Standing Committee C
Thursday 24 January 2002
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): I beg to move,
That, if proceedings on the Home Energy Conservation Bill are not concluded at today's sitting, the Committee do meet on Tuesday 5th February at half-past Ten o'clock and half-past Four o'clock.
As members of the Committee will observe, there are a considerable number of amendments, and that implies that more time will be needed to consider them than is available in a short morning sitting. The sittings motion allows us to reconvene on 5 February, with morning and afternoon sittings available.
I am not aware that anyone has departed from the political consensus on the Bill on Second Reading, which was fairly remarkable by the standards of private Members' Bills. The Committee will try to resolve drafting problems.
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): It is a pleasure to serve under your esteemed chairmanship, Mr. Benton, and it is important that we have adequate time to discuss the Bill. I begin by reiterating the general support offered to the Bill by the Conservative party. As I stated on Second Reading, any Bill that aims to make further provisions for energy conservation and the eradication of fuel poverty certainly deserves the support of the House and the Committee.
On Second Reading, many hon. Members expressed measured support for the proposal to establish a registration and licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation. My party recommended several courses of action to strengthen and improve the Bill, and I appreciate the fact that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) has subsequently agreed to address those suggestions through amendments. We need time to discuss those amendments.
As we know, part 1 concerns home energy conservation. The Bill proposes to achieve the 30 per cent. target of improvement in energy efficiency in residential accommodation by 2010, the aim set out in the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. As we consider that, it is important to recognise that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has stated that
''The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 requires all UK local authorities with housing responsibilities to prepare, publish and submit to the Secretary of State an energy conservation report identifying energy conservation measures, which it considers practicable, cost-effective and likely to result in a significant improvement in the energy efficiency of all residential accommodation in its area.''
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It is important that we have time to consider that against some of the Government's proposals in their amendments.
DEFRA has also said that
Although many hon. Members expressed concern that some provisions of the Bill would encourage a bureaucratic approach by local government, this part of it would consolidate the powers of local authorities and help them to be guided by more influential targets. Previously, the requirement to achieve the target was set by ministerial guidance only.
The explanatory notes make it clear that energy conservation authorities have insufficient powers to monitor or co-ordinate efforts to meet energy efficiency guidelines. We must hope that HECA officers will be given greater enforcement powers, and it is highly surprising that the Government have tabled amendments to eliminate that possibility. They also aim to leave out the clause that details ways of encouraging the better co-ordination of energy efficiency schemes, and have, in effect, filleted part 1.
One third of the nation' s fuel poor population is in registered social landlord tenure. Despite that, the Government have tabled an amendment to remove registered social landlords from the obligation to meet energy efficiency targets. The largest proportion of those who live in fuel poverty or with inefficient energy systems is made up by the most vulnerable people in society, such as the young and the old, and also includes those who live in social landlord properties. We need time to discuss the Government's intention to ensure that the vulnerable are assisted. We need time to discuss the Government's amendment, which makes a mockery of their energy efficiency targets and makes the Bill inequitable.
We need time to discuss the indisputable aims of part 2. As the House concurred on Second Reading, it is hard to believe that we are still discussing attempts to combat fuel poverty. Again, we should allow the statistics to speak for themselves. Data from the 1996 English house condition survey, which I hope that we shall discuss, show that 4.3 million households out of a total of 19.6 million were regarded as fuel poor. The UK energy report for 2000 states that half the households in fuel poverty contain people aged over 60. One in six fuel poor households contain young children. More than half of the fuel poor are owner-occupiers, about a seventh are in the private rented sector and the remaining third are in local authority registered social landlord tenure. We need time to discuss why the Government intend to take them out of the Bill.
The Conservative party has made substantial efforts to reduce the high number of winter deaths through measures such as the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which my hon. Friend the
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Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) introduced. The Conservatives introduced the Gas Act 1986, which privatised British Gas, although I should say in parenthesis that the current Prime Minister and Chancellor voted against it. Domestic gas prices are estimated to have decreased by 29 per cent. in real terms as a result of that Act.
The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act stated that it should be the duty of the appropriate authority to prepare and publish a strategy and targets to ensure that, as far as possible, the homes of persons in fuel poverty were kept warm at a reasonable cost. The Act bound the Government to implement a strategy to end fuel poverty in 15 years and aimed to resolve the lack of co-ordination between local and central Government. Only last year, 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.]
We need time to discuss why the Government tabled amendment No. 36, which would omit the Bill's fuel poverty provisions entirely, despite the fact that Age Concern statistics showed in November last year that 77 per cent. of single pensioners and 43 per cent. of older couples, at least one of whom is of pensioner age, are fuel poor.
The Bill gives local energy conservation authorities an increased sense of purpose and the conviction to ensure that the fuel poverty strategy is adhered to and that targets are met. The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown deal with the issue by handing the Secretary of State's powers of enforcement to the appropriate authorities, and that is right.
We can expect most debate to revolve around part 3 and the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. The Government have yet to fulfil their promise, on page 26 of their 1997 manifesto, that:
''We will provide protection where most needed: for tenants in houses in multiple occupation. There will be a proper system of licensing by local authorities which will benefit tenants and responsible landlords alike.''
No such legislation has been forthcoming, although there has been some consultation on licensing landlords in low-demand areas.
In April 2000, the Government published a Green Paper on housing, which reiterated their intention to legislate to introduce licensing for HMOs. It states:
''Both physical conditions and management standards in the sector are often worst in houses in multiple occupation . . . such as large nineteenth-century buildings converted into bedsits. These can also pose more severe fire risks to occupants. We are already committed to introducing, as soon as Parliamentary time allows, a compulsory licensing system for HMOs, and to modernising and rationalising the confusing mass of controls in this area.''
The Conservative party supports greater protection for tenants in HMOs that do not meet acceptable health and safety standards. However, we need time to ensure that the regulations are not excessively
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burdensome on responsible landlords; otherwise the availability of affordable rented accommodation could be restricted.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown intends to introduce provisions to allow a maximum threshold for registration fees. A Residential Renting article that I quoted on Second Reading raised concerns that a similar initiative to licence HMOs in Scotland had resulted in major differences in charges by local authorities. It stated that:
''landlords were consulted but were then effectively sidelined. The remit and scope for licensing ballooned as activists took over on a costs no object basis.''
The article also stated that local authorities in Scotland had been left to determine their own licence fees, which varied greatly. I am therefore pleased that we shall have time to discuss the issue, which the Bill will tackle, to ensure that landlords are not subjected to unco-ordinated or unjust registration schemes. The hon. Gentleman also noted my concern that an effective appeals procedure should be implemented to prevent good landlords from being unfairly penalised.
More recently, the Bill came under scrutiny in an article by Lorna Bourke in The Sunday Telegraph. According to the Small Landlords Association, a
''landlord who owns a property that has become a designated HMO will not necessarily get planning permission to withdraw from the market and sell their property.''
Shelter has confirmed that some local authorities have refused planning permission when landlords have applied to convert an HMO into a single dwelling. The Local Government Association has implied that local authorities have the jurisdiction to refuse planning permission for conversion back to single dwelling status, where their housing development policies so require. It is clear that that is currently a local planning authority issue, but we must recognise that the Bill may impose on landlords new costs that they may not be able to afford.
In summary, the Conservative party offers its support for the part of the Bill that deals with the elimination of fuel poverty. We offer our support in principle to the part of the Bill that deals with home energy conservation, although we want some clear indication that the Government are committed to achieving the targets of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. We appreciate that the sponsor of the Bill has accepted many of our concerns, but we shall await events before deciding our position on that part of the Bill that deals with licensing. Although we support the principle, we all know that, in Committee, the devil is always in the detail.