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Mr. Amess: Again, I thank hon. Members for their support.

Amendment No. 11 requires the setting of target dates, rather than a target date, for eradicating fuel poverty, and amendment No. 41 requires that to be not more than 15 years after the relevant commencement.

On amendment No. 49, it is known that I wanted to include a 15-year target in the Bill when I originally adopted it. I recall as though it were yesterday the meeting with Lord Whitty in the other place, when I and other hon. Members discussed these matters at length with him and his officials. I shall not dwell on that, but at the time it seemed to be a sticking point for the Government.

I believe that politics is the art of the possible. I decided, and I know that sponsors and supporters of the Bill agreed with me, that it was still worth while having a Bill that required the Government to set their own target, for two reasons. First, we would have been establishing in law the responsibility to end fuel poverty, which is extremely important. We would have had to argue about how to do it and how quickly, but no longer about whether we should do it.

Secondly, my judgment was that the Government would find it very difficult to set a target further ahead than 15 years. About 300 Labour Members had supported the target date. The Minister for the Environment has answered parliamentary questions claiming that the vast majority of fuel poverty could be eradicated not in 15 years but in 10. A few weeks ago in Exeter the Labour national policy forum decided that the aim should be a 10-year programme to end fuel poverty.

My judgment appears to have been correct. We are almost eight months on from the time when I first adopted the Bill, and the Government have continued to examine

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fuel poverty policy during that time. That is to their credit, and I hope that they will not regard it as damning if I say so. Their further investigations have clearly led them to the view that 15 years is a sensible longstop, and I understand that they intend to support the amendment. I pay tribute to the Government for that decision, and I am grateful to them for reconsidering the matter.

I am not being churlish, but I have a slight concern about the 15-year strategy, which is shared by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy), and which I hope the Minister will address in his response. I would like the programme to be implemented a great deal faster, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) said. The amendment states only that the programme should not be longer than 15 years. I know that all right hon. and hon. Members hope that we can deal with the matter much more quickly than that.

Mr. Maclean: I want to speak about amendments No. 41 and 49, which refer respectively to a date of

and to the 15-year strategy. They are two of the most important amendments to the Bill. Rather than restoring a provision that was in the original Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), they would incorporate into it a time scale from the Bill that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) promoted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West did not need to apologise to the House or be self-deprecating about the fact that he did not include the concept in the original Bill. That was perfectly understandable. In promoting the Bill, my hon. Friend had to negotiate with the Government at the beginning of the Session and ascertain what was acceptable. If the Government said that the inclusion of such a provision was unacceptable, my hon. Friend was right to proceed without it.

Six months of parliamentary process have passed in the meantime. Changes in the parliamentary timetable and the progress of Bills meant that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and I were able to make the Government an offer that they could not refuse. We were dealt a lucky hand of cards, and it was a bit cheeky of my right hon. Friend and I to write to the Minister to say that we wanted to incorporate provisions to lift the 15-year target. We were worried that we might have been asking for too much, and that the Minister would say no and reject everything. Had that been the case, we would be debating amendment No. 41 at this moment, and I suspect that hon. Members from all parties would deplore it and not want to accept it; it would have been regarded as a wrecking amendment.

A month ago, when I tabled amendment No. 41, which states that the target should

my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and I were accused of attempting to wreck the Bill, not by any hon. Member but by outside organisations. They regarded amendment No. 41 as a ghastly wrecking amendment, and said, "How dare you table that; we all know that the Government can't accept it. You'll ruin the Bill."

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The Government have sensibly concluded that it is possible to accept such an amendment. That is a tribute to our parliamentary procedures and to hon. Members from all parties. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West and to Labour Members who follow such matters and understand parliamentary procedures. Today, hon. Members from all parties are able to improve the Bill because our parliamentary procedures allow that to happen and because ordinary Back-Bench Members were able to negotiate sensibly with the Under-Secretary and the Minister for the Environment, who was also gracious, courteous and willing to listen and incorporate such a provision in the Bill. My only worry is that if a Government accept a 15-year target, they know that they can achieve it in 12 years. The Government are unlikely to accept a target that they know they cannot fulfil. But perhaps that is unkind.

We have given the Bill greater integrity. I do not say that it did not have integrity before, but I suspect that the majority of people believed that the target would be achieved in 15 years. All the propaganda from environmental organisations mentions the 15-year programme Bill, which refers to an earlier measure. By incorporating a target, we have also introduced some integrity to this Bill. We will thus not deceive the public. We have set an ultimate target date, which is important. However, the important point about the 15-year target is that this Government and any future Government will do their utmost to beat it. The Government will not want to fail to meet a target, no matter what it is--15 years, 10 years or 25 years. Our incorporation of a target means that the Government will want to try to show how good they are and bring the date forward.

Without a target in the Bill, there would be less pressure on any Government--Tory or Labour--to perform. Governments wish to succeed, but events can affect that wish. For example, an international oil crisis could crop up. I can imagine the Minister being advised, "Well, Minister, there's an awful crisis. It may mean we have to let the target slip. There is no target date, of course, so you won't be criticised in Parliament if the plan takes 17 or 20 years. There's no firm date." If the Bill contains a firm date, which we will insert today, all Governments will be under a greater obligation to perform.

11.45 am

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West has tabled an amendment that is similar to mine. I accept that amendment No. 49 is better drafted, and technically and legally correct. It would have essentially the same effect as amendment No. 41, but I am willing not to press amendment No. 41. I shall be happy for amendment No. 49, on the 15-year target, to be included in the Bill. That is the will of the House. I am also grateful to play a small part in saving the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) embarrassment.

Mr. Green: I do not want to interrupt the flow of harmony that seems to be spreading across and along Benches. I will simply ask the Minister for some clarification of the Government's intentions. First, I want to ask a simple question about the strategy's publication date. Amendment No. 49 sets a 15-year target from the date of the strategy's publication. In my more suspicious

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moments, I realise that the only remaining chink of opportunity for delay is in the publishing of the strategy. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House when the Government propose to publish the strategy, given the usual parliamentary processes that the Bill still has to undergo.

Other hon. Members from all parties have already mentioned my second point, which concerns the practicality not only of a 15-year target but of a possible target of less than 15 years. It has been suggested in the large amount of correspondence that has been exchanged in the past few weeks that one reason for the Government's reconsideration of the 15-year target is that, through the inter-ministerial group that has been working on such subjects for some time, the Government have a greater feel for the practicality of the measures that they need to take. They have presumably considered the public finance consequences of those measures and their ability to achieve them.

Will the Minister tell us whether the inter-ministerial group has changed the Government's overall thinking about the practicality of a 15-year target and, if so, whether there is a possibility of not only hitting the target but of improving on it? I do not expect the Minister to commit the Government to another target this morning, but it would be valuable if he could say whether it is practical even to think that we might be able to hit a target that is less than 15 years.

I am sure that the House is grateful not only to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) for tabling amendment No. 49, but also to my right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) for the pressure that they brought to bear on Ministers to make a significant concession. It is probably the most significant concession that the Government have made during the passage of the Bill. I urge and expect the Minister to support amendment No. 49.

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