HL Deb 13 October 2000 vol 617 cc617-36
Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Newton of Braintree, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The importance of the Bill becomes clear every winter when the number of people dying each week in Britain increases dramatically by 30 per cent. At the same time, in colder countries such as Sweden and Norway the death rate increases by only 10 per cent. Every winter, from December to March, the Government record between 30,000 and 60,000 "excess winter deaths"; that is, additional deaths that occur compared to an equivalent period in the rest of the year.

There are well-understood physiological links between cold homes and the increased risk of cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness and even the number of accidents and falls among the elderly. Furthermore, cold homes are more likely to be damp, thus exacerbating allergies to mould spores and other illnesses.

The need for warm homes to ensure good health is clear, but the poor state of many houses in Britain means that many households cannot afford to heat their homes adequately; and in the worst cases the heating appliances fitted simply are not powerful enough to overcome draughty windows and poorly insulated roofs. It is these households, described in the Bill as suffering from "fuel poverty", which the Bill seeks to assist. I shall return shortly to the actual definition of "fuel poverty".

The Government have sought to address fuel poverty among the elderly with their winter fuel payments. However, if the extra heat just leaks away, spending that extra money on heating has been described as trying to fill a bath without putting in the plug.

The long-term solution is to ensure that homes are cheap to heat, are well-insulated and have efficient heating appliances. That involves a one-off investment preventing the need for ongoing payments over many years. There are other benefits. When less fuel is used the environment benefits as carbon dioxide emissions are cut, helping combat climate change. Another benefit is the jobs created in carrying out the work. It has been estimated that about 30,000 jobs could be created for a 15-year period if the provisions in the Bill were carried out across the UK.

Finally, as well as the deaths I mentioned earlier, many thousands more people fall ill because of cold homes but fortunately recover. Treating these people puts a huge strain on the health service, as the annual winter crisis shows. Warmer, healthier homes would save enormous sums of money in the NHS. The figure is estimated at around £1 billion a year.

For all these reasons, I am delighted that my Conservative colleague, David Amess, introduced the Bill after his success in the Private Members' ballot. He skilfully steered the Bill through the minefield which the Commons sets for such Bills, and has now passed the torch to me. At every stage he has been enthusiastically supported by the Conservative Front Bench and the whole Conservative Party. I know many others have played important roles. David Amess has been generous in thanking them in the Commons debates. We are grateful also to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for his help and encouragement.

Clause 1 sets out a general definition that fuel poverty is the situation where a member of a lower income household cannot keep warm at reasonable cost. It then expands on this general definition to allow the relevant authority, the Secretary of State in England and the National Assembly for Wales, to make regulations to refine this definition. Finally, subsection (2)(b) allows the substitution of a new definition altogether.

This clause has been carefully scrutinised by the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation and its 30th report sets out its recommendations. The committee has rightly recognised the danger that the clause enables regulations to substitute a different definition. These regulations are subject only to the negative resolution procedure. So in theory a new definition could technically result in every house in Britain being defined as "in fuel poverty" or, alternatively, no houses at all.

My position on this is clear. The long established definition of fuel poverty is, I think, a very good one. It has long been held by the current Government and interested organisations and academics that a "fuel poor" household is one that needs to spend more than 10 per cent of its disposable income; that is, income after housing costs to heat the house to 21 degrees centigrade in the main living area and 18 degrees centigrade in other occupied areas. Using this definition, the 1996 English House Condition Survey found that 5.3 million households in England are in fuel poverty—a quarter of all the households in England.

While I like that definition, I understand the need to preserve flexibility. A new index may be developed, perhaps taking account of the energy efficiency rating of the home to locate more efficiently the relevant households. If so, I would be happy for the definition to be changed, with one important proviso. Any change to the definition must not be an excuse for the removal of large numbers of homes from being categorised as fuel poor. A new definition which miraculously removed a million households from "fuel poverty" would be highly suspect and would almost certainly be fiddling the figures. I take comfort from the fact that any government trying to pull a fast one like this would have to do so publicly, as the Bill requires public consultation and allows Parliament to annul the necessary regulations. That should dissuade any government, but there are fears that it is not dissuasive enough.

I know that in an ideal world the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee would wish this House to go further. The committee recommends that, were the Bill a government Bill, it should be amended to narrow the scope of any future definition. However, it recognises the specific difficulty with the Bill, which is that it is a Private Member's Bill and there is now no further time set aside for the Commons to consider any amendments we may make. As such, any amendments we make could cause the Bill to fail to become law. That risk was set out clearly to the committee by the DETR representatives, and the committee took it very seriously.

I hope that the Minister's response will therefore set out absolutely clearly that the Government have no intention of using the regulations to alter dramatically the scale of the programme the Bill envisages. I recognise that changing the way fuel poverty is measured may slightly increase or decrease the number of people affected, but if the Minister is clear that the Government will not make major changes to the scale of the programme, my inclination will be to accept the assurance and pass the Bill in order to realise the major benefits it will bring. I hope that that will also satisfy other noble Lords anxious to heed the concerns of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee and that they will seek assurances from the Minister.

Clause 2 of the Bill puts a duty on the appropriate authority to publish a strategy to ensure that, as far as reasonably practicable, people do not live in fuel poverty. The clause sets out certain items that must be included in the strategy, including a target date for achieving the ultimate objective that must not be more than 15 years away. Clause 2 also requires consultation with affected bodies, including local authorities, the utility consumer councils, persons suffering from fuel poverty and such other persons as the Secretary of State sees fit. Finally, and of course crucially, Clause 2 requires that steps be taken to implement the strategy. There are also requirements for assessments of progress and revision of the strategy as required.

Clause 3 is a standard money clause, and Clause 4 defines several of the terms used in the Bill. Clause 4 also sets out when the Act shall come into force—immediately in England, and in Wales on a date set by the National Assembly for Wales.

I hope that my brief description of the Bill is helpful and that noble Lords will ensure that it has a rapid passage to the statute book. The Bill guarantees that both this and future governments must tackle the annual scandal of unnecessary deaths, illness and misery caused by cold homes, and in the process create thousands of jobs and significant environmental benefits. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord McColl of Dulwich.)

11.16 a.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, on introducing the Bill. It is an important Bill which matters to many people. I thank him also for explaining the intentions and possible effects of the Bill. It is supported by voluntary organisations, which have a fine record of achievement in this policy field, and it secured widespread cross-party support in the other place. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has estimated that the Bill has the potential to improve the well-being of about 5.3 million households in England and 200,000 in Wales which are experiencing and living in fuel poverty. Therefore, it is important that the Bill should become law as soon as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord McColl, explained the purpose of the Bill. It seeks to eradicate fuel poverty in England and Wales. "Fuel poverty" is defined in very broad terms in Clause 1(1), but the definition is crucial to the scope of the Bill and the implementation of the strategy. It is contemplated that the definition will be refined by regulations made under Clause 1(2)(a), following consultation, and subject only to the negative resolution procedure. But the power of amendment under Clause 1(2)(b) goes much wider and enables the definition to be completely changed by regulations, following consultation, and subject only to negative resolution. So the definition could be completely rewritten by a future government.

The noble Lord, Lord McColl, made reference to the report of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation. I am honoured to be a member of that committee. In its 30th report of this Session, the Select Committee draws the attention of the House to the powers conferred by Clause 1(2) about which it is concerned. In paragraph 15 the report identifies the amendments to Clause 1(2) which the committee would have recommended if the Bill were government legislation. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, has indicated that he can see the need for at least one amendment to the definition.

However, there will be a problem if the House amends the Bill. The House has already been told this morning, and the committee has been informed by the voluntary organisations named in paragraph 5 of the report, that if the House amends the Bill it will be lost because there is no more time available in the elected Chamber to consider Lords amendments to Private Members' legislation. So it is not surprising that the voluntary organisations and other supporters of the Bill strongly urge that the Bill be passed unamended by this House.

The fact that the Bill has such widespread support throughout the country, as well as the fact that millions of fellow citizens are experiencing fuel poverty and would be helped if the Bill became law, suggests very strongly that noble Lords should not put the Bill at risk of failing to pass into law. I wonder whether the Minister can confirm that it is a fact that time is not available, or will not be made available, in the other place to consider any Lords amendments to the Bill. Is it the case that if any amendments were passed without time being made available for their consideration, the practical effect would be to kill the Bill? If the House is faced with that consequence, it has a direct and heavy burden of responsibility.

The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee was told by the representative of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions who gave oral evidence that, the Government, clearly, wishes to produce a fuel poverty strategy and that is the reason why it has had no reason to object to this Bill and, indeed, has supported it". I hope that the Minister is in a position to go further and say that this is one of those rare occasions when the Government will make time available for the consideration of amendments as if the Bill were their own. That rarely happens, but it is possible.

If time is not to he made available in the other place, your Lordships' House is surely being put into an extraordinarily difficult position. It raises the question of what is the role of your Lordships' House in relation to a Private Member's Bill originating in the other place which comes before it at such a late stage in the parliamentary Session when no more time is available in the Commons to consider amendments made in the Lords.

I trust that it will not be out of place if I were to say that the timetable and procedures in the other place should be such as to accommodate consideration of Lords amendments to a Private Member's Bill which arrives during the later stages of a Session.

I turn briefly to my second main issue. This concerns the application of the Bill to Wales. I have three questions for the Minister; first, the formulation of the strategy for reducing fuel poverty in Wales and its implementation is devolved to the Welsh Assembly. I wholly agree with that. It is right that the Welsh Assembly should decide its own strategy in the light of circumstances in Wales, which is, I am reasonably sure, one of the wettest and coldest parts of the United Kingdom and, again, I am reasonably sure, has a large share of old and substandard housing stock. The DETR representative told the Select Committee that, the strategy produced will be jointly produced with the devolved administrations, so everybody can see what is being done in each country". In the light of that statement, it will be interesting to hear from the Minister whether it is the Government's intention that the different approaches to fuel poverty in the four different countries of the United Kingdom should somehow dovetail together. Otherwise, what interpretation is to be given to the statement made to the Select Committee?

Secondly, in Wales the strategy for fuel poverty is to be published within one year of the Act coming into force. That date is to be determined by order of the Welsh Assembly. Can the Minister confirm my understanding that the Welsh Assembly has no discretion as regards whether to bring the provisions of the Act into force in Wales?

I turn to my last question. I was surprised and concerned to read in the report of the second sitting of the Standing Committee on 12th April that the situation was not as advanced in Wales as it is in the other three countries. My concern was not alleviated when the Minister in the other place told the Standing Committee that it was not intended that nothing was to happen in Wales. It would be helpful if my noble friend, who, I believe, is the lead Minister in respect of the Bill, could provide the House with particulars of what is intended to happen in Wales within the next two or three years if the Bill becomes law.

If my noble friend is unable to answer some of the questions I have raised, I should be most grateful if he could write to me in due course.

11.28 a.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I am pleased to be able to support this Bill, so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, and on which the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, has just made an important speech. I should like to pay particular tribute to Mr David Amess, the MP for Southend West, who fought so hard and over a long period to navigate this Private Member's Bill through the other place. It is rare for such Bills to survive all the obstacles that appear to arise in the other place these days. I pay tribute also to his colleagues and supporters from all parties for taking through this important Bill I hope that, with our debates in this House, we shall be able to ensure that its passage is expedited on to the statute book.

The noble Lord, Lord McColl, was kind enough to refer to the role that I have played in trying to deal with the problem of fuel poverty. It is an issue in which I have been involved for many years, going back to 1983, when I joined what is now known as National Energy Action, the charity concerned with fuel poverty.

I am delighted that the Government have put this problem on the map. They have made sure that the term is fully understood, even though it was not used until recently. Indeed, when I tried some months ago to place a Question on the Order Paper in relation to fuel poverty, I was asked by the House authorities what I meant by it. Now people understand what is meant by fuel poverty.

The Government have gone further than that and introduced a number of measures—the new HITS scheme and others—which will help to resolve the problem. However, even taking into account all the measures the Government have introduced so far, it could be many years before the problem is fully dealt with. That is what makes this Bill so appropriate and timely. It acts as a kind of coping stone for the efforts that the Government have already undertaken.

The Bill does one very important thing—it lays down the time-scale within which this process must be completed. Personally, I think that the period of not longer than 15 years is too long. I would hope that a programme and strategy devised in accordance with the proposals in the Bill could be so worked out that we could deal with this problem within a decade. If we were to work on the basis of improving 500,000 homes which are affected by fuel poverty per year, that would just about do it, on the assumption that the figure of 5 million is correct. I hope that that will be borne in mind by the Government when they prepare the strategy.

Unfortunately, in Britain we have one of the poorest housing stocks among developed countries. We have a housing stock which, generally speaking, is much older than that in other countries. Some 45 per cent of the housing here is more than 50 years old—that is nearly half of the homes in Britain—as compared with 39 per cent in France, 30 per cent in Germany and 24 per cent in the USA. The latest House Condition Survey shows that a high proportion of houses are in need of urgent and fundamental repair. Some 4 million homes out of 20 million require urgent attention.

Unfortunately, those who live in these ill repaired and older homes are those who suffer from fuel poverty and, in large measure, are elderly people. This is a very serious social phenomenon. As the noble Lord, Lord McColl, rightly pointed out, the problem of fuel poverty results from a combination of low incomes, poor housing, inadequate heating systems and inadequate insulation. These are all the elements with which the new strategy has to deal.

I lend my full support to the Bill. I hope that it will go through its stages as quickly as possible. This leads to the problem to which the noble Lords, Lord McColl and Lord Prys-Davies referred—namely, the issue raised by the Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation. It is rightly concerned about the use of negative regulation in relation to the wide powers given to the Government in the Bill to define fuel poverty. As the noble Lord, Lord McColl, pointed out, at one extreme they could, by redefinition, bring all the households in Britain into fuel poverty, or take them all out.

That is obviously an unsatisfactory situation. I have no doubt that it has not entered the mind of the Government that they should do any such thing. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us on that point. It would have been better if, as the Select Committee recommended, we could have amended the Bill to correct this anomaly. But circumstances are against us. It is a Private Member's Bill, and if we amend it and send it back to the other place, there is a serious risk—indeed, I have been assured a virtual certainty—that it would fall. Perhaps the Minister will give the House his views on that issue. If the Bill were to fail, the damage done would be far in excess of any amendment that we might introduce.

It is very important that we exercise our judgment in this matter, as we are invited so to do by the Select Committee. I hope that we decide to move in such a way as to ensure that the Bill gets on the statute book. That is of vital importance. It would help if we had suitable reassurances from the Minister as to the Government's intention with regard to the wide powers they will be given under the Bill.

11.36 a.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, I, too, wish to express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, for introducing the Bill, which I warmly and wholeheartedly welcome. I hope that it will be given an enthusiastic reception. I also hope that your Lordships will take the hint contained in the report of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation and, as the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said, resist any impulse to table amendments, despite the fact that, in an ideal world, the Bill would be amended. It is very much better to have the Bill unamended than not to have it at all. In view of the tightness of time and the desirability of getting these helpful provisions on the statute book, we should give the Bill a fair wind.

The issue of fuel poverty is very real and pressing. If even 20 per cent of households have serious difficulty in maintaining adequate standards of warmth, the total of misery and suffering must be very great indeed. While I recognise the valuable and increased help given by the Government to older people, very many of those suffering from fuel poverty are not the elderly but poor families, with children, living on benefits in accommodation which is chronically damp, draughty and lacking any proper insulation—and very often lacking good heating provision.

We confront a major energy crisis. On the one hand, people need more warmth. That, on the face of it, seems to demand more energy to provide the warmth. On the other hand, we must reduce energy consumption if we are even to begin to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets set out so convincingly in the report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Energy: the Changing Climate. If we are to meet the needs of those suffering from fuel poverty, and, at the same time, to pursue a coherent and consistent policy of the most stringent economy in energy use, there must above all be a clear concentration on energy efficiency. That is set out in Clause 2(2) of the Bill. This will require a combination of the provision of the most efficient possible forms of heating—most of the poorest households currently depend on very inefficient forms of heating—and, above all, realistic energy conservation measures. As the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, pointed out, we have a chronic problem in this country of energy inefficient housing stock.

The Bill would place on Government and local authorities the duty to make proper use of existing powers. The Royal Commission report refers to the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, which requires United Kingdom local housing authorities to draw up strategies for cost effectively raising the energy efficiency of private and public housing in their areas. The target is a 30 per cent reduction in household energy use by 2011, although little or no extra resourcing was provided to local authorities to help them to meet that target. Most local authorities devote less than half of one officer's time to implementing this energy efficiency strategy—which is something of a disgrace It is hardly surprising that so little progress is being made—not least because local authorities have no means of accurately measuring household energy consumption.

I hope that the passage of this Bill may be a further important factor in encouraging more vigorous and purposeful progress in working towards that energy reduction target. But the primary objective of the Bill must be to relieve the present suffering from fuel poverty. To that end, we need a government commitment to specific subsidies for the most energy-efficient heating systems: to the vigorous pursuit of the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme, with payments for energy saving and heat conserving measures for those receiving state benefits because of low incomes or disability. I welcome the proposed increase in expenditure on this scheme from £75 million in 1999–2000 to £175 million in the year 2001–02. I support the Royal Commission's suggestion that doctors should be able to put forward the names of their patients for prompt attention under the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme if they feel that the health of those patients is particularly at risk from fuel poverty.

I should welcome clarification from the Minister on how exactly the provisions of the Bill will relate to, and interact with, the existing legislative measures that I have mentioned and other relevant provisions. What we need above all is a means of tackling in a quick, effective and coherent way—I support the target of 10 years suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, rather than 15—the urgent and distressing problem of fuel poverty, but at the same time addressing the equally urgent need for energy conservation and a reduction in overall energy consumption. I very much hope that equal importance will be given to each of those vital objectives.

11.41 a.m.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, I am delighted to be able to participate in this Second Reading debate. I congratulate the Bill's sponsors and supporters on their long and tireless campaign to raise the political profile of the scandal of British people dying of cold in the 21st century. The issue, nothing less than a scandal—as has been eloquently stated—did not receive the attention that it deserved until recently. I am pleased that the Government have been able to respond positively to the Bill and to the issue of enabling people to have warmer homes.

I must declare an interest as the recently retired director-general of Age Concern. The House will know of that organisation's work to support efforts to eradicate fuel poverty. It is quite clear why that has been, and remains, the case. I remember only too well having to go into TV studios throughout the winter, and particularly at Christmas-time, year after year when a cold snap caused havoc to appeal to vulnerable older people to wrap up warmly and turn up the heating. They should not have to do that. Rather, they, and indeed younger families in fuel poverty, should be able to live in more energy-efficient housing and be able to afford their lower fuel bills.

The statistics have already been mentioned. What is clear is that older people are generally the greatest victims of the cold. In 1998, there were 352 deaths in the UK the records of which specifically mention hypothermia as the main or contributory cause of death. Nearly 300 of those were of people aged 60 or under. Cold-related diseases account for a huge number of the recorded deaths that make up our appalling excess winter death rates. Two things are clear. First, for every one degree centigrade fall in average winter temperature, there are as many as 8,000 additional deaths, the vast majority among older people. Secondly, there must be a problem in the UK if our excess winter death rate is so much higher than that in colder countries such as Sweden, where it is calculated on a similar basis. That cannot be allowed to continue.

Of course, older people tend to live in the worst quality housing, often owner occupied, but ill-maintained. They are often relatively "asset rich" but are also often "income poor". The most recent figures show that the poorest single pensioners spend up to 18 per cent of their income on fuel, compared to an average of about 5 per cent. The situation has not improved much over the past 20 years, since Malcolrn Wicks, the honourable Member in another place, now a DfEE Minister, wrote his influential book, Old and Cold. But things are beginning to look rosier now, thank goodness.

That is why the Government's commitment genuinely to tackle fuel poverty and to develop a strategy is welcome. I look forward to its publication by Christmas. I know that the Bill does not take us much further forward because much of the work is under way and is not dependent on the Bill's passage. However, the measure is welcome in that the Government should have a legislative framework in place setting out the requirements placed on government to devise a strategy and to implement it by 2016.

But there is much more to do. I have welcomed the improvements to the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme (HEES). The new HEES will go some way to helping more older people. However, it will not eradicate fuel poverty on its own. As the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said, 2016 is a long time away for an 80 year-old person living in a cold, damp house.

The winter fuel payment is now a significant amount, at £150 a year. Most older people welcome this recognition that they spend, and need to spend, more of their income on fuel than the rest of the population. Many older people need this money but, frankly, many do not; and more to the point, many do not use it on fuel. Many give it to charities such as Help the Aged.

There has been a separate debate about whether or not the money spent on the winter fuel payment should be rolled into the state pension or paid weekly. I sometimes ponder on the additional resources that could be ploughed back into affordable warmth schemes for those who need them more if the payment were to be taxed. Only about one-third of pensioners pay any tax at all, which means that the richest pensioners benefit by up to 40 per cent more from the winter payment than the poorest two-thirds of pensioners who do not pay tax. Will the Minister tell the House how much more there would be to spend if the winter payment were to be taxed?

However, the real point regarding the winter payment is that the sum spent by the Government, now over £1 billion a year, should be better guaranteed to be spent on providing warmer homes. I therefore seek reassurance that those who hold the purse strings will not say to the Minister, "Well, we spend billions on the fuel payment and now we've got the warm homes Act, so we have sorted out the problem", because the job is not done. To sort the matter out we must also spend money on housing, improving it so that it is more energy efficient. We must get rid of inefficient electric bar heaters, draughty windows, and so on.

The Bill offers a framework, but it is for the Government to deliver—preferably well within the 15-year period written in to the Bill. Once again, I congratulate the noble Lord on piloting the Bill through this House.

11.48 a.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I shall be brief. I endorse the aims of the Bill and the support of my party for it. I remember when I was very active in these matters in the Liberal Party, and other Liberal Members will probably remember the late Dr Geoffrey Taylor, from the West Country, who campaigned on this issue and whose figures for the aged who died of hypothermia were horrifying; they were much challenged and derided at the time but were subsequently proved to be true. This measure is long overdue.

As we have heard, the Bill is flawed and should be amended. I agree with those who say that it is ridiculous that we should not have the opportunity to do so. Nevertheless, in my 30-odd years in this House I have helped, or sometimes tried to stop (although I did not succeed), the passage of Bills which were a great deal more flawed than this one. I am not at all sure that I am not presently in the process of helping to pass laws that are considerably more flawed than the Bill now before us.

We should not let anything interfere with our ability to get this into law as quickly as possible. As every speaker so far has said, we should ask the Government for their full co-operation in implementing the Bill when it is passed, thereby ensuring that we get the maximum benefit out of it in the shortest possible time.

11.50 a.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, it is quite clear from all the speeches that have been made this morning that this is a very worthy Bill; indeed, there is no question about that in anyone's mind. But, as I am speaking in the gap of this debate, it would be wrong to reiterate the arguments as to why that is so. Like the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, I should like to draw attention to the report of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, which highlights the fact that Clause 1(2)(b) produces a mega "naughty": it is a Henry VIII clause par excellence.

Under normal circumstances we would not allow this to happen, but these are not normal circumstances. I calculate that there is a maximum of five-and-a-half weeks to the end of this Session. There is no more Private Members' time left in another place. However, where there is a will there must be a way. There is provision for the Government to make time to correct what I regard as a major "naughty" in another place, if they have the will to do so. There is also the opportunity to have a "No. 2" Bill, which I am sure, with the agreement of your Lordships, would go through this place with the speed of light. It could then be left to another place to decide which of the two Bills was right and preferable. I have no doubt that a No. 2 Bill correcting the catch-22 situation as regards regulations from the negative resolution procedure to the affirmative procedure would also pass speedily through the other place.

However, I suspect that the Government do not have the will. That is the real crux of the problem. So what lessons can be learnt for the future? The lesson that I propose to put to your Lordships is a little radical but not terribly so. We have set up a successful and very well respected Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation. It has come to be respected by governments of all colours—and quite rightly so. It is even respected in another place which is not always so when we try to do our work in this House.

In order to ensure that this sort of thing never happens again, I suggest to your Lordships that we consider most thoroughly amending the standing orders of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation so that it can look at Private Members' Bills that are going through another place and give a view upon them. I accept that that is a radical idea; I accept that it is different; and I accept that it is, perhaps, a little eccentric. But none the less, I believe that the usual channels in both Houses ought to consider my suggestion very seriously.

11.53 a.m.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, on introducing this Bill. I also congratulate him on his good exposition of the human misery surrounding the need for the Bill and its importance to us and to many elderly people. I, too, give the Bill a very warm welcome. I extend my congratulations to those who have worked so hard to get the measure to this stage, especially the Association for the Conservation of Energy, which has campaigned on these issues over a number of years. I know from personal experience how difficult the road of a Private Member's Bill can be. I successfully piloted the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 in another place. Incidentally, noble Lords may be interested to know that I wanted to call it the "Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill", but the Clerks in the other place told me that I could not possibly have such a title because it was a piece of legislation, not a campaign. I leave noble Lords to think about that.

Why do people campaign so hard through the tortuous process of the Private Member's Bill system on these issues? We have heard from several noble Lords that many people are appalled at the scandal of poverty, and, indeed, the ill health and the deaths that surround it. However, as we have also heard today, people are equally concerned about the sustainability of our planet.

We on these Benches strongly believe that the environment is not just something that we inherit from our parents: it is something that we must protect and improve for future generations. We believe that good health and a clean environment promote freedom and justice by ensuring that people are able to make the most of their life chances regardless of their background or their financial circumstances.

There are many who share that opinion; indeed, the Government have expressed a similar view, especially when talking about social inclusion. However, as noble Lords have pointed out, the sad fact is that on energy efficiency in homes and on fuel poverty, they have been rather slow to tackle the issues comprehensively. That is why it has been left to other organisations and to Back-Benchers in Parliament to take up such issues. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and others, this is often not a very satisfactory way of dealing with major problems. The Bill has encountered difficulties during its parliamentary process. That would not have happened if the Government had been prepared—and this also applies to previous governments—to draw up important environmental legislation. Other noble Lords have echoed those sentiments.

There has been strong criticism from Parliament's own Select Committee on Environmental Audit, to which reference has been made. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford talked about the 22nd Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Energy — the Changing Climate, which was particularly critical of the Government. I shall highlight just two points from the report. First, it said that, UK governments have never pursued an integrated and coherent energy policy". Secondly, on the issue that this Bill seeks to tackle, the report said that, there is a pressing need for further expansion of government programmes for raising energy efficiency and increasing warmth in low income homes, going beyond the existing … schemes". My noble friend Lord Ezra backed up that particular point.

Many noble Lords have outlined the human misery caused by cold, damp homes. In particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, pointed out the fact that there are problems every winter for elderly people, while my noble friend Lord Ezra drew to our attention the problems associated with poor housing stock which surround the whole issue. Other noble Lords made similar points. We can understand the urgent need for action in this area and why so many people, despite their reservations about how this legislation has come forward, are urging both the Government and noble Lords to go against their instincts and ensure that the Bill gets through. I agree that this partly depends on whether the Government have the will to take such action. The process is not insurmountable if the Government want to do something about ensuring that the Bill is more perfect legally than is the case at present. However, I hope that that will not prevent our getting it on to the statute book.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford also mentioned the Home Energy Conservation Act, I agree that that Act has not fulfilled its potential However, it can, with this Bill, play an important role in tackling the problems of fuel poverty.

I am pleased, however, that the Government have recently considered how we can improve local authority performance. As the right reverend Prelate pointed out, part of the problem is resources. That is particularly the case for hard pressed local authorities. However, it is short-sighted not to invest in this area. Investment now will save money in the future, will create jobs and will stop the dreadful scandal of people dying every winter.

I believe that the Government could do much to assist. One of the provisions of the Home Energy Conservation Act is to provide statistics on the location of cold homes. That enables us to target resources effectively. If the Government gather data through the national census, appropriate questions need to be asked to enable us to obtain the information that is required.

I hope that the Bill will be enacted speedily. Within a year of its enactment—I sincerely hope that it occurs well within that year—the Government will be required to draw up a strategy to end the fuel poverty scandal that we know exists in at least 5 million homes. Like others, I believe that the target date of 15 years mentioned in the Bill is far too long. I hope that the resources will be made available to achieve the target date within 10 years.

As I say, I hope that the Bill will be enacted speedily. The breadth of contributions made today in support of the Bill show how important it is, how much support it has, and how urgently it is needed.

12.1 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord McColl of Dulwich on introducing the Bill so ably on behalf of my noble friend Lord Newton of Braintree. It is particularly fortunate that my noble friend Lord McColl should introduce the Bill as, with his medical knowledge, he adds to the strength of the arguments made in favour of it. I also congratulate my honourable friend Mr David Amess on having steered the Bill through the other place.

The merits of the Bill have been thoroughly explained by my noble friend Lord McColl and others. Therefore I shall not comment further on that. However, suffice to say that we on this side of the House wholeheartedly support the Bill. I join others in congratulating all those organisations that have helped in preparing the Bill and getting it this far. However, yet again, we in this House find ourselves in an unsatisfactory position vis-a-vis a Private Member's Bill. Not for the first time we are told in no uncertain terms that if we amend the Bill it will be lost due to a lack of parliamentary time in another place. It is certainly not the first time I have been involved in a Bill where that has happened. A couple of years ago I believe that we were told that we could not even have a Committee stage in this House for fear of losing a Bill.

I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, as a member of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Select Committee, suggest that the other place should arrange its affairs in order to find time late in a Session to consider amendments made in your Lordships' House to Private Member's Bills. It is thoroughly unsatisfactory that the final day for consideration of Private Member's Bills occurs towards the end of July. Yet we are still taking a Second Reading of a Private Member's Bill in this House in October in the knowledge that if we seek to amend it it will be lost. The situation is all the more unsatisfactory when our own delegated powers committee makes such strong recommendations for amendments and states that if it were a government Bill it would insist on those amendments being made. In normal circumstances this House would always wish to abide by the recommendations of our committee as it has such a high reputation. The committee states: We would, however, understand why, in the case of a benignly intentioned bill such as this, the House of Lords might feel compelled to stifle its protests and let the bill pass unamended". That is certainly what I propose to do. However, as I said, the position is unsatisfactory.

My noble friend Lord McColl asked the Government for some assurances which I hope that the Minister will be able to give. Ideally we should be able to amend the Bill in Committee in this Chamber and the Government should provide time in another place for those amendments to be considered. Is there any chance at this late stage that that might happen? Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will make time available in the other place for that to occur? If the answer is no, as I suspect it will be, I ask the Government for a further assurance. If we pass the Bill unamended, will the Government at the first available opportunity when another suitable Bill is introduced, amend this Bill to take account of the Committee's recommendations? I do not know when another suitable Bill might be introduced. However, it would be helpful if the Minister could give an assurance that the Government would then take the opportunity to amend this Bill to take account of the Select Committee's recommendations.

As I said earlier, we support the Bill. I again congratulate my noble friend and my honourable friend Mr David Amess. I shall certainly not stand in the way of the enactment of the Bill.

12.7 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, I also thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, for introducing the Bill in this House. As he indicated, it is an important Bill in terms of improving energy conservation and energy efficiency and tackling fuel poverty. He spoke of the dire problems that are engendered by people who are cold in winter; namely, deaths, serious illness and pressures on the NHS. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, illustrated graphically the problems that the Bill is designed to tackle. I also praise the efforts of Mr David Amess and the enthusiastic support for the Bill from people of all parties. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, mentioned his own party and the Liberal Party. There is also fairly enthusiastic support for the Bill from the Labour Party and from noble Lords on all sides of the Chamber present today. Perhaps even more importantly, there is support from those bodies which have campaigned for the Bill and the strategy that it will deliver.

As I say, the Bill has widespread support. I noted what the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said about the title of the Bill. I am gratified that the authorities in this House seem a little more "user friendly" than perhaps was the case in another place in the past. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said that we now understand the issue of fuel poverty. The Government certainly do and have pledged to put warm homes and tackling fuel poverty at the centre of our strategy on the environment and social policy. Research indicates that cold homes are the major domestic health hazard and that tackling fuel poverty requires improvements in the energy efficiency of vulnerable households. We are determined to tackle fuel poverty, and to do so on the lines of this Bill.

The Bill seeks to place a duty on the Secretary of State to publish and implement a strategy for reducing fuel poverty and to set a target date by which as far as reasonably practicable persons in England and Wales do not live in fuel poverty. That is a worthy and necessary aim. As noble Lords said, at least 4.3 million households were estimated to be experiencing fuel poverty as at 1996.

The noble Lord, Lord McColl, and others raised issues of definition and numbers. It depends to some extent on how one defines fuel poverty but there is a fair degree of consensus on how this should be approached. The 4.3 million figure comes out of the English House Condition Survey 1996. The Government's consultation document on the new homes energy efficiency scheme highlighted some of the technical issues surrounding a definition and, as my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies said, the identification of numbers was not so complete in Wales as in other parts of the United Kingdom.

The Inter-Ministerial Group on Fuel Poverty, which I chair jointly with my right honourable friend Helen Liddell, is considering some of these technical issues. It is in that context rather than under any major revision of the kind referred to by the noble Lord, Lord McColl, that we might define everyone or no one as being in fuel poverty. Any minor change in the definition would he within those constraints. The general phrase on the face of the Bill addresses three important issues in relation to strategy. First, it provides an immediate framework for the preparation of a strategy with the flexibility to explore freely and agree the most appropriate definition within those terms after proper consultation. I can reassure the noble Lord that that would require widespread consultation.

Secondly, it avoids tying a fuel poverty strategy to an absolute once-and-for-all definition, but again within the confines to which I have referred. Finally, some have argued that inclusion of a final definition in the Bill would pre-empt the conclusions on the strategy itself.

Having said that, I am clearly implying that noble Lords should not be as concerned as some may be and as perhaps may be the interpretation of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee in relation to Clause 1(2)(b) which provides power to substitute the definition of fuel poverty. Once the strategy has been published, it is intended that there should not be further opportunity to amend the aim or goals established under Clause 1 of the Bill. We intend to ensure that that is achieved by a careful drafting of our aim and strategy and, in doing so, intend to prevent any future attempt to frustrate the aims of the Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, hinted, we intend to produce that strategy within a very few months.

We also need to bear in mind the wide-ranging nature of that strategy. Fuel poverty arises from a combination of low incomes on the one hand, poorly insulated housing on the other, and expensive or inadequate heating systems. Under-occupation of houses can be an issue, in particular for single, elderly people in the private sector. It is, therefore, a complex equation. However, the Government do not think that it is right that households which suffer from fuel poverty have themselves to make choices between being warm and well and sacrificing spending on other pressing priorities. That is why we are committed to tackling fuel poverty.

We have begun with a number of policies—for example, the reduction of the level of VAT on fuel and energy efficiency materials supplied through government schemes. People can now afford to provide adequate heating within their homes. As the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said, we have also developed the new home energy efficiency schemes with grants of up to £2,000 and comprehensive packages of heating and insulation improvements now available to households which are most at risk to cold-related ill health—the elderly, families on low income, the disabled and chronically sick. We have introduced and subsequently increased the winter fuel payments for pensioners. As the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, indicated, there are some controversial issues surrounding that. Nevertheless, I was gratified to hear today that most pensioners welcome provision of help in that form. More broadly, we have provided substantial help to local authorities to improve the quality of their own stock in the social sector generally. Within that there is clearly an energy efficiency dimension.

Those developments, and many others, form part of a comprehensive drive to tackle fuel poverty. It will form part of the strategy arising from the Bill. I have the privilege to chair jointly the Inter-Ministerial Group on Fuel Poverty. That body also includes representatives from the devolved administrations. Together we are considering the impact of all government programmes designed to tackle fuel poverty. We seek to develop a more accurate picture of how quickly the issue can be addressed and at what cost, and to publish a strategy setting out the Government's fuel poverty objectives, how they will be achieved, what legislation and other means we should need to tackle them and identify some of the resources required and the timescale. In that context the shorter timescale than the 15 years provided in the Bill will be considered.

To a great extent, therefore, the Bill mirrors what the Government were already doing. Nevertheless, the Bill is needed because it will have the effect of enshrining in law the proposals in that strategy and make them central to the Government's programme, ensuring that the most vulnerable households need no longer risk ill health due to a cold home.

The merits and substance of the Bill are agreed on all sides of this House and in another place. My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies raised two issues. One was echoed by many noble Lords. The first relates to Wales and the devolved administrations. The National Assembly for Wales and other devolved administrations are represented on the inter-ministerial strategy committee. The Bill provides for the Assembly to define fuel poverty in a different way should it so choose and to specify a comprehensive package of measures which may well be different in Wales from England. That is an inescapable consequence of having devolved administrations with the ability to make their own regulations. The idea of the inter-ministerial group is that the strategies pursued in the four countries would to a large extent dovetail to meet the overall objectives. But they may well be somewhat different in each of the countries. As my noble friend is aware, in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland the mixture of housing is different from that in England in terms of type of tenure and, to some extent, age of stock. There may well be good reason for some differences of approach by the devolved administrations. However, they will all be brought together within the overall strategy.

The clearance for the procedure reflected in the Bill in relation to the National Assembly for Wales was through normally agreed procedures with the Assembly on the basis on which we now deal with these matters with the devolved administration.

Almost all noble Lords raised the issue of the regulation-making power in Clause 1(2)(b) and the comments of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. That committee describes this Private Member's Bill as benignly intentioned with, widespread support and the potential to affect the well-being of very many people". That is a view clearly shared in the House today. For that reason, the committee would understand were the House to decide to give the Bill passage unamended to the benefit of millions of households whose interests would be safeguarded by the Bill. The Government are already drawing up a strategy. The consultation draft will be published shortly. That will include references on the definition. Any subsequent change in the definition under Clause 1(2)(b) would not alter that commitment and would be within the context of that document.

I appreciate that in other circumstances we might wish to amend the Bill, but I also recognise the situation that we are in. I agree that it is not the most satisfactory situation but it is not unprecedented. I could not possibly comment on any current Bills to which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, might have been referring, but it is not unknown for the House to approve Bills that are not 100 per cent satisfactory but whose overwhelming effects would be positive and benign. The same may apply to one or two Bills that did not produce such obviously positive effects. I therefore join those who suggest that, despite the issues drawn to our attention by the Select Committee, we should pass the Bill unamended.

Some of the comments that have been made are not proper for the House to discuss, let alone for a Minister to make a serious response on, because they relate to procedure in another place. Were the boot to be on the other foot, we would resent any suggestion by another place that they should override or make forceful proposals to this place as to how we should proceed. It is accepted procedure that at the start of a parliamentary Session the other place agrees on a finite number of days for discussing Private Member's Bills. The last of those days has passed, so the logical conclusion is that were the Bill to be amended in your Lordships' House, it would fall this Session. It would be sensible for us to recognise that and to pass the Bill unamended.

It would not be appropriate to go further than that on procedures in another place. I hope that the House hears what I am saying and passes the Bill unamended, to the benefit of the millions who currently suffer from fuel poverty in our country.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I asked the Minister for an assurance, not concerning another place, that if the Government had a suitable legislative opportunity in a future Session they would amend the Bill, which would by then be an Act.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am being asked to do all sorts of improper things this morning. It is not convention to anticipate the contents of a future Queen's Speech. I fear that I can go no further than that today.

12.22 p.m.

Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, I thank all those who have taken part in this helpful debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, for putting so clearly the problem that the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation set out. I am reassured and encouraged by the Minister's comments.

I like the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that we should get a move on and aim to improve 500,000 houses a year. That is a great idea, which was supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, who has done so much work over the years with Age Concern.

As a member of the medical profession, I also very much liked the suggestion of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford that doctors should be empowered to put forward names and have some influence on the issue.

It may be improper of me, but I also very much liked the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale that there should be some interaction to enable the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation to look informally—and, of course, with great tact—at Private Members' Bills earlier in their passage, perhaps between the Commons Committee and Report stages.

Finally, I ask the House to give the Bill a second reading.

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

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