Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Roger Williams: Much of the debate has revolved around the benefits that can accrue to urban housing through the Bill, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that much rural housing is also in need of improvement? My constituency is in Powys, often known as the paradise of Wales. It is paradise in terms of landscape and environment, but not in terms of housing. We welcome the Bill for the improvements that it will bring.

Mr. Griffiths: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was brought up in Brecon, which is at the heart of his constituency, and I confirm that the Bill will be welcomed in rural communities.

At the present rate of take-up, it will take over 60 years for eligible families in Wales to take advantage of the scheme. Therefore, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown is right to seek prescription, making it a duty to achieve energy efficiency targets. In 1997, our target was a 30 per cent. improvement by 2007, but to date the improvement in Wales has been only 2.7 per cent. We have a very long way to go.

Wales does not have the huge problem with houses in multiple occupation that hon. Members on both sides of the House described today. Nevertheless, the most recent survey showed that there are more than 20,000 HMOs in Wales, although only about 100 of those are in my own Bridgend county borough. It is generally agreed, however, that the new definition will encompass many more homes. Consequently, many more homes will be covered by the scheme, thereby improving not only insulation and energy conservation standards but fire safety standards.

I warmly welcome the Bill, which I hope is about to receive a prod in the right direction from the Minister. I hope that we shall see it in Committee very soon.

1.56 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): I am very pleased to be able to speak on the important issues of energy conservation, energy efficiency, fuel poverty and houses in multiple occupation. First, however, I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on his success in the ballot and on focusing in his choice of Bill on key aspects of Government policy. I also congratulate him and the Bill's sponsors on the enormous work that they have done to enable it to progress to this stage.

I also welcome the support of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman), who is one of the Bill's sponsors and brings considerable professional interest and expertise to the debate. I also very much welcome the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), another of the Bill's sponsors, who described very graphically the scale of the problem and the importance of all the Bill's provisions. Indeed, I welcome the support shown by hon. Members on both sides of the House, including that of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), some of whose points I shall deal with later.

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1280

The Government have a clear commitment to the Bill's provisions on the environment, energy efficiency and houses in multiple occupation. Indeed, we have a clear commitment to keep the environment at the heart of our policies. Climate change is perhaps the biggest environmental challenge facing us. Our climate change strategy establishes a clear framework for action, and we are making good progress on some key issues. However, opportunities remain, and the domestic sector has a major part to play.

The Government are investing about £1 billion in tackling climate change. Energy efficiency is an important way in which to tackle climate change and to promote sustainable development; it brings environmental, economic and social benefits.

The hon. Member for Mid–Bedfordshire questioned some aspects of our commitment to tackling climate change, and he specifically mentioned the difficulty in achieving the target established by the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. Although I acknowledge that that legislation has not achieved the improvements for which we and those who introduced it as a private Member's Bill had hoped, it has achieved greater improvement—more than 6 per cent. by March 2000—than could have been made without it. Now we have to determine how this Bill and our review of local authority energy efficiency activity can make even greater improvement.

I hope that, despite the difficulties, the Opposition will continue to support the Bill. It will make a real difference to the lives of very many people, particularly those who are the most vulnerable and most at risk. We are committed to the introduction of a compulsory licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation, in line with undertakings in our 1997 and 2001 manifestos. In 1999 we consulted on proposals to rationalise and modernise the controls on HMOs. The proposals were aimed at delivering more effective protection against health and safety risks, and bad management, for people living in bedsits and other higher-risk shared accommodation in the private rented sector. HMO operators would also benefit from a simpler, more consistent, risk-based control regime.

We envisaged that these measures would be included in a future housing Bill, preferably accompanied by provisions to replace the current housing fitness regime and powers to allow the selective licensing of private landlords in low-demand areas. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has repeatedly highlighted some of the problems associated with that.

The Government's commitment is matched by that of hon. Members on both sides of the House and that was reflected in the wide range of contributions to the debate and the obvious interest in and support for the Bill from hon. Members with quite diverse interests. We heard from the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) about the scope of the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) spoke eloquently about the further work that is needed to improve safety in HMOs.

The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) highlighted the need for independent evaluation of the delivery of the climate change programme, and the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) paid tribute to the work of local authorities that is not always reflected in the overall figures. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) also

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1281

recognised the scope of problems affecting HMOs. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), among others, recognised the real importance of HMO controls and fuel poverty issues, particularly in respect of students. Many of us have large numbers of students in our constituents.

The hon. Members for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) said that, as landlords, they welcome the Bill. The hon. Member for Billericay asked for clarification of clause 3. However, he answered his own question when he said that it should be dealt with in Committee.

The hon. Member for North Thanet raised a number of issues about housing management by some registered social landlords. That is covered by a separate regulatory regime. There is close contact between the Department and the Housing Corporation on these issues; I can assure the hon. Gentleman that they are discussed quite frequently and I hope that he will follow his inclination to support the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) also highlighted the tragedies caused by the fire risks in HMOs. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) wanted the provisions to go much further. The Government are addressing the issues of the micro combined heat and power systems and investing in the development of solar power. Although my hon. Friend may consider that his support for it is eccentric, it will become more mainstream in the longer term.

I now turn to the current activity in which the Government are engaged to take forward our commitments in the key areas covered by the Bill. As I mentioned a moment ago, energy efficiency is a key mechanism for the delivery of our climate change commitments. The energy policy review currently being carried out by the performance and innovation unit is looking at the broad picture. The review—which is due to report to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister by the end of the year—is developing a strategy to ensure that current policy commitments are consistent with longer term aims. This will help to inform our response to last year's report by the royal commission on environmental pollution. The review will also form the basis for the Government's longer term approach to their policy commitment for the delivery of a sustainable energy strategy.

Some Opposition Members, and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), questioned the Government's commitment because the targets are not being met in our own buildings. By the end of the current campaign, energy efficiency in the Departments will have improved by 17.1 per cent., as measured by the total cost indicator. On heating fuels alone, the Ministry of Defence and civil Departments achieved efficiency improvements of 23 and 25 per cent. respectively. It is true that the figures for electricity were not so good, but I hope that my hon. Friend will accept our assurances and realise that the Government are indeed delivering on the targets in our own Departments.

Mr. Sayeed: How much of the improvement is due to a reduction in the fuel price, and how much is actual saving in British thermal units?

Ms Keeble: I cannot say, because in the period covered, from 1991, there were various changes in the

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1282

regulatory regime for the energy industry. There are differences in the detailed figures for the different types of fuel consumption, and I will happily give the hon. Gentleman those figures in writing.

Local authorities have a key role to play in improving energy efficiency in their area, through vision and leadership, statutory responsibility, improved energy management and partnership with local businesses and householders.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is undertaking a review of the policy framework within which local authorities carry out their energy efficiency activities. The review has a broad scope, including issues such as what opportunities exist for greater co-operation between local authorities and others; the role of objectives and targets; and how to improve the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) set out the action taken in his local authority area, and I suspect that some of the work that will take place through the review will focus on some of those areas of good practice.

The Government have a deep-seated commitment to tackling fuel poverty, and that goes hand in hand with the need to tackle climate change. We do not want simply to assist households with their fuel payments. We also want to reduce their fuel use through energy efficiency. Our first target is to ensure that by 2010 no vulnerable household—older people, families, disabled and the long-term sick—need risk ill health as the result of a cold home.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) questioned our commitment to tackling fuel poverty. I ask him to consider these points. The number of fuel poor has fallen, from 5.5 million in 1996 to 4 million in 2000. Among the measures that the Government have introduced—of which Government Members are very proud—is the introduction of the winter fuel payments, which have been a huge help for older people in meeting their fuel bills for the colder months.

We have also supported home insulation programmes. Perhaps most important—my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned this—is our decent homes commitment. One of the measures of the decency standard that we intend to apply for all homes is thermal efficiency. That should make a real difference both to helping people to meet the cost of warming their homes and to ensuring that they stay warm.

Many improvements are possible in building itself. I draw attention to the outstanding work being done to improve the thermal insulation and efficiency of homes. For example, an excellent demonstration project in Liverpool is trialling some dramatic improvements in thickness of walls, amount of insulation and other measures. The builders and developers estimate that this can reduce the cost of keeping a home warm to something like £3 a week. If we can achieve such standards of thermal efficiency in the homes of older people in particular, we will make a huge commitment towards ending fuel poverty and the problems that people suffer because of cold. I hope that the hon. Member for Gordon will accept those points about the Government's record.

Last week, we published the UK fuel poverty strategy. The strategy is based on a range of programmes and measures to tackle the main causes of fuel poverty.

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1283

Improving energy efficiency is at its root. The strategy sets an ambitious target. By 2004, we aim to have assisted 800,000 vulnerable households through the home energy efficiency scheme. There are also schemes in each of the devolved Administrations to address fuel poverty issues and, in England alone, we have committed more than £600 million, up to 2004, to the home energy efficiency scheme, now known as the warm home front.

The Government have a range of measures on HMOs, fitness reviews and selective landlord licensing. As regards HMOs, the term "houses in multiple occupation" applies to a wide range of housing types, mainly in the private rented sector, which are typically occupied by young lower-income single people, including some particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. Physical and management standards in HMOs are often low, as the hon. Member for North Thanet highlighted. Some types of HMO, such as multi-storey older houses converted to bedsits, can pose particular risks to occupants' health and safety. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown's constituency has its share—probably a good deal more than its fair share—of such problems.

Current statutory controls on HMOs are a confusing and ineffective patchwork of provisions that have grown up over several decades. Our manifesto commitment is to introduce

This has been discharged in Scotland, where new primary legislation was not required.

Next Section

IndexHome Page