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Mr. Mullin: As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are a listening Government. We have thought long and hard about the amendments in the group that we are considering. The inter-ministerial group on fuel poverty, about which the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) asked, has been working on its remit in recent weeks. Although much remains to be done, there is consensus that a target date will have to be set for the time when, as far as reasonably practicable, vulnerable persons no longer have to live in fuel poverty. Although we are not yet in a position to provide a formal date for achieving that objective, which applies to the Secretary of State in respect of England and to the National Assembly in respect of Wales, we are confident that it can and should be achieved within 15 years of the publication of the strategy.
The hon. Member for Ashford asked me about the timing of the publication of the strategy. As clause 1(1) of the Bill says, we intend to publish strategies within 12 months of commencement. The dates might be different for England and for Wales but that is the plan.
The hon. Gentleman asked me whether we could achieve the objective in under 15 years. We may do, but as he knows, we are a prudent Government as well as a listening Government, so we have set what we consider
As hon. Members recall, in Committee I expressed concerns about committing this and subsequent Governments to long-term spending plans by specifying a target date in the Bill. The amendment says that the strategy must in effect set a target date. We maintain that the Bill is not the appropriate place for an end target date, as I explained in Committee, but we are prepared to commit to the strategy of providing an end target date of 15 years after the publication of the strategy. This is not the same as specifying a date in the Bill.
I believe that we can live with the amendment and I ask the House to accept it. I am grateful to the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) for indicating that they intend to withdraw their amendments.
'persons in England or Wales do not live in fuel poverty'.
'( ) 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. Amess.]
'( ) local authorities or associations of local authorities,
( ) persons appearing to the appropriate authority to represent the interests of persons living in fuel poverty,'.
'( ) domestic energy providers,'.
'( ) domestic energy appliance and insulation providers,'.
'( ) local authorities and housing associations,'.
'( ) persons in fuel poverty,'.
'(aa) local authorities,
(ab) persons in fuel poverty, and'.
'( ) In this Act "local authority" means--
(a) in relation to England, the council of a county, district or London borough, the Common Council of the City of London or the Council of the Isles of Scilly, and
(b) in relation to Wales, the council of a county or county borough.'.
As drafted, the Bill requires the appropriate authority to consult on a strategy with such persons as he or she thinks fit. My right hon. Friends have raised concerns that the provision is not specific enough and that the two categories ought to be defined more precisely in the Bill.
My own feeling is that it is inconceivable that any Secretary of State would take the view that local authorities and persons in fuel poverty should be excluded from such consultation. Local authorities have a very important role to play both as major landlords and as organisations already involved in many schemes to reduce fuel poverty. However, I am only too pleased to move the amendments to clarify matters further and I hope that they will meet with the approval of right hon. and hon. Members.
Mr. Forth: I understand my hon. Friend's argument, but it worries me when anyone says that it is surely inconceivable that the Government would not do something and then gives the Government the benefit of the doubt. I understood that a large element of the legislative process was designed precisely not to give the Government the benefit of any doubt whatever, and that is very much the thrust of this morning's proceedings.
When the House takes decisions in making the law, we seek to strike a balance between not putting an undue amount of detail in the Bill--we had that argument on a previous group of amendments--and doing what we consider necessary to guarantee as far as we can that the Government will follow the aim and the spirit of the Bill. This is a very good case in point. Although my hon. Friend may be prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt, it is important to put matters beyond doubt and to specify in the Bill that the Government will undertake a process of consultation in order so that we can be satisfied that all those who are properly concerned are properly listened to.
Although we may all believe that the Minister, the Minister for the Environment and, indeed, the entire ministerial team can be relied on to undertake consultations, it is in the way of things--regrettable though it may be--that they may not be in post for the 15 years that it may take to complete the programme, although we all hope it will be sooner. Labour Members referred to a period of 10 years. Although this is only a guess, I doubt whether the ministerial team will be intact in 10 years' time. Therefore, it is prudent that the Bill should include a degree of specificity about consultation. The amendment would not alter the thrust of the Bill in any important way; indeed, it adds to and strengthens it.
This morning, we have been attempting to put the Bill in a state in which it can deliver what it was intended to deliver and meet the aspirations of people throughout the country--although I fear that, to some extent, their aspirations have been raised a little too high. Perhaps that is a matter for Third Reading. I am happy to endorse the amendments and I hope that the House will accept them.
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas: I, too, support amendments Nos. 50 and 52, which are entirely sensible. Does the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) envisage housing associations coming within the terms of the second element of amendment No. 50? Just as local authorities are key delivery mechanisms for tackling fuel poverty, so too are housing associations.
Local authorities and housing associations have both pioneered the development of residential combined heat and power schemes, which have helped to tackle fuel poverty. The excellent Combined Heat and Power Association suggested that a residential CHP scheme in Chesterfield has halved heating costs. St. Pancras Housing runs one of more than 60 residential CHP schemes around the country. It is pioneering a project next to Euston station. The energy bills of about 100 tenants have been cut by 20 per cent. Three years ago, the project was able to get rid of standing charges, and its advanced metering system has helped to get fuel bills down.
The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to focus on the contribution that local councils can make. It would have been somewhat surprising if the Government had chosen not to accept the amendment, given the support that they have already offered to residential CHP schemes in Southampton, Manchester and Tower Hamlets that have been developed--pioneered, indeed--by the local authorities, which have formed effective partnerships with the private sector, which in turn has helped to deliver the finance.
I want to highlight the scheme that Tower Hamlets council has developed on the Barkantine estate, in partnership with London Electricity. It is a good example of how local councils can contribute to the delivery of our strategy to tackle fuel poverty.