HL Deb 18 July 1978 vol 395 cc153-66

3.1 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, that the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Birk.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The Lord GREENWOOD OF ROSSENDALE in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Grants for thermal insulation]:

Lord AIREDALE moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 18, after ("supply") insert ("save that, if a local authority are satisfied that any dwelling is without practical means of access to the roof space, grant shall be available for any such other means of insulation for that dwelling as may he approved by the local authority.")

The noble Lord said: This Amendment arises out of a point which I endeavoured to make on Second Reading. If we have a grant-aided scheme which is so rigid that, apart from the insulation of water supplies, the only other kind of insulation that we are prepared to grant-aid is the insulation of roof spaces, that is pretty hard luck on those few people who simply do not have access to their roof space in order to lay the insulation. It is that situation which this Amendment seeks to remedy.

In the reply of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, to the debate on Second Reading she was able to go so far as to say that the cost of fitting a trap-door into the top ceiling to give access to the roof space would count as eligible for the grant for that work. So far, so good. But we are still left with a very small number of people in respect of whom any builder or architect would say, "Here we have a ceiling which is probably over 100 years old; it is rather bowed and it shows signs of its great age. Nevertheless, if it is left undisturbed, it will probably last safely for a few more years, but if you start cutting into it in order to try to fit a trapdoor through into the roof space, you will be asking for trouble and you will be in grave danger of fetching down the whole ceiling." This Amendment seeks to deal with that situation.

It is difficult to know what argument can be advanced against this Amendment, unless it be the argument that we must have rigidity for the sake of rigidity in the scheme. Is it to be said that the administrative cost of taking into account this very small number of applicants will be harmful to the scheme? I should have thought not, for two reasons. First, it is well recognised that to insulate the roof space is the most cost-effective means of insulating a house. Therefore, nobody would go out of his way to try to pretend to the local authority that he had no means of access to his roof space if that was not true. If he said that, I should have thought that the local authority could accept that that was the true state of affairs. But, even if there was some small increase in administrative costs, in view of the very small number of cases with which we are dealing the extra administrative cost would be minute in relation to the administrative cost of the whole scheme.

I am not asking for increased grants for these few exceptional cases. Under the Amendment, they will still receive only the maximum grant of £50, which everybody else will be eligible to receive. This will ensure that the Government's anxiety that as many people as possible shall share in the limited £15 million a year, which is available for the whole scheme, will apply and that nobody will get a higher maximum grant than anybody else.

Your Lordships will see that the control of the scheme remains in the hands of the local authority. So there will be no question of anybody getting grant-aid for some fancy kind of insulation which he dreams up for himself and which the local authority would not be satisfied would be cost-effective. I imagine that the alternative form of insulation that, in practice, we are here discussing is double-glazing of the living room, because I think it is generally agreed that when it comes to cost-effectiveness there is very little between insulating the roof space and double-glazing the living room. I hope that the Committee will think that rigidity for rigidity's sake is not a good precept on which to work and that this Amendment is worth while in order to do justice to the very few people who will not otherwise be able to take advantage of the scheme. I beg to move.

Baroness BIRK

This Amendment, which the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, has clearly explained, seeks to provide grant-aid for improved insulation works for people who are unable to benefit under the measures provided in the first scheme. Let me say right away that at first glance this seems to be an attractive and eminently reasonable suggestion; indeed, I would go so far as to say that, if our places were reversed, I should probably be putting forward this type of Amendment myself. I was very struck by the arguments put forward by the noble Lord at Second Reading and I have gone into them extremely carefully and closely.

However, I am afraid it is clear that within the context of this Bill—and we are talking within the context of this particular Bill, not within the context of an open-ended conservation of energy programme —it would be neither practicable nor helpful in securing the basic objective of the first scheme.

First, we must consider whether this would represent the most effective use of the available resources. There is no question that in national terms the most cost-effective use of our resources is to secure the insulation of lofts and hot-water tanks. I went into this in some detail on Second Reading, so I shall not delay and bore the Committee with it again. But these are measures which are relatively cheap and which bring by far the quickest return in energy savings. If we pay grant for other measures, which are generally less cost-effective, we do so at the expense of these primary measures elsewhere.

The noble Lord asked me—and it comes up again in a later Amendment—about the question of the amount available at the present time. This point of spreading the butter even thinner would, I am afraid, apply here. It is not rigidity for rigidity's sake. That really is not so. The argument against—and the noble Lord asked me straightforwardly what the argument is—is, quite frankly, lack of resources. It is lack not only of financial resources but also of manpower resources, because we should have to have more people involved in dealing with this. While I would accept and hope that the majority of the British public would be completely straightforward and honest in their dealings, there will surely be some people who will say, "I certainly can't get into my roof" because they do not intend to and do not want to take the trouble to do so, and will therefore want to use a different form of insulation.

We could also get the other end of the spectrum where probably the most useful form of insulation might be heavy clothing. Now, when we dress in a fairly unisex manner, we should have fur coats demanded by both men and women. This really is a personal insulation which might, if one cannot get to the loft, be quite as effective—if not more effective—than even double glazing. I am only trying to point out that when you start moving away from a very simple basic scheme there really is almost no end to it, and it is extremely difficult.

Secondly, the Amendment would offer grants to those who live in houses "without practical means of access to the roof space". It is said that there are few such houses, and the noble Lord made the point that the administrative costs would be small. I do not know how, under his Amendment, you would deal with somebody who lives in a flat where they do not have access to the roof but nevertheless are, say, on the second or third floor of a higher block of flats; they are therefore insulated by their neighbours above, but nevertheless under the Amendment could plead, and probably quite legally, that they have not got access to the roof and therefore ask for a grant in order to get insulation. I should have thought, although I am not a lawyer, that this would be covered in the way his Amendment is phrased.

However, I would make two points on the additional administrative cost. Whether a house has practical means of access to the roof space is again a matter of subjective judgment and would have to be established in each case by the local authority, because, as I think the noble Lord acknowledges—and as I pointed out on Second Reading—if it is a case of getting physical access, there is grant-aid for that. Otherwise we will find that our grant resources are being frittered away on less effective measures, and also the money will be taken up (which I am sure is the last thing that either the noble Lord or myself would want) on administrative and monitoring expenses.

On the point about the number of houses, the noble Lord may well be right in saying that they are few in number, but there are certainly many more dwellings which do not have a roof space at all. These are the flats, flat-roofed dwellings, et cetera, which I have mentioned. It would be difficult to justify providing for the one limited case in the Amendment without also providing for the others. Then of course there is the question of standards. As was pointed out, we have problems which we are trying to iron out in the initial scheme where we shall be prescribing standards for the insulation of the loft and hot water tanks on energy conservation grounds, and for the cold water tank and pipes in the loft in order to protect them from freezing. If this Amendment were accepted we would also have to prescribe standards for the whole range of alternative methods which might qualify. We would have to do that because you cannot possibly hand out Government money in this way, otherwise you might just as well stand on a street corner and hand out £50 to everybody passing by.

Several noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness BIRK

And we are not in a position to do it. I am sorry that my noble friends were saying, "Hear, hear!" and not noble Lords opposite. We are simply not in a position to do this, if we are to get the scheme into operation this winter. I would only say, hurriedly, that even if we were not, we would not be in a position to do this. Without some detailed standards the scheme would be open to widespread abuse, and we would be quite unable to protect the householder from the cowboys, if you like, who will be looking for just this sort of loophole; who would come knocking at your door and say, "Look! I have got this marvellous scheme", which manages to encompass the entire amount of grant and what the householder is going to add to it, and would be themselves probably making quite a good deal out of it.

Finally, the Amendment would require local authorities to approve, on a house by house basis, insulation works to the requirement of individual householders. Even if the Amendment were limited to the "very few" houses without practical means of access it must add significantly to the costs of running the scheme. And then, as I suggest, it would be necessary on grounds of equity to include dwellings without roof space, and the cost then could be prohibitive. Once you start opening this door, it is extremely difficult to know where to limit it.

Therefore, because the effect of this Amendment would be to widen the provisions of the initial scheme in a way which would effectively prevent its introduction this winter, it would result in a consequence which I know that the noble Lord would not wish to see. That there are other insulation methods which can be effective, I am not arguing against. I accept entirely that there are many, and these are what we would like to see many people undertaking on their own behalf, even without waiting for a grant, because it would be in their own interests, so far as their energy fuel bills are concerned, for them to do so. These are matters which the Government are quite aware we should deal with when the priority objective has been achieved, and when we are in a position to exercise proper control on a national basis.

So I am afraid it gets back to what I was saying on Second Reading. This is a simple, basic, limited scheme but one which we feel, on a cost-effective basis, we can afford at the moment and which will give the best results for the money spent. We should accept that and deal with it as quickly as possible so that we get it through in time for the coming winter. For that reason, I would ask the noble Lord if he would withdraw his Amendment.

3.17 p.m.


There are a number of Amendments which I think could usefully be made to this Bill. We could consider more provisions for the old and disabled and people who vie liable to suffer from hypothermia, but I think the overriding factor is that we want this Bill on the Statute Book. If we make any amendment whatever now, there is a danger of losing it. That implies not only that those who might benefit this winter will not do so, but there is a further difficulty that a number of people who would otherwise have done their own insulation, knowing that these provisions and giants were likely to come in, will not have done so. The autumn is of course the time when most people do it, and if this situation were to continue it would have a very adverse effect indeed on the trade because it might well mean that practically no insulation was bought, and they have recently increased their capacity in the hope that these measures would come about, and others also. Therefore, I would make a plea to the Committee not to press any Amendment on this Bill. Do not let the best be the enemy of the good.


One cannot but have sympathy with the spirit and purpose of this Amendment, as the noble Baroness said, and I think it serves to illustrate the basic paucity of the Bill and how limited its scope really is. But I am bound to say that I do, with the greatest reluctance, have to accept the argument advanced by the noble Baroness. As she said, we are going to return in a minute or two to the matter of the size of the resources available. I think that here again, when we get to that argument, we shall see that it is rather a disappointing measure.

I am bound to say to the noble Baroness that she can hardly complain if some of us regard the Bill in the context of, I think she used the words, the open-ended conservation of energy programme, because the Government never cease, so far as I am concerned, to claim that they have got a comprehensive conservation of energy programme, and one of our complaints has always been that they have not. I do not see that she can say, on the one hand, that it is a very limited thing in scope, and, on the other, say that the Government have a comprehensive programme. I think she is in fact accepting that they have not got a comprehensive programme, but here they are making a start. I shall come hack to the question of continuity in a moment.

I agree with what the noble Lord says we should do. However, having to support the Government, he says that we cannot do it yet. There is also the procedural point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, that however much we may like to huff and puff and threaten the Government, the fact is that a bird in the hand, however small it may be, is better than the possible animal that will remain hovering in the bushes after we all go away for a well-earned rest. At the end of the day we shall probably have to accept what we are being offered here with as good a grace as we possibly can.


Both noble Lords made the point which is made by the cynic in his observation that the House of Lords is a very good revising Chamber except in the month of July. Whether we accept that situation for ever or do something about it is, I suppose, a matter for ourselves. However, it is not a matter for this Amendment.

The noble Baroness went to the length of saying that this Amendment was defective because it would enable somebody in a ground floor flat to say that he did not have access to the roof and that therefore he wanted a grant to do some other kind of insulation. The noble Baroness, with all her experience, knows quite well that if she were disposed to accept the spirit of this Amendment we could come together before the Report stage and iron out this extraordinarily bizarre difficulty of the ground floor flat dweller. I suggest that that point was not worth making.

The noble Baroness said at the outset that if she were in my shoes she would probably have made the same speech. I think that she may have the opportunity of making such a speech, as under this Bill this is only the first scheme. The Bill says that other schemes are to follow. I should feel much happier about this situation if the noble Baroness were to say that when the next scheme was being hatched she would be there to say, "Let us give priority in this next scheme to these unfortunate few people who were deprived of the benefit of the first scheme simply because they had no means of access to their roof space, and were therefore left out." If the noble Baroness will say that she will put in a word for them when the next scheme is on the stocks, I shall be much happier about the matter.

Baroness BIRK

The example I gave, although it may have been rather extreme, did frankly point out the problems that we are up against. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, for his contribution. Nevertheless, he did refer to this as a poor and limited Bill. The Bill is not limited; it is the first scheme that is limited. However, there is provision within the Bill to extend it.

The first scheme is deliberately limited as a result of the restriction on resources. Therefore it aims to concentrate resources on the priority objective. It would be wrong and dishonest of me to say to the noble Lord that this would happen at any particular time or that this was a No. 1 priority. We have already said that the extension to the elderly and disabled, which has been written into the Bill, will be taken forward directly resources allow. That will be the next stage in the Bill. We are well aware of this. I made it clear on Second Reading and I make it quite clear now. I refer to the question of other means of energy conservation, such as double glazing.

The noble Lord made a real point about other means and people who do not have access to roofs. That is a real problem. It will certainly have priority. However, it would be impossible for me at this moment to say when, or to what extent, it will be taken into account. I can assure him that we are well aware of the problem. We appreciate the need to extend the options at the earliest possible moment so that they go beyond what I call the first, basic, down-to-earth priority, which is the tank and roof insulation. Beyond that, we are well aware of this problem.

The building research establishment is engaged in looking at these problems right across the field. There is a tremendous range of options, which vary from house to house in some places depending on where one is situated and the window situation. There it would be a case of double glazing. In other places it would be a case of draught-proofing doors. There is a range of options. We need to know more, and not only about this matter. We must be pliable to this extent. I assure the noble Lord that we are aware of this problem. We appreciate it. However, we recognise that this is an extremely important part of the energy-saving programme.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, referred to the open-ended and comprehensive programme and said that I could not say both things. I can—because I am speaking about its being comprehensive in the long term. We are now talking about doing this stage by stage. Today there is this Bill. It should be accepted in the way that the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, put it, as a first stage.

I urge this on noble Lords. Frankly, this is not a Party political point at all. It is essential, if we are to use this as an energy-saving measure which is for the good of the country, as well as a saving to the pockets of individual householders, that we pass this Bill by the end of this month. Having said that, I hope that the noble Lord will be reassured and will be prepared to withdraw his Amendment.


We have had a long and interesting discussion and I am sure that we should not prolong it any further. I take some comfort from what the noble Baroness just said, and I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.28 p.m.

Lord AIREDALE moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 22, leave out ("alter") and insert ("increase").

The noble Lord said: This Amendment arises out of a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, on Second Reading. The noble Lord asks me to apologise for his being unable to be present this afternoon. I shall do my unworthy best to make the points that the noble Lord would have made. The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, heard the Opposition Front Bench describe this Bill as a very small mouse. He felt that as it said at the bottom of page 1 that the Secretary of State might alter the amount of money available for grants, it could not be contemplated that the Secretary of State could envisage reducing the modest £50 maximum grant; with inflation and other factors, the only possible contemplation would be some future increase in the maximum grant available. If that is the position, let us have it so in the Bill.

If this Committee thought that the Government might envisage reducing this modest £50 maximum grant, it might not be satisfied with that. It might wish to reject it. I hope that we shall have an assurance from the noble Baroness that the only alteration of the small maximum grant will be an alteration upwards: in which case, let us put it in the Bill.

Baroness BIRK

I appreciate the noble Lord's point, but this subsection was drafted to give the Secretary of State the maximum flexibility so that he could increase or decrease these amounts by order according to the circumstances prevailing. When this power is taken—I have looked into this very carefully—it is usual to set it out in this form rather than in the form suggested in the Amendment. The main purpose of the power to vary the money sum is to ensure that changes can be made—for example, to counter the effects of inflation—so that the grant will remain at a realistic level.

The purpose of the power to vary the grant rate is again to enable the Secretary of State to adapt the scheme to meet changing needs and circumstances. Of course, one possibility, some may feel the most likely one, is that as we reach the hard core of uninsulated dwellings we may need to improve the level of assistance—to be frank, that is the motivation behind this—to help people who still cannot afford the balance of cost even with the substantial rate of grant already available. As the noble Lord will be aware, we must look at all the possibilities; this is not just a general debate but something being written into the Statute.

The insulation material market is rapidly changing and if the experience of other countries, for example Canada, is anything to go by, it will become increasingly competitive as time goes by. With inflation continuing at a relatively low level, it would be a very brave person—I was about to say, "man", but in view of the current anniversary I had better say, "person"—who offered to predict with certainty what the cost of insulating one's house might be even in two or three years' time. It may be that we will want to increase the rate, but it might be better for everybody, including the return in terms of conservation, to decrease the amounts. That is hypothetical and I cannot see that happening; but that is why it must be left in a flexible way.

I appreciate that noble Lords are anxious that the powers given to the Secretary of State should not be used to reduce the grant rate and maximum for the first scheme simply to stretch the available resources further. That, I believe, is unlikely; the main purpose of the Bill is to conserve energy by encouraging people to improve the thermal insulation of their homes, and it is not simply to provide a social benefit in the form of warmer rooms. This grant is very different from any of the others covering, for example, the environment, housing and a great deal of the health and social security field. Given the crucial importance of energy conservation—in other words, we are concerned in this Bill with the return to the nation as well as the beneficial effect on the individual and his family—we should hardly wish to cut back such a positive measure. To do so would be to take an extremely negative approach. Indeed, had we wished to spread the jam more thinly we should have set different limits from the start. As I pointed out when we discussed the last Amendment, this is the most cost-effective way of getting any real amount of insulation.

Our grant rate and grant maximum are very much the product of today's costs and circumstances. If those basic factors should change—I emphasise, "if"—for the sort of reasons I have outlined, then one might want to look carefully at the balance of the package of grant rate and grant maximum to ensure that we get the greatest benefit in national terms. Frankly, I cannot see in the short or middle term any overall reduction, but it may happen that one would want to adjust the rate and the maximum; as I said, it may be necessary to vary them to get the best results. That there is a desire on all sides to see the introduction of effective energy conservation measures is clear and I do not believe there is any difference of opinion between us on that. We cannot at this stage see how the insulation market or the overall energy scene will develop.

I cannot at the moment foresee a situation where the word "alter" would mean "decrease" rather than "increase". In legislation we must leave it as at present drafted rather than attempt to tie down any Secretary of State in the way the Amendment would. Having given the noble Lord what I hope is a satisfactory answer—on the last Amendment he referred to the spirit of the proposal; I hope I have made it clear what the spirit is in this matter—and having pointed out that for drafting purposes it would be quite wrong to narrow it in the way the Amendment would, I hope he will agree that the Secretary of State must have the maximum flexibility to adapt any scheme to changing circumstances and that he will withdraw the Amendment.


The linch-pin of the Minister's argument on my first Amendment was that inflexibility was all-important. Now, in answer to my second Amendment, the linch-pin of her argument is that flexibility is all-important.

Baroness BIRK

I did not say that. On the first Amendment I said it was not a question of reducing it, though I think I was answering a question put by the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal. I said it was not a question of rigidity and I made it clear on the first Amendment that it was a matter of resources. I assure the noble Lord I have not contradicted myself over flexibility.


I was trying to he lighthearted, but I apologise if I got it wrong. I believe that any Secretary of State who attempted to reduce these very modest grants for insulating houses would cause a public outcry, and no Government ever want to bring themselves into disrepute, so I dare say everything will be all right. Subject to the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, who may wish to raise the matter again on Report, I beg leave for the moment to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


I had intended to raise a small matter at this point. As a Statement is due to be made, would this be a convenient moment to take it?


I am obliged to the noble Lord, and I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.