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Mr. Beith : The hon. Gentleman should rely on his own understanding of the Bill rather than on being advised by the hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor), who has a perverse view of it. The subsection that the hon. Member for Esher quoted deals with the Secretary of State's powers to contribute to the costs of implementation of energy conservation measures--a power, not a duty, under which the Secretary of State could make a contribution, as taxpayers do already, to energy-saving works that surveys have shown to be cost effective.

Mr. Butler : I do not wish to become involved in a discussion of perversities in Esher, but if funding is required two questions arise : first, where does it come from, and, secondly, to what effect ?

Mr. Dafis : The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Bill that I introduced, which provided for a levy but which has now been removed because, in the meantime, the Government have imposed VAT on domestic fuel. It occurred to us that that will provide huge revenue, which the Government should recycle in the process of energy efficiency. The Bill leaves open various options, of which that might be one, for funding implementation.

Mr. Butler : I am again grateful to the hon. Member. I feel as though I am being allowed to intervene in my speech in replying to him.

Clause 2(5) mandates ; it does not suggest a list of consultees. It says that it is

"the duty of the authority

(a) in preparing plans and any modification, to consult" the specified groups. There is no requirement to pay attention to what they say or to take their representations into account. In a way, that may be sensible because it would prevent judicial review of a plan produced in a form contrary to representations received, but it makes it a paper exercise and nothing more.

That is more a comment on the defective drafting of the Bill than on anything else, but it is a valid point. If that is correct, and I am not from Esher so I hope that I will not be accused of perversity in taking the view, the subsection is pointless and we may as well pass amendment No. 50, which would delete it.

Mr. Heald : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most curious features of the clause is that subsection (5)(v) suggests that the Gas Consumers Council should be consulted but not Ofgas ? Gas consumers are consulted but not the regulator, yet the regulator of electricity is consulted but not consumers. Is not that the basis for agreeing amendment No. 210, which he and I have tabled and which includes Ofgas and electricity consumer committees ?

Mr. Butler : As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North and I tabled amendment No. 210, it must be a very good amendment. I have no doubt that he has interpreted it correctly. I shall not refer to it further except to say in passing that I have never managed to live in a house which has a gas supply, so I cannot assist him on that point.

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If there is no need for the list of consultees, let us delete it and accept amendment No. 50, which would make it optional. It is impossible to carry out an investigation without talking to someone. Incidentally, "investigation" is not defined in the Bill, although an amendment which I have tabled and which we may get on to discussing seeks to replace the word "investigation" with an energy audit, which is defined. Presumably the local authority, wishing to carry its population with it, would choose whom to consult. We might therefore adopt amendment No. 209 to that effect or, if the House is minded to leave clause 2(5), we might in due course accept amendment No. 216 which would add to the consultees

"representatives of organisations concerned with the provision of affordable energy for the elderly and those on low incomes". We should then perhaps start to deal with the groups in our society which need help mandated from others and at others' expense. We could begin by accepting that amendment against which, I notice with delight and pleasure, my name appears.

I deal now with the technical issue of the interaction of clause 2(d) and clause 5(a) which provide a duty to ensure a new round of consultation with each of the listed consultees not only for the drawing up of, but for any modification of, a plan. Presumably any modification of the plan relating to any part of a local authority's residential accommodation would involve the authority going through the whole consultation exercise again. If it breached that duty, any subsequent plan and any expenditure incurred in producing or putting into effect any such plan or modification could be invalid and challengeable in the courts. It is a risk that I urge those who support the Bill to bear in mind when, as we all hope, it is reconsidered in another form. That may appear a legalistic point, but it is valid.

New clauses 4 and 5 are included in the group of amendments that we are discussing. The establishment and implementation of energy conservation audits and plans would clearly involve local authorities in considerable expense. We do not yet know quite what the local audit will be because it is described only as an "investigation". I have tabled amendments to clarify the issue but I doubt that they will be accepted. We are not, therefore, in a position to estimate the actual cost, but we know that it will be substantial. It is unclear from the Bill whether plans will be established by simple sample representative audits or by reference to each house, another point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North. Again, it would be wide open to legal challenge and, if the Bill has to be brought back in another form, I hope that that point will be taken into account. In any event, the proposals involve a considerable financial burden.

Of course, the information contained in any audit will be of great commercial value. For example, a private sector firm that is active in producing, selling and installing equipment aimed at the energy conservation market will find an open door. The scheme will be a database of magnificent proportions for potential purchasers of their product. The active participation of the private sector in the commercial opportunities available will be essential to the successful implementation of the plan. One cannot fit double glazing unless there are double glazing companies to do the fitting, and one cannot install draught excluders unless someone is making, selling and, as under the

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Government's scheme, fitting them at a subsidised price. It is therefore vital that the information is available to such companies.

New clauses 4 and 5 concern the availability of copies of the plans, and the background and supporting documents. We again have some sloppy drafting, although in the new clauses rather than in the Bill. We should, perhaps, talk about residents or occupants of residential accommodation within the area rather than simply members of the public. I am anxious that commercially valuable information should not be given away.

If the plans are to result in real improvements in energy efficiency, they must also act as a focus for discussion, local publicity and so on. That means that information on them, information behind them and information that led to the conclusions should be available. If authorities are required to make the information available on request, it is reasonable, given the substantial resource constraints under which local government does, always has and always will operate, that they should make charges. Those should be such as the authority thinks appropriate. Similarly, a charge should be applied to copies of modifications.

I have used the word "appropriate". Local authorities should not be minded to make a profit out of the exercise, although it would be an extraordinarily useful subsidy. One could take the view that every pound collected for the provision of copies would be a pound to be spent on the provision of facilities for energy conservation, which the Bill purports to be about.

There are bound to be requests in many instances for the background information and relevant documents. Copies should be available, but subject to any such charge as is considered appropriate. The proposed imposition of such charges under new clauses 4 and 5 is, of course, in line with established practice for the provision of, for example, development plan copies. The charges will serve to ensure that the service is used responsibly and economically by the public. A charging regime that leaves local authorities with the discretion to decide the level of charges could be used by authorities to recoup some or all of the cost, and could be misused, as I mentioned earlier, in terms of charging too much. Expert energy audits undertaken by consultants as background material will be expensive and also extremely commercially valuable items. They will be of great interest to energy service companies and to other commercial interests in the area which may therefore be prepared to pay a proper commercial price to get access to that information.

My intention in tabling, on behalf of a number of my colleagues, new clauses 4 and 5 is not that local authorities should make a profit out of the exercise or, indeed, use their discretion to set charges at unreasonably high levels. Instead, the new clauses would encourage the issuing of realistically priced documents, promoting the local authority plans for energy conservation while allowing authorities the discretion to make a modest but useful contribution to the considerable cost of drawing up the plans. I would expect most authorities to exercise discretion reasonably and responsibly. Experience in other areas, however, shows that a minority of authorities are unlikely to exercise discretion in such a way. I commend, therefore, not only new clause 4, but new clause 5, which allows the Secretary of State the power to make regulations prescribing the maximum amount that may be charged under the provisions. The

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regulations would allow the Secretary of State to make different provisions for different cases and for different kinds of document, such as the plan itself, background papers or, particularly, copies of expensive, externally obtained experts' reports. The flexibility in new clause 5 would help to ensure that the charging system was not rigid or too bureaucratic.

I have no doubt that, in making or amending such regulations, the Secretary of State would consult closely with the local authority side and would take due account of the experience of charging systems in operation for other publicly available documents. The regulations would, of course, be subject to the negative resolution procedure. The two new clauses taken together provide the basis for a prudent and sensible charging regime. I will therefore, in due course, seek to support them. I commend them to hon. Members.

I reiterate my welcome for the idea behind the Bill. I have admiration for whoever drafted the title of the Bill, but I regret that the body of the Bill, as currently drafted, would not achieve the excellent objective set out in the title.

Mr. Jacques Arnold : I admit to quite a swing of emotion over the Bill. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. Butler), when the Bill was introduced I thought, "Excellent : a further step in the important matter of energy conservation and environmental matters generally." After all, it was the objective of the earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to claw back the amount of carbon dioxide emissions and to take a number of measures to help with energy conservation. A look at the face of the Bill revealed that it had the support of right hon. and hon. Members of all parties. I thought that it was a measure introduced by the great and the good that was moving in a direction in which everybody would like go. Imagine my horror when, with the proverbial towel around my head, I went through the Bill's detailed provisions and tried to work out its effects.

For instance, I am especially concerned that clause 2--the subject of amendment No. 50--would impose further bureaucracy on local councils. As every hon. Member knows, our local authority leaders tell us time and again that one of the greatest problems with which they have to cope is the rigid imposition by the House of detailed bureaucratic requirements. If the Bill became law, our local authorities would have to divert talent, resources and tons of paper to drawing up the required plans--one wonders about the environmental impact of felling the number of trees required to obtain fibre for those tons of paper.

In considering the amendments, we should take account of the fact that local government should consult people who have an interest in the proposed actions. I am totally in favour of widespread consultation, but authorities should have the right to consult as and with whom they think fit and they should not be placed under a duty by the House to consult in a rigid way, with individuals and organisations that are not necessarily relevant in particular areas of the country or with particular authorities that may not be appropriate.

I firmly believe that local government is democratic enough to ensure that proper consultation on such matters, as covered by the Bill, will take place. If it did not, the local voters would have their opportunity to make their views of such behaviour known at the next local authority election.

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Local authorities do not need to be nannied in the way that the Bill proposes. Local authorities may make up their own minds about such issues. Indeed, most local authorities have a good record of doing so.

With the support of my hon. Friends, I tabled amendments Nos. 188 and 199, which are both consequential amendments that would delete redundant references to exceptions to the duty to consult. They are tidying-up amendments and would not be necessary if the House agreed to amendment No. 50.

The House should be attending to the need to put considerable time, effort and expertise into action to deal with energy conservation and not merely record intentions on great tonnages of paper. For instance, we know of the Government's highly successful green house programme, which was launched in 1990 to run for three years to encourage local authorities to introduce new heating and insulation schemes at a demonstration level.

We also know of the highly successful home energy efficiency scheme, which was launched in January 1991, since when more than 300,000 houses have benefited. It is encouraging to note that, for the current financial year, the target is 440,000 homes. That is action to deal with energy conservation--what we all want--in the interests of our constituents' welfare and of solving our overriding environmental concerns.

Looking through the Bill, I have great sympathy with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells)--the more one reads, the more one realises how authoritarian it is. The Bill brings the busybody into every home in the country. Nothing brings our environmental enthusiasm into more discredit with the general public than empowering busybodies to interfere in people's homes and say what must be done, generally sticking their noses into people's affairs.

In any event, it is not an easy business to carry out. We know about the difficulties that ensued when local councils tried to evaluate every house in the country for the purposes of the council tax. They were not empowered to enter people's homes. In recent days we have heard of many difficulties in classifying houses for council tax bands. Those have arisen on the relatively simple criteria required for council tax banding. How much more difficult would it be to assess the extent to which individual houses are properly insulated ?

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Whereas a whole street of houses could be banded similarly for council tax purposes, each house would be at a different stage of insulation. It might have its original insulation or insulation that has since deteriorated and householders might have taken steps to insulate their homes at different stages.

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. Before the hon. Gentleman continues, may I say that this sounds remarkably like a Second Reading speech ? I expect him to relate his remarks to the group of new clauses and amendments under consideration.

Mr. Arnold : I am referring to clause 2, particularly the provision that would be affected by amendment No. 50, which refers specifically to the duty on local authorities to draw up detailed plans and consult parish

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Madam Deputy Speaker : Did the hon. Gentleman refer to new clause 2 ?

Mr. Arnold : I referred to amendment No. 50, which is in the group under consideration.

I was referring to the great difficulties involved in assessing insulation in umpteen million houses throughout the country. We would then have to consider the effects of the different heating systems, the different impact of various forms of fuel, and the access to those fuels. If the Bill were passed, it would cost local authorities vast amounts and cause householders to suffer thorough intrusion.

Mr. Heald : Does my hon. Friend agree that a local authority environmental health officer has a role to play ? When inspecting a block of flats or a building in his public health role, he could also take account of the energy efficiency side, and when advising or notifying householders, he could include energy efficiency as a criterion. Does he agree that a partnership approach with the private sector, in which advice is given, is more likely to be successful than an unworkable mandatory provision ?

Mr. Arnold : That is exactly the point. If advice is given, it can include advice to individual householders about the availability of assistance with insulation and energy conservation measures that are made available by the positive programmes that the Government have put forward. I resent the diverting of energy, talent and resources into drawing up vast plans that do not necessarily result in action. My hon. Friend's example could lead to action in the case of individual householders. It would solve many problems and have a considerable environmental spin-off.

You will not be surprised, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I am slightly controversial. I wonder why the right hon. Member for

Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) proposed the Bill in the first place. He has assured us that he is greatly concerned with the environment. That is why he proposed a carbon tax at the last election. Not long after that general election we faced the sad necessity of holding a by-election in Newbury. The Liberal Democrat candidate found, no doubt to his amazement, that a carbon tax--the very tax that the Liberal party proposed--would be unpopular. Such a tax has been introduced in the form of VAT on fuel

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. What has that to do with the group of amendments that we are now discussing ?

Mr. Arnold : Value added tax on fuel is an important part of energy conservation, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is one of the many measures that are being introduced to help conserve energy. I believe that, in considering plans to take forward the Bill, we should take into account steps that have already been taken.

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. We are not considering the Bill--we have gone beyond that and are now discussing a group of amendments. I expect the hon. Gentleman to address his remarks to that group.

Mr. Arnold : I shall specifically deal with the plan that clause 2 attempts to impose. As I was trying to explain, Madam Deputy Speaker, it would cause an immense diversion of personnel resources away from necessary action. One of the extremely unfortunate spin-offs could be that the intrusion on people's lives might result in the

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dissipation of the public's current enthusiasm for environmental issues. We know that VAT on fuel is unpopular, but it is, in great part, an environmental measure. If we introduce a plan that intrudes on people's homes--an Englishman's home is his castle--we shall tarnish the current enthusiasm for the environment.

An energy conservation plan as proposed in clause 2 would be extremely detrimental. I hope that amendment No. 50 will be carried and clause 2 deleted.

Mr. Bennett : I do not want to detain the House long, but I deplore the way in which the Government have behaved today. I do not complain if the Government want to block a private Member's Bill and organise opposition to it--that is entirely up to the Government. My complaint is that, by the way in which they have tabled amendments--particularly new clause 1--the Government have set out to waste a Friday. It would have been perfectly easy for the Minister to table a new clause that allowed the House to explore the Government's alternative to the Bill.

The Government signed up to the Rio commitment and have said that they are in favour of energy conservation. But when a reasonable Bill such as this is brought before the House to raise the profile of energy conservation and show people that they can do a lot to conserve energy if they have the money, the Government set out to block it. Instead of coming to the House and stating their strategy, they try to keep us tied to a bureaucratic group of amendments. I can understand why the Government are in difficulties. The Government's strategy was based on the idea that the Energy Saving Trust would introduce schemes to encourage individuals to save energy. That was a perfectly reasonable strategy, but the Government's problem was that they could not find a way to finance the Energy Saving Trust. It was intended that there should be a levy on various industries, but it was extremely difficult to persuade the electricity industry to invest money. However, 12 months ago, the gas industry, through the gas regulator, put up some money for the Energy Saving Trust so that it could start to introduce individual schemes. As new clause 1 suggests, if a survey is done and it is possible to see what is needed, a grant could be given to help facilitate the necessary action. But the new gas regulator gave evidence to the Environment Select Committee only a fortnight ago and said that she believed that it was illegal for the gas industry to make grants to the Energy Saving Trust.

The Government intended the Energy Saving Trust to be the main vehicle to carry out their Rio commitments--but the body has no money. The Minister should have told the House today that the Government have got themselves in a terrible muddle and are unlikely to be able to achieve their Rio commitments. Unless they get themselves organised quickly, by means of new legislation or in some other way, they will not reach those targets. Instead, the Government tabled this miserable little new clause.

The Minister should have dealt with the fundamental problem, which is that the Government's energy conservation policy has collapsed as a result of the actions taken by the gas regulator. Until the Government find the money for the Energy Saving Trust, I see no way forward. The Minister has a duty to make a statement soon to the House of Commons on how the Government's policies are to be carried forward. It is deplorable that all we have this

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morning is new clause 1. Certainly, the Government's intention is to wreck the Bill, but if by some chance it got through, the effect of the new clause would be to make local authorities provide the community with information.

Such information would have been welcome, but until the Minister can find a major new strategy, this little new clause remains irrelevant. The Government must come up with alternatives. It would have been far better if the Government had supported the Bill and at least got the survey done, to raise people's consciousness of energy conservation.

It still amazes me that, when people buy houses, they spend a great deal of time on structural surveys, on deciding whether they can afford the mortgage--or more likely, the building society does--and on finding out what the council tax is likely to be, but they still do not bother to find out what the gas, electricity and oil bills will be. In the course of a year those may prove to be the highest bills that people face.

It would therefore have been far better if the Government had stressed the importance, when buying a house, of considering its energy costs. People should be urged when they become new owners to consider saving on their future bills by adopting what are often simple energy conservation measures.

Today the Government wasted an opportunity clearly to set out to the country how they intend to implement an energy strategy. Until they have one, they should seriously consider sensible measures such as this Bill and implement them quickly.

Mr. Stephen : I support amendment No. 50 and oppose new clauses 1, 4 and 5.

Of course energy conservation is important to all hon. Members and to all our constituents. Sources of energy are mostly scarce, and the wasteful burning of energy is a criminal waste of our nation's wealth. Thus, a sensible and effective policy of action to encourage all our citizens in their homes and places of work to conserve energy has my full support. However, I oppose the socialist and bureaucratic approach to this matter exemplified by clause 2, to which amendment No. 50 relates.

I could not believe my eyes when I first read the Bill, originating as it does from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), a leading member of one of the two socialist parties. The Bill is nothing more and nothing less than a frontal attack on the independence and integrity of local government--Opposition Members are always wrongly attacking the Government for doing that--wrongly because we all know that the powers, responsibilities and moneys accorded to local government have enormously increased since 1979.

Mr. Dafis : The hon. Gentleman speaks of an attack on the integrity and freedom of local authorities because of the imposition on them of a new statutory requirement. Perhaps he would like to reflect on the raft of such statutory requirements that central Government have placed on local authorities in recent years--including, under last year's Education Act, the requirement that local authorities be responsible for special educational needs. That statutory requirement imposes responsibilities and duties on local authorities. Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that there should be no such responsibilities ?

Mr. Stephen : I should like to engage the hon. Gentleman in a debate on that subject but I fear that

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Madam Deputy Speaker would not allow me to do so. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He is against central Government imposing duties on local government in relation to education and being too prescriptive, so he must agree that it would be wrong for central Government to do that on energy conservation.

1.15 pm

Mr. Battle : Was the hon. Gentleman in the House in 1985 ?

Mr. Stephen : No.

Mr. Battle : No doubt the hon. Gentleman would describe Mrs. Thatcher as a socialist because she passed the 1985 Act which imposed a duty on local authorities to check on the condition of the housing stock.

Mr. Stephen : I was not a Member at the time but if I had been I would have advised that it is quite wrong for central Government to be too prescriptive about such matters. The whole point of local government is that locally elected people are deemed to know what is going on in their areas and what is best for their electors, although the expenditure of vast sums of public money is legitimately a matter for the House and the Government.

The clause essentially says that we cannot trust local councillors to understand the energy needs of their areas or to use their existing powers to carry out an audit and assess what needs to be done. It says that we must order them to do that, and not only in general terms because the offending clause orders local government to take some specific actions. Councillors would be ordered to consult not just the people whom they think ought to be consulted but every parish and community council, irrespective of whether they think that it is relevant to do so. It would instruct them to consult their tenants, the Gas Consumers Council and the Office of Electricity Regulation, but, as was said earlier, they would not be instructed to consult the Gas Regulator or the Electricity Consumers Council. The more that I read the prescriptive bureaucratic interventionist nonsense in the clause, the more I realise that my initial reaction to the Bill was right--that it is a frontal attack on the independence of local government.

Mr. Wells : What does my hon. Friend think that those plans which are to be drawn up for energy conservation will entail ? Will they involve the removal of windows and their replacement with double glazing ? Will they require roof insulation, which could call for much work on the existing fabric ? Will they require the replacement of all external if not internal doors ? The cost for the tenant or house owner could be enormous. In addition, the walls of many houses are only one brick thick and a second wall might be needed to keep in heat.

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. We are not strictly discussing energy conservation measures in this group of amendments.

Mr. Stephen : I listened a moment ago to the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) discoursing far and wide over the subject. He told us about the Energy Efficiency Office and the gas regulator.

The point of the clause to which amendment No. 50 applies was exemplified by my hon. Friend the Member for

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Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells). It points up the fact that the promoters of the Bill have not the vaguest idea how much the measures that they are proposing would cost. Frankly, they do not care, because they are much more interested in increasing governmental power and influence over our citizens and poking their noses into every nook and cranny of our constituents' affairs than in carefully assessing how much their socialist measures would cost.

If amendment No. 50 is not accepted, we will end up with plans, schemes, reams of paper, hundreds of committee meetings and hundreds more bureaucrats employed. It is a nightmare. There is, however, a way to achieve the objectives that I, the promoters of the Bill and those of my hon. Friends who have supported it want--by recognising that if one makes it in the financial interests of a householder, or of a business, to save energy, he is more than likely to do so. I have the privilege of representing a constituency in which a company called Ricardo Consulting Engineers is based. It is at the forefront in the world development of internal combustion engines. The company is an expert in the field and advises motor manufacturers throughout the world on how to make their engines more efficient. Its services would not be so much in demand, however, if fuel costs had not increased and if the western world did not tax fuel or make car owners and fleet operators of vehicles in industry realise that it was in their economic interests to run fuel-efficient engines. It is precisely the same with our homes and the buildings in which we work, including, I hope, the Palace of Westminster. One of the most important ways to make it in someone's economic interests to run his establishment in an energy-efficient way is to increase the penalties for not doing so.

When the Liberal Democrat party floated the idea of a tax on energy some years ago, I and many of my hon. Friends thought that it was one of the few good ideas that it had come up with. We were therefore delighted when the Government had the courage to introduce such a tax

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Member is going way outside the scope of the amendments. The grouping is fairly wide and I exercise judgment as to when someone has gone too far. The hon. Member has done so and must return more closely to the group.

Mr. Stephen : Rather than require local authorities to draw up plans and to poke their noses into our constituents' houses I would prefer it if the Government made more money available--they already make £68.9 million available--in the budget for the Energy Efficiency Office, which is 10 times the amount that was spent under Labour. The Government passed the Electricity Act 1989, which provides that electricity suppliers must have regard to energy conservation and the 1991 building regulations are also relevant. Those were common-sense actions, and they put our constituents' money where it will do some good and not simply where it will create more paper, bureaucracy and committee meetings. "This Common Inheritance" sets out the Government's firm commitment to energy conservation.

Hon. Members will be aware of the best practice programme in industry and commerce, for which £15.2 million of Government money has been provided, which includes support for combined heat and power schemes.

The most sinister part of this nasty little Bill

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Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman again that the House is debating not the whole Bill but only one group of new clauses and amendments. The hon. Gentleman must relate his remarks more closely to those, or I shall require him to discontinue his speech.

Mr. Stephen : I was speaking to amendment No. 50, which is included in the group, and relates to the duty of the energy conservation authority, in clause 2(5)(a) to prepare plans and to consult "every parish or community council"

and so on. I am speaking also to new clauses 1, 4 and 5, which relate to the plans that would be the unfortunate result of that bureaucratic process.

There is no point to having those plans unless something is done about them, which is why I referred to the most sinister part of this nasty little Bill--a clause that we shall debate later, which seeks to give powers to require, compel and oblige local authorities. Those words are popular with socialists, but are anathema to myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends.

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Mr. Ian Taylor : The Bill makes an important effort to drawing attention to energy conservation. If it had been permissive, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) would have my support. He might even have found my name among his

supporters--although whether he would have welcomed that is a different matter.

In reality, the Bill is not permissive. I do not mean to be patronising, but although the Bill's instincts are right, its intention is wrong. There is a danger that we would establish a statutory framework requiring a bureaucracy that could ultimately detract from efforts, and certainly from financial resources. Part of that framework, which causes me considerable concern, is seen in new clauses 1 and 4.

Local authorities make significant, albeit it still insufficient, efforts to bring their housing stock up to standards of energy efficiency that we all hope to be achieved. As I said in an intervention earlier, £350 million is already spent by local authorities on home improvements--much of it on energy efficiency. There is no question of its importance, in terms of its effect on heat, fuel and power resources, and in terms of damage to the environment. There is no difference between us, in our ambition to see improvements. The question is whether the Bill would achieve that or whether, behind the cloak of respectability--a Bill named the Energy Conservation Bill--it would create costs that would take away from resources now allocated for that purpose. In other words, we would have a wonderful and costly framework but not much extra activity.

I have already drawn attention to the Bill's intrusiveness, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) referred. The audit would target private and public sector housing alike. I would have thought that degree of intrusiveness would concern Liberal Democrats. Although we may not always agree, their desire to guard against too much intrusion was a proud tenet of the traditional Liberal party.

There is also an element of jobs for the boys in the framework provided by new clauses 1 and 4, in that housing and environmental health departments would be closely involved in undertaking surveys. That is contrary to the thrust of this Government, which is to contract out and

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to make sure that services performed in connection with housing stock are not necessarily provided by council employees, making the council an enabling authority.

Mr. Battle : How does the hon. Gentleman reconcile his remarks with those of his hon. Friend the Minister and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who regularly state that the key role of a local authority as a housing authority is to be an enabling and strategic authority doing precisely the kind of inquiry that the Bill suggests ?

Mr. Taylor : There is a difference of emphasis here. I was saying that implicit in the Bill is that local authorities should be carrying out that work, whereas I am saying that it should be part of the contracted-out area. One of the great successes of housing management, as a result of Conservative initiatives, has been that much of the social housing stock, for which I have a profound respect because it is vital as part of the fabric of the community, is nevertheless now largely being made through housing associations and housing corporations. That movement has improved the benefits to the tenants.

I am concerned about where the costs of the measures would impinge, because it is also implicit in the Bill that there will be associated costs. Are they to be taken out of the housing revenue account, out of the general resources of the council, or will the councils turn to the Government and ask for further assistance ? Those matters have not yet been properly addressed. Perhaps they were exhaustively addressed during the two hours in Committee.

I apologise to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. Perhaps I missed a trick. I was so concentrating on the Finance Bill that I forgot to volunteer for his Committee. But he and I spent many interesting hours together on the Finance Bill. I think that exposure of taxation plans is very important. The Government should be explicit rather than implicit. Many of my interventions this morning were within that framework.

It is, perhaps, from the point of view of the public, undesirable to have VAT on fuel. I happen to have supported it and, indeed, advocated it before it was introduced in the March 1992 Budget. I have a good record on that. Indeed, I made it clear to my constituents before the March Budget that I was advocating it.

Mr. Beith : At the general election ?

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