HC Deb 12 July 1996 vol 281 cc721-42

Lords amendment:No. 1, in page 1, line 7, leave out ("1") and insert ("1(1)")

12.42 Pm

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 4.

Mr. Simpson

I thank the Minister, his staff, hon. Members on both sides of the House and the staff of the Association for the Conservation of Energy who helped to put the Bill together. I am pleased to support the amendments because they, along with those moved in Committee, came from the Government and only strengthen the Bill's provisions.

I remind the House that the intention behind the Bill is to fill in gaps of which we were aware following the passage of the Home Energy Conservation Bill. We brought that Bill before the House on the clear understanding that we waste energy amounting to £1 billion a year in home energy bills mainly or entirely because of the fuel inefficiency of housing. By far the most distressing aspect of that are the 50,000 avoidable winter deaths from fuel poverty in Britain every year.

The Bill was originally introduced to recognise that one of the most important omissions from the 1995 Act was the failure to include houses in multiple occupation in its scope. The Lords amendments add to that recognition the need to incorporate provision for houseboats.

I initially read the Lords amendments with a certain amusement, as I had an immediate vision of a film that I saw as a child. It was called "The Bargee" and portrayed a splendid life style that was fresh and free from complications. However, my subsequent discussions with Shelter made me see life in houseboats in a different context. I am aware that tens of thousands of households live on houseboats.

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

This is the first opportunity that the House has had to debate houseboats and the first intimation—in either the House or in legislation—of the size of the problem. However, my information differs from that provided by the hon. Gentleman. Where are those tens of thousands of houseboats located?

Mr. Simpson

I cannot produce a map, but I can provide the hon. Gentleman with the information that Shelter gave me. Shelter estimates that some 10,000 people in Britain live on unsatisfactorily insulated houseboats. That is the scale of the omission from the original legislation. My original concern was that the Bill should meet the needs of the 1 million people living in houses of multiple occupation. I am pleased, however, that the Lords amendments will ensure that the 10,000 people who live in unsatisfactory conditions on houseboats are similarly covered by its provisions.

I now turn to the reason why people live on houseboats. It is not necessarily a positive choice. According to Shelter, the majority of those households do so because of a lack of choice rather than a positive choice. It is not a matter of people seeking to associate themselves with the nautical traditions of the great explorers of our time. The Lords amendments specifically discount that possibility, as they stipulate that the houseboats must have no means or capability of being readily adapted for self-propulsion, so the Bill does not allow for an exploration context in the nature of that accommodation.

The Bill applies to those who live in poor housing conditions on houseboats. Shelter pointed out that many of those people live in extreme damp and cold. The amendments would bring within the scope of the Bill the possibility of assisting those households to raise the standards of home insulation to the level that they have a right to expect.

The Bill also covers a grey area in existing law. At present, it is not clear to what extent environmental health inspections apply to houseboats. By incorporating them into the Bill, the amendments will ensure that they are dealt with on the same basis as any other permanent accommodation.

Shelter brought home to me the fact that the amendments do not seek to add a trivial element to our discussions.

Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove)

The hon. Gentleman said that the Bill was not a trivial measure. I understand his point; however, I understand that only some 600 residential boats are registered on general waterways in the manner covered by the measure and there may be another 500 in the Norfolk broads. Therefore, only some 1,000 houseboats can fall within the definition in the Bill. Does that not make it relatively trivial?

Mr. Simpson

The issue that the hon. Gentleman is raising may involve the definition of what is required for registration. What he says certainly does not square with the information that Shelter provided about the number of people that it considers would be affected by the Lords amendment. I simply suggest that as an item for us to consider as we go along.

The argument should not necessarily be conducted on the basis of numbers and head counts. The question is whether people living in permanent accommodation, whether in houseboats, in houses in multiple occupation or in single residences, should all be covered by the provisions in the Home Energy Conservation Act. The broad support for that Act as an all-embracing piece of legislation should be given to the amendments, too.

However many households may be directly affected by the amendments, the amendments will ensure that the conditions that those people currently have to put up with are brought within the scope of the legislation. We should ensure that such households can, in both a physical and a metaphorical sense, be brought in from the cold. I am sure that they would all welcome such a measure.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

The most sensible place to live is, of course, in a block of flats in the centre of a city. All the facilities are available—transport, shopping and schools—and a flat is also sound in terms of energy conservation. People can share their energy source and have good insulation.

However, many people do not want to live in flats in the middle of cities. They like to live in a different way, with gardens. They like to get out into the country, and to have their own patch of earth and some contact with the natural world. Some people go further, and live on boats. The overwhelming majority of those who live on boats do so from choice. It is their decision. I declare an interest: I am on their side, as one would expect of the Member of Parliament for Gosport, a seaside location.

We have houseboats in the Gosport area, and if have been on board some of them. I know that they are not the most convenient places to live; in some ways, they are most inconvenient, and they can be uncomfortable. But anyone who has slept on a boat—I mean a proper boat, not those floating shoeboxes that transport people and cars between England and France—knows that the feeling of the salt air, and the wind in one's hair in the early morning, is absolutely marvellous. People who live on boats are independent souls. They have opted for a way of life which gives them pleasure and a feeling of freedom—freedom from the regimentation that affects most people.

What is the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 all about? According to the background notes, it laid a duty to prepare, publish and submit … an energy conservation report on each local authority. It was introduced by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock), who is a Liberal Democrat, and when I think about such legislation, I sometimes think that there may now be a Lib-Con pact, rather like the Lib-Lab pact in 1978 and 1979, which was notorious.

The Lib-Lab pact produced some of our worst legislation, and just about the worst legislation ever to pass through the House was the homeless persons legislation which emerged from the pact. That queue-jumpers charter enabled someone who could demonstrate that he was homeless to jump the council housing queue ahead of people from the area who could not prove homelessness in the same way. Thai was monstrous.

The Lib-Lab pact produced some bad legislation, and I sometimes wonder whether the apparent Lib-Con pact is producing something similar. The energy conservation plan which has to be produced by every local authority will presumably mean that there will be an energy conservation adviser in every town hall, with an office between that of the dog warden and that of the noise control officer, whom we have been discussing in our debate on the Noise Bill. There will be three of them side by side—the energy conservation adviser, the dog warden and the noise control officer.

How will it all work? According to the Department, the point of the Home Energy Conservation Act was to arrange for the provision of common-sense advice on measures, such as switching off lights and appliances and not using more heating than necessary. If that is not the nanny state, what is?

The hon. Member for Nottingham, South has been piloting a private Member's Bill on the matter through the House, and I must tell him that I have no objection to extending this legislation to houses in multiple occupation. The Act is there—it might as well apply to HMOs. If there is any validity in the original Act, which I doubt, it should apply equally to HMOs. But let us at least save houseboat owners from this.

Mr. Thomason

How does my hon. Friend envisage the legislation applying to houseboats, of which he clearly has great knowledge? Are there schemes of energy conservation that can apply to all houseboats? Are the boats all broadly of the same design? Do they all have similar energy losses? Or is there such a wide variety of boats that energy schemes could not easily be implemented that could apply to them all? Would not the degree of supervision and preparation of such a scheme for houseboats be greater than would apply to ordinary houses?

Mr. Viggers

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I want to refer to a related matter. After many years of involvement in sailing and yachting interests—including the House of Commons yacht club—I have concluded that the Whitehall machine does not really like the yachting and sailing interests, because it cannot control them as much as it would like. We do not know exactly how many houseboats there are, and we heard conflicting numbers from both sides of the House—the hon. Member for Nottingham, South said 10,000, while my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) said 1,000. The briefing notes which I have read lead me to believe that the Government do not know exactly how many houseboats are used for domestic occupation.

What is the first thing that a civil servant will advise a Minister to do? It will be to have a survey to find out how many houseboats there are and, no doubt, local authorities will be instructed to carry that out. We have been here before on a piece of legislation indirectly related to this matter. The Government were minded to impose domestic rates on boats that are on swinging moorings. For those who are not conversant with boating, one can either tie up a boat alongside a quay or one can have it on a swinging mooring. Most of the yachts, dinghies and sailing boats in my constituency are on swinging moorings, which means that they swing on the tide.

The Government did not how many boats were on swinging moorings, and they wanted to impose general rates on the swinging mooring itself in an attempt indirectly to impose a tax on the boat. It became clear that the Government wished to establish a register of boats and yachts. I am certain that the same thing will happen to yachts and other boats as happened to motor cars, which is that, as soon as a register exists, there will be an ability to tax and the Government will start taxing boats and yachts. If the legislation is passed, I am certain that there will be register of houseboats. Greater control was implied by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South, who stated that environmental health officers do not have as much control over houseboats as they would like. Here come the Government inspectors.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

I can understand my hon. Friend's fears, but I can offer him some reassurance. I shall be referring to this matter if I am lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In making up a register of houseboats, the Government will inevitably rely on local authorities, and we know that that will be an excuse for extra local authority spending. Judging from the experiences of councils such as Bristol with the poll tax, one way of not getting an accurate register is to make sure that the local authority collects the information. That is particularly so when the authority is not keen on collecting it in the first place. That should go some way towards reassuring my hon. Friend.

Mr. Viggers

I am not sure how reassured I ought to be, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose intentions are always interesting.

We must exempt houseboats from this legislation. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Nottingham, South said, I believe that those who live in such boats do so from choice. They are free souls, and the last thing they want is someone from the town hall coming up the gangplank to advise them on turning off lights and choosing electrical appliances. If that happens, I hope that the houseboat resident will tell the man from town hall in salty language to take a long walk off a short pier.

1 pm

Mr. Luff

I respect the views of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) and the sincerity with which he introduced the amendment, but I do not share his views. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), I am deeply sceptical about the Act that the Bill would amend. I accept, however, that, if we are to have an Act, it should be made effective. Therefore, I accept the case for including houses in multiple occupation in the Bill. At the same time, I do not accept the logic of including houseboats. I am also concerned about the way in which it is proposed to do that.

I recognise the difficulty that I face. If I oppose the amendment—I am tempted to do so by forcing a Division—I risk throwing out the entire Bill. The time that is available in this place and the other place extends only to the end of the Session. Therefore, I find myself in an invidious position. At the same time, I believe that it would be a serious error of judgment to include houseboats within the provisions of the Bill.

It is a pleasure to be able to speak on these matters. When I was the parliamentary private secretary to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy, I was not able to express my views. Freed from that constraint, I can say frankly what I think.

I doubt the need for the amendment because of the limited scale of the problem. I shall deal with that in more detail. I doubt the effectiveness of the amendment because it does not reflect a proper understanding of the sort of houseboat that should be caught by the proposed legislation, if a houseboat needs to be caught in the first place. I have serious worries also about the inconsistency of legislation bearing on houseboats. There are different and competing definitions on the statute book, and in this instance we are using the wrong approach.

It is important to remember that the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, which the Bill would amend, imposes a duty on every energy conservation authority to prepare a report. Every local authority that had to implement the Bill, when enacted, would have to prepare a register of houseboats. It would have to be satisfied how many such boats were in its area. That would be a huge duty for small gain. Section 2(2) states: 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 in its area. Whatever measure is used, including even the large figure used by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South, the numbers of houseboats throughout the country are not great. The amendment is not orderly when set against the 1995 Act. It cannot possibly be claimed that it would deliver a significant improvement in energy efficiency in residential accommodation.

What will the amendment do for houseboat owners? The Act does not do much for ordinary home owners. The Act does not confer any grant-making powers. Those who live in fuel poverty in houseboats will not be able to obtain grants to improve their situation, even if there are the 10,000 that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South talked about. No money will be conferred on them. They will merely have the comfort of knowing that the local authority can help them take such steps as it "considers desirable", under section 3(2)(b), in order to assist with and to encourage other persons to assist with the measures set out in any such report. The Act is weak and inconsequential in any event. Against that background, why put a huge duty on local authorities by including houseboats within its ambit?

I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport that local authority officers will have no power of entry. Salty sea dogs will not be confronted by local authority officers demanding entry to their houseboats.

I was happy to go along with the proposition that we should amend the 1995 Act to include houses in multiple occupation. In this instance, however, we are faced with a dramatic amendment and little gain. The issue has not been debated by the House in considering the Bill. We suddenly find ourselves presented with an amendment at the 11 th hour. In my view, it is ill thought through. The amendment defines a houseboat in a particular way. It is extraordinary that, under clause 2(3), the Secretary of State may, in particular, make such adaptations of sections 2 to 4 of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 as are necessary to enable an energy conservation authority to prepare a separate report under section 2 on houses in multiple occupation"— as are houseboats. So we shall have separate reports from every authority in the land on whether houseboats have been included in their analysis of energy requirements and energy inefficiency problems in their areas. That is madness. There would be separate reports on the tiny numbers of houseboats in the United Kingdom.

Is it necessary to include houseboats? I think not. We have no realistic or reliable estimate of the number of houseboats to be found in the United Kingdom. I suspect that there are very few. I go along with the lower estimates that have been provided by my hon. Friends. In certain London boroughs, and perhaps in some coastal areas, there are a few more, but on the whole they are few and far between. It will be a huge increase in effort for local authorities to track them down, and for very little benefit.

The figures that I have obtained from British Waterways for houseboats on inland waterways are interesting. I am told: The number of Houseboats which are registered as such by British Waterways is 309…In addition there is a further group of about 350 boats which are covered by the Houseboat Moratorium. These are boats which are lived on by their owners and would normally carry a licence for a Houseboat but their status is covered by a moratorium and they are licensed as Pleasure Craft…The consensus in the office is that those without their own means of propulsion would be a small proportion of the total. In other words, the amendment would not catch those houseboats because they have their own means of propulsion.

The letter continues: In addition there are a significant number of boats on which people live and which may form their home but who would not be covered by the categories above. These are people who are `Continuously Cruising'. That is they don't stay in any one place for more than 14 days and as the term suggests they move around the system. I think that they are entitled to the same assistance as those whom the hon. Member for Nottingham, South and Shelter identified, but there is no provision in the Bill to catch them. The amendment is simply inadequate.

There is one other telling fact. We debated the inclusion of houseboats when the House considered the Home Energy Conservation Bill. Last year, the Minister said: I do not think that most canal boats are energy inefficient because of their wooden structure and the fact that their windows are small in comparison with the general surface area. I suspect that they might turn out to be more energy efficient than many permanent and non-moored homes. In any case, it is simply not possible to apply the Bill's provisions to them. How is a local authority to draw up a strategy for boats which might well move from place to place during the year? When they retire, many pensioners choose to spend a few years sailing around the country, spending a few weeks here and there. There are practical difficulties in including boats in the Bill's provisions."—[Official Report, 17 March 1995; Vol. 256, c. 1182.]

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if there is a serious need to assess energy losses and the conservation measures that are needed in these craft, surely the way to do that is simply by studying it nationally? There is no need for every local authority to take on the responsibility for repeating the operation.

Mr. Luff

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. We know that the problem is relatively small. We think that the craft are relatively energy efficient. We have to be wary—shades of our last debate—of imposing unnecessary duties on local authorities.

When the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) introduced her Bill, she recognised the need to be reasonable. She was anxious to avoid imposing unnecessary burdens on local authorities, and spoke about the issue relating to nitrogen and sulphur dioxide emissions and the fact that reports on that would be voluntary on local authorities. She said: However, I recognise the limited financial resources that we are trying to work with, so to minimise the cost to local authorities, I have conceded on that point."—[Official Report, 20 January 1995; Vol. 252, c. 9141] The same argument applies here. If the hon. Lady were here, I hope that she would concede this point, too. I do not believe that it makes any sense to include houseboats in the proposed legislation, for precisely the reasons that she set out so cogently last year.

In last year's debate, on 17 March, houseboats were mentioned. I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) who introduced them first. He made a strong argument. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry) resisted that argument. Others sought to clarify the issue. What my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said was particularly interesting. He drew attention to the licensing requirements under the British Waterways legislation on houseboats and explained that the Private Bill Committee had spent weeks trying to tighten the licensing system to differentiate precisely between houseboats and pleasure boats. Does my hon. Friend agree that my hon. Friend the Minister could deal with that difference in guidance under clause 4 to include houseboats which are static?"—[Official Report, 17 March 1995; Vol. 256, c. 1177.] He was starting to introduce the idea of static as opposed to moving houseboats. I believe that that was a flawed idea that he should not have pursued, for reasons that I shall explore. I have serious doubts about the scale of the need, and about the need to monitor the energy efficiency of those boats at all.

What is a houseboat? I recently travelled on a narrowboat, which belongs to a great friend of mine in Worcestershire. It is his home and he moors it at Hanbury wharf on the Worcester to Birmingham canal. He pays council tax and is on the electoral register for the Mid-Worcestershire constituency, but he would not be caught by the Bill. The boat is in every sense a houseboat as it is his home, but under the proposed amendment he would not come within the ambit of the Bill. That seems madness to me.

My friend has moved all his physical possessions on to the boat. He spends most of his time moored at Hanbury wharf, but he also spends a few weeks each year cruising. Indeed, I spoke to him by mobile phone last night in an attempt to clarify matters. He was at Wootton Warren in Warwickshire, having a short cruise. The boat is his house. If the Bill is to be comprehensive and sensible, it should include boats like my friend's. Indeed, the British Waterways Board tells me that there is a significant number of houseboats.

The proponents of the amendment have not understood the problem or tried to get their minds around what constitutes a houseboat. That is not surprising because in this year's debate, on this Bill, the issue has not been raised. The Bill quite properly, in terms of the original Act, deals with houses in multiple occupation. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South told us during our debate on 10 May that there were 638,000 houses in multiple occupation in England alone. Unlike the tangential side issue of houseboats, that is clearly a significant factor that needs to be taken into account.

The amendments were recommended to the other place by Lord Lucas, but he provided no justification for them. He simply said rather lamely that it was right in principle that attention should be paid to certain needs. There was no discussion of the size of the problem and no attempt to set out the intellectual case for including the amendments in the Bill. I do not think that the amendments need to be included. However, if they are to be included, let there at least be a definition that works. It is my understanding that the amendment uses a definition of a houseboat that is implicit in tax law.

Mr. Stern

That is wrong. I hope to deal with those points later. One of the problems with the definition is that it does not adopt the definition in the Taxes Act 1988.

Mr. Luff

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I did not have the time to look through past Acts. If there is not a consistent application of that definition, my concern mounts.

Other definitions of houseboats are available on the statute book. For example, the British Waterways Act 1971 differentiates between a hire pleasure boat and a houseboat. I agree that a hire pleasure boat should be exempted from the Bill. A large company in my constituency hires out pleasure boats and I do not see why it should have this bureaucracy imposed on it.

The BWB defines a hire pleasure boat as any pleasure boat which is let, lent, hired or engaged for gift, pay, hire or reward or promise of payment or carries or conveys passengers for charge or payment". We could have used that definition to exempt hire pleasure boats. However, a houseboat is defined as any boat or barge or any vessel or structure or any part, remains or wreckage thereof whether or not the same shall be used or intended to be used for human habitation, but does not include any boat, barge, vessel or structure…which is bona fide used for navigation". That definition of a houseboat might have worked. That is interpreted by the British Waterways Board together with a definition of continuous cruising. I shall not weary the House with that further definition, as it is on the record. Nevertheless, the definitions are important because they provide an opportunity to define a houseboat—unlike the amendment.

The really strange irony is that, only this week, the House debated houseboats and incorporated into what will become an Act of Parliament a much better definition than the one on offer today. That occurred when the House was debating the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill—indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister moved the amendment, so he should be familiar with it.

In Committee, the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) expressed a concern about houseboats.

He said: Many houseboat owners occupy the same site but change their individual moorings because they need to do so from time to time. It may be necessary to move to allow adjustments in a marina or other location for the houseboat. At other times, there may technical reasons to move. An individual houseboat owner has written to me with interesting evidence that only a minority of moorings are provided with mains water and electricity and that very few boats are directly connected to sewage disposal systems. They must, therefore, run their engines to recharge their batteries and must move from their moorings to replenish their water supplies and dispose of sewage and rubbish. They may then return to a different mooring."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 11 June 1996; c. 226.] That was the Labour spokesman in Committee describing how houseboats have to move. The amendment is flawed because it excludes houseboats that have to move.

1.15 pm

On Monday, the Minister moved an amendment to the definition in the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill. That is the real answer to the hon. Member for Nottingham, South, because people who live on houseboats that are inadequate in some way, through lack of fuel efficiency or in other ways, will be able to apply for grants like any other home owner. Their needs are being addressed in the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill.

There are three definitions of houseboats, but if my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) is right about tax law, there is a fourth. The definition that we are being asked to put on the statute book states: The residence requirement in the case of a houseboat is that the local housing authority are satisfied that—

  1. (a) the applicant has occupied the boat as his only or main residence for a period of at least three years immediately preceding the date of the application;
  2. (b) the boat has had as its only or main mooring for that period…an inland waterway or in marine waters within the boundary of the authority; and
  3. (c) the applicant has a right to moor his boat there."
That is the clause as amended and it is a tremendous definition. It would have been much better to put that into the Bill. We have a definition drawn from a dictionary.

I am sorry to draw the Minister's attention to inconsistency, but on Monday he said: We now accept that the Bill, as drafted, unintentionally restricted the mobility of a houseboat in seeking to define the prior qualifying period for grant assistance. The amendment allows houseboats and their owners to moor happily."—[Official Report, 8 July 1996; Vol.281, c.65.] On Monday, the Minister said that houseboats move around, but we are being invited to approve an amendment that states that they are static. There is inconsistency. I sense that the Minister wants to intervene.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison)

My hon. Friend makes detailed comparisons of amendments. I may not have the proper answer to his question but I shall have a stab at one. The Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill and the Bill that we are debating serve somewhat different purposes. The former sought to qualify a houseboat for the purpose of a home repair assistance grant. The latter relates to the preparation of reports by the local authority and, in that context, the issue of whether the houseboat moves around is important. The original definition in the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill is somewhat—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. The Minister is making a miniature speech rather than an intervention. It would be better for him to restrain himself and speak at a later stage.

Mr. Luff

The Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill definition is vastly superior to the one that we are debating because it would include more houseboats and go further towards meeting the objectives of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South. The amendment is unnecessary and would create a huge burden for local authorities. I wish that I could oppose the amendment without destroying the Bill.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

I remember the speeches that the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) made at Cambridge university Conservative association. He should change his speech writers, because his speeches have got worse over the years. It is shocking that an hon. Member who seeks to promote a private Member's Bill should filibuster for more than 20 minutes on the definition of houseboats.

Mr. Luff

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to accuse an hon. Member of filibustering when I was simply debating a detailed amendment to important legislation that is legitimately on the Order Paper?

Madam Deputy Speaker

If, in my opinion, it had been a filibuster, the hon. Gentleman would not have been allowed to continue.

Mr. Vaz

The Bill is excellent and the amendment was moved just yesterday in the other place by the Government. The Bill has been presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) and I pay tribute to him for his work in bringing the Bill to this stage. He is one of the most urgent and hard-working Members of the House. He was right to pick this important subject for his Bill. I am certain that what he has done will mean that many people throughout the country can work together to conserve energy.

I do not wish to detain the House much longer because there are other important matters before the House. Mr. Nelson Mandela is about to enter South Africa house for the first time. There are important national events going on. We support the Bill. We wish my hon. Friend luck in taking it through to the end of its stages today. I hope that the Minister will respond equally swiftly and support it.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

I am grateful to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I can remain in the House for only a short time because I have to attend to matters in my constituency. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) in the matter that he raised. It is a disgrace that the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) has spoken and walked out of the Chamber. It is obvious that he does not want to be here and wants to go off and do something else. It is a disgrace that he did not respond to any of the points made by my hon. Friend in his speech.

Mr. Stern

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Jenkin

It is incumbent on me to be as brief as possible, especially as I cannot stay in the Chamber long, for which I apologise.

Legislation such as this raises my suspicions at the best of times. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester described houseboats as having their own means of propulsion and said that they cruised around. Legislation of this nature tends to have a similar propensity. It takes on a life of its own. The logic of such legislation becomes hairier and hairier as it is extrapolated.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) for his diligence in introducing the measure, but the issue of houseboats underlines how difficult it is to evaluate the benefits of what it seeks to achieve. The easy way to evaluate the benefit of energy conservation is to measure how much money it saves in the long run. What is the return on the investment in terms of reduced energy cost? Such evaluation is a pattern of behaviour that every individual and business follows. I have never understood why it does not apply to home owners or why we need legislation to encourage home owners to carry out that natural process, which must be in their interest.

The matter becomes a little more difficult when we seek to evaluate the activities and expenditure of local authorities in energy conservation. Every time officials spend time and effort, moving their cars around, switching on their computers and burning the midnight oil, they use energy to conserve energy. That does not go into the equation. We are discussing an amendment here with all the lights switched on. I can feel a cool waft from the air conditioning system. The whole Palace is geared up to discuss this tiny amendment which seeks to save energy in a few thousand dwellings.

We do not have a clue how houseboats may be constructed. I have taken a holiday on a longboat on a canal.

Mr. Luff

A narrowboat. Vikings had longboats.

Mr. Jenkin

I am sorry. My celtic background is obviously seeping into my buttresses.

Most narrowboats are constructed of steel these days. They have large windows. I have no idea how one evaluates the benefit of energy conservation measures retrofitted to such a boat. As canals are out-of-the-way places, my guess is that it would be hugely inefficient to spend too much time and effort applying energy conservation measures. We should rely on the medium of exchange—money—to evaluate conservation measures, because that is the medium by which we evaluate the cost of materials, labour and everything else.

I enter a small plea to resort to a rational system of evaluating what we do and why we do it, and to use the natural messages that the price mechanism sends to individuals, corporations and local authorities to demonstrate their efficiency. Resorting to legislation and grants is, you can bet your life, less efficient than if the thing had been left alone—as the amendment graphically illustrates.

Mr. Stern

I follow the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) on the action of the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). There used to be a convention, particularly on Friday, that if an hon. Member—particularly a Front Bencher—had to leave before the end of a debate, he would apologise in advance to the others present. It is regrettable that that convention seems to be departing from the House.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) advised other hon. Members behind the Chair that, as a consequence of attempts by Conservative Members to extend the proceedings longer than expected, he had to leave to represent my party at another function. My hon. Friend did not intend to cause any embarrassment to Government Members or to my hon. Friends. The House should accept in good faith that my hon. Friend left to represent the House elsewhere.

Mr. Stern

Unlike many of my hon. Friends, I broadly welcome the amendment, but I have some doubts. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) dealt with definition. We seem to be getting ourselves into a horrible tangle by introducing a particular definition.

In an intervention, I referred to the definition of a houseboat contained in tax legislation. It appears in the Finance Act 1988 but originates in the 1960s, when a houseboat had to be defined for the purpose of what has become mortgage interest tax relief. In those days, the Committee stage of a Finance Bill was held on the Floor of the House, and hon. Members debated at length how to define a houseboat. They ended by throwing up their hands in horror and saying that it was virtually impossible to define a houseboat by structure—as the amendment attempts.

Therefore, for the purpose of tax legislation, a houseboat was defined by use rather than structure, as someone's principal private residence. That is at least a workable definition, but my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester rightly pointed out that the amendment's limited definition is likely to create considerable legislative difficulty—which will lead to more money being made by lawyers, which is invariably a bad thing.

The amendment's definition of a houseboat relies on the craft not having means of, or capable of being readily adapted for, self-propulsion". My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester pointed out that boats have engines or generators for the purpose of producing power. Unlike my hon. Friend, I am not an expert on narrowboats, but I am told that it would be possible for a sail to be attached to the chimney stack of a narrowboat and, if the wind were in the right direction, for the craft to be capable of self-propulsion. I am quite sure that even the engine without a sail can be adapted, with the addition of an outboard motor, to move the houseboat in a particular direction. So we have a definition that cannot work by demonstration if challenged in the courts.

1.30 pm

What should we being doing about the difficulty? It is up to the House to give very clear guidance to the courts, through Hansard, in as much time as is necessary, as to our exact intentions in this legislation. I take the point that the House is very keen for this legislation to be passed. We are stuck with an amendment that seems to be very dodgy, but we must try to ensure that, in questioning it, we do not endanger the legislation.

The issue of associated costs has been mentioned by one or two colleagues. I have a residual worry that they have not dealt with. We are told that the amendment is designed to limit to a very small number—a matter of hundreds—the houseboats that come within the purview of the Act. However, when we pass the duty to local authorities to define which houseboats come within the Act, we are also trying to pass to those local authorities the duty of defining which houseboats do not come within the Act.

Every local authority will be obliged to produce a report. A local authority such as South Gloucestershire—part of which I represent—which is unlikely to have that many houseboats because it does not have that many permanent moorings, will still have to go through the expense of establishing that the houseboats in that authority area do not come within the Act.

The problem will be very much greater in Bristol. I have already mentioned that such definitional problems as what is registerable under the Act are not problems that Bristol has shown itself capable of handling in the past. By choosing the wrong definition for a houseboat, I fear that we are in great danger of producing additional costs, legislative uncertainty and, by and large, of over-complicating legislation that hon. Members very much want to pass.

I shall give an example from Bristol of the type of problem that this clause will create. Bristol is very proud of the fact that, by a combination of public and private finance, it is constructing in its city harbour a re-creation of the Matthew, the ship in which John Cabot sailed in 1497. In the opinion of Bristolians and others, he sailed to discover the American continent and to name it after a Mr. Emmerick, the Bristol customs collector who provided a great deal of finance for the voyage.

The Matthew is being constructed as a long-term project in Bristol harbour. I believe that people are already living on it, while it is being built. It is currently not capable of self-propulsion because it is still only a hull to which much still needs to be added. Is it a houseboat under this definition? Will it cease to be a houseboat when the first engine is added?

Mr. Thomason

I am concerned about other aspects of this provision, but it seems that the definition in the clause, which refers back to local government taxation provisions in the Local Government Finance Act 1992, is sufficient to identify whether it is a houseboat to determine whether council tax is payable on it. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) have any views on that matter and its relevance to the point that he is making?

Mr. Stern

As my hon. Friend will have heard me say before, one difficultly in using a council tax definition in the context of authorities such as that in Bristol is that they were never very good at collecting the poll tax, and they still do not have a brilliant record on the council tax either. So to rely on such a definition is to put responsibility into a department in the local authority that itself has a somewhat dodgy record.

I am not sure that the comment by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) has answered my query in the context of the project that I was referring to. The argument could go either way of whether the Matthew, sitting in Bristol harbour with people living on it, should be subject to council tax. Everybody in Bristol hopes that it will not be. What concerns me is that an historic project of loving restoration, which is designed to re-create Cabot's historic voyage, is in danger of being unnecessarily complicated because, under the Lords amendment, work would have to stop while energy conservation measures were planned. I would find that wholly regrettable.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to deal with the doubts that many of us have expressed about the Lords amendment. We all wish the Bill well and we hope that the Minister will be able to encourage us to support the amendment, but those doubts will still exist.

Mr. Merchant

I am not happy with the Lords amendments. I do not blame the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson), because he is, I am sure, entirely well motivated in promoting the Bill. However, I believe that we are in danger of seeing the fairly worthless Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 taken to the point of absurdity. My hon. Friends the Members for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) and for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern), in their somewhat erudite debate on the definition of a houseboat, have illustrated that point.

Frankly, the Bill is legislation for the sake of legislation and will create bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy. The problem with legislation that regulates and defines is that one never comes to an end because there are always subjects that have not been thought of and that need to be included at some point in the definition. That is precisely what has happened here. Some of us felt that that was the case when we took part in various debates on the 1995 Act, which the Bill would amend. We felt then that, if legislation was really necessary—we had considerable doubts about that—the lightest possible touch should be applied in carrying out the rather pointless energy audit.

The Bill would take away the light touch and make the approach heavier and heavier. Houseboats are a separate issue from homes and houses in multiple occupation. There is a good point there, because the provisions will cover many homes as a result. The Lords amendment goes into detail on houseboats. Where on earth are we going to end up? Next year, will we include narrowboats? No clear line can be drawn between houseboats and narrowboats, as my hon. Friends have explained. What about ocean-going yachts?

I have a constituent, a man whom I know, who lives in my constituency for only six months of the year. He spends the rest of the year on board his no doubt pleasant yacht, travelling around the world. It is all right for some. However, no doubt he is burning up energy, and if we take the amendment to its logical conclusion, ocean-going yachts should be assessed in terms of energy loss.

Some truckers, often one-man companies, live in lorries. I know such a man as well; he spends his working week sleeping and living in his truck. Will we add trucks to the Bill next year? I even know somebody who, for a period, lived in the back of a van—not a very pleasant place to live. Some bright spark will say that we ought to audit vans as well to see how much energy is lost through the roof and the back, and to see what we can do to prevent energy loss. No. The Lords amendment would take the Bill to ridiculous levels.

Why not houseboats? The answer is simple: the amendment would achieve nothing. We shall gain nothing by including houseboats in the Bill. I said that the 1995 Act was fairly worthless, because—some hon. Members seem to have missed this point—it does not actually do anything. It does not improve energy conservation and energy use one iota. All it does is require local authorities to produce a report. That is the end of the story—except that the report is sent to the Secretary of State and then, no doubt, gathers dust in a huge pile of reports.

I believe strongly in energy conservation and 'want measures to be taken to improve the efficiency of energy use. I do not want long reports that tell us what we already know. We know what measures need to be taken to prevent energy loss and improve its use. I want action, Bills and Acts of Parliament rather than turgid reports that tell us nothing new.

I had great sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin)— unfortunately, he has had to leave the Chamber—said about market mechanisms, because they achieve much in this respect. If energy prices are expensive and there are obvious, often cheap, means of saving costs by insulation, we should be following such things.

Publicity is of the essence, too. If we were proposing to publicise to people who live in a variety of places, including houseboats, the means by which they could improve energy use, I would object far less, but we are not; instead, we are encouraging the indulgence of bureaucrats in a pointless exercise of petty information gathering.

As I said in an intervention, if we really feel that it is necessary to have some sort of report drawn up to tell us what measures can be specifically applied to houseboats to improve energy use—I have no objection to that—the answer is to ask one official in the Department of the Environment to spend a couple of weeks investigating the issue and to write a report. I have no doubt that the report would conclude that the measures that needed to be applied were little different from those that needed to be applied elsewhere, except, of course, they would have to be skewed to take account of particular materials used in the construction of houseboats. That would solve the problem. We do not have to ask every local authority in Britain to search for houseboats in their area and recommend what should be done. If that is not making work and reinventing the wheel a hundredfold, I do not know what is.

Instead of agreeing to the amendment and encouraging more paperwork, we could encourage self-help. It is in the interests of people who live in houseboats or any other place to minimise energy use because of cost. Indeed, I am constructing a solar water heating panel for my house, which will help to cut my electricity bill. It is half-built. I am making it by recycling an old radiator, so I am also helping by turning waste into something useful rather than disposing of it. I hope that that shows that I have a genuine interest in, and commitment to, energy conservation. However, I do not believe that the Bill will achieve anything in that direction.

When we discussed the Home Energy Conservation Bill last year, I remember talking about the march of the thermal thought police. This Bill makes that march a little louder and the Lords amendment turns it into a splash. It seems that we are to expect our thermal thought police to wade into the rivers and streams of this land looking for houseboats and measuring their energy conservation. I, for one, would rather employ officials and local government officers in more worthwhile, practical tasks, and not have them spending more time gathering information to write into reports that will simply gather dust on shelves in various government buildings in the capital.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant), I spoke in the debate last year on the Home Energy Conservation Bill which was introduced by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock). I struck a somewhat discordant note in that debate, as most hon. Members were very much in favour of the measure.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham now appears to have some concerns about that legislation. Although he took me to task this morning, I remind him that, last year, he said: I strongly support the thrust of the Bill, and…the amendment…it has a light touch and yet goes to the heart of the problem."—[Official Report, 17 March 1995; Vol. 256, c. 1139.] However, my hon. Friend now acknowledges that, since the Bill was enacted, some of the problems to which I referred last year have transpired, although the House did not accept my arguments at the time. I was speaking to an amendment in respect of mobile homes.

Mr. Merchant

For the sake of clarity, let me assure my hon. Friend that I oppose the Lords amendment, not the Bill. However, I have always considered the Bill to have a limited purpose, and I referred to its light touch at the beginning of my speech.

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Mr. Leigh

I am grateful for that clarification from my hon. Friend. If the amendment were not accepted, the Bill would apply only to homes in multiple occupation. I suspect that many of the arguments expressed by my hon. Friend and others this morning would apply—albeit less forcefully—to homes in multiple occupation. To repeat a point that I made last year, whether the Bill relates to houseboats, mobile homes or houses in multiple occupation, it is fundamentally a worthless approach to home energy conservation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) made clear, the best way to encourage people to conserve energy is through the price mechanism. That is why we all conserve energy. We cannot encourage people to conserve energy merely by compiling reports that will gather dust in local authority offices. The burden placed on rural authorities with limited resources by central Government and the legislature in requiring them to compile increasing numbers of reports—on houseboats, mobile homes or anything else—is becoming increasingly significant. Authorities such as West Lindsey district council employs not thousands of staff, as some London boroughs do, but hundreds. The proposed activity which we are discussing would place significant burdens on them.

As has been said, the amendment is fairly worthless. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) tabled a similar one last year. He argued cogently that the legislation should cover houseboats and he made the fair point that houseboats were potentially dangerous because people relied on paraffin heaters and often there was insufficient ventilation. He pleaded with the Minister to include houseboats, but at the time the Minister, in a devastating response, argued that the Government could not accept his amendment and that there was a good case for not including houseboats because they were made of wood, had very small windows and were difficult and extremely expensive to adapt, even if there was a waste of energy; therefore, such a requirement would place too great a burden on houseboat owners.

The amendment covers a matter that was addressed satisfactorily last year by my hon. Friend the Minister, so there is absolutely no need for us to accept it. I very much hope that the Minister will not find it necessary to accept the amendment. However, the procedures of the House probably mean that we shall be lumbered with it, on the Bill will probably not become law, although I suspect that that would not matter very much in any case.

Mr. Clappison

I support the motion and the amendment. I intend to be brief, but given some comments about the Bill, and the definitions within it, and particularly bearing in mind that the amendments were moved by my noble Friend Lord Lucas in another place, it is appropriate that I say something about them.

Let me first thank the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) for the remarks at the beginning of his speech. I am sure that my officials are most grateful to him for his kind comments.

As we know, the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 requires local authorities to prepare, publish and submit an energy conservation report setting out measures that would lead to a significant improvement in the energy efficiency of residential accommodation in their areas. The Bill is about widening the definition of residential accommodation to include houses in multiple occupation. The amendment would bring houseboats within the scope of the 1995 Act.

Some of my hon. Friends have commented on what was said in Committee by my hon. Friend the Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency. My hon. Friends the Members for Worcester (Mr. Luff) and for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) referred to that. There was a discussion on houseboats when an amendment on caravans was debated.

I understand that, during that debate, one of my hon. Friends suggested that houseboats, too, should be brought within the legislation. That did not immediately commend itself to my hon. Friend the Minister, but the Bill now gives us the opportunity to think again about whether other improvements, as well as that originally suggested by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South, could be made to the definition of residential accommodation in the 1995 Act.

Having heard the debate, I see no reason in principle why houseboats should be treated differently from other sorts of accommodation that are people's permanent homes, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South shares that view.

Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are purely drafting amendments which would pave the way for the substantial change to the Bill made by Lords amendment No. 3. When we were drawing up the wording of amendment No. 3, we took care to ensure that it was workable and would not place a significant burden on local authorities.

The definition of a houseboat in the amendment ensures that pleasure boats are excluded. We have heard a lot about definitions in the debate. I do not want to speak at length on the subject, but as I said in my intervention—I apologise if it was rather long—I should like to draw to the attention of the House one or two points that immediately strike me. I do not, however, seek to give a concluded and considered account of the differences between the definitions. As hon. Members will realise, they are of a technical nature.

Given the comparison made between the definition in the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill, with which we dealt earlier this week, and the definition now before the House, it would be appropriate for me to make a few comments. For the benefit of my hon. Friends who have drawn attention to the difference between the two definitions, I shall examine the definition in section 78(5) of the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill, which says that a house-boat means a boat or similar structure designed or adapted for use as a place of permanent habitation". My hon. Friends will realise that that bears some similarity to the definition of a houseboat in Lords amendment No. 3, which defines a houseboat as: a boat or other floating decked structure— (i) designed or adapted for use solely as a place of permanent habitation". There is an additional qualification to that definition, because sub-paragraph (ii) adds: not having means of, or capable of being readily adapted for, self-propulsion". It is that second point that seems different from the original definition in the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill. When the definition was debated in Committee, concern was expressed by Opposition Members, who suggested that the definition was technically defective and would prevent people who owned and lived in houseboats from applying for a grant if their houseboat could change its moorings.

We did not wish that to happen. We saw no reason why the fact that a boat could be moored in different places should deprive its owner of the opportunity of applying for a home repair assistance grant, so we tabled amendments to give effect to that wish on Report, earlier this week.

The problem arose especially in connection with the three-year residential requirement, which is an important qualification for the home repair assistance grant. As I suggested in my intervention, different considerations arise under the other Bill, under which the intention was to provide for houseboat owners to receive home repair assistance grant, from those that arise under this Bill.

It is obviously important for local authorities to prepare reports and to carry out their other work, and having to follow houseboats from place to place would be a burden. That might be the reason for the qualification contained in subparagraph (ii), which excludes boats adapted for self-propulsion. It seems to me that the difference between the two regimes is sufficient, and I do not think that the definitional problems to which some of my hon. Friends referred exist.

The underlying definitions are the same, although the qualification reflects the different purposes of the two Bills. In the case of the renovation grants legislation, the purpose is to provide for houseboat owners to receive a grant. In this case, the purpose is to have reports prepared by local authorities. On the face of it—and without giving a concluded version—I believe that that is an important difference, to which I draw the attention of my hon. Friends who are concerned about definition.

In addition, we have followed for England, Wales and Northern Ireland the pattern of definition of a mobile home in the Act by requiring that a houseboat that is to be regarded as a dwelling for the purposes of the Home Energy Conservation Act should also be regarded as a dwelling for the purposes of council tax, or the equivalent in Northern Ireland. The same linkage cannot be made in Scotland because of differences in the council tax legislation that applies north of the border, but the other conditions will of course apply.

Some differences were expressed on the question of how many houseboats were likely to come within this definition, and I heard the different estimates that were made. It is difficult to be precise, but my information is that there are unlikely to be more than a few hundred. Hon. Members will be interested to know that we believe that in Scotland there will be 50 at most, and in Northern Ireland it will be in single figures. For the rest of the country, there are apparently some 600 residential boats registered with British Waterways and the Environment Agency. and another 500 in the Norfolk broads and tidal navigations such as the Thames.

There may be others that are not registered. However, many of these houseboats will be excluded because they are capable of, or readily adapted to, self-propulsion. The link to the council tax definition, to which I have already referred, will help local authorities with identification, although many authorities will not have any houseboats in their area.

Mr. Thomason

Does my hon. Friend consider that the approximately 1,100 houseboats to which he referred in England are the total number on which council tax is payable? Does he believe that there might be a substantial additional number, given that there has been some disagreement about the numbers during the debate?

Mr. Clappison

I would have to reflect on those matters, as I want to be careful and not give a hasty or unconsidered answer. It would be fair to say on all the questions of definition and numbers that those concerned are valuable members of the community—they are all important floating voters.

Lords amendment No. 4 is a consequential amendment to the transitional provisions in clause 2. The reasoning behind clause 2(3) is that there may need to be special arrangements for energy conservation reports on the new categories of residential accommodation that would be added to the 1995 Act by the Bill.

In England, the first energy conservation reports are due at the end of November. Should the Bill become law, as I hope it will, there would be very little time for authorities to take account of the wider definition of residential accommodation in those reports. Clause 2, as it left this House, achieved this result for houses in. multiple occupation, and Lords amendment No. 4 would put houseboats in the same position. I should add that there is nothing in the amendment that would prevent one separate report from covering both houses in multiple occupation and houseboats.

Measures of the kind that the Act envisages to encourage changes in behaviour and the use of appliances that are energy efficient are as relevant to people who live on houseboats as to those in other kinds of accommodation. It seems right in principle that attention should be paid to the energy efficiency of boats that are people's homes, as well as to the energy efficiency of more conventional homes. Of course there are special considerations that need to be kept in mind in dealing with houseboats, particularly with regard to safety. But much good advice is as applicable to houseboat residents as to anyone else, and common-sense measures, such as switching off unnecessary lights and appliances, not heating more than is necessary and considering energy consumption when buying new appliances, apply to houseboat owners as well as to residents of other dwellings.

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Mr. Merchant

What my hon. Friend says is correct, but we know that already. Why is it necessary to carry out an audit of houseboats at local authority level when the answers will be those that my hon. Friend has already given, of which we are aware? Advice, yes, but why is study necessary?

Mr. Clappison

It is necessary for the same reason that we are bringing other categories of accommodation into the ambit of the Act. I accept, of course, that not as many people live in houseboats as in houses in multiple occupation. Those living in HMOs comprise a substantial sector, and HMOs are the main thrust of the Bill. Nevertheless, it is still justified that houseboat owners should be included.

In a recent debate, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) talked about the availability of resources for the implementation of the 1995 Act with my hon. Friend the Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency. I understand that local authorities will be concerned about the possible effects of the Bill, and especially of these amendments. I hope that I can provide some reassurance. The only new duty placed on authorities by the 1995 Act is the preparation of energy conservation reports identifying measures significantly to improve the energy efficiency of residential accommodation in their areas. Extending or supplementing such reports to include houseboats, given the modest numbers of boats involved, is likely to be a commensurately modest task, especially given that many measures are likely to be equally applicable to all residents. The further call on resources will therefore be negligible.

I commend the amendments to the House. I believe that they will assist in making the Bill a worthwhile measure.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 4 agreed to.

2.2 pm

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Has there been any sign from the Leader of the House that he will be responding to the urgent plea sent to him by Lord Rix not to block the Disabled Persons and Carers (Short-Term Breaks) Bill? The noble Lord took the Bill through all its stages in the House of Lords and I am delighted to have been asked to sponsor it in this place. The Bill is of considerable importance to many of the most hard-pressed and admirable people in this country.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

I have had no notification, but there are occupants of the Treasury Bench who will no doubt be aware of the situation.

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Mr. John M. Taylor)

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. So far as it is within my power, and in good faith to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), I shall try to ensure that his remarks are relayed to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

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