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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Home Energy Conservation Bill

Home Energy Conservation Bill

Column Number: 073

Standing Committee C

Tuesday 26 February 2002


[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Home Energy Conservation Bill

10.30 am

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): I beg to move,

    That, if proceedings on the Home Energy Conservation Bill are not concluded at this morning's sitting, the Committee do meet again this day at half-past Four o'clock.

I must crave your indulgence, I fear, Mr. Benton. I ask the Committee, in addition to agreeing to the sittings motion, to agree to adjourn our proceedings until 11.45 am, as the Minister has to be elsewhere to deal with unexpected difficulties.

The Chairman: May I point out that the appropriate technical word is ''suspend'', not ''adjourn''?

Dr. Turner: I beg your pardon, Mr. Benton.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): We accept that a Department that deals with flooding and foot and mouth, as well as fridges, needs its Ministers back in the office now and again. We do not oppose the sittings motion because we want time to discuss the entire Bill. We understand the Minister's difficulties and agree to the sittings motion and to the request for our sitting to be suspended.

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I assure hon. Members that the request for an adjournment of the Committee until 11.45 am has nothing to do with BSE, foot and mouth or fridges—or, indeed, any other particular issue. However, the need for me to be elsewhere is pressing and I am grateful for the Committee's understanding. I look forward to making progress on the Bill at 11.45 am.

Question put and agreed to.

10.32 am

Sitting suspended.

11.45 am

On resuming—

Clause 4

Guidance on eradication of fuel poverty

Dr. Turner: I do not intend to move amendments Nos. 20 to 25, as they would cease to be relevant if new clause 8 replaced clause 4. Some believe that clause 4 is unnecessary, as its provisions are already in legislation. Although clause 4 contains weaknesses, I am confident that it is necessary. However, I am not confident that the drafting makes explicit the duty on local authorities with regard to fuel poverty.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take new clause 8—Fuel Poverty—

    '(1) It shall be the duty of every energy conservation authority, so far as is reasonably practicable, to—

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    (a) discharge its functions under sections 2 or 5 of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 (preparation of reports or further reports), and

    (b) carry out its duty pursuant to section 1 of this Act in such a way as to complement and support the appropriate authority's strategy for the time being for the eradication of fuel poverty made under the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000.

    (2) The appropriate authority may from time to time give guidance to energy conservation authorities in relation to the discharge of their functions under subsection (1) above (and such guidance may differ for different authorities or different types of authority).'

Dr. Turner: New clause 8 makes explicit the link between the role of local authorities and the implementation of the Government's fuel poverty strategy. The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000—another private Member's Bill—drives that strategy. We therefore continue to build on private Member's legislation, which has dominated the field.

Local authorities should have a pivotal role in delivering the strategy. After all, they best know the circumstances of their boroughs and cities, and are best able to do what is necessary to co-ordinate available resources and to direct them to best effect. New clause 8 would not call upon fresh resources. We would get into difficulty with the Government if we implied that the Treasury would have to spend vast extra sums for which it had not budgeted. The new clause would make more effective use of the resources that are already available under the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 to remove fuel poverty. It would also give the Minister the power to issue guidance to local authorities on how best to achieve such a result.

I hope that the principles in the clause will be acceptable to the Committee.

Mr. Sayeed: I do not intend to sound a note of dissension in what has been an harmonious Committee, but there is some order, counter-order and disorder about what has been going on, especially if we bear in mind that it is a few days since the Committee's last sitting. I hoped that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) and the Government might have come to a clearer decision about which clauses and amendments we would be considering. However, I do not want to introduce a sour note, as I am pleased to continue to offer my party's broad support for this part of the Bill.

Members of the Committee have commented on the quality of the constructive dialogue and the cross-party support. Today's debate will prove crucial in that respect as we attempt to analyse the Government's suggested amendments to parts 2 and 3. It was evident in our debate on part 1 that hon. Members were not prepared to let the Government pledge one thing in public and do the opposite in the quiet of the Committee Room. I am pleased to note that the Government spectacularly failed in their attempt to neuter the Bill's provisions for energy efficiency.

The Government sought to omit the fuel poverty section of the Bill entirely and I am perplexed about why they should have attempted to do so. In

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November, Age Concern statistics showed that 77 per cent of single pensioners and 43 per cent of older couples, of whom at least one is of pensioner age, are fuel poor. In Committee and on the Floor of the House, members of the Committee have praised the Bill's attempt to give local energy conservation authorities an increased sense of purpose and conviction to ensure that the fuel poverty strategy is adhered to and that targets are met.

As the explanatory notes set out, the Government must implement a strategy to end fuel poverty within 15 years, yet local authorities have identified problems in relations between local and central Government that have led to an unco-ordinated approach in efforts to meet that target. Indeed, the promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, subsequently sought to strengthen the Bill's impact in that respect and tabled amendments to replace all references to powers of enforcement from ''the Secretary of State'' with references to the ''appropriate authority'', although I recognise that his little speech a few moments ago may slightly amend that. However, ''appropriate authority'' is in the text of new clause 8.

The problem of governmental co-ordination has been highlighted for some time. Warm Zones Ltd., commenting on the difference in approaches to the eradication of fuel poverty by various local authorities, stated:

    ''The fuel poverty return has been ignored by many local authorities. The consistency, adequacy, monitoring and enforcement of local authority performance on both fuel poverty and energy efficiency appear to need thorough review.''

The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), bound the Government to implement the previously mentioned strategy, which aims to end fuel poverty within 15 years. Until very recently, the Government were in agreement with the scope of the Act. In April 2000 the Minister stated:

    ''This Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty, particularly among those households most at risk to ill health due to cold homes; the old, children, the disabled and the chronically sick. The two main causes of fuel poverty are low income and poor energy efficiency in the home.''—[Official Report, 6 April 2000; Vol. 347, c. 548W.]

In February 2001, the Government launched a 10-year plan costing £1.5 billion a year that was designed to ensure that pensioners and other vulnerable people in England did not die of cold in their homes, reiterating their intention to eliminate all such deaths by 2010. Using statistics that showed that up to 50,000 elderly people may be dying in Britain every winter from cold, the Minister dramatically confirmed that the Government were declaring war on fuel poverty. As recently as December 2001, the Minister stated that the Bill would be helpful in further integrating local authorities' activities on fuel poverty and energy efficiency. However, the Government seem now to have decided on a more lackadaisical approach to the eradication of fuel poverty. Amendment No. 36 seeks to omit entirely the fuel poverty section of the Bill.

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In the pre-Budget report 2001, commenting on winter fuel payments available for pensioners, the Government stated that

    ''the winter fuel payment currently benefits around 8 million households with someone aged 60 or over each winter. The Government has already announced that the winter fuel payment for this year will be set at £200. To ensure that these households continue to receive help, the winter fuel payment will be maintained at £200 for the remainder of this Parliament. This will provide extra reassurance and security for all pensioners over the coming years.''

Despite the Government's winter fuel payment strategy, last winter 22,700 older people in England and Wales died from cold-related causes. Commenting on that statistic, Mervyn Kohler of Help the Aged said:

    ''This 'bulge' of winter deaths is a peculiarly British problem. When countries with much more severe winters than ours have much lower winter death rates, it becomes obvious that something is badly wrong. And behind these stark figures there must be an uncountable cost of extra illness, discomfort and sheer misery for our older population.''

Fuel poverty is defined as the need for people to spend more than 10 per cent. of their household income on fuel to keep warm. Help the Aged affirms that the Government's strategy falls short on systematically attacking the problem of sub-standard housing and sub-standard heating facilities. The Government's winter fuel payment policy costs several times more than the amount earmarked for housing and heating improvements. While the winter fuel payment scheme has made an appreciable difference to many older people 's lives, it is wasted if it goes up the chimney or through the roof.

On the announcement of a fuel poverty strategy, the Minister admitted that the targets were ''challenging'', and continued to herald it as an important element of the Government's programme to tackle poverty and social exclusion. The provisions of the Bill would allow that challenge to be met. The Government's insistence on dropping the fuel poverty section of the Bill is inexplicable, especially in light of the Minister's argument in letters to the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) and my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and Ipswich, North (Sir Michael Lord), on 14 December 2001 that

    ''the Bill would help further integrate local authorities' activities on fuel poverty and energy efficiency. This would be helpful.''

The Minister now appears to believe that including fuel poverty in the Bill is unnecessary and can be dealt with under the existing powers of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, known as HECA. That is not only inconsistent with his earlier position, but incorrect. It has been suggested that provision in the Bill is unnecessary because such guidance can already be given under HECA and may imply that the guidance cannot be implemented under HECA, thereby adversely affecting the power to give guidance in Scotland, where the Bill does not apply. However, the advice of two lawyers with experience in judicial review and administrative law is that that is plain wrong. Indeed, that is clearly demonstrated by section 4(1) of HECA. Under HECA, guidance can be given, but only about what should be included in reports. Section 4(1) reads:

    ''The Secretary of State may, from time to time, give to energy conservation authorities such guidance as he considers appropriate

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    in relation to the preparation of reports under section 2 or reports under section 3(2)(a).''

In other words, the guidance powers under HECA are confined to HECA reports, and do not extend to guidance about implementation or mechanisms or co-ordinated action on fuel poverty, which is covered by new clause 8. Indeed, the Government's fuel poverty strategy points out in paragraph 3.13 that local authorities

    ''have a role in tackling fuel Poverty'',

but it also points out in paragraph 3.14 that currently local authorities' HECA activity

    ''will not always be targeted only at the fuel poor.''

What new clause 8 does is simple: it requires that HECA activity,

    ''as far as is reasonably practicable'',

complements the Government's fuel poverty activities. I believe that that is worth while. The current fuel poverty strategy has little about local authorities' role in the important matter of ending fuel poverty. True, there is the beacon council approach regarding best practice, but we want to ensure that all authorities, not just the best, act to eradicate fuel poverty. Local authorities need pushing to do what is right. The Government issued guidance in the year 2000 asking local authorities to report on fuel poverty activity under HECA. By the middle of last year, only 40 authorities had done so.

Many local authorities want these provisions in the Bill. They support the Bill, which includes the fuel poverty clause. A letter from Oldham council on 13 September 2001 stated:

    ''Many families and individuals in this Borough suffer the effects of poverty e.g. poor housing and health. Therefore Oldham strongly supports any measures which will help alleviate poverty and deprivation.''

So why remove references to fuel poverty? On 1 November 2001, Oxford council said:

    ''This Bill would help Oxford City fight fuel poverty, improve home energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.''

Again, the importance of fuel poverty is stressed. A letter from Dover district council on 6 November 2001 stated:

    ''The Bill reinstates the 30 per cent. energy improvement target and provides for full co-ordination between local and central government . . . we strongly ask for your support to ensure that this Bill becomes law.''

We should note the phrase

    ''provides for full co-ordination between local and central Government''.

That is what new clause 8 requires.

Manchester city council wrote on 6 November 2001:

    ''The Bill would certainly be of benefit to the City Council . . . in reducing C02 and ending fuel poverty.''

So why delete references to fuel poverty? A Hackney council resolution of 14 November 2001 stated:

    ''Many people in Hackney suffer from fuel poverty with the elderly and young especially badly affected . . . the implementation of this Bill will improve their quality of life.''

Again, the need to ensure co-ordinated action on fuel poverty is emphasised. That is exactly what this part of

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the Bill is about. I could quote from East Lindsey, Havant, Shrewsbury and Atcham, Sunderland and many other councils, which strongly support the Bill, particularly part 2. The Committee should take those remarks as read.

Not much more needs to be said in defence of the inclusion in the Bill of provisions relating to fuel poverty. It is extremely important that the Bill contains those provisions and I hope that the Committee will support their inclusion.

I should like to cover one other area under this part of the Bill. For some reason the Government have decided that registered social landlords should not be included in the provisions of the Bill that concern fuel poverty. That is wrong. As I will point out later, when we debate part 3, registered social landlords should be subject to the same standards and targets as any other home owner, and I urge the Government to include them in the provisions of part 2.

I am left in something of a quandary. I do not understand the Minister's volte-face. As I have shown, it cannot be because the section is unnecessary and such guidance can already be given under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. It cannot be because to include provisions for such guidance in the Bill might imply that it cannot be done under HECA, and would thereby adversely affect the power to give guidance in Scotland, where the current Bill does not apply. I have dealt with that. It can only be that the Minister has been poorly advised. One should not be surprised, considering that his Department presided over flooding, fridges and foot and mouth, but I am. I believe that the Committee will show that we are disappointed in the Minister and require the Government to reconsider. It is for us on this Committee to put the matter right and to include in the Bill measures to eliminate fuel poverty.


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Prepared 26 February 2002