HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc1603-9

Queen's recommendation having been signified—

2.25 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope)

I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of— any expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State in consequence or by virtue of the Act; and (2) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided by virtue of any other Act. The motion relates to a private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell). In general, the Government support the Bill's provisions, except for those that I shall mention in a moment. The Bill will amend the Building Act 1984 to allow building regulations to be made for the additional purposes of protecting and enhancing the environment, facilitating sustainable development, and preventing and detecting crime. These purposes are fully in line with the Government's policies on dealing with greenhouse gas emissions, and on sustainable and safer communities, and would allow building regulations to make a greater contribution to dealing with those issues.

The Bill repeals the exemptions from building regulations requirements afforded to statutory undertakers, mainly in respect of utilities and transport undertakings. It also allows building regulations dealing with the conservation of fuel and power, or the reduction of greenhouse gases, to be applied to existing buildings.

The Bill's other main provision is the placing of a requirement on the Secretary of State to present biennially to Parliament a report on progress in the building stock in England and Wales, in connection with conservation of fuel and power, preventing waste or misuse of water, protecting the environment and facilitating sustainable development.

The Bill contains mainly enabling powers, and costs will not arise until those powers are used. Before regulations are made under the Bill, any proposals would be subject to full public consultation and the regulatory impact assessment process in order to look at the costs and benefits—including those that might need to be funded by money provided by Parliament—in respect of central Government and local government. The costs to central Government and local government would be small, and would be funded from existing resource allocations.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

On 30 January, when the Minister was discussing this issue at length, he made the Government's case that clauses 2, 5 and 6 should be substantially amended. Of course, that may well happen in Committee, but if it does not and the full cost of the Bill as drafted has to be met, what will it be?

Phil Hope

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The Bill will be amended in Committee, and the Government are clear about which of its provisions we cannot support. The only direct cost in respect of the provisions that we can support is the biennial report to Parliament. We estimate that it will cost £50,000 per report, which includes £5,500 in printing and publishing costs. This sum will be funded from the existing resources of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

I want to make it clear to the House that the direct costs to which this money resolution relates—hopefully, it will be passed today—are in respect of that report. The other costs will not be incurred until the building regulations are passed. Indeed, a full public consultation process and a regulatory impact assessment will examine the various costs and benefits associated with any of the Bill's measures. The Bill contains enabling powers—it does not impose those costs.

However, there are three provisions in the Bill that the Government cannot support: the report relating to the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which is dealt with in subsections (4), (5) and (6) of clause 5; planning authority energy efficiency targets in respect of development plans, as described in clause 7; and energy efficiency as a condition of licensing of houses in multiple occupation, as described in clause 8.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Can the Minister make it clear whether the costs that he believes will flow from this money resolution arise from the Bill as drafted, or from the Bill in the form that he assumes it will take after consideration in Committee? Is he basing his figures on an assumption on his part of what the Committee will do to the Bill, or on the Bill as it is today?

Phil Hope

That is very similar to what was said by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). I have just specified the parts of the Bill that the Government will not support in Committee or on Third Reading, and the hon. Member for Hazel Grove has accepted what we have said. The only real issue tackled in the motion is the direct costs of the biennial report. Each of the measures that we do not support would require a significant input from central Government or local authorities. We have not costed those resources, as the hon. Gentleman said on Second Reading that he would withdraw the relevant clauses. That is why we can be confident about the security of the motion.

2.30 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

On 30 January the Front-Bench spokesman was my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), but I was present.

We support parts of the Bill. My hon. Friend made that clear when he said that no one could argue with a proposal to make buildings more energy-efficient and water-efficient, and to make homes and commercial properties more crime-resistant. He also said that clause 1 sensibly widened the ambit of the building regulations. He did, however, object to the breadth of the regulations proposed in clause 2, which he described as a mixed bag. He was particularly critical of the regime for regular inspection of security systems, because of the recurring costs to householders. He had further anxieties about clauses 2 and 3. It was clear that Conservative Members were worried about the breadth and cost of the Bill, and about what would be imposed on home owners. Meanwhile, as the Minister very fairly said, the Government were concerned about the ambit of clause 2, and about the other three clauses that he mentioned.

All parties agreed that the Bill should go into Committee, where it should be carefully scrutinised.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Heald

I do not suggest for a moment that my right hon. Friend held that view, but it was the view of the Front-Bench spokesmen. We should also bear in mind the fact that this is a private Member's Bill.

Mr. Forth

Ah, yes.

Mr. Heald

I am glad my right hon. Friend accepts that. Anyway, the feeling on all sides was that the Bill should go into Committee and be scrutinised properly, and that requires a money resolution. As I said earlier, however, it is incumbent on the Minister to tell us the costs as the Bill stands. It has not yet gone into Committee, and we do not know what the outcome will be. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) has given some assurances, but I understand that they do not cover, for example, all the objections to clause 2. We need to know what the Bill would cost if it retained its present form, and what it would cost if it were slimmed down, as the Minister hopes it will be.

The Minister seems to think that the cost would be £50,000. Surely, however, all the local authorities involved, all the Government buildings and all the other Government and public sector provisions would be affected by some of the duties that the regulations are likely to impose.

Phil Hope

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman could not be with us for the debate on 30 January, but that is understandable. This is mainly an empowering Bill, enabling regulations to be made later. It is at the point when the regulations are made that issues of cost and benefit will come into play. As these are enabling powers, they will not incur the costs that the hon. Gentleman envisages.

Mr. Heald

What, then, is the point of the motion? Is it connected only with the biennial report? If clause 2(4), which would impose a wide range of enabling provisions relating to the building regulations, is passed unamended, the consequences will be much wider than the Minister suggests. If it is amended in the way that he and I hope, it will be a much cheaper proposition. The likely costs to business and home owners should be made clear at this stage. As I have said, the Conservative Front Bench has undertaken to allow the Bill to go into Committee and in those circumstances the money resolution is necessary, but we would like more in formation about the costs.

2.35 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

We find ourselves, do we not, in a very odd position on occasions such as this. The motion requests authorisation of expenditure of taxpayers' money without giving any indication of what that expenditure will be. I will come to the Minister's £50,000 in a moment, but we—the House of Commons, the guardian of the taxpayer—are being asked to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament —that is, provided by the taxpayer—of any expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State in consequence or by virtue of the Act and any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided". For a start, that is a blank cheque. I have always wondered why we are repeatedly asked to sign blank cheques. I think we should look at this procedure one of these days and make it much more effective and responsible, but for the moment all we have is the Minister's £50,000.

Mr. Heald

As far as I know, the money spent in consequence of the regulations for which the Bill provides will not be the subject of a separate money resolution. If that is so, would not this resolution approve expenditure "in consequence" of the Bill or "attributable" to it?

Mr. Forth

The definition of what will result from the Bill is not entirely clear to me. As the Minister said, all we are discussing is expenditure flowing from an enabling measure. Whether he will return to the House and ask for yet more money if and when the consequent regulations are approved remains to be seen. Perhaps he will tell us something about that when he sums up the debate.

I take exception to something that was said earlier. The Minister had the impertinence to say that the Bill would be amended in Committee. How can he possibly know that? Was he implying that he has control over members of a Committee considering a private Member's Bill? If that is so, it is a breakthrough even for this Government. I thought we maintained the fiction, at least, that private Members' Bills were just that, and that Committee members were independent- minded Members of Parliament accountable to their constituents. Now it has been revealed that the Government control what happens in such Committees. I hope the world will note that, because it may well have interesting consequences not just for this Bill but subsequently.

The Minister then compounded the felony by saying that the Bill's promoter would withdraw certain clauses. I need not remind you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that he will do nothing of the kind. He may ask the Committee's leave to withdraw the clauses, but if it has any spine at all the Committee may well say "No: we are all eco-freaks and sustainable-energy nuts. We do not want all these good things to be withdrawn from the The promoter may be so weak and pathetic that he is prepared to be leant on by the Government and to allow material clauses to be withdrawn, but the other members of the Committee may not allow that.

I think we should make it absolutely clear at this stage that notwithstanding the Minister's impertinent assertion that he will eviscerate the Bill, or even worse that the promoter will allow his own Bill to be eviscerated—it must be some sort of Japanese routine—we are discussing the Bill as it stands, not the Bill as we imagine it may be following its Committee stage or, indeed, as the Minister or the promoter hopes it will be.

Let us now come on to the £50,000. The Minister seemed to be confident in his assertion that the few remaining bits of the Bill, after all the gutting has taken place, would—ironically, as I read it—be the bureaucratic bits. I hope that that will not be the case. There are all sorts of gruesome things about Secretaries of State reporting, and the like. Most interesting are the provisions in clause 5(2)(c)(d) and (e), which require the Secretary of State to report on the effects or likely effects, of regulations that would emerge from the Bill,

the efficiency with which energy is used—levels of emissions from—buildings, the extent to which—buildings have their own facilities for generating energy", and so forth.

Those are bad enough, but worst of all are what I would call the Domesday provisions in clause 5 (3) (a) and (b). In other words, we are going to have to have a report on the number of buildings in England and Wales that are dwellings and

the number of other buildings in England and Wales. That is a pretty ambitious sort of measure, even for the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) and his ecofriends. If we seriously expect the hapless Secretary of State to rely on the taxpayer to pay for that sort of nonsense, we will be into sums greatly in excess of £50,000. That is to say nothing about, as the clause continues, preparing a report on progress…in connection with the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000", which may or may not survive in the Bill. The Minister cannot say that for certain unless he is going to be rather more humble and acknowledge that he does not really know what the Committee will do. We should certainly hear more from him about that.

Mr. Heald

How confident does my right hon. Friend believe the Minister should be of the assurances given, when the hon. Member for Hazel Grove said in respect of clause 5 on 30 January 2004: I certainly give an undertaking to the Minister that, if the Bill gets to Committee, I will take very clearly into account what he has said…I wish to make it clear I want at least half a loaf…I shall certainly bear in mind what was said about the later provisions in clause 5, although I notice that the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman seemed to be strongly in favour of them, so that may be a matter on which further discussion is required."?—[Official Report, 30 January 2004; Vol. 111, c. 490.]

Mr. Forth

To start with, I hope that none of my hon. Friends is in favour of anything in clause 5. We claim to be the party of deregulation and repeatedly assert that we, as a party, are opposed to red tape—and clause 5 is the red tape clause. If my hon. Friend is suggesting that he and his Front-Bench colleagues are now supporting a virulently regulatory measure, I would be very interested to know it. If so, our deregulatory credentials are shot to hell—but that is a matter for my hon. Friend and his right hon. and hon. Friends, and they should not count me in on that.

Finally, to revert to clause 5, we are to have a report on the number of persons living in social housing removed from fuel poverty in the report period. I have said before that I believe that the concept of fuel poverty is ridiculous. I shall not go into further details now, but I could elaborate if anyone wanted me to. Even if one accepts the absurd notion of fuel poverty, asking for a regular report on the number of persons removed from it strikes me as a somewhat onerous requirement, to say the least—even for the Secretary of State and his thousands of loyal and efficient officials.

We therefore find ourselves in a very odd position. We are being asked as custodians of the taxpayer to sign up to what looks like a blank cheque. We are then told to make assumptions about the form of the Bill that will emerge from a Committee that has not yet sat or deliberated. Then the Minister says that he has some mysterious control over the Committee, and we are assured that the sponsor is so unsure of his own Bill that he will withdraw—or seek leave to withdraw—half of it. Finally, the Minister tells us that all the nonsense in clause 5 will be produced at very little cost to the taxpayer. I find none of that remotely convincing. It is a sad episode in the history of private Members' Bills, in which, as the House knows, I take some interest.

I note, and I hope that the House will note, that many rather interesting issues have emerged from our brief deliberation today—in respect not only of this private Member's Bill, but more generally—on which we should reflect. Until I am much more persuaded that the House should support the measure today, we should all keep our options open.

2.45 pm
Mr. Stunell

I have enjoyed listening to the contribution of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), but I start by thanking the Minister and the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) for accepting that it is appropriate for my Bill to go into Committee, and that, to do so, we need the money resolution. I hope that the House will give general assent to that proposition.

I believe that the Bill is useful and will still be useful, as amended. It would, of course, have been more useful in its grander form, though I accept that other hon. Members—particularly the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—would have disagreed.

I briefly reiterate the point that this is an enabling Bill. It does not, of itself, impose costs on industry, households or, indeed, on the economy as a whole. The entire purpose of the money resolution is to deal with the one aspect that I would have thought the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would approve of—holding the Government to account for their performance in respect of the Building Act 1984 and building regulations. I believe that such a provision—one that requires the Government to give an account of, and allows the House to monitor, performance—should feature in more of the legislation that the House passes. That does not amount, in my view, to excessive regulation, but to accountability. Clause 5 is designed to ensure a degree of Government accountability for the legislation that may flow from my Bill.

I conclude by saying that the £50,000 involved is half what it cost the Fees Office to keep the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst in the style to which he is accustomed.

Mr. Forth

But I am working—that is the difference.

Mr. Stunell

It is well worth it.

2.48 pm
Phil Hope

We do not want a re-run of Second Reading, as we are debating a money resolution. I emphasise the fact that the Bill is an enabling measure, which explains why the costs are as described. I should like to clarify for the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) the fact that there is no separate money resolution for building regulations, but that when the building regulations are made, the statutory instrument that enacts them is debatable. The House does therefore have another opportunity to debate them, and there is also a regulatory impact assessment.

I am wary of engaging with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) on private Members' Bills, but all Members of the House—not just members of the Committee—will have an opportunity to have their further say on the Bill when it returns to the Chamber. I regret that the right hon. Gentleman was not in the House when we described how to collect the information about which he was so concerned. If he had been in his place—he can, of course, read Hansard—he would have known that we have a method for collecting information that incurs only the costs that I described. The costs will not arise until the powers are used, and those powers will, as I said, be debatable at a later stage. The direct costs are only those that I spelled out earlier.

Question put and agreed to.