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Mr. Forth: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a certain irony in the fact that we are debating the issue against the background of secular falling fuel prices; the reduction in taxes on domestic fuel--which, as I said in an earlier intervention, has a dubious logic to it; and global warming--if one believes in that concept--and climate change. Against the background of those changes, is it not ironic that we are being asked to accept that the problem of alleged fuel poverty is as great as, or greater than, it was?

Mr. St. Aubyn: My right hon. Friend is perhaps confusing two issues: a reduction in fuel costs, and energy conservation measures. Part of the Bill's thrust is energy conservation, which is a vital part of fulfilling our commitment, at Kyoto and before, to reduce energy consumption. However, the Government have undermined

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that commitment by their switch from gas-fired to coal-powered electricity stations. That was a retrograde step, and I hope that the Government will rethink it. If we are serious about energy conservation, we should be serious about how we produce energy. To that extent, I agree with my right hon. Friend.

My right hon. Friend should be aware of another trend--our growing awareness as a society of the needs of those in fuel poverty, and our desire as a society to take action on it. It would be a gain for society if not only that investment and those long-term savings in energy use could be made, but if lives could be saved. We require a concerted approach in achieving those goals and cannot rely on ad hoc measures.

The measures introduced incrementally by the previous Government did much to tackle those problems. In establishing the overarching policy by region that the Bill seeks to establish, we should not ignore the vital importance of micro-policies that could make specific improvements for specific groups in fuel poverty.

I have taken up enough of the House's time in emphasising my deep commitment to the Bill's principles. I hope that I have also highlighted to the House some of the issues that will have to be addressed in Committee if the Bill is to achieve the objectives that so many of us support.

1.18 pm

Liz Blackman (Erewash): Like many other hon. Members, I feel that I cannot begin my speech without congratulating the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on addressing an important issue in his Bill. I should also not like to miss the opportunity of congratulating my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) on all their work on this very important issue.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) mentioned the Library's excellent briefing on the Bill. Much of that briefing has been used in the debate by hon. Members speaking in support of the Bill, and I shall not rehearse those arguments.

Another Opposition Member said that the Bill is good and noble, and it is. The Bill has wide support, and it is very convincing in its attempts to target energy conservation and insulation programmes.

I really hope that the Government find the Bill acceptable as it has many attractive qualities, not least its flexibility. It provides that the Government can set and revise targets, so long as any revisions are reported to Parliament. It is important to ensure that the programme is a success because of the substantial capital costs involved, so it is good that the Government can organise the funding rather than having to stump up all the money themselves.

The Bill provides tremendous scope for the private sector. Everyone--particularly Labour Members--would agree that the Government have worked successfully with the private sector and have raised capital for a variety of public sector projects. The Bill also provides scope for consultation, as has been mentioned. Its flexible framework is an advantage that will make it attractive to the Government.

The Bill has multiple targets; it is indeed a Bill for all seasons. It reduces fuel costs for poor households, which then have the option to invest the money that has been

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saved in other housing maintenance projects. That has the effect of driving up the value of their homes as well as enabling them to live more comfortably. As a result, poorer housing, often in urban areas, is improved and that helps to stop migration and increase vitality in urban areas.

There is also a knock-on effect on housing planning pressures. Poor houses are often in cheaper areas. When they are done up and made more comfortable they become accessible to first-time buyers who have a limited budget. That is in addition to the other many and varied benefits that we have heard about today, including helping to meet the Kyoto targets, reducing costs to the national health service, reducing crime and providing significant potential for job creation.

It has been asked whether the Government have the will and the credentials to make the Bill a reality. I would say that they most definitely do. They certainly have a good track record thus far. We have already discussed the excellent home energy efficiency scheme, which has now been refocused and provided with additional resources. Our policies on SAP, winter fuel repayments and the minimum income guarantee for pensioners and the £3.6 billion in capital receipts will substantially improve housing stock. The Government certainly have the right credentials, but as one Opposition Member rightly said, there is still a massive deficit. So much rests on the Government.

I am encouraged by the establishment of the interministerial group to examine fuel poverty, not least because it is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, who certainly has a track record for seeing projects through, not least in getting to grips with pensions mis-selling.

As the hon. Member for Southend, West said, this is a good and noble Bill. It has been estimated by the Association for the Conservation of Energy that in the long run it will be cost neutral, but I think that it is a policy with profits. It certainly will not be neutral to the beneficiaries who will be able to live in more comfortable and secure homes. Being cold and living in poor housing is the pits. It makes people ill, miserable and unable to function. The Bill is the vehicle to address their basic needs.

1.24 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I add my voice to the many that we have heard from both sides congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). He has presented a good case very well. Several Labour Members have praised him and expressed the worry that, by doing so, they may damage his reputation among Conservatives. I am happy to assure them and my hon. Friend that, despite all the congratulations that he has received, we shall all still love and revere him as much as we always have done--indeed, possibly more so, because the Bill is in such a good cause. I feel strongly that the principles behind the Bill are very good and I hope that the Government act on them. I am also speaking on behalf of the Conservative party, which is in favour of the principles of the Bill and believes that it should receive a Second Reading this afternoon. If it proves necessary, I shall accompany my hon. Friend into the Lobby to vote for it.

The Bill gives rise to issues across a range of policy areas. Oddly, the environmental issues have not been widely discussed this morning, but the social issues have

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excited the interest of hon. Members on both sides. There are also funding issues, which need to be addressed, as well as the question of the Government's record and, more important, their intentions towards the Bill and the principles that lie behind it.

Given the tone of the debate, it may be surprising that the Front-Bench speeches come from the environment teams, because environmental issues have not dominated the debate. It has sounded more like a social security debate. Apart from the important social issues relating to fuel poverty, there are clearly significant environmental issues. I agree with Friends of the Earth, which has said:

We could stretch the use of the word "unsustainable", because the policy is unsustainable not only environmentally, but economically. We are in the slightly absurd situation of people receiving benefits from the public purse to spend on fuel that does not heat their home but is simply burned, with the warmth going out of a badly insulated house and damaging the atmosphere that we all breathe. It is hard to define a worse use of taxpayers' money.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) gave some vent to the issue of using taxation for environmental purposes and how the Bill will affect that. Hon. Members on both sides will agree that, just as emissions from business and motor vehicles are a serious cause of environmental pollution, so are domestic emissions.

Audrey Wise (Preston): I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that the contribution of poor people to global warming is proportionately far less than that of most of us? Poor people spend less on vehicles and other pollutants. A pensioner with a one-bar electric fire does not contribute as much to global warming as any of us. Will he bear that in mind?

Mr. Green: I completely agree with the hon. Lady. It would be a more sensible use of public policy to prevent as many people as possible--the poor pensioner surviving on not enough fuel or anyone else--from contributing to global warming. There are ways--the principles behind the Bill support them--in which we can improve our environmental performance without disadvantaging anyone.

Those of us in the Opposition who have opposed the climate change levy, which puts a burden on businesses, and the Government's wild increases in petrol duty--which fall on many poorer people, particularly in rural areas--are consistent on this matter. We do not think that just using higher taxes is the way ahead. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West has proposed a far-sighted solution with the Bill which avoids higher taxation. That is one of the reasons why I welcome the principles behind the Bill.

The issue of tackling fuel poverty should not divide the House. Governments of both parties have introduced measures to try to tackle the issue. The previous Government introduced the home energy efficiency scheme in 1991, which produced a range of useful measures including loft insulation, cavity wall insulation and draught-proofing. I welcome the fact that the scheme

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has been updated by the Government and I know that they are thinking of ways to improve it further. As technology advances, we can all think of new ways of improving the energy efficiency of homes. That need not divide us.

The Minister and the Government will recognise that the measures the Government have introduced so far do not measure up to the scale of the problem of fuel poverty in this country or to their own rhetoric. My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) mentioned the problem of the definition of fuel poverty. The Minister will be aware that the Government have changed the definition in a way that reduces the numbers who are said to be in fuel poverty. One is perhaps entitled to ask, slightly cynically, why the Government chose to go down that route. I hope that that does not indicate any Government hostility to the Bill.

Our national commitments are not an issue of disagreement in the House. The previous Conservative Government signed the Rio convention and did much of the groundwork that led to the commitments that the present Government signed up to at Kyoto, which we welcome.

One of the points at issue about environmental policy is that a better use of energy can and should involve a public expenditure saving in the long run, and even in the not-so-long run. Treating illnesses caused by fuel poverty costs the NHS about £1 billion a year. Reducing--and, if possible, eliminating--that NHS expenditure would be doubly beneficial.

There are other areas where public spending savings can be made by better energy policy. Studies have shown that fitting energy efficiency measures cuts the management and maintenance costs of a dwelling by £300 to £400 a year because of reduced repair bills caused by the absence of rot and mould. Tenants who feel warm, and therefore more comfortable in their homes, move less regularly, causing fewer voids and less paperwork. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions estimates that at least 1.4 million public sector homes in England are in fuel poverty. The calculation can be made that improving only those homes could save £490 million per annum, with consequential savings in other parts of the UK. I am sure that the Minister is aware of those important financial arguments.

The environmental impact of the Bill is positive, but clearly the social effects of fuel poverty have caused most passion in the House and outside. Several hon. Members have referred to cases of individual distress in their constituencies. We are all keen to eliminate such distress in our constituencies.

I am sure that many hon. Members have received the postcard suggesting that the average of avoidable deaths per constituency is 90 every winter. We have had some discussion of regional variations, but that is a second-order issue. Even if the figure is imperfect, it is clearly not acceptable to have such a level of avoidable deaths in an advanced country. I am sure that the Minister will accept that the Government have an urgent duty to tackle the problem.

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I hope that the Minister will explain how the Bill intersects with the Utilities Bill. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) spoke of clause 2 being somewhat opaque; it becomes even more so when considered in conjunction with clause 78 of the Utilities Bill, which talks about what the Secretary of State may do if he considers that members of a disadvantaged group

That clause is designed as an attack on fuel poverty, and it is not immediately clear what would happen if it intersected with clause 2(2)(b) of this Bill. One would not want any incoherence in the attack on fuel poverty.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is not being frivolous when he says that if the House supports the Bill--as I hope it will--we need to think through the taxation and spending consequences. The House would be guilty of a dereliction of duty if we did not do that. I have asked similar questions to his about the possibilities for funding large-scale projects.

The warm homes committee set up by both Government and Opposition Members has been examining the funding options to avoid the Treasury having to indulge in more public spending and increase taxation because of the Bill. Various members of the committee, including my hon. Friends the Members for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) have been inventive in finding ways in which public finance initiative-style mechanisms can be used--issuing bonds, perhaps--as is done in the health and transport sectors. The financial mechanisms could be discussed in Committee.

The Government have announced their intention to abolish fuel poverty--the precise objective of the Bill--so I assume that the Minister will confirm that they have already made a commitment to obtain the necessary finances. A serious commitment of taxpayers' money to tackle the problem of fuel poverty is already in the Red Book. Those who support the Bill contend that if we must spend taxpayers' money we should do it effectively. We are spending large sums clearing up the problems, but it would be much more effectively spent in preventing them.

We will need to investigate the various private funding methods. I am sure that if my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst takes up the brave offer from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West to sit on the Committee that will consider the Bill, my right hon. Friend will be assiduous in ensuring discussion of cost and methods of funding.

It is significant that among those who have expressed public support for the Bill is the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. In fact, he complained to the campaign in support of the Bill that he had not been listed as a supporter in the literature that many of us have been sent. He said:

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    Now that he is Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he has every chance of being as supportive as he could want to. Responsibility has been accepted by the Cabinet Minister responsible for controlling public expenditure, so he must know how the aims of the Bill can be achieved without increasing public expenditure. Otherwise, the figures that the Chief Secretary has published would be misleading, and that cannot be the case. I hope that the Minister will enlighten the House about the funding mechanism and how it fits in with the Government's current spending targets.

Responsibility now lies firmly in the Government's hands. If they want this Bill or a version of it to reach the statute book, they can make it happen. They have promised to eradicate fuel poverty and senior Ministers are on the record as saying that fuel poverty must be ended, that it is a scandal and a preventable scourge. Indeed, they have set up an interministerial group--the acme of action for this Government--to consider the problem and to set a target date for the elimination of fuel poverty. I hope that the Minister will also enlighten us about that target date and the work of the interministerial group.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West deserves the congratulations and the gratitude of the House for choosing this measure. Helping the old and poor to live in greater comfort and warmth is a noble cause. After all the rhetoric we have heard from Ministers on that issue, they will be judged on whether they help to deliver the Bill. I support my hon. Friend's Bill.

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