HL Deb 20 October 2004 vol 665 cc889-94

(1) The Secretary of State shall ensure that by 2016 all social housing shall as far as is reasonably practicable have insulation, heating and ventilation standards that are at least equivalent to those required in newly built homes by the building regulations for the time being.

(2) For the avoidance of doubt the standards referred to above shall include the following provisions, namely that—

  1. (a) there must be a heating system that is economical and efficient and which is capable of heating the whole dwelling to a comfortable level in normal weather conditions at a cost that is affordable to the occupant; and
  2. (b) any property to which this section applies must achieve a SAP rating of no lower than 65.

(3) In this section "social housing" means housing let by a registered social landlord or a local housing authority.""

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 209 would require a minimum SAP rating of 65 in social housing—now there is a lovely bit of jargon. This would enable the Government to meet their legal obligation to end fuel poverty and bring homes up to the standard that the Government accept is needed to do such a thing.

I was disappointed to note that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, made few substantive points when we discussed these issues in Committee. I am afraid that he read out the Government's measures taken to improve energy efficiency, and that was all. Knowing the Minister's fondness for departing from his official script, this must have been a truly difficult task for him. No one disagreed with his comments, but the nub of the matter is contained in those which he made in Committee. The Minister told the House—I am sorry to repeat his words to him—of the Government's, goal of eradicating fuel poverty for all vulnerable households by 2010".—[Official Report, 16/9/04; col. 1449.]

Apart from the fact that it is not merely a goal but a legal duty under the Conservative Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, there are two deficiencies in this statement. The decent homes standard will not do that. Secondly, the Minister failed to mention the other duty under the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act—to end all fuel poverty in all social housing by 2010. Again, the current decent homes standard will not do that.

Why do I say that? Noble Lords do not have to take my word for it but should listen to what the Government's official advisers have to say. As the minutes of a meeting held on 5 April between the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group, the Government's official expert advisers and the Minister, Keith Hill, stated, the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group went on to stress that, the thermal comfort standard of Decent Homes left householders remaining in fuel poverty". How many people will be left in fuel poverty? The 2001 consultation on the decent homes standard stated: 25 per cent of social sector tenants living in homes with these stock measures (i.e. insulation and heating measures that comply with the decent homes standard) are still fuel poor". Twenty-five per cent is about 650,000 homes or more than 1,400,000 people, based on the national average of 2.2 persons per household.

That represents an enormous number of social housing tenants who live in properties that comply with the decent homes standard, but do not qualify for upgrade works under the standard and thus will still be left in fuel poverty. Therefore, the Government will be in breach of legal obligations.

What about the homes that do not comply even with the current standard? Latest figures show that there are well over 1 million non-decent homes that fail the current low standard on thermal insulation grounds. Current policy is to bring those homes up to the decent homes standard—the standard that will not guarantee that they will be removed from fuel poverty.

On 16 September, the Minister told the House that, the proposed clause would impose a burden that we do not think is cost effective"—[Official Report, 16/09/04; Col. 1451.] That may have been his department's decision. It is an important point but it is also not exact. The amendment would save public money and, since we are always keen on that, I will explain how that would happen. The Government have a legal duty to end fuel poverty in social housing. The decent homes standard does not do that, as I said. Therefore, improving homes to that standard will require a second set of measures later on. There would have to be two bites at the same cherry, which is certainly not the most efficient way of complying with the law. The most cost-effective way is to set the standard that ends fuel poverty for all at one time, which would save public money. The amendment does just that. It sets a SAP rating of 65—the rating that the Minister Elliot Morley in the House of Commons said was needed to end fuel poverty.

We have support for this measure from what might be considered to be an unexpected quarter. At a meeting of the All-Party Group on Warm Homes in Committee Room 17 last night, that very point was put to Defra Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. He replied, "I have some sympathy with this. I am not defending the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister". The noble Lord is not here and I apologise for quoting him when he is not on the Front Bench, but it seems to cover a point or two. I beg to move.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, my name is attached to the amendment. I strongly support what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said and will not repeat it at this late stage. The Minister will remember that, at the very first meeting we had on this Bill, I said that the Government had missed an opportunity to push energy efficiency in our homes in this Bill, and I have tried at all stages to do something about that. I regret that, however much the Prime Minister and others try to promote their love of the environment and say that they will sign up to all things to help mitigate climate change, the fact remains that Back-Benchers and others have had to push the Government on the issues.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said that the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 was a Conservative proposition. It may have been led by a Conservative, but all these issues are Back-Bench Bills that have cross-party support. In the end, they have to have Government support, but the Government are led kicking and screaming to get these matters onto the statute book. I have been involved with the subject all the time that I have been in both Houses of Parliament, and I regret that we always have to push so hard to get what seem to be sensible things that are in line with everything that all parties say we ought to have, especially in the realm of energy efficiency and looking after our environment.

I hope that the Minister understands how people feel about this. While it is far too late at night to go through why it is so important, I am sure that we shall return to it at Third Reading. Fuel Bills will be rising this winter and many of those whom the Government believed they had taken out of fuel poverty will go back into it. I strongly support the amendment.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is a shame that we are at the hour we are and thus pushed for time, because there is much that we on the Government side could have said and done on this issue. I take issue politically with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, because in all the 18 years of Conservative government we did not have anything like a decent homes standard. If it was not for this Government, such a thing would not exist at all. I certainly do not recall Conservative administrations being in the least bit interested in fuel poverty; in fact, they were positively uninterested in it. My recollection is that money was taken out of the benefits system that had been put there at an earlier stage to alleviate a degree of fuel poverty.

That said, the amendment is important and interesting, being part of a broader and important debate which we are not immune to listening to. The new clause would require the Secretary of State to ensure that, by 2016, all existing social housing stock had the same levels of insulation, heating and ventilation as those required for new-build properties under the building regulations. It specifies that existing dwellings must achieve a SAP rating of no lower than 65, and must possess a heating system that is economical, efficient and able to heat a whole dwelling at a cost affordable to the occupant.

We certainly recognise the aspiration of the new clause to improve the heating, insulation and ventilation standards of the existing stock. As my noble friend Lord Rooker made clear when speaking to the amendment in Committee, we have no difficulty with that aspiration. But we believe that the amendment is unnecessary and impracticable, and we question its cost-effectiveness. It is easy in opposition to commit to objectives, as the noble Baroness has done, with little likelihood that those aspirations are ever going to be turned into effective action in government. We cannot share the noble Baroness's enthusiasm for this approach. We have already moved beyond aspiration: we have committed ourselves to a decent homes standard and reduced the number of non-decent homes by 1 million since 1997. We have a goal to eradicate fuel poverty for all vulnerable households by 2010. No previous administration has ever set out that objective in such a way, and we make no apology for it.

Improvements to heating and insulation are a major focus of the refurbishment works under way to deliver the decent homes standard. Roughly 80 per cent of the 1.6 million non-decent social homes failed on grounds of thermal comfort in 2001. This means that, in order to meet the 2010 target, we shall need to improve the heating or insulation, or both, in at least 1.3 million social homes. That is a tough order, but we do not shirk our responsibilities.

I turn to the issue of affordability. We cannot accept the linkage that the amendment attempts to establish between heating systems and affordability. The affordability of a heating system depends on an occupant's income. In cases of households with very low incomes, energy efficiency improvements alone will not be sufficient to allow a household to heat their home affordably. Income-related measures will also be required. That is where benefits, tax credits and winter fuel payments come in—and we have made our commitments very plain in that regard.

I am very proud to have been part of a Government who have underwritten winter fuel payments as we have. It has lifted millions out of fuel poverty and misery in the cold months of the year. On reflection, I wish it had been there when my mother was alive, as she would certainly have benefited from it with a vengeance. I think that this issue takes us beyond the territory of the Housing Bill.

I think that we can all agree that energy efficiency savings have to provide value for money. Very high levels of energy efficiency could be delivered from much of the existing stock, but at a very high cost. We need to balance expenditure on achieving energy efficiency against the need to carry out other work to improve living conditions. We also need to put homes into a reasonable state of repair, provide adequate ventilation for health, deal with any serious health or safely hazards and ensure safe means of escape in the event of a fire.

As I said, I think we have a very good story to tell on this. We are happy to be judged on our record. We see no virtue in turning the decent home standard into the kind of blunt instrument that we consider this amendment exemplifies.

So the aspiration is shared. I am glad that the noble Baroness and her party now have moved in the general direction of the Government in seeking to eradicate fuel poverty—a sentiment that was certainly absent in the Thatcher years. I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

10 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, it was only because I mentioned the word "Conservatives" that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, got so wound up and did not really concentrate on the amendment. I think the requirement to ensure that there is energy efficiency and that people should not be living in substandard properties has been common parlance for a number of years. I bow to no one in the fact that that has been a policy of governments for a considerably long time and certainly prior to this Government's efforts. However, I do not want to banter at this late stage; it was only that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, wound me up a bit by getting wound up himself.

I think that the amendment is more important than the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has given it credit for. The decent home standard is going to be complied with, but it is still going to leave the Government in breach of their duties. The amendment seeks to put that right.

I do not think that thermal insulation has anything to do with income. If I understood him correctly, the noble Lord said that part of the aspect of heating a home was economic. I accept that, but that is not what the amendment is about. The amendment is about ensuring that properties are physically in condition to withstand the seeping away of heat. Thermal insulation, as I say, is nothing to do with income.

The Minister has made a response. I do not agree with it. I will not test the opinion of the House tonight—it is too late—but I am absolutely certain that we will return to this at the next stage. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 210:

After Clause 204, insert the following new clause—