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1.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) has raised an important issue with his characteristic flair. Not only will energy efficiency help to reduce heating bills, it will--as the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) was right to emphasise--also bring environmental benefits.

As was evident during the debate, the Bill has support on both sides. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) said, the debate was in danger of becoming a bit of a love-in, with the exception of the legendary scepticism of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), without whom no debate of this nature would be complete.

I also wish to acknowledge the role played by my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford)--who has the second and third Bills this afternoon, which are both relevant to this issue--has also long taken an interest in energy efficiency.

The Bill places a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and publish a strategy and targets, with the intended aim of reducing the incidence of fuel poverty in England and Wales, and to implement the strategy thereafter. That is a worthwhile and necessary aim. As hon. Members have acknowledged, tackling fuel poverty has been a Government priority. I was a little disappointed to hear the hon. Member for Ashford say that the Government's measures do not measure up to the scale of the problem. Perhaps they do not, but they do measure up to the record of the previous Government.

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According to recent estimates, at least 4.3 million households have difficulty with fuel bills. As hon. Members have said, many poor people have to make choices between being warm or sacrificing spending on other pressing priorities. Their problems arise from the combination of low incomes, poorly insulated housing and expensive-to-run or inadequate heating systems. Under-occupation can also be an issue.

Research indicates that cold homes are the major domestic health hazard, and that tackling fuel poverty requires improvement in the energy efficiency of the homes of vulnerable households. That is why the Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty and are taking a range of measures actively to alleviate it.

Perhaps I can set out the progress that we have already made. We have cut value added tax on fuel and on energy efficiency materials supplied through Government schemes, so that people can now better afford to heat and insulate their homes.

We have established the new home energy efficiency scheme which, from June, will provide comprehensive packages of heating and insulation improvements to households most at risk from cold-related ill health--the elderly and families on low income, the disabled or chronically sick. The scheme will include efficient central heating systems for people over 60 on low incomes. It will offer grants of up to £2,000 per household, in contrast to the £315 available under the current scheme, which still leaves many people in difficulty. The scheme will focus particularly on the private rented and owner-occupied sectors. They account for about 70 per cent. of fuel-poor households and are missed by the current programme. In England, the new scheme will have a budget of about £260 million for the first two years, and is expected to assist about 460,000 households. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will have their own schemes.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): I wish to alert my hon. Friend to a possible problem that may evolve in the scheme being introduced in England. Government policy places emphasis on getting new deal people on to training schemes. However, the energy action grants agency will employ its own surveyors, and the people doing the installations--the companies involved in training--will not know whether they will be allocated contracts until those surveyors have reported back to the agency. Until then, people on the new deal will have nothing to do but sit around. In Scotland, the installers can carry out the surveys as well. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that option.

Mr. Mullin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We shall certainly do our best to learn any lessons from the Scottish experience.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) asked how we would prioritise matters. It is our intention to establish referral networks, in which local authority health and social services departments will try to identify the 460,000 most-in-need households that we hope to deal with in the scheme's first two years.

The Government have also provided substantial extra resources for housing investment by local authorities through the housing investment programme. That amounts to £3.6 billion over the three years to 2001-02, and will be used to tackle the backlog of renovation work

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needed in social housing. These resources should have a significant impact in tackling fuel poverty, through improved energy efficiency, which is one of the priorities of strategic stock maintenance programmes. We are asking local authorities to report on their policies and achievements specifically in combating fuel poverty, in conjunction with the reports that they already prepare under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 on the implementation of their home energy conservation strategies.

We have introduced, and subsequently increased by 400 per cent., winter fuel payments for pensioners. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet asked what the cost was. In 1999-2000, it was £675 million. Next year, when payments are extended to the over-60s, the total cost will be £850 million. The hon. Gentleman also made a point about VAT on home improvements, to which I am sure many right hon. and hon. Members will be sympathetic. I hear what he says, and I will pass the message on to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

We have introduced the minimum wage and the minimum income guarantee for pensioners. Those measures should also have some impact on the ability of poor people to pay for heating.

The inter-ministerial group, chaired jointly by the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in the other place, will consider the impact of these programmes. The group met for the first time in January this year. It will seek to develop a more accurate picture of the extent of the problem, how quickly it can be addressed, and at what cost. It will also develop and publish a strategy setting out the Government's fuel poverty objectives, and how they will be achieved.

Alongside these Government actions, the electricity and gas regulator has announced that he is continuing the energy efficiency standards of performance scheme for the electricity industry to 2002, and extending it for the first time to gas consumers as well. After 2002, there are provisions in the Utilities Bill for the Government to take over responsibility for setting standards, as part of the climate change programme, with continuing emphasis on help to pensioners and low-income consumers. All those measures represent part of a significant package that should have a marked effect on tackling fuel poverty and improving energy efficiency.

As I mentioned a few moments ago, the aim of the Bill is both worth while and necessary. It mirrors the measures that we already have in hand. It would play a part in our fuel poverty programme, ensuring that the most vulnerable households need no longer risk ill health due to a cold home.

The hon. Member for Southend, West would, I think, be surprised if I said that the Government were entirely content with the Bill. We will need to look at the detail of the drafting to ensure that it accurately reflects Government policy. We have to consider provisions for bringing the measure into force and, bearing in mind the Government's current spending commitments and reviews, we want to consider carefully the references to time scales and targets.

Mr. Baldry: To those Conservative Members who have been Ministers, that sounded very much like code

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for "the Government intend to kill off the Bill on Report." We have been through that before. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the Government do not intend to give the Bill a fair wind now, with the intention of killing it off on Report and Third Reading?

Mr. Mullin: We certainly have no intention of killing off the Bill.

Mr. Garnier: Will the Government therefore unwittingly kill of the Bill?

Mr. Mullin: I do not think that I will dignify that with a response.

A number of hon. Members have asked about cost. Nothing in the Bill would increase spending per se. In any case, the Government have greatly increased spending in this area, as I have outlined. The Bill would enshrine existing commitments.

We accept that the Bill has merit, and I am glad to be able to advise the hon. Gentleman that the Government will support it, subject to amendments on matters of detail.

Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham) rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put, but Mr. Deputy Speaker withheld his assent, and declined then to put that Question.

1.55 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): It seems strange to follow a Minister in debate, as we can do on Fridays. I welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I feel privileged to speak in the debate. I am a former member of the housing committee in Bolton, an officer of the warm homes group and a member of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit.

The Bill has a fair wind behind it and, as we have just heard, the Government will put their force behind it too. In November, I received a document about the warm homes campaign, which included a nice photograph of the Bill's promoter, the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). The campaign reminded us that 434 people were behind the Bill.

The Environmental Audit Committee recently produced one of its best-received reports--on energy efficiency. The report pointed out that it is a national scandal that about 8 million households in Britain cannot afford to pay for the warmth they need. People on incomes of less than £5,000 a year certainly cannot afford to heat their homes. The plight of the elderly has rightly been stressed in the debate. They suffer ill health and death because of the problem.

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In addition, I draw the House's attention to the cause of lone parents and families with children who are caught in the poverty trap. More than a third of lone parents lack even the most basic forms of insulation in their homes.

In Bolton, 51,200 people--19 per cent. of the town's population--are aged over-60. One third of the town's households include a pensioner. Across the country, 62 per cent. of pensioner homes fail to meet the standard assessment procedure minimum levels of heat retention or of efficiency in their heating systems.

More than 13 per cent. of people in the north-west pay for their fuel in pre-payment meters. More and more people are going on to such meters. In February, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in York published the findings of a research study undertaken by the university of Newcastle into access to energy--among other matters.

That study made a good point, which has not been referred to in the debate. It noted that those of us who are fairly well off are made even better off by the utilities, because they make it cheaper for us to pay for energy through banker's drafts or standing orders. However, those who cannot afford to buy fuel have to go on to those wretched pre-payment meters. They have to pay more for their fuel than those of us who are more affluent. Furthermore, they often disconnect themselves, either accidentally or because they have no money--usually the latter.

Several of my constituents have complained to me about access for renewing their cards--even supposing that they have the money to do so. They often have to travel to an adjacent town. I have even given people lifts so that they could renew their energy cards. It can often cost £1 each way for one of my constituents to go to one of the energy providers in town just to put about £5 on the card--that is all they can afford. It costs them £2 to load the card with £5 of energy. That cannot be right. I hope that this Government, or a future Government, will tackle that.

The link between bad housing and bad health is indisputable and has frequently been referred to in the debate. Every drop of 1 deg C below the winter average results in 8,000 avoidable deaths. That is a scandal. In the north-west alone, there were an estimated 2,830 excess deaths in the winter months of 1998-99.

In 1986, I was elected chairman of Bolton housing committee. At that stage, we were spending £15,000, which was then a considerable sum, totally refurbishing public sector houses in selected areas of the town. I stopped that because people all over Bolton were complaining about damp homes. I decided to launch two programmes, which have been highly successful.

One programme was to give every council house tenant a modular heating system--modular, because we found that many of them could not afford to run full gas central heating systems at a cost of £300 to £500 a year. With our modular systems, they could turn on as many of the units as they could afford. That programme was completed early, and now the older heating systems are being renewed.

The second programme that I introduced was to refurbish the exteriors of all the houses that needed repair, with new roofs, cavity wall insulation and double-glazed

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windows, at a saving of between £5 and £7 a week for all the council tenants who benefited. I am pleased to say that that programme is also almost complete.

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