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Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I shall be relatively brief. Many of the views expressed by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) will be shared by both sides of the House and by all members of the Committee. I want to put this in a slightly different context. I am loth to blame the Minister for our predicament although we could have done without the confusion about the Committee's sittings, especially the Minister, whose time is probably under greater pressure. Our predicament does not reflect a lackadaisical approach by the Government to the commitment to eliminate fuel poverty. The Minister has probably done more than anyone to ensure that fuel poverty is on not just the political but the legislative agenda of this Parliament.

The issue of definitions to which the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire referred is important. It is also contentious. I have sheltered behind the Minister at several conferences where the passionate views about the importance of getting the definition right come over with a degree of enthusiasm that is not far short of vehemence. I am pleased that the Minister, and not I, has to take that flak. The Minister more than anyone is aware of how important it is that we get the issue of fuel poverty right.

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I suspect that the problems that we faced as a Committee result partly from confusion about whether clause 4 or new clause 8 is a duplication of what we can already do. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire was right to spell out in detail why that presumption was based on a misreading of the provision under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. I was involved in taking that legislation through the House and the powers that were given to Parliament under that Act were about the production of reports, not the delivery of a strategy to eliminate fuel poverty, which is the object of the Bill.

The Government have already made a commitment to eliminate fuel poverty within 15 years, which is why the words originally used by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown sought to spell out the connection with fuel poverty in the Bill and why, in perhaps more eloquent terms, they are also included in new clause 8. I am not particularly precious about which of those alternatives should be used, but I endorse the point that it is essential for the credibility and parity of the Bill that we do not leave out references to fuel poverty. It is not an optional add-on or cake decoration, but central to one of the most important policy commitments made by the Government, which as yet awaits clarification not about their determination to achieve it, but about the mechanisms that they will use to achieve it. That is why it is important that, in one way or another, the Committee ensures that a clear reference to the elimination of fuel poverty is contained in the principal terms of the Bill.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I add my support and that of my colleagues to the comments of the hon. Members for Mid-Bedfordshire and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson). They have covered much of the ground and we do not need long speeches on fuel poverty, so I shall simply make a few remarks.

As the hon. Member for Nottingham, South stressed, we are debating a procedural problem and trying to find the best way of pushing forward the issue. There seems to be strong support from action groups, charities and local authorities in favour of the approach of incorporating, either in clause 4 or new clause 8, specific and strong powers on fuel poverty. I support that strongly.

On the broader issue, I simply make the point that it is easy to be complacent about fuel poverty. I believe that it is under control and that we are making good progress. However, I emphasise that the most recent studies that I have seen that compare British performance with that of the rest of Europe show that we are far behind countries such as the Netherlands and Germany on tackling fuel poverty. We stand as one of the weakest countries in Europe, alongside Ireland, so there must be constant pressure for action.

One reason why local authorities are so keen to have enhanced powers is that they are dealing with generations of neglect. Since building regulations were first introduced in the 1860s, the emphasis has been on

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sanitation and damp for generation after generation. It was only recently that warmth became a central issue, so we have a large backlog of houses, many of which were put up hurriedly in the 1950s and 1960s because of the pressure of demand, and local authorities are now struggling with them. We need a sense of urgency to tackle the problem with the physical stock.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown made the point in his introduction that the new clause would not impose costs on Government or compliance costs on other authorities. We must bear in mind that as long as fuel poverty is neglected, there are costs to society. The national health service suffers costs, as do social landlords, who constantly have to deal with the problem of people seeking transfers. There is a cost issue, but it weighs in favour of strong action and legislation.

I simply reiterate the point that has already been made. I have looked through HECA and the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 and, as far as I can see, nothing in those two pieces of legislation gives powers of guidance or co-ordination. That is what we want, not the old process of issuing reports. Clause 4 and new clause 8 give those powers, which is why there is support for them on both sides of the House. If the legislation is to have real meat and teeth, one or the other must be included.

Mr. Meacher: I apologise for being a few minutes late. I was unavoidably detained. I missed what my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown said, although I can probably imagine what that was.

Dr. Turner: No, I did not say that.

Mr. Meacher: I shall read with interest in the printed version what my hon. Friend said.

I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South, and to the hon. Members for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and for Mid-Bedfordshire. I wish that the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire had not stumbled over himself repeatedly by making narrow political points. However, I accept the key point made by hon. Members that there is a general wish that the Bill should refer to the eradication of fuel poverty. I am sympathetic to that wish, and I believe that we can find a way to fulfil it.

12.15 pm

The aim of clause 4 is to give the Secretary of State powers to direct energy conservation authorities on discharging their functions under the 1995 Act to help to implement the Government's fuel poverty strategy. Section 4 of the Act already confers on the Secretary of State the power to issue guidance on the preparation of energy conservation reports. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire said that it did not refer specifically to the eradication of fuel poverty. That is true, but the reports are drawn up in accordance with the Secretary of State's guidance, and there is no reason why they should not contribute to eradicating fuel poverty.

Amendment No. 36 proposes that clause 4 should be removed, as it is unnecessary. My amendment No. 31 makes it clear that the Secretary of State's powers should be extended so that she may give guidance on implementation of the measures in the report. We

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expect the implementation of those measures to benefit the fuel poor. The fuel poverty strategy will therefore be a relevant consideration when the Secretary of State decides the appropriate guidance to energy conservation authorities. The amendment should not be interpreted as the Government backing away from their commitment to tackle fuel poverty.

I will not rise to the bait when the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire talks about a volte-face. The only volte-face performed in the Committee is the hon. Gentleman's suddenly having an expedient interest in the eradication of fuel poverty. That interest was not reflected in the actions of the Conservative Government during their 18 years of office. The hon. Gentleman should not lead with a glass chin. As I said several times, fuel poverty tripled under that Government, and I will not take any lessons from him. As they say in another book, however, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 just men. It is excellent if the hon. Gentleman has joined us in our concern for fuel poverty.

I have not committed any volte-face. I am grateful for the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South, and I hope that what he said is true. I have done what I believe is necessary to make it true. We are deeply committed to seeking an end to fuel poverty, and I do not see how anyone could seriously deny that. Our fuel poverty strategy was published in November 2001, and we set a target to deal with most fuel-poor households, which include those of pensioners, the disabled, the chronically sick, and families on low incomes with children. One of the most effective ways of achieving that target is to improve the energy efficiency of homes. It is true that the Chancellor has made a welcome increase in fuel payments at Christmas. However, we do not want to assist the fuel poor to pay their bills when they are in badly insulated homes where most of the energy is wasted through the roof, doors or windows. We want, through energy efficiency, to reduce their fuel use while increasing the money that they have for fuel.

To help achieve that target we have established several domestic energy efficiency programmes. We have redesigned and increased the amount of money available under the old home energy efficiency scheme, a good scheme that we inherited from the previous Government. We have raised the limit for an individual household from £300 to £2,000. The new programme, which is marketed as warm front, provides considerably bigger grants for packages of insulation and heating improvements, including the installation of central heating, to those most vulnerable to cold-related ill health in the private sector. We have committed more than £600 million by 2004 to warm front. In addition, under the new energy efficiency commitment, which comes into effect in April, we have set a testing target for electricity and gas suppliers to achieve improvements in domestic energy efficiency; 50 per cent. of those energy savings must be directed at low-income consumers.

With that record, no objective person can say that our commitment is lackadaisical. It is the reverse of that. We are the first Government to put in place a target to end fuel poverty. As my hon. Friend the

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Member for Nottingham, South said, we want to achieve that by 2016, and to put our money where our mouth is in supporting those major schemes.

I am happy with the new clause, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown. It takes account of my concern that the existing clause 4 was over-prescriptive and it meets other requirements in that it does not repeat existing legislation. I can therefore embrace it in policy terms. My problem, which is one that all Governments must concern themselves with, is that any clauses that go into statute must be acceptable to parliamentary draftsmen. Unfortunately, the new clause was tabled rather late in the day—I make no criticism of that—and the response that I received from the parliamentary draftsmen on the new clause came just before the start of the Committee. Their opinion is that there are unresolved problems with the new clause, in terms not of policy but simply of terminology. Most of those problems are technical and I hope and believe that they can be readily addressed. One problem that they identify is that it imposes a statutory duty on authorities, which they say is unacceptably vague. It requires authorities to exercise their functions in ways that would ''complement and support'' the Government's fuel poverty strategy. Parliamentary counsel asks what that would mean in practice. The phraseology is not as clear as it needs to be. If we give people statutory duties, they have to know without dubiety what they are expected to do.

I apologise to members of the Committee that I have unfortunately not had the time to discuss the amendment and its full implications as I would have liked, with the promoter of the Bill and with parliamentary counsel. I was recently abroad on departmental business for a week and we then had the half-term break. I would like to do further work on the new clause and if, as I believe that we can, we find a satisfactory phraseology that builds the eradication of fuel poverty into the Bill—which I favour—I would ask my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown not to press his new clause. I will then withdraw my amendment, with the intention of tabling another new clause on Report that fully meets his policy requirements as well as those of the parliamentary counsel.

 
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Prepared 26 February 2002