HC Deb 21 July 2000 vol 354 cc673-91

Amendment made: No. 46, in page 1, line 9, leave out from "practicable" to end of line 10 and insert— 'persons do not live in fuel poverty'.—[Mr. Amess.]

Mr. Amess

I beg to move amendment No. 47, in page 1, line 13, after "specify" insert "a comprehensive package of".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 10, in page 1, line 14, leave out "appropriate equipment or" and insert— 'a comprehensive package of home'. No. 16, in page 1, line 19, at end insert— ',and ( ) provide a procedure for differentiating the characteristics and requirements of different regions.'. No. 21, in page 1, line 19, at end insert— '(2A) For the purposes of section 1(2)(b) above "comprehensive package of home insulation" shall include the installation of—

  1. (a) cavity wall insulation;
  2. (b) loft insulation;
  3. (c) under-floor insulation;
  4. (d) draught-proofing.'.
No. 44, in clause 2, page 2, line 16, at end insert— '"appropriate equipment or insulation" means works which qualify for grant under regulation 5 of the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme Regulations 2000, namely—
  1. (a) insulation in any accessible roof space in the dwelling, including the insulation of any cold water tank and any water supply, overflow and expansion pipes in such a space;
  2. (b) insulation between the internal and external leaves of cavity walls of the dwelling;
  3. (c) draught proofing to or in the dwelling together with additional means of ventilation for any rooms which would otherwise be inadequately ventilated after such provision;
  4. (d) insulation to any water heating system or to provide any part of such a system with insulation incorporated in it;
  5. (e) gas room convector heaters with thermostat control;
  6. (f) electric storage heaters;
  7. (g) electric dual immersion heaters with foam insulated tank;
  8. (h) timer controls for electric space and water heaters;
  9. (i) improvements to the energy efficiency of, or replacement of any part of, or repair to any space or water heating system installed in the dwelling;
  10. (j) installation of a mains gas central heating system with no more than six radiators;
  11. 674
  12. (k) conversion of open solid fuel room fires to closed solid fuel room fires;
  13. (l) provision of a central heating system connected to the local community heating grid with no more than six radiators.'.

Mr. Amess

Amendment No. 47 changes the description of the measures required to be specified in the strategy. It would ensure that "a comprehensive package" of measures would lead to the efficient use of energy. However, amendment No. 21 would require a strategy to specify measures such as a comprehensive package of home insulation rather than the measures in clause 1(2)(b), which refers to the installation of appropriate equipment or installation. Amendment No. 21 would specify what the comprehensive package of home installation should include.

As with the first group of new clauses and amendments that I moved, I propose the changes in amendment No. 47 to ensure the widest possible support for the Bill. Again, it deals with concerns raised by my right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). My aim has been to ensure that people can keep their homes warm at reasonable cost. I have therefore ensured that the measures taken must result in people being able to keep them warm at reasonable cost. Whatever we call the measures used, that is what the Bill would require.

Others have felt that the Bill would be improved by amending the description of the measures so that it refers to "a comprehensive package". My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border has already told the House that he intends to take full advantage of such a measure—he referred to loft insulation. Therefore, I have proposed the change in amendment No. 47 to ensure the widest possible support for the Bill.

I am afraid that I cannot support amendments No. 10 and 21, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will not press them. As I understand it, they would exclude the installation of efficient heating equipment or heating controls. That may force a strategy to require the installation of insulation in situations in which other equipment would be cheaper and more effective in eliminating fuel poverty.

Amendment No. 44 specifies a list of measures that could not be updated without returning to amend primary legislation. If a new, cheap and effective insulation product were developed, the amendment could prevent its use.

Another problem is that amendment No. 21 states that the package provided "shall include" certain measures whether they are required or not. That could be particularly problematical with the fitting of cavity wall insulation, because many properties do not have cavity walls. The amendment is, therefore, unworkable.

I hope that my right hon. Friends will not press amendment No. 16. They have made the point that people in colder areas lose out under the usual definition of fuel poverty, but I do not think that that is so. Even if two identical homes in the cold north and the warmer south were occupied by families with identical incomes, the heating would need to be turned up higher in the north to reach the same temperature in the house. Therefore, the bills would be higher in the north and make up a higher proportion of the family's income. As the House has already agreed, the family in the cold north are therefore more likely to be in fuel poverty. The example illustrates that no regional variation to the definition is required. I hope that the amendment will not be pressed.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

I had not intended to speak, but I am slightly concerned by the remarks of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). His interpretation of amendments Nos. 21 and 10 does not correspond with mine.

Why does the hon. Gentleman believe that the inclusion of the words "cavity wall insulation" in amendment No. 21 would counter his requirements for the Bill? It is my understanding that the provisions in paragraphs (a), (b), (c) and (d) of the amendment for "cavity wall insulation", "loft insulation", "under-floor insulation" and "draught-proofing" are simply examples of what might be part of a comprehensive package of home insulation measures for the purposes of the proposed section 1(2)(b). Of course, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, some homes do not have cavity wall insulation, but the amendment is not prescriptive. It merely provides examples of what a comprehensive package might include. Amendment No. 47 would add the words "a comprehensive package" to the Bill and the hon. Gentleman said that he had tabled it to garner the widest possible support. Amendment No. 21 would also achieve that aim.

For the sake of clarity, may I also ask the hon. Gentleman about his objection to amendment No. 10? He appears to be relying on the argument that only insulation and not other measures, such as timing devices, might be used. However, I support the amendment because other equipment has a role to play in ensuring that homes have the most efficient insulation and are kept warm. I am slightly concerned by the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of the amendments.

Mr. Brake

Although I do not exactly support amendment No. 47, because it would not greatly amend the definition in the Bill, I shall acquiesce to it.

I oppose amendment No. 10. Hon. Members may be aware of a UK company that produces a special electronic black box that can be attached to boilers. The company tells me that the box can reduce significantly boilers' cycling, which is extremely energy inefficient. It would be a great pity it the option to fit that sort of equipment to existing boilers was not available as part of a fuel poverty reduction strategy.

11 am

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

I support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) was uncharacteristically unkind in suggesting that it does not materially assist the Bill, as I think that it does.

I shall give two examples to support the amendment, which will allow enlightened Ministers, such as those on the Front Bench today, and others in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department of Trade and Industry, to find further ways to support renewable energy options. I am thinking especially about the case for installing solar panels on roofs. Greenpeace, an environmental organisation that does not always get support and recognition from the Opposition, did sterling work in May 1997 with low-income homes in Silvertown in London, installing solar panels on their roofs. Each home was projected to save a third of its electricity bill, or £60 a year, which, at a stroke, helped to tackle the problem of fuel poverty.

We need to widen the definition and encourage Ministers and officials to examine the widest possible range of measures to tackle fuel poverty. In an Adjournment debate on 25 May 1999, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) highlighted the enormous potential of solar panels, especially in urban areas, where, as we all know, the largest proportion of low-income households are located. Clearly, they are not located there exclusively, and I recognise the problem of rural fuel poverty. However, the vast majority of low-income households are in urban areas, and clearly, other forms of renewable energy are not appropriate for those areas.

Mr. Brake

I wonder whether, like me, the hon. Gentleman regrets the departure from the DTI of a key civil servant who dealt with renewable energy?

Mr. Thomas

I think that I am aware of the case, and I think that that civil servant has been replaced by someone who is equally enthusiastic about renewables, so I do not think that there has been an adverse effect.

I shall develop the point about the opportunities that the amendment offers for solar panels. We must recognise that traditional forms of renewable energy, such as hydro power or wind power, are clearly inappropriate for urban areas. However, some 80 per cent. of us who live in towns and cities have roofs on which solar panels could be situated.

Mr. Maclean

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that wind power may be inappropriate for urban areas. Does he accept that it is also inappropriate in many of our finest mountain areas, such as the Lake district?

Mr. Thomas

I think that I would—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not the only Member to have strayed this morning. We are talking not about renewable energy, but about the amendment on fuel poverty. The hon. Gentleman must speak to the amendment before the House.

Mr. Thomas

I am grateful for that guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and certainly do not intend to go down the route suggested by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), because I know that if I did, I would be severely outwith the reach of the amendment.

Solar panels offer the Government an opportunity to address the problem of fuel poverty. I should perhaps restate a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test, who said that the average south-facing roof can sustain photovoltaic tiles that can generate upwards of 2,000 units of electricity per annum.—[Official Report, 25 May 1999; Vol. 332, c. 262.] Bearing in mind the fact that average household consumption runs only to about 2,500 units a year, and that 80 per cent. of our fuel costs could therefore be met by the provision of solar panels, surely the inter-ministerial group could usefully consider that.

The amendment offers a cloak to enlightened officials and Ministers who support the concept of net metering, which has met with opposition. Imagine the delight of a low-income household when, in periods of great sunshine, its solar panels export to the grid electricity surplus to its individual requirements. Not only does that household get a low-cost option with solar panels, but has some of the bills that it may have to pay in winter covered by the money that it gets back by exporting electricity to the grid. The concept of net metering is very much welcomed and supported in America, where 22 states, including Wisconsin, Idaho, California and Washington, have adopted various net metering regimes. The amendment, which suggests that a comprehensive package of measures is needed, holds out the prospect that the inter-ministerial group, which would presumably draw up the strategy outlined in the Bill, could consider net metering.

I hope that in the cause of renewable energy, as well as the wider and more important cause of tackling fuel poverty, hon. Members on both sides of the House will support the amendment.

Mr. Maclean

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas). I shall not go down the windmill route again now, but if a suitable opportunity arises, I shall again drop into the debate my concern about the proliferation of such elements of renewable energy in the wrong places.

The amendment is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) was too harsh on himself and too self-deprecating when he wound up the previous debate. If an ordinary private Member on a Committee with a huge Government majority is faced with the prospect of a Minister and a majority of Committee members either removing parts of the Bill or, with the wonderful back-up of our excellent civil service, suggesting that something is not necessary, and that something else should be redrafted, he cannot be expected to stand up to that. My hon. Friend understood perfectly well that he had to take the best possible deal on the Bill that he felt he could get.

As a result of our parliamentary procedures, we have found an opportunity to put back into the Bill those things that, in Committee, my hon. Friend was forced to accept had to be deleted. We can now corner the Government a little, and hold them to account. The inclusion of the term "a comprehensive package", as proposed in the amendment, is important. Some say that it makes little difference, and ask what is the difference between a package and a comprehensive package.

The term "comprehensive package" relates to the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson). One of my key concerns, which is as relevant to this debate as it was to the previous one, is the need to ensure that all the people out there, whether councils, lobby groups, pensioner groups or others, are not deceived into thinking that the measure that we would have passed today, had the amendments not been tabled, was the same as the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South or even the one preceding it, which was proposed by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon). The same terminology was used in their proposed legislation, and I think that it appeared in this Bill when it was given a Second Reading. Some of the letters that I have received—I received one from a pensioner group in Nottingham—say that this Bill must be passed because people are looking forward to a "comprehensive package" of measures for home insulation. If the term "comprehensive package" is deleted from the Bill, we will have misled those people.

The hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) was slightly concerned about the amendment. He favoured some of those tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and myself. I rather liked them at the time; they sought to define the term "comprehensive package". Amendment No. 44 is specific in setting out what I consider to be a very comprehensive package—I lifted it from the Government's home energy efficiency regulations—but I now accept that if it were accepted, whenever someone invented a new gadget that was good for home energy efficiency, or a new item of insulation, the Bill would need to be amended.

I am happy not to move my amendment, provided that the Minister assures me in his reply that the term "comprehensive package" will be reinserted in the Bill, so that all the items that we have discussed, such as cavity walls, loft insulation and appropriate equipment, will be included. I shall accept the Minister's assurance that the term covers everything listed in amendment No. 44, which would naturally wrap up everything in amendment No. 21.

Mr. Gardiner

I should hate to suggest that the right hon. Gentleman had misinterpreted the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). However, amendment No. 21 says that For the purposes of section 1(2)(b) above "comprehensive package of home insulation" shall include the installation of— cavity wall insulation, loft insulation and so on. The word "include" cannot be taken to be exhaustive. That is why I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman's interpretation.

Mr. Maclean

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but the Minister can be advised by the excellent lawyers in the civil service. I think that the rule is called the suigeneris rule—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) might be able to advise him on that as well. If one gives a list of items for exemplification in an Act of Parliament, the only other items that may be considered to be included, if they are not mentioned, are those of the same category or type. Amendment No. 21 gives specific examples of cavity walls, loft insulation, underfloor insulation and draught proofing, which are all types of insulation. If a new electronic boiler meter that would drastically cut emissions or save fuel were invented, it would not be included because it is not a form of insulation, and thus it is not part of that generic list. Therefore, although the items in the list are merely examples, the fact that they are forms of insulation means that, by implication or by parliamentary interpretation, other items would automatically be excluded if they were not types of insulation.

If the amendment is accepted, however, that argument is academic. If the Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and says that he will accept the amendment, as I understand he will, and that the term "comprehensive package"—in its normal interpretation and according to the Government's understanding of the strategy to be followed—will include the items in amendments Nos. 21 and 44, and other things beside, we will have made considerable progress. I have detected no hon. Member on either side of the House who opposes the amendment. Everyone agrees that it is a good idea.

As everyone concluded that the previous amendment was a good idea, and everyone appears to conclude that this one is a good idea, too, it is a pity that I have just received a note from Friends of the Earth saying that the last amendment was totally and utterly unnecessary, and so is this one. One must ask whose side that organisation is on.

11.15 am
Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. For some bizarre reason, so-called Friends of the Earth has been writing to everybody. Someone kindly wrote a note to me enclosing the rubbish that they had received from Friends of the Earth. One extraordinary statement that that organisation has made is that this part of the Bill is completely unnecessary. It had to say that, because although it supported—indeed, probably wrote—the original Bill, it was indifferent to its content being removed by the Government in Committee, and was urging right hon. and hon. Members and people outside to pay no attention to that process but to sign up to almost anything entitled "warm homes".

One thing that we have managed to do in these proceedings is expose Friends of the Earth for what it is: a dishonest organisation that peddles disinformation to innocent and vulnerable people, worries them unnecessarily, encourages them to write form letters to Members of Parliament, and generally wastes everybody's time. I am glad that that has emerged from these proceedings, and that we have exposed Friends of the Earth as a disgraceful, dishonourable and dishonest organisation. If we have done nothing else, at least we have achieved that.

There is ample evidence of that in writing. Leaflets circulated in my constituency made completely wrong assertions, not least about death. That is a disgraceful and disgusting thing to do. Imagine putting through the doors of elderly people leaflets making false claims about their vulnerability to death. That is the sort of disgusting disinformation with which we have had to deal.

We can now put all that to one side, because the House has agreed that the term "comprehensive package" contained in the amendment is essential to the Bill. The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) made that point eloquently. Thus we all recognise the importance of that term, even if those disgraceful organisations do not. It endorses the parliamentary process when these matters are properly dealt with by Members of Parliament and Ministers, rather than by well funded, misdirected outside organisations that try to intimidate Members of Parliament by telling them, as Friends of the Earth did on a previous occasion, to turn up and shut up. That showed its contempt for the parliamentary process as well as for everything else.

Friends of the Earth also gets people to write letters to Members of Parliament. I have received a number of letters on this subject because Friends of the Earth has spent a lot of subscribers' money on getting people to write letters to my right hon. Friends and me.

Mr. Gardiner

But turning to the amendment…

Mr. Forth

One of those who wrote included a piece of paper referring to the amendment, and said how unnecessary it was. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner)—any such prompts are always welcome.

I shall not detain the House at length today. Suffice to say that despite all the misdirected activity outside the House, Members of Parliament are focused; we deal with these matters responsibly and properly. Today's short debate has illustrated that Members who take an interest in these matters and scrutinise them carefully fully understand the difference between the original Bill, the Bill as gutted by the Government in Committee, and the Bill that we are now restoring.

We can do that thanks to the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and I persuaded the Minister of State that the Bill should be restored to its original state in order to deliver what it purported to deliver in the first place. The only surprise was that so many people were apparently prepared to accept an inadequate Bill with little substance. That is for them to explain. My right hon. Friend and I took a different view. I am happy to say that the Minister of State shared that view, which is why today we can make this amendment and others, which give the Bill a degree of substance. With a bit of luck, and with the Government's support and good will, that will help to achieve what was originally intended.

I am happy to support the amendment, and I do not propose to press any further amendments standing in my name. I look forward to the Minister's reassuring us that the Government support the amendment in letter, in spirit and in substance and that we can expect the Government to take up the Bill in its restored form so that something of substance is done. if we can achieve that today, the House can be pleased with itself.

Mr. Mullin

The amendments propose that appropriate measures to tackle fuel poverty be defined in the Bill, that the strategy specify what a comprehensive package of measures might be, and that the requirements of different regions be differentiated.

Amendment No. 47, in the name of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), proposes that the Bill should require the strategy to specify a comprehensive package of measures. There is no harm in including that in the primary legislation. We always intended that our strategy should specify the means, including the measures that would be used, to bring about the efficient use of energy, and the amendment will ensure that the commitment is enshrined in law.

Amendments Nos. 10, 21 and 44 deal with definitions of measures to be installed in vulnerable households. As the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) conceded, those amendments have been superseded by amendment No. 47. In addition, defining measures is unwise: we do not want to tie the hands of those preparing the strategy to any particular kind of measure; we want the strategy to include the most appropriate and most cost-effective energy efficiency and other measures to deal with the problems that are identified.

The methods used to tackle fuel poverty have to be wide-ranging. They can take the form of measures that are physically installed, or they can take the form of advice, grants or income benefits, none of which is included in the list in one of the amendments. In addition, we need to take account of the fact that technology moves on, and that in future there might be other measures that we wanted to employ but could not, because they were not on the defined list. If the list were partial, as the list in amendment No. 44 is, there could be serious repercussions affecting the usefulness of the Bill. We need to keep the Bill flexible, so that it covers all the appropriate measures, both those that are available today and new measures that may become available in future, if and when technological advances allow the inclusion of new or alterative measures. Amendments Nos. 21 and 44 do not allow for that because they are too restrictive.

As we said in Committee, the Government want to avoid a comprehensive package of measures being deemed necessary for every household, regardless of whether or not that household needs one or more of the measures specified. That could be the outcome of accepting amendment No. 10. As for amendment No. 16, although the idea of setting out the regional picture of fuel poverty in developing the overall strategy is welcome, it is not necessary for such a provision to be spelled out in legislation.

Therefore, the Government can accept amendment No. 47, but we ask the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) not to press amendments Nos. 10, 16, 21 and 44.

Amendment agreed to

Mr. Forth

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 1, line 17, leave out "a target date" and insert "target dates".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 41, in page 1, line 17, after "date", insert— ', which shall not be later than 15 years after the relevant commencement,'. No. 49, in page 1, line 19, at end insert— '( ) The target date specified under subsection (2)(d) must be not more than fifteen years after the date on which the strategy is published.'.

Mr. Forth

If one had to identify such a thing, one would say that this amendment is probably the most important today. The House need not take my word for that. In its leaflet, Friends of the Earth said of the 15-year target: This is the only change that would really toughen up the Bill, but unfortunately the Government has made it clear it would oppose the Bill if this target is included. Friends of the Earth, having said that the target was a key element, had capitulated and were happy for it to be sacrificed, merely because the Government had said that they would oppose it. Happily, thanks to the letter that my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and I wrote to the Minister for the Environment—and, even more happily, thanks to the reply that we received from the right hon. Gentleman—we are about to put the provision back into the Bill. I think that we can take a small measure of satisfaction—no, a large measure of satisfaction—from the fact that a key element is to be restored to the Bill.

Friends of the Earth is not the sole supporter of the provision—and why should we accept anything that that organisation says? The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) said: We need to know…how long the programme will take. The hon. Members who signed those early-day motions, many of whom are here today, signed up to a 15-year programme.—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 5 April 2000; c. 6.] He obviously felt strongly about the matter, but apparently not strongly enough to vote against its removal in Committee. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), who is not present today, but who takes a strong interest in these matters, said: If my hon. Friend the Minister does all that he can to ensure that we implement the Bill over 15 years instead of 10 years, he will have done a good job.—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 5 April 2000; c. 15.] The Minister did not do so: he went on to remove the 15-year target from the Bill and, regrettably, the hon. Lady did not oppose that. However, the world turns, people's attitudes change, and, thanks to our letter to the Minister for the Environment and his reply, here we are, gathered together, on the verge of restoring the 15-year target to the Bill.

Right from the start, it has been acknowledged that if the Bill was to mean anything at all, it had to contain such a framework. I know that the hon. Members who have always been enthusiastic about it took such a view. It is sad that although the Bill that returned to the House today contained no such reference, many hon. Members were prepared to accept it in that form. However, that is all behind us and we now have the opportunity to restore to the Bill a provision that everyone said was essential. Well, my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border and I do not merely say things—we act, and I am happy that our action has now enabled the House to restore the measure to the Bill.

I do not think that I have to say any more or do any persuading. I hope that the House will accept the amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), which would have the desired effect. If the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), indicates, as he has done so far, that the Government are prepared to support the amendment, I am sure that the House will follow suit and we shall then be able to make swift progress.

Mr. Alan Simpson

I should like to express my support for amendment No. 49, standing in the name of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess); he deserves my vote of thanks, because he has got me off the hook. The House will know that I have long been associated with previous forms of the Bill, which set out a 15-year programme, and that I have participated in campaigns in support of that. The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and I took a person in a polar bear suit with us to lobby the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions—we have tried to get Departments as well as individual Members of Parliament on board. Unfortunately, the weather was like today's and the person in the suit lost several pounds as a result.

Mr. Forth

When he met the 50 pensioners he told us about earlier, did the hon. Gentleman urge them to support the Bill as it stood this morning, or as it will be after we make the amendments?

11.30 am
Mr. Simpson

In truth, I was probably urging the pensioners to support the Bill that I originally tabled. We had an inkling that the Bill's promoter would move the amendment, and I acknowledge that it gets me off the hook. I want to be honest with the House. In the process of education to which the House contributes, we have learned that we were wrong when we originally wrote into the Bill a 15-year programme. During the past year, the all-party warm homes group has held hearings on how we could deliver a comprehensive programme to eliminate fuel poverty in Britain. We were persuaded, mainly by representations from people in the city of London, that 15 years was far too modest, and that we should be thinking of ways of achieving that goal within 10 years. I found myself in the embarrassing position of advocating a time frame that was likely to be in excess of what was within both public policy reach and public expectations of the Government.

I am grateful that the words "within 15 years" are to be inserted into the Bill. I welcome that, as it removes some of my embarrassment. A considerable time before I entered Parliament in 1992, I was involved in the "old and cold" campaign run by the Nottingham Evening Post, my local paper, which called for the elimination of fuel poverty within 10 years. The amendment allows us to catch up with the sense of urgency felt by the public about Government policy to tackle the problem, and with our parties' goals.

I say with wry satisfaction that my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of discussions in the inter-ministerial group about how far ahead a target date could be set, and will know that in the Labour party, our own recent policy forum suggested that in the forthcoming manifesto we should commit ourselves to a target date of 10 years. There is nothing less career-enhancing for a Minister than to propose a time frame commitment that is five years behind what his party is likely to propose.

The scope for achieving the goal within 15 years would allow the Minister to be ahead of the time frame, ahead of the game and in line with the party's expectations.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I feel impelled to comment briefly on the remarks of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) on amendment No. 49, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). I spoke on Second Reading and I had the privilege of serving on the Committee, so some personal explanation is required of why I supported the withdrawal of the time limit and now support my hon. Friend's amendment.

The reason is that there is such all-party support for this vital measure that when, as I hope, the Bill is enacted, Parliament itself will keep Ministers of whatever hue up to the quickest possible programme to achieve the Bill's objectives. I was relaxed about leaving out the specification of not more than 15 years because I was confident that hon. Members of all parties would keep the Government of the day on their toes to achieve it.

Of course, I am equally happy now to support my hon. Friend's amendment, which specifies that the target date must be not more than fifteen years. I hope that it will be understood that the objective must be achieved in the quickest possible time, which I hope will be much sooner than 15 years.

Mr. Brake

I welcome the fact that the specification of 15 years is to be put back in the Bill and regret that it was taken out. In response to the point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I have learned a useful lesson: that what the Government say they will or will not do may be open to interpretation, and that within a matter of weeks the Government can prove to be quite flexible.

It is important to stipulate an end date, otherwise there is no guarantee that the programme will be completed. However, as has been said, I hope that 15 years will be taken as the final end date, and that the Government, local authorities and others involved in the programme will do everything possible to ensure that it is completed well before that date. Although there is some debate about how many people are affected by fuel poverty and the risks to their health, there is no doubt that the longer it takes to roll out the programme, the more people will suffer from hypothermia and other cold-related illnesses.

Mr. Amess

Again, I thank hon. Members for their support.

Amendment No. 11 requires the setting of target dates, rather than a target date, for eradicating fuel poverty, and amendment No. 41 requires that to be not more than 15 years after the relevant commencement.

On amendment No. 49, it is known that I wanted to include a 15-year target in the Bill when I originally adopted it. I recall as though it were yesterday the meeting with Lord Whitty in the other place, when I and other hon. Members discussed these matters at length with him and his officials. I shall not dwell on that, but at the time it seemed to be a sticking point for the Government.

I believe that politics is the art of the possible. I decided, and I know that sponsors and supporters of the Bill agreed with me, that it was still worth while having a Bill that required the Government to set their own target, for two reasons. First, we would have been establishing in law the responsibility to end fuel poverty, which is extremely important. We would have had to argue about how to do it and how quickly, but no longer about whether we should do it.

Secondly, my judgment was that the Government would find it very difficult to set a target further ahead than 15 years. About 300 Labour Members had supported the target date. The Minister for the Environment has answered parliamentary questions claiming that the vast majority of fuel poverty could be eradicated not in 15 years but in 10. A few weeks ago in Exeter the Labour national policy forum decided that the aim should be a 10-year programme to end fuel poverty.

My judgment appears to have been correct. We are almost eight months on from the time when I first adopted the Bill, and the Government have continued to examine fuel poverty policy during that time. That is to their credit, and I hope that they will not regard it as damning if I say so. Their further investigations have clearly led them to the view that 15 years is a sensible longstop, and I understand that they intend to support the amendment. I pay tribute to the Government for that decision, and I am grateful to them for reconsidering the matter.

I am not being churlish, but I have a slight concern about the 15-year strategy, which is shared by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy), and which I hope the Minister will address in his response. I would like the programme to be implemented a great deal faster, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) said. The amendment states only that the programme should not be longer than 15 years. I know that all right hon. and hon. Members hope that we can deal with the matter much more quickly than that.

Mr. Maclean

I want to speak about amendments No. 41 and 49, which refer respectively to a date of not later than 15 years and to the 15-year strategy. They are two of the most important amendments to the Bill. Rather than restoring a provision that was in the original Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), they would incorporate into it a time scale from the Bill that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) promoted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West did not need to apologise to the House or be self-deprecating about the fact that he did not include the concept in the original Bill. That was perfectly understandable. In promoting the Bill, my hon. Friend had to negotiate with the Government at the beginning of the Session and ascertain what was acceptable. If the Government said that the inclusion of such a provision was unacceptable, my hon. Friend was right to proceed without it.

Six months of parliamentary process have passed in the meantime. Changes in the parliamentary timetable and the progress of Bills meant that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and I were able to make the Government an offer that they could not refuse. We were dealt a lucky hand of cards, and it was a bit cheeky of my right hon. Friend and I to write to the Minister to say that we wanted to incorporate provisions to lift the 15-year target. We were worried that we might have been asking for too much, and that the Minister would say no and reject everything. Had that been the case, we would be debating amendment No. 41 at this moment, and I suspect that hon. Members from all parties would deplore it and not want to accept it; it would have been regarded as a wrecking amendment.

A month ago, when I tabled amendment No. 41, which states that the target should not be later than 15 years after the relevant commencement, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and I were accused of attempting to wreck the Bill, not by any hon. Member but by outside organisations. They regarded amendment No. 41 as a ghastly wrecking amendment, and said, "How dare you table that; we all know that the Government can't accept it. You'll ruin the Bill."

The Government have sensibly concluded that it is possible to accept such an amendment. That is a tribute to our parliamentary procedures and to hon. Members from all parties. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West and to Labour Members who follow such matters and understand parliamentary procedures. Today, hon. Members from all parties are able to improve the Bill because our parliamentary procedures allow that to happen and because ordinary Back-Bench Members were able to negotiate sensibly with the Under-Secretary and the Minister for the Environment, who was also gracious, courteous and willing to listen and incorporate such a provision in the Bill. My only worry is that if a Government accept a 15-year target, they know that they can achieve it in 12 years. The Government are unlikely to accept a target that they know they cannot fulfil. But perhaps that is unkind.

We have given the Bill greater integrity. I do not say that it did not have integrity before, but I suspect that the majority of people believed that the target would be achieved in 15 years. All the propaganda from environmental organisations mentions the 15-year programme Bill, which refers to an earlier measure. By incorporating a target, we have also introduced some integrity to this Bill. We will thus not deceive the public. We have set an ultimate target date, which is important. However, the important point about the 15-year target is that this Government and any future Government will do their utmost to beat it. The Government will not want to fail to meet a target, no matter what it is—15 years, 10 years or 25 years. Our incorporation of a target means that the Government will want to try to show how good they are and bring the date forward.

Without a target in the Bill, there would be less pressure on any Government—Tory or Labour—to perform. Governments wish to succeed, but events can affect that wish. For example, an international oil crisis could crop up. I can imagine the Minister being advised, "Well, Minister, there's an awful crisis. It may mean we have to let the target slip. There is no target date, of course, so you won't be criticised in Parliament if the plan takes 17 or 20 years. There's no firm date." If the Bill contains a firm date, which we will insert today, all Governments will be under a greater obligation to perform.

11.45 am

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West has tabled an amendment that is similar to mine. I accept that amendment No. 49 is better drafted, and technically and legally correct. It would have essentially the same effect as amendment No. 41, but I am willing not to press amendment No. 41. I shall be happy for amendment No. 49, on the 15-year target, to be included in the Bill. That is the will of the House. I am also grateful to play a small part in saving the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) embarrassment.

Mr. Green

I do not want to interrupt the flow of harmony that seems to be spreading across and along Benches. I will simply ask the Minister for some clarification of the Government's intentions. First, I want to ask a simple question about the strategy's publication date. Amendment No. 49 sets a 15-year target from the date of the strategy's publication. In my more suspicious moments, I realise that the only remaining chink of opportunity for delay is in the publishing of the strategy. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House when the Government propose to publish the strategy, given the usual parliamentary processes that the Bill still has to undergo.

Other hon. Members from all parties have already mentioned my second point, which concerns the practicality not only of a 15-year target but of a possible target of less than 15 years. It has been suggested in the large amount of correspondence that has been exchanged in the past few weeks that one reason for the Government's reconsideration of the 15-year target is that, through the inter-ministerial group that has been working on such subjects for some time, the Government have a greater feel for the practicality of the measures that they need to take. They have presumably considered the public finance consequences of those measures and their ability to achieve them.

Will the Minister tell us whether the inter-ministerial group has changed the Government's overall thinking about the practicality of a 15-year target and, if so, whether there is a possibility of not only hitting the target but of improving on it? I do not expect the Minister to commit the Government to another target this morning, but it would be valuable if he could say whether it is practical even to think that we might be able to hit a target that is less than 15 years.

I am sure that the House is grateful not only to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) for tabling amendment No. 49, but also to my right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) for the pressure that they brought to bear on Ministers to make a significant concession. It is probably the most significant concession that the Government have made during the passage of the Bill. I urge and expect the Minister to support amendment No. 49.

Mr. Mullin

As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are a listening Government. We have thought long and hard about the amendments in the group that we are considering. The inter-ministerial group on fuel poverty, about which the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) asked, has been working on its remit in recent weeks. Although much remains to be done, there is consensus that a target date will have to be set for the time when, as far as reasonably practicable, vulnerable persons no longer have to live in fuel poverty. Although we are not yet in a position to provide a formal date for achieving that objective, which applies to the Secretary of State in respect of England and to the National Assembly in respect of Wales, we are confident that it can and should be achieved within 15 years of the publication of the strategy.

The hon. Member for Ashford asked me about the timing of the publication of the strategy. As clause 1(1) of the Bill says, we intend to publish strategies within 12 months of commencement. The dates might be different for England and for Wales but that is the plan.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether we could achieve the objective in under 15 years. We may do, but as he knows, we are a prudent Government as well as a listening Government, so we have set what we consider to be a prudent target. Given that I have just conceded the 15 years, the hon. Gentleman would not expect me in the next breath to offer another figure, so, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, we shall stick with the 15 years.

As hon. Members recall, in Committee I expressed concerns about committing this and subsequent Governments to long-term spending plans by specifying a target date in the Bill. The amendment says that the strategy must in effect set a target date. We maintain that the Bill is not the appropriate place for an end target date, as I explained in Committee, but we are prepared to commit to the strategy of providing an end target date of 15 years after the publication of the strategy. This is not the same as specifying a date in the Bill.

I believe that we can live with the amendment and I ask the House to accept it. I am grateful to the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) for indicating that they intend to withdraw their amendments.

Mr. Forth

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: 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. 49, in page 1, line 19, at end insert— '( ) The target date specified under subsection (2)(d) must be not more than fifteen years after the date on which the strategy is published.'.—[Mr. Amess.]

Mr. Amess

I beg to move amendment No. 50, in page 1, line 21, at end insert— '( ) local authorities or associations of local authorities, ( ) persons appearing to the appropriate authority to represent the interests of persons living in fuel poverty, '.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 22, in page 1, line 23, after "Council, ", insert— '( ) domestic energy providers, '. No. 23, in page 1, line 23, after "Council, ", insert— '( ) domestic energy appliance and insulation providers, '. No. 24, in page 1, line 23, after "Council, ", insert— '( ) local authorities and housing associations, '. No. 25, in page 1, line 23, after "Council, ", insert— '( ) persons in fuel poverty, '. No. 42, in page 1, line 23, leave out "and" and insert— '(aa) local authorities, (ab) persons in fuel poverty, and'. No. 52, in clause 3, page 2, line 31, at beginning insert— '( ) In this Act "local authority" means—

  1. (a) in relation to England, the council of a county, district or London borough, the Common Council of the City of London or the Council of the Isles of Scilly, and
  2. (b) in relation to Wales, the council of a county or county borough.'.

Mr. Amess

Amendment No. 50 requires the Government or the National Assembly for Wales to consult local authorities or persons appearing…to represent the interests of persons living in fuel poverty on drawing up a strategy to end fuel poverty. Amendment No. 52 clarifies exactly what is meant by local authority.

As drafted, the Bill requires the appropriate authority to consult on a strategy with such persons as he or she thinks fit. My right hon. Friends have raised concerns that the provision is not specific enough and that the two categories ought to be defined more precisely in the Bill.

My own feeling is that it is inconceivable that any Secretary of State would take the view that local authorities and persons in fuel poverty should be excluded from such consultation. Local authorities have a very important role to play both as major landlords and as organisations already involved in many schemes to reduce fuel poverty. However, I am only too pleased to move the amendments to clarify matters further and I hope that they will meet with the approval of right hon. and hon. Members.

Mr. Forth

I understand my hon. Friend's argument, but it worries me when anyone says that it is surely inconceivable that the Government would not do something and then gives the Government the benefit of the doubt. I understood that a large element of the legislative process was designed precisely not to give the Government the benefit of any doubt whatever, and that is very much the thrust of this morning's proceedings.

When the House takes decisions in making the law, we seek to strike a balance between not putting an undue amount of detail in the Bill—we had that argument on a previous group of amendments—and doing what we consider necessary to guarantee as far as we can that the Government will follow the aim and the spirit of the Bill. This is a very good case in point. Although my hon. Friend may be prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt, it is important to put matters beyond doubt and to specify in the Bill that the Government will undertake a process of consultation in order so that we can be satisfied that all those who are properly concerned are properly listened to.

Although we may all believe that the Minister, the Minister for the Environment and, indeed, the entire ministerial team can be relied on to undertake consultations, it is in the way of things—regrettable though it may be—that they may not be in post for the 15 years that it may take to complete the programme, although we all hope it will be sooner. Labour Members referred to a period of 10 years. Although this is only a guess, I doubt whether the ministerial team will be intact in 10 years' time. Therefore, it is prudent that the Bill should include a degree of specificity about consultation. The amendment would not alter the thrust of the Bill in any important way; indeed, it adds to and strengthens it.

This morning, we have been attempting to put the Bill in a state in which it can deliver what it was intended to deliver and meet the aspirations of people throughout the country—although I fear that, to some extent, their aspirations have been raised a little too high. Perhaps that is a matter for Third Reading. I am happy to endorse the amendments and I hope that the House will accept them.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas

I, too, support amendments Nos. 50 and 52, which are entirely sensible. Does the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) envisage housing associations coming within the terms of the second element of amendment No. 50? Just as local authorities are key delivery mechanisms for tackling fuel poverty, so too are housing associations.

Local authorities and housing associations have both pioneered the development of residential combined heat and power schemes, which have helped to tackle fuel poverty. The excellent Combined Heat and Power Association suggested that a residential CHP scheme in Chesterfield has halved heating costs. St. Pancras Housing runs one of more than 60 residential CHP schemes around the country. It is pioneering a project next to Euston station. The energy bills of about 100 tenants have been cut by 20 per cent. Three years ago, the project was able to get rid of standing charges. and its advanced metering system has helped to get fuel bills down.

Residential CHP schemes and, more importantly, the involvement of housing associations in the delivery of the strategy to tackle fuel poverty should be promoted.

The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to focus on the contribution that local councils can make. It would have been somewhat surprising if the Government had chosen not to accept the amendment, given the support that they have already offered to residential CHP schemes in Southampton, Manchester and Tower Hamlets that have been developed—pioneered, indeed—by the local authorities, which have formed effective partnerships with the private sector, which in turn has helped to deliver the finance.

I want to highlight the scheme that Tower Hamlets council has developed on the Barkantine estate, in partnership with London Electricity. It is a good example of how local councils can contribute to the delivery of our strategy to tackle fuel poverty.

12 noon

Mr. Mullin

This group of amendments deals with issues of consultation in relation to the fuel poverty strategy and the definition of fuel poverty.

We want to ensure that all the appropriate people are consulted. That was achieved by the Bill as amended in Committee. We would in any case have consulted local authorities or associations of local authorities and those representing the interests of those in fuel poverty. Amendment No. 50 makes it a requirement to do so. The amendment is not really necessary, but the requirement will not hinder or hamper the consultation process in any way. It is very similar to amendment No. 42, but extends the requirement to include local authority associations, which the Government think sensible.

Amendments Nos. 22 to 25 and 42 list in detail groups that must be consulted. It is always a bit unwise to have such a list, as one frequently finds, when it is too late to make a change, that someone has been missed out. We do not believe that it will be absolutely necessary to consult all those listed in the amendments on every occasion—for example, domestic energy providers, those providing appliances, housing associations, insulation companies or persons in fuel poverty.

I do not want to get drawn into a debate on numbers, but—for example—the last group probably consists of more than 4 million households. Consulting all those would pose some technical difficulties, which I am sure the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), even in his new-found enthusiasm for consultation, would not necessarily want, especially as he is an opponent of unnecessary bureaucracy.

If particular circumstances require consultation with those groups or organisations, or their representatives, we will consult them, but we will do so under the requirement in clause 1(3)b), as it emerged from Committee, to consult such other persons as the appropriate authority thinks fit. Amendment No. 50 effectively renders amendments Nos. 22 to 25 and 42 unnecessary, and I believe that the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) have indicated their intention not to press them to a vote.

Mr. Brake

Can the Minister confirm that one of the effects of amendment No. 50 will be to make it plain that it will be appropriate for the authorities to consult organisations such as Friends of the Earth on fuel poverty strategies?

Mr. Mullin

That is very possible, but I do not think that it was what the right hon. Gentlemen had in mind when they compiled their list.

Amendment No. 50 will require a consequential amendment later in the Bill. If we are to require consultation with local authorities, we must, for completeness, define what a local authority is for the purpose. The hon. Member for Southend, West recognises that, and deals with it in amendment No. 52. That is a fairly straightforward procedure and a standard definition is proposed.

The Government are happy to accept amendment No. 50. I should be grateful to the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border and for Bromley and Chislehurst if they did not press the amendments that they tabled to a Division.

Mr. Amess

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) made the point about housing associations. I am delighted with the Minister's response. Although my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) gently chastised me for being too trusting of the Government in my injudicious remarks, I am happy to rest with the case that the Minister has made.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 51, in page 2, line 10, leave out subsection (7).—[Mr. Amess.]

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