20 Mar 2009 : Column 1135

20 Mar 2009 : Column 1135

House of Commons

Friday 20 March 2009

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Standing Order No. 3).

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): I beg to move, That the House sit in private.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 163).

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

The House having divided: Ayes 1, Noes 65.
Division No. 80]
[9.33 am


Foster, Mr. Don
Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Colin Breed and
Mr. Michael Moore

Ainsworth, Mr. Peter
Alexander, Danny
Anderson, Janet
Beith, rh Sir Alan
Beresford, Sir Paul
Bottomley, Peter
Brooke, Annette
Brown, rh Mr. Nicholas
Burt, Lorely
Caton, Mr. Martin
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Dobson, rh Frank
Dowd, Jim
Drew, Mr. David
Duddridge, James
Dunne, Mr. Philip
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Gidley, Sandra
Green, Damian
Gummer, rh Mr. John
Hamilton, Mr. David
Hands, Mr. Greg
Harris, Dr. Evan
Heath, Mr. David
Hendry, Charles
Herbert, Nick
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Holmes, Paul
Howarth, David
Howarth, Mr. Gerald
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay
Hughes, Simon
Hunter, Mark
Keeley, Barbara
Kramer, Susan
Leech, Mr. John
Lilley, rh Mr. Peter
Loughton, Tim
Mactaggart, Fiona
McCabe, Steve
McCafferty, Chris
McGovern, Mr. Jim
Öpik, Lembit
Ottaway, Richard
Owen, Albert
Penrose, John
Pound, Stephen
Randall, Mr. John
Reid, Mr. Alan
Riordan, Mrs. Linda
Robathan, Mr. Andrew
Rowen, Paul
Ruddock, Joan
Simon, Mr. Siôn
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Syms, Mr. Robert
Taylor, Matthew
Truswell, Mr. Paul
Watkinson, Angela
Webb, Steve
Williams, Mark
Williams, Mr. Roger
Younger-Ross, Richard
Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Oliver Heald and
Bob Russell
Question accordingly negatived.
20 Mar 2009 : Column 1136

Fuel Poverty Bill

Second Reading

9.49 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I have religiously put in for the private Member’s Bill ballot for the best part of 12 years, but I have never appeared anywhere on the list until this year, when I came second. That is perseverance rewarded.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): When is my perseverance going to be rewarded?

Mr. Heath: And no doubt other Members’ perseverance will be rewarded in due course.

Having appeared as No. 2 on the list, I cast around for an appropriate Bill to introduce. There were a number of very worthy topics—some have been debated on previous Fridays—that I carefully considered. I believe, however, that the Bill that I eventually chose to present is of crucial importance. For a start, it is supported by a huge range of organisations outside the House. I will not name them all, but they include the Association for the Conservation of Energy, Age Concern, Consumer Focus, the Disability Alliance, Friends of the Earth, Help the Aged, the Child Poverty Action Group and Unison. That will give Members some idea of both the scope of the Bill and the level of support for it among widely differing organisations.

It has been gratifying to receive the support of Members in all parts of the House, not just those who were happy to sponsor the Bill—to whom I am very grateful—but those who have simply wished me well, and those who have signed early-day motion 1069, tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson). As of today, 172 Members have supported the Bill by adding their names to the motion. I am grateful for the informal contacts that I have had with Members on both sides of the House, and particularly grateful to Labour Members, who have been fully engaged with the issues and have discussed some of them with Ministers. I am also grateful to Conservative Front Benchers, with whom I have had long discussions about the Bill. Although they favour the use of a slightly different mechanism to secure the Bill’s objective, they have indicated that, should it prove necessary, they will support me in the Lobby.

The Bill is supported by many individuals, including councillors. I am sure that many Members will have received communications not just from their constituents but from their local councils, which have passed motions in support of the Bill’s intentions. The reason for that is simple. The Bill is good for those living in poverty, a group that encompasses the old, young families and people with disabilities. It is good for the public health of the United Kingdom; it is very good for the environment; and, at a time when it is desperately needed, it is good for the economy. I believe that supporting it is a no-brainer.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): My constituents are very grateful to my hon. Friend, because the Bill stands to assist thousands of people in Montgomeryshire who are not well off and who need such assistance desperately. Let me thank him personally for what he is doing for Montgomeryshire folk and others.

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Mr. Heath: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. It underlines a point to which I shall return shortly. His constituency, like mine, is extremely rural, and although many people see fuel poverty as an urban issue, it is very much an issue in rural areas as well.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): I too am grateful to my hon. Friend, and congratulate him on selecting this Bill. In my constituency, 5,700 families are living in fuel poverty. Does he agree that the investment in energy efficiency measures that his Bill requires would not only help to eradicate fuel poverty across the country in a sustainable way, but would give a vital shot in the arm to our economy, particularly the construction trades which are so hard pressed at the moment?

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I shall say more about that issue shortly. I believe that the mixture of sustainability and the stimulus to sectors of the economy that desperately need it is a strong point in favour of the Bill.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Of course fuel poverty affects rural areas, but it affects rural and urban areas alike. No Member has missed out on it; it affects every constituency in the United Kingdom. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that the villains of the piece are the energy companies, with their immoral profits and the excessive salaries that they pay their chief executives? That is where the blame lies, and that is why the Bill is so important.

Mr. Heath: I am very tempted to pursue the hon. Gentleman’s logic, but I have to say that I have had extremely helpful conversations with some of the energy companies over the past week, and I feel that I should put on record their support for elements of my Bill. I am a bit worried about alienating them too much at this stage, because I need their assistance to make the Bill work. Nevertheless, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the fact that bills rose but have not fallen at the same rate is a real issue. It appears to be an over-bloated industry, and that gives many of our constituents cause for concern.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I am delighted that my hon. Friend is presenting this Bill. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) pointed out that fuel poverty affects rural and urban areas alike. I was shocked to discover that more than 15 per cent. of people are in fuel poverty in Solihull, which is hardly renowned as one of the poorer parts of the country. That shows how pervasive the problem is throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. Heath: That was a helpful intervention. If there is one place that those in ignorance might consider less likely to be affected, it is Solihull, which is an affluent borough in most respects. Yet there are people who, although apparently invisible to the authorities, live in squalid surroundings and are suffering as a result. That, too, underlines the need for the Bill.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): My constituency, like the hon. Gentleman’s, contains a mixture of rural, urban and semi-rural areas. One of the reasons for fuel poverty in those areas is a lack of gas mains. That brings us back to the energy companies. Because many
20 Mar 2009 : Column 1138
of them supply both electricity and gas, they have no incentive to install gas mains and alleviate fuel poverty.

Mr. Heath: That is a very good point. The—I have forgotten what the commission on rural areas is called. Could someone help me? [Hon. Members: “The Rural Commission.”] The Rural Commission has provided me with the useful information that 42 per cent. of households in rural areas are not connected to gas mains—my constituency is very similar to that of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) in that respect—but half the communities that are not connected are within 2 km of a gas pipeline. I suspect that both a lack of will and a lack of investment are preventing many rural communities from benefiting. About 220,000 fuel-poor households, despite their proximity to a gas main, cannot take advantage of the dual-fuel discounts.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the Bill. Does he agree that a major economic opportunity is offered by energy efficiency and microgeneration measures—the sort of measures that are described in clause 2(3)(a) and that might provide the green jobs and green business that we need if we are to emerge form the recession with new skills and new opportunities?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman has identified one of my key proposals. The Bill does not merely propose a basic insulation scheme. It does not aim for easy targets such as cavity wall insulation, which is relatively simple to install. It contains a wider basket of measures. Microgeneration measures, for instance, would be more appropriate in many of the rural areas that we have been discussing. Put together, the measures could offer businesses a huge stimulus. They arrive exactly at the time we need them. There is an urgency to get the job done and there is the capacity within the system to help us to get it done. That is why the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): Rose—

Mr. Heath: I must make progress but I am happy to take interventions at this stage.

Danny Alexander: While my hon. Friend is on the subject of hard-to-treat homes, particularly those that rely on fuel heating oil, may I make the point that one of the great benefits of the Bill, which has led to the Highland Senior Citizens Network wishing to add itself to the list of groups that support it, is that it does not concentrate solely on easy-to-insulate homes but would allow the benefits to be spread much more widely? That is particularly important in rural areas such as the highlands, where many old, hard-to-treat homes are inhabited by people on low incomes, who are most likely to be in fuel poverty.

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am not sure what the vernacular building material is in his area, but a lot of houses in rural areas in my constituency—I do not want to overstress the rural dimension but it is important—have rubble-built, solid walls with inadequate roofing. I do not know what the conditions are in the
20 Mar 2009 : Column 1139
borders, but in Somerset they are damp. Cold and damp equals ill. If one is elderly, disabled or trying to bring up a young family, a cold damp home in the middle of winter is not a good place to be. That is the key.

What does my Bill do? As Members will see from the text, it requires the Government to introduce a strategy to eliminate fuel poverty by 2016. It does that by means of a basket of measures, including insulation and sustainable energy. Essentially it would require hard-to-heat and energy wasteful houses to be treated in a sustainable way. Therefore, it deals not only with the people who are living in those houses at the moment but with the generations to come. It will have a permanent effect. It introduces as an interim measure, on a statutory basis, social tariffs for the utilities, so that we deal with those people who are waiting for measures to be introduced in an effective way, so that we ease the burden on them and so that perhaps fewer people are cold and unhappy over the coming winters.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I add my personal congratulations on the service that my hon. Friend has done all of us by introducing the Bill, which as we have heard from other hon. Members, would help constituents up and down the land. Does he not agree that there is a real urgency for the Bill to be introduced precisely because the Government have already admitted that they are not going to reach their existing targets? They have already effectively conceded that the targets for dealing with fuel poverty and vulnerable households by 2010 are not going to be reached. Does he agree that it is therefore even more difficult to understand the apparent lack of support from those on the Government Front Bench?

Mr. Heath: I am going to deal with the Government's position in a moment. I think that the Government are taking action. They are involved in reviews and discussions that will greatly improve performance in this area, but that is not incompatible with my Bill. This is a belt-and-braces approach. It recognises work where it is being done. However, my hon. Friend is right to suggest that we are barely scratching the surface. As a country we need to do much better. I believe that the Government are actively considering how they can do that. What I want to do is to set clear objectives, which, as I will discuss later, we thought we already had, in order to make that happen in a time scale that is recognisable and reasonable, considering the urgency of the situation. I now give way to my very patient hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley).

Sandra Gidley: I too welcome the Bill, but is my hon. Friend aware of the briefing from the Energy Retail Association? He has been very kind about some of the energy retailers, but was he as concerned as I was to read that they are saying that:

He may have an opinion on that. I do not necessarily subscribe to their view—I want to make that clear. He may recall that, a few years ago, tariffs designed to help old people were introduced at a very low rate and then there were swingeing increases year on year. People were trapped in the system. Does he trust the energy companies to deliver on this?

20 Mar 2009 : Column 1140

Mr. Heath: First, there is quite a difference in performance between some energy suppliers and others. Secondly, it is almost impossible to compare what is offered because the tariff arrangements that they suggest are complicated. Thirdly, there is enormous churn, with people being badgered into changing their accounts from one company to another on the assumption that they are getting a better deal, which often is not a better deal at all. Although I hear what the suppliers say and understand the need to maintain a competitive market, it is in their interests for there to be a statutory basis for a social tariff so that everyone understands what it should comprise of and they work on the same basis.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman has probably been talking to the same energy companies as I have. I will not mention the name of the company that I am referring to, but I was surprised to be told that the mechanism to decide on eligibility is more often than not income support. I asked the company in question how it checked that people were on income support, to which the answer was, “We don’t.” Therefore, it is a fairly open door, which may be good, but there is no mechanism by which to find out who is eligible and why. I do not think that that is terribly clever. I am sure that he would agree.

Mr. Heath: I agree. There are people benefiting from schemes at the moment who are not in fuel poverty. Others are not benefiting who should be given more support. That is one of the arguments for putting the scheme on to a statutory basis. It would involve the Government determining eligibility criteria; there is a precedent for that to an extent in a recent Pensions Bill. Again it is common sense. We need common criteria to ensure that these measures are targeted at the right people and that the right people benefit. Often that is not the case.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Heath: Will my hon. Friend forgive me for a moment? I will come back to her but I should get to the end of my first page if I possibly can.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): How many pages are there?

Mr. Heath: Not many.

This is what the Bill does. It offers a strategy to eliminate fuel poverty by 2016, to treat homes with lasting and sustainable improvements and, in the interim, to introduce a statutory social tariff.

I cannot believe, and a lot of Members here today find it difficult to believe, that in this so-called civilised country, which is affluent even in modern circumstances, we can allow 3.5 million households at a conservative estimate—the figure is probably 5 million—to be in fuel poverty. It is a disgrace. I think that all sides recognise that that is a disgrace, so we are talking about how to deal with that.

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