HC Deb 11 March 1997 vol 292 cc149-50 3.48 pm
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to draw up and facilitate the carrying out, over a period of fifteen years, of a programme of action to provide at least 500,000 households per year with a comprehensive package of home insulation and other energy efficiency improvements; and for connected purposes. In the first two weeks of January 1997, 10,000 more people died than we would normally expect in the period at the beginning of the year. Those deaths coincided with a winter freeze, and they were overwhelmingly cold-related. Although that excessive number might have been extreme, it is difficult to say that it was unusual.

In that context, it is difficult to know whether we should be debating this as a scandal or a tragedy. Those deaths form part of the annual cull of the fuel-cold and old in Britain. They are caused by neglect, and are the price paid by the public for Britain's failure to have a serious programme to challenge and eliminate fuel poverty. The 50,000 avoidable deaths each winter are concentrated among those who have to make the difficult choice between eating and heating during the freeze. One could say, sadly, that at least their dilemma is resolved by death.

The situation is a scandal. Britain has poorer home insulation standards than those set by Scandinavia in 1945—more than 50 years ago. Some 8 million households in Britain today are fuel-poor, meaning that more than 15 million people shiver their way through each winter; they shivered through last winter, and they will shiver through next winter and all succeeding winters until we face up to the root cause of the situation—the problem of cold homes in this country.

Britain is not indifferent to the problem of the fuel-poor. A plethora of local initiatives make laudable efforts to tackle fuel poverty. A patchwork quilt of Government schemes attempt to do the same, but they are a piecemeal series of fragments, not a coherent policy. The Bill would reclaim the integrity of this House, which once was not afraid to engage in the joined-up thinking that we were then proud to call a housing policy. The Bill does not duck some of the difficult issues involved. It offers a serious programme, with a 15-year commitment to providing 500,000 households a year with a comprehensive package of home insulation and energy-saving materials.

Hon. Members of all parties have been involved in drawing up the Bill. They know that there are real costs involved. We have tried to provide background briefings that do not duck the issues. We know that there would be a net saving to the country over 15 years of more than £3 billion—a saving in health care costs, a saving in avoidable housing costs, a saving in the 50 per cent. of wasted energy that pours out of Britain's housing because of inadequate insulation, and a saving in lives. However, the programme has to be sustained on the basis of initial funding to launch it.

To reflect the diversity of those who are behind the Bill, we have tried to offer different ways to fund the programme, so that no party should feel unable to support it. However, we all recognise that the common starting point is that Britain must spend to save—to save on health care costs, to save on housing stock and administration costs, to save on environmental pollution, and to save lives. That is necessary to tackle the current scandal.

Britain is alone among European countries in having a long-standing problem of death through hypothermia in winter. In other parts of Europe, while people know that they may die if they are caught outside in a snow blizzard, they do not expect to die in the coldness of their home. I know of no pensioner in the land who looks forward to the bracing experience of shivering to death throughout the winter, but I know many who fear that they will face that reality.

We need to tell those pensioners that the House will tackle the dereliction of their housing experience. The root cause of that is the dereliction of our political obligations. Those derelictions are in the absence of a serious programme to tackle and eliminate fuel poverty.

The financing of the Bill would be an exciting prospect. I have had support from both sides of the House, and the Bill has brought together a gathering of the great and good outside the House. It is important to note that its supporters range from Age Concern to the Child Poverty Action Group, from local authorities to Neighbourhood Energy Action, from the Churches to the chambers of commerce and virtually every environmental campaign group. Each of those supporters expects not that the Bill will become law in the dog days of this Parliament, but that it will set the agenda for the Government who are to come, and the century to come.

The Bill is the declaration of the public expectation of what Parliament has to deliver sooner rather than later. I am pleased to be able to introduce the Bill with the support of hon. Members from all parties. Better still is the recognition that it is a Bill, not for all parties, but for all seasons. It is a Bill to restore to the people the right to enjoy our seasons, not to live in fear of them.

It is a Bill to eliminate fuel poverty and restore to people the right to know that they can face a winter without simply having to pray that they may hibernate through the coldest parts of it. On that basis, I am proud to present the Bill, and I hope that it will be given further platforms until it becomes an Act of Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Alan Simpson, Mr. Matthew Taylor, Mr. Harry Greenway, Ms Diane Abbott, Mr. Peter Temple-Morris, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Mr. Llew Smith, Mr. Cynog Dafis, Sir Robert Hicks, Mr. John McAllion and Sir Andrew Bowden.