HL Deb 14 June 1996 vol 572 cc1978-81

12.15 p.m.

Baroness Wilcox

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill is simple. It widens the scope of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 by adding houses in multiple occupation to the list of types of accommodation covered by that Act.

The 1995 Act required energy conservation authorities to draw up energy conservation plans to achieve 30 per cent. savings in residential accommodation in their areas. The Act omitted one tenure—houses in multiple occupation. Surprisingly, those dwellings are not required to be included in the plans under the Act and thus it may even be ultra vires the powers of energy conservation authorities to include them in their plans under the Act.

I am advised that that was simply an error. It is interesting to me, a new Member of your Lordships' House, to see that the other place does sometimes make mistakes and today, with your Lordships' help, we can rectify the situation.

We have a small but important task to carry out with this Bill. There are 638,000 houses in multiple occupation in England alone. That is the scale of the problem. But even those figures do not give the full picture. By definition an HMO will be occupied by at least two households and simple arithmetic tells me that that means that at least 1.3 million households live in that type of accommodation. Assuming that the size of the household is two persons, we can see that today's short Bill, if passed, will benefit over 2.6 million people.

Houses in multiple occupation are often the most run-down and worst type of accommodation. Many may be unfit or barely fit within the meaning of the fitness standards under the housing Acts. They may include some of the worst bed and breakfast and other short-stay accommodation occupied by homeless families—that is, not the genuine hotels, but large houses with no facilities simply converted to pack in as many people as possible.

The job of securing energy conservation in such accommodation may sometimes be daunting and difficult. But we will not crack it unless we try. The Bill, by adding HMOs to the plans to be drawn up under the 1995 Act, ensures that we start to try. I believe that local authorities will welcome the Bill as officers and local political leaders have been dismayed by the loophole in the 1995 Act. They are more aware than anyone of the need to tackle conditions in these areas.

The Bill was introduced in another place by the honourable Member for Nottingham South, Mr. Alan Simpson. It was supported by the Under-Secretary of State, Mr. James Clappison. It has all-party support and I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Baroness Wilcox.)

12.18 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I am glad to support the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, in commending the Bill to the House. It strengthens the Home Energy Conservation Act of 1995—an Act which came about as a result of the initiative of my honourable friend Mrs. Diana Maddock in another place and my noble friend Lady Hamwee in this House.

The 1995 Act represents a major step forward in energy conservation in this country as it lays on local authorities the task of preparing reports on measures to improve energy efficiency in residential accommodation in their areas and the submission of those reports to the Secretary of State who should then decide on the action to be taken. It is for the Secretary of State to decide on the timing of these operations. I am sure that everyone associated with this legislation hopes that he will move fast so that the whole procedure can be put in train. The Bill before us strengthens the Act, as the noble Baroness clearly stated, by including houses in multiple occupancy. All that is to the good.

Unfortunately, at the same time as these desirable actions are being taken, steps in another direction are being limited. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will be aware of the concern expressed by myself and others in recent debates on the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill that finance for the home energy efficiency scheme, which exists for the purpose of insulating the homes of people on low incomes, was surprisingly cut by one-third in the last Finance Act. This means that while local authorities will, under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, be preparing plans for improving energy efficiency in the homes in their locations, the homes of those sorely in need will be less effectively dealt with than was previously the case.

I would like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, whether, in all the circumstances, the Government have had second thoughts. We are all aware of the financial stringency that faces the Government; indeed it faces all governments. I cannot remember a time when any government said that they did not face financial stringency. However, within that situation, there are priorities. One of the essential priorities we face in this country is to improve energy efficiency, which the legislation we are considering today tries to do. We also need to help those who are in need, particularly the elderly, to live in warmer circumstances.

The gravity of the situation is that we well know that avoidable deaths are caused by the low quality of housing inhabited by people who cannot afford to put them right from the point of view of insulation. This is a very serious matter. I hope that it will be considered alongside the legislation we are contemplating today.

12.22 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

My Lords, we too welcome this additional measure, which should assist the ability of local authorities to make plans. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, on her introduction of a welcome measure. It is of course regrettable that it was omitted from last year's Bill. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said about the general thrust of the Government's policy on energy conservation. On the one hand the Department of the Environment says all the right things and has brought forward this additional measure; on the other hand, the Treasury cuts £30 million from the home energy efficiency scheme. That is a considerable blow, not only to energy conservation, but also to those many poor, elderly people whose houses have not been brought up to a reasonable level of energy conservation. It also affects employment in those areas where schemes have been put into effect.

We do not have a good record of energy conservation in this country. Germany and Japan have had extremely energetic economic growth for a long time and have also managed to reduce their energy consumption. Here, consumption has continued to go up. One would have liked to see the Government bring forward additional measures—implementation of the European Community directive on the efficiency of household appliances, for instance. That would have helped to reduce the use of energy. The setting of targets for energy reduction would also have been extremely welcome.

Local authorities now have the ability to produce comprehensive strategic plans to deal with energy conservation and to lay out measures for dealing with the property in their areas. However, ultimately it comes down to finance and the ability actually to provide double glazing, draught-proofing, or even more elaborate installations, in multiple occupancy housing. That requires finance. And there is no indication that finance will be forthcoming from the Treasury. In fact, it may be reducing finance in this area. The Labour Party has proposed a self-financing national programme of energy efficiency work which would link the objectives of combating fuel poverty, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and generating substantial long-term employment. It is unfortunate that a cohesive strategy of that nature has not been proposed by the Government.

Nevertheless, we welcome this additional Bill, which fills a gap in last year's legislation. We wish it well.

12.25 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on introducing the Bill. I believe that it is the first Bill she has had the opportunity of introducing, and I hope it will be the first of many. It is a thoroughly worthwhile measure which the Government support. I congratulate also Alan Simpson, MP, who was responsible for introducing the Bill in another place. It reflects extraordinarily well on him that he had the good sense to choose my noble friend to present it here.

The two noble Lords opposite concentrated on things other than the Bill. This is a Private Members' Bill, and I do not wish to be drawn into matters which are properly dealt with in government time. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, knows our position; the noble Baroness knows it, too. She also knows that she would not spend any more money than we are spending in the area. She therefore has a bit of a cheek to complain about what we are doing. However, with those words we wish the Bill the very best fortune.

12.27 p.m.

Baroness Wilcox

My Lords, I thank all those who have taken part in this short debate: the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who spoke on behalf of the Government in support of the Bill; the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, who has had a longstanding interest in the issue; and the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, who shares, I can hear, some of the concerns of the noble Lord. I have mentioned the work of Mr. Alan Simpson and Mr. James Clappison in another place. To that I would like to add a tribute to the Minister himself, Mr. Robert Jones, who has taken a keen and personal interest in the subject.

Finally, I add a word of congratulation to Diana Maddock, the honourable Member for Christchurch in another place, and her colleague in this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in piloting through Parliament the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, to which the Bill before us will make a minor but significant amendment. It is to our credit perhaps that we recognise the potential of the 1995 Act to reduce energy waste while maintaining a decent level of energy services, especially to those householders who are among the least well off in society and who often live in the least energy efficient homes. I ask your Lordships to give this Bill a Second Reading. In doing so I wish to say how grateful I am for the support it has received. I commend the Bill to the House.

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

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