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Mr. Forth: I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 1, line 17, leave out "a target date" and insert "target dates".

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 41, in page 1, line 17, after "date", insert--

', which shall not be later than 15 years after the relevant commencement,'.

No. 49, in page 1, line 19, at end insert--

'( ) The target date specified under subsection (2)(d) must be not more than fifteen years after the date on which the strategy is published.'.

Mr. Forth: If one had to identify such a thing, one would say that this amendment is probably the most important today. The House need not take my word for that. In its leaflet, Friends of the Earth said of the 15-year target:

Friends of the Earth, having said that the target was a key element, had capitulated and were happy for it to be sacrificed, merely because the Government had said that

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they would oppose it. Happily, thanks to the letter that my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and I wrote to the Minister for the Environment--and, even more happily, thanks to the reply that we received from the right hon. Gentleman--we are about to put the provision back into the Bill. I think that we can take a small measure of satisfaction--no, a large measure of satisfaction--from the fact that a key element is to be restored to the Bill.

Friends of the Earth is not the sole supporter of the provision--and why should we accept anything that that organisation says? The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) said:

He obviously felt strongly about the matter, but apparently not strongly enough to vote against its removal in Committee. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), who is not present today, but who takes a strong interest in these matters, said:

The Minister did not do so: he went on to remove the 15-year target from the Bill and, regrettably, the hon. Lady did not oppose that. However, the world turns, people's attitudes change, and, thanks to our letter to the Minister for the Environment and his reply, here we are, gathered together, on the verge of restoring the 15-year target to the Bill.

Right from the start, it has been acknowledged that if the Bill was to mean anything at all, it had to contain such a framework. I know that the hon. Members who have always been enthusiastic about it took such a view. It is sad that although the Bill that returned to the House today contained no such reference, many hon. Members were prepared to accept it in that form. However, that is all behind us and we now have the opportunity to restore to the Bill a provision that everyone said was essential. Well, my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border and I do not merely say things--we act, and I am happy that our action has now enabled the House to restore the measure to the Bill.

I do not think that I have to say any more or do any persuading. I hope that the House will accept the amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), which would have the desired effect. If the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), indicates, as he has done so far, that the Government are prepared to support the amendment, I am sure that the House will follow suit and we shall then be able to make swift progress.

Mr. Alan Simpson: I should like to express my support for amendment No. 49, standing in the name of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess); he deserves my vote of thanks, because he has got me off the hook. The House will know that I have long been associated with previous forms of the Bill, which set out a 15-year programme, and that I have participated in campaigns in support of that. The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and I took a person in a polar bear suit with

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us to lobby the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions--we have tried to get Departments as well as individual Members of Parliament on board. Unfortunately, the weather was like today's and the person in the suit lost several pounds as a result.

Mr. Forth: When he met the 50 pensioners he told us about earlier, did the hon. Gentleman urge them to support the Bill as it stood this morning, or as it will be after we make the amendments?

11.30 am

Mr. Simpson: In truth, I was probably urging the pensioners to support the Bill that I originally tabled. We had an inkling that the Bill's promoter would move the amendment, and I acknowledge that it gets me off the hook. I want to be honest with the House. In the process of education to which the House contributes, we have learned that we were wrong when we originally wrote into the Bill a 15-year programme. During the past year, the all-party warm homes group has held hearings on how we could deliver a comprehensive programme to eliminate fuel poverty in Britain. We were persuaded, mainly by representations from people in the city of London, that 15 years was far too modest, and that we should be thinking of ways of achieving that goal within 10 years. I found myself in the embarrassing position of advocating a time frame that was likely to be in excess of what was within both public policy reach and public expectations of the Government.

I am grateful that the words "within 15 years" are to be inserted into the Bill. I welcome that, as it removes some of my embarrassment. A considerable time before I entered Parliament in 1992, I was involved in the "old and cold" campaign run by the Nottingham Evening Post, my local paper, which called for the elimination of fuel poverty within 10 years. The amendment allows us to catch up with the sense of urgency felt by the public about Government policy to tackle the problem, and with our parties' goals.

I say with wry satisfaction that my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of discussions in the inter-ministerial group about how far ahead a target date could be set, and will know that in the Labour party, our own recent policy forum suggested that in the forthcoming manifesto we should commit ourselves to a target date of 10 years. There is nothing less career-enhancing for a Minister than to propose a time frame commitment that is five years behind what his party is likely to propose.

The scope for achieving the goal within 15 years would allow the Minister to be ahead of the time frame, ahead of the game and in line with the party's expectations.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): I feel impelled to comment briefly on the remarks of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) on amendment No. 49, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). I spoke on Second Reading and I had the privilege of serving on the Committee, so some personal explanation is required of why I supported the withdrawal of the time limit and now support my hon. Friend's amendment.

The reason is that there is such all-party support for this vital measure that when, as I hope, the Bill is enacted, Parliament itself will keep Ministers of whatever hue up

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to the quickest possible programme to achieve the Bill's objectives. I was relaxed about leaving out the specification of not more than 15 years because I was confident that hon. Members of all parties would keep the Government of the day on their toes to achieve it.

Of course, I am equally happy now to support my hon. Friend's amendment, which specifies that the target date

I hope that it will be understood that the objective must be achieved in the quickest possible time, which I hope will be much sooner than 15 years.

Mr. Brake: I welcome the fact that the specification of 15 years is to be put back in the Bill and regret that it was taken out. In response to the point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I have learned a useful lesson: that what the Government say they will or will not do may be open to interpretation, and that within a matter of weeks the Government can prove to be quite flexible.

It is important to stipulate an end date, otherwise there is no guarantee that the programme will be completed. However, as has been said, I hope that 15 years will be taken as the final end date, and that the Government, local authorities and others involved in the programme will do everything possible to ensure that it is completed well before that date. Although there is some debate about how many people are affected by fuel poverty and the risks to their health, there is no doubt that the longer it takes to roll out the programme, the more people will suffer from hypothermia and other cold-related illnesses.

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