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Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): As the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) said, the good thing about speaking late in a debate is that most of the things that one might have said have been said already. I shall try not to weary the good people remaining with a rehearsal of points already made. I compliment my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) and for Nottingham, South on the comments that they made. They echoed the views not only of hon. Members in this Room but of our constituents. That is not insignificant.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South referred to Victoria Wood. I do not know that particular quote, but it brought back a memory of a very nice poem that I once encountered by the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger. If I remember correctly, it was called ''Middle Class Blues''. I remember some of the lines, and its theme was that something should be done, and right away, and we know that, but it is too soon or too difficult or too expensive.

That brings to mind the possibilities in this legislation, and also the approach—that things are too soon, too difficult or too expensive—that was applied to the various stages of health and safety legislation over a long period. It was always too soon, too expensive or too difficult to bring measures in. The Bill, in fact, deals with health and safety matters. They are not the same as those that one would immediately recognise, such as falling off an unprotected wall when working on a building site or working with unprotected machinery inside a factory. We are dealing with the health and safety of the world and its inhabitants and all the life that we know inside this beautiful planet of ours. We must understand that this health and safety legislation, if we can see it in that way, affects every one of us.

I want to make it very plain that there is no doubt in my mind about the Government's good intentions in the matter. I have even fewer doubts about my right

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hon. Friend the Minister, and recognise not only his good intentions, but his seriousness. There might be a slight question in my mind about the Government's seriousness, but that of the Minister is not in question at all. I hope that the Minister will ensure that that seriousness, which he has demonstrated on this subject this morning, will be reflected on Report.

We all understand the difficulties. The word ''shall'' in any legislation carries a duty to comply and those who fail to comply must usually face the consequences. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South said, many people in local government have been meeting those obligations and offered no excuses along the lines of, it is too soon, or too difficult, or too expensive. Everyone would have liked greater resources and more might then have been done, but that is not a defence and even less an excuse for not delivering.

When my hon. Friend the Minister responds today and to lobbying elsewhere, I hope that he will assure us that the Government's advisers will treat the matter seriously hesitate to suggest more than that and that he will prevail on them to meet this well-intentioned legislation that we all support.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay): I should declare an interest because I am a landlord and the Bill may apply to me in that it applies to landlords generally.

I also support amendment (a) because targets are important. I do not accept the view that because targets are difficult to achieve politicians should fudge the issue. Without wishing to be too naive, I feel that we are here to improve society as best we can and the relief of poverty should be one of our main objectives. The Bill, which aims to do that by addressing one aspect of poverty and has cross-party support, deserves our wholehearted support. However, my concern, which has been expressed by many previous speakers, is that certain members of the Government seem to be trying to remove targets from the Bill, thereby making it toothless. History suggests that if targets are removed or are not made a duty, aspiration alone often falls short of the required mark.

The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 set a target of 30 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency by 2010. We all accept that that is a worthwhile target and should be supported. However, local authorities have been keen to point out that while they have tried to achieve it, they have been given little help. It is no surprise that most local authorities are behind target and a variety of statistics has been mentioned to support that fact.

Figures released in response to a parliamentary question in November 2000 showed that most local authorities were well behind the target of around 8 per cent. which they should have achieved by March 2000 if the overall target of 30 per cent. was to be met. It is blatantly clear that more needs to be done and that changes must be made to help local authorities to achieve the target. The Bill introduces much-needed changes because it makes the target a statutory duty and gives councils more tools with which to achieve it. Council officers and members throughout the country have said time and again we have heard examples

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today that unless the target becomes a duty, there is no hope of achieving it. With that in mind, I strongly support the suggestion that targets must be in the Bill and must be made a statutory duty. Aspirations alone will not allow us to achieve the HECA targets of 30 per cent. by 2010. We all agree that that target should be met; it has cross-party support. The Committee has the opportunity to make the implementation of the Bill effective by ensuring that targets are included.

I have to say with sadness that there is an element of hypocrisy here. I do not wish at all to challenge cross-party support, which must be nurtured for the sake of the Bill, but it is hard to understand the Government's position. The Minister is a great supporter of green issues generally. He has frequently been quoted this morning as saying that he supports green initiatives, and said himself that the performance of local authorities in achieving specific targets has been wholly inadequate. His position is absolutely clear.

In opposition, the Labour party officially supported making the 30 per cent. HECA target a statutory duty on no fewer than seven occasions. I will not bore the Committee by listing them all, but I shall cite one. In a debate on 30 November 1994, followed by a whipped vote, Labour Members criticised the previous Conservative Government for failing to support a measure to make the HECA target a statutory duty, and 16 current Cabinet members and 26 current Government members voted accordingly. Labour's position is to deplore the Conservatives for not setting targets and the Minister's position is to condemn local authorities for a wholly inadequate performance under HECA. Yet we now find that the Government hope to remove targets from the Bill. That is completely unacceptable.

Amendment (a) should be accepted. Having listened to previous speakers, I believe that it has broad support. I hope that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown will forgive me, but I would welcome his confirmation that he will vote in its favour. Realistically, if we are to achieve the targets, they must be included in the Bill as a statutory duty. I wholeheartedly support the amendment.

Mr. Meacher: This is one of those fascinating parliamentary occasions. We have been debating the amendment for about an hour and a half, yet it is clear to me and probably to everyone in the Room that there is broad consensus about objectives and no disagreement about what needs to be done.

It is always entertaining and enjoyable to participate in debates with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South, who speaks so persuasively and so meritoriously that it is easy to get carried along by his argument.

Let me again make it absolutely clear that there is no dispute about the fact that targets are the linchpin of the Bill nor—I remind the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and others—about the fact that they are necessary. There is no dispute about the fact that the achievements made under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 have so far been inadequate. I have said so before and I stand by it. In the period since 1996, when the guidance became

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operative, about 6 per cent. has been achieved. That is clearly inadequate even in terms of making substantial progress towards 30 per cent. I do not renege on that at all.

There is no dispute—I hope—about whether the Government are trying to remove targets from the purview of the Bill. We are absolutely not seeking to do that and I cannot underline that strongly enough. The only issue is how targets are decided, what they are and what they will cost. I say to all hon. Members that were they standing here as a Minister not one could truthfully say in their heart of hearts that they would commit themselves to a target that cannot be quantified, and the cost of which cannot be known. That is not to say that we do not believe in targets, or do not want to see targets written into the Bill. I have sought with passion to reject what several hon. Members have said. They obviously spoke with complete integrity. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet advised me to accept targets, and I do.

12.15 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion said that guidance was not sufficient, and I entirely agree. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) said that the problem is that targets can often be too soon, difficult or expensive. I do not think that they would be too soon in this case, nor would they be too difficult; we can work out what the targets should be. My only problem is that I have to be clear that such targets, and their costs, can be met.

In one of the wonderful allusions that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South frequently uses, he tried to allure me with the Victoria Wood song saying ''Let's do it, let's do it'', but, in a revealing aside, added ''and lose control''. That is the key: I want to do it and the Government want to do it, but no responsible Government can lose control. I do not mean that in the control freakery sense, but we must be aware of what we are committing ourselves to, be sure that there are delivery mechanisms, and know what the costs are.

The hon. Member for Guildford, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, accused me of procrastination. She was fair and her speech was not polemical—quite the reverse. However, I am not procrastinating, simply saying that I cannot give a commitment at this stage. On Report, which is not far hence, I believe that I will be able to, and will indeed give one. I must consider the logistics and costing. The hon. Lady was kind in her comments about the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We have had difficulties, which I am glad are recognised, but I insist that we are overcoming them—that is a wider issue. She said that DEFRA would have difficulty in providing for targets and the requirements for reporting, but that is not the case. There are many examples to the contrary in DEFRA, not only from the environmental side, but from the Curry commission on sustainable agriculture, which will be considering specific targets and objectives, and reporting on progress.

There was a slight discordance in the speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. He was generous

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when talking about me, but then said that I was using weasel words about costing. He said that I was attempting to delay for a somewhat specious excuse and I have given reasons why that is not true at all. Significantly, he then said that the targets are not defined—absolutely true—and added, in a wonderful non-sequitur, that the costs will not be significant. If one does not know what the targets are, how does one know what the costs will be? Government cannot engage in that kind of exercise because the buck stops here: Government have to be clear about what is involved and must commit the resources to do it.

This is a brave private Member's Bill, which is pioneering a new course. It is not some minor or peripheral amendment, worthy and principled, on the edge Government legislation. It is attempting to say something significant. The Government have not, at this stage, budgeted for whatever the costs might be in their spending programme. It is not surprising—I would say the same in their shoes—that colleagues say to me, ''You've got a private Member's Bill, it's quite an ambitious one, and intentionally so. We respect it as that, but we have to be absolutely clear what the implications are and that we can manage them.'' I believe that that can be done.

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Prepared 5 February 2002