authorities can be sure that the targets that they have to achieve are fair and robust, but stretching. I want those targets to be as stretching as they reasonably can be.

I hope that Members of the Committee will agree that the Government amendment to require authorities to implement the measures in their report is a helpful provision in its own right. It would complement and pave the way for a requirement to set and achieve the targets. That is what I want to do, and I repeat that, subject to full assurance about the costs, I propose to do that on Report. On that basis, I commend the amendment to the Committee and hope that hon. Members understand the Government's wholehearted commitment to what I believe is the most important measure in the Bill—the establishment of new targets and the measures and the commitment to implement them that were not included in the 1995 Act.

 
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