HC Deb 21 July 2000 vol 354 cc655-73

'.—(1) For the purposes of this Act a person is to be regarded as living "in fuel poverty" if he is a member of a household living on a lower income in a home which cannot be kept warm at reasonable cost.

(2) The Secretary of State (as respects England) or the National Assembly for Wales (as respects Wales) may by regulations—

  1. (a) specify what is to be regarded for the purposes of subsection (1) as a lower income or a reasonable cost or the circumstances in which a home is to be regarded for those purposes as being warm, or
  2. (b) substitute for the definition in subsection (1) such other definition as may be specified in the regulations.

(3) Before making regulations under subsection (2), the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales shall consult—

  1. (a) persons appearing to the Secretary of State or the Assembly to represent the interests of persons living in fuel poverty, and
  2. (b) such other persons as the Secretary of State or the Assembly thinks fit.

(4) Regulations under subsection (2) shall be made by statutory instrument; and a statutory instrument containing such regulations made by the Secretary of State shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'.—[Mr. Amess.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.34 am
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

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

Madam Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 46, in clause 1, page 1, line 9, leave out from "practicable" to end of line 10 and insert— 'persons do not live in fuel poverty'.

No. 3, in page 1, line 10, leave out "on lower incomes" and insert "in fuel poverty".

No. 5, in page 1, line 10, at end insert— '(1A) For the purposes of this section "households in fuel poverty" are those which need to spend 10 per cent. or more of their income to provide adequate heat and energy.'. No. 33, in page 1, line 10, at end insert— '(1A) For the purpose of this Act "households on lower incomes" means households with a household income which is less than half the current average.'.

No. 35, in page 1, line 10, at end insert— '(1A) For the purpose of this Act "household income" means the combined income of all those living within the confines of a set dwelling.'.

No. 48, in page 1, line 18, leave out from "practicable" to end of line 19 and insert— 'persons in England or Wales do not live in fuel poverty'.

No. 13, in page 1, line 18, leave out "on lower incomes" and insert "in fuel poverty".

No. 14, in page 1, line 18, leave out "on lower incomes" and insert— 'in receipt of benefit payments'.

No. 17, in page 1, line 19, at end insert— ',and ( ) provide a definition of fuel poverty which will facilitate achievement of the objectives of section 1(1).'. No. 51, in page 2, line 10, leave out subsection (7).

No. 31, in page 2, line 16, at end insert— ' "fuel poverty" means households obliged to spend 20 per cent. or more of their (after tax and benefits) income to keep acceptably warm, having regard to such factors as the age and medical condition of the occupants and the external ambient temperatures;'. No. 39, in page 2, line 16, at end insert— '"fuel poverty" means the inability of a household to keep warm at reasonable cost'.

Mr. Amess

Although we tend not to talk about such things, outside observers may sometimes be confused by our proceedings. There is no doubt that our customs are puzzling to those outside. However, I should say immediately that, as the promoter of the Bill, I have absolutely no complaints about the procedures and processes which others might describe as tortuous.

There is no point in entering the competition, as I did last autumn, knowing and understanding fully the rules of engagement, and then griping when things do not go as smoothly as one would wish. Although some hon. Members think that the Report stage of a Bill is a complete waste of time, I do not agree: I find it extremely valuable and I hope that this morning we will discover at first hand how the new clauses and amendments that I hope to persuade the House to accept result entirely from the taking on board of points that were made in earlier debates on the Bill.

I recognise the need to work with other parties and I have taken on board the concerns of other right hon. and hon. Members in order to obtain the widest possible support for the Bill. I am very grateful for the help and encouragement that has been offered by so many right hon. and hon. Members at every stage.

The amendments are very much a reflection of that spirit. I hope that the House will agree that the proposed changes are sensible and will benefit the people whom we are most concerned to help—our constituents—enabling them to afford to keep warm during the winter months.

Second Reading seems a long time ago, but at the time I told the House that I felt very uncomfortable with the term "fuel poverty". I was born and bred in the east end of London and some people may have thought that I was poor, as my family did not have a bathroom, only an outside toilet; however, I, and other children like me, certainly did not feel poor. When we talk about fuel poverty, we have to be very careful about our language as "poor" may not mean the same thing to different people.

Without antagonising Labour Members, let me say as a Conservative that I felt that the term "fuel poverty" sounded rather socialist. Labour Members may say, "What is wrong with using socialist terms?", but having taken on board new Labour and everything it stands for, I felt rather uncomfortable with that term. As a result, I was happy when it was removed from the Bill in Committee and when the requirement on the Government changed from the requirement to end fuel poverty to the requirement to ensure that all lower-income households could keep their homes warm at a reasonable cost. That represents no change of substance to the Bill, as fuel poverty is simply the inability to keep a home warm at reasonable cost. I regarded it as indulging in semantics to talk about fuel poverty, but various concerns were raised and I revisited the drafting in order to address them and reinstate the term. The new clause defines fuel poverty as before, but with additional parts.

It is inevitable that certain terms in the definition, such as "reasonable cost", "lower-income" and even "warm", are somewhat subjective. We discussed those phrases in Committee. I am pleased that the Minister confirmed that "lower-income" is a wider term than "low-income" and includes more than just people on benefits, because hon. Members were worried about that.

We still face the dilemma of wanting clarity but not wanting the Bill to be so inflexible and narrowly defined that future improvements in measuring fuel poverty cannot be made without amending primary legislation. That is very important and it is why the new clause allows the finer points of the definition to be set by regulations. I hope that the House will agree that that represents a sensible balance.

The remaining parts of the new clause refer to consultation, and I hope that the House will accept my judgment on those matters.

Amendments Nos. 46 and 48 are consequent on the new clause, inserting the term "fuel poverty" as necessary. Amendment No. 51 is the final amendment that I hope hon. Members will support. It removes clause 1(7), which had initially been included so that, if a strategy for fulfilling the requirements of the Bill was published before it became law, we would not require it to be re-published needlessly, as quite enough documents are being published at great cost to the public purse. That subsection is no longer necessary because things have moved on in the Departments that work on the strategy, and it has become clear that no strategy will be produced before the Bill comes into effect.

My amendments deal with the legitimate concerns reflected in the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friends the Members for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), so I hope that they will not press their amendments and that my amendments and new clause will be accepted.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The Bill has undergone an even more tortuous process than most Bills, so I want to explain where we are to those who may be mystified. The Bill started with high hopes and aspirations and wide support in the House, and about 140 hon. Members took the trouble to turn up and vote for it at an earlier stage.

When we discussed the money resolution, the Minister said that the Bill enshrines current commitments and mirrors measures that we already have in hand. For that reason, we do not believe that anything in the Bill would increase public expenditure above and beyond current commitments.—[Official Report, 4 April 2000; Vol. 347, c. 945–6.] 9.45 am

Does the Minister still believe that the Bill has no public expenditure implications? That was a mystery that arose at a very early stage, and then the plot thickened further, because in Committee, the Government, with the apparent connivance of Committee members—there were no Divisions—removed almost all the elements of the Bill that we had previously been told were vital, including the reference to fuel poverty.

That would have been mysterious enough, but a group calling itself Friends of the Earth conducted a very odd campaign, involving letters flying about all over the place. A leaflet appeared in my constituency in which that group claimed that the Bill, designed to save pensioners' lives, was being wrecked by me.

I shall quote from the leaflet—which, before you stop me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is relevant to the Bill—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. It is not so much the relevance to the Bill that I am concerned about as the relevance to the amendments and the new clause. Some outside group accusing the right hon. Gentleman of wrecking the Bill has nothing to do with those.

Mr. Forth

That is fine. I shall come back to it later, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall find a way of getting it in, because in it will get. That was just a trailer.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. At the moment, I am trying to find a way of keeping it out.

Mr. Forth

And you have succeeded for now, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I shall give the matter further thought as we meander our way through. I know that you would not want to delay matters unnecessarily, so I hope that I can slip it in fairly quickly later.

There was an odd sequence of events: certain provisions were deemed essential on Second Reading; then the Minister said that they would not in fact change anything; and then they were systematically removed. In Committee, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) said: We need to know what definition of fuel poverty the Government intend to use. If amended, the Bill would cover only lower income groups.—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 5 April 2000; c. 6.] That illustrates the point that Committee members, and campaigning groups that I am not allowed to mention, did not lift a finger when the Government removed provisions that they had previously called essential. At that point, my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and I smelled several rats.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

My right hon. Friend is now on the key issue. The blame should not rest with members of the Committee. If members of Britain's foremost environmental campaigning organisation said that the gutting of the Bill was okay, I suspect that most Members of Parliament would initially believe that propaganda. Why does the new clause put back into the Bill those things that Friends of the Earth said could be taken out in Committee, although it thought that they were very important to begin with?

Mr. Forth

That poses a number of questions about these Friends of the Earth people, who seem to have taken some very peculiar attitudes, not to mention their systematic campaign of disinformation, to which, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I may return later.

Under new clause 12, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) proposes to reintroduce something that was originally deemed to be very important, but was then thought insufficiently important for people to bother much about it. About a month ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) wrote to the Minister for the Environment to tell him that we thought that the Bill would have relevance and meaning if the original drafting were restored; that it could then deliver what it was always claimed it would deliver; and that it would therefore receive our support. A few days ago, the Minister for the Environment replied that the Government were prepared to support the reintroduction of virtually everything that they had removed from the Bill in Committee. I am very pleased about that. My right hon. Friend and I put that proposition to the Minister for the Environment, and he replied positively. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that when he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In essence, my right hon. Friend and I believed that, if the Bill was to have any meaning, it should contain the provisions that it contained right from the start; we therefore insisted that they should be put back. No one else was involved. Friends of the Earth did not care whether or not those provisions were included. Its disinformation and its leaflets show that it did not give a damn what was in the Bill. All that it wanted was a Bill called "Warm Homes and Energy Conservation"; it was indifferent about the content. My right hon. Friend and I, taking our parliamentary duties seriously, persuaded the Minister for the Environment to provide the undertaking that is key to today's proceedings.

I do not want to delay the House. I hope that the Bill will proceed, with all the amendments tabled by hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West. My right hon. Friend and I will support those amendments. I hope that the Minister will confirm shortly that he will honour the commitment given by the Minister for the Environment. If so, the Bill may be able to deliver what it was intended to deliver; it cannot do that in its current form. If it is amended; if the Minister gives an undertaking; and if the House agrees with him, the Bill will emerge in a form that may genuinely provide help to those who need it in warming their homes. That is our hope. I do not want to prolong our proceedings, so I shall give my modest support to new clause 12. Perhaps, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will be able to return to the matters that you discouraged me from mentioning.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I welcome new clause 12 and congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on tabling it. I also welcome the movement that has taken place and the fact that we can still improve the Bill. I hope and trust that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept, with some grace, that the process of bringing the Bill back to the House on Report has involved several meanders. It is worth acknowledging how difficult it is to get a private Member's Bill through the House. Any Member who wants to introduce a Bill is told that civil servants will scrutinise the proposals and that the preference will be to cause the least disruption to departmental plans. Hon. Members are told in no uncertain terms that, if they aspire to get a private Member's Bill through the House, they should be modest in their expectations. A private Member's Bill can be blocked and obstructed in a variety of ways, so considerable skill and deftness of thought are required to get a Bill through the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West on achieving such broad consensus. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will recognise the role of the work done in Committee. The clauses and definitions that we discussed during the Committee's first sitting left a lot to be desired. The contribution that hon. Members made during that sitting was that they gave the Minister and his advisers time to reflect on some of the obvious gaps in the original definitions. To be fair, the Minister proposed a much improved set of definitions and clauses, which the Committee was able to consider. It has been helpful to recognise just how much movement has taken place in people's thinking on those definitions.

I welcome the proposed reinsertion of the term "fuel poverty". Hon. Members may recall that that phrase was used in Bills that some of us drafted early in our parliamentary days—I shall not rehearse them now. We have always talked about fuel poverty; it seems to be the most helpful peg on which to hang a definition of what the Bill should attempt to do. I am grateful to those who have helped in proposing the reinsertion of that phrase.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

Does the hon. Gentleman concede that the credit for reinstating the original gravamen of the Bill lies with my right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean)? They forced the issue.

Mr. Simpson

I am happy to acknowledge the role that the right hon. Gentlemen have played in proposing that the phrase should be reintroduced, especially as they played a principal role in removing them in the first place. I am all in favour of Pauline conversions. During the debate on the money resolution, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said: I refute the whole concept of fuel poverty. It is nonsense, as I tried to point out in some of my interventions in the debate. Unfortunately, we ran out of time before I could make the speech that was bubbling up inside me. In a way, I am pleased that it has had a chance to bubble a bit longer. He continued: Much nonsense is talked about fuel poverty; I am not convinced of it as a concept, so I do not feel that it is relevant.—[Official Report, 4 April 2000; Vol. 347, c. 937.] I am grateful that, in the course of reflecting on the Bill, we have been able to construct a new consensus in which a recognition of the concept of fuel poverty is shared by the whole House.

Mr. Forth

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that I am so influential in the House that I had only to utter a few words in an intervention for the Government to act and remove that phase in Committee?

Mr. Simpson

I was praising my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues on the Treasury Benches. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst had only to show a gap in his learning in an intervention to mobilise hon. Members on both sides of the House to explain the reasons why fuel poverty is a legitimate concept and why it is so important. I praise the House for successfully contributing to the education of the right hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border. I welcome the fact that that has taken place and that we can include the phrase "fuel poverty", because it clarifies the reality of the problems that beset our society, which are a scandal that needs to be addressed. I welcome new clause 12 and congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West on all the work that he has done on reintroducing those words, and I celebrate the fact that we all recognise that fuel poverty is a legitimate problem that the Bill must address.

10 am

Mr. Maclean

I welcome the new clause and the fact that the Government will accept it. I am grateful that the Government have listened over the past few weeks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and me. We wrote to the Minister to indicate that there were five essential things that we wanted put back into the Bill and that, in those circumstances, we would be happy for it to proceed. I am glad that the Minister, in discussion with my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), has conceded the point on fuel poverty.

I have before me a Bill proposed in 1997 by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson): the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill, as it was on Second Reading, and the Bill that we are debating today. There are considerable similarities between the 1997 Bill and my hon. Friend's Bill on Second Reading. I am glad to see the hon. Gentleman nodding. I am not accusing my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West of plagiarism, but large parts of his Bill, as it was on Second Reading, are similar.

I have some concerns about the implementation and about costs but those are for the Government to explain to the taxpayer. I have greater concern about the deception that was wrought on Members of Parliament and the public not by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, but by Friends of the Earth and others who pretended that my hon. Friend's Bill is the same as it was at Second Reading—or, more importantly, the same as the 1997 Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South.

Today, I have received my third letter from a Friends of the Earth supporter.

Mr. Forth

As many as that?

Mr. Maclean

I have had as many as three from my own constituency. However, the letters that I have received from the rest of the country on the Bill have been instructive, and that is why I was keen for the Minister to put the points back in the Bill. I had letters from home insulation contractors, saying that they would make a lot of money because the Bill contained specific clauses on cavity wall insulation and loft lagging. I looked at the Bill again and discovered that they were talking about the wrong Bill.

On fuel poverty, I have received letters from pensioner groups in other parts of the country, all saying that they would benefit because of the mention of fuel poverty in clause 3. When one studies the Bill as it is today, it becomes clear that they are talking about a totally different Bill.

Mr. Alan Simpson

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has been neglected by his constituents and has received only three letters. There was a large gathering of pensioners in London this week.

Mr. Forth

How many?

Mr. Simpson

Probably about 50 people from different organisations. Importantly, people had come from the constituencies of the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst and for Penrith and The Border with a box of cards that they had tried to deliver to both of them. I have that box, which I will happily hand over to the right hon. Members.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I may have forgotten the hon. Gentleman's surname earlier, but I have not forgotten the rules on interventions. His is too long.

Mr. Maclean

If any of my constituents come to the House and let me know that they are coming, I will be available to meet them, if it all possible. None of them let me know they were coming. If the hon. Gentleman provides me with the names and addresses of those constituents, I will be delighted to have them. Now that I have managed to work my word processor, I have an interesting package of information on the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill to send to all constituents.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, South is making my point. Many pensioner groups and other organisations believe that the Bill is somehow identical to that proposed by him, and to an earlier Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), which had even more targets and was more specific.

Mr. Forth

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is worse than that? Some of the literature that I have received states that the Government will install home insulation and efficient heating systems, resulting in warm homes. This sort of claim was made by Friends of the Earth, despite the Minister telling us that there would be no extra programmes and no extra money.

Mr. Maclean

We know that the Minister is a man of many talents; it is quite possible that he has his toolbox behind the Chair and is ready to install home insulation efficiency equipment. He would never do it on a moonlighting basis, because he does not believe in second jobs. My right hon. Friend makes the point that there is a huge misinformation exercise; not by the Government or my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West. There is a vicious propaganda campaign led by Friends of the Earth for its own purposes.

The only purpose is that Friends of the Earth is keen to get a slogan. It wants to be able to say that it pushed through the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill. It is happy to have the Bill gutted and have nothing in it, so long as it has the title. It will carry on pretending that the Bill is the same as those proposed by the hon. Members for Nottingham, South and for Halifax. I appreciate that Labour Members will not want to say anything about worthy environmental campaigning organisations and risk exposing their shoulder blades to them. However, I hope that Labour Members will agree with some of what I have said regarding Friends of the Earth.

I wanted to see the words "fuel poverty" put back in the Bill because I wanted to see how the Government deal with it. I am not sure about the concept of fuel poverty. I think food poverty is infinitely more important. If one looks at the statistics, one sees that many people are suffering because they do not have enough food or because they are not eating properly. There is a problem with elderly women whose husbands die, who decide that it is not worth cooking a meal and survive on a cup of tea and a biscuit. That problem desperately needs tackling by all Governments, and it is perhaps more important than the concept of fuel poverty.

Mr. Forth

On that point, is my right hon. Friend aware that the Bromley health authority has kindly provided me with some figures about deaths in the borough attributable to cold? Tragically, five people have died from cold in the last eight years and, in my constituency, there has been one death since 1997. That official figure contrasts with the claims made by Friends of the Earth that, on average, 150 Bromley pensioners die every winter because they are cold in their homes. That is the disgraceful disinformation being peddled in my constituency by a dishonest organisation. There was one death, tragically, in actuality; 150 deaths were claimed in the rubbish that has been put round my constituency.

Mr. Maclean

I have some slight sympathy for my right hon. Friend, but the figures attributed to him for mass murder are nowhere near as good as those attributed to me. I have been accused of killing 600 people in Cumbria. Until my right hon. Friend reaches that total, I do not think that he has much cause for complaint. Admittedly, he has real cause for complaint about any organisation that issues rubbish like that, but I have been accused of surpassing him. Unfortunately—or fortunately, of course—the statistics for my own patch are radically different. It is difficult to determine those who have died of cold in their own homes in Cumbria because the figures sometimes get mixed in with the figures for those who have died of hypothermia on the mountains.

Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that although "hypothermia" may have appeared on only one death certificate, cold exacerbates conditions such as influenza, bronchitis, asthma, cardiac problems, strokes, and so on? Cold can be a major contributory factor to the deaths of elderly people from other illnesses.

Mr. Maclean

Of course cold can be a contributory factor, but so can hot weather conditions and other aspects of our climate. [Interruption.] Ozone levels and fumes cause problems, too, and cause extra deaths at certain times of the year. It is utterly bogus, however, to attribute all excess winter deaths purely to lack of home insulation or to demand a comprehensive package to prevent excess winter deaths. It is an utterly bogus statistic.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I am very interested in the argument that the right hon. Gentleman is trying to propound. Does he not accept that in the context of eating and heating, we are talking about internal as well as external heating? Has he looked at the excess winter deaths in other countries which have a much colder climate than the United Kingdom? Surely he must accept that although hypothermia does not appear on death certificates, there are sensible reasons for accepting the statistics for these excess winter deaths. The problem must be addressed, which is why I support the new clause.

Mr. Maclean

Of course I have looked at the figures for other countries. In my piles of paperwork, there is a booklet that includes them. I am not completely rubbishing the concept of excess winter deaths. Nevertheless, the statistics are grossly exaggerated by certain organisations for their own purposes.

The point of the debate is to support the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West. I hope that the Minister will accept it—I will be very surprised if he does not. The new clause meets my demand that the term "fuel poverty" be restored to various parts of the Bill. I want it restored not because I completely understand the concept, but because I want to see how the Government will deal with it. The Government were happy to go along with the concept and they must be judged on how successfully they deal with it over the next few years.

I also like the new clause because of its proposed power to make regulations that specify the definitions of fuel poverty and living on a lower income household. I was worried that after the Bill was gutted in Committee, it was rather vague on that aspect. The new clause would give it a bit more clarity and certainty.

10.15 am

What made me suspicious of the Bill initially was the money resolution and some of the things that the Minister said and did not say in the debate about it. I am not blaming him entirely—he had his brief, and he had to stick to it at the time. I was very suspicious that there might be a ploy under way and that the Bill would end up gutted, with the key elements taken out—the power to make regulations, references to fuel poverty and a comprehensive package. I suspected that all the outside organisations would be told by Friends of the Earth, "This is really the same Bill as we had in 1997, and nothing has changed." Those people would be deceived.

I do not want us to pass legislation that is hollow and merely aspirational verbiage, as my right hon. Friend said. Let us put the relevant terms back in and make the Bill what we say it is and what the organisations outside think it is. Then let us judge the Government on how well they do.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we have an opportunity here, because the Secretary of State will be able to make regulations to enforce the toughest definition of fuel poverty?

Mr. Maclean

Exactly. That is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend and I wrote to the Minister of State saying that we could do a deal. We said that the Bill was empty, hollow and rubbish, and that there was no point in passing it—it was nothing like the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South. We said that if we could, with the agreement of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, put in things by which the Government can be measured—such as a definition of fuel poverty and the power to make regulations—when the Minister brought those regulations before the House, both sides would know whether we were dealing with 50 people or 500, 000.

The regulations will have to delineate those whom the Government consider live in lower-income households or in fuel poverty. At that stage we will be able to see whether the Government are trying to dodge their obligations by narrowing the focus of the Bill to dealing with a few thousand or a few hundred thousand people a year. If the regulations follow the spirit of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South, we know that it will have to catch 500, 000 people a year. However, we will judge the Minister on that later—today is not the day. Today is the day to say that the new clause is an improvement, and I welcome it. It covers some of the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend and me. We do not wish to push any of our amendments to the vote but will be happy to accept the new clause.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I support the new clause. It is interesting that the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and the Border (Mr. Maclean) seem to have spent most of their speeches slagging off Friends of the Earth rather than addressing the issues in the Bill. I have found Friends of the Earth of great assistance, generally speaking, in preparing for the debates on the Bill, although I have one small criticism. I was surprised on 9 June to see that the Bill had disappeared, having spent some time preparing to debate it on that day. Having discussed the issue with members of Friends of the Earth on several occasions in the previous couple of weeks, I thought that it was, at the very least, somewhat discourteous of them not to let me know the change of tactics on that day.

I think that the way forward is that set out in new clause 12, which would provide for the Government to make regulations. When the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border said that he was not sure about the concept of fuel poverty, I wondered when he would get round to the amendments that he and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst had tabled. At the end of his speech, he said that they did not propose to press the amendments. Nevertheless, those amendments are part of the group before us, and are subject to debate today.

I intend to address those amendments shortly, because I think that the right hon. Gentlemen are trying to run with the hare and the hounds—perhaps to presage a forthcoming battle that we may have on the Floor of the House—in that they did not withdraw those amendments at an earlier stage, but left them on the Order Paper for today and available for selection. So although the right hon. Gentlemen may not press those amendments, they nevertheless form part of the first group of amendments on the selection paper.

Mr. Maclean

The amendments are on the Order Paper because that was part of the agreement I made with the Minister of State. I said that even if the new clause and the amendment were forthcoming from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, I would still leave our amendments on the Order Paper in case of accidents. It has been known for new amendments not to get on to the Order Paper, by accident. Were that to happen, at least we would have something to debate. Now that my hon. Friend's new clause and amendment have appeared on the Order Paper, I will honour our commitment to the Minister that we will not force our amendments to a vote.

Mr. Dismore

I am grateful for that clarification. I can only assume that the amendments may have been put down on different days and that the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border and for Bromley and Chislehurst had forgotten what they had tabled previously. They contain many internal inconsistencies as well as vague and woolly definitions of what fuel poverty or income may be.

Mr. Forth

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is not criticising the selection of amendments by Madam Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border and I may have wanted—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman would not be suggesting that.

Mr. Dismore

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Ofcourse I would not question Madam Speaker's selection of amendments. On the one hand, the right hon. Gentlemen put themselves forward as great champions of the poor and people who need warmer homes. On the other, their amendments are internally inconsistent, displaying a complete lack of thought about the issues. If anyone deserves criticism, it is those who see it as their business to scupper the Bill rather than working constructively with those of us who want progress.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

If the hon. Gentleman is interested in the Bill's progress, how will he aid it by debating amendments that he has been told will be withdrawn?

Mr. Dismore

The answer to that is straightforward. The amendments are before us for debate. The right hon. Members who tabled them may not press them, but other hon. Members may speak about them. We should discuss the issues, criticise the amendments for their poor drafting and highlight the tactics that may lie behind them. As they were selected for debate, I am right to spend a few moments highlighting the inconsistencies in the positions adopted by the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border and for Bromley and Chislehurst so that I can say why their approach is misguided. I make that point in the spirit of the Friday team: Bromley has the most pensioners in London and my borough, Barnet, has the second most, although we pip Bromley on pensioners in the older categories.

In amendment No. 5, to clause 1, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would define "households in fuel poverty" by reference to income, but offers no definition of whether that means gross or net income, includes savings income, or means only earned income. In amendment No. 33, for the whole Act, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border offers a different definition—household income at "half the current average". The average of what he does not say.

Amendment No. 35 refers to the combined income of all those living within the confines of a set dwelling, but the right hon. Gentlemen must be aware of significant problems arising for the administration of housing benefit from a similar definition. That requires frequent recalculation of benefit because of the need to aggregate household income under present rules.

Amendment No. 14 substitutes for people "on lower incomes" people in receipt of benefit payments. There are three types of benefit: universal, contributory and means-tested. The bulk of households, including those that do not consider themselves to be low-income, receive some benefit, such as child benefit, which is paid to tens of millions of families. The definition proposed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would, as they are in receipt of benefit, include everyone from a duchess to a lone parent living in poverty on one of my council estates. Contributory benefits are paid as of right, and many people who receive them do not consider themselves poor. Does the right hon. Gentleman mean only means-tested benefits? The amendments are not clear, and even if the right hon. Gentlemen do not intend to press them, I urge hon. Members not to support them.

In amendment No. 31, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst makes a series of vague suggestions. He says that homes should be "acceptably warm". Acceptable to whom? He has had one person die of hypothermia in his constituency, so should it be acceptable to him? Or should it be acceptable to the pensioners who need and benefit from the winter fuel payment—soon to rise to £150—which is a vital contribution to dealing with fuel poverty and heating homes, and which the Conservatives intend to abolish should they win the next election?

One of the Government's first acts was to reduce value added tax on heating bills, which was of great importance to those who need to keep their homes acceptably warm. We cut VAT to 5 per cent.—the lowest amount permitted by law—from the horrendous rate levied by the Conservatives on those who need to pay their fuel bills to keep themselves warm and fend of hypothermia.

Mr. Forth

As he gives his list, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will mention the benefits of global warming as well as the home warming packages inherited from the previous Government. Will he also mention the consistent fall in domestic fuel prices since privatisation of the energy industry? That continues to this day and my constituents and his gain from it. That would give the full picture of the extent to which people can already enhance the warmth of their homes.

Mr. Dismore

The right hon. Gentleman makes his point. On privatisation, I can say only that I have had many complaints from people, particularly pensioners, who have been doorstepped by spurious salesmen trying to persuade them to sign over their fuel contracts. People have been harassed and browbeaten into changing contracts without realising what they are signing, and I have had to make more complaints to the various regulators about that than about anything else. The right hon. Gentleman may have a point about bills—he has, perhaps, studied that more closely than I have—but I know that complaints have arisen against the plethora of companies vying dubiously for contracts, particularly among pensioners confused by what is going on.

We do not know what "acceptably warm" means. Nor did the right hon. Gentleman say whether he would, should the Conservatives win the next election, vote to abolish the winter fuel payment. I hope that he never has the chance, because pensioners tell me how valuable it is in keeping homes acceptably warm and dealing with fuel poverty.

The amendment also refers to "external ambient temperatures". I am not sure whether that is some obtuse reference to global warming. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman nods and says that it might be. That is a peculiar position to take. It would return us to the inadequate attempts of the cold weather hardship payments to deal ex post facto with keeping people's homes warm. That was a terrible way to deal with the problem. Homes had to be cold for days on end, and the money could be claimed only retrospectively. If on only one day the temperature went a degree above the limit, the pensioner received nothing. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to return to that, rather than having £150 paid in the autumn before the cold weather, he will not find favour with many pensioners. I am also worried that there may be different rules for people in the south and in the north, as there were under the old system.

I hope that I have highlighted the lack of thought behind the attacks mounted by the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst and for Penrith and The Border during the Bill's passage through the House. The solution proposed by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), presumably after discussions with the Government, is the way forward. In the regulations, the Government will be able to provide sensible answers to questions about income levels, acceptable warmth and so on. They will be able to use objective criteria such as temperature, and I see that later amendments contain suggestions in that regard.

10.30 am

The organisation Friends of the Earth has made a major contribution to the Bill and has been unfairly traduced this morning. The hon. Member for Southend, West deserves congratulation on his constructive work with the Government. The Bill will help to tackle fuel poverty and ensure that pensioners do not have to suffer from hypothermia and cold homes. The winter fuel payment and the cut in VAT on fuel show that progress is being made, but if we make sure that homes are warm as a result of insulation, for example, that money will go a lot further.

Mr. Green

The Bill has benefited from detailed scrutiny in the House, and also in the exchange of letters between the Minister and my right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). To keep up that level of scrutiny, I have a few practical questions that arise out of the amendments.

However, I shall begin by dealing with the extraordinary speech by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). I assume that he is happy with the Government's miserly pensions increase this year, which would be massively improved by the consolidation of various benefits proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). I also assume that Labour Members are happy with the way in which the Government fiddle the inflation figures. The calculation of the rate of inflation is lower when it comes to determining the increase for pensioners than it is when the Government wish to raise petrol prices. If the hon. Gentleman is happy with both those things, he will have some explaining to do to pensioners in his constituency.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Many pensioners receive occupational pensions, and so pay tax. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that paying the £150 winter fuel allowance weekly would have attracted tax, and that pensioners would have received less of the money?

Mr. Green

I note that Labour Members do not want to deal with the amount of the increase introduced by the Government, or with the fact that the Government offer no guarantee about how they will calculate inflation next year. However, I suspect that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, might consider a wider debate about the Government's miserliness towards pensioners to be out of order.

The second extraordinary point about the speech by the hon. Member for Hendon was that he devoted almost all of it to a discussion of amendments that my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border had said that he intended to withdraw. The suspicion is that that was the performance of an hon. Gentleman trying to talk out a Bill. I genuinely hope that that was not the case.

Mr. Dismore

I assure the hon. Gentleman that if I intended to talk the Bill out, I could speak for more than 10 or 15 minutes.

Mr. Green

I am happy with that confirmation, but there are other groups of amendments. If all the hon. Gentleman's speeches are as irrelevant to the Bill as his first, we may well be in trouble with time later. However, I am pleased to accept the hon. Gentleman's assurance about his intentions, as I was wondering whether he was obeying an order from his Whips. No doubt we shall find out the truth of that later.

In Committee, there was a long debate about the central issue of who should benefit from the Bill. I expect the Government to support the new clause and associated amendments, but I hope that the Minister will explain what attitude the Government will take towards the important definitions arising from them.

How many people will benefit from the definitions that will appear in the regulations—a few thousand, hundreds of thousands or millions? The definitions so far set down are loose enough to encompass both large and small programmes. I appreciate that the Minister will not want to go into detail about the regulations that will emerge from the Bill, but a general indication would be useful.

Similarly, if the amendments are accepted the term "lower income" will have to be defined. Will the Minister say what percentage of households will be covered? Will the threshold be defined as a percentage of average income, or will an absolute income level be set out? If I read aright what the Minister said in Committee, the definition will cover a wider group than people receiving certain types of benefit.

If the Government choose a definition based on an absolute income figure, pensioner groups and others will want to know whether they intend to index-link the figure, to leave it as it is, or to increase it regularly.

Mr. Brake

Does the hon. Gentleman hope that the Minister will bear in mind the comments of the Minister for the Environment, who said that 8 million UK households suffer fuel poverty, and that as many as 3 million to 4 million elderly people are at risk of hypothermia?

Mr. Green

The hon. Gentleman is right. I am sure that hon. Members will be aware that, over the course of the past year, the Government have changed the definition of fuel poverty in a way that severely reduced the numbers of people said to be suffering from it. The Bill was watered down in Committee at the Government's behest, so the House is right to be moderately sceptical about the Government's true intentions.

Mr. Maclean

I am pleased that my hon. Friend is pressing the Minister to explain how the measure will define lower income households. The new clause would provide for that. One of the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and I tabled amendments was to try to tease out from the Government the meaning of the phrase "lower income households" and to offer alternatives. The Minister was not forthcoming on that matter, but the new clause would enable us to arrive at a definition, and we shall be able to judge whether the Government are trying to dodge their obligations.

Mr. Green

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who makes a powerful point.

Given the tenor of the discussions on the Bill, hon. Members have some reason to be a touch sceptical about the Government's true intentions. I hope that the Minister can reassure us by offering general guidelines as to his approach to those important definitions. I support the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

As hon. Members noted earlier, progress on the Bill has been somewhat convoluted. However, if I judge correctly the sentiments expressed by Members on both sides of the House, we seem to have reached a consensus. I hope that no one regards that as provocation.

The new clauses and amendments deal with definitions of fuel poverty and related regulations. New clause 12 gives a broad definition of fuel poverty and would provide the necessary power to make regulations for a closer definition of the term for the purposes of the Bill. In that respect, it differs from new clause 9, which would require regulations to implement the strategy. That is not necessary because such powers already exist; for example, the home energy efficiency scheme under social security legislation.

Several people suggested that fuel poverty should be defined in the Bill. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) obviously listened to them. The Government have pointed out constantly that we cannot tie the inter-ministerial group on fuel poverty to a once-and-for-all definition. That is why we accepted the wording proposed by the hon. Gentleman in Committee and now included in the Bill—it provided the necessary flexibility for a strategy to define and target the fuel poor.

We have considered the new clause carefully and have taken into account the views expressed by hon. Members in Committee and in correspondence. The provision offers a new general definition of fuel poverty that parallels the text that emerged in Committee and allows for a more detailed definition in regulations, following consultation. That is an adequate compromise.

For the reasons we gave in Committee, we cannot and should not provide an absolute and final definition of fuel poverty in the Bill. To do so would require consultation that would fatally delay the Bill. The new clause takes a more circuitous route than we anticipated a few months ago, but it addresses our concerns by allowing further definition in regulations. In a spirit of co-operation, I shall accept the new clause.

Amendments Nos. 46 and 48 are consequential on the new clause and reflect the position that would apply if it were accepted.

Mr. Brake

Can the Minister suggest how many people he thinks might be caught under the definition of fuel poverty?

10.45 am
Mr. Mullin

I was about to touch on that point. There are many definitions and I am aware that in the fuel poverty industry—if that is the correct phrase—the matter is hotly contested and there is no agreement. Several million people will probably be affected. As I noted in Committee, the definition will extend beyond those who are on benefit. I do not want to comment further on that matter at present.

Amendment No. 51 would remove subsection (7) of clause 1. That subsection would have made it possible for any strategy that complied with the Act, and was published by the Secretary of State within the six months before the Act was passed, to be counted as a strategy prepared under the Act. That was a sensible solution for England, where the proceedings of the inter-ministerial group on fuel poverty might have enabled it to publish a strategy before the measure came into force.

However, following consultations, the final strategy will not be produced until after the measure becomes law, thus rendering the subsection unnecessary. As there is little point in retaining a provision that serves no useful purpose, the hon. Member for Southend, West has tidied up the Bill.

The remaining nine amendments in the group were tabled by the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). I hope that they agree that the provisions tabled by the hon. Member for Southend, West deal with the issues that they raised. I thus ask them not to press the amendments. I see that the right hon. Gentlemen are nodding graciously.

I propose that new clause 12 and amendments Nos. 46, 48 and 51 be accepted.

Mr. Amess

I have listened carefully to the points that have been made. If humble pie should be eaten, I am delighted to eat it in abundance. As I listened to the debate, I was not sure whether I was the criminal or the victim. I do not know whether I was naive because I allowed myself to be completely rolled over in Committee.

I paid close attention to the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) on public expenditure and other matters. As he is aware, I genuinely wanted him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) to join us in the Committee. Former Ministers, such as my right hon. Friends, have great experience in dealing with such matters. I am sure that the Committee would have benefited from their input. I am sorry if my obvious incompetence has protracted our proceedings.

I thank the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) for his valuable contributions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border made a telling point on food poverty; without food, obviously one dies. Perhaps, on another occasion, the House might turn its attention to that matter, although I shall certainly not volunteer to pilot a private Member's Bill on it. Indeed, I wonder whether I should ever again promote a private Member's Bill on any issue.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) referred to the events of a few weeks ago. I had not intended to mention that point. I shall allow no person or organisation to be blamed for what happened; I take full responsibility. The House is a dynamic place—although it does not always seem to be—and it is difficult to judge its mood. I fully understand that hon. Members give up their time and cancel constituency arrangements to attend the House on Fridays, and we do not get any thanks from our constituents unless we make speeches on the Floor of the House and vote for measures. On that Friday, it was my judgment that the Bill was unlikely to make any further progress and, with hindsight, that judgment was right. Indeed, we would not be debating it this morning if I had been wrong.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) for his support. Irrespective of whether the Minister thinks that I have made a Pauline conversion, I am only too delighted that he thinks that new clause 12 moves in the right direction.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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