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Column 961We must certainly withstand the facile suggestion that nuclear energy is the answer because it does not produce pollution of the type that we have been discussing--sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and, in particular, CO . That suggestion is foolish.
We must recognise that, if we move properly towards sustainable consumption, and really understand and develop that idea, it will have far- reaching implications. We are really just at the beginning of the process. We also need to move towards sustainable consumption in a socially equitable way and one that will link environmental improvement with job creation, which is the next phase in the development of environmental policy.
I recommend the work of Friends of the Earth in its recent publication, "Working Future", which explores the idea that there is no contradiction or serious conflict between environmental protection and employment. On the contrary, there is an inter-relationship and interdependence which we need to recognise and on which we must base our economic policies. The recent launch of that volume was supported by the chairman of Cambridge Econometrics, Terry Barker. That new understanding comes from well-informed and sophisticated directions. We must do all that while emphasising the need to improve the quality of people's lives--their health, comfort and fuel costs. That is an extraordinarily attractive combination.
A great deal has been achieved. The Government have reached a state of acceptance but much has been achieved through the process of discussing the Bill and its predecessors since I introduced the first Energy Conservation Bill in 1993, simply because they have encouraged debate in this place. It has been good to see hon. Members who at first were not particularly engaged in the matter speak intelligently and in a well-informed way about this extremely important issue. We have clearly achieved a heightened awareness. It was good to have the Chancellor himself speak about the home energy efficiency scheme at a time of high drama not so long ago.
The argument has been won, so I do not need to go through the arguments that were expressed in opposition to previous Bills. Those, too, have been dealt with successfully, and modifications to the Bill have tried to cope with the fanciful objections raised by the Government.
The Bill is on exactly the right lines. Clearly, the process must be mandatory. It must be comprehensive and UK-wide, so that it benefits people everywhere, not just those who live in the territories of enlightened local authorities. Plans must be laid out, because we need cost-efficient, properly prioritised processes. The measures must apply to private housing, because, first, private landlords are among the worst culprits in terms of investing in energy efficiency; and, secondly, the majority of houses are owner-occupied, and many are energy-inefficient. The Bill has been modified to meet all those requirements.
Yesterday, the Department of the Environment published a document called "Air Quality: Meeting the Challenge". After a brief glance at it, it seems reasonable to congratulate the Department on its approach. It shows how much the Bill is in keeping with the Government's approach. The document speaks about the need for a
Column 962UK-wide action plan; a crucial role for local authorities; the need to give powers and place obligations on local authorities in devising those plans; the need to prepare plans for remedying air quality problems; and target setting. It also recognises the resource implications and the fact that they need to be carefully costed, and says that that will be the subject of further consultation with local authority associations.
Thus, the Bill may have done more than raise the matter of energy conservation and efficiency. It may be a model for co-operation between central Government and local authorities in a process of local involvement that can apply in future to other action programmes that form part of an environmental, social and economic policy. 1.8 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North): In following the hon. Member who has just spoken, I shall call his constituency simply Pembroke, North for fear of offending him and his constituents by mispronouncing his constituency's full name.
Mr. Jenkin: I am extremely grateful that the hon. Gentleman has relieved me of that onerous task. Although I am proud to have a Welsh name and Welsh forebears, the Welsh tongue must have left my ancestors many years ago, as my family emigrated to York in the 14th century before settling in Kent in the 16th. I have therefore lost my Welsh roots.
I understand that the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) speaks for the Green party. I was therefore most interested in his comments about low energy usage and the strategy to achieve that in the United Kingdom. It is encouraging that the Bill has such wide support, from the most capitalist organisations to some of the most socialist ones, including Friends of the Earth. It is cause for concern, however, that not all those organisations share the same practical enthusiasm for nuclear power. Following my intervention on the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North, it appears that he seems not to support it either.
It is difficult to imagine how any substantial savings to the atmosphere can be achieved unless it is through a process of substituting for environmentally damaging power generation that which causes less environmental damage. Nuclear power produces low levels of pollution, and what material is produced is in such small quantities that it can be safely and easily dealt with. It is a sad commentary on the impracticality of the hard core environmental lobby in the country that it does not yet support nuclear power.
Mr. Beith: The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that there is no other way of reducing environmental pollution, because one of the most important ways of doing so is by reducing demand for energy. That part of the process can be carried out by the Bill, just as other Government policies are intended to carry it out. The hon. Gentleman must also recognise that the principal source of anxiety about the nuclear power industry, apart from
Column 963its past tendency to expect huge increases in demand, stems not from its production of electricity, but from the unresolved problem of decommissioning.
Mr. Jenkin: I am not sure that the problem of decommissioning is unresolved. There are plenty of unresolved problems with every form of electricity generation, including the use of so-called "renewables", because the scale of activity required to take advantage of the wind, tides or waves damages the environment in different ways. I am opposed to a Severn barrage because of its effect on the area's ecosystem. I am also greatly concerned about the despoliation of the landscape and the disruption caused to migrating birds by huge wind farms in rural areas. We should remember that noise is another form of pollution, about which we should be equally concerned.
Nuclear power stations produce huge quantities of energy, occupy relatively small sites and produce virtually no pollution. What is even more encouraging is that it has now been proved that the life expectancy of nuclear power stations can be extended safely and effectively to produce cheap power.
Next door to my constituency is one of the old Magnox power stations, which is still functioning safely and producing nuclear energy at extremely low cost without any environmental impact that can be measured.
Mr. Nigel Evans: I invite my hon. Friend to visit my constituency to see the wind farm in the neighbouring constituency. It is not just the noise pollution from such farms which makes people rather reluctant to support that form of energy generation, but the fact that they are a blot on the landscape. I represent a beautiful constituency, and I assure my hon. Friend that I would strenuously fight any attempt to erect a farm of windmills in it.
Mr. Jenkin: There is, luckily, not a lot of wind in my constituency, except that from the Liberal Democrat-controlled town hall, which generates so much wind that I do not think any device could safely capture it without damaging the environment.
There is actually no proposal for such a nuclear power station in my constituency, but in answer to the hon. Gentleman, the same sort of objections apply to new factories, to new roads and to new shopping centres, but it has nothing especially to do with nuclear power. However, I wish to move on to the--
Mr. Smith rose --
Mr. Smith: I do insist, and the question is a simple one, which I pose to the hon. Gentleman: will he make a public statement today, welcoming a nuclear power plant in his constituency? Will he please answer a simple question with a straightforward answer?
Column 964for a gas-fired power station in my constituency, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I opposed that, because it was an inappropriate place, in my opinion and that of my constituents, in which to have it. In that respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman would be pushed to find anywhere in the country for a large industrial installation, whether it was nuclear or not, where it would be popular with the local people concerned. We all share that problem, because we all live in an industrial society. Whether the installation was nuclear has no relevance to the comments that he made.
I shall move on briefly to the other comments made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon- Tweed (Mr. Beith) about achieving low energy consumption. The one thing that we have established in the past 20 years is that one can sustain economic growth without increasing energy consumption. That overturned an expectation in economics that had become almost a written fact.
The seminal document on that matter was written in the 1970s, by Professor Leach. It was called, "A Low-Energy Strategy for the UK". I think that there were two authors. If I recall correctly, they were supporters of the use of non-polluting and non-renewable energy generation in substitution for the use of renewable resources. I join everyone in the House who has congratulated the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) on coming top of the ballot and introducing the Bill. I must also apologise to her, and to the House, for being unable to be present for the first part of the debate, because there are great events afoot in my constituency, in the town of Brightlingsea, where there is huge public feeling against the transport of live animals.
Perhaps that has some relevance to today's debate about energy conservation, because it is extraordinary the way in which European Community law can influence people's behaviour, so that, instead of efficiently slaughtering animals in this country and shipping the carcases, which would surely be more energy efficient, we find ourselves, rather inefficiently, shipping live animals across the water to other parts of the European Community.
Mr. Jenkin: I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was simply explaining why I have not been able to be present for the debate. There is huge public feeling on that matter in my constituency, and my constituents would wish to know that I had been giving my attention to that matter.
Mr. Peter Bottomley: I think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that my hon. Friend might have been about to say that people who leave their homes to join demonstrations should ensure that they turn the heating down while they go to the protest.
The Bill and the Government's support for it reflect the support that the Government have given to the principle of energy conservation ever since being elected. That has been true more than ever since the Rio summit, when we set ourselves targets to reduce energy consumption and the generation of atmospherically damaging gases.
Column 965My hon. Friend the Minister said that the home produces 25 per cent. of the carbon dioxide produced in the United Kingdom. It is worth emphasising--perhaps it should be advertised more
frequently--that energy conservation in the home is not just about saving money, but about improving comfort. If people realised that they would not only save money, but would be able to walk down to the kitchen in the morning to make an early morning cup of tea without piling on so many dressing gowns, they would be more inclined to conserve energy in the home. Ordinary people can obtain genuine benefits by pursuing energy conservation measures in the home. I mentioned that the Palace of Westminster is a home. I often walk around it and wonder whether there is a low-energy strategy for the whole of the Palace. The hon. Member for Christchurch mentioned the new lighting system in the Clock Tower, which will be beneficial--I gather that it will save about £1,000 per year in energy consumption. But there are many areas of the Palace, which is our home, where further savings could be made.
How often have we been in parts of our home, the Palace, and found areas of it ludicrously hot, with the windows wide open in an attempt to disperse the heat as rapidly as possible? There are not enough thermostats on the radiators, and there are not enough thermostats controlling the heating systems. I urge the Palace authorities to do what they can to improve the system.
I have received much correspondence on home energy conservation from my constituents, who have almost universally urged me to support the principle. It gives me pleasure to be able to welcome the Bill, which has advantages over the previous Bill, not least that of flexibility. It is important not to place too big a burden on local authorities.
Opposition parties for ever complain that we have constantly added to the duties of local authorities and failed to fund them effectively. Here is a case where we are determined not to place unnecessary additional burdens on local authorities. My hon. Friend the Minister explained that a number of authorities in this country already pursue policies that the Bill would require them to adopt, so very few extra burdens would be imposed on those authorities. The Bill targets the recalcitrant and delinquent authorities, which should be an advantage.
It is perhaps a comment on public housing authorities that the Bill is needed. Good housing authorities should be implementing the provisions already. I am not making a party political point: I simply wish to emphasise that good public sector housing authorities have a duty to improve the lot of their tenants as best they can to save them money, improve their comfort and, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) said, save lives.
Those in the private sector also have a moral duty to take such action, but I do not think that it would be effective to legislate in the same way for private sector home owners.
Mr. Nigel Evans: My hon. Friend mentioned lighting. Does he believe that, when local authorities consider ways to save energy, they should not do so at the expense of security? So many of our car parks and other places in town centres have insufficient lighting for security purposes, particularly for ladies who are on their own.
Column 966I refer specifically to car parks because I know that some people are fearful of using them for this reason. Does my hon. Friend agree that the authorities could look at ways of introducing
energy-efficient lighting in such places, as opposed to no lighting at all?
Mr. Jenkin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Residents in my constituency have complained to me that one part of the public housing stock is not adequately lighted. The council complains that it would cost a lot of money to light it adequately, but the use of low- wattage light bulbs and effective lighting design means that it can be achieved much more cheaply than the council perhaps expects.
The Minister suggested that there should be one or two amendments to the Bill, and I look forward to learning what they might be. One amendment that I recommend is that the definition of housing authorities should be widened to include the Church Commissioners, who have a large housing stock. I serve on the Social Security Select Committee which has been examining the Church Commissioners' conduct. It is incumbent upon Parliament to hold the Church Commissioners responsible for their activities to some degree, and perhaps that should apply to their activities in this area.
Earlier in the debate I exchanged ideas with the hon. Member for Deptford about the amount of money that is being spent on energy conservation. I think it is important that we do not regard the amount of money spent as some symbol of political correctness in energy conservation. There must be a limit to how much money can be spent effectively.
Although energy conservation measures may seem good in theory, in practice implementing them may cost more money than the measures would save. Construction, materials, transport and labour could use more energy than the measures would warrant. We must ensure that energy conservation measures are practical, not just ideological.
Mr. Robert B. Jones: Does not my hon. Friend agree that it is also important to avoid confusion between the total amount of public money spent and the total expenditure of money from all sources? Clearly, we want to encourage private home owners to spend money on improving their homes. There is a very good example in the hon. Lady's constituency, whereby Christchurch borough council carried out a large-scale voluntary transfer and, as a result, the new Twineham housing association has managed to bring forward many of its energy improvements, and now has one of the most energy -efficient housing stocks in the country. That shows what imagination and the powers granted by the Government can achieve together.
Mr. Jenkin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He touched upon the question of private home owners and private rented stock. It is difficult to know what local authorities should try to do once they have collected information or made a general assessment about the housing in their area. There is a practical difficulty in making general comments about the wide range of housing that is not owned by local authorities. The problem with home energy conservation is that it is necessary to make an assessment of each housing type, and making general comments about whole areas of housing suggests that the state is capable of achieving a more desirable outcome than is possible in reality.
Column 967I draw attention to a letter that I received from the Construction Industry Council. Of all the letters that I have received on this subject, it is the most significant. The council is a forum for professional bodies within the construction industry, which speaks for more than 330,000 construction professionals. It includes organisations such as the National House Building Council, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and the Royal Town Planning Institute. The appearance of others suggests a greenness that they might not possess--such as the British Flat Roofing Council and the Ground Forum. No doubt they are both worthy organisations and, with others in the membership of the CIC, they represent a strong lobby in favour of the hon. Lady's Bill.
It is satisfying when the House produces a Bill that enjoys broad consensus. I congratulate the hon. Lady again, and wish her Bill every success, and I look forward to it becoming law.
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): I apologise for not being present for the start of the debate, but I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) on a sensible Bill, which I hope will progress through the House.
The hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) was asked whether he would have a big factory in his constituency. I would do so. My constituency has one available space of 1,500 hectares, which I am sure could be successfully developed. St. Helens needs employment.
The Bill offers hope for the old and tired, and for those who are poor--who will have warm houses--and opportunities for St. Helens, which is a centre of manufacture of insulating materials. The Bill is therefore well balanced. It meets social need at a time when it must be met. If the weather forecasters are right, many people living in badly insulated houses who cannot afford heating will be cold this weekend. There are many poor people in this land and the Bill offers them hope.
The Bill offers hope also to many unemployed people, who will find work installing insulation materials, while improving the standard of the country's housing stock and factories. If only the Government would adopt the same balance with every Bill they brought before the House, we might live in a much happier land.
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham): As one of the Bill's sponsors, it is not surprising that I welcome it. I am sorry that the Energy Conservation Bill, promoted by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in 1993, failed. If the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) succeeds, at least that will be better than failing with proposed legislation that goes further.
I deeply regret the Government's change of mind on the 1993 Bill. In the final stages, I tabled an amendment--although, when it was not called, out of party loyalty I went along with the Government. My heart, as my amendment showed, was clearly with the Bill being passed.
The main reason for supporting the Bill is not energy conservation but the aim of making life better for people on low incomes. Better insulation and energy
Column 968conservation will save money for all, but they matter most to people with the least resources to pay for heating. I am glad that the Bill focuses strongly on local authorities and other large housing providers. I do not blame individuals, but it is scandalous that heating systems in individual homes and blocks of flats have been left unassessed decade after decade.
It is a sad truth that people who have the least have the most expensive forms of heating. In my constituency, as in many others, some families are still expected to heat their water by using a solid fuel back-boiler in summer. I regard that as wrong. People in my constituency who were living in tower blocks--similar to a block called Nightingale Heights on an estate in my constituency--were left with a heating system which was designed by people who never had to live in a local authority tower block. The system was designed 20 or 30 years ago, when everyone thought that electricity was going to be dirt cheap. The flats had an underfloor electric heating system which did not work, and people with one-bedroomed flats had to spend £20 a week during the winter months, to be cold.
In Nightingale Heights--thanks to the efforts of one local person in particular, Sheila Mudie, to whom I pay tribute--people now spend about £5 a week to be warm. The gains in comfort and safety are important. I remember a retired soldier, who must have been about 85, sitting in front of a single-bar electric fire with a dressing gown on his back and a blanket on his knees, while his elderly wife tried to care for him. They had fuel poverty and actual poverty because they did not have enough support.
The landlord in that case was the local authority, but I do not want to damn Greenwich council. Criticism in this debate should steer away from those who give their time as councillors and Members of Parliament to try to serve people. The landlord had known for more than 15 years that the heating system which was designed for the block did not work, and that people could not afford it even if it did work.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, who was then the Housing Minister, for meeting deputations and helping to get the problems of that tower block dealt with. The Bill provides an incentive to local and central Government to work out an action programme so that the problems of every tower block like Nightingale Heights can be dealt with in a reasonably short period. People who live on income support--whether they are elderly or with children--do not deserve to have to spend the highest amounts, as well as the highest proportion of their income, on the necessity of staying warm.
I hope that the hon. Member for Christchurch understood what I said in my first intervention. I did understand the provisions for the Order in Council for Northern Ireland. My point is that Northern Ireland has at present one public housing authority--the Northern Ireland Housing Executive--and it should be possible for the executive to say that it will carry on the work that it was doing when I served as a Minister in Northern Ireland about five years ago. The executive should regard the Bill as already applying to it and should make public the results of its work and the time scale for conducting an assessment. I hope that it will go on to set an example to the rest of the United Kingdom of what action is to be taken.
Column 969I shall divert slightly to say that one of the benefits of the privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity has been that people have not automatically gone on thinking that coal is the only fuel from which electricity for domestic purposes can be supplied by power stations in Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that gas is likely to come to Northern Ireland, giving people a choice of fuels. It is worth noting that, if one flies over Northern Ireland on a snowy day, one can see that insulation is not in place everywhere that it might be. One does not need an infra-red survey to do that, as it can be seen with ordinary vision. If there is the advantage of having gas as an alternative, the coal trade may meet people's needs at keener prices than it would if it did not have competition. If we had just gone ahead with the original plans for extending one power station at Kilroot, people would have found themselves paying more--in absolute and relative terms--for fuel. We are now giving people choice by producing electricity in cheaper ways and by bringing gas back to Northern Ireland.
The issue of the partnership between local government and the people--the Government are there as partners--is an important point. I should like to think that the pattern of the Bill can be promoted in other ways, but this is not the time to go on to a major debate on another subject. Local authorities should, for example, find ways of making surveys of the opportunities available for young people, especially teenagers, after school. Finding out where the gaps are and providing more worthwhile activities for people in their leisure time would also be welcome. I do not see all the provisions leading necessarily to significant extra funding for the survey work. Local authorities should try to use existing resources. There can be significant savings to local authorities in many ways in the subjects that we are discussing.
It is clear that local authorities own many buildings that are not for occupation as residences by their tenants or by others. I suspect that the energy audit should be used on those buildings as well. Only a few years ago, it was common for the heating in schools in London under the control of the Inner London education authority to be left on seven days a week. That was remarkable--I am talking of the days when I used to go to schools rather more often than I do nowadays. It is good to have a swimming pool available for use by the general public or authorised clubs and other users, but it was peculiar to find that classrooms were being heated when they were not visited by anyone for 48 hours.
It might be useful to hear in Committee or at a later stage what the Government are doing in their own buildings. When I was serving as an assistant Minister in the Department of Employment 10 years ago, the number of budget holders in different parts of the Department who had responsibility for their own heating bills was slender. There were staff who had put off installing a water meter, which would have cut costs by about £100 per member of staff. Whether it is heating, the telephone or water, people often find that they have a greater advantage in taking action when they are responsible for paying the bill themselves.
The Bill goes much further than local authorities examining their own properties; it bears also on what private occupiers, whether privately renting or
Column 970owner-occupiers, are doing. In an intervention, my hon. Friend the Minister talked about people leaving their homes for a significant period and not turning down their boiler or not turning it off. Most of us are conscious of turning off the electric light when we leave a room in our house. However, we often leave our heating on for much longer periods, at much greater cost and resulting in waste. That is a matter for individual action. When it comes to energy conservation, more efficient heating and greater insulation, we should encourage people to take rational action once, and it will then become self-working. The costs of carrying out necessary works can often be met by people's own budgeting and self-gain. Many things can be done that will pay for themselves within a year. Other provisions pay for themselves over a much longer period but are still worth while. Many courses of action meet people's wishes in other ways. One of the associated features of the right to buy is visible in many of the homes in my constituency. When people have the chance of owning their own home, they often want to build a porch, which stops all the warm air leaving the house every time they go in or out. They may change their windows and install double or even triple glazing. These things are done not only to conserve energy but because they benefit individuals generally.
Although the Bill may be adjusted in Committee, it is to be welcomed. It is right to pay tribute to the Association for the Conservation of Energy, which has been raising awareness in the House for many years. I think that it has aided all those Members who introduced similar Bills in the past, to whom I pay tribute. I return to a matter that is of especial concern to me- -
Mr. Nigel Evans: I mentioned new technology aiding energy conservation. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should be doing more to develop new technology? For example, many of us use computers that switch themselves off if a mouse is not moved or if no other action is taken; we can choose how long or short that period should be. In the Millbank offices there are smart lights, which are off if no one is around and are triggered automatically when a Member enters the area. On the security front, many people have installed smart lights. They do not have a constant light outside shining in the garden, but a light is triggered immediately if an intruder or visitor comes. Therefore, it saves money when it is off but gives security when it is needed.
The advantage of the Bill is that it will encourage people to make assessments and reports, then lead to a time scale for action. That is where we start to get follow-through benefits. When a significant proportion of people start doing the things that make sense and use modern technology, as well as some of the things that we have known about for some time, for example, condensing boilers, we can get the benefits of that technology and energy without the waste. It is important to cut out the waste and get the no-cost and low-cost investment brought forward. Many of us will need reminding. I remember that, the second time when which I was involved in an energy debate, we managed to get the House authorities to change the lights in the room where we were to low-energy bulbs. It was not
Column 971frightfully complicated to arrange. Some of our older fittings may have needed some adjustment, but we should realise that in many ways we are behind the times.
I return to the major driving force--poverty. There is an enormous responsibility on us all to ensure that so many people do not have to continue struggling with the depression, difficulty and discomfort that poverty brings. When I last saw the figures--they may have changed since-- 60 per cent. of pensioner households had homes with inefficient heating. I am not arguing that the most efficient heating is central heating, because there are many different ways in which to provide low-cost, convenient heating without breaking the purse or the bank--for example, solid fuel. I feel strongly that, until we have a programme that says that, within a certain number of years, 95 per cent. of pensioner households will have low -cost, efficient heating, central Government, local government and our communities will not have done the job properly.
Mrs. Maddock: I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said, because I had considerable problems with getting a name for the Bill. I believe, as he does, that although the Bill does not get double glazing in the home, that is what it will lead to. That is why I was so keen for the name of the Bill to be the Home Energy Conservation Bill. I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his contribution. It has helped very much in making that argument.
Mr. Bottomley: I shall go a stage further. Like other hon. Members, I occasionally have constituents coming to me who say that they have been given a housing offer--often at the time of family formation, perhaps when they have a child, or when, for some reason, they have to move away from where they had been lodging or living. They say that the home that they have been offered is full of condensation, that it is damp and that the heating is absent or inadequate. I do not know why we do not have the same check on local housing authority offers as that carried out by most building societies or lending institutions on a flat or home that is to be bought with a mortgage. Why do we not require local housing authorities or housing associations--or, for that matter, central Government if they are letting premises to members of staff or offering houses under the empty homes initiative--to undertake a heating audit of their properties, and to go through a simple checklist: whether there is draught-proofing; whether a boiler is present and whether, if it is 10 or 15 years old, it should be replaced; whether the multipoint heater, if present, has been checked for safety, and so on? Those simple things are not directly required by the Bill, but they should become a habit and a self-imposed requirement by people who own a home.
I make a simple plea: I hope that everyone who provides a home for students is asked by the central lettings authority at universities or colleges to certify that the heating system has been checked. One constituent rightly badgers me about the lodgings of his child, who is at university, where it appears that the heating system is positively dangerous.
I want to return to the focus on poverty. Those most likely to be poor are pensioners, people at the time of family formation, when housing costs tend to be highest, income to be lowest and choice to be least, and those
Column 972coming out of institutions--prison or the services--who do not have the same housing choices as those of us in Parliament.
I missed the middle part of the debate because I was talking to the parliamentary representative of Church Action on Poverty, Catherine Shelley. She rightly said that it was important to give local people a national voice on the issues that matter to them. The group's literature refers specifically to those who do not think that they can keep their homes as warm as they should be for themselves and for those for whom they are responsible. I hope that, in the discussions on the Bill, voluntary associations and the energy conservation authorities--local authorities-- will talk openly about what they are managing to achieve, where they are managing to find resources, private and public, and where there is measurable change. If we want to be accountable, we need to be able to count. How many homes are there? What is the progress towards making a significant impact? We know that we cannot change overnight the number of homes that are inadequately heated or insulated, but we can set targets. The surveys and reports that the Bill will encourage and require are one way forward. If we want to be able to help people to manage, we must be able to measure what is happening. We need to know how many people are fulfilling a public responsibility to help with housing that is a constant drain on the purse or the pay packet.
It is clear that the Bill will not have great difficulty in its passage through the House. However, we are still left with the question of VAT on energy-saving materials. The dominant issue is not whether there is a differential rate of VAT or no VAT on those materials, but there would be a symbol if the Government took seriously the fact that many people will be using mostly their own money on energy-saving measures. I am not suggesting that every boiler should be VAT free because modern boilers save energy-- that might be going too far--but reconsidering the rate of VAT on some simple insulation and draught-proofing materials would be an important step and would neatly fit in with the Bill.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) both on her success in the ballot and on her willingness to take over, in modified form, a subject that I raised in a Bill that I introduced in the last Session. I also congratulate her on the way in which she introduced the subject this morning and on the care that she has taken in preparing the Bill, which has been reflected in the favourable comments made by hon. Members.
When I brought my Bill before the House, I said many times that the issue would return to the House again and again. It has, and in a very constructive atmosphere, which I welcome. The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) will share my pleasure and satisfaction because, in some ways, he is regarded as the grandfather of today's Bill, having introduced a similar Bill in the Session before I introduced mine, on which mine was based. At each stage, we have added further requirements.
My hon. Friend and I are grateful to those hon. Members who have taken part in today's debate and who have shown universal support for the Bill. I refer to the hon. Members for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby), for Denton
Column 973and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks), for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring), for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson), for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin), for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) and for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), who has been a loyal supporter, and to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock), who spoke on behalf of the Labour party. I was struck by the phrase of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley, who said that, on energy conservation, the time for procrastination had gone and now was the time for action. I was delighted to hear him say that, and I know that the Government have got that message. That is why we are making such good progress.
Hon. Members rightly referred to the differences between last year's Energy Conservation Bill and the current Bill. Those differences reflect some of the comments made during debates in the last Session which conjured up the rather delightful picture of me as the extreme radical and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch as the moderate. For this purpose, I am happy to accept that role. The improvements in the Bill which have especially commended themselves to Conservative Members are some reductions in the direct obligations placed on local authorities and the fact that the Bill states that it confers no power of entry. The earlier Bill did not do that either, but it is understandable that hon. Members welcome the fact that the matter is now made absolutely clear and avoids doubt. Those changes and others could have been made in Committee last year, but the Government tabled only six amendments and they did not include those points. On Report, they tabled far more amendments than they could possibly have needed in any serious attempt to sort out the Bill. At one stage, they were reduced to putting in Tellers against an amendment which they had moved and which I had accepted. That was part of the process of trying to block the Bill. At that time, the Government were coping with Treasury objections to the Bill, and Ministers have been working on that ever since.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) for his efforts. He was formerly a supporter of the earlier Bill and we complained about the position in which he found himself on 1 November last year when he had to support a measure deploring it. That was absurd. He has obviously done a great deal of work since then and his constructive contribution to this debate and the spirit in which the debate has been conducted are welcome.
The progress that we have made in the debate owes a good deal to the persistence of all those who have supported it, those outside who have continued to show interest in the subject, those who have continually written to Members and those who have won the support of local authorities and other organisations. I pay tribute to all of them for what they have done.
The Minister said that he wanted to make good use of time in Committee. That is right, and the Government made a mistake last year in not making good use of that stage to put the Bill in an acceptable form. We shall probably have a few skirmishes in Committee and at times we may feel that the Government are pushing a bit too far in weakening the Bill's impact. But perhaps not--perhaps
Column 974the conversion is more extensive. Some of the issues raised by the Minister and by hon. Members can almost certainly be ironed out in Committee.
I hope that we can make some progress on Northern Ireland, about which the hon. Member for Eltham spoke. Perhaps we can at least have an indication from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive of a time scale in which the Bill's provisions for Northern Ireland might be brought into effect, because the Bill gives the Minister an opportunity to make provision at a later stage.