HC Deb 17 March 1995 vol 256 cc1185-202
Mr. Robert B. Jones

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 3, line 5, at end insert—

'(4) The Secretary of State shall from time to time prepare a report on—

  1. (a) the progress made by energy conservation authorities in implementing the measures set out in reports prepared under section 2, and
  2. (b) any steps he has taken pursuant to subsection (2)(b) above, and shall lay any such report before Parliament.'.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also amendment No. 9, in clause 5, page 3, line 20, leave out 'and (3)' and insert 'to (4)'.

Mr. Jones

Amendment No. 8 would require the Secretary of State from time to time to prepare and lay before Parliament a report on the progress made by energy conservation authorities in implementing the measures set out in their energy conservation reports and on the steps taken by the Secretary of State under subsection 3(2)(b) to assist with, and encourage others to assist with, measures listed in reports.

Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 are consequential.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I must point out to the Minister that amendment No. 10 is being dealt with separately.

Mr. Jones

Amendment No. 9 is consequential and it ensures that the new duty would apply to measures in further or modified reports prepared under clause 5.

The amendments also stem from discussions in Committee. I understand the wish of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) that there should be regular reporting to Parliament of progress made under the Bill's provisions so that authorities' achievements can be judged. I recognise that there will be a desire to make comparisons, and it would be my intention that the form of reports would allow for that.

Hon. Members who served on the Committee which considered the Bill will recall that we had a considerable debate about how energy saving targets should be set. The Committee accepted my view that that could best be done through the guidance to be issued under clause 4. The reports envisaged by the amendments will also enable authorities' success in meeting those targets to be assessed, and this will no doubt be of considerable interest.

I am, however, anxious not to be too bureaucratic and burdensome. I hope, therefore, that reports to be prepared under the new subsection will be able to draw on factual information provided by energy conservation authorities.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Christchurch and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed have added their names to the amendment which incorporates one tabled by them referring to a duty for the Secretary of State to report on the steps that he had taken under clause 3(2)(b).

It is also right that the Secretary of State should be accountable for the steps that he has taken under the Bill, and I see no difficulty in including in a report a statement of what he has done under subsection 3(2)(b) to assist with, or to encourage others to assist with, measures set out in energy conservation authorities' reports. However, it is the implementation of the measures set out in the reports energy conservation authorities will draw up under clause 2, already covered by amendment No. 6, which will be the key to the achievement of the Bill's aims.

In drawing up guidance under clause 4 we shall need to consider what form the reports by the Secretary of State should take so that we can harmonise that with what authorities are asked to prepare. We shall of course need to discuss with the local authority associations how monitoring and reporting of progress should best be undertaken.

Obvious possibilities are progress towards the energy saving target adopted by the authority in accordance with the guidance that I have undertaken that we shall give on this point, or progress in improving the SAP rating of properties. Encouraging progress is being made towards developing more streamlined SAP ratings, which should in turn make low-cost housing stock profiling easier.

Mr. Matthew Banks

Is my hon. Friend saying that local authorities across the board will be set the objective of achieving a 30 per cent. saving, or will the authorities be able to set their own targets?

Mr. Jones

No, we shall set a target, but clearly, if a local authority has achieved a great deal in the past, or if its stock was already of a high energy efficiency character, it can perfectly well say to us that different criteria should apply in its different circumstances. Equally, we may wish to move the targets over a period of years according to the direction in which our international commitments lead us; or we may wish to set targets in terms not of percentages but of minimum SAP ratings, or of percentages of stock below a certain level. That is the reasoning behind the flexibility of approach. We are still trying to achieve a target, but not in quite such a rigid way as was originally envisaged. Looking at SAP ratings has the advantage that it .concentrates on what is important—the performance of the building in converting the energy used into useful heat and light.

Whatever the outcome of discussions with the local authority associations, I take the point made by the hon. Member for Christchurch in Committee that some form of comparison would be desirable. We must, however, be cautious of creating a major bureaucratic task. It must be borne in mind that every energy conservation authority in the United Kingdom will provide reports to the Secretary of State.

A report to Parliament based on detailed and necessarily subjective analysis of each one would not, I suggest, be of much use to the House, and drawing it up would not be the best use of the time of officials in the energy efficiency office in my Department. I believe that a succinct overview of the national situation, built up from objective evidence from individual authorities and enabling their performances to be compared, will meet the legitimate aspirations of Parliament and public for information on what is being achieved.

We must not forget, either, that such action will be useful in relation to our international obligations, such as those arising from the Earth summit in Rio. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy (Mr. Eggar) made an important announcement last week following a review of the prospects for future energy use in the United Kingdom and of associated emissions of carbon dioxide.

That showed that the United Kingdom can be confident of meeting its commitment to reduce carbon emissions, and indeed that we can expect to exceed it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear that although there have been some changes in the relative contributions expected in the various elements of the climate change programme, we must continue to seek further cost-effective ways of reducing carbon emissions.

Energy use in the home is, of course, an important element in the achievement of those targets. Over a quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions come from energy used in the home—7.5 tonnes each year from the average home. With that in mind, identifying progress made in implementing energy conservation reports prepared under the Bill will provide a useful input to the monitoring of our international commitments.

Although I hesitate to speak on matters relating to Ireland on St. Patrick's day even more than on other days, I should at this juncture also set out the reasoning behind amendment No. 10, which we shall consider a little later. It provides that the reference to the laying of energy conservation reports before Parliament in clause 3(4)(b) should, in relation to Northern Ireland, be a reference to laying before the Northern Ireland Assembly—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. That should be considered when we deal with the next amendment.

Mr. Jones

I shall do that, Madam Deputy Speaker, but—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry if the Minister will have to alter his brief, but that is not the concern of the Chair.

Mr. Jones

I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought that I might be able to save the House some time.

Mr. Anthony Coombs

This amendment is crucial to those of us who are concerned that the Bill may be stronger in intention and aspiration than on achievement, because it is only through this clause—which has been belatedly put in the Bill—that Parliament will be informed not only as to what individual local authorities intend to do so in relation to home energy efficiency measures, but what they achieve.

I should like to press the Minister on one or two matters. He said earlier that, although it was not specifically mentioned in the Bill, the cost of assessing home energy efficiency needs for local authorities would be uppermost in his mind when he instructs authorities on further ways in which they should carry out schemes, and also when he reports to Parliament. He said that the compliance cost assessment which applies to every other piece of legislation that the Government are now putting forward would also apply effectively to this Bill.

My hon. Friend must accept that one or two of us are very cynical as to the estimates of the cost of this legislation. It has been said that the maximum that such legislation could cost is approximately £40,000 for each average-sized district council, making a total of about £23 million throughout the United Kingdom. Many people—particularly Opposition Members, who seem to spend other people's money as if it were going out of fashion—might say, "What is £23 million among friends?" I happen to think that £23 million is an enormous amount of money. When my hon. Friend comes to prepare his reports to Parliament, he should major on the important item of compliance cost assessment and on how effective is the information—albeit on a sample basis—which local authorities are getting when they carry out their surveys.

On that second point, I should be slightly concerned if the Minister felt—as he implied earlier in the debate—that, just because an area may have a lot of modern housing and therefore, in terms of energy efficiency, may be further advanced than those areas with older housing, necessarily the costs of assessing the energy efficiency of those houses would be any less. Obviously, it is the relative position of the houses and their efficiency which are important. That is why my hon. Friend rightly resisted in Committee a 30 per cent. reduction target across the board. The costs must be assessed, irrespective of how efficient the housing authority may he in the first instance.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

I was not trying to suggest that the cost of assessment would be less, but that the target was less relevant because of the position houses were in.

Mr. Coombs

I entirely accept that.

The Bill seems to be frame—particularly clause 2 and subsections (3) and (4)—in terms of assessing the cost of energy conservation measures, assessing the extent by which carbon dioxide emissions would be decreased as a result of the measures, assessing the number of jobs which would result from the implementation of the measures and assessing the average savings on fuel bills which might be expected to result from the measures. All these are anticipated.

If the information that the Minister gives Parliament is to mean anything at all, not only do local authorities have to carry out the kind of projects itemised in subsections (3) and (4), but they must tell the Secretary of State what has been done and what achievements have been made. That, I submit, is a completely different exercise. It involves audit of properties on which home insulation work has been done and assessment of the subsequent reduction in fuel bills and of energy efficiency. It also involves significant liaison with the private sector, which will carry out much of the work.

I suspect that, to the estimated £40,000 for each local authority for the original task of assessing aspiration and potential commitment, should be added the inspection system that local authorities will need to put in place to determine what has been achieved in practice. I worry that the cost could easily be double the estimate of £40,000 per authority. It could easily go up to £100,000. So the total cost to the nation of this measure, well intentioned though it is and effective as it might be, could be about £100 million rather than the £23 million that has been estimated so far.

1.15 pm
Mr. Clifton-Brown

In considering the amendment and the reports that will have to be laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State, will my hon. Friend consider clause 7(b), which refers to:

any increase attributable to this Act in the sums payable out of such moneys under any other Act. So whatever money is to be spent under the Bill—my hon. Friend has mentioned an amount somewhere between £23 million and £100 million—will be squeezed from some other local authority budget.

Mr. Coombs

My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is all the more reason why the aspirations and achievements of the measure should be judged to be realistic in a rigorous form of compliance cost assessment by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he reports. The amendment does not say how often he will have to report. I hope that he will report regularly to Parliament. The amendment says:

The Secretary of State shall from time to time prepare a report". We do not know how often "from time to time" is. I hope that it will be on a bi-annual, if not annual basis, so that we can find out how effectively the measure is operating.

Mrs. Maddock

Some of the criticisms that have been made of the Bill are answered by the amendments. It is extremely important that timetables for action are set by the Secretary of State under the Bill and that they are implemented as rapidly as possible. Putting councils' progress in the public domain and exposing them to the glare of publicity is an essential part of ensuring that the Bill results in action. Parliament and the public must know what is going on. Those councils which are blazing the trail should be held up as examples, just as those which are dragging their heels must be encouraged and pressurised into getting their act together and improving progress.

As the Minister knows from our deliberations in Committee, I hoped that the Secretary of State would include in the Bill a requirement to make reports every year. I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) on that point. I certainly support them. It would be ideal to have an annual statement in the House followed by a short debate on progress in the past 12 months to keep the matter in the public domain. So I am a little disappointed that the only time scale given for the reports is "from time to time".

I hope that when and if the Bill is enacted the Minister will come back with regular reports. Otherwise, he and other relevant Secretaries of State should expect to be pestered on a regular basis not only by me but by other hon. Members and by organisations outside the House on when the next progress report will be forthcoming.

Earlier in the debate, we heard from hon. Members who did not have a particularly good opinion of local authorities. They were concerned that putting a Bill on the statute book would not lead to action. The expectations surrounding the reports show that there is an intention to obtain action. The amendments will ensure that local and central Government work together to ensure absolutely that the Bill is not only words but results in action and that the Bill will lead not only to conservation of energy but to much warmer homes and better health for people.

Mr. Merchant

If I may take up the point that the hon. Member for Christchurch just mentioned, I said earlier that I support the Bill, but that my main reservation is the danger that it will pass into law and be acted on, but only quietly and that, in effect, its provisions will be lost because the public gaze will no longer be on the subject matter. If the Bill is to be effective, it must include proper reporting procedures. So I welcome the amendment, because it strengthens, clarifies and broadens the impact of the Bill.

I have three reasons for thinking that that is true: first, because proper reporting provisions will lead to the establishment of league tables, which have proved to be very effective in many areas of Government activity; secondly, because it is a means of helping to test progress against targets on a national basis; and, thirdly, because it is a good element of open government.

It is well known that there is a good deal of variation in practice between local authorities. If the Bill works effectively, it should draw attention to that variation in an official form. If it is possible to look into a report, hopefully on an annual basis, to look up details of what the different local authorities are doing, and to find out which are slipping behind and which arc in the fore, it will focus attention on the weaknesses in some areas and thus, hopefully, enable action to be taken.

I am lucky that being a green authority is one of the main objectives of Bromley—the local authority in my area. Indeed, "clean and green" is its slogan, and it focuses considerable attention on energy conservation as well as other green issues. There is an energy manager, an energy advice line, much work is done in schools and training, and the older members of the population arc given special attention, through grants, loans and ensuring that they use energy in the most effective way for their own good.

The amendment will help to achieve a comparison between authorities such as Bromley and those that are dragging their feet. League tables and reports encourage and exhort best practice. They focus attention on the highest standards, which encourage others to follow that example.

I hope that it will be possible for a debate to take place in the House, as part of the report-laying procedure, as that will also help to focus attention on the subject. What the Bill is trying to do—and what the amendment accentuates—is to stress the publicity element of energy conservation. I think that we are all agreed that one of the most important parts of the activity is to encourage the focusing of more attention on the subject. There are always so many matters in the public domain at once, if conservation is to be maintained as the important issue that it is, it needs a mechanism by which the public's attention can regularly be focused on the progress that is being made. The amendment will help to achieve that.

I do not need to go into detail on national targets. We all know of the importance internationally of our national targets. By ensuring regular reporting and pressure at local level to reach targets, they can also be achieved nationally.

Open government is something in which I strongly believe. Many years ago, I spoke in the debates on the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. It was one of the first Acts that put a specific responsibility on local government to be open. I do not restrict my feelings on open government to local government. The Bill involves a good deal of responsibility for local government; the onus for carrying out the energy audit and reporting on it is on local government. As information is gathered nationally, the process should be as open as possible. Such openness is a good thing in itself, apart from the other benefits that I have mentioned.

Other hon. Members have referred to targets and compliance costs. There is some uncertainty about exactly what should be included in the reporting procedure because, as yet, we do not have any targets. Rightly, they are not in the Bill. To have included targets would have made the Bill less effective and less worthy. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will set strict targets. I hope that he will aim at around 30 per cent.; in some cases, the targets should be stricter. It is important to have targets in the whole process as they are a good measure by which one can judge progress, as in other areas. I hope, therefore, that targets will form an important feature of the reporting procedures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) was concerned about compliance costs. It is fair to request that details should be included in the reports. However, it is easy to exaggerate the potential cost. I have talked to my local authority and its estimate of the cost of producing the required reports is considerably lower than some of the figures mentioned today. It believes that it could easily adapt its housing conditions survey to include energy auditing, done on a sample of houses. The total amount spent by the local authority each year would be minimal, yet such a survey would achieve all the objectives intended in the Bill. For all those reasons, I very much welcome the amendment. It will strengthen the Bill and make it effective. It will underline the beneficial purpose of the Bill.

Mr. Matthew Banks

I whole-heartedly agree with the majority of points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant). One of the great deficiencies of the Bill is that it does not set proper targets. I listened to the remarks of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock), but I believe that the Bill's failure to set targets is its major weakness.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I understand the force of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I point out to him that the Energy Conservation Bill which I promoted last Session contained targets. Conservative Members felt that it should not contain targets, which is why this Bill is in its present form.

Mr. Banks

The hon. Member for Christchurch wanted targets in the Bill, but she has taken them out. I hope that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) will allow me to develop my argument. My genuine concern is that the targets in the Bill are rather wishy-washy. One local authority may take one view and another may take another. One local authority may already have decided to undertake a so-called green audit, yet many others have not gone down that route. Although many Conservative Members support the Bill, it does not quite have the teeth—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman keeps referring to the Bill, but he should be considering the amendments under discussion.

1.30 pm
Mr. Banks

I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to deal specifically with the progress reports to which amendments Nos. 8 and 9 refer.

The whole purpose of having reports drawn up by local authorities and reports to the Secretary of State and from the Secretary of State to the House requires a firm foundation on which action can be taken. It is not enough to present a report to the House that shows that action may or may not have been taken by particular local authorities but that no particular target has been reached.

The hon. Member for Christchurch wanted to press for a 30 per cent. target, but for reasons that we all understand, she subsequently referred to a 25 per cent. target. It is now suggested that we should aim at an advisory, guidance figure of about 30 per cent. That is not a firm figure, because, as the Minister has already explained, it will vary from one local authority to another. Some local authorities are already extremely well advanced in promoting energy conservation measures.

The reporting process is cumbersome and bureaucratic. The Bill will set a duty on local authorities to become energy conservation authorities, but it does not specifically set down the relevant national criteria. I recognise that they will vary between one local authority and another, but the hon. Member for Christchurch has backed off from the final hurdle, because the Bill is not what she originally wanted. It does not achieve the objectives desired by the many people who lobbied the House yesterday.

The cornerstone of the reports proposed in the two amendments is that they should ensure that local authorities prepare reports setting out how the energy efficiency of residential properties in their areas can be improved. The central issue dealt with in Committee was whether there should be a requirement on local authorities to aim for the specific numerical improvement of the 30 per cent. target or, as the Government proposed, aim to achieve only a significant improvement. The hon. Member for Christchurch put a forceful case, but she has not got precisely what she wanted in terms of the amendments or, if you will allow me to say so, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Bill.

The hon. Lady pointed out that, five years ago, the Government told the intergovernmental panel on climate change that good housekeeping could improve energy efficiency by some 10 per cent. I accept that that is the case. Without the reports mentioned in the amendments, we shall be unable to check on progress towards that target.

My hon. Friend the Minister referred to what took place in Committee and I recognise that some of the objections to the Bill have been gradually whittled away, which is a welcome move. We must bear in mind the fact that local authority associations have fought against the specific targets that the hon. Member for Christchurch wanted. Those councils were particularly concerned about whether they would be able to meet targets that were perhaps too high and the fact that specific targets did not recognise what one local authority was doing as opposed to another. Those associations have been active in campaigning to improve energy efficiency, and they have carried out a great deal of work to achieve that among their members.

I referred earlier to the difference in housing stock. I recognise that some local authorities to which I have referred will have had a much easier task because of their particular circumstances. When referring to the reporting process and the authorities that the amendments will create, I am mindful of the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), who said that his local authority was extremely small and did not have many officers. Therefore, he argued, the tasks which the amendments would effectively place on his local authority would be burdensome to it. I believe that the target date for those proposals to become effective—perhaps the hon. Lady might confirm that—is April 1996. It might perhaps have been better to have chosen a later date for implementation, but nevertheless 1996 it is.

Although many of the objections that were made by Conservative Members when we debated the previous two Bills on this subject have been tackled, we are left with something that is not as tangible as one would have liked. As the amended clause stands, it will require each local authority to prepare those reports and especially to consider practicable, cost-effective measures likely to result in significant improvement in domestic energy savings.

That is rather willy-nilly. No extra money is made available as a result of the Bill, and I am far from certain whether the proposals contained in amendment No. 9 will have an impact. We shall merely set up a great many committees—a talking shop—and I am not convinced that there will be any tangible results.

The reports to which the amendment refers will have to include an assessment of the costs of such measures, an assessment of their impact on carbon dioxide emissions and a statement of the council's policy for taking into account the personal circumstances of persons to whom grants or loans may be offered. Assessments of the impact on emissions of sulphur and nitrogen oxides, job creation and fuel bills may also be included in the reports—which local authorities may discuss—but only at the discretion of the local authority. There is nothing specific—only generalities as to what must be placed in the reports. It will be for the authorities to decide for themselves whom to consult when preparing their reports. One local authority may consult one group of people, but there is no standardisation throughout the country.

Amendment No. 8 sets out the steps to be taken by the Secretary of State under subsection 3(2)(b). It will oblige the Secretary of State to set a deadline for submission of those reports to him, but what will happen when that deadline arrives and those reports are submitted? The Secretary of State will also have to set a deadline for submission of progress reports. Presumably the Government will direct local authorities to modify or update their reports.

The hon. Member for Christchurch appeared to be urging that we hold an annual debate on those reports. It conjured up in my mind a possibility of a debate similar to the debates on the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. We would know that, once during a 12-month period, we would have an opportunity to consider energy conservation and what local authorities are doing. In view of the opportunities that right hon. and hon. Members now have to discuss those issues, especially in debates on the Adjournment of the House, I believe that that suggestion would be welcome, and would provide a peg on which to hang that subject.

I also welcome, but I do not want to stray too far into a debate on, amendment No. 10—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman will not stray on to it at all.

Mr. Banks

I am most grateful for your continued guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. The fact that amendments Nos. 8 and 9 will allow for reports similar to those that will, one hopes, be made if progress is made with the Northern Irish Assembly, is most welcome.

I return to the first, and key, fact that I mentioned—that local authority associations have been unhappy with the idea of setting specific targets. The Bill has been considerably watered down. I accept that Conservative Members have had genuine objections. There has been concern about creating unwieldy bureaucracy, and about the necessity of having reports and queries on what will be done when reports are produced.

I am not convinced that enough local authority time is spent dealing with the nitty-gritty concerns of my constituents and those of right hon. and hon. Members in other boroughs. If we create extra responsibilities for local authorities, we place greater costs on them—but for what? Earlier today, hon. Members on both sides of the House referred to the grants available for pipe lagging and window insulation—laudable provisions. But the amendments do not produce one extra penny towards the issues about which the hon. Member for Christchurch and my hon. Friends are concerned.

I am not convinced that the amendments will necessarily prove the success that we would want. The hon. Lady and those of us who have supported the Bill will be able to return to our constituencies and say that we have raised the important subject of energy conservation. In relation to the reports, I am concerned—particularly in the light of the introduction of VAT on gas and electricity—that we need to ensure that every opportunity is taken to reduce emissions and that, wherever possible, we introduce grants for energy conservation. I am not convinced that the Bill will take us a major step—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying into the realms of Third Reading. If he wants to speak on Third Reading, he had better stick to the amendments now.

Mr. Banks

I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not propose to catch your eye on Third Reading.

Although I took a particular interest in the amendment relating to mobile homes, amendments Nos. 8 and 9 are probably the most important. Although the amendments do not set targets and merely provide guidance, unless there is a mechanism for local authorities to discuss, in their own boroughs, energy efficiency, how they encourage energy conservation—particularly in their housing stock—and energy efficiency in mobile homes, I do not believe that progress will be made.

It is all very well for progress to be made and reporting to take place within local authorities. The amendments are important—particularly where they relate to clause 3(2)(b)—because without a mechanism that requires the Secretary of State to report to the House, hon. Members will not have the opportunity to discuss in the House important matters affecting our constituents, particularly those who are less well off.

Mr. Fabricant

I very much welcome amendments Nos. 8 and 9, which follow on logically, not just numerically, from amendments Nos. 5, 6 and 7, which were adopted by the House and which involved the judgmental basis of the reports.

I have a love of glasnost and open government. My love of open government may be because I am not in government; my love of glasnost is probably because my work frequently used to take me to the Soviet Union in the days of glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev, when Radio Moscow was one of my clients. I did not meet the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) in Moscow on any of her frequent visits to that city as chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. However, I am sure that she, too, shares a love of glasnost for similar reasons.

I think that there should be regular reports. Regularity of reports is not specified in the Bill, and that is a significant omission. It is not unreasonable to expect annual reports to be provided to Parliament. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport that there should be regular debates on the issue in Parliament. If we were to debate regularly the Army, the Navy and every other issue that hon. Members would like to debate, we would have no time to pass legislation. However, it is not unreasonable to request that a written annual report be laid before the Parliament.

1.45 pm

What should such an annual report contain? Most of its contents were described extremely well by my hon. Friend in his magnum opus. However, I think that some form of league tables should apply to the various energy conservation authorities. Like the noble Baroness Thatcher—I do not compare myself to her, but while she had a law degree and a degree in chemistry, I have a law degree and am a master of science—I am interested in things which are both quantitative and qualitative. I do not underestimate the difficulty of quantifying those criteria that are purely qualitative. League tables encounter that difficulty: sometimes they oversimplify the relative positions of that which is being compared. Nevertheless, league tables have the major advantage of demonstrating how one authority's performance compares with that of another.

Perhaps in his reply to this part of the debate, the Minister will confirm whether league tables would form part of the reports. What form would they take and how often would the reports be published? Could there not be a written annual report, or does the Minister feel that the data may not be collected easily?

We need a national annual report not only to see what the local energy conservation authorities are doing but to make comparisons with national or international benchmarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport raised that matter.

Mr. Matthew Banks

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. There is constant reference to Stockport in relation to my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry) and I are constantly confused with one another, but my constituency should not be confused with another.

Mr. Fabricant

I stand admonished; I was of course referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks).

There should be benchmarks in this sector, which could perhaps relate to the criteria set by the Rio earth summit. It is worth reminding the House that it was the noble Baroness Thatcher who instigated that 1992 summit. Would not the criteria agreed at that summit serve as useful benchmarks against which the performances of energy conservation authorities could be measured?

Annual reports could serve that national role. However, I pointed out earlier that energy conservation is a double-sided equation. On the one side, we see the loss of energy through lack of insulation; and on the other, we have the efficient use of energy through the application of energy-efficient machinery. There are huge discrepancies between the efficiency of, for example, washing machines and driers. Some use twice as much energy as others to achieve the same effect.

I wonder whether the annual report could contain a league table listing which pieces of equipment were more efficient than others—a sort of which? report on energy conservation. If the Department is not prepared to compile a table, perhaps we should encourage the Consumers Association to do it, if it does not do so already.

In any event, an annual report would be welcome. It should contain league tables so that we can compare the performance of energy conservation authorities locally. The local authorities should be measured against national or international benchmarks, which could well be the Rio summit criteria. There should also be regular mention of the different types of home appliances because there is no question but that some are far more efficient than others. All those matters form part of the general energy conservation in which we as a nation can engage.

Mr. Hendry

I, too, think that this important amendment should be welcomed, but I shall explain why what we are discussing is not a poor substitute for targets. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) because I believe that a report would be a significant improvement on the concept of targets.

Targets would be difficult to enforce because it has become clear that some parts of the country are more advanced in terms of energy conservation than others. If all areas were given the same blanket target, there would inevitably be some discrepancies and those areas that had already gone further than others would find themselves unable to meet the targets by dint of the fact that they had already done more.

We have already discussed the fact that some parts of the country contain many more older properties than others. It would be unreasonable for Rochdale, which has many small old houses, to be given exactly the same target as Milton Keynes or Telford, where the bulk of the housing stock is more modern and where there are already in place much more sophisticated methods of energy conservation. We should therefore naturally shy away from targets. If there were national targets, the local authorities that would find it most difficult to meet the targets would be those that had already done the most.

It would be much more effective to have in place a system of national reporting. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant), I should prefer a system of league tables. More effectively than anything else, such a system would enable us to ask local authorities why some were doing better than others and to give a kick start to those that we felt were not doing enough.

A good example for us to follow would be the league table system for examination results. That system has resulted in individual schools saying each year that they want to do better. It is much more effective than a system of targets which would mean saying that every school should achieve a certain number of GCSE or A-level passes. Now, each year, schools can compare themselves with others which motivates all of them to do better—not just better than schools around and about but better than they each managed to achieve the previous year. A system of league tables would be a much greater spur to progress on the conservation front than a set of targets which, at the end of the day, would be pretty well unenforceable.

It is quite right that authorities should report to us and that we should have the chance to debate in the House the progress that they have made, because we want to know where they stand. More than that, we want to be able to get a picture of the situation across the country, so that we could then ask questions of them as to why some of them have done better than others and why some are not doing as well as we might have expected. That would mean that we, the Government and others, could badger local authorities to do more, to push forward, to ensure that they are in no doubt that we believe that the authorities that are at the bottom of the league tables need to be chased.

On education again, we have found that the league tables show that Derbyshire is at the bottom. That gives us the power as local Members of Parliament to examine why Derbyshire delegates less to its schools than any other county. If it was not for the league tables, we would not be able to put pressure on Derbyshire to do better. There has also been some debate about the regularity with which the reports should be issued. I have to disagree with those who have said that it should be annually, or even bi-annually. It is entirely right that it should be from time to time. I say that for two reasons. First, if there is a requirement on local authorities to prepare reports too regularly, it will become a distraction and their energies and resources will be channelled into preparing them, when it should be going into the meat of the energy conservation programme. If we required them to prepare an annual report, not only would extra costs be incurred in the process, but their efforts and initiatives would be diverted from what we want them to be doing.

Secondly, a more important point is that, year in and year out, we will find that progress is made on that front, and therefore further progress each year becomes more difficult. If one starts from a low base, it is easy to make a big step in energy conservation, but 20 or 30—even 50 or 60—years down the line, when the Act still lies on the statute book, the same degree of progress will become more difficult. Whatever one might be able to achieve in one or two years, a similar proportionate improvement in energy conservation will not be achievable in future years, because so much progress will have been made.

We must bear in mind that, in the Bill and through the amendment, we are establishing a reporting progress that will be set in stone for all time. At some point in the future, when all houses have perfect energy conservation, or have gone as far as they can, it will be quite proper that the Secretary of State should turn around and say, "I do not think that we need another report on this for 10 or 20 years, because we have gone this far." It would be idiocy if we were still bound by a system of annual or bi-annual reports which the Secretary of State had to lay before Parliament, and statements had to be made to show what further progress had been made in the year.

That situation will evolve. It will steadily improve. It is right, therefore, that the Secretary of State should have the flexibility to say that we want reports bi-annually at the moment, or perhaps every three or five years, but in years to come we wish to have them on a more irregular basis and with a greater intervening period. That is pragmatic and sensible. That is why I believe the Government's approach to be right.

Mr. Fabricant

Does my hon. Friend agree that the discipline required of local authorities presenting an annual report to the Secretary of State—I remind my hon. Friend that the clauses say that the Secretary of State, not the local authorities, shall prepare the annual report—is a discipline that should be in place? In fact, that would not be a distraction, because it would be within an authority's normal procedures to produce the hard data from which the Secretary of State was able to prepare his report.

Mr. Hendry

I understand clearly my hon. Friend's point, but I disagree with him, for this reason: the discipline is important if it is meaningful. Given that we are considering a general survey of properties, it is essentially a random selection. If the reports are gathered over too regular a period, the changes that will occur will be smaller than the margin of error that one might expect from a random survey. As a result, although it is important to have discipline, a report may say, "Here is the improvement that has taken place, but I am afraid that, because of the margin of error involved in the process, it is actually of no consequence whatsoever." The House wants to debate issues of substance. We therefore want substantial reports. There must be a reporting process that enables us to see changes that have taken place. To achieve that, reports must be meaningful. For those reasons, I believe that the amendment is right and that the Government's phraseology is correct. I am happy to support the amendment.

2 pm

Ms Ruddock

I support the amendments. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) tabled an amendment in Committee which required annual reports. At the time, the Minister persuaded her to withdraw her amendment so that he could return on Report with his own wording. We are pleased that he has kept his undertaking, because it is crucial, if we are to make real progress, that we know precisely what is happening and the potential, and that we can measure progress year on year.

We need to know the cost of the energy conservation measures that each local authority can put in place. We need to know the extent of carbon dioxide emissions that might result from those proposals. We would be extremely interested in the number of jobs that might be created if those measures were taken.

Furthermore, the assessment of average savings that could accrue from the measures to individual households is not just important to them; it is extremely important also in the national context with regard to conserving energy and slowing the rate at which we use up finite resources. For all those reasons, drawing together all local authority reports into one national report would do a great service to this country and to the Government, and to the potential for better administration.

We do not share the scepticism and cynicism of the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) when he referred to the possibility of costs rising from around £20 million to £100 million. If it takes more than £20 million to deal with the problem, I would much prefer that money to be spent on energy efficiency measures at local level than for it to go into share options for members of the boards of privatised utilities.

The reports are necessary. We must understand what the Bill will provide for in terms of reporting at local level. Drawing all that information together will make it possible to compare authorities. That is healthy. League tables of that kind are perfectly appropriate and we would very much support them. We have no fear about how well Labour-controlled authorities would perform, because we know that they would be near the top of the league.

Mr. Fabricant

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Ruddock

No, there is not enough time. I do not want to delay this part of our proceedings.

Let me make it clear that a Labour Government would very much welcome, and would establish, annual reporting. We would require an annual environment report of all Ministers concerned with energy efficiency and other environmental processes. Not only do we believe that such a report should be debated in Parliament, but we would also submit it for scrutiny to the environmental audit committee which we intend to establish with powers similar to that of the Public Accounts Committee. With those few words, I very much welcome the amendment.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

With the leave of the House, may I say that the amendment, and the substance of the matter, is about transparency, targets and performance against those targets. I will return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) later because I do not agree with him at all about the targets and I shall explain why.

We have considered the time frame. Some hon. Members, like my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant), suggested that the reports should be bi-annual; others believe that they should be annual. It is not that we are trying to avoid having annual—

Mr. Merchant

If I gave my hon. Friend the impression that I wanted bi-annual reports, it was a false impression. My suggestion was that they should be annual.

Mr. Jones

I apologise to my hon. Friend. When I look at my notes, which are slightly untidy, I see that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) who wanted the reports to be bi-annual.

The point is that we want to tie the reports in with the housing investment programme submissions and allocations which at present constitute an annual system. But when one considers the burden of drawing up such reports on some small rural authorities, it is not sensible to preclude us from reforming the HIP system and putting it on a bi-annual basis for authorities with less than a certain amount of stock, or whatever the criterion might be.

Although I envisage the reports as annual for the time being, if the HIP process were reformed I should not want to be boxed in by something in the Bill requiring authorities that did not have to submit their HIP reports every year to continue to submit the other reports. Hon. Members will understand that.

My second point is about cost. Reference was made to the need for a system of inspectors to follow up the assessments and to see what has changed in the meantime. That would not be necessary. First, the technique of conducting stock profiles is developing all the time, making it easier and easier to do without the thermal thought police.

Secondly, the private sector can be involved. The Nationwide building society already includes an energy rating in all its surveys, and the Halifax building society is doing the same on a pilot basis. I hope that, before long, all building societies and other lenders will follow suit, which will mean that from house sales we shall have a steady year-on-year picture of how stock in the private sector is progressing. That involves no inspectors, simply the normal market processes.

Within the normal regime that applies to local authorities, I expect that, as we already require them to have an energy efficiency strategy as part of their HIP submissions, we shall be able to build on that, thus minimising additional costs for them. I hope that that will reassure my hon. Friends.

I must tackle head on the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport, who seemed to be arguing both ways. He wanted the rigidity of targets built into the Bill to ensure delivery, but at the same time he did not want unfair impositions on local authorities. He cannot have it both ways. Three problems would arise if we built a target into a Bill. First, if there is to be a target of 30 per cent. one has to decide what it is 30 per cent. of. Many local authorities have no stock profile at all, so how can they measure 30 per cent. from a base line that they do not have?

Secondly, we should have to lay down in primary legislation the methodology for the calculation, which would more than double the length of the Bill. Furthermore, my hon. Friend knows how litigious people are nowadays, and it is absurd that one might be taken to court because of a difference between 29.9 per cent. and 30.1 per cent. on the basis of calculations that had been set down in primary legislation. It is much better to lay down targets in guidance for local authorities and to use the HIP system to police them.

Moreover, we shall wish to adjust the targets as the years go by, depending on our international commitments. I referred earlier to the commitment given by the Secretary of State in the context of the Berlin conference. I do not see the targets as written in tablets of stone. We shall wish to re-examine the position from time to time.

Of course, we shall also wish to examine the impact on individual local authorities. The burden of evidence submitted by the local authority associations—this was well discussed in Committee—was that they preferred the more flexible approach in the guidance notes to the more rigid approach involved by having the measure in the Bill.

The third reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Southport is fundamentally wrong is that there are other ways of approaching this subject which may become more relevant over a period. Instead of looking at savings from a base line, we may well wish to look at how to get to a particular point on the minimum ratings of the energy efficiency of homes, as we do with new builds, through the building regulations system and the regime for housing association properties.

If one authority is far less energy efficient than another, it might be appropriate for that authority to have a bigger target because it will need to do more work to get to that minimum level of energy efficiency. An authority that has a highly energy-efficient stock—if there were such an authority—would have less of a gap to close.

For those three excellent reasons, it will be much better to deal with the matter in the course of the guidance so that we can adapt to changing circumstances and technology and to the real requirements of the world, instead of trying to box ourselves into a measure which was denounced in one phrase by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport and supported in another. All along, the Government have been desirous of achieving something better than the Energy Conservation Bill promoted by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), and I think that we are gradually getting there.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

My hon. Friend the Minister has stated that 30 per cent. of a very low base still leaves a low energy efficient stock. For those authorities that have a very low energy-efficient rating, will my hon. Friend consider setting guidance of absolute SAP levels for that authority or for a range of authorities?

Mr. Jones

That is precisely the point I am trying to make. At first, we want to set a target of 30 per cent. for every local authority, but those who feel they have a case for exemption from that target—one or two have been mentioned—can talk to us. If they are as good as they think, we will have no difficulty in accepting their reasoning.

The SAP regime is in its early stages and it would not be right to move to that immediately, but it does commend itself to many hon. Members, particularly those who, like my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury, have served on the Select Committee and seen the advantages of the energy rating of homes. For all of those reasons, I commend the amendment to the House.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 9, in page 3, line 20, leave out 'and (3)' and insert 'to (4)'.—[Mr. Robert B. Jones.]

Back to
Forward to