Homes Bill

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Mr. Curry: I am not sure to what modernity my hon. Friend is referring. Is it the modernity of the machines or the fact that he, a man, went to purchase them? Is my hon. Friend a new man?

Mr. Loughton: I was specifically illustrating my credentials as a modern man, as it is the duty of every good husband to ensure that the equipment with which he supplies his wife performs as efficiently and as helpfully as possible—[Laughter.] My serious point is that my first question to the shop assistant was about the energy efficiency rating of the equipment. Increasingly, we automatically ask that question when buying expensive white goods. Rather than worrying about the colour of an appliance, how fast it goes, how many ice cubes it makes or even what it costs, people, rightly, look for A, B, C, or D on the front of it. Why can the Government not acknowledge that the same consideration should be given in the Bill to the most expensive purchase that the majority of people ever make—their home?

The hon. Member for Bath also mentioned the answer that the Minister gave just before Christmas to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton, in which he said that only generic advice will be given on measures to improve energy efficiency and payback times. However, every house is unique—they have been built at different times and different building regulations and requirements apply to them—and more detailed information is needed.

Denmark must be a country that is close to the Minister's heart because he cited it many times on Second Reading. Last year, the Environmental Audit Select Committee, of which I am a member, produced a report on energy efficiency. Our researches included a trip to Denmark where we had an entertaining meeting with Mr. Svend Auken, the Minister for the country's combined Environment and Energy Ministry and also its Deputy Prime Minister. Indeed, he is similar to our Deputy Prime Minister in many respects, and certainly in respect of size. The major difference between them is that Mr. Auken rides a bicycle and does not own two Jaguars.

In Denmark, the energy labelling of houses is standard practice. The issue of energy efficiency is an integral part of the house-buying process. More significantly, in Denmark, houses, particularly new houses, are given energy ratings, which affect the amount of council tax equivalent that is charged.

Before the Minister intervenes to say, yet again, that Denmark is a marvellous country, I should like to point out that stamp duty is considerably lower there than it is in the United Kingdom. It is 0.6 per cent. for houses of first residence in Denmark. That compares very favourably with the enormous increases in stamp duty that have been introduced here and which have increased the Chancellor of the Exchequer's revenue by £1.5 billion in the past three years.

Until the 1970s oil crisis, 95 per cent. of Denmark's energy needs were met by imported oil. At that time, Denmark realised that it had to change its entire energy policy. As a contribution to that change, energy efficiency considerations were made an integral part of house construction. In Denmark, therefore, home energy labelling came about as a matter of course. The statistics show that that leads to new homeowners undertaking a considerable amount of work during the first three years of ownership to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.

Despite campaigns such as the ``Do your bit'' campaign and my earlier comments concerning white goods, we have a problem about getting environmental messages across to the British public. Last summer, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds commissioned an interesting survey into the purchase of second-hand cars. When people were asked to rate the importance of the criteria that influenced their decisions about which second-hand car to buy, only 3 per cent. of respondents rated fuel efficiency as a significant criterion, as opposed to 9 per cent. who rated the colour of the car as more important. That is an amusing but worrying finding and shows why it is so important to make the energy efficiency and energy ratings of houses as transparent as possible. That would make a significant contribution to the UK meeting its carbon dioxide emission targets, but the Bill fails to do that.

The energy efficiency standards of performance scheme—EESOP—introduced by the previous Government and run by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, has a structure in place that obliges public suppliers to achieve set levels of energy savings for their customers. That structure is overseen by the Energy Saving Trust. We have a structure in place in which electricity suppliers offer advice on energy efficiency and reducing energy expenditure, mostly as it applies to lights and electrical household appliances. There is already a wealth of experience and expertise that could easily be applied to rating the fabric of the whole house as part of the seller's packs.

12.45 pm

I see no reason why energy efficiency should not be included in the Bill. It should be a basic requirement of the seller's packs, if we are to have them, because the payback would be enormous. If the energy reductions were achieved, there would be a payback to the environment and house buyers could judge whether houses would be more viable to run.

As detailed in our amendments, there should be advice on how energy efficiency improvements should be made. There are two sides of the coin for buyers. First, they must consider how affordable a house is, with its energy consumption added to the cost of buying it. Secondly, they should consider the advice available at the point of sale about what measures they could feasibly and easily take to improve energy efficiency. Such improvements would often pay them back quickly, as the hon. Member for Bath said.

Those changes are simple and would not require complex legislation, because some proposals are already on the table. The 1998 Energy Efficiency Bill forms the basis of the amendments and the proposed new schedule. I do not understand why the Minister is holding back, or why he thinks that he may have problems getting it through. Most of his Back Benchers have supported such measures in the past and he supported the principle in 1993. My colleagues and Government Back Benchers alike should gladly support the amendment for the greater good of buyers and the environment.

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): I rise because my name was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bath. To avoid doubt, I share the view of the majority of hon. Members that energy efficiency should be central. He should not read too much into the fact that I did not sign the early-day motion that he mentioned.

I would be interested to learn what the Government think and, in particular, why it is not possible to put an energy efficiency requirement in the Bill. I understand that there could be technical reasons that mean it is not appropriate to overburden the Bill, but I want to know how the Government envisage the ambit and shape of the regulations that they will have the power to make.

Mr. Raynsford: We have had a good and full debate and I am delighted by the large measure of all-party agreement. It is our clear intention to ensure that energy information should be fully available in surveys and to make such information part and parcel of the seller's pack. It will be included as part of the proposed home condition reports. That will give full effect to the 1993 Environment Committee report's recommendation, to which the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Bath referred, that energy efficiency information should be available at the point of sale in all cases. The proposals before the Committee give effect to that commitment.

Mr. Don Foster: I was delighted to hear what the Minister said, but will he go further and say whether he intends to make matters clear in the Bill? If he is not prepared to do that, the problem is that the matter may be determined by regulations at a later date. That may be after the next election, when he may not be in a position to ensure that the regulations have the strength that he has described.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that commitments given by Ministers are made on behalf of the Government, not individuals. The Government have made a clear commitment to achieve the objective that I have described. The way in which that is done is a more interesting and complex process.

Clause 7 deals with the seller's pack. It gives the Secretary of State power to prescribe the contents of the pack and sets out the sort of information that should be included. We are satisfied that information concerning the energy efficiency of a property is covered by subsection (4) and, more particularly, that the energy efficiency aspects of its current condition are covered by subsection (5)(d). That provides that information on

    the physical condition of the property, including any particular characteristics or features of the property

is relevant information for such purposes.

We will discuss later the wider issues surrounding the inclusion of a home condition report in the seller's pack, so I shall confine my comments now to the energy efficiency element of the home condition report. Last year, a trial of the seller's pack was conducted in Bristol to assess how it worked in practice, and to seek consumers' views about its contents.

In Bristol, the pack included a home energy report that gave an assessment of the energy efficiency of the property being sold, improvements that could be made, the likely cost of such improvements, the potential annual savings and the payback time. There was also general advice on energy saving measures. That was of great interest to potential buyers, although there were concerns that the presentation of the information was not as user-friendly as possible. That is why pilots are conducted: they show us how to do things better.

The message has been taken to heart and all the main stakeholders involved in the scheme's development are considering the format of a new report, which will provide consumers with the same information in a more accessible and user-friendly way. Such stakeholders include the Consumers Association, the Law Society, the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the National Association of Estate Agents.

We intend that the energy efficiency report will form an integral part of the home condition report. That can be done by ensuring that it forms part of a certification scheme that is approved by the Secretary of State under powers given by clause 8. The inclusion of the energy efficiency report in the home condition report has obvious benefits. It will be more economic because only one inspector will be involved and the information and advice in the report will be tailored to the specific property. I know that the hon. Member for Bath was concerned about that. I assured him of our intention on Second Reading, and I repeat our commitment so that he is well aware of it. Protections and safeguards that will be available to inspections carried out under the certification scheme will back up the report. These are all important considerations.

The question will be asked—and not just by Opposition Members, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West has already asked it—why that measure is not in the Bill. The answer is quite simple, and I suspect that it will become known as argument A, to use a format that has appeared on previous occasions.

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