HL Deb 18 July 1978 vol 395 cc182-91

4.1 p.m.

House again in Committee.

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?


I thought this might be an opportunity for me to ask the noble Baroness one or two questions on the point raised by my noble friend Lord Ferrier on Second Reading. Unfortunately, he is unable to be here today but the noble Baroness will remember that he asked whether, under this clause, it was intended to specify the type of materials which would be suitable to he used for insulation. The particular point to which he was addressing himself was the fact that some of the materials which can be used and which are very effective insulants are extremely dangerous, either because of their low resistence to fire or, indeed, even in the case of some of those materials which are not particularly inflammable in themselves, because when they do burn, however slowly, they give off highly toxic gases, which can be extremely dangerous. My noble friend was very anxious to press the Government as to what their intentions were in terms of consulting fire officers and other interested parties and then drawing up a list of suitable approved materials in order to avoid the possible danger from the use of inappropriate materials, particularly inside the home.

Baroness BIRK

I very well remember the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, on Second Reading. It is true that there is a problem of unsatisfactory, of even dangerous, insulation materials. We, too, are certainly very concerned about this, because we do not want to encourage people, through our grants, to use materials which are not suitable. We have already discussed this with the Agrement Board, and we are still settling the best way in which to tackle this problem. However, I am sure we shall be able, within the scheme, to ensure that any unsuitable materials will not qualify for grant aid. We shall also be making it quite clear to all applicants which materials are satisfactory and which, therefore, may be used under the grant scheme. I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me the opportunity to make this clear.


I am very grateful to the noble Baroness.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Finance]:

Lord STRATHCONA and MOUNT ROYAL moved Amendment No. 3: Page 3, line 3, leave out from ("State;") to end of line 6.

The noble Lord said: Let me reassure the noble Baroness at the outset that this is purely a probing Amendment, but it arises, I think, from a rather important point on which I did not think that her reply during the Second Reading debate was wholly satisfactory. Indeed, it might even have been confusing, and I wanted to try to clarify the position for the record and also, in the process, perhaps, to point out a slightly alarming limitation which lies within the scheme. This concerns the question of the allocation of money for the scheme, to which we have already referred when discussing the Amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, at the beginning. In the Memorandum to the Bill we see: Clause 2 requires the Secretary of State to reimburse local authorities in full for grants paid by them"— and this is the important point — within the limit of total expenditure which he authorises in any year …". Then, later on the Memorandum returns to this point and says: The annual cost of grant will be controlled by allocations made to individual local authorities and grants may only be given by an authority within the total amount allocated for this purpose". Then there is a rather strange sentence which does not read awfully easily, but says: For 1978–79 and 1979–80 United Kingdom provision of £15 million and £25 million respectively has been announced to cover both grants and the payments made by the Secretary of State in respect of administration expenses …".

I think it has been subsequently confirmed by the noble Baroness, in (if I may say so) an admirable letter to me on this subject of resource availability, that it is envisaged that there is a fixed amount of money to be made available by the Government in the first year, and that when that amount of money is exhausted the scheme comes to a halt; and this, of course, is the point I wanted to bring out. The noble Baroness herself, in her letter, says: Your question essentially is, what happens if the initial demand is much greater than the initial allocation of resources can accommodate?". So let us get out of the way the rather sad circumstance, as it would be, if it should happen that the scheme was such a flop that few people came forward to demand the money which was being made available. While this might be very satisfactory to the Treasury, who would not have to find the cash, it would be extremely unsatisfactory to the Department of Energy and, presumably, to the noble Baroness's Department, who are dying to get insulation installed. As I said on Second Reading, there is a very pressing case because the cash return on some of these insulation investments, be it to the individual, to the local authority or to the country as a whole, is extremely high and very quick indeed.

But the point is that I pressed the noble Baroness during the course of her winding-up speech on Second Reading (for which interruption she was not very grateful, but there it is) and asked her the question: What happens if the money runs out? She said: I do not think there is any danger of it running out at the moment. We have given ourselves the flexibility"— that favourite word of all Government Ministers— 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 ".—[Official Report, 12/7/78; col. 1676.] That, of course, was intended to be reassuring, and so it was. But what I have to say to the noble Baroness is this: Is she really sure that what she was saying is entirely right? Because, with the greatest respect, I rather suspect that it really was not quite true. Everything the noble Baroness said in the first debate we had this afternoon indicated that the Government did not feel able to be very flexible about the amount of money to be made available; and it has been pointed out to me since our Second Reading debate that £15 million covers the insulation needs of something like 3 per cent. of the houses requiring insulation, and that is all.

There is a further worry, and I think this is perhaps a good moment to raise it. I have mentioned it, but I should like to develop it again. There is the question of what happens to those who need the money most; because the fear is that some of those who are in the greatest need—some of the aged and the sick—are the people who are most likely to be slow off the ground in applying for this grant. I fear that if we are saying it is strictly on a first-come-first-served basis, and then the shutter comes down and the scheme comes to a grinding halt, then the people who are most likely to he left out in the cold—and that is literally the right expression to use—are precisely those who are most likely to need insulation and to benefit from it. I fear that in this way we may be leading ourselves into the very worst example of what we call "Stop-Go" legislation; and again one could say, most suitably, that the Government will find themselves blowing hot and cold on this issue of insulation—and I suspect more cold than hot. This troubles a lot of us. Also the Government talk of building up the momentum of this scheme and say that it is only an initial scheme, the first scheme, and that there is scope to increase it, as the noble Baroness said earlier today. She talked about it being comprehensive in the long term.

However, again, what worries some of us about this is that the scheme is just getting under way, people are getting trained and then suddenly: "Frightfully sorry! The scheme has run out of money. We shall have to stop!" One can understand this and it is by far the easiest way of controlling the outflow of cash; but if one wants to get on with the job of getting a comprehensive energy conservation programme, then I suggest that anything on these lines would he rather disastrous. When one breaks it down (as I understand is going to happen) to a local authority basis one can see a number of anomalies cropping up whereby one authority runs out of money and one will not have the full allocation taken up. All those kinds of anomalies will be created.

Having referred to old people, may I raise another question which does not, strictly, come within the terms of this Amendment? I understand that not only are the Government not intending to use the clauses inserted into the Bill in another place whereby "special need" is defined, but that they do not intend to use these clauses to introduce a special scheme for people in special need; and, to my astonishment, the home improvement grants for this purpose are actually to be stopped. Can this be right? If so, is it not a sad and retrograde step when in this Bill we are introducing a scheme for home insulation and saying, under the urging of special pleading from various people, that the Minister needs to have the opportunity to make special grants for special need and, with the other hand, stopping these grants under the home improvement scheme—bearing in mind that this scheme is very limited in scope and liable to be stopped dead in its tracks if the build up is successful. Surely, what we want to do, in some way or other, is to build it up and keep it rolling. Nothing seems more disastrous than when the £15 million runs out to have to say, "Sorry, boys. Come back next year and try again!" That is the reason why I put down this Amendment.

I was hoping to ensure, by taking out the second half of the first subsection of Clause 2, that there would inevitably be a rolling programme and continuity given to the purposes of the Bill. Let me say quickly, before the noble Baroness tells me so, that I accept that it is possible that, in fact, this Amendment would not achieve that. My point was to call attention to the need to do it in the hope that the Government might see their way to give us some reassurance that there is no danger of "Stop-Go" in this scheme and that they might even introduce an Amendment later, because I dare say that I shall be told that mine does not do what it intends to do; but I believe that the underlying purpose is good. I beg to move.


I should like to support this Amendment. I am sure that the noble Lord is quite right when he says that, although you may have a scheme of this kind, the last people to learn about it will be the old and the poor. If we are not careful, they will be the most deserving cases and they will be left out. I hope that, if there is going to be any danger of over-subscription of the £15 million, the kind of system that applies when shares are subscribed for will be applied to this matter; that is, that there will be a closing date quite a short time ahead by which application must be made so that the publicity material being used in newspapers and on television advertising this grant scheme would say that people must apply by, say, the end of this month or within one month, or something like that. That would, if necessary, give the Government and the local authorities some idea of the extent of the over-subscription. That would enable the local authorities, if there was over-subscription, to pick out the deserving cases of the sick and the poor and so on and to see that they did get priority under the local authorities' discretion before the wealthier and more prosperous were accommodated.

Baroness BIRK

May I deal first with the second point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona. As he says, it is not strictly part of his Amendment; but as the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, has spoken to it and it is of concern to noble Lords throughout the Committee I think I will deal with that first. I am referring to the elderly and other disadvantaged groups. We have shown that we were very much aware of this problem because, as noble Lords will know, this point was introduced into the Bill during its passage in another place; and although it is not part of the first scheme, it is firmly in the Bill and will have immediate priority directly we can extend the scheme. Local authorities have already been asked to bring the scheme to the attention of these groups; in other words, to give special priority to making sure that they know about it through the various means at their disposal where contact is established for other reasons with the elderly, the disabled or the disadvantaged.

We intend—and not as a result even of what has been said, and rightly said, by the noble Lord this afternoon—to keep a close watch on them. If it appears that in any area the elderly or other disadvantaged groups are not managing to get the grants, we have the power to direct the authorities to give priority to them. If this is necessary we shall not hesitate to do so. We want at first to see how the scheme goes; but not only are we very much aware of the reserve power up our sleeves, we intend to use it if necessary. I can assure noble Lords again that directly it is possible for us to go ahead to the next scheme these groups will have priority.

If I may deal with the Amendment that the noble Lord has moved—and I am grateful to him for making it clear from the beginning that it was a probing Amendment—I may say that there are 5 million potential applicants, and neither the Government, the local authorities nor the insulation industry can cope with all of them if they apply at the same time. We have, therefore, decided to phase the programme over 10 years. This was the way that the council house programme was implemented. We intend to make resources available accordingly. If there is an excessive number of applicants, we shall consider whether within overall expenditure limits, it is possible to make further resource provision. Certainly at the moment there is no intention to say: "Once that is gone, it is gone and finished", and therefore the whole thing comes to a standstill.

I again remind the Committee that the object of this exercise is not primarily to give individuals themselves help in conservation of energy, but it is part of an urgent and absolutely essential national programme. In fact, to the extent we are really paying people to help themselves, we are only doing it because it is in the national interest. So there is this urgency and impetus about it which makes it essential for us to see that the programme does continue.

Regarding the figures the noble Lord quoted, I must say that he is quite right in his question, for he did not get the complete answer during the Second Reading. I have reread what he said and what I said, and he is right. I gave a partial answer, not a complete answer. The £15 million, which is for the part year 1978–79, will represent insulation for about 300,000 houses. The £25 million will cover half a million houses. That is about 10 per cent. of the 5 million houses which need to be insulated. I think that there is some misunderstanding about the figure of 3 per cent. which the noble Lord used. The intention is 10 per cent. a year, which is quite a good amount if one takes into consideration the fact that new houses are being built with insulation.

We framed the Bill deliberately so that, subject only to meeting the basic conditions laid down in the scheme, there is firm entitlement to grant. Obviously, as the noble Lord implied when he discussed the difference between areas, there may be some areas where there grows up a rather longer waiting list then in others. This must apply to anything that one does. There cannot be complete uniformity and consistency. If there are outstanding anomalies, we shall want to inquire why and see whether there are particular problems in any area and do our best to deal with them. I keep returning to the essential problem, which is to conserve energy and get insulation into as many places as possible. In this case there are no complicated post work conditions to be met, and there is no element of local authority discretion over individual applications. Anybody who can show that they do not have their loft or tanks insulated will be eligible for grant aid. It is the simplicity of it which makes it easier.

But we have to pay some price for this clarity and simplicity; that is the control over the amount of money which may be spent, which is the £15 million for the part year, then £25 million annually for subsequent years. The effect of the noble Lord's Amendment, as he is probably aware, would be to remove all such controls. However, as he said, he put the Amendment down in order to get the general answer. I hope that he will now be satisfied that there is no question of a complete cut-off point. It may mean a longer waiting period in some areas, but the intention is to go ahead for the time being with 10 per cent. of housing per annum, and hopefully that figure will rise.

Again, I come back to the point that one hopes that schemes of this type will encourage people to go ahead and either have their homes insulated for themselves, or embark on do-it-yourself schemes, and not wait, particularly where there are long waiting lists and they can well afford the expense of insulation. It is hoped that they will realise that by undertaking the insulation themselves, they are saving on their own fuel bills and that therefore it will be well worth their while economically to do it now rather than wait in a queue for the local authority to do so, and when, equitably speaking, those in greatest need should come first. There we come back to the point of stress being laid on the priority given to the elderly and disadvantaged.

4.25 p.m.


We are very grateful to the noble Baroness for the patience with which she has explained the situation. I am glad that we put the record straight. I am reassured by what she said to this extent, that I think the answer she gave on Second Reading was nearer to the truth than I had at one time feared was really the situation. She is saying that there will be opportunities for "topping up" where needed, and that every attempt will he made to avoid this sudden cut-off which I would regard as catastrophic.

I slightly question what we mean by the word "right" which she used several times. Most people feel that if they have a right to an insulation grant they have a right to it now, when they ask for it. But this is a minor point. I can see that the Government have every intention, so far as possible, to try to make provision to keep the scheme rolling. The difficulty I see is that they do not have a fine control of the throttle. It is a situation where one opens the tap or closes it; it is difficult to turn it down a little.

If the response to the scheme is overenthusiastic, it will be difficult to avoid saying to people, "Hold on a second, we are not ready", unless they resort to the worst bureaucratic device and simply take so long to answer letters that nothing happens. That would be an equally disastrous situation which would not do any good to whatever department of Government is dealing with the applications. I can only say that to hear the noble Baroness talk is really very satisfactory. I hope that she has a private line to the Department of Energy because her Department appears to have the message though I sometimes wonder whether the Department of Energy has. In the circumstances, I am very happy to withdraw this Amendment.


Before the noble Lord does so, may I say that I was rather surprised. I thought I heard the noble Baroness say that the qualifying applicants would have a right to a grant. Is this really so? Is it like the standard grants under the house improvement schemes whereby if the applicant qualifies, he has a right, which the local authority cannot refuse, to a grant for a particular purpose? I do not read that from the Bill. It is interesting to know—if it is correct—that these applicants, if they qualify, will have a right which the local authority cannot refuse. Is that really the position?

Baroness BIRK

Yes; the applicant has a right, provided he can show that he has a loft which is not insulated or a tank which is not lagged. But a right to a grant does not mean that one has an instant right to something by return of post. It is not that type of right, but he has a right. There is no means test and so long as one shows that there is not the insulation in the home then there is a right to it.

The noble Lord will now appreciate why we appear to be so resistant on the very sensible Amendment that he brought forward. To do it in this way, and without knowing until the scheme gets under way what the immediate response is likely to be, it is absolutely essential to keep the scheme as simple as possible and have it somewhat contained. This is why I explained on the earlier Amendment that directly we see how it is working and whether it is possible to increase the options—and this means the resources—we shall do so. There is a right, so long as you have got no insulation in the loft and on the tanks.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.