HC Deb 08 April 1981 vol 2 cc1055-60

'The Secretary of State shall, within six months of the commencement of this Act, lay before both Houses of Parliament a copy of a voluntary code of practice, as agreed with the relevant manufacturers, relating to efficiency standards and energy labelling for domestic energy consuming appliances.'—[Mr. Eadie.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

11 pm

Mr. Alex Eadie (Midlothian)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I do not think that the Minister will be surprised to see the new clause on Report, because it is associated with an amendment that I tabled to clause 1 in Committee. Among other things, we were unhappy about electrical appliances being excluded from the clause. As an Opposition we voted on the amendment. Indeed, as the Minister will recall, I put down a marker when we reached clause 8, which deals with the interpretation of part I.

I have had the opportunity to read in a more leisurely way what the Minister said in Committee in reply to my proposed amendments to clause 1. He argued very strongly in favour of a voluntary code of practice. For the information of the House on Report, I must quote to some extent what the Minister said at the first sitting of the Committee, because it is central to the reason why we feel that the new clause should have his approval. He said: The development of voluntary efficiency standards is clearly the first route which the Government at this stage ought to take. The Minister outlined certain prerequisites. He said: The second is a new look at the possibility of a voluntary system of energy labelling, to give consumers the information on which to make a rational choice. The Minister complimented his hon. Friend the Member for Skipton (Mr. Watson) when he said: I entirely accept the comments made anecdotally by my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton—an important example of the kind of difficulty that the consumer is facing. Where we can help in encouraging industry in this way, we should. The Minister then outlined to the Committee a third route.

He said: The third route, possibly at some later stage, is a scheme with statutory backing. We hold this in reserve, because we must make it clear that we should like to see this move forward in a way which is efficacious for industry and for the community. In the course of his reply, the Minister was interrupted by his hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost), who wanted an assurance from him. It is fair to say that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East and his hon. Friends were seized of the kinds of argument that we were advancing when moving the amendments to clause 1. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East, in his intervention, asked the Minister to assure us that this is not just verbiage in order to placate one-or two members of the Committee, and that there really is a meaningful timetable, which will lead to something in the foreseeable future. One could not be more forceful than that.

The Minister replied: I am sure that my hon. Friend will not make the mistake of assuming that, if I give what is clearly my support and approval of this route, I would regard that as verbiage … I have tried to indicate the rational route, the route that will be of help to industry and, I hope, to the consumer and to society. I hope that what I have said will persuade the hon. Member for Midlothian to seek to withdraw his amendment. If not, I hope that I can rely on the support of my hon. Friends."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 12 March 1981; c. 27–28.] I believe that the House will support me when I say that the hon. Gentleman has made my case. I anticipate his support and that of his hon. Friends. The period of six months before the Act becomes law is generous by any standards. My hon. Friends and I cannot be accused of rushing the issue. Work can proceed on achieving a voluntary code of practice with the relevant manufacturers.

An accusation was made (luring our debates that the Bill paid too little attention to consumers. The acceptance of the amendment can redress the matter. I have pleasure in commending it for the support of the House.

Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)

The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) reminded the House that in Committee I supported the inclusion of electrical appliances either in some form of type approval or, preferably, some form of energy labelling. I am pleased to see the amendment before the House. It might produce the most desired result of all—a voluntary code of practice, as already applicable in some European countries and proposed in others.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who persuaded me not to support the original amendment because he favoured some sort of voluntary code, has reacted rapidly to what may have been my rather sharp rebuke that we wanted not verbiage but action. Since the Committee stage was concluded not many days ago my hon. Friend has acted. The Department of Energy, under the leadership of my hon. Friend, appears to be moving fairly smartly towards urging the electrical appliance industry to try to agree a voluntary code.

I have met the director of the Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Electrical Appliances. Although the association is not over-enthusiastic about a voluntary code for labelling domestic appliances, it is nevertheless persuaded that this is likely to happen and is willing to co-operate with my hon. Friend.

I wanted simply to record that there appears to be some movement. I hope, therefore, that there will be no need for the House to accept the amendment, since it appears that my hon. Friend is determined to establish a voluntary code, even if it takes a little longer than six months to achieve.

Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

I intend to intervene briefly in this debate to support the new clause and the voluntary code of practice. In my constituency I have a firm called IMI Range Limited, known locally in Stalybridge as Range Boilers, which manufactures hot water cylinders of the British standard kite-mark kind. These cylinders are most efficient, but are slightly more costly than the non-British standard cylinders or screw-in, heating-element type, which are about £2 cheaper but much more expensive to operate. It is estimated that between 1.5 million and 2 million people have such cylinders installed, and that the cost to the nation is between £20 million and £26 million a year.

More and more of these less efficient cylinders are being installed. The present annual rate of installation of non-British standard cylinders is over 100,000. A saving of £1.3 million could be made if British Standards were adhered to. A recent survey carried out by the University of Manchester institute of science and technology shows that the annual increased fuel cost for the average household is between £13 and £14 per year more if the less efficient cylinder is installed. Moreover, 25 per cent. more fuel is consumed when the boiler is used for water heating. The report shows conclusively, following extensive tests, that heat exchangers with greater heat transfer capability enable gas boilers to run more efficiently during hot water production cycles. In those conditions, the fuel consumption for hot water production is greater by over 26 per cent., and by 23 per cent. when the screw-in and medium-duty heat exchangers are employed.

I am making a constituency point, because the factory has lost about 55 per cent. of its work force over the past 18 months. However, it refuses to lower its standards. It has paid a high price. It may ultimately have to lower its standards. The company looks to the Government to accept the spirit of the new clause. It could then stay in business and produce the kind of cylinder that should be used throughout the country.

I shall not go through the report, but I shall be glad to give the Minister a copy of it. It is hot off the press. I hope that he will study it closely and make known his views on it at some stage. If we are in earnest about saving energy and reducing costs, we must pay careful attention to the important issues that I have mentioned.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

I, too, felt that we had an interesting Committee stage. The two sides of the Committee agreed on many things. I see no objection to the new clause.

The message came over loud and clear in Committee that the Government were not able to provide the money to do various things in the interests of energy conservation, but they fell over themselves to agree to do anything that was free, or that would not cost much.

It is all very well to keep talking about the manufacturers, but we should be talking about the consumers. It is not just a matter of persuading manufacturers to take certain voluntary steps. We must stress that those steps are in the interests of the consumer. We are talking about energy conservation. Great strides can be made in this direction. The Minister should accept the new clause because it is in the interests of energy conservation, which is related to the problems of the whole economy. It may play only a minute part, but over the years will save the country millions of pounds. In addition, it will be of great assistance to the consumer

11.15 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. John Moore)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) and other hon. Members for putting down the new clause again. We had long discussions on this subject in Committee and it was discussed in another place. It is clearly of considerable importance. I acknowledge the words of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry). The company in his constituency is to be commended for its consistent diligence in the pursuit of energy efficiency. But it would be unwise to take the House through the detailed and lengthy discussions that we had in Committee, useful though they were. All right hon. and hon. Members present have no doubt diligently studied our Committee proceedings. In this clause, however, we are examining not only the arguments concerning a voluntary code of practice. The essence of the clause related not to the voluntary aspect which featured in our debates in Committee but to the time limits that hon. Members feel should be put upon the Government in committing themselves to certain courses of action.

The problem is to decide on the best approach towards realising the scope for improvement. In Committee I said that there were several possible ways forward—voluntary efficiency standards, a new look at the possibility of the voluntary system with energy labelling, which is embodied in the clause, or, perhaps at some later stage, a scheme with statutory backing. I said that the Government intended to meet the industry and others concerned in the coming months to examine these possibilities fully. The objective had to be to establish a broad measure of agreement on the way forward to more energy-efficient domestic appliances.

In reply to an excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost), who made similar comments tonight, I said that there would be an energetic pursuit of the matter and that the Government for their part would act without delay. Since then, as my hon. Friend seems to know, although the Committee discussions were only four weeks away I have already written to the director general of the Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Electrical Appliances inviting him—he has accepted, with other leading members of the industry—to an early meeting, which has already been arranged. Since the meeting in Committee my Department has also written to the Electricity Consumers' Council, to the Consumers Association and to other consumer organisations, including the Retail Trading Standards Association, the Retail Distributors Association and others affected, inviting them to meet me or, if they would prefer, to let us have an up-to-date statement of their views on this subject.

I hope that hon. Members will accept that we are not letting grass grow under our feet on this important issue. I meant what I said in Committee—that the Government would pursue this matter energetically and without delay.

Mr. Rost

My hon. Friend also said that he had been making inquiries in his Department about how energy labelling schemes were working on the Continent. Will he give an assurance that he will keep his officials busy on getting up-to-date information about how other schemes are working in other countries, so that we can see what prospects there are of a sensible, workable scheme?

Mr. Moore

I never hesitate to ask my officials on such matters, but I assure my hon. Friend that the officials in the Department are perfect examples of excellent civil servants who are constantly efficient in the pursuit of the public good in this area. I returned yesterday from Berlin, where I had discussions with other IEA Government representatives about energy conservation, among other matters, and they were excited and impressed by our activities in this direction.

I come now to the clause that is under discussion. I said that we would pursue these matters energetically, and I think that we are doing so. I agree with many of the remarks that have been made about the character of voluntary labelling under the clause. However, I believe that it is not reasonable to expect the Government, industry, consumer organisations and others to reach a conclusion within the next six months.

First, we want carefully to consider all the possibilities. We are approaching the problem with an open mind without any preconceptions of what may be the best way forward. Secondly, we are aware that some of the technical problems are complex and that they may be difficult to settle in a matter of months. I have already drawn attention to the slow progress that has been made by international standards bodies on the development of performance standards for domestic appliancies. I emphasise that I do not wish to convey the impression that the task is impossible. I merely wish to say that it is complicated.

Thirdly, we know from our substantial experience of consulting manufacturers and consumers that representatives of manufacturers need quite reasonably to consult their colleagues and that those who represent consumers equally reasonably need to consult representative councils or other bodies. Again, this takes time.

Finally, we shall have to consider imports of appliances and how they are to be treated. We have already written to the European Domestic Appliance Association. Again, with the best will in the world, it will take a little time.

I draw an analogy with the work that went into the Bill. The Government started consultations on energy efficiency standards for heat generators several months before the consultative document was issued in August 1979. By the end of October 1979 we had received most of the replies. In the early part of 1980 we were able to start putting our proposals into draft legislation. The Bill has almost completed its parliamentary stages. Even so, the work is only half complete. We now need to draft detailed orders under the Bill in consultation with manufacturers and others, such as the consumer organisations that I referred to in Committee, as clause 26(3) requires. It will be a little time before the powers in the Bill have been used to their full extent. I shall be disappointed if in the next six months we have not made substantial progress on the objectives that we have set ourselves on domestic electrical appliances.

The Government will be pressing manufacturers and consumer organisations hard to this end. However, I doubt whether we shall be in a position in six months' time to agree a voluntary code of practice. I should be misleading the House if I suggested that that would be possible in so short a time. I am sure that hon. Members will not regard this as an indication that the Government are half-hearted in what they have set out to do. I ask hon. Members to recognise the complexity of the task.

We are committed to examining all the possibilities, and they go wider than a voluntary code of practice on efficiency standards and energy labelling. These matters will take a little time. I hope that in the light of what I have said the hon. Member for Midlothian will feel able to seek to withdraw his clause.

Mr. Eadie

My hon. Friends and I attach a great deal of importance to the debate. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) takes the biscuit. He started to inform the House that he had been in consultation with electrical manufacturers and that everything was going well. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Haynes) will remember, the electrical manufacturers did not want to touch anything in this measure with a barge pole. My hon. Friend was saying throughout the Bill's consideration in Committee that the consumer's voice had really to be expressed.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East said that there was no need for change. The terms of the clause meet exactly his arguments in Committee. He has what he wanted. He should have allowed his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to reply to the debate to ascertain whether he thought that the proposition was acceptable. I know that certain of us feel that we are fountains of wisdom, but there are some issues on which we like our colleagues on the Front Bench to express a view.

Mr. Rost

The hon. Member is becoming agitated without cause. He is misrepresenting what he must have heard, if he had listened. I did not say that everything was going well or that I was taking over the responsibilities of my hon. Friend at the Department of Energy. All that I said was that my hon. Friend had initiated the talks. He was simply carrying out the assurances that he gave us in Committee. I was congratulating him on that.

Mr. Eadie

My hon. Friends heard what the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East said. He could have fooled us.

I accept what the Minister said in reply to the new clause. He gave a proper explanation of the Government's difficulties over time limitations. However, on behalf of the Opposition, I warned him in Committee that we would try to come back to that matter. We were concerned about something being done to give the consumer some sort of safeguard, understanding and assurance.

The Minister attacked the point in my new clause, saying that six months was not sufficient time. He advanced a reasonable case when he said that in order to put into being that voluntary code of practice, it would mean many consultations.

My hon. Friends and I are pleased that the Minister has given categorical assurances that that will happen. The only dispute between us is on the question of when it happens. I shall not ask my hon. Friends to go through the Lobbies on the basis of its happening in six, seven, eight or nine months. I accept the Minister's assurances I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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