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12.33 pm

Mrs. Ewing: I thank the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) for his kind comments earlier. I hope that he, his colleagues and other hon. Members will support the all-party warm homes group, of which I had the pleasure to be a member. I was the first convenor of the group and have been succeeded by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson). The group has gleaned much information and gives great support to Members. Hon. Members will be glad to hear that the Scottish Parliament is setting up a similar group--as, no doubt, will the Welsh Assembly.

I remember the polar bear incident at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and the occasion when we delivered hundredweights of ice cubes to the Department of Health. The issue crossed many departmental boundaries. Incidentally, the young man in the polar bear suit lost two or three pounds in weight on that day.

It is appropriate that we are discussing this subject on a hot day--some people are probably thinking about air conditioning. However, we should not discuss fuel poverty only during the winter months, when Ministers and politicians are more acutely aware of the problems faced by so many of our people. We should not think about such matters only when Jack Frost blows a chill through the hall; the issue should be addressed every day and never allowed to leave our consciences.

I am delighted that the definition of fuel poverty has been reinserted into the Bill today. Fuel poverty is a scourge for far too many of our citizens, affecting, in particular, the elderly and the disabled. When I was first elected to the House in 1974, I began to pursue the issue. Like others, I have consistently striven to heighten

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awareness of the problem. When I first raised the issue of excess winter deaths in the period from 1974 to 1979, I was publicly accused of scaremongering because it was said that elderly people were frightened to turn on their electric fires. It has taken a long time in the development of the psyche of the political body to absorb the realities of what we have said for many years. It is not a new issue and it did not come in with any particular Government. The problem has existed for a very long time.

When I first asked questions about excess winter deaths, the problem was defined as hypothermia and I was told that only people who had died on Snowdon, the mountains of Scotland and in the Lake district were recorded as dying from the cold. However, we know from the death certificates of the elderly and the hatches, matches and dispatches columns of any newspaper that, in January and February, the lists of people dying get longer and longer. It is usually the elderly that are affected. As the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said, we live in an energy rich country, but such deaths are the stark reality.

It has been a fair fecht for the hon. Member for Southend, West and the sponsors to get the Bill to this stage. I congratulate everyone who has worked with passion and determination to help to eradicate such a terrible blight on our social conscience. I also thank all the voluntary, statutory and private organisations that have worked behind the scenes for many years and supported our efforts and supported the Bill.

I say to the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean)--they are sitting on my right, and probably my extreme right--that one does not always have to accept the advice that is given by organisations. Such advice is offered, but we have a responsibility, as Members of the House, to analyse information carefully and to carry it forward into the legislative programme. The right hon. Gentlemen have not examined the problem of excess winter deaths throughout the United Kingdom. I have supported the Bill even though I realise that it does not apply to Scotland.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Nor to Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Ewing: As the hon. Gentleman points out, it does not apply to Northern Ireland, either.

We now have our own way of doing things in Scotland, but it is my sincere hope, as someone who has served in the House for a long time, that we shall exchange ideas and co-operate on matters that affect all our citizens. I have never wavered in my principled belief that legislators throughout the United Kingdom have a huge responsibility on our shoulders to address this issue.

I sat through the statement on the comprehensive spending review. Nothings spilled out of the Chancellor's mouth and I found it very difficult to understand the figures that he gave. Talking in billions does not mean much to people who are not economic experts. We have to take the numbers that emerge and turn them into reality for our people. Although we have financial obligations to everyone who pays tax, there are moral obligations on those of us who are elected to serve.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West and his sponsors on bringing the Bill to fruition. It is not the end of the story, but it is part of a process and a good beginning.

Mr. Alan Simpson: I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on getting the Bill to this stage. He has been generous in his thanks to other people, but we should not kid ourselves about the part that he has played. The truth of the matter is that the Bill was almost dead in its tracks on at least two occasion in the process of getting to the House. To a large extent, it is down to the hon. Gentleman's skill, diplomacy and commitment to steering between competing interests, fishing the Bill out from the sidelines of the political process and putting it back in the mainstream that we have the opportunity to turn the Bill into legislation today. The whole House owes him a debt of gratitude for his persistence in refusing to allow the Bill to be sidelined, as it might have been.

The hon. Gentleman deserves the right to have the Bill go on to the statute book in his name, and it is proper that he should give credit to those who played a part in bringing it to this stage. However, perhaps he ought to have added one or two names to his list. My own involvement in the parliamentary campaign goes back to the work of Sir John Hannan, a Conservative Member who first drew the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and me into the all-party warm homes group, and who was already campaigning for such a measure when I came to Parliament. An important role was also played by Baroness Maddock, who was successful in a ballot and took the matter forward a further stage. It is a tribute to the persistence and commitment of Members of different parties that we have kept the issue here and, hopefully, will see it through to the statute book.

The real ownership of the Bill will belong not to the House, but to the people whose lives are saved and extended and whose quality of life is improved by the measures that will be set out in the programme that will follow the Bill. I will not add more plaudits to those that have been given to Friends of the Earth, as I understand that its phone lines are already jammed with new subscribers. However, I want to thank those who have pestered us, as excess deaths from fuel poverty have been--and continue to be--a scandal that should have been removed from the UK's political landscape long ago.

In my own case, more than 20 years ago I was waylaid by a young reporter working for the Nottingham Evening Post called David Lowe, who dragged me around houses where people were leading impoverished lives in the most miserably poor conditions. Almost single-handedly, he took up the old and cold campaign for the Evening Post and bombarded politicians with stories of outrageous housing neglect and housing poverty that demanded answers. The Evening Post has continued that campaign and, almost every week, politicians of all parties within its circulation area have a sense of being pestered by the question "When are you going to come up with the comprehensive programme that will deal with fuel poverty and eliminate it as a scar on the social landscape?"

Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue has fired our constituents, if I can use such a term? I have continued to receive

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representations about supporting the Bill. After a meeting at 10 o'clock on Wednesday evening, someone even came up and urged me to support the Bill today. In England, Wales and throughout the country, people have taken an interest in the matter and are pleased that the Bill is going through today.

Mr. Simpson: Absolutely. I would just add that my own experience is in precisely that context. Councillor Brian Parbutt, the deputy leader of Nottingham city council, said to me this morning, "For goodness' sake, get the Bill through today." Almost every local authority in the land is waiting for the House to give a green light for a remit-cum-instruction so that they can go ahead and address the problem comprehensively and so improve considerably the quality in life of people in their own constituencies and local areas.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that, just like Nottingham, parts of Coventry have had the experiences that he described. Does he agree that the Bill is vital, given the fluctuations in fuel prices in this country and across the globe?

Mr. Simpson: I agree that the Bill is vital in terms of fuel prices, but it will also allow a massive release of imagination. Houses have been built in Newark and Sherwood with an annual fuel bill of no more than £17 a year. That is warm homes by design, not by changing the price of fuel. In south London, houses have been converted so that they now receive net cash payments from the grid because they put more energy back into the process than they take out.

The Bill gives us an incredible opportunity to put energy conservation alongside the elimination of fuel poverty and the blighting of people's lives, and it does so in ways that will create jobs, save energy and save lives. It will allow young people to become part of the solution to energy and fuel poverty problems. For that we should all be grateful.


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