Home Page

Column 1141

House of Commons

Friday 4 February 1994

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Orders of the Day

Energy Conservation Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I have never been very good at winning raffles ; even the talcum powder and oven glove which are usually the 32nd prize in one's constituency raffles usually elude me. The same is true of the ballot for private Members' Bills, which many people outside the House do not realise is also in the nature of a raffle.

I have been a Member of Parliament for 20 years and this is the first time I have been successful in the ballot at any level, let alone the No. 2 slot. So accustomed had I become to my lack of success that I had taken to telling people who wrote to me before the ballot to ask me to take up various causes that their requests were academic, that there was little point in my making any commitment, because I had never been successful in the ballot. This year, however, I won second place and was very pleased to do so.

I have received the usual shoal of inquiries and importunings from hon. Members and from friends in organisations pursuing various causes, but I quickly concluded that having the second slot meant that it was worth trying to introduce a measure that had a chance of being passed. However, having the second slot, and therefore a reasonable amount of time, meant that it was possible to try to put on to the statute book a measure about which there was some controversy rather than one which was so innocuous that even the Government would welcome it with open arms.

I shall discuss later whether the Government welcome the Bill with open arms or with a limited blessing. All will become clear when we hear from the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry). I hope to encourage the Government to believe that the Bill is so much in everyone's interests that they should be enthusiastic about it.

One of my first thoughts was to try to legislate for the payment of debts to small businesses. The late payment of debt is such a serious problem that I offered the Government the opportunity to pursue it. It had been mentioned by the Chancellor in the Budget, but the Government wanted to take the issue to wider consultation, which I fear may make them more reluctant rather than more enthusiastic to do something that I still hope they will

Column 1142

do. It was clear that any Bill would be blockable on those lines, so I felt free to introduce a Bill for which there is extremely widespread support.

Few Bills have had such widely declared support. Three hundred and twenty- seven hon. Members have signed an early-day motion in favour of a Bill of this type, and 167 local authorities have called for it. As local authorities will be directed to act under the Bill, that is both surprising and welcome, and it proves how important they believe the issue to be.

I have received letters from a number of hon. Members who could not sign the early-day motion because they are members of the Government and from some who could not be here today. I do not want their absence to console potential opponents, because many will be here during the day to support the Bill.

Some hon. Members who have been associated with the matter have also written to me. For example, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) who is a member of the Government, has a record of supporting energy conservation, and introduced a Bill to that effect. The right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) is one of many who have expressed their support.

The Bill has the support of the Association for Conservation of Energy, Neighbourhood Energy Action, the Institute of Environmental Health Officers, Age Concern, Mencap, the Spastics Society and many other organisations that represent the disabled and believe that it is especially important to help the people for whom they care, whose need for warmth is sometimes greater than we realise because they are often trapped in their homes.

The list includes Greenpeace, Help the Aged, the World Wild Fund for Nature, the Gas Consumers Council and the Body Shop. The list of organisations and commercial concerns which have given their support is large, and I am grateful for the support of hon. Members of all parties, not only those who are among the Bill's sponsors but those who have arranged to be present today in case there is a Division and the many who have written to assure me of their backing.

The Bill is about energy, and there is a cruel irony in that fact because, as I speak, a meeting is being held about Ellington colliery in my constituency. It is the last pit in the north-east, and we fear that the meeting may lead to a closure announcement while we are debating the Bill. Closure would be a bitter blow for more than 1,000 families in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies, and it would be a betrayal by British Coal of the loyalty shown by the Ellington work force.

It is only weeks since we were told that there was a plan capable of allowing the pit to continue to operate for some years. With the prospect of a private buyer taking it on because of its close link with Alcan, anything that might jeopardise that prospect worries me. I know that the Minister will convey that view to his colleague in the Department of Trade and Industry with whom I discussed the matter late last night.

The aim of the Bill is to enable people to keep warm in their homes affordably, by reducing the amount of energy that they need to use, thereby securing reduced emission of greenhouse and other gases and conserving natural resources. Energy conservation makes sense, whether one views it from the perspective of global warming or from that of pensioners struggling to keep warm.

Column 1143

With greater energy conservation, we could cut fuel bills and fuel poverty, and that is all the more important if the application of VAT to fuel goes ahead. We could reduce cold-related illnesses. More than 7 million households are affected by fuel poverty, and it is estimated that 40,000 people die each winter because their homes are not adequately heated.

The domestic sector is responsible for about a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions. The country is pledged to reduce those emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

Energy conservation work is especially valuable in promoting local employment. It promotes self-employment and small businesses because of the nature of the tasks involved. It can be a valuable agent of local economic regeneration, for energy conservation work provides jobs, and work for small local businesses, which, as we all know from our constituencies, are of immense importance to the local community and the large economy.

The Bill, as a private Member's Bill, does not make large open-ended commitments to public spending. It ensures that we take an essential first step to work out what the energy efficiency of our housing stock is, both public and private, and where resources could most effectively be channelled to improve it.

The requirement that energy audits be carried out by local authorities is the heart of the Bill. There is also a provision for timetables to be set for work to be carried out as a result of the surveys, but the collection of the data is the vital first step, because that will reveal how cost effective investment in the field could be--cost effective for investment not only of public funds but of private funds, by owners of rented housing and by owner-occupiers.

We need to know where money can most usefully be spent. It is quite easy-- perhaps fatally so--to misdirect resources in that field into expensive measures that may have a disproportionately weak effect on energy conservation when compared with cheap and effective measures. We need to know more about the housing stock to know where the work should be directed. If that information is produced, it will guide not only local authorities in dealing with their housing stock but private owners of housing. It will also provide guidance to the Government, and will help us to use resources effectively. The Bill gives the duty to local authorities because they are the people who already have responsibilities and expertise in the field. The duties will rest on district and borough councils under the present system--it would be unitary authorities, wherever they are created, in future.

It is rather a tricky task at the moment to define local authorities in the statute when they are being changed significantly in England, Scotland and Wales. The Government have thought up some rather intriguing definitions in legislation that they have brought forward. The object is understood, however ; the powers should rest with the authorities that take over the housing function, currently mainly exercised at the district level.

Under the Housing Acts, local authorities are obliged to consider housing conditions in their districts annually. Under the housing investment programme, the Under-Secretary of State has announced that local authorities should

Column 1144

"take fuller account in their Housing Investment decisions of the need to improve the energy efficiency of their stock and to reflect this in their annual HIP submission."

Local authorities want to do that job and they have shown that it need not be expensive. Two pilot studies have shown that it could be done at modest cost. Newark and Sherwood district council showed that it could be done for a set-up cost of £46,000, with annual costs of about £4,500. The city of Derby produced a set-up figure of £48,700, with annual costs of abut £8,000. That is in a city with a total housing stock, public and private, of 93,000 dwellings, so it is a substantial authority. That shows that, especially with the aid of modern computer technology to assemble information, it can be done efficiently at a relatively modest cost.

I have said that local authorities are keen to do that, and they are, but I nevertheless believe that it needs to be a mandatory requirement, not a permissive power as the Government seem to be suggesting.

The Secretary of State went to Newcastle on Wednesday and opened offices for Neighbourhood Energy Action, an excellent organisation which has done some good work in my constituency and others in insulating pensioners' homes especially, and I commend its work. I am glad that he supported it in a radio interview while he was there. He said that he supported the idea of the Bill because it was a good idea, but preferred it to be permissive rather than a requirement on local authorities.

It is important to place the requirement on the local authorities. In these times of stringency, things that are not statutory obligations are the first to go under budget pressure. Any hon. Member who has taken part in, or observed, budget discussions in a local authority knows the position in which a committee chairman so often finds himself when he has to make cuts or contain expenditure. The statutory services and statutory requirements are protected, so he has to consider anything that is optional. The local authorities want to be given the lead by being told it is something they have to do, especially when it is so small in financial terms in relation to their overall budget.

Mr. Gyles Brandreth (City of Chester) : The right hon. Gentleman mentioned £46,000 in Derby as a cost. Is that a one-off cost in the first year? Would it be an on-going cost? It sounds as though three people would be in charge of the audit. For the audit to have value, it would have to be monitored over a series of years. Has the right hon. Gentleman extrapolated from what the costs would be in Derby to what the costs would be nationwide, if that were to become a statutory order?

Mr. Beith : The figure that I quoted for Derby was about £48,000 for the set-up costs, with an annual cost, which I also quoted, of £8,000. The set-up costs include the costs of setting up all the necessary computer software. I have not done an extrapolation for the country, because the figures are based simply on two pilot studies. It was a serious and effective attempt to give an idea of what it would cost in an authority of that size.

Not only is it important that local authorities should be under the obligation, because of the budget pressures on them, but the idea of the Government's setting a timetable and requiring plans to be submitted goes with the grain of what the Department of the Environment is doing in other fields. In relation to waste management, for instance, the Department tells local authorities that they must by a

Column 1145

certain date submit a plan to improve their waste management to reduce landfill. That technique seems to be effective, and one which can lead to a proper discussion of how the work can be carried out. Our former colleague the noble Lord Moore, who chairs Energy Saving Trust Ltd., said in a letter to the Secretary of State :

"As you know, my usual inclination is to favour advice over duties' and certainly there are a number of councils which will perform the activities described in the Bill of their own volition. However, previous experience suggests that these councils will be the exception rather than the rule. Without some form of stick' being applied, we could again end up preaching to the converted and therefore I support the relevant clause."

That is a pretty good political pedigree of support for the mandatory nature of the Bill for Conservative Members, and it comes from the noble Lord, with his understanding of the need to get some action in that field.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton) : I tend to agree with the right hon. Gentleman that, unless local authorities are given a pretty good steer in that direction, the duties will be discarded at some stage. Does he agree that the Government's Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill might have potential for relieving local authorities of some of the fussy duties that especially their environmental health officers have undertaken in recent years? I find in my dealings with them that they are so busy going around messing about with shops and small businesses that they cannot even ensure that neighbours can live in peace and be protected from the noise and havoc of next-door neighbours that make their lives agony.

Mr. Beith : I have much sympathy with the idea that we should get rid of the unnecessary regulations that local authorities have to enforce. One of the problems with the mechanism proposed in the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill is that we are not convinced that it will enable authorities to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary regulations. There will be quite an argument about that aspect of the Bill, but I support its objective of cutting unnecessary regulation. The Institution of Environmental Health Officers takes the view that the work described in the Bill is important, and it wants to get on with it.

I can offer some support to the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson). I have never known anything so absurd as constituents of mine being threatened with prosecution because they weighed out nuts in bags measured in pounds and ounces before customers arrived in the shop. Environmental health officers were required to threaten them with prosecution because nuts can be sold in pounds and ounces only if they are weighed in front of customers. Otherwise, they must be sold in grammes. We have allowed such absurdity into our system.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Before the hon. Gentleman goes too far down that road, may I suggest that the Bill is not a quid pro quo? Whatever the circumstances of other legislation, the benefits of implementing the Bill would be so widespread that it stands on its own merits.

Mr. Beith : Of course. The Bill is not regulatory at all ; it does not impose massive requirements. It merely makes local authorities carry out the feasible activity of assembling data and producing a plan for the most efficient use of resources in energy conservation. It proposes no new powers to interfere with people's lives, and no new means of extracting information from anybody who does not want to give it. It relies on existing, available and adequate

Column 1146

means of collecting information on the subject, most of which already exists and more of which can be put together and obtained by fairly simple processes of inquiry with the help of outside bodies such as estate agents and voluntary organisations. There is tremendous scope for voluntary co-operation on this work.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : The other great benefit of the Bill is that, in placing duties on local authorities, it establishes what is important. If local authorities are persuaded of the importance of energy conservation, that will transfer to the community at large. I hope that my right hon. Friend regards that as one of the key consequences of the Bill's placing a duty on local authorities, rather than an option or something about which a local authority could say, "We would love to do this, but we will not do so."

Mr. Beith : Absolutely. What a privilege it is to have my speech improved as it goes along.

The Bill contains much that was in the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) in the last Session. I pay tribute to the effort that he has put into this matter, and to his continued support. I look forward to hearing him speak later in the debate. I have encouraged him, given his knowledge of these matters, to speak towards the end of the debate to deal with the more complicated inquiries that might arise during it. The Bill does not include provisions that were in the hon. Gentleman's Bill--for example, the system of regional boards or the levy system, which his Bill proposed. We should concentrate on the immediate task of securing information, carrying out audits and making plans as the basis for moving energy conservation work forward rather than creating an elaborate new apparatus for the work. The means of doing the work is more readily to hand than the assembling of information. I am filling in what I think is the gap, and I am sure that existing mechanisms are adequate to do the work once we have indentified what it is and have built up the commitment that will be necessary at all levels to ensure that it is made a priority.

Clause 1 defines energy conservation and the local authorities that will be energy conservation authorities.

Clause 2 is the meat of the Bill. It gives local authorities the duty of preparing a plan or statement of the works needed to achieve various levels of energy saving in the various types of public and private residential accommodation in its area. It requires the authority to determine how priority can be given to householders suffering from financial hardship. A specific provision in clause 2 requires a local authority to indentify how priority could be given to those suffering from financial hardship.

Clause 2 requires an estimate of financial savings that could be made by energy-conservation measures, which of course will be of particular interest to tenants, owners or occupants of properties, and it requires an estimate to be made of the CO emission reductions that could be achieved by given energy savings. There will be a wider national and international interest in what emerges.

Clause 2 requires consultation with interested organisations and the public. It tries to build on some of the experience of inner-city initiatives, which have shown the merit of building local consensus as the basis for an energy-saving strategy. The energy action cities during the

Column 1147

Energy Efficiency Year of 1986 were, in part, the model for some of what is in the Bill. They included Cardiff, Edinburgh and Norwich. I hope that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), who was personally involved in the initiative in Norwich, will tell us about that. Much good experience came from it ; one of the things it showed was that a co-operative approach can be taken, drawing in all sorts of bodies and organisations to achieve positive results. Clause 3 places on the Secretary of State a duty to set a timetable for plans to be submitted and to make timetables to encourage the completion of the works proposed. It gives him the power to contribute to the cost.

Clause 4 is a money clause. I was advised by the House authorities that it had to be included, even if the Bill were confined to clause 2, which requires only a limited amount of local government expenditure, apparently because of the high proportion of local government expenditure that now derives from moneys voted by Parliament.

It appears almost impossible to get by without a money resolution these days, but I trust that the Government, in accordance with normal practice, will provide us with the appropriate money resolution to enable us to discuss all these parts of the Bill, even if they try at some stage to trim any part that has financial implications. The clause is included because I am advised that even the most limited parts of the Bill make it necessary.

Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck) : I support the Bill, but it may have some financial implications in the sense that we shall have to take a long- term view of the design of domestic, commercial and other buildings. It may be appropriate for the Secretary of State to have some small function-- perhaps offering a cup of tea and a biscuit--which may incur some expense to encourage architectural organisations to consider the design of buildings in the long term.

Scandinavian countries use a different design from us for residential accommodation because of their weather conditions. The part of the world that the right hon. Gentleman and I represent, and Scotland, experience different weather conditions from other parts of the country. Buildings in my constituency that have been constructed according to the Swedish design are working efficiently in terms of energy conservation.

Mr. Beith : Far be it from me to add to the Government's burgeoning entertainments bill, which has been the subject of much controversy, but the hon. Gentleman is making the important point that the Government should do all in their power to encourage energy efficiency in new building. I know that they have taken a number of initiatives for some of their own buildings, but it is a much wider issue.

I have regularly visited Sweden and Norway over many years, and have always been amazed by how far behind we have been in the normal standards of construction. Perhaps those countries were impelled to adopt such standards because of the generally lower temperatures, but temperatures are cold enough in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson), my constituency neighbour who shares my concern about Ellington colliery. In our part of the world, it is plenty cold enough for such things to have been justified years ago,

Column 1148

before rises in energy prices and VAT on fuel. Much could be done with the architectural profession and the construction industry. Energy conservation sometimes means higher capital costs for buildings. We have often made mistakes--this is fairly true of Government and public buildings--by trying to make savings in the initial capital cost of buildings, which have led to enormously higher revenue costs in terms of heating. That has often led to faster deterioration because the deficiencies that lead to inadequate energy conservation also contribute to water penetration of a building or other damage, thereby shortening its life.

Clause 5 extends the Bill to Northern Ireland. I am grateful for the support for the Bill that I have had from Northern Ireland Members on both sides of the House and for the interest in energy conservation that is being shown in Northern Ireland, where it has strong backing. I am glad that the Bill will extend to Northern Ireland.

Those are the broad terms and objectives of the Bill. It is fairly straightforward, and a little time in Committee will iron out some of the details. I am willing to discuss with the Government how the provisions can be cast in a form that will make the job as straightforward as possible for the Department and for local authorities.

It is essential, however, that the Bill retains the requirement that the work be done. We do not want such matters to dribble along for years. We are so far behind in the work that we must take the initiative now. I hope that, if recovery eventually comes, we shall enter a period when more of the work can be undertaken and the private and public sectors will have the means to carry it out. Let us be ready with the information, knowledge and clear guidelines on how resources can be best used.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley) : I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that, although the audit is important, it is action that counts. Does he accept that one of the great difficulties is that, in drawing up their budgets, local government and Departments of central Government tend to consider a project worth while only if it produces some tangible benefit for them? That is why it is so important to have a strategic approach that takes into account the benefits for the country and individuals.

Mr. Beith : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Department has opportunities, which it has used in the past, to build in an advantage for local authorities when it comes to calculating how work can best be done. It can give encouragement by providing special help to regions that come up with particularly good schemes. The Department has taken that approach widely to spread good practice. Assistance can be given--even where there are a few pilot projects--which will be to the advantage of those authorities that take a lead.

Many such ways have been developed. A great mixture of carrots and sticks can be employed. One problem is that, sometimes, those who need to make the capital expenditure are not those who benefit directly from it, and those who most desperately need energy efficiency and warmer homes are in the weakest position when it comes to achieving that.

Some tenants on low incomes living in poorly insulated housing do not have the money to make improvements. Sometimes, the local authority, the housing association or

Column 1149

the private landlord do not give such matters high enough priority and do not see a direct revenue benefit for themselves.

The problem therefore persists ; the tenant remains cold in the property, the amount of energy used remains higher than necessary and the property probably deteriorates quicker as well. We need to change that process. The sort of information that we can assemble under the scheme will make that possible.

The Bill is an essential step towards cutting the amount of energy needed to keep people warm in their homes. It will show us how to use resources effectively for that purpose, helping in particular those in greatest need. It will help us to save our precious and threatened environment. I commend it to the House.

10.3 am

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North) : I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in the debate on a subject in which I have tried to maintain an interest during my 10 years as a Member of Parliament. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on using his winning place in the raffle to introduce the Bill.

I sympathise with the right hon. Member's reference to raffles and lotteries because I went through the first 35 years of my life without ever winning a raffle. It was only when I became involved in Conservative politics that I discovered that I was able occasionally to win raffles. Since then, I have occasionally won them--sometimes to my embarrasment. Unfortunately, I have never won the private Member's Bill raffle or had a Bill highly placed. I doubly congratulate the right hon. Gentleman : first, on winning the raffle and, secondly, on choosing to introduce the measure, in which I have a genuine interest--one which I have tried to maintain since becoming a Member of Parliament.

The good news for the Bill is that there clearly is a high level of all- party support for its main objective. I suspect that that will be reflected in the speeches during what I hope will be an interesting debate today. After all, Fridays often generate the best debates in the House of Commons. People talk about the standard of debate in the House and the quality of the work of hon. Members, but I only wish that the press in the Gallery would report more fully our Friday debates. Those debates are worth while, and I make no apology for taking up a few moments to say that Friday debates are worthy of more and better coverage. [ Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] I am glad that I have the support of Members on both sides of the House. I shall not be tempted to talk about the Jopling report, which I also support, because I should be straying from the subject of the Bill. There is all-party support for the Bill. That has been proved by the large number of names that have been put down in support of various early-day motions and other measures. I am pleased to see in his place the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis). Although his Bill was not identical in every respect to the one that we are debating, I think that he would be the first to agree that it was a precursor of the subject of today's debate. I am pleased that he is able to be with us, and I am sure that he will speak later.

During what I hope will be a not-too-lengthy speech, I shall not talk about the Bill clause by clause in detail,

Column 1150

because, as I have learned during my time here, my lack of experience in the law has singularly disqualified me from taking a Bill apart clause by clause. I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not discuss the Bill in that sort of detail. I want to show why I support the Bill and why an energy strategy for this country is so important. I regard the Bill as a step on the road to a long-term energy strategy in the United Kingdom. I want to base my remarks on that argument.

My support is obviously based on my interest in science and engineering. As a physicist and during my earlier academic career teaching sixth forms in schools, I spent a great deal of time talking about the conservation of energy. It was probably the most important principle that I tried for 20 years of my life to impart to pupils in classrooms in Manchester and Norfolk.

I remember discussing in great detail the way in which various forms of energy can be converted from one to another. Hon. Members may think that I am getting carried away and am going to give a physics lecture, but I shall not do so. My experience is relevant because the importance of conserving energy is even clearer to those of us who have studied physics or science than it is to other people.

I remember talking about the way in which mechanical energy can be converted to an equivalent amount of heat energy. It is remarkable how much physical energy one has to put in to obtain what appears to be a comparatively small amount of heat. A lot of energy is needed to provide what might appear, on the surface, to be a smallish amount of heat. I remember discussing how heat is the most chaotic form of energy and I remember discussing the work of James Prescott Joule and how he established the equivalents between heat and energy. I promise that the physics lesson will end shortly. However, I noticed that the European Community has a programme of support for research and development and I was delighted to learn that it was called the Joule programme, until I discovered why it was called that.

I have a total abhorrence of acronyms and even the excellent Select Committee report, which is relevant to the debate, but from which I do not have time to quote in any detail, mentioned the Joule programme. I was horrified to discover that there are so many acronyms, even in this area. I kept reading about HEES, EST and EEO and having to look up what they were. I discovered that, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will know, that EEO is the Energy Efficiency Office. To my horror, I discovered that the Joule programme is an acronym for the joint opportunity for unconventional energy. I must protest at the absurdity of acronyms such as that. The Joule programme should have been named after the work that James Prescott Joule did for physics and energy, not because it is an acronym for the joint opportunity for unconventional energy. I hope that the House will support that despairing appeal for a reduction in the number of ridiculous acronyms.

My membership of the Parliamentary Group for Engineering Development links to the work of the Engineering Employers Federation and others. The federation has recently pressed for a balanced energy strategy leading into the next century. I see the Bill as part of such a strategy and that is why I clearly think that it is worthy of full support in the House and beyond.

In putting forward the strategy, the Engineering Employers Federation gave figures for population growth and energy requirements in the coming year. I was

Column 1151

horrified to learn that there will be a doubling of the energy requirement in the world by 2020. The figures have Government backing so perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister may wish to comment on that later.

To that, one can add the projections of the fuel mix. At present, 74 per cent. of our energy is produced by carbon dioxide-producing fuel. That is bad enough, as I am sure that will be mentioned later. According to Government figures of present trends, which I hope will not be continued, by 2020, when the energy requirements have doubled, the proportion of energy produced by carbon dioxide-producing fuels will have risen from 74 to 92 per cent. The implications of that for global warming and other issues which are of concern do not need to be spelled out.

I remember saying in a debate on global warming that it was basically benign and this is my opportunity to say that I was certainly misunderstood by certain characters in the Gallery. As a physicist, I was trying to make the point that we needed the greenhouse effect or we would freeze to death. To that extent, it is benign, but, clearly, not in the sense in which we normally debate it in the House. Ever since, I have been saddled with the quotation that global warming is benign and have been castigated in the Observer and elsewhere for not being green in my attitudes, so I shall take the opportunity to say that global warming is benign, but only to the extent to which it keeps us all warm, and not if it goes too far. The point of the strategies proposed by the Engineering Employers Federation and others is the need for a long-term view, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said. I am sure that my hon. Friend will pick that up. I agree with the EEF that there are three components of that strategy.

First, but not to be debated this morning, is the review of the nuclear industry. Nuclear power is not carbon dioxide producing. I hope that my hon. Friend will take on board the urgency of concluding that review in discussions with his colleagues. I do not need to spell out the implications, but it is an important point which be cannot evaded by the House.

Secondly, there is the question of the diversity of fuels and, thirdly--and what the Bill is really about--there is the question of energy conservation and increased efficiency. The EEF says that a long-term strategy, the conservation of energy and energy efficiency are important.

The EEF conducted a poll of Members of Parliament. I am suspicious of polls and whenever anybody telephones to say that they are conducting a poll, I say, in the nicest possible way, that I never take part. Apparently, most of my colleagues do the same, so I am baffled as to how even the worthy EEF has managed to get a sensible sample of Members of Parliament. Most polls of MPs are totally nonsensical and in preparation for an equally nonsensical article in some tabloid or more serious newspaper.

As there was a poll, I shall share the result with hon. Members and they may decide whether to take it seriously. It said that seven out of 10 Members of Parliament wanted the Government to take a more strategic approach to energy. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that seriously.

The only realistic way in which to achieve energy efficiency is by the systematic insulation of the nation's buildings, to which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred, and by the systematic

Column 1152

education of the occupants of those buildings. On 17 June last year, Viscount Mersey rightly talked about the boring truth of energy efficiency. We all get excited about wind power, to which even the syndrome of NIMBY applies. I shall be careful what I say, but, in Norfolk, people are beginning to protest because windmills are erected next to their houses. Concepts such as wind power, wave power, hot rocks and fuel cells are exciting, but, as my noble Friend said, the truth about energy efficiency is that it is boring, as it really only concerns property insulation and design.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is worth mentioning the developing furore over wind power? One of the reasons for objecting to the development of wind power in Wales is that we do not have the proper energy efficiency policy in place. Does he not accept that that kind of development will not be attempted unless the Government show that they are serious about energy efficiency? If we accept that, set it up and take it seriously, it will be more possible to obtain public support for development in other directions.

Mr. Thompson : That is one of the debates in which everyone seems to agree. The hon. Gentleman's remarks seem only to be common sense and I that hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State takes the point about the need for a long-term strategy and policy so that there can be proper discussion about wind power and other forms of energy production.

Mr. Brandreth : I disagree with my hon. Friend about energy efficiency being boring. I find that when I talk to people in my constituency about cost savings, they recognise that it is a case of enlightened self-interest and that they can help save the world, while improving the quality of their home life and enhancing their bank balance. Far from being boring, it is exciting.

Mr. Thompson : I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) is a convert to the view that energy efficiency is exciting. If he, as a communicator, is excited by it, we can all become excited about it. That is what we have been waiting for ; it is very good news indeed. I am making a serious point here, because energy efficiency and the insulation of buildings--I may even refer in passing to the imposition of VAT on fuel--are most important. My hon. Friend is right that those who are concerned about the cost of their fuel will get excited about better home insulation. I agree with both hon. Members who have intervened.

The Bill is a vital step towards returning our emissions of greenhouse gases to their 1990 levels by the year 2000, which is a commitment that we have made, while ensuring sustainable growth and safeguarding our economic interests. If the Bill is enacted, it will be the start of a real commitment by local authorities and Government to back up with co-ordinated action and funding the education and advice that are already being given. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made that point in his speech.

The ten-minute Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Ceridigion and Pembroke, North was similar in many respects to the Bill that we are debating this morning. Interestingly, it included a fuel levy--a concept which has sometimes been the subject of somewhat more controversial debate. I have no difficulty in supporting the concept

Column 1153

of some kind of taxation on fuel and energy in the interests of encouraging conservation, although the manner in which it is done is a matter of greater controversy.

The hon. Gentleman included a fuel levy in his Bill, with all that that implies in terms of the Government's policy of imposing VAT on fuel, while ensuring that anyone who has difficulty with heating bills gets the appropriate help. I am delighted to say that the Government have provided adequate support. I have even had letters from pensioners' organisations saying that they are pleased with the measure of help that the Government have provided to people who are likely to have difficulty paying their heating bills. The concept of a levy on energy or fuel to encourage efficiency and home insulation is good, and it is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman included it in his Bill.

I had a letter from the president of the Norfolk Energy Forum on 11 October last, which stated :

"Having considered the question of VAT on fuel, it is the view of this forum that this is acceptable provided a significant part of revenue raised was devoted to the implementation of energy saving measures."

I suspect that that is common ground between the parties--and the Norfolk Energy Forum clearly has support from all the political parties. It is fine for the Government to raise money in that way if, at the same time, serious consideration is given to investment in energy saving and energy-efficiency measures.

The Government have made good progress in energy efficiency. It would not be right for me to go into too much detail. After all, my hon. Friend the Minister will have an opportunity to spell out the position. If, reverting to my old profession of schoolmaster, I made out a report on the Government's progress, it would not be a eulogy--I would not give them an alpha-plus or anything like that.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister would be satisifed if, as one of his supporters, I talked in terms of a beta or a beta-plus. [Interruption.] Clearly, he is not wholly satisfied with that, but I assure him that there are many worse marks that I could give--beta-minus, gamma and so on. The Government are taking the issue very seriously.

Next Section

  Home Page