Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Simon Hughes : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thompson : I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, especially if it gives me a further opportunity to expand on my point.

Mr. Hughes : The hon. Gentleman is marking the Government somewhat generously. Intentions may have been good, but practice has been poor. The best example that one can cite is that when the Government set targets for their own buildings, energy use increased rather than decreasing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be too generous, because that might encourage the Government to think that they can ease up and not be too tough on themselves. They need to be tougher on themselves in their own interest, just as we hope that people outside will be tougher on themselves in their own interests.

Mr. Thompson : Bearing in mind the fact that the Government have made more progress than any previous Government and are improving all the time, I shall stick with beta-plus, in spite of my feeling that they could do

Column 1154

even more. We at least agree from our different vantage points that the Government need to be urged even more strongly in that direction.

I praise the efforts and cost effectiveness of the Energy Efficiency Office of the Department of the Environment and the intention behind such initiatives as "Making a Corporate Commitment". The downside--the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey will understand this--is that that initiative, which is a good one, has achieved savings of only 0.2 per cent. during the past two years. I think that we would all agree that more energy needs to be put into the campaign.

Mr. Brandreth : Does not that illustrate the central concern that some hon. Members have about the nature of the Bill, which is that it takes a top-down approach? The Government have already done an audit. They know that they wish to reduce energy use by 15 per cent. in their own buildings. But, despite great expenditure and an understanding of the problem, they have still only achieved a saving of 0.2 per cent. The Bill says, "Here is the problem and the audit," when what we really need is action. Perhaps we should concentrate more on delivering the action than on analysing the problem, which is already quite widely recognised.

Mr. Thompson : Once again, my hon. Friend for City of Chester has provided me with great encouragement. Rather than taking a top-down approach, we must get across the idea of people wanting to make commitments. I do not think that anyone would disagree with that. Once again, if my hon. Friend could help to communicate that message, it would be most helpful. I am not sure whether that is a criticsim of the structure of the Bill--I said that I would not analyse the Bill in great detail--but, no doubt, the Standing Committee will have the opportunity to go into that point. I am sure my hon. Friend will understand that I am seeking to get right behind the basic principle of the Bill, which is to achieve the objectives that I know we both support.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will recognise that one problem for the Government is the whole question of departmentalism. I have come across it before in connection with deregulation and the Government's desire to make a bonfire of regulations, which we are not debating this morning. Problems arise because communication between Government Departments is sometimes not as good as it should be. That has a bearing on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester.

There is a resistance to progress because the Government Departments are not communicating adequately with each other. We need more co-ordination between Government Departments to overcome bureaucratic departmentalism. I know that I am not alone in thinking that : a Select Committee report last year made the same point. I welcome the doubling of the home energy efficiency scheme grants as a response to the imposition of VAT on domestic heat and fuel. That is very good news and is an example of the Government acting quickly and rightly along the lines that we all want. The home energy efficiency scheme should be extended to cover cavity wall insulation and heating controls, again in line with the Select Committee's recommendations in its report of 3 November last year.

Column 1155

I was interested in the remarks of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who is promoting the Bill, about building design and regulations. My father was an architect, and therefore I have an interest in good building. I am glad to see that the right hon. Gentleman has returned, because I want to pick up on his point about design, architecture and so on. I support all his remarks, and those of my namesake the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson). Proposals for the reform of building regulations were put out to consultation by the Government a year ago. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take the point that the result will be--I hope--an improvement in building regulations on insulation. That should be given priority in any revised proposals. I hope that my hon. Friend will refer to that point.

Section L of the building regulations needs serious upgrading with regard to energy considerations. Although I studied thermal conductivity during my time as a physicist, I never had time--the House will be pleased to know, otherwise my speech would have been longer--to study U values in the building regulations. The good news for the Chamber is that I have not done so and therefore cannot elaborate on them. But I am reliably informed that the present system leads to unsatisfactory energy efficiency levels. Again, there is agreement that something should be done on the building design and regulations front.

Mr. Beith : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support, and the fact that he has been able to spell out the matter much more thoroughly than I was able to do. I hope that he will accept my apology for having to leave early when he was speaking, because the pit closure, of which I warned in my remarks at the beginning of the debate, has since been announced, with the loss of more than 1,000 jobs in my constituency.

Mr. Thompson : I shall stick to the subject of the debate, but I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman was able to return just in time to hear my remarks on building design, the role of the architect, building regulations and so on, as they are of vital importance. I am sure that he will accept that I rest my case on that point. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Norwich energy action programme. I want to say a word or two about the local aspects of it. Local authorities generally have responsibilities in that area. The good news about the Bill is that it will confirm and extend, as I understand it, these responsibilities. That is good and is one of the reasons why I feel that the Bill is on the right lines.

In the late 1980s, Norwich was one of the forerunners of the programme. The Bill is relevant to Norwich, because my constituency and other parts of Norwich have large council estates, which need--for good reason, not least for the occupants--good insulation. One of the activities of that programme, which was supported by the Governments of the day, was to improve home insulation. As a supporter of that programme, I remember going around my constituency and I was involved in physical acts of insulation, whether it be draft proofing, loft insulation and so on. I suspect that many other hon. Members quite rightly involved themselves at that time.

It is important to those housing estates that building regulations, home insulation and energy efficiency are

Column 1156

taken seriously. Norwich has usually been in the forefront of that and certainly was during the period of the energy action acheme. That scheme came to an end towards the end of 1989. It was so successful that it was extended for an extra year. Out of it was born a reorganised Norfolk Energy Forum. The forum has had to rely on the remaining funds of the energy action scheme and sponsorship and help from the Energy Efficiency Office.

The forum is doing as good a job as can be expected in the circumstances. I should like to thank its secretary, Peter Coward, for providing me at short notice with an outline of the activities that it is currently involved in, such as the promotion of energy efficiency and conservation by holding seminars on efficient lighting, domestic heating, energy use in business and industry, labelling of buildings, participation in the Royal Norfolk agricultural show, attending schools, preparing a conference centred on the Rio agenda and so on. It is engaged in good, worthwhile activities. I pay tribute to that work.

Unfortunately, the forum is having some difficulty with its funding ; it is piecemeal. I mentioned the support that it gets from the Energy Efficiency Office, but it does not appear, if I am informed reliably, to have much support from local authorities. I hope that, if enacted, one of the effects of the Bill will be to get local authorities once again more involved. I am not making a party political point, because Norwich city council has been good in this respect in the past, but I was a little surprised by its lack of knowledge of the present work of the Norfolk Energy Forum. If the Bill does nothing else, I hope that it will get the local authorities on board on energy conservation and efficiency. They need stimulus. I have indicated my support clearly enough and do not wish to take up the time of the House any further. However, I do not often quote Jonathon Porritt in support of a speech, because, on occasions, he has taken views with which I have not agreed, but in a recent article he said that the benefits of the Bill would be very great indeed and that it would create

"Tens of thousands of new jobs, massive reductions in carbon dioxide, huge savings on consumers' energy bills (particularly among the less well-off), lower maintenance costs for local authorities and private householders, and dramatically lower health-care costs. Only a small proportion of the projected revenue from VAT on domestic heating would be required to make it all work."

Even allowing for some slight exaggeration there, that sums up well why so many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, support the principle of the Bill.

I close by saying that I hope that the Bill is successful, not only in the votes in the Lobbies today, but in its progress through Committee and beyond. I wish the right hon. Member for

Berwick-upon-Tweed every success with it. I must say to my hon. Friend the Minister that, in spite of the beta-plus, which he felt was not quite as much as he might expect from one of his loyal supporters, the Government have done a lot of work in this area. They do not get all the credit that they should. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that the Government are doing, and hope that the speeches that he hears this morning will give him extra energy to proceed further.

10.37 am

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) : I shall not detain the House long in supporting the speeches of the right hon. Member for

Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr.

Column 1157

Thompson). I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his success in the ballot. I won the first ballot that I put in for in the House. It is probably the only raffle that I have ever won. Because I shall never win again, I thought that I had better come in and support measures such as his, which are thoroughly worth while.

I shall reiterate some of the right hon. Gentleman's points. I hope that I shall not go over too much old ground, but it is important that both sides of the House make clear their support. There is extraordinary cross-party support for the measure. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) in his place, because I know that he was the starting point for the measure. Besides cross-party support, the support throughout the country, and the support of organisations such as the Association for Conservation of Energy, I have been contacted--as I am sure have many hon. Members--by my local authorities, not only Leicestershire county council but Blaby district council and Harborough district council. They actively promote and support the Bill, which says a great deal for the measure. They wish to see it receive a Second Reading. They will have to implement it and find the funds to implement it, but they and everyone who studies the cause of energy efficiency and energy conservation want the legislation.

I remember the ten-minute Bill of the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North. If he will forgive me, and if the House will forgive me for the pun, I do not believe that this Bill will set the world alight. It is remarkably unrevolutionary. It will not change the spendthrift energy habits of our society overnight, but it will be an excellent step in the right direction.

It is extraordinary how uncontroversial the Bill is and I hope that there will be no opposition to it. It is also remarkable how inexpensive it seems to be. We have heard the estimated cost to district councils. I hope that it will not create a great bureaucracy or a mass of regulation or legislation. I believe that it will not do that.

In 1992, the Government made major commitments at the Rio conference. The threat of climate change hangs over us all. Last week at the Banqueting house the Government set out their plans for dealing with the threat of global warming. Again, the Government's proposals are not revolutionary. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that we can edge up to an alpha-minus if all those measures are put in place. The proposals comprised good housekeeping and good sense.

The Bill is in the same vein. It reinforces the Government's proposals, commitments and measures and I hope that it will go some way towards changing the attitudes, culture and--dare I say it--climate of attitude in this country. I hope that it will go some way towards changing our views in relation to energy efficiency.

Hon. Members may have missed the fact that last week scientists from the university of Alabama produced evidence that the planet's temperature did not increase between 1979 and 1993. That information was based on satellite readings of global temperature and it is claimed that they are the most accurate readings ever taken. I am not a scientist or a physicist. I am an historian. I believe that I see global warming. An article in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend was entitled :

"Scientists pour cold water on global warming"

It suggested that we may be making too much fuss about global warming. The debate will rage, but I bet that global warming is taking place. In relation to the Bill, however, it

Column 1158

does not matter one way or the other. Should we discover that global warming is a myth, as some people are suggesting, and it is never proven, the Bill will still be very worth while.

The Bill will reduce energy use and therefore cut pollution and pollutant emissions, power station emissions, acid rain and all the damage that that causes. It will reduce long-term costs. Thrift and good housekeeping are values which not only the Conservative party, but every party in the House, promotes. They are valuable in themselves. To encourage and assist all households to make better use of energy must make good common sense. Furthermore, we are using up finite reserves of fossil fuels. Surely we must all try to reduce the use of such resources.

At the same time, the Bill can make a great contribution towards the health and comfort of all. It is always those on low incomes who can least afford fuel. If the Bill contributes to their health and comfort, it must be supported by everyone. Who could argue against such a measure, especially if it does not increase bureaucracy? The Bill is but one step in the right direction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North said, it is going down the right road. We are talking about a decent energy strategy. I want to tie that in with the measures to reduce the waste of fuel in other areas, such as inefficient motor vehicles and inefficient use of such vehicles. That point was referred to last week at the Banqueting house. We should also control pollution in that respect.

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North, I am not a physicist. However, I support common sense and good housekeeping. I am also vice- chairman of the parliamentary alternative energy group, which may or may not be renamed the parliamentary group for renewable energy and the good use and conservation of fuel. I am the vice-chairman of that group because I wish to pursue policies of global and national importance. We need everyone's support. This is a national policy with global implications. Surely that is what the Government's campaign, "Helping the earth begins at home" is about. The Bill supports that campaign.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North referred to the more controversial issue of VAT on domestic fuel. The Government have been accused of imposing VAT on fuel purely to raise revenue. Of course it will raise revenue, and of course we need that revenue. However, I support the proposal on environmental grounds. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon- Tweed and his party have been known to support energy taxes for that reason. Surely it is right to use carrots and sticks in such circumstances. We should and must be more energy efficient.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is heartening that in our policy on VAT on fuel we have essentially adopted the policies proposed by the Liberal Democrats, at least prior to the last general election, that a combination of VAT on fuel and a comprehensive package to protect the more vulnerable is the way to tackle the problem?

Mr. Robathan : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The concept of energy taxes should not only be uncontroversial ; it should be supported by all parties on this country. Indeed, I suspect that within the next decade

Column 1159

or two it will be supported by all factions and parties not only in this country, but throughout the European Community and the world.

Mr. Beith : For the avoidance of doubt, the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) was right to say that my part is on record as having supported energy taxes. However, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) led him astray by suggesting that we agreed that VAT was a good tax to use for that purpose, when in fact we clearly and publicly decided that it was not and that a carbon energy tax on European lines was the much better way to proceed.

Mr. Robathan : The right hon. Gentleman defends his party, but if we are talking about energy taxes, VAT sounds like an energy tax to me. It seems to be a pretty sensible one because it goes to the root of the problem and ensures that every individual takes care of his or her own energy efficiency as part of a national policy. Currently, 30 per cent. of our carbon emissions come from energy used in domestic housing stock. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, that is a reflection of our poor housing stock design and poor insulation.

The Select Committee on the Environment published a report last November entitled, "Energy efficiency in buildings". The Chairman of the Select Committee who, with me, is a co-sponsor of the Bill, sadly cannot be present today. However, the Select Committee stated that it was

"deeply disappointed that such little progress had been made in implementing energy efficiency since the Energy Committee's Report on the subject in 1991."

That might be less than a beta-plus for my hon. Friend the Minister. The report recommended that emission reduction targets should be made for the year 2000 and beyond. It also recommended that the Government should urgently adopt some recommendations of the Energy Saving Trust. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred to that trust, which is chaired by a well-known former Conservative Minister.

The Select Committee considered the imposition of VAT on domestic heat and power. It also considered more extensive use of combined heat and power and energy labelling of buildings. The latter point relates to the Bill. The Select Committee also recommended increased use of the home energy efficiency scheme, better involvement in building regulations and a public sector campaign. All those recommendations tie in with the Bill. This Bill supports the Committee's recommendations and, indeed, the home energy efficiency scheme. Hon. Members will recall that in the Finance Bill, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor doubled the amount for the home energy efficiency scheme.

We are going slowly--sometimes painfully slowly--down the right road. The measure proposed by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will be valuable to the country. The long-term benefits will be felt by every individual. This uncontroversial measure pushes society, the country and individuals in the right direction. It should be part of a wider energy strategy--once again, I tie this in with the Government's announcement last week--and a change in our culture and the way we look at energy efficiency.

For more than 20 years, we have had the Save It campaign. We all remember the little stickers by every

Column 1160

light switch and tap which said "Save It". Frankly, that campaign has not had a dramatic effect on the use of energy. I support the campaign and its principles, and I support the principles of the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to know that I often disagree with him, but on this occasion I whole-heartedly support him. I support the principles of the Bill and I commend the Bill to the House.

10.50 am

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) : I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate on what I think is an interesting and useful Bill, although I shall raise some questions about it. I join those hon. Members who have spoken in congratulating the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on winning this particular raffle and having this opportunity. It is a pleasure to follow the powerful speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) and for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). They are both very knowledgeable on this subject and made outstanding contributions.

I believe in giving credit where credit is due. The Bill is an interesting and timely piece of legislation. Knowing the pressure that is on right hon. and hon. Members to sponsor legislation when they come high in the ballot, it is a credit to the right hon. Gentleman that he has made this choice.

I hope that he will not take this as too much of a backhanded compliment, but it is pleasant and refreshing to have such a serious contribution on this issue from the Liberal Democrats, rather than the empty sloganising on value added tax on fuel, which many of us endured until the recent announcement of the Chancellor's package. It is good to see that contribution, and I do not want to sound churlish in failing to welcome it.

Speaking of churlishness, I was surprised to see the article in The Daily Telegraph on 29 January by Mr. Jonathon Porritt, which has already been mentioned. The general tone of that article was grudging, especially his suggestion that, despite widespread

support--widespread support for the Bill has been shown in this debate by hon. Members on both sides of the House--some Tory Members "will try and talk the Bill out at its Second Reading". That is a disgraceful suggestion. We have had, and will continue to have, an adult, responsible and interesting debate on the Bill. People like Mr. Porritt would do well to drop that grudging and carping approach to the Government. In many ways, the Government are leading the arguments on energy saving and energy efficiency. Undoubtedly, we will hear from the Minister that the Government welcome with open arms ideas and suggestions from all parties in the House on this important subject.

The whole issue of the Rio summit has rightly been raised in the speeches we have heard so far. Undoubtedly, we are all in favour of energy conservation and energy efficiency. The central question at the heart of this debate and similar debates is : which is the best route to achieve that object? I have some questions about the Bill which may well lead to discussion and possibly amendments being tabled in Committee--I hope that the Bill will reach Committee. In fairness to the right hon. Gentleman, he foreshadowed that there would be some interesting and

Column 1161

lively debates in Committee on certain aspects of the Bill, and made it clear that he was open to suggestions for amendments to the Bill, whether from the Government or, indeed, Back-Bench Members. The other great question is what can be achieved in this area. What is the prize that this Bill or similar legislation is aiming to reach? The Department of the Environment--this may have been mentioned by one of my hon. Friends--estimates that 20 per cent. of the United Kingdom's annual £50 billion spending on energy could be saved in some way by energy efficiency and saving.

We have already heard about the Government's target of a 15 per cent. saving in public buildings and so on to 1996. As part of that campaign, I assume that we can include the somewhat sinister lighting arrangements in certain corridors in this place, whereby one activates the lights by walking along the corridor. There is something slightly Orwellian about it, but if it saves energy, so be it.

There has been criticism and an attempt to mark out of 10 or 20 the Government's performance on their efforts to, as it were, clean up their own buildings. We know that, as part of the "Making a Corporate Commitment" campaign, they have made a commitment to saving energy in Government Departments and the like. In a written answer last June, we saw the progress, if that is not too ambitious a word, that individual Departments have made in this field.

Overall, Government Departments have invested a total of more than £9 million on energy efficiency, although, to quote the words of the Library briefing on this subject,

"progress towards the 15 per cent. reduction appears to have been at best slight".

The figure of 0.2 per cent. has been mentioned. That is disappointing, and I dare say that no one will be more disappointed than my hon. Friend the Minister. But at least we are moving in the right direction, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby said. We simply need to pick up speed. I do not know whether it is a question of a beta-minus or a gamma-plus, or simply a matter of "Stay behind and see me later". I do not want to be drawn into that sub-debate on which we seem to have embarked.

It is important for the Government to set an example. I am sure that they will redouble their efforts to reach that target. We all know, because we are so aware of it these days, the effect of CO emissions on global warming, and so on. The Government have made a commitment to cutting those emissions by 10 million tonnes per annum by the year 2000. We also know that one quarter of those undesirable emissions come from domestic buildings. Therefore, a reduction in those emissions is a large part of the prize for which we are aiming. Other benefits will be a better environment generally and, indeed, a more competitive British industry.

I make a plea--this has already been referred to in the debate--for those in our community who are most likely, all other things being equal, to benefit from energy-efficiency measures. In my constituency of Eastbourne, some 30 per cent. of the population are over retirement age. It is often precisely those people who live in older, more draughty and more difficult- to-heat homes who need the sort of attention that this Bill and other programmes might produce. Energy efficiency is important for all of us, but it is dramatically necessary for the retired and the elderly in our community because the sort of savings on the domestic budget that are within their grasp with a bit of help,

Column 1162

whether it be advice or money, is staggering and completely dwarfs matters such as VAT on fuel and the like. It may help to review some of the existing schemes for residential and other properties, and indeed the schemes for industry and commerce.

One of the questions to which I will return is whether we are in danger of having too many schemes, projects and legal requirements. The Bill rightly raises the central issues again, and that cannot happen too often, but I wonder whether we should be looking to beef up what is there already. I will return to that point, which could be developed in Committee.

We have heard about the climate change programme which was published on 25 January and which set out the Government's plans for reducing the output of carbon dioxide. We have heard also about the Energy Saving Trust. I believe that Mr. Porritt, and those like him, have been unnecessarily grudging about the trust.

The trust was established in November 1992, and it is a joint venture involving the Government, British Gas, the 12 regional electricity companies in England and Wales, Scottish Power and Scottish Hydro-electric. Its function is to propose and develop new energy-efficiency programmes, particularly in the domestic sector. It is a bit early, and a bit rich, to be severely critical of a body which was formally set up only in November 1992. These things do take time.

Some of the things at which the trust is looking are financing the reductions of gas consumption in housing, smaller-scale applications of combined heat and power and the provision of grants. That is important for home owners who wish to change their central heating boiler. It is said, rightly, that some of the schemes are small, but when they are added up across the country they will make a significant contribution.

We have heard also about the Energy Efficiency Office's programmes, and how those are being strength-ened. We have heard also of the advice and information that the programmes are providing. The Energy Efficiency Office has been significantly beefed up. Its budget for 1994-95 is now more than £100 million--17 times the levels of expenditure on it in 1979-80.

Hon. Members--in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North-- have spoken of the long-term importance of the changes in building regulations to ensure that all new properties are as energy efficient and as insulated as we can make them.

I will touch on non-domestic energy-efficiency schemes, although I appreciate that that is not the thrust of the Bill. There is the energy management assistance scheme which, among other things, subsidises consultants' fees for identifying opportunities in this field.

The House has heard about the "Making a Corporate Commitment" campaign. More than 1,600 organisations have already signed up to the campaign which seeks to increase management commitment to energy efficiency in both the private and public sectors. The Government and other public bodies have given their support for that campaign. There are also the 11 regional energy efficiency officers who encourage energy-saving programmes.

On the domestic side, we have touched rightly on the "helping the earth begins at home" campaign. That campaign is trying to increase the awareness of the link between energy use in the home and the threat of global

Column 1163

warming. The campaign's broad aim is to make sure that people learn to use energy more efficiently. I have come across one or two examples of that during my research.

Part of the campaign, which was launched by the Secretary of State, was to see that all major retailers contributed what they could to lowering domestic electricity consumption and expense. That was done mainly by selling low-energy light bulbs at half the retail price. I understand that use of low-energy light bulbs saves 85 kg of carbon dioxide annually, and will save £10 on the average fuel bill. I gather that the bulbs are as bright as ordinary light bulbs, but they use only one quarter of the electricity and last eight times longer than ordinary light bulbs.

I come from Yorkshire and, quite unfairly perhaps, we Yorkshiremen are said to be extremely careful with our money. Well, that seems to me to be a good deal. When the debate is over today, and I return to the bosom of the Waterson family, I shall be raising those figures with Mrs. Waterson to ensure that we can make those savings ourselves.

On the same basic subject, it was perhaps little noted at the time that the electricity industry regulator, Professor Littlechild, made a contribution towards encouraging conservation. He proposed that electricity companies spend £100 million by 1998 to promote energy-saving devices, such as energy-efficiency fridges, low-power light bulbs and energy-efficient personal computers. That all adds up to helping the basic thrust of the campaign, the aim of which everyone is agreed on.

The House has also heard about the best practice programme, which is moving in a similar direction, and about home energy labels, which have been promoted by the Energy Efficiency Office, and voluntary appliance labels. Those give consumers a guide to the energy efficiency of refrigerators and similar facilities in the home. It bears repetition that the central importance in all that is the home energy efficiency scheme, which provides grants for basic energy-efficiency measures. It was important, and rightly welcomed, that the Chancellor almost doubled the provision for the scheme in the Budget. The scheme was extended not only to pensioners but to those who are receiving disability living allowance. It is reckoned that the extra £35 million a year will provide grants to about 200, 000 households a year. That would bring the total number of households receiving grants to almost 500,000 throughout the country.

I will return to the theme that I hope will wash over into Committee. That is my concern that there is a danger of dissipating legislative energy and the enthusiasm of people who are involved in the field in too many different projects and schemes. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon- Tweed conceded in his speech that there was a risk of diverting resources into a less than fruitful direction. I must ask whether local councils are the best vehicle through which the process can be pushed forward. Is there a problem, particularly with the private housing stock, that council inspectors will be seen as busybodies? There was a lot of feeling in my constituency when the local council started its survey of private housing stock. People felt that the inspectors were demanding access to private homes and there was some confusion over the precise powers that they

Column 1164

enjoyed. One would not like to see such a situation developing into a tabloid story if the Bill were to end up on the statute book. An important way of encouraging energy efficiency is a subtle combination of the role of the market, publicity and information and exhortation. A combination of those three subjects in a triangle could make people see that it is in their own interests to do what they can to save energy. I will mention two aspects of what I call the market forces approach. In November last year, the Secretary of State for the Environment urged all companies to consider the total impact of what they did on the environment. He called for the publication of energy efficiency targets and their inclusion in companies' annual reports.

Environmental reporting is becoming much more the norm for large and even medium-sized public companies. It is important that the matter is taken seriously by management, is monitored and reported on the annual report, and that it leads to constructive debate by the shareholders of the company at its annual meeting. That is a major contribution.

Another aspect of the market forces argument is the proposal, again made by the Department of the Environment, that lending institutions should be encouraged to play a part in encouraging energy efficiency by providing home energy ratings when properties change hands. As I understand it, when one went to buy a new property, it would have with it, apart from the other warranties and descriptions, a rating for how energy efficient it was. It was also proposed that the lending institutions should provide so-called "green loans" to encourage householders to invest in energy-efficiency measures. That strikes me as potentially a powerful way of reaching the agreed goal in energy conservation.

If the extent to which people's properties are energy efficient affects their pocket, energy-efficiency measures will be taken up. That could work in the same way as insurers, particularly from some parts of central London, are willing to give significant discounts on premiums if householders can demonstrate that they have taken significant precautions against break-ins and burglaries. That is something which we should encourage. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will dwell on that matter in his speech.

Another major question--I appreciate that we cannot go into it in detail today--is how much the proposals will cost. The Bill is a little coy, perhaps not unreasonably, about the cost implications. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed touched on the estimates, which I have also seen, provided by at least a couple of local authorities, of the start-up and continuing costs of the legislation. I must say in all honesty to the right hon. Gentleman that I am sceptical about some of the calculations. That matter can also be examined in more detail in Committee.

I am worried not only about the cost but about the potential extra bureaucracy involved. We have quite enough local and central Government officials as it is. We should look again at that aspect, especially because, as I said earlier, the legislation might involve surveying private housing stocks, often substantial stocks, across the country in every local government area.

In short, I am not yet fully convinced that the Bill is the answer. I am convinced that it is a useful contribution to the broader debate and that it deserves to go into Committee and be discussed in more detail. I still have

Column 1165

reservations about whether it would not be a better use of resources and time to beef up existing schemes, of which there is already a range in operation. However, the Bill deserves a fair wind, at least for the moment. Again, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on winning this particular lottery.

11.13 am

Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove) : I join other hon. Members in congratulating the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on not only winning the lottery but presenting the Bill. I am delighted that he chose to put his luck to the production of this Bill rather than to other forms of betting that might have been more directly financial advantageous to him.

In an earlier exchange, it was suggested that the subject of energy conservation was a little boring. Having listened to the speeches so far this morning, "boring" is not the adjective that comes to mind. The debate has been extremely well informed and interesting. Extremely worthwhile contributions have been made by all hon. Members that have spoken. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) for his interesting excursion into the various schemes that are available to encourage energy efficiency, and for the tribute that he paid to the work of the Department of the Environment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) said that he would give the Government a B-plus for energy conservation on a school report. I would give the Government an A-minus.

Mr. Patrick Thompson : A great deal will depend on what our hon. Friend the Minister has to say in his speech. It is possible that one of us may have the chance to intervene to give the Government alpha-plus or whatever.

Mr. Thomason : I would have put a comment on the school report saying, "Potentially scholarship material, but needs to pay just a little more attention to get there." My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North has made the point precisely. That attention may well be given during the Minister's remarks.

I welcome the Bill. I shall support it, but only as a starting point. It raises issues which require further consideration. I am not yet satisfied that it is precisely correct in its drafting and approach. But we need to have the discussion ; we need to have initiatives taken. Therefore, the Bill is to be welcomed as a move in that direction.

Let us set the Bill in its context. The Government were active at the Rio summit in encouraging the reduction of emissions into the atmosphere internationally ; this is clearly an international problem. We cannot simply deal with it nationally. We must encourage Governments in other countries to take action, too. We must be seen to do our part.

I am glad that the Government have set targets for CO emissions up to the year 2000. However, I hope that before long they will be prepared to extend their targets beyond the year 2000. It seems to me that we should not simply create the barrier of that year and wait until we are almost at that point before we start to look beyond. In the initiatives proposed in the Bill we are perhaps setting the

Next Section

  Home Page