Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will recall that during the debate yesterday the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) made it clear that, no matter what decisions were taken, either in the House or in the Privileges Committee, he would follow his own course of action. He said that he intended, as he inevitably will, to take a tape recorder into the meeting, to take notes of that meeting and to issue a press release, whether or not that was authorised by the Committee or by the House. In those circumstances, may we look for some advice from you, Madam Speaker, on what action should be taken by the Chairman of that Committee, its members and, indeed, by the House? The very least that should happen is that the Serjeant at Arms should be warned to be outside the door of that meeting room possibly in order to remove the right hon. Gentleman if he persists in that act.
Madam Speaker: The hon. Member appears to be answering his own point of order. I do not rule on hypothetical matters. We must wait and see the action taken by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn).
Sir Peter Emery: It is a separate point of order. Is it not the case that it is clear from Standing Order No. 118 that the only time that the publication of Committee proceedings is not a breach of privilege is when the Committee has decided to take evidence in public?
Madam Speaker: I do not give advice on such matters. With respect to the right hon. Member, I have already answered the point of order that has been raised on this matter. Much is hypothetical at the moment. I shall rule when it may be necessary to do so.
Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your advice on the statement that you have just made. Would it be in order for the House to decide tomorrow to sit in private to discuss The Guardian ?
Column 1352our discussions tomorrow will not in any way be inhibited by sub judice rules should the editor of The Guardian face criminal charges, as he ought to?
Madam Speaker: Again, I am faced with hypothetical questions. This is a very practical House and I hope that I am a very practical Speaker. I deal with matters as they arise--I do not bring out my crystal ball in advance.
Sir Peter Emery: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I was not asking a hypothetical question. I was asking you to rule on whether Standing Order No. 118 makes it absolutely clear that the only time publication of matters being dealt with by a Committee is not a breach of privilege is if the evidence is taken in public. Is that not what Standing Order No. 118 states?
Madam Speaker: Standing Order No. 118 is there for every hon. Member to see. I should have thought that the right hon. Member, as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, would know the answer to that one.
Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Might not a threat of a breach of privilege affect other hon. Members in that they might believe that what they say may be taken down and used outside the Committee?
Mr. Hall: You will recall, Madam Speaker, that I secured Question 2 during Prime Minister's Question Time. I asked about VAT on fuel, but the Prime Minister's response was to ask me a question. What redress do I have to enable me to respond to the Prime Minister? Is it Prime Minister's Question Time or is it not?
Mr. Nigel Griffiths, supported by Mrs. Irene Adams, Mr. David Jamieson, Mr. Gordon McMaster, Mr. Dennis Turner and Mr. Jon Owen Jones, presented a Bill to restrict the sale to the general public of those fireworks which do not comply with Categories 1-3 of BS1174; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Thursday 3 November, and to be printed. [Bill 171.]
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law so as to provide for the equitable division of pensions in the event of divorce.
I do not expect this to be a popular Bill here, as the House is full of powerful, rich men, and a few women, who have benefited enormously from their long-term relationships with their spouses but, if anything goes wrong, they might want the matrimonial assets, such as pension rights, to be theirs alone rather than being divided equally. In place of that selfish and potentially nasty attitude, my Bill would insert fairness, justice and common sense into the distribution of assets--especially pension assets--in the event of divorce.
At the moment, the system is unfair. After the matrimonial home, pension rights are the single most valuable asset in a marriage. Indeed, the pension rights are often more valuable than the matrimonial home. On divorce, it is usually the wife who loses all right to a claim on those assets. That is manifestly unfair. There is equal input in a marriage but, after divorce, there is inequality. One party goes on to a prosperous future, with the help of the pension assets, while the other--usually the wife--lives in hardship. There is a rising divorce rate--171,000 divorces in 1991--so a growing number of women find themselves in that position. They become reliant on the state for financial support. That is wholly unnecessary and could be avoided by a fairer division of assets, including pension rights. It is a waste of public money to have to support the woman while the man walks away with all the assets.
In Scotland, under the Family Law (Scotland) Act 1985, pension assets are considered part of the matrimonial property. Their value is determined and they can be divided, but in England and Wales it is left to the discretion of the courts, which usually ignore pension rights because they say that they cannot overrule the pension fund trustees or the trust fund rules. That is not right, and the law should be changed in England and Wales.
In Germany and other countries, there are different laws. German law explicitly incorporates the idea of community of property within marriage. Assets acquired by either partner during a marriage are regarded as assets of the partnership, and are split down the middle on divorce, when the pension rights accumulated during the marriage by both partners are summed and compared. Half the difference is transferred from the account of the spouse with the greater record to the account of the other spouse. Apportionment of pensions, as that splitting is sometimes called, is also in operation in the state of California, in Canada and some other places. We should introduce it in this country.
Certain court cases, such as Brooks v . Brooks, offered hope that the situation would be changed, but that was a false hope, because they were specific cases with highly specific circumstances, and the principles could not be applied across the board. The law needs to be changed, and that must be done by Parliament.
The Government's initial attitude was to await the important reports being produced on pensions, such as that of the Pensions Management Institute, and the Goode report. But those reports have now appeared. The PMI
Column 1354reported in May 1993 and the Goode committee in September the same year. Now the Government's attitude has changed. They now seem to regard the matter as too difficult to legislate on, and are quietly dropping any prospect of legislative change.
The White Paper published in June said:
"There is at present no clear evidence of the extent of the problem. A detailed research programme will be undertaken to ascertain the extent of the problem before the issue is considered further".
But there have already been two major reports on the problem, and they have made it absolutely clear that the law must be changed. The inequality is manifest. Indeed, I have been told of surveys revealing that nine out of 10 women in this country die in poverty. Pension inequality must be at least a small factor behind that, and it should be altered.
My Bill would include a number of measures, and would allow all pensions to be regarded as the assets of a marriage, which should be divided equitably in the event of divorce. It works on the principle that a settlement between the two parties should take place in the first instance, but that, if that cannot be agreed, the court should have the flexibility to settle the distribution of the matrimonial assets on a equitable basis. That could still provide for a trade-off of such assets. For example, the pension rights could go to one party and the other could have the matrimonial home in exchange. My Bill also provides for the pension assets and rights to be divided, if the court deems it appropriate. After a long period of marriage, each partner would have an automatic claim to the equivalent of half of all the pension assets and rights built up over the period of their relationship. The court would have the power to reallocate occupational and personal pension rights between divorcing parties, and it could decide to take into account all matrimonial assets, including pension fund assets and rights, and apportion them on the basis of a clean-break, once-and-for-all settlement. The court would also have the power to require the trustees of pension schemes to reduce the value of a member's pension rights by a specified amount, and to provide the same amount as a transfer payment for the benefit of the divorced spouse. Any reasonable expenses incurred in doing so would be recoverable, and that is also provided for in the Bill.
If a pension were already in payment, the court would have the power to balance non-pension assets against pension rights, or to earmark a stated part of a member's pension for the benefit of a divorced spouse. The court could also order the pension scheme authorities to give full consideration to a divorced spouse as the possible recipient of a dependant's pension, if that would lie within their discretion.
The court could also order a scheme member to take out appropriate term or whole-life insurance in favour of a divorced spouse. If that individual did not keep up the payments, the spouse would have the right to be notified, and to bring the case back to the court. If the court decides to divide pension rights, it should be calculated on a cash-equivalent basis unless otherwise agreed by the parties or ordered by the court. The court, under my provision, can direct the transfer of payments to another pension arrangement entered into by the spouse. In respect of a deferred lump sum due to be received in the future, the allocation of the proportion to
Column 1355the ex-spouse can also be ordered by the court to be paid at that future date. Under my proposals, a minimum of 20 years' marriage would have to be guaranteed before the rights were automatic. By doing that, I was looking to protect older women who find themselves divorced and in unfair hardship.
Those are the main provisions of my Bill. I do not say that it is perfect, because it is a complex subject. But I think that a lot of the imperfections in it could be ironed out by the Government if they brought forward their own legislation, or in Committee if the Bill got there.
I have received representations that 20 years is too long. Ian Aitken, the Pensions Management Institute president, said that 20 years
"is a very long time in the current climate. Under UK pension legislation, pension rights must be preserved if a member remains in a pension scheme for 2 or more years. In the circumstances, there is much to commend pension splitting after 2 years of marriage . . . this would be in line with the current divorce legislation that says a divorce can take place after 2 years if both parties consent. If you feel that 2 years is too short a period, then may I suggest that you insert a period of 5 years for pension splitting--this would be in line with the period of separation if the parties do not consent to the divorce."
The case for a shorter period could also be put.
The Bill is not a panacea, and neither is it an excuse for not substantially increasing the basic state pension. That needs to be done, but the Bill is a small righting of a current injustice. It is supported in principle by the organisation Fairshares, and its name is what the Bill is all about--fair shares.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Malcolm Chisholm, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Ms Jean Corston, Mr. Neil Gerrard, Ms Mildred Gordon, Mrs. Helen Jackson, Ms Joyce Quin and Mrs. Audrey Wise.
Mr. Harry Cohen accordingly presented a Bill to amend the law so as to provide for the equitable division of pensions in the event of divorce: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 3 November, and to be printed. [Bill 172.]
That this House deplores the Government's action in blocking the Energy Conservation Bill which was introduced by the Right honourable Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed with support from all parties; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to introduce the Bill itself in the coming session.
After the large number of debates on the private Member's Bill, some hon. Members may wonder why the Liberal Democrats feel that the Energy Conservation Bill, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), is important enough to warrant a further debate today.
I shall start by addressing what the Bill calls for. It places a duty on local authorities to promote energy conservation and a requirement on them to carry out energy audits. That collection of information would show how resources could best be used to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions.
The Bill is simple, practical and effective, yet the Government amendment today argues--if argues is a suitable word--that the proposals are deplorable, unnecessary and an example of what is apparently
"the muddled thinking of the Liberal Democrats".
That is an extraordinary accusation from a Government who have certainly used deplorable tactics to block a Bill that has such widespread support across the parties--including Conservative Members.
For example, the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) said in a letter to the director of the Association of Conservation of Energy:
"I most certainly endorse the Bill . . . I will certainly encourage my colleagues to put their names to the EDM."
That comes from the deputy chairman of the Conservative party. The Government amendment is all the more extraordinary, given their own muddled approach to the Bill. A majority of the House--almost 400 Members--have declared their support for it, including the Minister with responsibility for energy efficiency, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones). He chaired the Environment Select Committee when, in its fourth report, it concluded from its investigation into energy efficiency in buildings that
"present Government assistance--on energy conservation--through the home energy efficiency scheme, the green house programme, the housing investment programme and the establishment of the energy saving trust--welcome and worth while initiatives although they are--does not constitute a sufficiently comprehensive nor an adequately funded programme of action."
Yet apparently the Minister will speak later tonight in support of his Government's amendment.
Column 1357Nor is support for the Bill apparent only in the House. It is backed at every level by every major environmental organisation, every major society that represents the elderly, people with disabilities and those on low incomes, and many others. More than 500 parish, town and community councils have declared support for the Bill. More than 160 local authorities have called for it. As they will be directed to act under the Bill, their support is both particularly welcome and particularly instructive. That support proves how important they feel the issue is. I might add that it would be interesting to hear from the Minister how many hundreds of letters the Department has received from parish, community and town councils across the country supporting the Bill.
In response to the Bill, the Government have argued that it is not necessary to place a statutory requirement on local authorities regarding energy conservation. Yet without that, the Bill would not ensure that local authorities acted. If we took out the statutory requirements, the Bill would simply give councils the power to do that which they already have the power to do. That would certainly be an example of ministerial muddled thinking.
The best local authorities may act anyway already, but action from only the best will not provide the national impact that the Bill is designed to achieve. In that context, it is certainly deplorable that, despite the huge support that the proposals for energy conservation received--almost 400 Members of Parliament supported it--the Government blocked it on Report and Third Reading. The introduction of 216 amendments and seven new clauses at that late stage meant that the time allocated to the Bill inevitably expired, and it was successfully talked out.
The Government's amendment today says that the Bill is unaffordable and that it
"would impose unnecessary burdens on public expenditure as well as on central and local government".
That is ludicrous, as the Minister responsible for energy efficiency, who will sum up tonight for the Government, should know full well, given his previous unconditional support for the Bill. Ministers have said that to draw up energy conservation plans will be a costly process; that it will be money wasted on bureaucracy, not energy efficiency. That was the reason given by Ministers in the debate on Report when it was apparent that they had blocked the Bill. Yet that argument assumes that local authorities would be required to carry out a full energy audit for all dwellings. The Bill does not require that. It simply demands an audit of the best method of achieving energy savings.
The Government's accusation that the Bill would cost too much, and that between £11 million and £23 million would be required before energy savings were made is simply incorrect. That calculation is based on a costing carried out by two local authorities of the task of a full energy audit of every property. The Bill does not require that. It requires every local authority to identify the best and most cost-effective way of saving energy.
The Association for the Conservation of Energy asked the two local authorities to cost the full audit to show what the cost would be if that was the way in which a local authority chose to proceed. But the Bill does not say that an audit is the best way. Each local authority will
Column 1358decide the best methods to use in its area. That may differ between local authorities from Cornwall to Durham to Thanet.
Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove): Can the hon. Gentleman explain how a local authority could introduce energy-saving measures for individual properties that have particular problems and require attention without investigating those properties?
Mr. Taylor: Many local authorities will know of building structures, such as blocks of flats erected during the 1960s, which are particularly energy-inefficient, and they may want to identify the level of that inefficiency and programmes to deal with it. The Bill asks them to look at the most cost-effective way to cut the energy bill. It does not require them to identify every property in one year, as that may not be an efficient way to go about this business. The aim of the Bill is that the best, most cost-effective and energy-efficient method is found and acted on to deliver energy savings of up to 30 per cent. I simply do not believe that every authority would engage in the process of looking at every individual dwelling.
Many of us read "Costing the Earth", the Liberal Democrats' 1991 policy document, which they now disown and say was not their policy. Some of us believed that there was a consensus in the House to introduce VAT on fuel-- it was Liberal Democrat policy and the candidate who opposed me in the general election campaigned for it--so we were somewhat surprised at the Liberal Democrats' reversal in policy. Will the hon. Gentleman now give a commitment on behalf of his party that, if councils go ahead with that energy audit, even though they may not be obliged to do so under a Bill, the Liberal Democrats will then support councillors who decide to put up council house rents to pay for the energy-efficient measures being put into council houses?
Mr. Taylor: Under the Government's current rules on the ring fencing of councils' housing budgets, that investment would probably be required to be recouped from rents. However we expect people to benefit from energy- saving measures because they would cut their bills, including those increased by VAT on fuel. At this stage, I do not want to go too far into the Liberal Democrats' previous policy. Suffice it to say that we looked at the possibility of VAT on fuel, and the manifesto on which we fought the previous general election specifically ruled it out. To have looked at something and then decide that it was not a good idea strikes me as more honourable than to fight an election saying that one would not do something and then do it afterwards.
Ministers have defended their destruction of the Bill also on the ground that the proposals would force people to have energy conservation measures in their homes. They have obviously not read the Bill because not a word of it requires that. The Government seem intent on destroying the Bill for reasons of their own, not for the given reasons. At least their amendment today is unambiguous on the subject, in contrast to their previously stated partial support and practical opposition.
Column 1359Ministers' action in blocking the Bill on Report goes to the heart of our process of government. We have heard much recently of the sleaze that seems to have become commonplace within the Conservative party. The Government constantly tell us that the scandals within their ranks are being exaggerated by the media and Opposition and that our system of government is in safe hands. In my view, the sleaziest actions of the Government can be found not in the occasional financial scandal but in the systematic abuse of the House's procedures. Nothing is as sleazy as the Government's technique for blocking private Members' Bills. This parliamentary year, Ministers managed to block not only the Energy Conservation Bill but the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which both had majority support on both sides of the House and throughout the country.
So whom do the Government represent? Is it the people or the Treasury and self-interest? It left a sour taste to see the Government table more than 200 amendments after the Bill had passed through its Committee stage, in the sure knowledge that that would mean that the Bill could not proceed, despite the fact that it had the support of more than half the Members of the House. It leaves an even more sour taste to see former supporters of the Bill become loyal Government opponents of it as soon as they gain ministerial office.
Mr. Peter Butler (Milton Keynes, North-East): As someone who has not gained ministerial office, I ask the hon. Gentleman to allow me to reply to one point. He makes a good point when he says that the Government were wrong to block the Bill on the ground that it would cost too much to insulate a lot of houses. I do not recall that from the debate at which I was present on 22 April. The hon. Gentleman was not present at that debate, but may have read the proceedings in Hansard . If that was why they blocked it, it would be a ridiculous basis on which to do so. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, despite its enormous cost, the Bill's passage would not result in a single dwelling being insulated?
Mr. Taylor: I believe that it would result in that, but the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that the Bill is about considering the problem and identifying ways to overcome it, not requiring people to insulate their houses directly. It is a process of setting out the identification of the problem and the ways to tackle it. It would be more appropriate if the hon. Gentleman asked the Ministers that question; they have repeatedly referred to the cost of the Bill as a reason for opposing it.
The Government believe that the tactics used to defeat the Energy Conservation Bill were acceptable--but they believe that they have taken adequate action to encourage energy efficiency. In fact, in spite of the Government's Helping The Earth Begins At Home campaign, energy use by the domestic sector is increasing. In 1993, total domestic energy use increased by 3 per cent. That trend continued in the first half of 1994, when domestic energy use increased by a further 6.2 per cent. on the first half of last year.
Furthermore, it is significant that, after several years of decline in the UK's energy ratio--the amount of primary energy needed to produce a unit of gross domestic product--it has begun to increase again. Since 1990, the actual energy intensity of the UK economy has steadily increased. Therefore, the increase in energy use cannot simply be attributed to economic growth. It is obvious
Column 1360from that that the Government's measures to improve energy efficiency are simply not delivering the goods. Not only has the energy ratio increased, but sales of energy-efficient goods continue to be below the 1989 figures.
The Energy Conservation Bill is simple, and will place a duty on local authorities to improve energy conservation. The Environment Select Committee emphasised the importance of real action to improve energy efficiency when it said:
"The UK is bound by international obligations concerning the global environment. It also has domestic responsibilities which require it to address both fuel poverty and ill health. We believe an integrated package of measures therefore needs to be co-ordinated between several Government Departments in order to turn convictions and commitments into action."
Let me sum up why Liberal Democrats believe that the Bill is so important-- socially, environmentally and economically. First, the social benefits of the Bill are obvious. Throughout the country, many homes are cold, damp and costly to heat. More than 7 million households cannot afford to heat their homes--homes occupied by elderly people, people with disabilities and people with low incomes. It is estimated that there are more than 40,000 deaths each winter as a result of inadequate heating. With the second-stage increase in VAT on fuel still to be introduced, action to tackle that could not be more immediately necessary.
The Energy Conservation Bill would help alleviate that misery among low- income groups. By insulating houses and improving heating systems, energy savings of as much as 30 per cent. can be made, and the Bill would help to identify the ways of doing so. However, the Minister responsible for energy efficiency, who will reply for the Government, knows that--he backed the Bill.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): I am simply trying to understand what the Liberal party policy is on energy efficiency. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House unequivocally: does it or does it not support VAT on fuel? Also, as the hon. Gentleman is going into the Bill in such detail, will he tell us whether he has done any detailed costing as to what it would cost the country to implement?
Mr. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman is probably aware by now that we have opposed VAT on fuel, and continue to do so. I hope that he will join us in opposing the second-stage increase in VAT that will come through--contrary to the platform on which he fought the previous general election.
I have already discussed costings. The Government have put forward figures at the highest possible end of the scale, in which every single property is identified. On the Government's figures, that would cost between £11 million and £23 million, on the basis of surveys. We have argued that that is not what the Bill requires. It will cost very little to implement the Bill. Some local authorities will be able to do it at almost no cost, using their existing personnel.
However, the key point is that, without the Bill, we cannot be serious about the concerted action that is needed, and we agree with the Under- Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West in his previous incarnation off the Government Benches, and with the Select Committee, that it is the most sensible use of
Column 1361resources if we are to reach the Government's own targets, which patently, on the figures that I have given, we are failing to reach. Secondly, the environmental benefits of the Bill should be obvious. The Bill is designed to help people conserve natural resources and reduce emissions of greenhouse and other gases. The domestic sector in the UK is responsible for nearly a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions. At a time when air pollution and its adverse effects on health are causing increasing concern, the Government should support a measure that will cut emissions.
Recent evidence suggests that the generation of electricity and the resulting emissions have contributed to the rise in asthma attacks in recent years. The number of people suffering from asthma has doubled--it now affects one child in seven, and 2,000 people die from it each year. The Bill would help to cut the emissions that are exacerbating such illnesses.
The Government have recognised those arguments and have pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the air to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The Bill would reduce the amount of energy that people need to heat their homes and would help achieve the important goal that the Government are signally failing to achieve. The Government have identified improving energy efficiency as
"likely to be the most cost-effective means of limiting the environmental impact of UK energy consumption".
That quotation is from the consultation paper "UK Strategy for Sustainable Development".
On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed summed up the Bill's social and environmental benefits when he said:
"Energy conservation makes sense, whether one views it from the perspective of global warming or from that of pensioners struggling to keep warm."-- [ Official Report , 4 February 1994; Vol. 236, c. 1142.]
The Minister with responsibility for energy efficiency who will be summing up for the Government knows that: he lobbied for the Bill. In the economic context, at a time when so many people are unemployed, the Bill would help to promote economic regeneration by providing jobs and work for local businesses. The technology, equipment and materials already exist to make homes easier to heat at less cost. The companies exist to carry out the work and the unemployed are waiting for that work. The Minister knows that, too, and should not need telling. He was one of the original supporters of the Bill.
On 2 December last year, he said at the formal promotional launch of the Bill:
"I am very glad to support the Energy Conservation Bill. It is a measure that is long overdue. I shall urge my colleagues who have been successful in the ballot to adopt it and I shall urge the Government to support it."
However, he need not feel too embarrassed, because the Government amendment does not reflect the recent position of some Ministers. As recently as Second