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Mr. Chaytor: May I clarify that? I said that in years to come it might be seen that way.

Mr. Chope: I am glad that I gave the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to clarify matters for his Whips. I shall also recall this debate for another brave and sincere speech from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and

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Leith (Mr. Chisholm) and for an incisive and thought-provoking speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan).

We have had a host of statistics about increases in so-called excess winter mortality. We need to be a little wary of some of the statistics. How is it that fuel poverty is worse when there has been a 26 per cent. fall in the price of gas in real terms since 1987? There have been five consecutive years of reductions in electricity prices. There has been a dramatic reduction in the number of disconnections due to debt. In 1987, some 60,000 gas disconnections took place. In 1996, the figure was down to fewer than 9,000. In 1987, there were 100,000 electricity disconnections. There were fewer than 1,000 in 1996. Those are dramatic falls.

The improvements have been accompanied by the impact of the previous Government's home energy efficiency scheme grant which, since 1991, has helped 2.3 million vulnerable households. There have been undoubted and substantial improvements, yet it is said that fuel poverty is getting worse. I question whether we are exaggerating the problem. In saying that, I recognise that it is a serious problem and that more needs to be done. Indeed, that was the policy of the previous Government.

An article in today's The Times gives an example of how we can all improve the energy efficiency of our homes. It is about the advantages of condensing boilers. It says that the Energy Efficiency Trust estimates that

In so far as we can use the House to try to educate people about the opportunities that are available, I hope that an increasing number of people will take advantage of condensing boilers. At present, only 2 per cent. of all boilers are condensing boilers. If we got that number up significantly, it would help energy efficiency and deal with the problem of global warming.

Much of the debate has been about costs. What are the Government doing about applying risk assessment criteria in deciding their investment priorities? In the previous debate, the Government claimed credit for spending an extra £85 million of taxpayers' money to compensate beef farmers for the consequences of the Government's crazy decision to ban beef on the bone, which destroyed the market by curtailing consumer choice. That is costing an unnecessary £85 million. The beef farmers are saying that the costs to them are far in excess of that sum and that £85 million compensation is not enough.

On any objective risk assessment, which the Government should apply to decide whether investment should be made in order to save lives, more lives can be saved by investing in fuel efficiency measures than can be saved by banning beef on the bone and compensating farmers for the consequences of it. To take a small example, the Energy Saving Trust's grant is to be cut next year from £19 million to £13.5 million--a cut of £4.5 million. The Government are hiding behind inherited spending plans. There are no inherited spending

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plans in relation to beef compensation. The Government seem ready to spend an extra £85 million on beef compensation at the same time as approving a cut of £4.5 million to the trust. I submit that the Government have got their political priorities wrong.

The principle that should apply to householders is waste not, want not. If householders do not waste energy, they will be able to save money. Similarly, if the Government did not waste so much money on unnecessary measures such as banning beef on the bone, they would have more money to invest in improving energy efficiency in our homes.

12.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle): I shall pass on to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the fact that the Opposition do not agree with compensating farmers. I might also tip off the National Farmers Union and see what it has to say.

Mr. Chope: The Minister traduces what I said. The cut in the Energy Saving Trust budget is a direct consequence of the crazy decision of the Government to ban beef on the bone, against the wishes of consumers. Now they are having to pick up the financial consequences. If they had not banned beef on the bone, they would not have had to compensate beef farmers.

Angela Eagle: I am sure that we could have a long and interesting debate on BSE, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am not sure that you would rule me in order, given the title of this debate.

I want to talk about the extremely important subject that has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). I have enjoyed the thought-provoking and wide-ranging debate on the important subject of fuel poverty and energy efficiency and the way in which they fit together. The quality of the debate has demonstrated the complexity of the subject. There are things that we can do by making focused small policies involving small amounts of money that make a difference, but at the back of our mind is the enormous backlog of problems with the housing stock. We have to integrate policies across government in order to tackle the problem coherently both at overall level and at the level of individual schemes. The debate has drawn attention to that.

I am grateful for all of the speeches that have made, which have been thought provoking, thoughtful and worth while, even down to that from the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who attempted to impose terraced houses on the entire population. A terraced house in Bloomsbury or wherever he mentioned may be slightly different from one in Bury, North: perhaps my hon. Friend will tell me whether that is so.

Mr. Robathan: I used to live in a terraced house in Fulham, which I suspect mirrored those found in Bury, North and elsewhere.

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Angela Eagle: I would be amazed if that were the case.

This has been a wide-ranging debate and there is not much time to deal with all the important issues that have been raised. I hope that I can at least inform the House about how the Government are beginning to deal with them.

Fuel poverty means the inability to heat a home adequately without spending a disproportionate amount of household income on it. Despite the scepticism of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), we know that fuel poverty is widespread. We might argue about the figures, but the English house condition survey clearly confirms the extremely low standards of energy efficiency in the housing stock and the very slow rate of improvement. That provides evidence of the ineffectiveness of the previous Administration's energy efficiency policies. They had no overall strategy and I agree with those hon. Members who have described it as fragmented.

We know that 38 per cent. of the housing stock has less than satisfactory heating provision. Nearly 3 million dwellings are particularly inefficient, having energy ratings below 20 points. More than quarter of a million homes in the private rented sector, which are occupied by single pensioners, are appallingly expensive to heat, with an average energy rating of only 11 points.

It is deeply worrying that a high proportion of the poorest quality homes are occupied by people who are likely to be especially vulnerable to the effects of cold. Almost two fifths of all pensioners, who are particularly at risk from cold, need to spend more than 15 per cent. of their net income to achieve a basic standard of heating. More than three times as many single pensioners living in privately rented stock need to spend 15 per cent. or more of income on heating than do single pensioners living in the social rented sector. We must take the differences between housing sectors into account when dealing with fuel poverty.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North said, there is considerable evidence to link cold homes and poor health. The Government, at least, explicitly recognise that. It is significant that national health service expenditure rises by 2 per cent. in the coldest months of the year. I am not suggesting that that is all due to poorly heated housing, but we must acknowledge its effect on making people more vulnerable to other illnesses. It may increase people's chance of falling victim to illness and having to go to hospital.

Although very few people die from hypothermia, the death rate rises in winter, resulting in many thousands of "excess" winter deaths--a phrase already criticised by hon. Members--each year. As hon. Members have also said, the scale of that seasonal increase is not experienced in other countries. We must examine why this country more than any other--even those with colder climates--suffers that increase.

Vulnerable households need support if they are not to be left with impossibly difficult decisions that have a direct impact on health. The previous Administration had no coherent strategy to address the problems of cold, damp homes and ill health. We will do much better, because we recognise the links between poverty, housing quality, energy efficiency standards and health--and we take them seriously.

Health concerns us all and we have placed it at the heart of Government policies. Our manifesto promised to set goals to improve the overall health of the nation and

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recognised the possible effects of poor housing, poverty, unemployment and a polluted environment. Our Green Paper "Our Healthier Nation" will be published soon. We recognise that the problem of fuel poverty can be tackled only as a result of a cross-departmental strategy.

We will take an integrated approach across government to tackle fuel poverty and energy efficiency. We have to produce coherent policies that go to the heart of the problem. We are starting from first principles and I have set up an inter-departmental working group to investigate the extent of fuel poverty. Perhaps its findings will overcome some of the scepticism felt by the hon. Member for Christchurch. It will examine all existing programmes to see whether we can achieve better value and greater integration. There must be an informed national debate on the cross-cutting policy themes that have emerged in the debate and which I am convinced will also emerge from the review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made a thoughtful speech. I assure him that I shall ask the working group to consider the policy provisions that he suggested on home improvement agencies and changes to income support as a means of dealing with some of existing problems. He will appreciate that I shall pass on his acute observations without prejudice to the result of that group's findings.

As many of my hon. Friends have said, we have not been idle since May. We have not waited for the results of reviews before giving initial help to those least able to help themselves. We have reduced the rate of VAT on fuel to 5 per cent. That was an important step because we know that poorer households spend a greater proportion of their income on heating their homes than do others. Let it not be forgotten that it was the Conservative party that introduced that levy on warmth, which most affected people on low incomes living in poor housing.

The Chancellor's statement on 25 November produced more good news for the fuel poor: this winter and the next, all pensioner households will receive a £20 payment to help with winter heating costs. The worst off--the almost one in four who receive income support--will get £50.

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