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Mr. Bennett : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that, if a Minister refers to a document in his speech, he has a duty to place a copy in the Vote Office? There is none there at present. As the Minister has referred to the document, does not he have a duty to produce it for the House?
Mr. Gummer : I am happy to place the document in the Library and the Vote Office. I apologise to the hon. Member for Denton and Redditch if he feels that I have not already done so, but I received the document only this afternoon. Once I receive full details, I shall certainly make them available to the hon. Gentleman. The document will be in the public domain- -it is the group's document, not mine--and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not have wished me to hide the information from the House.
We should ensure, almost immediately, that the new arrangements made so happily through the Uruguay round make it clear that those policies work closely with our
Column 90environmental policies. We agreed that in Rio and, on the international stage, we contribute to work under way in OECD, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, and the United Nations Environment Programme to examine the interaction between trade and environment policies. I recently had a meeting with my French, German and Spanish colleagues to see how best the European Community can contribute to that important aspect of our policy.
We have announced that the Government will put forward their policies not just for internal criticism but for outside monitoring, which is why there is a panel on sustainable development with such distinguished members. We shall also have a round table on sustainable development, whose proceedings and attitudes will be determined by its members, not laid down in advance. We are reaching out to ensure that the citizens' campaign will reach every village and town in the country, so that sustainable development becomes part of everyone's policy. That is essential if we are to achieve sustainable development.
I began my speech with the first half of a quotation from Hopkins' poem. Some hon. Members will be longing to hear the end of that poem, for at least it holds out hope of change--
The poem says :
"And for all this, nature is never spent ;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things ;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings." There is much to give us hope for a real renaissance in our attitude to the environment in which we live and breathe. Throughout the world, there is a determination to achieve sustainable development, not to cheat our children. Not only in the rich west but in the poor south we must find a way through on a global basis. But none of us can be excused from accepting our individual responsibility for contributing to sustainable development. 8.15 pm
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury) : I welcome the opportunity to debate the documents and sustainable development. I am pleased that the Government say that they want to take Rio forward. It is good to see them trying to go forwards rather than backwards for a change.
The Government announced the four documents with a great fanfare of trumpets at the Banqueting house. Again tonight, there has been much trumpeting from the Secretary of State about how wonderful the Government are being. But what do the documents really add up to? The answer, I am afraid, is very little. They contain a reiteration of existing statements and commitments, but little that is new. The Government have laboured mightily and brought forth 567 pages, two committees and advice on opening your curtains when you get up in the morning.
The two committees are all well and good, but they do not add up to a real vision of a sustainable future for our country or the rest of the earth that we all share. May I
Column 91highlight some general failures in this exercise by the Government? First, they have failed to look with real imagination to the long term. They have recognised the need to do so, but have not done it. The documents contain no sense within the Government of a real concept of where our country could be in 50 or 100 years' time. There is much talk about the need for research, consultation and waiting for evidence before making decisions, but no sense of direction. If the Government had a sense of direction, they would have recognised the importance of global actions and solutions, especially in relation to the developing world.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) is here, because he pointed out that, following the Budget, the Government are freezing the amount that our country is spending, in cash terms, on overseas aid. Let us put that into the equation when discussing global solutions to sustainability. Let us also put the general agreement on tariffs and trade into the global arena. I was pleased that the Secretary of State--this was a first for the Government--acknowledged today that we need to put the environment into the GATT process. When the Prime Minister came back from the Uruguay round, he was asked about that by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition. This, in fact, answers the question that the Secretary of State asked today about my right hon. and learned Friend, who asked the Prime Minister about the impact of the outcome of the GATT negotiations on the environment. The Prime Minister replied that no one thought there was a problem. Everyone accepted, he said, that the environment was happily taken care of. Of course, the environment has not been taken care of. Many people are rightly worried that the GATT process will trump environmental protection in international agreements. We want the environment and its needs written firmly and clearly into the remit of the new world trading organisation.
Mr. Robert B. Jones : I am all in favour of bringing the environment into the GATT round, but many of the most vociferous opponents of the idea are countries of the south which believe that it would be used as a cloak for protectionism by the rich countries of the west.
Mr. Smith : The hon. Gentleman misreads the feelings of many countries in the south. They want to be able to exercise protection of their environment themselves ; at the moment, the GATT rules do not allow them to. If environmental protection became an excuse for protectionism, that would not be a good thing. Equally, we must not allow the cause of free trade to lead to the unnecessary degradation of the global environment.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of the documents is that which deals with the prospect of catastrophic climatic change and the impact of carbon dioxide emissions leading up to and beyond the year 2000. Let us consider the steps leading up to the year 2000 first. The Secretary of State made a great deal of that in his speech. Perhaps, then, he will tell us where he believes the savings of carbon dioxide emissions will come from through the work of the Energy Saving Trust. That trust has £6 million from British Gas and a promise of £25 million from the regional electricity companies--and that is it. Is this the trust that is going to
Column 92yield up about a quarter of the prospective savings of carbon dioxide to which the Secretary of State tells us the Government are already firmly committed? I suspect that we need to hear a great deal more about the funding for, and the actions of, the Energy Saving Trust before we can believe that the Government intend to deliver their commitment.
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) : Does the hon. Gentleman recall that in February 1993 he told Green Magazine that Labour had been thinking of a number of small but effective tax measures, which included increasing VAT on environmentally unfriendly products? On which products would he put VAT ; and does he consider coal-fired power stations, with their production of carbon dioxide, environmentally friendly?
Mr. Smith : I can tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what our document, published in 1991, said--that we would favour putting small increases of VAT on items such as heavy metal batteries and materials containing CFCs. If the hon. Gentleman cannot tell the difference between a heavy metal battery and a domestic gas bill, I am afraid that he is even more stupid than I thought.
The Government's bogus argument is that VAT on domestic fuel is a green measure, intended to change environmental behaviour. In fact, of course, it is designed purely to raise money for the Exchequer--but they do not tell us that. Putting up the price of domestic energy does not change the behaviour of the overwhelming majority, who carry on using the same amount of energy as before, but paying more for it. The people who give up using some of their energy are the people who cannot afford to carry on using it. So the entire burden of a minimal reduction in energy use and carbon dioxide emissions is borne by those who are least able to bear it. That is what happens when VAT is imposed on domestic fuel.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury) : The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Select Committee on the Environment carried out a study of energy efficiency and recommended that the Energy Saving Trust be funded to the tune of £1.5 billion. Where does the hon. Gentleman think that sort of money should come from? If he thinks it should come from the utilities, will he make it clear to the British people that their electricity and gas bills will have to rise considerably to meet that target?
Mr. Smith : First, the hon. Gentleman should ask the Secretary of State that question. Secondly, it seems to have escaped his notice that the regional electricity companies are making about £1.5 billion profits each year. Thirdly, if the hon. Gentleman had properly read the Opposition's proposals for a national programme of energy efficiency work, he would know that what we propose does not require a single penny's contribution from the taxpayer. Nevertheless, under the sort of programme that we suggest, with a small premium increase in the unit cost of gas and electricity only for people who have had energy efficiency work carried out for free, four times as much carbon dioxide could be saved as the Government claim they will save by means of imposing VAT.
Mr. Smith : Correct. But the Government will spend only about 2 per cent. of that on the home energy efficiency scheme. So the Secretary of State's claims to generosity--all that extra money going into energy efficiency--amount to nothing more than one fiftieth of the sum that the Government intend to take away from people.
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East) : Does my hon. Friend recall that when the Paymaster General was asked, during consideration of last year's Finance Bill, what percentage of the VAT would go on energy measures, he said that he was not prepared to answer hypothetical questions? Does not that nail the lie being used to mislead the public about the reasons behind the VAT?
Mr. Smith : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was noticeable that the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, introducing his Budget in March last year, said not a word about any increase in funding for energy efficiency work. Finally, however, the Government woke up to the fact that they had to be seen to be doing something to mitigate the impact of VAT, and that they did in November.
Dr. Spink : The hon. Gentleman is wriggling and refusing to answer a simple question. I shall ask him once again. Which taxes will he enforce or raise to reduce CO2 emissions? It is a simple question. Please may we have a simple answer?
Mr. Smith : I have already given a simple answer to the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown). By establishing a national programme of energy efficiency work, such as we propose, one can save four times the amount of energy that the Government claim to be saving through the imposition of value added tax, without imposing a single penny of extra tax.
Perhaps the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) can tell us why--even on the Government's figures--Britain's carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced by less than 1 per cent. through the imposition of VAT on fuel. The Government are imposing the maximum social pain and distress on millions of people for absolutely minimal environmental benefit.
Several hon. Members rose --
What will happen after the year 2000? The Government's calculations for what they will do in the run up to 2000 are paltry, but when we ask what they have in store beyond that year they say :
"Further international action may well be necessary. The current Convention measures will need to be reviewed in the light of the further scientific evidence that has been sought."
In other words, they have no clue what will happen beyond the year 2000.
At the moment, all we have from the Government is a commitment, which they show little sign of being able to meet as carbon dioxide emissions are rising, to have emissions at the 1990 level in the year 2000. We have no commitment beyond that, not even one to stabilise at the level from the year 2000. The documents do not give us any further information.
The first general failing of the documents is that they have no real long- term vision. The second general failure is that the Government do not understand, as they should, that environment protection can be an opportunity and not merely a threat and a burden. Throughout the documents,
Column 94the environment is seen as something that imposes penalties and dampens prosperity, but it can be a stimulus for prosperity. It is estimated that the global market in environmental products and technologies will be worth at least $300 billion a year by the turn of the century. I hope that, instead of harping all the time on the difficulties of meeting some of the environmental challenges, the Government will start to think about the inherent opportunities. Thirdly, the documents fail to understand that sustainability is about social equity as well as environmental probity. The Government have totally failed to grasp that fact and their attempt to claim VAT as an environmental measure is precisely in that category. A sustainable approach does not mean that one simply ignores people's needs, especially the needs of those least able to cope with some of the changes that may be necessary.
The Government's documents are, therefore, defective in their wider vision, but the detail also leaves a lot to be desired. There are four areas of concern. First, the roads programme ; even the Government are beginning to show some signs of recognising that the development of public transport and not the building of more roads provides the key to a proper sustainable transport policy. Will they, therefore, admit that they were wrong to desecrate Twyford down? If the Secretary of State is so fond of Gerard Manley Hopkins--as, indeed, am I--he will know the closing lines of that wonderful poem, "Inversnaid", where Hopkins writes :
"What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left
O let them be left, wildness and wet :
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet."
Will the Secretary of State apply that to Twyford down ; to the 161 sites of special scientific interest that are due to be destroyed by the roads programme ; and to the 500 SSSIs that have been damaged during the past three years? Will he apply those principles to the sites that we ought to be declaring inviolable for ever, as part of our implementation of the European Union's habitats directive? Will he apply that to the parts of the home counties where the M25 is to be widened?
If the Secretary of State is serious about putting sustainability at the heart of our transport policies, he will launch a proper and thorough review of the roads programme and its impact on the environment.
I touched on the second area of concern when I mentioned habitats and biodiversity. The hedgerows are one of the most important forms of habitat in this country. The Government said in their manifesto at the last election--we know that they said a lot of things which have since turned out not to be the case--that they would legislate to provide statutory protection for our hedgerows. So, what has happened? A Conservative Back- Bench Member valiantly tabled a private Member's Bill to do precisely that, but it was talked out by some of his fellow Conservative Back Benchers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who has pursued such matters vigorously since he came to the House, produced a Bill last Friday which would have provided protection for hedgerows, but the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), who sits on the Conservative Benches, objected and the Bill fell.
Column 95The deregulation task force document produced by the Government states in recomendation No. 314 that the task force recommends : "Abandon the proposed introduction of hedgerow legislation." That recommendation is, as yet, undenied.
Mr. Robert B. Jones : The hon. Gentleman is putting the argument rather one-sidedly. He should recall that three years ago I tried to introduce a private Member's Bill to protect hedgerows. The Bill was not blocked by any of my Conservative colleagues or the Conservative Whip but by the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend, the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen).
Mr. Smith : If the hon. Gentleman wishes to reintroduce his Bill, I can assure him that he will have full co-operation from the Opposition to ensure that it gets through. We have made the Government that offer on several occasions. If the Government want to introduce legislation--perhaps as part of their long-delayed legislation to pave the way for an environmental protection agency--we would give them full and speedy co- operation.
Perhaps the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) and the Secretary of State could tell us whether it is the Conservative party manifesto commitment on hedgerows that will stand or the deregulation task force proposal. We have lost one fifth of our hedgerows during the past 10 years and it is about time that they had proper statutory protection.
The third area of concern is forestry. At the moment, Britain is one of the least forested countries in Europe. There has been a remarkable improvement in the planting, conservation and access policies of the Forestry Commission during recent years. The Government appear to accept, because they signed up to the forest principles strategy at Rio, that we need a proper forestry strategy. But there is no prospect of a national strategy if, as the Government appear to wish, the Forestry Commission is to be privatised. An interdepartmental working party is already beavering away and is due to report to Ministers about now. Ministers are due to make their decisions on the future of the Forestry Commission in the next few weeks. We in the Labour party insist that the Forestry Commission, in whole or in part, should remain in the public sector. It should not be privatised because, if it were, public access, the conservation values of forest maintenance and management and the possiblity of having a genuine national strategy for the future of our forests would be diminished. Perhaps the Minister will give us a commitment that the Government will abandon any plans to privatise the Forestry Commission.
The fourth issue on which progress could be made is bathing water standards. At the moment, our bathing water and our beaches fail to meet the European Community directive legal levels for quality in far too many cases. If one looks around the regions, one will see that, in the south- west, 13 per cent. of beaches fail to meet the standards. In southern England, outside London, 24 per cent. fail to meet legal standards. In the north-west, 67 per cent.--two thirds--of all the beaches have bathing water that fails to meet the legal requirements laid down in agreed European directives.
Mr. Robert B. Jones : The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) seems to be placing much reliance on European legislation. Surely he must remember the Environment Select Committee's unanimous condemnation of the directive for being poorly based on science. That has been reiterated by the Director General of Water Services. Furthermore, a substantial piece of work has been done by Which? exposing how it is enforced in Europe and here.
Mr. Smith : I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman, unusually, is mistaken. He is getting his directives mixed up. What he said might well be true as far as the drinking water directive is concerned, but it is not true in relation to the bathing water directive. If he wants a practical demonstration of that, I have with me a sample of bathing water, culled only yesterday, from a beach in Cornwall. Its contents are rather unpleasant. This is the bathing water that the hon. Gentleman, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister appear to think is fit for the British people to swim, paddle or surf in. I do not believe that that is the case.
What are the Government up to? They are in what one might call a recidivists' alliance with the new right-wing Government in France, trying to get the bathing water directive and a whole series of others repealed, withdrawn or amended. The bathing water directive is there on the memorandum that is circulating between the two Governments.
The Prime Minister may believe, as he told us when he came back from the Council in December, that it is perfectly all right for us to swim in sewage when we go to the seaside in this country. I do not share that belief. I want to ensure that our bathing water is improved rather than diminished in quality. I want to see the bathing water directive upheld and not dismantled. I have the proof of why it is needed.
I have identified only four of the many specific issues that could be advanced. We must see much better progress, much more conviction and some signs of real action if the Government are to be believed in what they say about sustainability ; otherwise, these documents and the Government's statements on sustainable development will remain simply statements, worthy statements perhaps, but with no sign of action and no real vision underlining them.
Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West) : I am glad to be able to follow the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), because he and I were old colleagues on the Environment Select Committee many years before he reached his present distinguished role, which I hope he will enjoy for many years.
I should remind the hon. Member that the Environment Select Committee has produced reports not only on the drinking water directive but on the bathing water directive as well. The unanimous findings were that the directive was not well based in science. As I said a moment ago, that has been upheld by what the Director General of Ofwat has said, but also by an interesting paper--I commend it to the hon. Gentleman--produced by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
One example of where the directive is defective in science is that the parameter for the incidence of salmonella--as laid down in the bathing water directive--is nil, not 0.001 or 0.000001 per cent. As a third of all
Column 97gulls carry salmonella, any beach that is near gulls could pass only if those gulls were shot. I am sure that that is not a method which the hon. Gentleman would commend. Like him, I am totally committed to improving the standard of bathing waters, but the matter should be addressed by reference to proper health threats, not by simply framing directives in poorly produced scientific language. I feel a bit left out of the debate, because I have not brought my book of Hopkins poetry with me. I will not venture down that road. One of the most striking things about the debate is that if it had been held in the aftermath of Rio, approximately two years ago, there would have been far more press attention and far more hon. Members in the House.
We have gone a great way since Rio in all sorts of ways, but I am afraid that, in public perceptions and interest, we seem to have gone backwards. That confirms my general impression that the media are more interested in issues that are trivial and transitory than those that are important and long-term, as undoubtedly this issue is. Rio was accompanied by much razzmatazz. None of us could have woken up and not heard--if we listened to the "Today" programme--Brian Redhead and others lecturing us on all these extremely important issues and saying what a critical conference it was. Some things have come out of it, but it is a painfully slow business.
There is much common ground between Opposition Members and Conservative Members. I include Ministers in that, because trying to take forward international agreements when one knows that some who signed up to them did so because they wanted press attention at the time of the razzmatazz, yet had no intention whatever of honouring them, must be a frustrating process.
Some criticism was made of the United Kingdom at the time for wanting to look at the fine print of the various agreements before signing up. As so often under those circumstances, the United Kingdom is only the second country to publish a detailed response. I am reminded of a report on acid rain, of which the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury and I were co-authors. We said that the Government should join the 30 per cent. club. They did not, but they were very confident that they would achieve the club's objectives. That has come to pass. But has the hon. Gentleman looked recently at the record of all the countries that signed up ? Quite a few subsequently said, "Sorry ; we meant to achieve that goal, but we did not manage to."
I had the honour to be one of the four Members of Parliament who attended the IPU follow-up conference in Rio, in November 1992. Considerable interest was expressed in some of our United Kingdom activities--especially the annual reports of the Department of the Environment, which are extremely well set out and coherent, and contribute greatly to debate on a factual rather than a suppository basis. [Laughter.] It is always possible to make slips : on a previous occasion, I referred to the Po without adding the word "river".
I also welcome the digest of statistics produced by the Department ; that, too, contributes a great deal to factual debate. What Rio produced were words, words, words and yet more words. I do not believe that future generations would forgive us if we did not deliver on some of those words-- and one of the most important subjects is climate change and global warming.
There is, in general, a scientific consensus on that, although some debate still takes place : the greenhouse
Column 98effect is recognised as highly probable, although there is room for debate on whether global warming results from it. However, there are extremists on both sides. There are the ostriches, who will say that, because one or two scientists do not agree, we should do nothing ; and there are those would take us back to the dark ages, reacting hysterically and histrionically to the evidence.
I think it eminently sensible to operate on the precautionary principle-- not just because of the important matters that are at stake, but because the precautions make sense in their own right. It makes sense to conserve resources and energy, to preserve species and to be both good neighbours and good forebears for generations yet to come. I have always felt--as, no doubt, have other hon. Members--that my duty is to pass on to the next generation a world better than the world that I inherited.
I believe that, so far, we are on common ground ; but all the actions taken in the United Kingdom and the European Union will be of little consequence if we cannot export our attitudes to other countries. Countries such as China are so important, in terms of their population and their potential economic growth, that if they are unwilling to play a part in the attempt to tackle global warming, we might as well all pack up and go home. We must take every opportunity to embrace such countries in international conventions, and to assist them by means of technology transfer and other forms of help.
The Government have, very properly, entitled their attempt to turn their aims into action at home "Helping the Earth Begins at Home". Fifty per cent. of our greenhouse gas emissions are generated by and from buildings ; 25 per cent. are caused by traffic. Every individual has some control over those emissions.
One of the depressing features of traffic emissions is that, although Europe and the United Kingdom spend considerable time producing regulations that control what goes into cars at one end and what goes out at the other, little effort has been put into trying to improve the efficiency of the engines in between. There is enormous scope for new technology in car design that might cut that 25 per cent. total.
I believe that the car is with us to stay. Although it is highly desirable that more people use public transport wherever possible--or, indeed, use no transport other than their own two legs--there is a good case for ensuring that the traffic that remains is civilised. That means proper traffic management schemes, proper bypasses and a good look at road pricing--not necessarily in terms of charges for motorways, which would deal with the wrong end of the problem, but in terms of charges for entry to congested cities. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will examine that possibility first.
Mrs. Anne Campbell : Surely the real problem--which the Government have not yet tackled--is how to reduce dependence on the motor car. We all agree that such a measure would be very unpopular, but no one has come up with an effective proposal this evening.
Mr. Jones : Of course that is a problem. I think that pricing has a part to play, along with changing attitudes and trying to encourage more car sharing. I have always believed, however, that, rather than trying to make water flow uphill, we should recognise what people are going to do and try to make it less environmentally damaging. That, I think, represents the thrust of what I have been saying.
Column 99I have mentioned the importance of bypasses. My constituency is fortunate, in that the A41 bypass opened recently. It is well recognised as one of the most environmentally friendly new roads in Britain : it will have 80,000 trees along its length by the end of the planting season, and it will bring much-needed relief to the communities on its path--Berkhamsted, Northchurch, Bourne End, King's Langley and Hemel Hempstead.
My constituents living in those roads--and in roads represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page)--will know that the environmental arguments are strongly in favour of the bypass, and I am sure that the same is true of other hon. Members' constituents.
Those who attack the roads programme always seem to be in favour of the bypass in their constituencies ; it is the generality they attack. A few months ago, I replied to a constituent from Friends of the Earth who had suggested that the programme should be reduced, asking him to give me a list of the roads that he thought should be removed from it. He never replied : they never do, because they are unwilling to face up to what may happen in individual areas. I have referred to emissions from buildings, which may be caused by heating or lighting. There is undoubtedly a strong case for greater efforts in energy conservation, as the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury rightly pointed out ; currently, however, we await the Government's response to the Select Committee's report on that important subject.
I will not anticipate either that response or the debate that I hope will follow it, but I shall highlight one or two points. The energy ratio fell between 1983 and 1989, but that trend reversed, and there has since been a sustained 3.7 per cent. per annum increase, which needs to be addressed. My noble Friend Lord Walker of Worcester said 10 years ago :
"A new publicity campaign would move the UK from being one of the most apathetic nations in energy conservation to a position where we are the best within two years."
I never did think much of my noble Friend's forecasting methods, but he has to be so far out with that particular prediction that I hope he will not be reminded of it too often. If we do not try to deliver on his promise of 10 years ago, we shall be in severe trouble in future. There must be greater legislative effort and more resources directed at energy conservation.
There have been exchanges during this debate on the Energy Saving Trust Ltd. I reiterate that it must be properly financed. As the Committee recommended, the Government must adopt a proactive stance, to ensure that all interested parties realise the important role that they should play.
In that context, I was particularly disturbed by the recent comments by the gas industry regulator to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, in which she appeared to go back on her commitment to the E factor and to energy conservation. I subsequently had an exchange of letters that may be published eventually, but I am still extremely concerned that the regulator is not taking that part of her duties as seriously as she should. I commend to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the Select Committee's recommendation that a statutory duty should be placed on regulators to have regard to the environment.
Column 100There is much to be said for public authorities setting a proper example. There are some good stories of energy conservation among Government Departments, but such achievements have not been universal and in some cases, Departments have gone backwards. The new system of green Ministers should not be just a pleasant get-together now and again, but must contribute to ensuring that the laggards pull their weight and deliver energy savings.
The local authority sector is extremely important because of the number of disadvantaged families that it embraces. Local authority and housing association new build and property renovation should be undertaken with energy efficiency in mind. There are still many technical barriers to that in the local government
regime--particularly in respect of leasing. I hope that there will be a positive reaction to the Committee's recommendation in due course. I would attach strings to all future capital investment to ensure that energy saving is delivered.
Greater emphasis must be placed on combined heat and power. It is absurd that so much energy is wasted by not co-ordinating power generation and the heating of offices, factories and homes. Proper energy labelling is also important. It is difficult for the public to know when they are purchasing an environmentally friendly piece of equipment or even an environmentally friendly house. In my constituency, Admiral Homes--pioneers in energy conservation--designed a house with a rating of 10, which is an important achievement. However, lending authorities such as banks and building societies do not take energy efficiency into account when valuing properties or deciding how much to advance individual borrowers. That does not make sense. If people enjoy lower household running expenses because they spend less on energy, they must more easily be able to afford the repayments on the capital borrowed. One way forward would be for building societies and banks to change their lending policies in that regard.
Although I see scope for flexibility in building regulations between one parameter and another, the last thing I want is a dilution of the impact of these regulations on energy efficiency. I was horrified at the statement by the managing director of Bovis Homes when he was appointed to one deregulatory party--that he was out to get the building regulations. That seemed to be prejudging the issue that he was meant to examine, and was quite inappropriate. Price must play a part in reducing energy consumption. Whatever Opposition Members may say about value added tax on fuel, it did not exist in the past. I remind the House that the Liberal party document, "Costing the Earth", said that it advocated
"as a first priority the imposition of a tax on energy The United Kingdom is unusual amongst EC members in not applying even standard rates of VAT to domestic fuels If it proved completely impossible to persuade our international partners to adopt energy taxes, we would nonetheless press forward, but phase them in at lower levels than otherwise--for example, by ending the anomalous zero-rate of VAT on fuel".
No amount of wriggling by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) will get the Liberals off that hook. We all know that the Liberal party ditches promises whenever there is a convenient by-election. I live in the Millwall ward of the Isle of Dogs, for goodness' sake : I know the sort of literature that comes through the door from the Liberal party. It is disgusting, and the Liberal party's response to it is disgusting. There