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Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): The commission for architecture and the built environment was set up by the Government under the chairmanship of Stuart Lipton. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a very good idea if it was in CABE's brief to look closely at initiatives to do with energy efficiency in homes wherever public money is being spent in large amounts? Does he agree that there should be a provision in all new measures to include such consideration by CABE?
Mr. Barron: That is absolutely true. In northern European countries such as Denmark, where new buildings are situated is taken into account, as is whether windows or doors on a gable end get the north wind. Such considerations are important when it comes to keeping a home warm.
Finally, I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West and the House as well. I sincerely believe that the Bill has great potential for energy conservation and for alleviating fuel poverty. I am not sure about the measurement of fuel poverty. Twenty years ago, it was quite easy to know whether people's gas or electricity supply was cut off. Indeed, there was--and, in theory, still is--protection for households with young children so that they were not cut off. With the advent of credit meters in the past decade, however, we do not know who the fuel poor are, or whether homes with small children are being cut off by self-cut-off. We must do something to protect those families and children. There is plenty that we can do, and the Bill is a good way to start.
Mr. Brake: I have a few points to make. It is worth remembering why the Bill is needed, and we have heard of the 45,000 extra winter deaths that may arise as a result of fuel poverty. Deaths rise by 30 per cent. in the United Kingdom in winter, which compares badly with a 10 per cent. increase in some Scandinavian countries.
It is also worth outlining what we hope the Bill will achieve. After perhaps 10 rather than 15 years, we hope for an end to unnecessary deaths. We expect to save the national health service £1 billion through reduced cold-related illnesses. The Bill will clearly assist the Government in achieving their climate change targets and
I welcome the changes that the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) has made to accommodate other hon. Members and to win support from both sides for his important Bill. Congratulations are due to him--he has perhaps been a little too self-deprecating--and to others, including the hon. Members for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy), who played key roles in the warm homes campaign, and Friends of the Earth and other organisations.
The degree of civilisation of any society can be measured by a number of yardsticks. How we treat asylum seekers, how we treat senior citizens and how tolerant we are of different beliefs are among them, and we may add to that list how we deal with fuel poverty. All hon. Members should be proud to be associated with a Bill that will, we hope, within 10 years--perhaps a little longer--provide everyone with a warm home. I urge all hon. Members to support it.
Mrs. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): I support this important Bill. One of the first things that new Members learn is how difficult it is to put a private Member's Bill through the House. We should therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and the House on a superb Bill.
I was interested in this issue throughout my many years in local government. Many reports were published during the 1980s, and it is sad that it has taken so long to address the problem. It is good to see it addressed today. Given the consensus in the House, I shall suspend my cynicism by welcoming the conversion to the cause of the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean).
In the 1980s, I read a report by Strathclyde regional council--as it then was--on the domino effect of poverty. Fuel poverty seriously damages people's health and education. As a former teacher, I can say that we never know how difficult it is for children who live in damp, cold homes to spend any time studying their books. Things got much worse between 1979 and 1997. Many more people in local authority homes suffered from the problems inherent in the systems building of the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
Fuel poverty is suffered by people unable to afford to keep their homes adequately warm. It is often a result of inadequate insulation, and poor people become even poorer because they pay more for heat that leaves through windows, walls, doors and floors. The Bill should help tackle that.
As a result of fuel poverty, an average 30,000 more people die each winter than would normally be expected, and 90 per cent. of them are over 60. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) noted that the figure was lower in Scandinavian countries, where homes are better heated and insulated.
Fuel poverty is a major problem in Scotland, but the housing committee of the Scottish Executive will address the issue over the next few months. I hope that it will adopt the approach exemplified in the Bill.
The consequences of fuel poverty are misery, discomfort, ill health and debt. Pensioners, lone-parent families, the long-term ill or disabled and people on low incomes and in poor housing are the most vulnerable, but I welcome and support the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron). The problem is not confined to people on benefit. Many others spend a great proportion of their income on fuel costs, and that is one reason why the Bill is so important.
The Government have done much already to tackle fuel poverty. Legislation is one approach, but other options exist. A great deal of money has been given to housing associations, through local authorities, for housing investment. The winter fuel payments have been increased, and the new guidelines have been issued to ensure that the provisions of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 are implemented and monitored. Without such monitoring, it is impossible to know how successful legislation is.
Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber): For many years, my hon. Friend was president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. What was her experience of fuel poverty at that time?
Mrs. McKenna: I remember that I visited the House for the first time in connection with a Bill on housing. In the 1980s, COSLA pleaded with the Conservative Government to recognise the importance of fuel poverty and to make available the resources needed to tackle it. I was housing convener in my local authority, and my top priority was to get homes heated. Giving people who cannot afford them warm, energy-efficient homes changes their lives dramatically, by reducing the proportion of income spent on heating. The effect is huge.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Does my hon. Friend agree that energy efficiency is an important factor in allowing older people to stay longer in their homes? Is not the Bill part of an important overall strategy?
Mrs. McKenna: My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I quickly found out when I was a housing convenor, many older people want to remain in their own homes. They do not all want smaller houses or sheltered accommodation, but are happier staying in the family home. This important measure will help such older people. We need greater flexibility in tackling the problems of housing for the elderly.
The inter-ministerial group on fuel poverty is extremely important. If we are serious about dealing with issues across the spectrum, we need groups such as that. The group's terms of reference are to take a strategic overview, to ensure that policies and initiatives with a bearing on fuel poverty are co-ordinated across Government and integrated with the activities of relevant external bodies, such as regulators and the energy industry.
Mrs. McKenna: The right hon. Gentleman might have noticed that I pointed out that the Scottish Executive was looking into the matter. I also said that I hoped that it would take the measure on board when it was deciding how to tackle fuel poverty in Scotland. I am certainly well aware of the Bill's provisions.
I am not as sensitive as the right hon. Gentleman. When I say "this country", I am talking about Great Britain, of which Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are integral parts, although there is devolved government. I do not have a problem with that. I hope that when we have regional government in England, regional bodies will be able to address fuel poverty in their areas.