HC Deb 14 January 2002 vol 378 cc123-6

Queen's recommendation having been signified—

10.13 pm
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

I beg to move, That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Home Energy Conservation Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of—

  1. (a) any expenditure of the Secretary of State in consequence of the Act; and
  2. (b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided by virtue of any other Act.

The motion concerns the private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner). On Second Reading, the Government said that they were content for the Bill to proceed into Committee, and that was agreed by the House. As the Under-Secretary with responsibility for housing, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) said on Second Reading, the Government recognise the merits of the Bill, although there will be work to do in Committee to ensure that the provisions are technically watertight.

We will need to reflect further on some points of detail and seek to ensure a close fit with the modernising Government agenda. The purpose of the Bill is to increase energy efficiency and help to eradicate fuel poverty in England and Wales. The Bill also seeks to make provision for the licensing of houses in multiple occupation.

The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 requires local authorities to prepare reports setting out energy conservation measures that are likely to improve domestic energy efficiency in their area. However, local authorities are not required to implement those reports. The main requirement of part 1 of the Bill is for local authorities to take measures, so far as reasonably practicable, to achieve targets for energy efficiency improvements set out in their reports under the 1995 Act. Part 2 of the Bill would enable the Secretary of State to issue guidance to local authorities on how they may discharge their functions under the 1995 Act to assist with implementation of the Government's fuel poverty strategy.

I recognise that parts 1 and 2 of the Bill will mean additional costs for some local authorities in implementing the requirements of clause 1. A sizeable number of authorities are making substantial progress in implementing, so far as reasonably practicable, the energy conservation measures set out in their reports under the 1995 Act. I will be looking closely at the issue with local government.

Part 3 of the Bill relates to houses in multiple occupation, or HMOs. The Government have had a long-standing commitment to introduce licensing of HMOs as part of a wider package of measures to address problems in the private rented sector. The Bill reflects what we are trying to achieve in respect of targeting the worst properties in that part of the market. Work on our own proposals involved detailed discussions with the Local Government Association about the likely additional cost to local authorities of implementing a licensing regime. As my hon Friend's proposals are broadly in line with the Government's—in respect of coverage and the property and management standards required—that work would seem to provide a sound basis for looking at the additional costs of implementing the Bill.

The new burdens amounted to £13 million, based on an estimated minimum of 120,000 HMOs in England being subject to the schemes. In practice, we expect the additional costs to local authorities to be spread over a number of years before income they receive from fees makes the regime self-financing. In Wales, it is estimated that up to 5,000 HMOs would be covered. Extrapolating that from the above figure would imply a comparative cost in the range of £500,000 to £700,000. I commend the resolution to the House.

10.18 pm
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

The Home Energy Conservation Bill received its Second Reading on 30 November 2001 and the Conservative party was pleased to be able to support the Bill in principle, although we had certain questions about it. Part 2 of the Bill is about the elimination of fuel poverty, which is something that our party has consistently supported. We know that the most vulnerable people in our society are hard hit by the winter and often lack the income to keep warm. A Bill that seeks to redress the issue of fuel poverty, and a money resolution that funds its elimination, will receive the support of the Conservative party.

Part 1 of the Bill concerns home energy conservation. The explanatory notes Bill gave five reasons why the target stipulated in the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 of achieving a 30 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency in residential accommodation by 2010 is not likely to be met. We agree with those five reasons. We have yet to receive from the Government a reassurance that the implementation of the Bill and the money provided by the resolution will enable the Government to guarantee that the targets of the 1995 Act will be achieved by the set date.

We have certain reservations and doubts about the licensing of homes in multiple occupation. The House will be aware of the problems that were found in Scotland since the scheme went live in October 2000. We are anxious that those problems are not repeated in England and Wales. Although we are broadly supportive of the intention to license, and view it as an opportunity to support the good tenant and deter the negligent landlord, we must ensure that we do not ignore the legitimate concerns of the private rented sector.

Many representative organisations have expressed their concerns about the Bill. They have described the proposed system as unnecessary regulation that will drive out the decent landlord and discourage others from letting their property. We all know that most landlords are good landlords because it is in their interests to be good landlords. We will deal with the licensing aspect in Committee.

Other problems have been discovered in Scotland. Many local authorities have been left to determine their own licence fees, which have varied widely. There has been considerable complaint about the lack of consultation. Moreover, there is no appeal system against arbitrary power exercised by a local authority. So with regard to the financial aspects of the Bill and the scheme, it is important to get from the Government clear advice on their estimates of the time scale as well as the amounts of funding. Landlords want to know whether they will receive assistance in making the considerable changes that they will have to make.

Local authorities are worried that they will yet again be asked to fund a new and increased duty out of their very limited resources. It would be helpful if the Minister could reassure the House that the funds that the Government will provide will cover local authorities' costs in the beginning before the scheme has got under way to such an extent that the licence fees can fund the scheme in full.

Generally, we support the Bill and are consequently happy to support the money resolution.

10.23 pm
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

The Liberal Democrats were delighted when the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) introduced his Bill. We are happy to support it not only for what it does in improving tenants' quality of life but for its impact on the saving of energy that can be achieved at national level. We therefore support the money resolution. We can all make nit-picking points about what we would like changed, but the most important thing is for the legislation to pass through the House and be implemented as quickly as possible. The Bill's rapid passage, together with the money resolution, is important in achieving that objective.

10.24 pm
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

With the leave of the House, perhaps I could respond briefly to the points that have been made.

I am grateful that both Opposition parties are broadly in favour of the Bill. I look forward to examining some of the detail with them. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) referred in particular to HMOs, licence fees and appeal systems, all of which are matters for the Committee stage.

I do not wish this to be a partisan Bill but I was stunned to hear the hon. Gentleman say that the previous Tory Government, in their 18 years in office, were committed to the elimination of fuel poverty. My recollection of the figures—I do not have them in front of me—is that poverty trebled under the Conservative Government. The figures for fuel poverty must have been similar. However, I always welcome a sinner who comes to repentance.

The hon. Gentleman made a just point about whether the Bill was adequately funded. I am glad to assure him that, in our view, it certainly is. That is good news because it represents a marked departure from the practice under the previous Government, whereby more and more burdens were placed on local authorities and allegedly funded from efficiency savings. We are abandoning that practice and taking the realistic view that if extra duties are imposed they should be reasonably funded. That is the Government's policy. The figure of £13 million to which I referred, based on an estimated 120,000 HMOs and covering the cost of licensing regimes, shows that we take our new principles seriously. I hope that I have answered the points and I look forward—

Mr. Sayeed

The right hon. Gentleman made a certain statement and I want to respond to it. I am glad that—after five years—the Government have decided that if they impose extra burdens on local authorities, they will fund those burdens. That is good news and we look forward to that funding in future.

As regards the suggestion that the previous Conservative Government were uninterested in home energy conservation, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that it was a Conservative Government who brought in the rules and the ability to fund—from public moneys—home energy conservation.

Mr. Meacher

I was not suggesting in any way that the previous Conservative Government were unconcerned about energy efficiency, although the range of measures that we have produced in five years has certainly accelerated the process substantially. I do not want to make much more of this point, but I was responding to the extraordinary statement that the Tory party is committed to the elimination of fuel poverty. I do not think that the record remotely suggests that—indeed, it suggests the opposite; but let us band together, in all the parties, in support of a good Bill. I commend the motion to the House and look forward to debating the measure in Committee.

Question put and agreed to.