HC Deb 17 March 1995 vol 256 cc1202-6

Amendment made: No. 10, in page 3, line 38, after 'Ireland;' insert—

`( ) the reference in section 3(4) to laying before Parliament shall be construed as a reference to laying before the Northern Ireland Assembly;'.—[Mr. Robert B. Jones.]

Order for Third Reading read.

Mrs. Maddock

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

When first I came to the House 20 months ago, I could not have dreamt that I would be in the position that I am today of having the opportunity to guide a Bill through the House. I could also not have dreamt that I would spend a large part of a Friday morning discussing narrow boats and canal boats. Nor did I expect to described as a moderate. That has not been my role in politics, and for a number of years I have been a thorn in the side of politicians.

The Bill is only the beginning, and we all want to see its implementation in the coming years. On Committee, the Minister gave a number of assurances about the contents of the guidance notes which would be issued to local authorities when they were implementing the Bill, and about the firmness with which the measures would be enforced.

The hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) was critical about the potential outcome of the Bill and about the fact that we did not have targets on the face of the Bill. My hon. Friends and I—and many people outside the House who support the Bill—would have welcomed his support in that area much earlier as we pressed the Government on some of those points.

Mr. Matthew Banks

Does the hon. Lady accept that she herself took the targets out of the Bill?

Mrs. Maddock

The hon. Gentleman should have waited for my next sentence. The resulting Bill accommodates the views of local authorities, local authority associations, the Government, myself and all those who have supported the Bill and ensured that we would put an energy conservation Bill on to the statute book.

It is vital to the success of the Bill that we have the assurances that the Minister has given and that those assurances are kept. Passing the Bill will lay the foundations of a national energy conservation strategy, but it is up to local government to build on those foundations and up to central Government to see that the building is solid and proceeds at a reasonable pace. The Minister is the foreman of the building programme. He is a foreman in whom I have great confidence. Apart from what I like to believe was a temporary aberration in November, the Minister's support for an energy conservation Bill has been firm. I thank him for that.

I particularly thank the Minister for his constructive approach in the Committee proceedings. The Committee was a fine example of how hon. Members from across the House can work together to achieve a common aim. I also thank other hon. Members who served on the Committee and were co-operative.

There was considerable reorganisation of the clauses of the Bill in Committee. Many changes were made, some beneficial and some not so beneficial. However, the quality of the Bill and the effect that it will have is just as significant as when my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) introduced a similar Bill this time last year. I am sure that hon. Members do not need reminding of the fate of the Bill on that occasion. The central thrust of my Bill remains the same as two years ago when my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) introduced a ten-minute Bill.

The thrust of the Bill is to give local authorities a duty to assess the potential for energy savings in their area and to produce a plan or report saying how they would achieve those savings, and for the relevant Secretary of State to set every council a timetable for action, which would be closely monitored. That would lead to a reduction in emissions of polluting gases but also to warmer homes and potentially lower fuel bills. It would also cut the incidence of cold-related deaths from, for example, hypothermia. That would save not only lives but NHS financial resources.

Yesterday more than 500 people came to London to support the Bill. The director of Friends of the Earth told us all that he believed that the Bill was a win-win-win measure. I support that contention. Before I conclude, I must quickly pay tribute to all those who have contributed to the Bill's progress. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed have guided the Bill through its evolution. I also pay tribute to the huge number of councils of all political persuasions which have passed motions in support of the Bill. The number was more than 700 at the last count. The last one came in from a parish council near Chelmsford yesterday.

A tremendous range of national organisations has supported the Bill. In particular, the Association for the Conservation of Energy was an indispensable source of advice and assistance and, indeed, persistence, as the rest of us were.

The Bill is the beginning of the energy conservation story. It certainly should not be the end. If the Bill is passed, it will be a sign of the commitment across the House to energy conservation and of the commitment of people across Britain, more than 500 of whom took the trouble to come to London yesterday to support it. The Bill and its predecessor have been discussed five times on the Floor of the House in 14 months. I hope that hon. Members will feel that the concerns that they have expressed have been taken into account during that time and that they will share my view that the Bill has not been damaged in the process. I hope that they will all support the Third Reading.

2.19 pm
Mr. Robert B. Jones

I am glad that the first words on my brief are that I support the motion that the Bill be read the Third time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) on having successfully piloted it thus far. She has done so with skill and a great deal of common sense.

I also join in the general welcome from the House and outside for the fact that the hon. Lady the opportunity provided by her good fortune in the ballot to take up the important topic of energy efficiency in the home. In her Third Reading speech, she said that I had a long history of involvement with the topic. I am glad that I have had the good fortune to be the Minister at the time that the Bill reached this point.

There has been no point at which I would have changed my mind, even last November, whatever the hon. Member for Christchurch might say. I told the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that I thought that we could do better than his Bill, and that has been proved by our debates.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Department of the Environment, despite our awful building, and perhaps it is appropriate in that anniversary year that we are considering this Bill, as it touches on areas for which my Department has had responsibility since its inception—housing and local government—and on one of its newest responsibilities—energy efficiency. It will be interesting to see how posterity will view the Bill as a contribution to energy efficiency in another 25 years. It has the potential to make a valuable contribution.

The Bill will now pass to another place for further consideration in a less rigid, more clearly defined and more workable form. I wish it well in its progress there and look forward to seeing it on the statute book.

2.21 pm
Mr. Beith

It is a privilege to be able to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) on the excellent work that she has done to pilot the Bill through the House and to speak in what I hope are the closing moments of a debate that I feel I started on moving the Second Reading of a similar Bill a year ago. During these debates, we have developed the curious caricature that my hon. Friend is the moderate and I am the extreme radical, and that the environmental proposals were so radical that they had to be substantially modified.

We have been engaged in the exercise of trying to meet reservations in various quarters—whether of local authority associations or of Ministers—to arrive at something that the Government would agree to see through the House, and it is true that the Minister played a considerable part in securing this achievement. He gave away the secret—it lay in accepting that the new burdens procedure could be brought into play as regards the Bill. Neither he nor I think that that will be particularly costly for local authorities and we both think that the gains will hugely outweigh the costs. The Minister set himself the task of getting the Treasury to accept that and applied himself to it with zeal, pressed on, I am sure, by the huge public campaign that has been waged and the absurdity of continuing to resist legislation in this area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has done an excellent job and, as she said, we have built important foundations for energy conservation policy, on which we now need to build.

2.22 pm
Ms Ruddock

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) on the way in which she has brought the Bill to what should, I hope, be its final stages in the House. I also pay tribute to her main advisers—the Association for the Conservation of Energy—which has been very helpful to all the members of the Committee and gave us the opportunity to benefit from its great expertise in the subject.

Reaching this stage of the Bill has been a complex process, as we heard from several hon. Members, and we all feared that we might not reach this final hurdle successfully. I thank the Minister for his co-operation and for fulfilling his promises in Committee, which became successful amendments and were agreed today.

The Bill is timely. One of the greatest obstacles to developing a strategy for energy efficiency and, more importantly, for energy conservation has been the lack of information. In recent times, it has become more difficult to gather that information and, by making local authorities into energy conservation authorities, in the Bill we will have the opportunity systematically to gather information about the conditions in people's homes. We have the opportunity to assess what can be done to improve them.

In all those ways, this small, simple Bill—a modest measure which will not cost the country a great deal—can set us on a course whereby we can develop a much more comprehensive energy strategy. That will not only make people feel warmer in their homes, but may conceivably reduce fuel bills and enable us as a nation to contribute to meeting the international obligations set at Rio. For all those reasons, I very much welcome, on behalf of the Opposition, the Third Reading of the Bill. I wish it a successful passage in the other place.

2.24 pm
Mr. Leigh

I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) on the way in which she introduced the Bill. She has learnt the essential lesson of all private Members' Bills. If one wants to get them through and past the Government, one has to have a light touch—a touch so light that the public may not notice the result. I shall not be mean about the Bill or submit to the temptation of talking for another six minutes which would not be popular with hon. Members on either side.

I am pleased that I have, almost uniquely—apart from one or two other hon. Members—been given an opportunity today to talk about economic realities. I refer the House to clause 2(2), which says:

The report shall set out energy conservation measures that the authority considers practicable, cost-effective and likely to result in significant improvement in the energy efficiency of residential accommodation". I hope that authorities, especially small authorities, will realise that they should act moderately. I hope that they will appreciate that it is only by improving attitudes among the public and by ensuring that they understand the true cost of energy that we shall achieve what we all want—a reduction in the amount of energy we use in our homes and businesses.

2.26 pm

Mr. Merchant

I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words on Third Reading. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) in congratulating the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) on the skill with which she has piloted through the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his good wisdom in assisting that process. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) on the good humour she showed on her countenance throughout the debate as she sat on the Opposition Benches almost in splendid isolation—until a few moments ago, when she was mysteriously joined by some of her colleagues.

When I picked up the Bill last night to have another look at it, I made the mistake of picking up the original version. I thought that it was surprising and remarkable that nothing much had been changed in Committee. I then realised that I was looking at the wrong version. When I read the Bill as amended in Committee, I found the changes so considerable that I could scarcely recognise it. Having had the benefit of sitting through the Report stage this morning, I realise that the changes have significantly improved the Bill. We now have a Bill which has a good purpose and which will achieve in practice what it is intended to achieve. I fear that the earlier version may not have done that.

The Bill not only sets up energy conservation authorities, but stipulates clearly what they shall do. For the first time, it puts on them a clear duty to carry out certain functions to do with assessing the state of energy conservation in their areas and then reporting to the House. The Bill does so with, as I said earlier, a light touch. It does so effectively without going into considerable detail. Thermal policing techniques would have been involved if the Bill had been more complex and if it had set out more specific duties.

Clearly, the Bill does not require officers of the local authority to hammer on doors or to go inside every house. It does not require them to go through the onerous activities that would have been involved if every house had had to be measured for energy effectiveness. Instead, local authorities can show some flexibility. They can achieve the objectives of the Bill by applying their own techniques and by using sampling processes. By that, they will achieve as accurate a picture as would have been achieved if detailed requirements had been involved. For that reason, I support the Third Reading of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

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