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12.57 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): I support the Bill because it requires a plan to change the quality of life of the most vulnerable and to tackle key aspects of fuel poverty, especially energy conservation, which is critical. It also raises the equally important issue of fuel tariffs. It could improve quality of life by granting the basic right to warmth to millions of people who are deprived of it. It could improve health, prevent deaths, create up to 30,000 additional jobs and benefit the environment.

The Bill would benefit Liverpool, where the combination of long-term poverty and poor housing affects many people's lives. A fuel poverty survey was carried out in March 1998 in Liverpool. It identified households where 17 per cent. of income was spent on fuel, but, because of the inadequacy of the buildings, people were often still not warm.

The survey also identified people who suffered most from fuel poverty. They included lone parents; people with large families; people who, for whatever reason, were poor; disabled people; and long-term unemployed people. It also focused on the critical issue of housing conditions. It showed that poor housing conditions, whatever the type of tenure, had a direct bearing on fuel poverty.

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According to the survey, people were at risk in council houses that had been neglected, houses at the end of terraces, houses owned by private landlords and houses in the private sector. The private sector constituted a particular problem. Houses in the private sector in Liverpool are twice as unfit as those in the country generally.

The survey also raised the important issue of self-disconnection. It was found that approximately 82 per cent. of people who suffered from fuel poverty disconnected their energy supplies frequently and were therefore cold. It drew attention to the extra cost that is incurred by pre-payment meters, to which so many poor people are vulnerable. The key concern was the evidence that three quarters of the households eligible for assistance under Government schemes were not aware of the existence of those schemes.

I support the Government's programme for improving energy conservation and tackling fuel poverty through that. I welcome the additional money that is to be made available--the budget of £75 million will increase to £125 million this year and to £175 million next--and the broadening of the criteria, which will make more people eligible. I also welcome the establishment of the interministerial committee, which will, among other things, point to the energy regulators shouldering their responsibility.

In Liverpool, Riverside--my constituency-- £1.2 million has already been spent through the Government's energy conservation scheme and almost 9,500 households have been helped. There have been savings on bills and 10,783 tonnes of carbon have been saved from release into the atmosphere. I support the Bill because it will make progress not by pious words, but by insisting on action and a strategy and by saying who should put that strategy and its targets together. It will also give the Government responsibility and point to responsibilities for local authorities as well.

The regional dimension is also important. We must ask the utilities and their regulators to report to regional chambers and assemblies so that their responsibilities can be monitored.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way because, as she knows, that point arose earlier. Does she agree that, as the Bill is developed in Committee and on Report, it might be proper for the regional element to be strengthened simply because, self-evidently, even a small country such as ours has considerable variations in climatic conditions, ambient temperatures and the like? That may mean that, instead of taking a blanket national approach, which could be wasteful, the Bill should be more sensitive to regional variations.

Mrs. Ellman: The problem is national and should be tackled nationally, but measures should often be implemented locally. We have to monitor the results of actions taken and the regional level is important in that. The utilities and their regulators should have to report to regional forums so that they have to face up to their responsibilities.

I support the Bill because it is about action and drawing national attention to a national scandal and because it suggests a plan to eliminate it. I hope that all Members will support it and look forward to the time when the scandal of fuel poverty has gone.

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1.3 pm

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on his success in the ballot. I hope that I shall not have to wait 16 years to achieve such success. He told us that he had succeeded previously, despite not winning a ballot, with a Bill on tethered donkeys. I can well understand why he chose to focus on the need for warm homes and energy conservation rather than the needs of Labour Members, who are tethered by their pagers to their masters in Millbank, although we all think that they are sorely in need of better treatment.

I declare an interest. For a long time, I have been the unpaid director of a company that provides low-cost housing to rent. It has an excellent record of meeting all the reasonable requirements of its tenants for home improvements, energy conservation and warmer homes. I speak as a former Paddington councillor. Many of those I represented were tenants of houses in multiple occupation that had inadequate heating. Paraffin burners were their source, but they were not only unsatisfactory and expensive, but somewhat dangerous. One of the previous Government's achievements was ensuring that more and more fire regulations came into force to take away that danger. However, we must be conscious that removing that form of housing created other housing difficulties in London. The problems of homelessness are sometimes accentuated if the improved standards that we all want are not achieved at the same time as the provision of increased resources to ensure that sufficient housing is available.

The hon. Member for Romford (Mrs. Gordon) told us that she had started life in a home without proper heating, as I did with my wife when we were first married and lived in a multiple-occupation house in Paddington. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) spoke of those who use coal. Many of those whom we are discussing today are elderly people who still rely on a bucket of coal to keep them warm in the evenings. Unsatisfactory though that may be, we should bear in mind that such people tend to be creatures of habit, and may take a great deal of persuading to give up the customs of a lifetime. If the Bill is enacted, that aspect must be handled sensitively.

It is, nevertheless, a simple matter of thermodynamics that a central heating system normally provides adequate background heat more cheaply than trying to heat a home for a few hours each day with gas or coal fires. It is to the previous Government's credit that, during their 18 years in power, the percentage of homes benefiting from central heating rose from 60 to 90. It is also to the credit of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West that he has presented a Bill that is part of a long Conservative tradition. It began with the Housing Act 1961, which required landlords to provide adequate heating for their tenants. My hon. Friend's Bill is another milestone on the way to improving the lot of those experiencing fuel poverty.

Mr. Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman says that it may be the habit of a lifetime to choose to heat a home by gas or coal. Is not the real problem the capital cost of installing central heating? Is that not what deters people? Indeed,

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the capital cost of a variety of energy advances is a problem, underlying which is the problem of insufficient capital investment.

Mr. St. Aubyn: Capital cost is indeed the unspoken burden of the legislation. My hon. Friend has been careful not to put a cost on the Bill, but there will indeed be capital costs. When we were in government, however, we discovered that, if the right incentives were provided, housing associations and private landlords, as well as councils, could find the means to deal with the capital costs of improving homes if housing benefits were increased in line with those costs.

It would be naive to suppose that a sensible, serious programme under the Bill could be enacted without a knock-on cost to the housing benefit bill, but that may be a sound course to adopt. As well as capital costs, there are long-term savings to be made in the running of a home. However, those savings are shared between occupier and owner--in the case of tenanted properties--or used by an owner-occupier. In a free society with free access to capital, the sensible option is to make the investment, because in the long run it will pay for itself.

Briefings on the Bill suggest that the payback period for the typical cost of the programme envisaged in it might be 15 years. In a period of low inflation--that was another achievement of the last Government--long-term capital investment might indeed involve a 15-year payback, but we should not forget the gain in terms of human capital. The most telling arguments for the Bill refer to the number of lives that it would save.

It is hard to quantify the capital cost in monetary terms because the technology is changing so fast. There is a report in today's newspapers about a boiler that is also an electricity generator. It is envisaged that such boilers will typically be installed in people's homes and, in a more energy-efficient manner, meet both heating and electricity requirements. We would not have thought that possible a few years ago. If that is the way of the future, that shows how difficult it is to assess the true capital cost. With new technology, it may prove to be a lot less than some people now believe.

Clause 2(4) states:

That must clearly refer to private landlords. As a result of the previous Government's reforms, there is a growth in provision by private landlords of homes to rent. We should encourage that. There is still far too little of that form of housing provision. It enables the economy to be more flexible. People can make changes in their lives far more easily if they can go in and out of rented property. If such rented property is to be improved for those in fuel poverty, the Minister will need to say how he proposes to ensure that housing benefit will be adjusted to reflect improvements in the fuel efficiency and warmth of homes of people who rely on housing benefit to pay their rent.

In a number of instances, landlords have, on behalf of tenants, negotiated to make improvements and have sought the agreement of the rent officer on how that will

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be paid for. Of course, payment will come in housing benefit, not out of the pocket of the tenant whose life has been improved. When the improvements have been incurred at a cost of several thousand pounds, the housing benefit department has said that it is not prepared to meet the revenue cost of servicing that capital improvement.

It will obviously deter private sector landlords from making such improvements--however much they want to do so--if they cannot afford them. That leaves them in an awkward position, so a firm statement by the Minister on his Department's attitude to housing benefit, where such improvements have been made by private sector landlords, would do a considerable amount to benefit those in fuel poverty, whom we are all concerned about.

I represent Guildford, a seat in Surrey, but for many years I lived in Cornwall. I was interested in the points about the incidence of fuel poverty-related deaths. There is no doubt from the statistics that those who live in the west country are far less exposed to the risk of that tragedy than those who live in the part of the world that I represent. Many delicate flowers flourish in Cornwall that are killed off by the frost in the south-east. Similarly, people in delicate health, of whom there are many, are much more at risk in the south-east than in other areas.

Of course, the one contribution that the Government have made to cutting fuel costs has been their 3 per cent. cut in VAT on fuel, but that cut was financed by abolishing health insurance premium tax relief for the over-65s. The knock-on result is that the elderly in my constituency have seen only a fractional decrease in the cost of heating their homes, but a massive increase in the waiting lists at our local hospital--waiting lists that have themselves, sadly, cost far too many lives; deaths that have to be laid at the door of the Government and their ill-conceived collection of policies.

We should recognise that the 30 per cent. cut in energy costs that has been accomplished by the previous Government's liberation of energy companies is a much more significant factor in creating savings for those who are living in fuel poverty. I hope that that cut will not be reversed by the cack-handed way in which the Government are pushing through their Utilities Bill--which may over-regulate the sector and, in the long run, lead to much higher fuel costs not only for those who are in fuel poverty, but for everyone.

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