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In fact, that leads me to the next point that I was going to make--that is, that on the one side, this group of amendments deals with the spending of a certain amount of public money in terms of home insulation grants for elderly and poor people. When we are considering that issue, we need to consider also the issue of cold weather payments. I have a direct question for the Government in relation to that. What length of time of cold weather payments would be required to show a positive advantage by passing this amendment? I ask that because, on the one hand, we are talking about spending a certain amount of public money to provide insulation for the homes of elderly people; while, on the other hand, if there are periods of cold weather, the Government are required to provide financial assistance to elderly and poor people who suffer the hardship of extra heating bills. Therefore, it is a contribution to the heating bills.
However, if those heating bills are effectively saved by the expenditure of the proposed £100 million of public money, it is possible that, over a period of time, that money will be saved by the Exchequer because of the reduction in cold weather payments that the Government have to make. I have not given the Minister notice that I would ask that question, but it would be most interesting to have an answer while debating this series of amendments.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, all sides of the House are united in their support of the home energy efficiency scheme. Our disagreements seem to centre on the quantum--that is, the amount of money that we should be giving to support the scheme. Indeed, that is very much the subject of Amendment No. 15.
We are committed to providing as much help as possible to the most vulnerable people in society--those who have the greatest difficulty in affording to keep warm enough and are least able to improve the energy standard of their homes. That is why the scheme is open only to people who are on low incomes, people who receive various disability allowances and people aged 60 or over.
I understand the desire to keep the value of grants paid under this successful and well-regarded scheme at their historic peak. It is always hard to have to reduce the allocation to any programme, though two factors were particularly relevant to the scheme. One is that last year's big increase was intended to offset the projected higher rate of VAT on fuel which did not, in the event, take place. The other is that the full rate of grant has now been restricted to the least well off.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, mentioned the figure of 530,000 grants having already been made this year. That is not a figure that we recognise; indeed, 310,000 is the figure that I have on the paperwork in front of me. However, I should be happy to be better informed shortly by the noble Lord. If there is a fundamental disagreement in the figures, I shall be happy to write to the noble Lord on the matter. We have seen a surge of interest from better-off people--
Lord Lucas: Yes, my Lords. As I said, 310,000 is the figure that I have. There may indeed be some confusion as to whether my figure has been calculated on exactly the same basis as that of the noble Lord. However, there has been a surge of interest from better-off people aged over 60 seeking to register before the rules changed. Fairness requires us to honour all applications received before the deadline under the old rules. Our managing agents are handling the situation extremely well. The backlog will be efficiently tackled and we will ensure that allocations are adjusted where appropriate to deal with localised anomalies. Before next winter waiting times should have returned to their normal commendable levels of about four weeks. Any change brings transitional effects and the home energy efficiency scheme is no exception.
The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, suggested that we have not honoured a commitment to maintain the level of funding for three years. That is not the case. Statements made last year, when the allocation was increased, simply made it clear that the planning baseline for the public expenditure survey period was being changed.
There can never be any guarantee that the planned level of expenditure will not change. In fact the amount of money allocated to the home energy efficiency scheme has changed each year. Sometimes it has been possible to find more towards the year-end, so that actual expenditure exceeded the figure published in the public expenditure survey. It would be extraordinary to have funding commitments enshrined in primary legislation. Indeed, it would become quite impossible for any government to deal with changed circumstances or different priorities. Expenditure planning and decisions about individual programmes have to be separate from the powers which make them possible.
I very much appreciate the sentiments behind the amendments and the support which the noble Lord wishes to evidence for such a successful and thoroughly commendable scheme. However, I hope that he will feel able to withdraw the amendments. If he does not, I urge the House to reject them. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, is about to rise to his feet. I must tell him that I do not have an answer to his question today. Nevertheless, I shall write to him on the matter.
In the early years, the demand was very patchy because people did not know about the scheme; indeed, they did not know about the benefits that they could receive from it. As the Minister said, the scheme is now very successful. However, what worries me and my colleagues on this side of the House are the mixed messages which the changes in government policy have created. The commitment--and it was certainly regarded as such at the time--to make £100 million available for three years was regarded as a very welcome, humanitarian and energy-efficient measure. The fact that it was so quickly changed altered the signal and has confused people.
The way in which the amendment has been introduced, despite the quite proper reservation expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is, nonetheless, a way of bringing the matter home; in other words, a way to make it quite clear that the situation is most unfortunate. Having taken a very positive step, the Government have now confused the issue by the change which they so quickly made.
In my view this is one of the most important ways in which we can deal with the energy problem. People need assistance and they need to have stimulus. The mere fact of putting taxes on energy consumers in the domestic sector, as the argument about VAT demonstrated, is not the way to set about it. A combination of stimulus and assistance to those on low incomes seems to me to be absolutely the right way to proceed. Indeed, I thought that the Government had committed themselves to that path. The amendment was introduced today in order to bring them back to that positive, virtuous path. The issue is of such importance that I believe it necessary to ask the House for its opinion.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.