HC Deb 23 April 1999 vol 329 cc1203-9

Order for Second Reading read.

2.9 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

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

I wholeheartedly believe that Social justice means many things, but nothing is more important than a decent place to live."—[Official Report, 3 December 1996; Vol. 286, c. 840] Those words were spoken by the right hon. Member for Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), now the Deputy Prime Minister.

It is unfortunate that more than 7 million homes in the UK suffer from fuel poverty: that is, the occupants would have to spend more than 10 per cent. of their income keeping the house warm. Most do not spend that money because they cannot afford it, so they sit and shiver in cold homes. There is a mass of medical evidence demonstrating how that leads to increased risk of ill health. The incidence of cardiovascular diseases, bronchitis, flu and respiratory illnesses increases in cold, damp homes, and those diseases can kill.

The UK has a uniquely appalling record on excess deaths during the winter months. Of course, cold homes are not the only factor causing winter death rates to rise, but, in the UK, the death rate increases in winter by around 30 per cent, whereas in Norway and Sweden, the increase is closer to 10 per cent. That suggests that we should be trying to prevent at least two thirds of excess winter deaths. One of the obvious differences between the UK and other parts of Europe is quality of housing.

We should be concerned not only about excess winter deaths, but about quality of life. Although many chronic illnesses may not be fatal, they are debilitating and affect people's ability to enjoy life and participate fully in the economy and society.

To improve quality of life, which I am sure all hon. Members would agree is a worthy goal, we need an integrated strategy across government departments to deal with fuel poverty", according to the Minister for Public Health, who was speaking at a public meeting in her constituency on 10 February.

I ask the House to support the Bill because it will take steps towards achieving that integrated strategy. The health service spends £1 billion a year treating people suffering from cold-related illnesses. The health service suffers the consequences of a higher than 125 per cent. increase in such illnesses during the winter, which include overcrowding, trolleys left in corridors and long waiting lists. Health service involvement is central to any integrated strategy to tackle fuel poverty.

Innovative health authorities such those in Birmingham and Cornwall provided the inspiration for the Bill. They funded improvements to people's homes in cases where they considered that they could prevent illness. In Birmingham, improvements were made to the homes of elderly people and targeted at those whom general practitioners considered at risk of hypothermia. In Cornwall, the improvements were targeted at children with asthma in homes where it was believed that damp conditions and, therefore, mould spores might exacerbate the condition.

The results of the schemes are promising. In Cornwall, the time taken off school by children in the study dropped dramatically from an average of four days a term to half a day a term. Encouraging energy conservation can help children's education. In Birmingham, the GPs' professional opinion is that the scheme should be continued because of the benefits to old people.

Other health authorities have also run schemes. They cost little or nothing but make a difference to people's lives. Having heard about those schemes, I want to encourage other health authorities to consider similar ideas, and that is what the Bill aims to achieve. It will lead to more schemes and to more people benefiting from them. I assure any hon. Member who thinks that those schemes might take much-needed resources from the NHS that several schemes, such as publicising existing grants, cost little. Even the schemes that cost money need not be considered expensive when one takes into account the long-term savings to the health service.

Although the Birmingham and Cornwall schemes are still being examined in detail, many people have realised that money may well be saved by installing modestly priced insulation improvements because they prevent the need to treat people expensively in hospital. One doctor added: Furthermore, once they have recovered in hospital, far too often we send them straight back to the place that made them ill! I hope that the Bill will deal with that nonsense by enabling health authorities to tackle the causes of illness rather than its symptoms.

I shall briefly outline the way in which the Bill will attempt to achieve that goal. Clause 1 is the heart of the Bill. It requires the Secretary of State to issue guidance to health authorities on including annual assessments of the ways in which they should promote or assist with the implementation of energy efficiency schemes in their areas. The decision to rely on guidance was made following consultation with various health organisations and is supported by the national health service executive, the Royal College of Nursing, the Association of Community Health Councils for England and Wales and a considerable number of health authorities. The clause allows for flexibility in the guidance.

Clause 1(3) sets out what the guidance may include. Subsection (4) requires health authorities and boards to have regard to that guidance. Subsection (5) sets out what is meant by an energy efficiency scheme, and subsection (6) defines some of the terms used.

Clause 2 will extend the Bill's provisions to Northern Ireland, as requested by Northern Ireland Members. Clause 3 will enable money to be spent if required, although as I have said, the Bill will save rather than cost money.

Clause 4 extends the Bill to Scotland, where it enjoys much support, not least because of the colder climate that we experience most winters and some appalling housing conditions. Many years ago, I appeared on "Kilroy" in Glasgow with people from tenants associations. The depth of their despair about the quality of housing that they had to cope with and the fact that we have still not got round to tackling it are regrettable. I hope that we can give a firm impetus to getting on with tackling it rather than talking about it.

I finish with some thanks. I have received great help and support from health organisations, including the National Health Service Confederation, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of General Practitioners and its Scottish council, the Institute of Health Services Management, the Association of Community Health Councils, the Public Health Alliance and the Patients Association, as well as many other groups connected with health or fuel poverty. Their input, as the people who will have to work with the legislation, has been invaluable and has enabled us to produce a workable, desirable Bill.

I thank those hon. Members on both sides of the House who have supported the Bill and associated early-day motions. I thank them also for their comments while I was preparing it. There was some concern that it would be only a reporting exercise. It is true that it requires all health authorities and boards to examine the Cornwall and Birmingham schemes. That is common sense. They should not act willy-nilly, but should consider carefully what to do. What is good for Cornwall and Birmingham may not be exactly right for Sussex or Aberdeenshire. Local health authorities and boards know what is good for their areas. The Bill requires them to ask that question and then act. It is not a reporting exercise, but a duty to consider carefully before acting. That is a sensible way for public bodies to proceed. I hope that the Bill will make progress today. It is a step along the road to tackling fuel poverty.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I do not want to delay the hon. Gentleman but I fear that I may not get in. I have a few concerns about his Bill, but I intervene on his last point. He hoped that it would make progress. I have received a letter from Rodney Bickerstaffe saying that, unfortunately, it appears that the Government are going to oppose the Bill despite the fact that they say that they want to develop a coherent strategy. He appeals to me as a Member of Parliament noted for my support of initiatives to end fuel poverty to urge the Government to not to oppose it today.

Sir Robert Smith

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. The Government's strategy on this Bill is confusing. If there is time, perhaps the Minister will explain it. The Bill is an important step, and I commend it to the House.

2.17 pm
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I know that time is short, so I will be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) on the Bill, whose spirit and detail are common sense and in line with the Government's overall strategy, regardless of how they think it might fit into that.

I speak as the secretary of the all-party warm homes group, which has campaigned for some time for a co-ordinated national strategy to deal with fuel poverty. Hon. Members will remember last year's Warm Homes and Energy Conservation (Fifteen Year Programme) Bill, which attempted to build support and to win the argument for a co-ordinated strategy to deal with the long-standing national scandal that we have inherited of the 7 million to 8 million households that live in fuel poverty.

There is now general agreement that fragmented measures do not work. I am delighted that the Government have agreed to establish an interdepartmental fuel poverty review group, with the intention of bringing together the various measures of different Departments, central Government, local government and groups funded by, but not directly accountable to, the Government. It is crucial that we bring together that wide range of measures in a co-ordinated national strategy.

The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine outlined the scale of the problem, with 7 million to 8 million households living in fuel poverty, of whom 2.5 million are in severe fuel poverty. Most are pensioners, lone parents or people with mental health problems. Because of the impossibility of heating their homes through normal means, they spend three or four times as much of their weekly income on keeping warm as the average family. Therefore it is a matter of health inequality and of energy efficiency.

Whatever happens to the Bill today, the fuel poverty issue will not go away. I believe that the measure that the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine has outlined is common sense. It is practical, it would have minimal cost and, as pilot schemes in different parts of the country have shown, it can work.

The Government are to be commended for recognising—as the previous Government did not—that fuel poverty is an issue in its own right. They are to be commended for developing health policy to place greater emphasis on preventative health care. The Bill addresses both those concerns, and I believe that it deserves all-party support.

2.20 pm
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

The Conservative party will not obstruct the Bill's Second Reading. We all want homes to be energy efficient, but we have some questions to ask about the Bill's practical implications, such as the following. How does one conduct an audit of housing need in terms of fuel efficiency? How does one identify properties where help is needed? How does one establish whether the owner or occupier really needs help? I hope that all those matters will be considered in Committee.

The real dilemma today is that of the Government. The real issue is whether the Government, in their conduct, will be decent or disgraceful. More than half the Minister's Labour colleagues signed early-day motions in favour of the measure; the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) signed all three, and spoke as though the Bill would receive Government support. It obviously will not.

Even the Minister, in a letter to his own constituent, said—I paraphrase—"Of course, I am a Minister; I do not sign EDMs." The letter continued: However John does support the broad aims expressed in the motions. As a junior Minister in the Department of Health he will have some considerable input and influence. Well, that remains to be seen.

Likewise, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in a message to the campaign for the Warm Homes Bill, implies that he does not support a greater winter fuel payment on its own, because he says: Simply shovelling money at people to heat the skies above our towns and cities is hardly a sustainable use of resources".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Hutton)

I missed the last document to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Is he claiming that that is a letter from me to someone?

Mr. Duncan

No. If the Minister were listening, he would realise that, in a situation of collective responsibility, it is a letter from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, which perhaps carries more weight than his own letter.

Ministers therefore imply that they support the Bill, but I believe that they will not support it. It looks as though we shall get warm words and cold homes.

Many a Labour Member of Parliament has campaigned, implying to people that they will support measures such as this. Grubbing for votes, they signed the EDMs, and they have signed them again since the general election; but today we shall see the Government destroy the Bill's Second Reading. Will they put heat into homes—

Mr. Chaytor

What did the previous Government do, during their 18 years of office, to tackle the problem?

Mr. Duncan

It is time that the hon. Gentleman, and his colleagues, realised that he should take responsibility for the promises that he made before so deceiving an electorate; he should now fulfil the promises that he made in signing early-day motions. When he finds, in seven minutes' time, that everything that he said but four minutes ago is at odds with what the Minister will say and do, he will go away and eat his words.

Let us watch what the Government do today. They are about to destroy the Bill, against everything that they ever said before they were elected.

2.24 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Hutton)

My goodness, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I do not know what the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) had for breakfast, but, whatever it was, I hope that he will share the recipe with me. Before I respond to his objectionable and highly personalised comments, I remind him, whether he likes it or not, of the deplorable record of the previous Administration in all these matters.

I was intrigued by the—probably tongue-in-cheek—reference that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), for whom I have a very high regard and respect, made to his record as a champion and defender of those in fuel poverty.

Mr. Maclean

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way in the short time available to him. I was not claiming that myself. It was stated by Rodney Bickerstaffe in his letter to me. Whether he was right or wrong, I cannot judge.

Mr. Hutton

I suspect that, on this occasion, Mr. Bickerstaffe may have been wrong. We had a lengthy opportunity in opposition to study the record of the Conservative Government. The right hon. Gentleman was a distinguished Minister in that Government, and he may correct me if I am wrong in what I am about to say.

We heard a great deal of noise from the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton about fuel poverty. Am I right in my recollection that it was the right hon. Gentleman's Government who extended VAT to gas and electricity? When he was serving as a member of that Government, did he, or did the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton when he was a Back Bencher, at any time vote against that proposal? I believe that the answer is that they did not. With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, we are unpersuaded of the need to accept any lectures from him and his right hon. and hon. Friends.

Mr. Duncan

The difference between me and the Minister is that I do as I say. I do not seek votes, then do the opposite.

Mr. Hutton

I agree with the hon. Gentleman—if he seeks votes, he does not do it terribly well. We remember what happened on 1 May 1997. If that is the result of the hon. Gentleman's grubbing for votes, good luck to him and his right hon. and hon. Friends. They may continue in that vein for as long as they like.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Before the Minister leaves the issue of tax on fuel, will he comment on the fact that the argument for taxing fuel, both domestic and vehicle, was environmental? The idea was to reduce environmental pollution by increasing the tax, thereby making fuel use more efficient or lowering it. How does he justify the fact that his Government impose a penal escalator on vehicle fuel, but reduce the duty on domestic fuel, by implication encouraging its inefficient use and creating pollution?

Mr. Hutton

I am anxious to speak about the Bill, contrary to the wishes of some.

With the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, who may correct me if I am wrong, I understood that the fuel escalator about which he complains was first promulgated by his Government. I know that, as a member of that Government, he loyally supported that Government whenever such issues were debated in the House.

I welcome the interest of the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) in the health and well-being of people living in poor housing and, in particular, in fuel poverty. That interest is shared fully by the Government. We recognise that fuel poverty is a major health concern, and that there are many associations between poor housing and ill health. We accept that the links between cold and damp housing, and respiratory and cardiovascular disease are well established.

Accordingly, I stress to the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government already have in place a series of initiatives, and proposals for a range of others, that are reducing inequalities and tackling the various factors that cause ill health, of which fuel poverty is only one.

At a national level, the Government are determined to do more to help households in need. We have reduced VAT on fuel, which the Conservative party was keen to impose, so that people can more easily afford to keep warm, and on energy-saving materials installed through Government grant schemes, so that people can more easily insulate their homes.

We have released substantial additional funds to help improve our housing stock. In total, some £5 billion is being made available over the lifetime of this Parliament for investment in housing. We have also allocated an additional £150 million specifically for tackling fuel poverty through domestic energy efficiency improvements.

That is in addition to the existing £75 million a year expenditure on the home energy efficiency scheme, our main programme for helping people to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. The scheme provides grants up to a maximum of £315 for energy efficiency improvements in the homes of people on benefits, the disabled and those over 60. Those aged 60 or over but not on a Qualifying benefit are entitled to a 25 per cent. grant.

We recognise that many of today's pensioners face particular difficulties. That is why we recently announced an increase in the annual winter fuel payment to £100 for more than 7 million pensioner households.

When we came to office, we quickly set up an interdepartmental group to take a hard look at the issues surrounding fuel poverty and to work—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 7 May.