HL Deb 12 July 1978 vol 394 cc1652-77

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is a relatively short Bill, but a very important one. It marks another stage in the energy conservation policy which has been pursued by this Government since 1974.

Before 1974, fuel was comparatively cheap, and there was plenty of it. This meant a natural reluctance on almost everyone's part to do or even think very much about ways of saving energy. There were a few voices crying in the wilderness for a halt to be called to the over-indulgent use of our resources, but these were for the most part ignored. But, in 1973–74, the situation changed dramatically almost overnight, when oil prices rose five-fold. The United Kingdom may not be so badly off as some countries, since we have quite large reserves of coal, oil and gas, but these are not going to last forever. So the Government started an energy conservation programme, which we still regard as of major importance to the whole country. Noble Lords may recall that this was reaffirmed in our response to the First Report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, and in the Energy Policy Green Paper earlier this year.

An important part of the Government's energy-saving policy has been the "Save It" campaign. For that campaign, the Department of Energy published advertisements, booklets and films to communicate the energy conservation message. The campaign was aimed first at industry, since this accounts for 40 per cent. of all energy use, and is therefore the main single consumer. A 100 per cent. first year tax allowance on the cost of insulating industrial buildings was then introduced. But in 1977–78 the campaign was extended for three years to the domestic sector.

It is said that some countries are doing more than us in energy conservation. I agree that some are spending more, but comparisons of this sort are always extremely difficult to make. We are at present collecting material on what other countries are doing and the information we already have shows some of the problems that they are experiencing. However, we continue to study what is happening abroad, and hope to learn from their experience wherever possible.

Last December, the Secretary of State for Energy announced in another place a wide-ranging energy conservation package. In April, we brought in a 10-year programme for installing a basic level of insulation in council houses without any insulation at all. There are about 2 million of these, and funds will be made available to deal with about 200.000 houses a year. Local authorities will get an annual expenditure allocation for this work, as they do for all housing programmes, and they will also be paid housing subsidy for it. Housing association and New Town Development Corporation houses are also being insulated under similar arrangements. We shall be taking steps to make similar provision for other public sector housing.

This Bill introduces similar measures for the private housing sector. Private houses account for a staggering one-fifth of the total national energy consumption, and 5 million of them have no roof insulation at all. Your Lordships would rightly be horrified—if not slightly surprised—if I started throwing eggs around the Chamber or burning pound notes. But these are some of the ways in which, through television advertisements, we have been trying to get home to people how much energy they are wasting. Some noble Lords—those who are knowledgeable in these matters—may readily envisage a therm or a unit of electricity, but to most people these are difficult concepts for us to understand. We are seeing a scarce natural resource going up—literally—in hot air.

About half the energy used in the home goes on space-heating and another 20 per cent. on water heating. We all know hot air rises, but not enough people realise that as much as a quarter of the heat can be lost through an uninsulated roof. On top of this, an unlagged hot water tank in the house can cost the owner up to £1 a week more. This waste of space heating is an expensive enough luxury for those with solid forms of heating, like coal fires, where they can see what they are burning. But those with central heating cannot so easily see how much they are consuming, and often do not realise how much more they are wasting through their uninsulated roof.

This is not a small problem. There are about 1 million of these heat wastrels, as one in five of the uninsulated houses has central heating. I agree that it is equitably tempting to leave them to pay their own high heating bills. But the point is that, as a nation, we simply cannot afford to squander our scarce energy resources in this way. Hence this Bill, which I agree has some Gilbert and Sullivan overtones.

New houses have to be built to a specified standard of loft insulation, and nearly all have a conservation jacket on the hot water tank. It is the older houses where most heat is lost and many of these are occupied by elderly people and poorer people. These are people who cannot afford to lose this heat—either economically or in warmth terms. It may be that providing help with insulation for many of them is not going to save a great deal of energy, but, even so, the measures to be taken will help to achieve a more effective use of energy and keep the people warmer. When the house changes hands and the pattern of occupation and of energy consumption changes, the insulation will still be there, doing its job.

We know from work carried out in the Department of the Environment, at the Building Research Establishment, that the insulation measures which provide the best and quickest return are reasonable thickness of loft insulation, and a jacket for the hot water tank. Therefore, we decided as a priority on this basic insulation in all houses which do not have it. The aim is to insulate about 500,000 houses a year, or a tenth of the uninsulated stock—which is parallel to the council house insulation programme. After allowing for some loss of energy-saving through increased comfort levels, these insulated private sector houses would save annually up to 1 million tons oil equivalent after 10 years. This is a very considerable annual saving—valued at up to £70 million at current prices—and one we cannot afford to ignore.

The next step was how to encourage people to insulate. It was fairly obvious that those who had not already done so, after several years of Government exhortation and rising fuel prices, were those who either could not afford to or who were not sufficiently motivated. This meant that any financial incentive had to be generous.

There was a range of possibilities: from tax allowance to tying insulation grants in with the improvement grant system under the Housing Act 1974. But none of these was really simple enough and some, like tax allowances, could discriminate against those who need help most. The work involved is fairly simple, can be carried out quite cheaply, and there is likely to be a large demand. A complicated system would therefore mean administration costs disproportionate to the amounts being given.

We also needed to get a system into operation quickly. We know that most people put their insulation in in the autumn and any delay in introducing a scheme would mean that the normally quiet period in the summer would be prolonged. This would have serious consequences for the industry. Therefore, after consultations with the local authority associations, which have given us great help, we decided on flexible, simple arrangements which could be brought into effect as soon as possible. This Bill is the result and our aim is to get the first scheme into operation in the autumn, when we shall be putting basic insulation into all our housing stock.

My Lords, I now turn to the provisions of the Bill itself. The basic provision—in Clause 1—is for local authorities to pay grants to private householders in accordance with schemes prepared by the Secretary of State. Authorities will be reimbursed in full for grants paid. They will also be paid a sum in respect of their costs incurred in running the scheme for the Government.

The schemes will be laid before Parliament. Noble Lords will by now have had copies of the latest draft of the first scheme, and an explanatory paper, which I hope they found useful. Incidentally, I shall be making Notes on Clauses available to any noble Lords who want them. This first scheme will cover the insulation of the loft space and the water supply installations. These will include both the hot water tank—because of the alarming energy waste which can arise from an uninsulated tank—and the cold water tanks and pipes up in the loft, as once heat is prevented from rising into the loft space there is a real risk of pipes and tanks freezing.

The measures included are essentially the same as those being carried out to council houses, except that we do not propose to include draught-stripping, which is very difficult to define for grant-aid. The amounts involved will in any case usually be very small; in fact, the administrative costs of including it in the scheme could outweigh the grant given.

The Bill limits the measures in the first scheme, but it does give powers for further schemes to be introduced. Some noble Lords may feel the first scheme is too limited and that we should be offering grants for double-glazing, cavity wall insulation, or other measures. It is true that these all have conservation validity, but our first priority must be the measures we have chosen, which are easily the most cost-effective.

The Bill, however, provides a good deal of flexibility and it will be easy, once we have tackled this initial task, for other energy conservation measures to be brought in without the need for more primary legislation. However, I must emphasise that we have no immediate intention of introducing further schemes. Our priority must be to get the basic insulation into the greatest number of dwellings possible, before we start to think about more sophisticated measures. These basic works are the ones which will give the greatest benefits, and so the limited resources available must initially be concentrated on them.

Under Clause 1, schemes may also be brought into benefit people in special need, for example, the elderly or disabled. This provision was put into the Bill by the Government in another place in response to views expressed by all Parties. One of the many uncertainties in the future is the cost of undertaking further insulation measures. The Bill, therefore, provides for the possibility of special grant rates and grant maxima for applicants with special needs. It also allows for schemes related only to applicants with special needs. The Bill indicates clearly the particular factors, such as age or disability, to be taken into account when determining eligibility.

The percentage rate of grant payable for the first scheme will be 66 per cent. up to a maximum of £50. We chose this percentage—which is considerably more than what is usually paid under, for example, the improvement grant system—partly as a parallel with the council house programme, and partly to reflect the high priority we attach to energy conservation. There have been criticisms that the £50 limit is too low to help many people. However, this limit was set after consultations with the manufacturing industry, which informed us that £75, which would he the expenditure needed to qualify for the maximum grant, will be sufficient to cover both materials and labour to insulate the roof of an average, three-bedroomed house.

For many people it will simply be a question of buying the material; for installing it will be well within the capacity of the average householder and it will be both quicker and cheaper for him to do this himself. Any new grant rates and amounts for subsequent schemes will be prescribed by order, and this will give us sufficient flexibility to change them according to need, while still retaining Parliamentary scrutiny over public expenditure.

The details of the administration of the first scheme are still being finalised, in consultation with local authority associations. However, noble Lords will have seen from the draft they have been given that we intend to make grants available as widely as possible. All occupiers, whether owner or tenant, and all landlords may apply, as long as their dwelling has an uninsulated roof space. Applicants will, however, have to get any necessary consents first; for example, landlords may need tenants' agreement to access.

There will be a simple application form requiring details of the dwelling and a declaration that it is uninsulated. Applicants will also have to agree to permit the local authority to carry out checks if it so wishes. Local authorities will deal generally with applications on a "first come, first serve" basis, which is the easiest way to administer the scheme. Once approval has been given the work can be done. Grants will be paid on production of receipts for materials purchased or work carried out.

I have referred specifically to the requirement that in order to qualify for grant the house must have an uninsulated loft space. But I should also make it clear that under this first scheme we shall not be giving people grants to top up their existing insulation. Some people may think that this is unfair. Whatever scheme we have, there is bound to be a certain amount of rough justice about it. This will apply to whatever form of grant is introduced. But those who have insulation in their lofts have made a sound investment and are already reaping the benefits. The objective of this Bill, or more particularly its first scheme, is to encourage those who have not already done so, to take these basic measures in the national interest—but also in their own interests.

I shall now turn to the financial provisions of the Bill, under Clause 2. We have a total expenditure provision of £15 million for the rest of this financial year, and £25 million a year in 1979–80 and later years. Out of this the Secretary of State will make allocations to local authorities within which grant can be paid. Local authorities will be paid sums towards the expenses they incur in administering the scheme. We thought it right to do this, as it is a completely new system run by local authorities on behalf of central Government. Given the number of potential applicants, the scheme is bound to create additional work, and we are discussing a fixed fee with the local authority associations. This is not likely to be more than £5 per grant paid and will represent their average cost.

I believe that this Bill reflects the priority we must give to energy conservation measures. With its wide enabling powers, we can act quickly in response to future circumstances and future resources by bringing in further schemes. For the time being, however, we have to concentrate, as I have emphasised, on the basic and most cost-effective measures at our disposal.

My Lords, I hope you will agree that it is important that this Bill although a modest measure, should be brought into effect as quickly as possible, so that the benefits can be felt this coming winter and I ask the House to give it a Second Reading. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Birk).

5.59 p.m.


My Lords, we can wholly support the purpose of the Bill. I was rather surprised to find that legislation was needed for the purposes involved, and I am even more surprised to find how long it has taken to produce this Bill. I think that my criticisms are principally directed—indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, clearly foresaw this in what she says—to whether the Bill does enough and some of the questionable logic in it which the noble Baroness called "rough justice". I shall not bandy words about that. I think there is a suggestion that, as so often happens, it does too little too late. I should like to remind the noble Baroness of the old adage, "He gives twice who gives quickly".

There is no doubt that we want to get on with it. If we, in saying that, are accused of advocating profligate expenditure, let us remember that in some cases the pay-back period of hot water tank insulation is sometimes in weeks or months, particularly if you are using electric heating. Even in the case of loft insulation I think you are talking about a pay-back period of probably two or three years.

I personally have been engaged in a number of debates over the last few years, and it is not the first time that we have urged the Government to get on with energy saving, so at least let us welcome them into the ranks of those who believe in that because we have been imploring them to get on and produce incentives to persuade people to do something which is in their own interests in any case. It is strange, however, that this Bill has taken four years to come after what the Minister in another place called "An active energy conservation policy". I do not wish in any way to damn it, but I am bound to say that it is a somewhat paltry and pathetic mouse which has been finally produced. We shall do our best to speed it on its way so that, as the noble Baroness says, the work can get under way in the autumn. Perhaps it will be one of the last Acts of a dying Government—we shall hope so.

I should like to ask the noble Baroness to expand on something. Her honourable friend in another place, having said that all sorts of other schemes had been considered, was coy about saying what the schemes were. It would be useful to know how the Government arrived at the point that caused them to suggest this Bill. I believe, for example, that in some countries it has been suggested that some of this insulation should be done by some of the energy-providing undertakings, such as electricity boards and gas boards. I should be interested to know whether that suggestion was considered, and, if so, why some of these alternatives were rejected.

There are one or two specific comments I should like to make and one or two questions I should like to ask. As the noble Baroness said, private houses use about one-fifth of national energy consumption: about half of that goes in space heating and one-fifth in water heating. You end up by saying that we are talking about something like one-seventh of the total energy consumption of the country. They got into a certain amount of muddle in another place when they started talking about heat loss through walls. I believe that this amounts to something like one-third of the energy in a house. But of course the point is—and the noble Baroness made it clear—that loft insulation in particular is deemed to be the most immediately cost-effective and yields the quickest return, whereas tackling the problem of the walls is more expensive although there is in fact a bigger potential saving to be made.

It is also a fact that windows lose about the same amount as roofs do. I have seen calculations—and I have no doubt the noble Baroness has seen calculations—which show that certainly in the cases of houses which have not got central heating, it is in fact possible to demonstrate that double-glazing can be more cost-effective than loft insulation, in particular if you can keep the price of the double-glazing below something of the order of £30 a square metre, which I understand is not too difficult to do. Of course if you restrict your double-glazing particularly to living rooms, which are liable to be heated for a long time and, by definition, are almost invariably heated during the course of the day, I think you will find that the cost-effective argument is quite impressive. So I hope that possibly we can at least tempt the Minister into saying that, should it happen that not all the money is taken up in loft insulation, then conceivably the Government would agree to consider other steps—such as double-glazing of living rooms—for a grant. I shall come in one moment to this question of the size of the fund available.

There is one other curious feature which seems an anomaly. I think I am right in saying that, although the Bill does not state it, the proposal is that 80 millimetres should be regarded as the loft insulation requirement for a grant under this Bill, and yet the building regulations call for 50 millimetres in a new house. That does not sound a very consistent stance to be taking. I am also bound to say to the noble Baroness that it is a disappointment to find that they will not consider the topping-up aspect. It looks as though you are being a little unkind to the wise virgins. It was even suggested during the discussions in another place that it would make sense to nip up to the loft and take out the insulation you have already, claim the grant, and then put back both of them, if you are a sufficiently energetic do-it-yourself man.

There also seems to be a slight contradiction between the idea of granting £125 for local authorities to insulate houses, but then saying that for private dwellings the allowance should be based on a principle of £75, of which you get two-thirds—or 66 per cent., as the Bill calls it—which is the £50 grant. This leads to the question of the houses which, in a happy phrase used during discussions in another place, were described as "houses with no roof". What one is in fact talking about is blocks of flats and houses which do not have a roof space. It is an interesting fact that there are roughly as many of them as there are of the houses we are discussing which have a loft which one can get at. Here again I should have thought that there was a case for saying that in that instance double-glazing should be considered as a possibility. I heard what the noble Baroness said about draught-stripping, but again is it not curious that we find it possible to define what we mean by draught-stripping when we talk about council houses and yet find it difficult to make a similar definition when we come to a private dwelling?

I can give an unequivocal welcome to subsections (5) and (6) which, as the noble Baroness said, were put in under pressure from all sides in another place. Here again this has been a particular interest of a number of us on this side of the House, and indeed on the other side of the House. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Maybray-King, is not still here because this is something that his organisation, Help the Aged, has campaigned most effectively about so far as the elderly and disabled are concerned. However, I hope that the Minister will use his discretion here.

There are such possibilities as electric blankets and the need to make one room energy-efficient for those who are elderly or disabled, because keeping the heat in one room is frequently more important for a disabled person than having loft insulation where you are trying to heat the whole house. Here, again, is there any possibility that in applying these grants the Minister might use these sub-sections to give some kind of priority to those less well able to look after themselves? As I shall be saying in a moment, there is a fear that the amount of money will run out, and that those who are less well able to look after themselves might find themselves at the bottom of the queue. I therefore hope these provisions will be used in that way. In another place it was suggested that further research was going on and was needed, but it has been represented to me that the Research Institute for Consumer Affairs has produced a report on thermal improvements, and one has to ask: what more information do the Government want beyond that?

I come to the question of administrative cost. The noble Baroness suggested that £5 per application might be the figure, which is very much in line with the suggested figure of 10 per cent. That seems appallingly high in the sense that 10 per cent. of our effort will go in simply pushing paper round the office. That would represent, in the first year based on £15 million, £1½ million, and if one takes it as being £50 per house, that is 30,000 houses liable to go uninsulated because that amount of money has been gobbled up in administration.

I cannot help wondering whether local authorities need this assistance. This is something beneficial to people in their areas and I did a little sum to try, as they say in defence arguments, to enhance the teeth-to-tail ratio of the use of this money. If we are talking of insulating 270,000 houses, which is presumably what would be involved in the first year, among 500 authorities, that is 550 houses on average per authority, which would be an average of 11 a week or two applications a day. That does not sound an enormously onerous task to put on a local authority and I really do not see that large numbers of extra staff would be needed when, in any case—I do not wish to sound provocative—the amount of house-building going on is regrettably very low. So what will these people be doing?

The next worrying thing about the way in which the grant is to be applied is that, according to the Memorandum: The annual cost of grant will be controlled by allocations made to individual local authorities and grants may be given by an authority only within the total amount allocated for this purpose". Does that mean that a certain sum of money will be made available and that, when that sum runs out, the scheme will come to a halt? If so, that reinforces the question I raised earlier about giving some kind of priority to the aged and disabled, and it raises spectres in my mind of the worst sort of local authority administragion; of schemes coming to a halt just when they are getting under way. Is that really what is intended? Surely we should be saying that the £15 million mentioned in the Memorandum is merely an allocation for budgetary purposes, to give some indication of what the cost of the Bill is likely to be.

There are some unanswered questions and shortcomings in the Bill. Nevertheless, we welcome it as a belated start on the road to catching up with the very much more advanced provision made by some of our European neighbours, as the Minister said. We will help the Bill on its way, and I promise that any Amendments we seek to make will be constructive. I hope the noble Baroness will succeed in convincing us that this will rapidly grow into a vehicle for urgently-needed and justifiable extensions both to remove anomalies and to achieve the maximum effectiveness in this field.

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, in saying that the Bill certainly does not come to us before its time. Why other countries are so far ahead of us in the matter of thermal insulation is not altogether clear. I dare say it relates to the fact that within the memory of most of us this country enjoyed ample supplies of cheap coal, and that was before any Clean Air Act prevented us from burning as much cheap coal in every grate in the house as we chose. Also, of course, the economic advantages of thermal insulation in those days were nothing like what they have become, particularly in very recent years. The fact remains that, as was neatly stated by the honourable Member for Faversham in another place, when it comes to lagging, we lag behind.

The Bill is inflexible—I do not think there is any argument about that—though it is not quite so inflexible and rigid as it was when it was originally presented. That is because, as both noble Lords have said, the Government gave way to pressure in Standing Committee in another place. Having originally said that it was an energy conservation Bill and not a social welfare Bill, that position has now been breached because we have Clause 1(5), which deals with people applying on grounds of special need. However, that applies only to schemes for the future and what we are most interested in this evening is the first scheme, described in Clause 1(3), and that is a very rigid scheme because it provides grants only for the insulation of roof spaces and water supply.

The first question that comes to mind is about those people who do not have access to their roof spaces. There is not an enormous number of dwellings to which that applies, but there are some. Supposing those people, rather than continuing to endure a cold house and not being able to insulate the roof space, decide instead to double glaze the living room? Why should they not qualify for grant? The two Front Benches will not quibble with each other over the term "rough justice". I shall not quibble about it at all; I say that this is a manifest injustice and that there is absolutely no need for it. Why cannot those who cannot insulate the roof space get a grant for double glazing the living room?

So far as I understand it, the Government's answer to that is two-fold. They say, first, that one must consider the question of administrative cost; that the scheme should not increase the amount of inspection needed to be done by local authority officers, and that if there is only £15 million in the first year to spend on the whole scheme, administrative costs must be kept down. I entirely agree, but we are here dealing with a very small proportion of houses—those which do not have access to the loft—and if they must be more carefully inspected, the increase in adminstrative cost overall would be infinitesimal. So why worry about that?

The second limb of the Government's argument, as I understand it, is that double glazing is more expensive than insulating the roof space and that people would be calling for a higher grant. My answer is that I would not give them a higher grant, and I think they would understand the position to be fair if it was explained to them: "The only grant that we can afford to give you is the maximum £50 grant which the other people will get, for this reason, that if we have only £15 million to spend on the whole thing and all the available grants are applied for, the result of giving you an extra grant for more expensive work will mean that somebody else will be shouldered out of the scheme altogether. Therefore, although it is bad luck for you to have to provide a higher proportion of the cost of the double glazing yourself, in equity and fairness to everybody you shall have a grant but it shall be limited to the £50 which the other people get". I hope that this suggestion will be considered and that if in Committee I put down an Amendment to secure that situation I shall get a favourable response to it.

The only other thing that I want to say is that it is a great mistake to regard thermal insulation as something to be considered in isolation from anything else, because in so many cases thermal insulation brings in its train a secondary benefit. I should like to give just two examples of what I am talking about. The first is that our ancestors, who were not fools, built for themselves solid stone-built houses, which last far longer than some of the houses that we are building for ourselves today. Some of them in the thick wall space of their stone houses provided wooden shutters which were fitted inside the windows and which could be closed over the windows. In the day-time they would fold back into the width of the wall space. I am not talking about those attractive outdoor shutters of which the French people are so fond. They have a different climate and a different problem and they use those shutters in the summer time, which are closed from the outside, to keep the house cool. I am talking about shutters fitted on the inside of windows which you close at tea-time in mid-winter in England when it gets dark, and from then until the next morning during the coldest part of the 24 hours your shutters keep the warmth in and they keep the housebreaker out.

One can well imagine the peace of mind of an old lady living by herself who, at tea-time in mid-winter, puts the chain on the door, fastens the shutters over the windows and feels secure until daylight the next morning. I cannot help thinking that the security aspect of this question is not present to the mind of the Department of the Environment in the way that it should be, because the security aspect is a Home Office matter. I cannot help feeling that if the Department of the Environment and the Home Office jointly put forward a plea for grant-aid for shutters for these houses, that joint plea would carry very much more weight than any plea that the Department of the Environment could put forward by itself.

My second example relates to noise insulation. Double glazing not only keeps in the warmth but keeps out excessive noise. I should have thought it would be very easy to draft a clause in the Bill which said that a local authority, if satisfied that a particular dwelling suffered the nuisance of excessive noise, whether from being too close to a motorway or a street having exceptionally heavy traffic—and I do not mean the ordinary street traffic in towns; it would have to be something exceptional—would be able to grant aid for double glazing because of its two-fold advantage of keeping the warmth in and keeping the nuisance of noise out.

Again, the trouble is that the noise insulation topic is not really a matter for the Department of the Environment because we already have a scheme for dealing with noise insulation; namely, the scheme for people living too close to airports who suffer from the noise of aircraft. That scheme is run not by the Department of the Environment but, as I understand it, by the Board of Trade. If the Department of the Environment care to consult the Board of Trade they will, I should imagine, discover much more than they know now about noise insulation and its problems and the way in which it can be cured. Again, I should have thought that a joint plea on behalf of those two Government Departments for grant-aid for double glazing for these two advantages would be much more likely to succeed than a plea from one Government Department going it alone. My Lords, with those few observations I give a welcome to this Bill as being just a small step in the right direction.

6.27 p.m.


My Lords, for a very long time I have been keen to try to get improved insulation and I have raised the matter in the House on many occasions, and so one welcomes this Bill. In the main, I agree with what has already been said on criticisms of or improvements to the Bill. Particularly important is the idea of double glazing in flats or "roofless" houses, as has been said. Also, help to the aged and disabled—the hypothermia problem—is extremely important. But there is one overriding consideration. Already the announcement of this scheme has meant that people who would otherwise have been buying insulation and doing the job themselves have not done so. If this Bill does not go through—and of course one has to take into consideration the possibility of an Election—it will be disastrous. Not only would we not get the benefit in energy saving, but it would have an utterly disastrous effect on the industry because the autumn season is the time when people normally start to buy. If the Bill does not go through they may well decide to do nothing about it, in the hope that when the new Government come in the Bill will come forward once more and get on to the Statute Book.

I think we must consider whether it is wise or not to put forward Amendments to this Bill, however good, and that is a matter on which I would ask the Government to advise us. If their advice is not to do so, then I would hope that those noble Lords who have thought of an Amendment will feel that even half a loaf is better than none. It is strange to me that it has taken so long for the Government to produce what is now a very small Bill.

There are a large number of other areas which so far have not been touched. An obvious example is industrial buildings. Again, the agreed building standards at present are far too low. If the Government really take the energy problem at all seriously—and one often wonders whether they yet do—I believe that they should press ahead with proposals more fully than they have done so far. I hope that they will do this in the future. Having said all that, I welcome the Bill, and I particularly want the advice of the Government as to whether, if we put forward Amendments, excellent though they may be, we stand a chance of losing the Bill, and therefore meeting with disaster.


My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, I should like to ask him whether he agrees that it is always a good thing to table Amendments and argue them in Committee. One need not necessarily press an Amendment, but it rivets the mind on a problem and one can have a useful discussion.


My Lords, I certainly agree with that. Perhaps I should have framed my remarks so as to have referred to pressing an Amendment to a Division.

6.31 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships may, or may not, remember the exchanges which took place at the end of June between myself and the Government on the question of off-peak tariffs. In the course of his reply, the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, then mentioned—quite rightly—the forthcoming introduction of this Bill. Of course the broad principles of the Bill are to be supported, and I agree here with all noble Lords who have spoken. I believe that everyone is agreed that the Bill, though late, requires supporting, and I look forward with great interest to the reply of the noble Baroness to the noble Viscount's suggestion that it might be wise not to extend our consideration of the Bill by amending it, so as to increase the speed with which it can be brought into effect.

One supports the broad principles of the Bill, but whether the proposed method is the best way to achieve the objective is quite another matter. I feel certain, particularly after listening to the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, that this House could improve and extend the Bill. It will be interesting to learn whether that would be prudent in view of the urgency which the noble Baroness emphasised in her introductory remarks.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating so far as the Bill is concerned. It appears to me that it will involve much paper work. My noble friend Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal touched on that point, so I will not go into it at any length. There is bound to be considerable to-ing and fro-ing between the different levels of authority, and one can only hope that the final sentence of the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill will not prove to be an under-statement. We shall see. The noble Baroness touched on this point in her opening speech.

I now wish to turn to the Bill itself. I am not sure that I like the final sentence of Clause 1(3): The Secretary of State may by order alter that percentage or money sum, or both". That seems to be fairly open-ended, and one wonders whether the urgency of the matter merits our agreeing to what amounts to a complete sanction to the Government to do what they think best. Clause 1(7) states: In the administration of this Act, local authorities shall comply with any directions given to them by the Secretary of State (after consulting their representative organisations) …". I wonder whether that part of the clause goes far enough.

It so happens that I was today discussing the Bill with a businessman who has technical experience of thermal insulation, and he has urged me to suggest that great care must be used in specifying the materials which may be used—or perhaps I should say which should not be used. I believe that highly efficient thermal insulation material may at the same time be highly inflammable. I refer here to polyurethane. It is not only highly inflammable, but its flash rate is 180 feet per second. Furthermore, not only does it burn with lightning pace, but it also gives off intensely toxic fumes and very dense clouds of smoke.

I suggest that perhaps it would be wise to include some control of materials within the scope of the Bill. There may be other regulations which cover this point, but I think that it is worth looking into and possibly including in the clause a requirement that any standard specified should be approved by the relevant fire-master.

Following those few suggestions, I wish to make a general comment on the Bill. I make no apologies for again referring to the importance of cheap rates for the supply of energy for space heating. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, has had to leave the Chamber. It is no use insulating a house if it is not capable of being heated, anyway; that is manifestly obvious. I wish to emphasise that I am not decrying the need to encourage, indeed subsidise, thermal insulation, not only in order to improve the living conditions of occupants of houses but also—and this has not yet been referred to in the debate—to cut out the condensation which in many modern houses causes tremendous deterioration, which is quite unwarranted, but which arises from the fact that in many areas houses are not being properly heated because of the high cost of energy for domestic space heating.

Unquestionably, the most economic domestic space heating is provided by gas. I believe that that can be accepted. However, it must be remembered that there are large areas of the British Isles, including nearly all the rural areas, where gas is not available. Gas may be crossing the country in great pipelines, but it is not generally available to some people who have no other heating facility to hand except electricity. Experience shows that the electricity rates now are so high that much space heating equipment simply is not used. Thousands of night storage heaters lie idle. Several noble Lords have told me that this is the case in their homes. It is also the case on a large number of council estates where houses have been constructed without any ventilation adequate to deal with conditions which would not arise if electrical space heating were in use. Some time ago, one noble Lord referred to night storage heaters as being the biggest swindle of the century—or words to that effect—but I think he would agree that, intrinsically, the night storage heater is an efficient appliance. The swindle, if indeed it is fair to refer to it as such—and I hardly think it is—is that, having at that time very properly recommended to consumers the installation of these articles, the Electricity Boards became compelled to raise their tariffs until this form of space heating is now beyond the means of many consumers, some of whom have no alternative but electricity—which is the point I have already made.

What is to be done? Promote insulation, certainly. That is what we are doing today, and will continue to do in supporting the Government's Bill tonight. But it is clear that, despite the urgency which the noble Baroness expressed, this Bill is bound to be a fairly long-term affair. The figures given show that it will be a good many years before it spreads; and it will be a great achievement if a start is made as soon as was considered possible in the noble Baroness's speech. What we are up against now is an approaching winter which may be very severe, and the poor people, the old, the infirm and the handicapped, who have no other provision but electricity, are bound to suffer. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, and, today, the noble Baroness, have mentioned the very proper steps which are being taken—electricity discount schemes, easy methods of payment, relaxation of disconnections, et cetera—to make it easier for the less well-to-do to have their homes properly warmed. But, of course, there is the problem of unpaid bills, which I believe is a very serious one. A large sum is involved, which presumably is never going to be paid.

I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, in his technical defence of the off-peak tariffs, but where are the gas and electricity surpluses going to go? Surely a Socialist Government could introduce a social angle to the problem. The noble Lord, Lord Blyton, was of course right when he pointed out that it was not within the powers of the nationalised industries to dispose of surpluses otherwise than within themselves. But, although the nationalised industries are thus in a straightjacket, this is not a debate on energy supplies so I will leave it at that. What I do urge, however, is that, if the will was there, the electricity rates for domestic space heating could be reduced. I believe that on technical grounds—and my knowledge of electricity supply, though not extensive, is fairly liberal—a number of Boards could reduce the off-peak tariffs without offending technical straight-jackets.

What can be done so that the surpluses can be used to this end? After all, the surpluses have been paid for by you and me through our bills for energy, and I believe that they should not be used—certainly not in a nationalised industry—so that rates to other people can be reduced in years to come. It is the consumers today who deserve careful consideration in regard to the disposal of profits such as are reported.

My Lords, I was encouraged the other day when two Peers, neither of whom sits on this side of the House and who spoke to me after my Question and Answer, supported my view that this was a problem with a social angle. I dare say that a lot can be said for that. There is a social angle to be applied here, not only for the people who are old and infirm but also for the maintenance of buildings which are deteriorating through lack of proper heating. I think that possibly there are many in the House who might agree with me that time spent on protecting the fox might well be spent on protecting the aged and the infirm among us.

6.45 p.m.


My Lords, we are here talking about a Homes Insulation Bill, but we have been bringing in very many issues other than those in the Bill. I am surprised that no one has mentioned the window tax, which went out some centuries ago. Of course, when we are talking about shutters on the inside of windows one can ask, what does a person do who has a 12-ft. window? It would be very inconvenient. This is a Bill which is going to provide money for people who desperately need some assistance in insulating their lofts, and I believe we have a duty to see that this Bill goes through speedily. If we put down too many Amendments, we shall lose the Bill; and I am pretty certain that the people on whose behalf the Government have brought this Bill forward will not thank us if we delay it or are the cause of the Bill being defeated.

There are five million homes without proper insulation in their lofts. I think we must move as quickly as possible in this field. It is a question of energy conservation, and I think it is important. I do not believe that, here, we ought to talk about the price of electricity or of gas, because we are here concerned with the question of conservation of energy and of making the best possible use of the resources that we have. I want this Bill to go through, and I would be very loth to see Amendments which are going to be embarrassing on the grounds of cost. I think that if we do everything we can to push it forward, we shall certainly get the thanks of the people whom the Government have in mind.

6.48 p.m.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, although a number of noble Lords have expressed reservations about different parts of this Bill—I will ignore the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona; not his constructive points, but his side sweep at the Government: we shall be here enjoying the energy conservation programme which we shall have put into being—what pleased me was the general welcome given to the Bill and the acknowledgment that we need something of this sort. I think my noble friend Lord Plant was absolutely right when he said that this debate had ranged fairly wide, and I must admit that there were a number of extremely valid points which were made by various noble Lords but which, really, I think they will agree, are not strictly the subject of this Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, pointed out that the Bill was a long time coming. I think it would be extremely irresponsible of any Government to commit themselves to spending money in this way in order to help people save their own money without trying very hard to encourage and exhort them to do so. I am certainly one of that group of people who have already insulated their own lofts and walls, and therefore I shall not benefit from this Bill, or even from the topping-up, which is something to which reference was made. The other ways of dealing with the problem, as the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, made clear, will no doubt come up in Committee; and the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, also referred to that.

I think several noble Lords referred to the question of double-glazing. It is perfectly true that in some situations it can be extremely effective, particularly when there is only one room which is being occupied. But, as I explained when introducing the Bill, this scheme has been designed to be the most cost-effective and to be the most widely used. If there is any under-spending—I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, who raised this point—we will gladly consider what else can be done, but I very much doubt whether that will be so at this stage.

The noble Lord also made a point about the local authority grant of £125 against the £75 in the private sector. The local authority has to include all work done by the local authority because of the system of local authority financing. In any case, one is dealing with a smaller number of houses than when taking on the whole of the private sector. Anyone can apply. There is, as is quite clear, no means test in this at all. I do not think that 10 per cent. of the cost will go on people pushing paper around. We are putting an extra burden on the local authorities. They will have to monitor this scheme. It will mean a series of spot checks to see that the scheme is not being abused and, therefore, there will be extra work. Because, as noble Lords are aware, we have cut down expenditure on local authorities and their manpower, in putting this extra burden on them we have to make some compensation.

I will not deal in detail with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, about dwellings without loft access, except to say that if a house has a loft and there is no means of access, then the cost of cutting the access and making good afterwards would be included in grant eligible work. He did say that he was going to put down an Amendment over the whole question of grant aid for further measures such as double glazing; so I will leave that point and other Committee points for the Committee stage.

The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, referred to the timing of the announcement. Whenever any scheme is announced it is bound to discourage insulation activities. We chose to announce in the summer when people's minds are rather less turned to it. We hope to get the Royal Assent by the summer. He is right when he says that if a number of Amendments are put down and if they are carried in this House, it could lead to delay in the passage of the Bill.

It is an extremely straightforward Bill. It is the start of a series of schemes, we hope; but we have to start in a fairly modest way. As I explained when I introduced the Bill, the Government specifically mention special categories of people: the old and the disabled. It will not need further legislation, as I emphasised originally, to bring this in directly we can expand the scheme. I would assure noble Lords that there is no question of not taking this not only into consideration but having great sympathy with and having it much in mind. This is why this is specifically written into the Bill. On the question of off-peak tariffs, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, I cannot add more to what my noble friend Lord Strabolgi and in his reply. I will pass his further remarks on to my colleagues in the Department of Energy. As to the high cost of electric heating, I would only reply in the words of my noble friend Lord Plant, that that is another point and is really not the concern of this Bill. The wide enabling powers provide for improving the Bill in the future; and we shall try to make each scheme as sensible and straightforward as possible.

It seems to me—and I am sure it would seem so to others—that it is a great pity that encouragement and exhortation has not, in fact, resulted in people saving energy and, in doing so, helping themselves. It is as a last resort that the Government have had to enter into a scheme which costs money and which falls on public expenditure. The energy situation and need for energy conservation is so important and, as all noble Lords have recognised, the urgency of it is so great, that we must go ahead. We hope to get this Bill through as quickly as possible because the first scheme can have an immediate impact on thousands of homes. It can produce significant energy savings, encourage people and set a good example so that some people will not wait without doing it themselves; and, as I pointed out, it is a great incentive for the "do it yourself" schemes to go ahead. I hope that noble Lords will agree to give the Bill a quick passage (as they have indicated) so that we can get it into operation in time for the autumn.


My Lords, may I ask again about the question of the sum of money, how it is to be operated and whether there is a danger of it running out? I made this point. It is an important and general one which greatly affects the whole operation of the Bill.

Baroness BIRK

No, my Lords, I do not think there is any danger of it running out at the moment. We have given our, selves the flexibility commented on by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, to alter the amount. There is no doubt that if the Government find it is working successfully and we can allocate more resources to it, we shall do so. When one starts a scheme like this one must start it in a modest way, get it working and then see what the response is. It has been carefully costed. It has been discussed with the Building Research Establishment of my Department and with the local authority associations. They all feel that the amounts put forward by the Government at this stage are about right. This does not mean, I imagine, that there will not need to be increases in the future. Also, as the noble Lord will be aware, as new houses are built insulation is being incorporated in them, This means that one is really all the time increasing the housing stock with the insulation measures.


My Lords, arising out of what the noble Baroness has said, if the applications flood in at a rate which will show that the £15 million allocated is likely to be over-subscribed, does it mean that when the Bill says that the Secretary of State may alter the percentage or money sum or both, that he might even reduce the modest £50 per dwelling in order to make the money go round to more people?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I do not think that this is what the Secretary of State has in mind. I think that for a Second Reading I have answered sufficient points. I think that a number of points being raised now are Committee points and not substantial points for Second Reading. They are arising out of a general debate which seems to have started again; so that I will now sit down and "stay sat".

On Question, Bill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.