HC Deb 10 May 1996 vol 277 cc600-5

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

1.57 pm
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

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

I am pleased to have brought the Bill to its Report and Third Reading. I pay tribute to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have sponsored and supported the Bill. I thank the Minister, his civil servants and the staff of the Association for the Conservation of Energy, which has been instrumental in bringing not only this Bill before the House, but the Home Energy Conservation Bill—now an Act—last year.

In many ways this Bill shares the same objectives as the Home Energy Conservation Act. It fills an important omission in that Act which we did not realise existed at the time. I shall briefly remind the House of the shared objectives. The first is to try to make inroads into the backlog of fuel poverty that existed in the United Kingdom. It is now clearly recognised that, as a nation, we incur more than £1 billion of wasted energy bills through fuel-inefficient housing. It affects some 2.5 million households and claims 50,000 avoidable winter deaths from fuel poverty.

The second objective relates to the impact on the health of those who do not die, but continue to live in fuel-inefficient housing. Newark and Sherwood local authority, which is regarded as one of the pioneers in this respect, has carried out a survey of what, over 20 years, an energy conservation programme would mean in terms of other associated local health costs. It estimates that it would save about £4 million in reduced local health service costs.

The third objective of a serious and comprehensive energy conservation programme, which would be welcome in the House and the country, is to tackle atmospheric pollution. We know already that carbon dioxide emissions from domestic properties amount to 25 per cent. of the country's total emissions, nitrous oxide emissions amount to 14 per cent. and sulphur dioxide emissions account for almost 30 per cent. of total emissions. Making inroads into reducing those emissions would make important contributions on a wider scale to the Government's energy conservation programme. All those objectives are entirely laudable, and I hope do not divide the House in any way.

The problem with last year's Act was that, after it had passed all its stages, we discovered that there was a serious omission: it fails to include in the responsibilities given to local authorities a responsibility to monitor houses in multiple occupation. To put that in context, the Department of the Environment issued a press release in November which pointed out that there were 638,000 houses in multiple occupation in England alone. If one adds to that the number of similar properties in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, one gets some idea of the proportion of properties in which some of the most serious inroads need to be made to raise standards of energy efficiency.

The omission in last year's Act left local authorities in a strange position. Not only did we give them no direct mandate to produce reports as part of their energy efficiency monitoring schemes, we may well have left them in a position where to do so would have been ultra vires. The Bill's main intention is to try to close that gap and give local authorities a specific remit to monitor houses in multiple occupation and be able to issue separate reports that might specifically address the conditions in such properties.

I am sure that most hon. Members, as well as large sections of the population, are aware that the most serious examples of fuel inefficiency are found in houses in multiple occupation. We are talking not about respectable hotels but many properties that count among the most undesirable, which have been poorly converted, packed with many households to make whatever money possible and which are certainly not energy efficient houses that reduce the fuel bills of the poor.

The Bill will not pursue the completion of an energy savings scheme; it is about making a start and finding a basis on which we can begin as a society to take energy saving more seriously. I remember being told that if one wants to change a situation, one must first understand it. The Bill is about an understanding and a monitoring of conditions in houses in multiple occupation.

If the Bill's monitoring and reports come back to the House and assist us either nationally or locally in pursuing energy conservation measures that raise the standards of energy efficiency in our homes, it will have all sorts of additional practical benefits.

One benefit is the creation of jobs. The Association for the Conservation of Energy calculates that, if we as a society were serious about raising the standards of home energy efficiency, over 15 years we could generate 500,000 job years, reducing pollution, reducing energy bills and improving our health in the process. I am sure that every hon. Member subscribes to those objectives.

I hope that by passing the Bill, the House will give a clear message. The measure is welcomed and wanted by local authorities. I hope that it will have the full endorsement not only of the House, but of the public as a whole. I am pleased to commend the Bill on Third Reading.

2.4 pm

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to support the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) and his Energy Conservation Bill. I intend to speak briefly, not least because I support the Journalistic Corrupt Practices Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies), and I would not want to deprive him of the opportunity to make the case for his Bill, about which I am also enthusiastic.

I am, of course, aware that the Energy Conservation Bill would extend the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 to houses in multiple occupation. I do not intend to add anything to the remarks made, clearly and concisely, by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South. However, I can say, as I am sure hon. Members will agree, that the Bill will provide benefits in our constituencies. In Norwich, North, there are many houses in multiple occupation of the type that have just been described. Clearly, the Bill is right and it is good that it has all-party support. I am obviously delighted that it has the support of the Government in the form of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State.

My reason for being here is not just that I happen to be free from constituency engagements this Friday, but because of my commitment over the years to energy conservation measures. I am sure that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South will agree that there is a long history of energy conservation Bills. Although I have been involved in many of them, signed early-day motions, spoken on Second Reading and so on, I find that, over 12 or 13 years, I have become quite confused about which measure was which. However, there is a definite history of such Bills and I have always tried to support them in terms of the principle of energy conservation.

As the hon. Member for Nottingham, South will be aware—I hope that this is not a controversial point—many of the Bills have fallen at one hurdle or another. One Bill was about the reduction of VAT on building products and as I understand it—I have not studied the matter in great detail—the problem was the European Community. Far be it from me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to introduce European issues at this stage. However, there were snags and that is why this Bill is not the same as the Energy-Saving Materials (Rates of Value Added Tax) Bill, which the hon. Gentleman introduced in the previous Session.

Other energy conservation Bills have fallen because of their sheer cost, as the Government understand it. I think that I am right in saying that there was a problem about the sheer cost of the energy audit that local authorities were required to carry out under some of the previous Bills. I am therefore delighted that the Government support this Bill, which is very good news.

My enthusiasm for energy conservation stems partly from my background as a physicist. Anyone who has studied and taught physics for 23 years is hardly likely not to think about the conservation of energy all the time. Whenever the subject comes up, I leap up to say something about it. The whole question of energy efficiency and energy conservation must be on the Government's mind all the time. If my hon. Friend the Minister is not already enthusiastic about the subject, I hope that he and his ministerial colleagues will become ever more enthusiastic about it, because it is important for two reasons.

The first reason, which has already been explained by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South, is the difficulty people have in paying for energy costs. In my constituency, many people have difficulty in paying their energy bills. The issue comes before the House on and off, when we debate cold weather payments, VAT on fuel, standing charges, fuel bills and so on. We all get correspondence on those subjects. So if by improving energy efficiency and encouraging better projects for insulating homes we can help people pay their energy bills, that must be worth while.

I shall not speak at length on that subject, but it is one reason why I have tried hard to support the energy conservation measures that come before us. In my constituency, I have supported initiatives such as the home energy efficiency scheme. No doubt many other hon. Members have done the same. I seem to remember putting on a cap and a suitable overall to hammer in bits of insulation alongside doors and windows, and having my photograph in the local paper to record the occasion. Such initiatives are good. We have all been involved in them, and we want to continue to encourage them.

Another reason why I support such measures so strongly, including the Bill before us, although it is a detailed technical measure, is the overriding issue that must be important to a scientist—global warming. Hon. Members who have introduced energy conservation measures in the House or who, in the case of the Government, have supported such measures and produced their own initiatives, have always had those important questions in the back of their mind.

In my city of Norwich, we have the university of East Anglia, which has a worldwide reputation for studying subjects such as global warming, the possible rise in sea levels, climatic change, pollution and other such important issues. If any of the energy conservation measures can help to reduce carbon dioxide levels and diminish climate change and global warming, it must be worthy of debate.

In the days before the Jopling reforms, we used to debate such matters in the early hours of the morning. I remember having a one-and-a-half-hour debate on global warming in one of the Consolidated Fund debates, but that has all changed now. None the less, all power to the elbow of those who support energy conservation and efficiency. I am delighted to support the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South. His initiative needs no further commendation of mine.

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

I am pleased to be able to welcome the Bill. It is a worthwhile measure, and the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) has performed a service in using it to deal with energy efficiency in houses in multiple occupation. For the reasons that he explained, the Bill represents an important addition to last year's legislation.

Having recently served on the Committee on the Housing Bill, which spent some time talking about houses in multiple occupation, I was struck both in the debates on the Bill and in reading the representations that I received earlier from local authorities, by the number of houses in multiple occupation in this country, and by the number of people for whom they provide homes. The hon. Gentleman said that there were 638,000 such properties, and I agree that that is the size of the sector. Such houses provide homes for many of our fellow citizens so, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman gave, it is entirely appropriate that energy conservation should be extended to them.

I am sure that the House will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having used the opportunity to promote the issue. I also appreciate what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), especially on two scores. First, I was impressed by the fact that my hon. Friend managed to bring Europe into the debate. Europe seems to be a ubiquitous topic at the moment. Earlier today I addressed the House on the subject of the Noise Bill, and I found that Europe reared its head then, too. We had to debate whether noise could cross European boundaries, and there were calls for a European policy, although I am not sure whether those were entirely serious. And here Europe is, cropping up again.

The important things that my hon. Friend said were about his enthusiasm for energy conservation. I can certainly offer him the Government's wholehearted commitment to and enthusiasm for energy conservation and measures to promote it, both in the domestic sector and more widely among businesses and other energy users. It is a very important subject.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North said, perhaps modestly, he was able to speak from the position of someone who has scientific experience. He knows of the important linkages between energy conservation and environmental benefits, and he is familiar with the important issues of climate change and emissions.

It is important to make the straightforward linkage, which the hon. Member for Nottingham, South made, between energy conservation and the environment, and between energy conservation and financial benefits. We are concerned about financial benefits for householders, of course, but we are also concerned about financial benefits for businesses.

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North that, although I cannot match his expertise on the subject, I certainly share his enthusiasm for it. The Government have a wide-ranging programme to promote energy efficiency and energy conservation in the domestic and business sectors, and he will be particularly pleased to learn—if he does not already know—that the Government have recently launched a pack to bring the subject to schoolchildren's attention, helping to educate them on the importance of energy conservation and the links between energy conservation and environmental change. It is an important subject, and he is entirely right to insist on the need for enthusiasm and the need to look to the future.

This is worthwhile measure. I welcome it for the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North and by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.