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House of Commons

Friday 21 July 2000

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Orders of the Day

Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 12

Meaning of "fuel poverty"

'.--(1) For the purposes of this Act a person is to be regarded as living "in fuel poverty" if he is a member of a household living on a lower income in a home which cannot be kept warm at reasonable cost.

(2) The Secretary of State (as respects England) or the National Assembly for Wales (as respects Wales) may by regulations--
(a) specify what is to be regarded for the purposes of subsection (1) as a lower income or a reasonable cost or the circumstances in which a home is to be regarded for those purposes as being warm, or
(b) substitute for the definition in subsection (1) such other definition as may be specified in the regulations.
(3) Before making regulations under subsection (2), the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales shall consult--
(a) persons appearing to the Secretary of State or the Assembly to represent the interests of persons living in fuel poverty, and
(b) such other persons as the Secretary of State or the Assembly thinks fit.
(4) Regulations under subsection (2) shall be made by statutory instrument; and a statutory instrument containing such regulations made by the Secretary of State shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'.--[Mr. Amess.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.34 am

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 46, in clause 1, page 1, line 9, leave out from "practicable" to end of line 10 and insert--

'persons do not live in fuel poverty'.

No. 3, in page 1, line 10, leave out "on lower incomes" and insert "in fuel poverty".

No. 5, in page 1, line 10, at end insert--

'(1A) For the purposes of this section "households in fuel poverty" are those which need to spend 10 per cent. or more of their income to provide adequate heat and energy.'.

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No. 33, in page 1, line 10, at end insert--

'(1A) For the purpose of this Act "households on lower incomes" means households with a household income which is less than half the current average.'.

No. 35, in page 1, line 10, at end insert--

'(1A) For the purpose of this Act "household income" means the combined income of all those living within the confines of a set dwelling.'.

No. 48, in page 1, line 18, leave out from "practicable" to end of line 19 and insert--

'persons in England or Wales do not live in fuel poverty'.

No. 13, in page 1, line 18, leave out "on lower incomes" and insert "in fuel poverty".

No. 14, in page 1, line 18, leave out "on lower incomes" and insert--

'in receipt of benefit payments'.

No. 17, in page 1, line 19, at end insert--

', and
( ) provide a definition of fuel poverty which will facilitate achievement of the objectives of section 1(1).'.

No. 51, in page 2, line 10, leave out subsection (7).

No. 31, in page 2, line 16, at end insert--

' "fuel poverty" means households obliged to spend 20 per cent. or more of their (after tax and benefits) income to keep acceptably warm, having regard to such factors as the age and medical condition of the occupants and the external ambient temperatures;'.

No. 39, in page 2, line 16, at end insert--

'"fuel poverty" means the inability of a household to keep warm at reasonable cost'.

Mr. Amess: Although we tend not to talk about such things, outside observers may sometimes be confused by our proceedings. There is no doubt that our customs are puzzling to those outside. However, I should say immediately that, as the promoter of the Bill, I have absolutely no complaints about the procedures and processes which others might describe as tortuous.

There is no point in entering the competition, as I did last autumn, knowing and understanding fully the rules of engagement, and then griping when things do not go as smoothly as one would wish. Although some hon. Members think that the Report stage of a Bill is a complete waste of time, I do not agree: I find it extremely valuable and I hope that this morning we will discover at first hand how the new clauses and amendments that I hope to persuade the House to accept result entirely from the taking on board of points that were made in earlier debates on the Bill.

I recognise the need to work with other parties and I have taken on board the concerns of other right hon. and hon. Members in order to obtain the widest possible support for the Bill. I am very grateful for the help and encouragement that has been offered by so many right hon. and hon. Members at every stage.

The amendments are very much a reflection of that spirit. I hope that the House will agree that the proposed changes are sensible and will benefit the people whom we are most concerned to help--our constituents--enabling them to afford to keep warm during the winter months.

Second Reading seems a long time ago, but at the time I told the House that I felt very uncomfortable with the term "fuel poverty". I was born and bred in the east end

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of London and some people may have thought that I was poor, as my family did not have a bathroom, only an outside toilet; however, I, and other children like me, certainly did not feel poor. When we talk about fuel poverty, we have to be very careful about our language as "poor" may not mean the same thing to different people.

Without antagonising Labour Members, let me say as a Conservative that I felt that the term "fuel poverty" sounded rather socialist. Labour Members may say, "What is wrong with using socialist terms?", but having taken on board new Labour and everything it stands for, I felt rather uncomfortable with that term. As a result, I was happy when it was removed from the Bill in Committee and when the requirement on the Government changed from the requirement to end fuel poverty to the requirement to ensure that all lower-income households could keep their homes warm at a reasonable cost. That represents no change of substance to the Bill, as fuel poverty is simply the inability to keep a home warm at reasonable cost. I regarded it as indulging in semantics to talk about fuel poverty, but various concerns were raised and I revisited the drafting in order to address them and reinstate the term. The new clause defines fuel poverty as before, but with additional parts.

It is inevitable that certain terms in the definition, such as "reasonable cost", "lower-income" and even "warm", are somewhat subjective. We discussed those phrases in Committee. I am pleased that the Minister confirmed that "lower-income" is a wider term than "low-income" and includes more than just people on benefits, because hon. Members were worried about that.

We still face the dilemma of wanting clarity but not wanting the Bill to be so inflexible and narrowly defined that future improvements in measuring fuel poverty cannot be made without amending primary legislation. That is very important and it is why the new clause allows the finer points of the definition to be set by regulations. I hope that the House will agree that that represents a sensible balance.

The remaining parts of the new clause refer to consultation, and I hope that the House will accept my judgment on those matters.

Amendments Nos. 46 and 48 are consequent on the new clause, inserting the term "fuel poverty" as necessary. Amendment No. 51 is the final amendment that I hope hon. Members will support. It removes clause 1(7), which had initially been included so that, if a strategy for fulfilling the requirements of the Bill was published before it became law, we would not require it to be re-published needlessly, as quite enough documents are being published at great cost to the public purse. That subsection is no longer necessary because things have moved on in the Departments that work on the strategy, and it has become clear that no strategy will be produced before the Bill comes into effect.

My amendments deal with the legitimate concerns reflected in the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friends the Members for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), so I hope that they will not press their amendments and that my amendments and new clause will be accepted.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): The Bill has undergone an even more tortuous process than most

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Bills, so I want to explain where we are to those who may be mystified. The Bill started with high hopes and aspirations and wide support in the House, and about 140 hon. Members took the trouble to turn up and vote for it at an earlier stage.

When we discussed the money resolution, the Minister said that the Bill

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