Homes Bill

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Mr. Raynsford: I hesitate to move into territory that I consider it only peripherally relevant to the amendments, but as the hon. Member for Bath has implied that we are dragging our feet, I put it to him that the issues are, as he has acknowledged, extremely complex, involving strong differences of opinion among technical experts, including those involved in house construction and renovation, and potential conflicts with other building regulations, not least those on noise transmission between properties. Those facts are matters of concern and it would be inappropriate to proceed over-hastily with measures that might have both desirable and undesirable consequences.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the Minister for making that point, in the way he did. I hope that he will acknowledge that my point was that I fully understood the complexity of the issue, and in no way was being critical of the delay. I merely sought to point out that, around the time that we first attempted to discuss the matter in the House, the Minister said in a press release:

    We then aim to consult on a first package in the latter half of 1999 to enable significant improvements to come into effect in the first half of 2000. Other packages will then follow.

The Minister said that he has not been able to deliver on that timetable, for the good reasons of the significant technical difficulties and the conflicts that have begun to appear between the proposals and other pieces of regulation.

I am a little sceptical of the Minister's ability to bring the seller's pack in by 2003 because, as our deliberations have already demonstrated, there is not the necessary level of agreement about the proposals for it. That is also the case among the public and among professional bodies. Introducing it is likely to give rise to more complications than arose in relation to the building regulations. I have made strong arguments as to why it is worth accepting the new schedule, even if the seller's pack proposals are introduced by 2003, as it would provide an interim measure. I nevertheless believe it likely that that measure would have to operate for a longer period.

The Minister said that the seller's pack would provide information to all house buyers, whereas new schedule 1 would apply only to those with mortgage surveys. He is correct, as I have told him. I genuinely believe that the seller's pack is a better long-term solution. However, I hope that he will agree that the new schedule was intended as an interim set of proposals that could be rapidly introduced, so I based it on the very legislative proposals that he and his Government had already brought before the House, through my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon. The assumption must surely be that they have worked out all the technical difficulties associated with it, and that it could be brought in quickly, so that at least 1.5 million homes could benefit from its provisions.

I apologise for my remarks having been rather lengthy, but the issue is important. I look forward to the debate, and to the Minister's response. If he finds himself unable in any way to accept any of the amendments, I ask him to explain what has changed his mind since the measures were proposed and supported by him, the Government or many of his hon. Friends.

Mr. Loughton: We agreed with much of what the hon. Member for Bath said, which is why we were happy to add our names to the new schedule. I shall not go into detail about the points that he made.

The issue should be cut and dried. There is no dispute among the vast majority of members of the Committee about the facts that energy efficiency is desirable and that it can be brought about by measures such as are proposed in our and the Liberal Democrats' amendments, new clause and new schedule. Our amendments, Nos. 27 and 28, would make it clear in the Bill that energy efficiency information should be classed as relevant information required by the Secretary of State, and that regulations should require energy efficiency information to be included in the seller's pack.

The track records of the majority of members of the Committee, including the Minister, should show that there would be no objection to that. I too tripped with great interest through the 1993 report of the Environment Committee, of which the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold were members. I am sure that they could swap distant but affectionate recollections of their discussions.

12.30 pm

I acquainted myself with paragraph 102 of the report, which urges a mandatory scheme for home energy labelling. At that time, the energy labelling system was in its infancy and very confused. There were three different energy labelling systems: the national home energy rating system, the star point scheme, and the standard assessment procedures, or SAPs. The report made a useful contribution. The Minister must have supported mandatory labelling, because nowhere in the report can I find any record of division or dissension among the Committee's members. Will he explain why he now seems reluctant to include a mandatory energy efficiency report in the legislation?

The hon. Member for Bath discussed in detail the ancient history of energy efficiency. He paid tribute to a former Conservative Member, now Lord Walker, who was one of the initiators of the subject. The origins of the private Member's Bill that forms the basis for new schedule 1 lie beyond the proposals of the hon. Members for Torridge and West Devon and for Eltham (Mr. Efford); they go back to my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), who was the first of that triumvirate to introduce a private Member's energy efficiency Bill. The previous Environment Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), has a great deal of form on energy efficiency measures, going back to the Energy Saving Trust, requirements being placed on suppliers, the home energy efficiency scheme, and so on. All the parties—and the previous Government in particular—have demonstrated interest in and support for energy efficiency.

Mr. Raynsford: If the previous Government had such a commitment, will the hon. Gentleman explain why they did not introduce mandatory labelling at the point of sale to which he is now committed?

Mr. Loughton: That is a bit cheeky of the Minister. He is about to tell us that mandatory labelling is so complex that the Government could not possibly introduce it within six years of taking office.

Mr. Don Foster: The Minister's remark would be worthy if he were to say that he will support such a measure shortly. If he does not, would he not be adopting the same position as the previous Government?

Mr. Loughton: That is why I said that the Minister was cheeky. Since the 1993 report, energy labelling and other measures have become much more widespread, and technology has advanced at a great pace. It would be easier to introduce mandatory labelling now than in 1993, when the Environment Committee, of which he was a fully paid up member, produced the recommendation contained in the amendments and new schedule.

The hon. Member for Bath said that 1.5 million private residential property transactions took place last year. The sooner an element of energy efficiency can be added to those transactions, the better. Fuel poverty has not been alleviated under the present Government, despite all their warm words, to coin a pun.

As our discussion of clause 1 has shown, the Bill contains a series of measures that give the Secretary of State a great deal of power and latitude to prescribe what should be in the seller's packs and how the regulations should be determined. The wording of the Bill is vague—necessarily and increasingly so with Government legislation these days. Are we to believe, although we do not see it in the Bill, that the Secretary of State supports the concept of energy efficiency? He certainly makes great play of having signed up in Kyoto to the ambitious target of a 20 per cent. reduction. However, when the opportunity arose to co-operate with other nations in furthering that aim, his response, as we saw recently, was to insult the French Environment Minister.

This is bizarre because it is likely that, as we have discussed, sellers will be required to include in their seller's packs guarantees of damp-proofing and of other such work that has been done on their properties. We shall discuss later how detailed and extensive that list of requirements should be and what should happen if one of the documents goes astray or—as my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold has mentioned, and as so often happens—the damp-proofing company has gone out of business. Will the absence of a single document hold up the whole pack? That is a separate issue, but if we are to debate such relatively minor details as the inclusion of damp-proof guarantees, in the context of the wider good, should not information about energy efficiency come higher on the list of relevant information required by the Secretary of State as part of the seller's pack?

The availability of energy efficiency information has a serious impact on households' ability to manage themselves financially. It can also influence whether a prospective buyer decides that he can afford to finance the mortgage to make his purchase. It is often the failure of buyers, particularly first-time buyers, to take into account the running costs of a house that leads to problems such as mortgage payments falling into arrears, perhaps ultimately resulting in repossessions. In 1999, there were 30,000 repossessions in this country, despite the fact that the Government claim to have solved that problem. [Interruption.] That is a great deal more than in the 1980s, but I shall not go down that path now.

As a thoroughly modern man, I recently went to purchase a new fridge-freezer. I also had to buy a new washing machine, such is the wear to which white goods in my household have been subjected.

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