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Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. There is no further matter to be dealt with yet because I have not dealt with the point of order. As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) knows, the Minister's speech is a matter for him and he must decide on its length and what he says in it, provided that it is in order. The Government Front-Bench team will no doubt have taken note of the hon. Gentleman's comments.
Mr. Heald : Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) realises that I oppose the new clause--I hoped that I had made it clear in my intervention--which seems to be hopelessly bureaucratic and would be extremely expensive for taxpayers in north Hertfordshire.
Mr. Baldry : I have to deal with four new clauses and 10 amendments. In fairness, as Hansard will demonstrate--I will certainly be prepared to be judged by what is in the record--all my remarks during the past quarter of an hour have been in response to interventions from hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Mr. Baldry : I did not intend to filibuster. If for some strange reason Opposition Members want to do so by intervening, they will have to square that with the proposer of the Bill. I am trying to make progress.
As I was saying, the first amendment relates to people's access to local authority plans. I was explaining how there is a general presumption of trying to make local authorities more open. The Audit Commission's responsibilities for examining and scrutinising the accounts of local authorities have been extended and, under the Local Government Act 1992, the commission has been charged with directing local authorities on the performance indicators on which they should report.
The 1992 Act placed a similar responsibility on the Accounts Commission for local authorities in Scotland. The first directions have already been given. When the results become available at the end of the year the information collected will allow the production of valuable comparative data on the performance and efficiency of local authorities and will cover a wide range of functions.
Auditors also have new powers to issue public interest reports on aspects of their findings. The accountability and performance of local authorities is greatly enhanced by the production of comparative data. For example, people can contrast and compare how much local authorities charge in council tax for a certain band, which is very helpful. People know that Conservative-controlled councils charge £118 less for a band D dwelling than
In common with all public authorities, local government is required to ensure freedom of access to and dissemination of information on the environment. Under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, local authorities must provide public access to registers giving information about industrial processes in their area which could cause significant pollution to air, land and water. One of the great advantages of that Act was that it considerably increased the amount of information available to the public about the environmental impact of activities in their area. That is to be welcomed.
Mr. Ian Taylor rose--
Mr. Taylor : I agree, but when Madam Speaker rightly simplifies matters by grouping so many amendments together it is sometimes difficult to relate one's remarks to each amendment as opposed to the generality.
The Minister made an interesting remark about comparable information. Citizens increasingly require information about their local authority's efficiency on energy and other matters. That information should be available to the public. Have the Government taken any initiatives under the compulsory competitive tendering legislation to require local authorities to put their energy efficiency savings schemes out to tender ?
Mr. Baldry : Shortly, local authorities will have to expose housing management to compulsory competitive tendering because that function, as with any other activity, is best delivered when exposed to competition. All the evidence to date is that substantial savings can be made by
Column 1167exposing services to competition. Savings of between 7 per cent. and 20 per cent. have been made on services across the range of local authority functions. That money is actually saved and local authorities can reinvest it to the benefit of their council tax payers and the community.
I am seeking to speak to the group of amendments, not just to new clause 1, because I am conscious of the fact that there are a number of amendments and that the House wants to make progress. That is why I am commenting as comprehensively as possible.
Mr. Ian Taylor : I apologise for pursuing this point, but it is critical. My hon. Friend the Minister said that considerable savings could be made by the tendering of housing accounts. Would it not be better to require local authorities to use those savings for increased energy efficiency in their housing stock rather than apply bureaucratic measures such as those in the Bill ?
Mr. Baldry : Absolutely. One hopes that local authorities seek, as a matter of course, to make their housing stock as energy efficient as possible. Each year they receive substantial capital funding to invest in their housing stock. In addition, there are numerous estate action schemes, under which half a million homes have been improved over the past few years. All that money should be used to make local authority housing stock more energy efficient.
Local authorities such as Newark, Sherwood and Derby, when under Conservative control, have demonstrated that it is perfectly possible for local authorities to do that, without requiring such legislation. All this measure does is to place an extra bureaucratic burden on local authorities generally and to impose extra costs on taxpayers. In common with all public authorities, local authorities are required to ensure freedom of access to and dissemination of information on the environment that they hold. That has considerably enhanced the public's understanding of environmental measures. Against that, local authorities generally already have a well- established culture of openness. We believe that most will have little difficulty in adopting the further proposals set out in the open government code of practice. It is designed to promote and inform policy making and debate and efficient service delivery ; provide timely and accessible information to the citizen ; explain Government policies, actions and decisions ; and restrict access to information only when there are good reasons in the public interest or to protect personal or commercial confidentiality.
The code seeks to achieve that by volunteering more information on facts and analysis of facts that the Government consider relevant and important in framing major policy proposals and decisions ; providing explanatory material, including internal guidance on dealing with the public and guidance on rules and procedures except where exempted ; explaining reasons for administrative decisions to those affected, except where exempted ; and providing citizens charter information on standards of service, targets, objectives and performance audited against such standards.
I am sure that hon. Members agree that it is important to apply those principles to energy conservation plans. It will be important for the public to be able to see the final plan so that they may know how it affects the area in which they live and their own homes. Other plans prepared by local authorities, such as those relating to development and
Column 1168waste recycling, are open to inspection by the public. It is important that development plans should be open to inspection. Authorities would need similar powers in relation to energy conservation plans.
Similarly, powers are needed to enable local authorities to supply copies of plans and to charge for them. There is no reason why members of the public should not be able to buy copies of the finished plan, modifications to the plan and documents relating to it. By making those documents available for sale, authorities would help to spread the message that energy efficiency is important and something in which everyone can play a part.
The educational role that such plans could have should not be forgotten. They could be used by schools to educate children about the importance of energy efficiency and they, in turn, could inform their parents. It is for local authorities to decide the scale of charges for plans, modifications and related documents. However, I am sure that it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State to have powers to fix charges, should the need arise.
I urge right hon. and hon. Members to support new clause 6, which the Government have tabled to ensure that plans are made available for inspection by the public. I urge them to support also new clause 4, which would give authorities a power to supply copies of plans and to make such charges as they consider appropriate.
Mr. Baldry : The House should be clear that my comments seek to cover the first group selected by Madam Speaker. It comprises new clause 1, new clauses 4 to 6, and amendments Nos. 50, 209, 216, 210, 188, 211, 214, 215, 212 and 189. I am attempting to be as expeditious as possible. I hope that Hansard and the House will note that, in relation to two important new clauses, I spoke no longer than one sentence on each. That provoked a point of order from the right hon. Gentleman, who has not even taken the time and trouble to study the groups determined by the Chair.
Mr. Peter Butler (Milton Keynes, North-East) : My hon. Friend's brevity is always legendary on these occasions, and ample. There appears to be some contradiction between new clauses 4, 5 and 6 and new clause 1 in relation to the protection of economic information that will permit interests to seek to supply loft insulation and other energy conservation measures to the authority or householder. New clauses 4, 5 and 6 propose a charge, so that if suppliers are to make a profit, that information should be provided at their expense and not at that of council tax payers by recouping some of the cost of preparing the plan. New clause 1 appears to alter that. Will my hon. Friend comment ?
Mr. Wells : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps I may assist the Chair. The first group of amendments includes new clauses 1, 4, 5 and 6. I assume that we are debating new clause 6, the wording of which is :
"(1) An energy conservation authority may"
Mr. Baldry : I hope that I made it clear that, in dealing as expeditiously as I could with the new clauses, I had chosen to approach them as a group--and I spoke only one sentence each on new clauses 6 and 4. As to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North- East (Mr. Butler), I do not see any contradiction. In general good practice, if local authorities are collecting information, it should be available to the general public--but in certain instances local authorities should have the ability to charge for that information. If my hon. Friend identifies a contradiction, doubtless he will draw it to the attention of the House in due course.
Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton) : While we are dealing with the question of expedition, if it is in order, will my hon. Friend say how many amendments the Government sought to table when the Bill was considered in Committee ? While we all appreciate that the wheels of government grind slowly, possibly far too slowly for so many purposes
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. What has that got to do with the new clauses and amendments that we are discussing ? My patience is getting a bit thin now. I repeat what I have said twice earlier. The debate is bordering on a filibuster, and the Chair will not tolerate that.
Mr. Baldry : Support for new clause 1 would complete the package by providing a power for the Secretary of State to fix charges. I consider that this package of amendments would be preferable to new clause 5, which would give authorities a power to supply copies of plans and make charges that do not exceed the cost to the authority of providing the service concerned.
Having dealt with the whole question of public access, I turn now to the matter of consultation, because it also arises within this group of amendments. Hon. Members will know that the Government fully understand the intention behind the proposal that authorities should consult widely when preparing statements or plans that require action by the authorities or others. It is fully in line with the Government's intention for more open government, which I have just explained. The Government see no need, however, for such consultation to be laid down as a formal duty and thereby increase the length of the Bill and the potential costs.
To do so and to combine that with a list of individuals and organisations that must be consulted has two undesirable side effects that need to be considered : first, that money might have to be spent on formally consulting organisations or individuals who have already recently made it clear that they do not wish to make any comment. That is wasteful of council tax payers' money. Secondly,
Column 1170by implication, it means that organisations which wish to comment but which are not identified in the list may find it difficult to have their input taken into account.
We believe that it is far more sensible to leave the arrangements for consultation on the plans to the authorities concerned. It should be up to them to choose the organisations that they wish to consult so that they may carry out the consultation in a cost-effective way. No useful purpose would be served by imposing those duties on authorities, which will, I am sure, make a much better job if allowed to arrange consultation in the most appropriate way according to their local needs and circumstances.
Local authorities are no strangers to consultation when it comes to housing matters. Every year, every local authority in England must draw up a housing investment programme, and pretty well every local authority, as part of that process, now sensibly consults local tenants and residents' groups. They certainly do not need any statutory injunction to do that. They do so, quite rightly, as a matter of course and good practice.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (Cambridgeshire, North-East) : Does my hon. Friend agree that, if there is an attempt on the face of the Bill to have an exhaustive list of consultees, there is always a danger of missing somebody or some organisation off that list ? Will not those people perhaps take umbrage that they have been overlooked ? There is always a cost in consultations, and nowhere on Second Reading or in Committee was any reference made to the cost implications of consulting all those bodies.
Mr. Baldry : My hon. Friend tellingly underlines and re-emphasises the point that I have just made. It is a sensible point, because there is no useful purpose in imposing unnecessary statutory burdens on local authorities which incur greater cost. There is a need for Parliament and Government to exercise great restraint in imposing new duties and burdens on local government, particularly when they entail additional spending for local authorities and tax payers. Generally, there are no spare resources in life, and to impose burdens, as set out in clause 2(5) and clause 2(6) of the Bill, obviously has implications for services in other areas for which local authorities have responsibilities.
As I made clear on Second Reading, one of our concerns, despite our enthusiasm for energy efficiency, is costs. As it stands, the Bill would have spending implications for local authorities and central Government. I know that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who proposes the Bill, has circulated figures showing how much it might cost local authorities to set up a database on the condition of housing stock in their authorities. If those costings were replicated by other local authorities, the cost of setting up databases across the United Kingdom--just setting them up, no more and no less--could be between some £11 million and £23 million.
Mr. Ian Taylor : My hon. Friend makes an important point, because he is saying that extra levels of bureaucracy are required by the Bill over and above the commitments that the local authorities already have. Would it not be better for them to concentrate, for example, on their obligations under building regulations SI 1991/2768, where grants can be provided under the home energy efficiency scheme ? Such things have practical benefits for
Column 1171the housing stock and also for the residents in it rather than putting on top new layers of bureaucracy that are likely to cost more, for nobody's benefit at all.
Mr. Baldry : The point cannot be made during the course of today with too great an emphasis. We expect local authorities to try to ensure that their housing stock is maintained and kept in a way that is as energy efficient as possible. We expect them to carry out, as part of their housing duties, a regular stock condition of their housing and to seek to use the considerable sums of money that they have available to invest in ensuring that it is as energy efficient as possible.
In addition, many people, including council tenants and home owners, who are on vulnerable means, have access to schemes such as the home energy efficiency scheme, which, this year alone, is likely to help some 250,000 households. It would be far better for local authorities to spend their time and energy in promoting the home energy efficiency scheme and energy conservation in their own stock rather than having this extra burden placed on them by Parliament. It is interesting to note that the calculated £23 million--at the very minimum--of unnecessary spending that the Bill would provoke could provide grants for 123,000 homes under the home energy efficiency scheme. But, of course, it is quite possible that those costs would not be representative of those incurred elsewhere. It is almost certainly the case that the calculations understate the costs that would be incurred by others, because the two local authorities prayed in aid by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed have obviously taken a particular interest in promoting energy efficiency. One of them already has the necessary computer hardware, software and trained staff, so the costings that have been put forward are very much the most optimistic costings that could possibly be devised. But, more importantly, those costs are only part --probably a small part--of the costs that would be involved in carrying forward the Bill. In addition, local authorities would have to bear the costs of preparing draft plans, consultation, preparing final plans and keeping the plans up to date. The House will note that, in all of that, not one jot or iota of further improvement to the energy efficiency of any home will be carried out.
Mr. Beith : The Minister's prolonged discourse has already gone on for more than an hour. In Committee, the Minister who was then in charge of the Bill, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Atkins), said :
"this should be permissive legislation, encouraging councils to undertake such expenditure."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee C , 16 February 1994 ; c. 19.]
It was the Government's policy that councils should spend the money in that way.
Mr. Baldry : The right hon. Gentleman clearly has not been listening to what I have said. Today is a rather curious day. I am occasionally chastised for trying to explain matters to the House as concisely as possible, but when I do that, it is clear that hon. Members do not listen to what I say. Throughout the debate so far, in speaking to the new clause and the associated new clauses and amendments, I have said that we already expect local authorities as a matter of course to maintain their housing stock with as high an energy efficiency as possible.
Column 1172However, we do not see any need to impose a further statutory burden on them. It would not enhance the work that they are already doing in any way but would simply put extra burdens on local authorities and extra costs on the taxpayers. That money could be far better spent on promoting energy efficiency in other ways. We have already issued guidance to local authorities asking them to collect information about the energy efficiency of housing in their areas as part of the process of preparing housing investment programmes. Indeed, we expect them to undertake that every year. Not only local government would face extra costs as a result of the Bill ; central Government, too, would face additional spending. The Bill would require the Secretary of State to set a date by which all plans should be sent to him and to set a timetable for the implementation of plans. It would require funds to be provided by Parliament. As Parliament would place a statutory duty on local authorities, they would expect that new burden to be funded by central Government through the standard spending assessment mechanism. So the Bill would place extra burdens on local authorities and certainly represent extra costs to taxpayers in general. As hon. Members will know, we are keen not to place burdens on local authorities. The local authority associations constantly make representations to Ministers not to place further burdens on them unless it is unavoidable. We are worried that the provisions of the Bill will impose unnecessary burdens. It is perfectly clear already from the debate that many local authorities follow good practice in energy efficiency without Parliament placing extra burdens on them. Many local authorities are already doing a great deal to improve energy efficiency. Some 250 local authorities have agreed to sign up to my Department's "Making a corporate commitment" campaign. Many local authorities are also taking steps to improve domestic energy efficiency. My Department encourages such steps. Local authorities already spend about a quarter of their council house repair and improvement budgets on energy-related work such as new heating systems. Better outputs can be obtained by applying the lessons of my Department's green house demonstration programme.
The green house programme was launched in 1990 to establish a network of energy efficiency projects to show local authorities in England how the energy efficiency of council housing could be improved. Some 180 schemes in 130 local authorities have been undertaken over three years. Results are encouraging, with schemes achieving fuel cost reductions of up to 40 per cent. and carbon dioxide reductions of up to 50 per cent.
Drawing on experiences gained from the green house programme, last year we asked local authorities to include energy efficiency as an integral part of their housing strategies and investment programmes. Interim guidance was issued last June and further guidance is planned. A key element of that guidance is that local authorities should survey their housing stock to establish its energy rating as part of devising an energy efficiency strategy for inclusion in their overall housing investment strategy.
Mr. Butler : Most of the programmes that my hon. Friend has referred to--specifically those to which he referred in his last few sentences-- refer to local authorities' housing stock. One of the difficulties of the Bill is that it places a statutory duty on local authorities to
Column 1173prepare a scheme for all the residential accommodation in their area. They have no right of entry to such accommodation. Does my hon. Friend envisage that local authorities will be able to prepare such a scheme for property to which they do not have the right of entry that they have to their housing stock ?
Mr. Baldry : My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. Butler) makes a reasonable point. It is a point which needs to be returned to from time to time during today's debate. The Bill purports to have far wider application than merely to local authorities' housing stocks. It is unclear from some of the interventions from Opposition Members whether the duty is to audit a random number of houses in the private sector or to audit every house.
Even if one could overcome the problems of right of entry, which will undoubtedly have to be discussed in the context of the Bill, once the local authority had carried out the audit, it would have no power to order or carry out any energy efficiency work in those homes. As I said earlier, we are the only party which has had the courage to introduce VAT on domestic fuel. That is a far greater spur to all householders to consider how they can make their homes more energy efficient. The work of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in having the courage to introduce VAT on domestic fuel will do far more to promote energy efficiency than any of the Bills before the House.
Part of the reason why Opposition parties need to promote Bills such as this is that they have to square the fact
Mr. O'Neill : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister to go over again and again the courage or whatever of the Government in introducing VAT on domestic fuel ? Are we not getting near tedious repetition ?
Mr. Ian Taylor : Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not in order that my hon. Friend the Minister should underline the point constantly, given that the Liberal Democrat party is trying to hide behind the Bill to disguise its original intentions ?
Column 1174Existing legislation enables authorities to do a great deal of what is proposed in the Bill. We should allow them to use those powers. We should not insist that all authorities follow precisely the same path when that may not be appropriate to their circumstances.
We are also keen to avoid unnecessary regulation. As the House will know, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is seeking to remove unnecessary controls. We are determined not to introduce new and unnecessary controls as fast as the old ones are destroyed.
Of course, Conservative Members know that energy efficiency is a win-win situation. It saves money and helps to save the planet. We are committed to our policies to encourage it. We also know that local authorities have an important role to play. However, we have some serious concerns about the Bill, which we have made clear to its sponsors. We are worried that the Bill would impose additional and unnecessary burdens on local authorities and central Government and would hinder efforts to control public spending.
As I said on Second Reading, I hoped that those concerns would be carefully considered by the sponsors, but that was not to be. We have tabled amendments to ensure that our concerns are considered. We hope that they will be met before the Bill makes progress.
The first thing that I want to put right is my willingness to accept new clause 1. I should have thought that that would shorten the Minister's remarks considerably. Indeed, I have no particular objection--except to their number--to most of the new clauses and amendments in the group.
I object to amendment No. 50, which would remove any obligation to consult. It seems strange that, while the Government impose other obligations, they say at the same time that local authorities should not have to consult any of the organisations mentioned in the Bill. That point has already been drawn to the Minister's attention by Conservative Members.
I do not believe that we would be discussing this group of amendments if the Government had done their job properly in Committee, where they tabled only five amendments and did so too late for them to be considered. Many of the amendments that we are considering today make what hon. Members would regard as Committee points. The Government are adopting a new strategy of ignoring a Bill's Committee stage because holding amendments back for Report increases their opportunities to delay and block Bills. At some point, the Procedure Committee may wish to consider that practice.
One is bound to ask how much staff time the Parliamentary Counsel Office devoted to the preparation of so many amendments. I should point out that all the amendments, including those in the names of other hon. Members rather than the Government, came on the same sheets of paper, printed by the same process, from the Parliamentary Counsel Office. More than 50 amendments
Column 1175appear in the name of the Secretary of State. It is unusual for the Government so directly to filibuster a Bill rather than to get somebody else to do their dirty work.
Mr. Moss : The proceedings of the Standing Committee were completed in just under two hours. As far as I can see, no amendments were tabled by the Bill's supporters. I piloted a private Member's Bill through the House, with Government support--the Osteopaths Bill--and a massive number of amendments were tabled in Committee and on Report. Why does the right hon. Gentleman think that his Bill is so perfect that it cannot stand the scrutiny afforded by the tabling of amendments ?
Mr. Beith : I expected the Government to suggest improvements. Unfortunately, the only amendments that they tabled in Committee attempted to exclude Northern Ireland and Scotland from the Bill, and I could not accept them. I hoped that they would table some of the amendments that we are debating today, which I am able to accept and which I encourage hon. Members to support. The Committee stage was brief because the Government did not table amendments.
The amendments would all increase requirements on local authorities. They sit strangely with the Government's view that no further requirements should be placed on local authorities. The essence of the Government's general case is that local authorities should not have the burden of the Bill imposed on them, yet the Government amendments would make that burden more complex, albeit not in undesirable ways.
As part of their argument for the new clauses, the Government say that local authorities should have to apply the Bill's procedures only to their housing stock and not to other housing stock. It is a strange doctrine for the Government now to say that local authorities should be concerned only with the energy efficiency of local authority housing when, as a result of Government policies, local authority housing is a minority and declining part of the national housing stock. Some local authorities have no housing stock because, with the Government's full blessing, their stock has been sold or is managed by housing associations. The Government must recognise that local authority housing will be a small part of the overall future stock, and any organisation playing a large part in trying to promote energy efficiency must look far beyond it.
Mr. Butler : The concern of many hon. Members, which the right hon. Gentleman shares, is that an energy conservation Bill should work and not simply have a pretty title. The issue is how the Bill will be enforced if it is extended to homes not within the ownership or tenancy of a local authority.
Mr. Beith : In the same way as authorities collect information in the housing conditions survey, and with the co-operation of bodies such as housing associations, which are large property owners. The proposed mechanism has
Column 1176been tried and, furthermore, the Government encourage its use. The paradox of the Government's position this morning is that they have said throughout that they believe that energy conservation is desirable and energy audits are worth while and that their only concern is that local authorities will be required to carry out the work, yet local authorities want the obligation : they prefer to get on with something that is a statutory obligation. It is now quite difficult for local government to meet non-statutory duties when the financial pressures are on meeting statutory duties. That is why energy conservation needs to be a statutory duty.
All energy conservation organisations and numerous organisations representing elderly, handicapped and poor people are in favour the Bill. More than 400 hon. Members have indicated their support for it, including at least one who has tabled amendments to it today. The Government would not be moving the new clauses or other amendments if the Bill were entirely permissive. That has been their line throughout, but there would be no point in introducing an entirely permissive Bill as local authorities already have such powers. They want a statutory framework to ensure that
energy-conserving measures are taken everywhere. We have the information on which to base cost-effective energy efficiency investment to keep vulnerable people warm and to save energy that is otherwise wasted, and the Bill is a recognised mechanism for making the investment.
If the Government persist with the tactics that they are employing today, they will do something that the Prime Minister has condemned. On 25 January, the right hon. Gentleman said :
"Almost everybody is in favour of environmental objectives in principle, but it is no use whatsoever being in favour if you then oppose the practice that is actually carrying out those principles." According to the judgment of most of those concerned, the Bill would implement that practice.