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Mr. Beith : I said that I would not take any more interventions ; I want the debate to proceed. Let the House be in no doubt that I am quite willing to accept the new clause so that we can get on and ensure that the Bill gets on to the statute book.
Mr. Heald : I find myself in some difficulty with the first group of amendments. I should like to oppose new clause 1, but if it is passed I should want to support new clauses 4, 5 and 6, which are related to it. Otherwise, I generally support the amendments in the group that stand in my name or those of my hon. Friends and which share the same thrust.
New clause 1 requires that a local authority
"shall, at all reasonable times and free of charge, make available at its principal offices for inspection by members of the public a copy of"
A local authority should be under a duty to ensure that its housing stock is energy efficient, but that duty should not extend to private properties of owner-occupiers. If an authority were responsible purely for its own stock, there would be no need or requirement for members of the public to be able to inspect the plan. It is difficult, therefore, to see what the purpose of new clause 1 would be.
I understand that a plan is not prepared for improvements such as the installation of central heating or
Column 1177double glazing and therefore is not open to inspection by the general public, so the bureaucracy and costs of having such a facility available are not incurred. A councillor playing the important and independent role of representing his electors can be relied on to ensure that plans prepared for an authority's housing stock are sensible.
My concern is that under new clause 1 members of the public could obtain plans free of charge. The new clauses standing in my name would allow a charge to be made, because it is only right that the costs of such a facility should not fall on council tax payers. The council tax in Conservative-controlled north Hertfordshire has been maintained at £61 this year, compared to £131 in the neighbouring Labour-controlled borough of Stevenage, partly because value for money and ensuring that unreasonable burdens are not placed on the taxpayer are at the forefront of that Conservative authority's thinking and policy.
I oppose the idea but, if such a scheme is to be provided, there should be a reasonable charge. I support new clause 6 which states that, although there should be a charge, it should not be a profit-making exercise. The charge should be the cost to the council of providing that facility.
As I said, I am in the difficult position of opposing new clause 1, because it is over-bureaucratic and would impose an unacceptable burden on local authorities, but supporting new clauses 4, 5 and 6. It will be difficult for me, and for my hon. Friends who agree with that line of thinking, to decide how to vote because those clauses are grouped together.
Mr. Butler : Is there not an analogy with the case of someone seeking to purchase a house in an area who has to pay for the searches conducted to discover other relevant information relating to the title of the property ? Under the new clause, that person would be able to obtain free of charge valuable information about a property's energy efficiency. Should not that person be prepared to pay for that valuable information ?
Mr. Heald : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out something that occurs throughout the Bill. Individuals are arguably being given costly rights with no provision being made for the costs imposed on the local council tax payer. As far as I can see, there is no method of meeting the costs imposed on the local council tax payer. Elsewhere in the Bill, my hon. Friend will have noted that the costs incurred by the Secretary of State will rightly be provided for. However, the local authority's costs would clearly lie with the council tax payer.
Clause 2 would impose a duty on every local energy conservation authority to carry out an investigation or to decide, in preparing a plan, what modifications are necessary by the private householder. If such a duty were imposed, a local council tax payer in that area would be able to have his property surveyed for energy efficiency at a cost of about £400, which the authority would have to pay.
Mr. Moss : My hon. Friend makes an important point. When I was a member of the Energy Select Committee, we investigated energy efficiency and visited the National Energy Foundation in Milton Keynes, which promotes a
Column 1178scheme of energy audit on a private basis for individuals. If such a scheme is to be available through the local authority, paid for by council tax payers, will it not undermine the excellent work of such organisations ?
Mr. Heald : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out something that had not occurred to me but which is important. Britain leads the world in private sector energy auditing. British companies are now going to the Soviet Union and elsewhere to sell those services, in which they have a particular expertise. The Bill would enable a householder to ask to have his house audited for free and to be provided with all the resulting information. That request would be legally enforceable and would undercut the private sector. Many businesses which are currently thriving and which have spent considerable sums on research and development would be unable to continue because their home base would have been undermined.
A person who lives in a house where the heating system heats the draughts on their way in so that they go out warmer but fails to heat the house in general could demand an energy audit. If the local authority refused, that person could take it to court for breach of its statutory duty and get certiorari and mandamus against it, telling it to fulfil its duty.
Mr. Heald : Certiorari is part of the system of judicial review and could require the council under mandamus to take the action required under the Bill. People who possibly belong to pressure groups and support the idea of energy conservation in the home but do not want to pay for it would be able to argue in the High Court that a local authority had not carried out an energy audit. An order could be obtained and the authority might be liable for any losses incurred by the householder from the time the council should have acted to the time it finally acted under the order. Therefore, the Bill could have substantial legal consequences.
Mr. Ian Taylor : In view of my hon. Friend's talk of legal proceedings and judicial reviews, I am becoming rather worried that he has failed to disclose an interest as a lawyer. Surely the Bill cuts across the Government's considerable efforts under the home energy efficiency programme and local government's green house programme to try to persuade people to upgrade their own property voluntarily. The Bill also ignores the fact that the Government waived the reasonable contribution that people, especially those on income support and other benefits, previously had to make to the cost of upgrading their own homes. The House should be encouraging such programmes, not bureaucratic nonsense such as that in the Bill.
Mr. Heald : I pay tribute to the Select Committee on the Environment which, in a report issued last November, called for the expansion of the Government's home energy efficiency scheme, and to the Chancellor for doubling the money available. Under the scheme, 250,000 of the poorest homes will benefit from energy efficiency measures this year, and a total of 440,000 per annum will eventually be improved. Improvements are being carried out on the homes that need them most and those occupied by people
Column 1179who are probably already receiving help with VAT. The scheme provides the added advantage of meeting the cost of heating the home. I therefore agree that the home energy efficiency scheme is most important, and I certainly argued for the doubling of the funding before the Chancellor obliged. I know that a number of my hon. Friends were also keen advocates.
Clause 2(5) and (6) state that, in preparing plans and modifications, authorities must consult
"every parish or community council and any other local authority in its area"
and any other commercial and community bodies. Such efforts at consultation are objectionable for three basic reasons. First, this part of the Bill is mere window dressing and tries to promote as reasonable and democratic proposals that are unreasonable and undemocratic--in other words, it attempts to give an acceptable face to something that is unacceptable. Secondly, such consultation would serve no purpose and, thirdly, it is unnecessarily bureaucratic. The Bill is profoundly worrying. Much has been made of the fact that Committee stage was brief. It has been suggested that, because it was a speedy and efficient Committee stage, there can have been nothing wrong with the Bill. However, I am shocked that a Standing Committee should have allowed the Bill in this form to complete that stage unamended in two hours. Of course, it might have been because my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and I were considering the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill and therefore unavailable for selection to the Committee stage of this Bill. Whatever the reason, the Committee did not do its duty. It did not consider amendments
Mr. Beith : What was the Parliamentary Counsel Office doing ? If it could think of 219 ways in which the Bill could be improved, why did it not put them before the Committee ? The Committee can consider only the amendments tabled and selected.
Mr. Heald : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point, although he is wrong. He is the promoter of the Bill and he was a member of the Committee with other hon. Members, many of whom supported the Bill. Yet they have come out with an unsatisfactory mish-mash.
"The Minister mentioned several matters that might need to be tackled on Report or in another place. I am willing for that to happen".--[ Official Report , Standing Committee C , 16 February 1994 ; c. 10.]
That is exactly what is happening.
Mr. Heald : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. Butler) for making that point. He and I have both taken up the invitation and have tabled a considerable number of amendments. It is a bit rich for the right hon. Member for
Column 1180Berwick-upon-Tweed now to complain, especially as he seems to be conceding that the Standing Committee was in dereliction of its duty.
Mr. Moss : I addressed that question to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and he did not answer it. As he was the promoter of the Bill, I would not ask him to have tabled massive numbers of amendments. However, he claims to have considerable support on both sides of the House. I have read the Hansard report of the Committee stage. Most of the members of that Committee were supporters of the Bill, yet not one tabled an amendment. No private Bill in history has gone through all its stages unamended.
Mr. Heald : I am again grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss). Are the members of the Committee real friends if they make yes-man speeches which do not get down to the nitty-gritty of the Bill ?
Mr. Ian Taylor : I can reveal the hitherto undisclosed secret of what the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed was doing in February ; he was sitting with me in the Finance Bill Committee. We discussed taxation and the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that he did not like VAT on fuel. Is it not slightly hypocritical for him then to promote a Bill which will put up council taxes because of the charges that will be inherent in the application
The point that I want to make about amendment No. 50, which would remove the consultation, is that the consultation referred to in clauses 2(5) and 2(6) is window dressing. First, the Bill would give to local and central Government the power to draw up a plan for my house, saying what I needed to do to improve its energy efficiency, without my permission. Secondly, it would give them the power to say when I should do the work to the house. Thirdly, they would have the power to force me to do the work on time. Fourthly, they could have the right of entry to my home, as and when required for the purpose. [Interruption.] I can hear the right hon. Member for
Berwick-upon-Tweed and other hon. Members disagreeing with me. Clause 2 refers to the duty
"to prepare a statement . . . of the arrangements needed and made and proposed to be made by the authority and other persons in order to achieve greater energy conservation in such accommodation". That accommodation is
"the residential accommodation in its area"
in other words, all the houses including mine. Under the Bill, a plan would be drawn up for my house, saying what I needed to do to improve its energy efficiency, without my permission. It is no good saying that there could be random sampling because under the wording of the Bill, which is comprehensive, that could not be the case. On any housing estate in Britain, it is impossible to tell whether the houses have wall insulation without entering them.
Mr. Dafis : Has the hon. Gentleman seen the little booklet prepared as background to the Bill ? There is a comprehensive description by two local authorities of the way in which the audit could be carried out practically. The method is costed and described in detail.
I must make it perfectly clear that the Bill would ensure that information was provided on the energy efficiency condition of housing in general. In turn, that would provide a guide to where improvement works could most efficiently and most usefully be carried out, taking into account levels of poverty and levels of inefficiency. It would, of course, then be a matter of voluntary decision by each householder as to whether he or she had that work to be carried out. There would be no right of entry to any property. 11.15 am
Mr. Heald : I have listened to the hon. Gentleman ; that is not what the Bill says. It may be what his booklet says, but it is not what the Bill says. We in the House must be jealous of the powers that we give to central Government and to local government. I am happy to say that our present Government fight for the individual and protect the rights of individuals. In my constituency, North Hertfordshire district council, which is Conservative controlled, would take exactly the same approach.
However, I am not considering the Bill on the basis of what a Conservative Government would do or what Conservative-controlled North Hertfordshire district council would do. I am considering the Bill in terms of asking what the possible consequences would be of giving such powers to central and local government. It is because the Standing Committee did not do its job properly and did not consider that question that the Bill is in its present state.
Mr. Ian Taylor : My hon. Friend allowed an intervention by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis), who has a long record of concern about these matters. It should be acknowledged that the hon. Gentleman, in his ten-minute Bill which preceded this Bill, sought to require the Chancellor of the Exchequer to impose a fuel levy. That is up- front ; everyone knows where we stand. However, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed is trying to disguise the cost to the taxpayer.
Mr. Heald : I accept that point, although I believe that the matter goes somewhat further. An individual has a right to say that his house will be an energy-efficiency blackspot--that he will be a thoroughly unreasonable person and will not have an energy-efficient home. I do not think that people would be right to say that, but I believe that they are entitled to say that. Opposition Members appear to agree with that. If they do, how on earth can they support the Bill ?
Mr. Butler : My hon. Friend is being a little unfair to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. He made it clear in Committee that the Bill was not intended to confer any new powers of entry or anything of that kind. Indeed, he said :
"The Bill does not contain a requirement but it calls on local authorities to set out what could be achieved by certain levels of energy conservation. No one is required to achieve those levels."--[ Official Report , Standing Committee C , 16 February 1994 ; c. 25.] It is a window- dressing Bill. It is a very pretty Bill, which
Column 1182is not intended to achieve anything. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) is being a little unfair to the right hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Heald : I did not intend to be so uncharitable as to suggest that the Bill was a purely cosmetic exercise or that it was designed to give an appearance of concern about energy efficiency when it was purely a bit of politics. I was taking the Bill seriously and considering what powers were being conferred on local and central Government.
It is clear that one of the powers is to draw up a plan for my house saying what I need to do to improve its energy efficiency, without my permission. Clause 3 says that the Secretary of State will be able to timetable the works. He will be able to say when the works are to be done. Clause 3(4) says :
"The Secretary of State may make regulations . . . in order to secure the implementation of any plan".
The plan will be drawn up saying when the works are to be done to my house. I can be forced to do the works according to the timetable. There will be the right of entry to my home as an when required. What other meaning could be given to the words
"to secure the implementation of any plan under this Act" ? That must give the Secretary of State the power to make such regulations. My constituents would not want to give such powers to central and local government.
The Bill goes so far that it would give powers that are normally given to Government only to deal with people who are suspected of crime or in very exceptional cases. I do not believe that such powers should be conferred willy-nilly. After all, an Englishman's home has always been his castle and we should fight for that principle, especially in the Conservative party.
I accept that the case for energy efficiency is powerful. I know that my hon. Friends will remember my speech at the Blackpool conference in 1989, in which I called for greater efforts. Indeed, I remember one hon. Friend describing it as "a thoughtful contribution", which is probably not the greatest of accolades at the Tory party conference.
However, the speech made the point that energy efficiency has three tremendously valuable benefits. The first is the money saved as a result. In Britain, we spend £50 billion a year on the energy bill. That could be reduced by 20 per cent., also reducing our dependence on imported fuel. The concern rightly felt in the country about the balance of payments could be met, to some extent, by more efficient energy use. Secondly, it is important that we should address the greenhouse effect and help to meet the Rio targets. Thirdly, it is right to conserve energy resources for the future to allow continued and sustainable growth.
What are we doing and what should we be doing in the context of consultation ? The Government are already doing a good deal and so are local authorities. I noted that local authorities are spending around £200 million per year on energy efficiency measures. Through the home energy efficiency scheme, which has been mentioned, the Government are doubling their efforts in the current year. I have been impressed by the best practice programme in industry and commerce, which has had its budget increased year on year to more than £15 million for 1993-94, and in the public sector, the "making a corporate commitment" campaign has achieved a good deal. The recent written answers provided by various Departments show that the Government are playing their part.
Column 1183Domestic housing remains the main issue that needs to be addressed. I certainly accept that each local authority should look to its own housing stock and provide a plan which sets out what should be done, that that plan should be subject to a timetable and that the works should be effected. If the Bill concentrated on that area of housing, it would achieve a good deal and would be the sort of limited measure that should receive support as a private Member's Bill. Since the Bill goes further and interferes with the individual rights of the home owner, I oppose it.
I oppose the provision on consultation for two reasons. First, it would not serve any useful purpose. The sorts of works which the council would be carrying out under clause 2(2) include considering information showing what measures would be needed to achieve estimated energy savings of 10, 20 or 30 per cent. The council would then want to assess the cost of those measures and the average savings in fuel bills. It would want an analysis of the extent of decreases in emission of carbon dioxide and it would also want a policy which looks at the way in which people in financial hardship could be assisted in meeting the targets.
Each of those areas involves a good deal of technical information and technical discussion. I fully understand that a local authority may wish to have the benefit of an environmental adviser, who would know the technical issues in detail and would be able to advise on, for example, the degree of any decrease in emission of carbon dioxide resulting from the measures taken.
I certainly accept that expert advice and consultation would be vital if the Bill were to go ahead. However, the list of bodies proposed for consultation in subsections (5) and (6) concerns me because they seem to be groups--not experts--which are political in nature, are community based or are commercial interests.
Mr. Heald : He had quite a few votes to spare, yes. The hon. Gentleman says, "How shocking to consult community groups." Do we want community groups to set themselves up as experts in technical issues such as the levels of carbon dioxide in the local environment ? I shall happily allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene if he feels that any local community groups in Southwark and Bermondsey know very much about the technical information on carbon dioxide emissions there.
Mr. Hughes : I shall only intervene once because any filibustering is not to be extended with the assistance of the Liberal Democrats. Community groups in Southwark and Bermondsey and all over the country know two things. They know that the Bill would be a jolly good idea and want it to happen because energy conservation saves money and because many ordinary householders and local community groups are extremely well informed. Given the attitude of the Government, it appears that many such groups are better informed on the need for the legislation than them.
Mr. Heald : As ever, the hon. Gentleman and I find a lot of common ground. I agree that it is a jolly good idea to have energy efficiency measures and I have spoken out for them, as the hon. Gentleman knows, on previous occasions. However, there is all the difference in the world between a jolly good idea and an Act of Parliament. The detail in the Bill is hopelessly inadequate. I accept that community groups all over the country are concerned about energy efficiency and they are entitled to a decent Act of Parliament, which is effective in law and not a mish-mash which would ride over the rights of individual home owners and is badly expressed. We want proper measures of the limited sort that I advocated a moment ago. The groups that are proposed for consultation have political, community or commercial interests. I find it difficult to see how they would take forward in any way the technical arguments that a local authority may have in preparing its plan. The only way in which they could take that argument forward would be if each group were to obtain its own technical advice so that it could make an input to a discussion about, for example, the average saving in a fuel bill given the various changes of a technical nature.
My third objection to those two subsections is their bureaucracy. If each and every one of those groups is entitled to have a series of meetings with the local authority to discuss technical issues and each is to prepare its own technical advice so that it can present a detailed argument, there will be a plethora of meetings, of agendas, of papers and amended papers, as the plan would obviously be subject to huge amendment as it progressed. The cost of that and the amount of local authority officer time needed would be colossal. The provision is not only against the interests of ordinary home owners, unreasonable and undemocratic : it is worthless because it would simply be providing for either a cosmetic consultation exercise or one so detailed and involving technical advice from so many groups that it would be hopelessly bureaucratic and extremely expensive in terms of time and money. I object to the two subsections in every way and support amendment No. 50.
Having said that, energy efficiency is a major issue for the future. The Government are addressing the issue in a proper manner and I hope that local authorities will take seriously the duties that could be imposed on them in future if they are not prepared to take the steps themselves now.
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : I share some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) about the amendments. He is right to say that there are incompatibilities within the group of amendments. I hope that amendment No. 50 will be withdrawn rather than pushed through, because it would undercut all the other amendments in the group by taking out the suggested consultation. That cuts across the argument put by the Minister in moving the new clause, which enhances public access to plans.
Some amendments within the group are extremely minor. For example, amendment No. 211 would simply introduce the word "proposed" before the word "plan". What is a plan, if not a proposal ? Despite some
Column 1185reservations about the detail of the amendments, in order to make progress on the Bill we are happy to see the amendments go ahead to allow the Bill to go through.
I was disappointed to hear on the radio this morning, when the interviewer suggested that the Bill would fail, the Minister reply, "Yes, the Government have made their position clear." He repeated this morning that the Bill will be an unnecessary burden on local authorities, yet I cannot seen how making plans available to the public, as he suggests should happen, would be an unnecessary burden. Nor do I understand how consultation is an unnecessary burden, yet amendment No. 50 removes the consultation process.
Mr. Battle : I shall give way to the Minister in a second. The Government are "making their position clear" in a strangely backhanded and underhand way. The Minister has moved a new clause which he claims improves the Bill, yet he speaks as though he is fundamentally opposed to the Bill and wants to see it go down.
Mr. Baldry : The hon. Gentleman, who has a long interest in housing, will know that Leeds or any other housing authority can and does consult with a wide range of groups and organisations without a statutory obligation to do so. Local authorities do that every year under the housing investment programme, but it is not a statutory obligation. The point made in amendment No. 50 is that there should not necessarily be a statutory obligation on local authorities to consult with a particular group of individuals.
Mr. Battle : The Minister was on the Committee considering what became the Housing Act 1987 when he moved a clause that provided that local authorities have a statutory obligation to consult tenants. This matter goes wider. The Bill went through its Committee stage unopposed, and the Government tabled no amendments. It was passed in one sitting and endorsed by the Minister responsible for energy efficiency, the noble Lord Arran, in another place as "fully discussed". We now have more than 200 amendments on the amendment paper, including two that we shall discuss later, that would wreck the Bill. In this group, amendment No. 50 would undermine the whole consultation clause. I hope that it will be withdrawn because this vital Energy Conservation Bill is supported by all parties in the House and should go through intact.
No one underestimates the importance of energy efficiency in cutting pollution such as carbon dioxide emissions, the main greenhouse gas, and acid rain, which has damaged more than half of Britain's trees. Energy efficiency will also improve the standard and quality of our homes and go some way towards tackling fuel poverty. I agree that we need information and plans, and that information should be spelt out publicly.
I remind the Minister that an estimated 7 million families in Britain cannot afford to pay for the warmth that they need to heat their homes. According to Government figures, some 3 million homes suffer from condensation, damp and mould growth. That shows that clear information
Column 1186needs to be spelt out so that action plans to tackle the problems can be put in place. That is all that the Bill calls for. In his Budget, the Chancellor increased the home energy efficiency scheme budget by £35 million to £77 million a year, but some of that £35 million came from other energy efficiency schemes, so it was shifted rather than new money. Even with that budget, it will take the home energy efficiency scheme practically 20 years to insulate all low-income homes in the United Kingdom, yet people are being asked to pay value added tax on their fuel bills. That is why the amendments to make the plans are acceptable.
Mr. Ian Taylor rose
Mr. Moss rose
Mr. Battle : Both hon. Members want to contribute to the debate. We have the whole morning to debate the issue, so they can make their own speeches later. I have already given way and want to make progress.
The needs of low-income households are desperate. May I remind the Minister of some other figures that should be wider public knowledge because they underpin the Bill ? It was spelt out in the family expenditure survey that the average low-income family spent £8.50 on fuel each week--10 per cent. of its household expenditure. Poorer families struggling to pay fuel bills lack sufficient warmth and hot water but tend to have insufficient insulation. They need help to reduce their energy bills and warm up their homes, yet they must know what they are up against, which is why they need the information set out in the clause and why some of the proposed amendments are acceptable. They also need to know what can be done to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.
We now all face VAT on fuel and lighting but we often pay for energy that literally goes out with the drafts through doors, window frames and roofing. People will pay more for wasted heating that does not look after them. Advising the elderly to switch off their fires does not constitute energy conservation, it simply causes increased deaths from hypothermia during the winter months.
This is a common-sense Bill.