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House of Commons

Friday 10 May 2002

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Orders of the Day

Home Energy Conservation Bill

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 1

Fuel poverty

'After section 5 of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 (c.10) there is inserted—
"5A Fuel poverty
An energy conservation authority in England and Wales shall, so far as reasonably practicable, perform its functions under section 2A in a way which, in the opinion of the authority, will contribute to achieving the objectives for the time being specified under, or mentioned in, section 2(2) of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 by the dates so specified".'.—[Dr. Desmond Turner.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.34 am

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 5 and 6.

Dr. Turner: It is a pleasure to speak to the new clause, which reflects a certain amount of difficulty that we encountered in Committee. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment for agreeing to the tabling of the new clause; he and I had to resolve the difficulty by what is perhaps best described as a simultaneous withdrawal, in order to avoid a difficult confrontation.

I am happy to report to the House that the new clause does exactly the same with regard to fuel poverty as the equivalent amendment that I withdrew in Committee, as it seeks to make the work of local authorities in addressing fuel poverty a statutory duty. That is its intended effect. As far as I am concerned—and as I hope all hon. Members agree—that is a satisfactory outcome. The new clause returns to the Bill one of its three fundamental strands. The Bill is a package containing three interdependent and very strongly related elements. The intended effects of part 2 will be in place, assuming that the new clause is acceptable. I warmly commend it to the House.

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I am very pleased to confirm what my hon.

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Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) has said. We have had extensive discussions on this proposal and others—most notably amendment No. 11. My hon. Friend's remarks were quite correct.

I am pleased to speak to the new clause, which would require authorities, once targets have been set, to undertake their functions in relation to domestic energy conservation in such a way as would help achieve the national objectives of the Government's fuel poverty strategy. The main cause of fuel poverty in the UK is a combination of poor energy efficiency in homes, and low incomes. Other factors can also contribute, such as the size of properties in comparison with the number of people living in them and the cost of fuel. Estimates show that while the number of fuel poor was estimated to have fallen by 2000, some 4 million households in the UK were still believed to be in fuel poverty.

Local authorities have a pivotal role to play if the objective of the Government and the devolved Administrations to seek an end to the problem of fuel poverty is to be achieved. Our first target, however, is to end the blight of fuel poverty by 2010 for vulnerable households. In 1999, there were 3 million such households, accounting for about 70 per cent. of all the fuel poor in the UK. Once progress has been made on the priority vulnerable groups, the focus will be widened to include healthy adult householders in fuel poverty.

The health implications of fuel poverty can be extremely serious. A cold home can significantly increase the likelihood of ill health. Illnesses such as influenza, heart disease and strokes are all exacerbated by the cold. Cold homes can also promote the growth of fungi and house dust mites, and the latter have been linked to conditions such as asthma. Ill health can lead to enforced absences from work, and certain types of illness such as respiratory disease may restrict employment choices for people without work.

The need to spend a large portion of income on fuel means that fuel-poor households have to make difficult decisions about other household essentials, which can lead to poor diets and/or withdrawal from the community. For people in vulnerable groups, those problems are exacerbated by the fact that they are likely to be at home for more—and possibly all—of the day, so heating is needed for more time than in other households.

Cold can cause other discomforts for older people—for example, worsening arthritic pains. It can also contribute to a general feeling of illness. Research suggests that domestic accidents, including fatalities, are more common in cold homes in winter. Periods of prolonged immobility can result, making it even more difficult for older people to keep warm. People may need to go into residential care because of their injuries or because they can no longer live in a cold home.

The cost of fuel poverty can be counted in more than the misery caused to the affected individuals. Increased illness adds to the pressure on health and social care services. That is especially true in the case of the disabled and the long-term sick. Fuel poverty is likely to exacerbate their problems and lengthen their recovery time. Cold homes may also make it more difficult for carers to look after acutely or chronically sick people, more of whom will have to go into hospital needlessly or go into a nursing home permanently.

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The amendment would require local authorities, when implementing their functions in relation to energy conservation, to contribute to the targets and wider objectives set out in the UK fuel poverty strategy. The strategy, published last November, sets out the range of programmes and measures that were put in place to address the main causes of fuel poverty. They include programmes to improve the energy efficiency of fuel poor households; continuing action to maintain the downward pressure on fuel bills; and action to tackle poverty and social exclusion. Those issues are wide ranging, and require a variety of approaches.

In England, our key mechanism for tackling fuel poverty in the private sector, where most of the fuel poor are, is the home energy efficiency scheme, which is now marketed, as hon. Members know, as the warm front team. The scheme gives grants of up to £2,500, and provides insulation and heating measures depending on the needs of the householder and the property type. Such action can have a direct impact on quality of life.

We have a target for warm front to assist 800,000 homes by 2004. I am glad to say that it is on target to deliver, with some 350,000 households already assisted and more than 30,000 new central heating systems installed. Difficult issues remain, and hon. Members have written to me about them. I readily acknowledge that there have been delays in the installation and repair of central heating systems, largely due to a shortage of qualified gas heating engineers. To help tackle that, my Department has funded training courses to help provide additional qualified engineers to work under the scheme. Consequently, the number of installations per month trebled last year.

For social housing, the Government objective is to bring all such properties up to a decent standard by 2010.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the design of some houses in the public sector is so poor that they need demolishing? For example, when I served on what was then the Select Committee on the Environment, I met someone in Glasgow who paid electricity bills of £20 a week, but whose home was colder than it was outside. The number of public sector houses being built is the lowest for seven years. Homeless people are increasing and the number of those in bed-and-breakfast accommodation with no home has soared by 150 per cent. since the last election. How will the Government square that circle?

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to raise the public sector, and the points that he made are correct. However, most of the fuel poor are in the private sector. I was addressing my remarks to that because the fuel poverty strategy deals mainly with that sector. However, there are many dwellings in the public and private sectors that simply do not have a life expectancy as decent homes. They can only be demolished. That forms part of local authorities' programmes. It is for them to decide what cannot be made into a decent home and should therefore be demolished and replaced. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that build must increase; that is the Government's intention. The Government have set a target to provide decent homes to all social sector tenants

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by 2010, and to reduce the number of social tenants living in homes that are not decent by one third by April 2004, with most of the reduction in deprived areas.

9.45 am

The energy efficiency commitment is another major programme, which will help fulfil the Government's fuel poverty targets. It came into force on 1 April, only a month ago. It provides an opportunity to take an important step forward in promoting domestic energy efficiency in Great Britain. It places an obligation on electricity and gas suppliers to make improvements in energy efficiency. That is not simply a matter of providing more electricity and gas units per household, hopefully at lower prices, but of the efficiency with which the existing units are contained in the house. It will do that by encouraging and assisting domestic consumers to adopt energy efficiency measures.

The energy efficiency commitment will have three important benefits. First, we estimate that it will cut greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 0.4 million tonnes of carbon a year. Secondly, by helping electricity and gas consumers to save energy, it will reduce their fuel bills, or they may choose to enjoy greater comfort by living in better-heated homes without increased costs. Thirdly, it will give specific help to lower-income consumers, who spend a larger proportion of their income on energy. That will contribute to the eradication of fuel poverty.

The energy efficiency commitment sets an overall obligation on all electricity and gas suppliers of 62 fuel-standardised TWh of energy savings. That phrase may not convey a great deal to hon. Members, but, as suppliers will confirm, it is a testing target for the overall improvement of energy efficiency. We believe that it is challenging and achievable, and represents a significant increase in activity over the programmes that have been running successfully since 1994. I believe that it will provide a clear stimulus to the sustainable development of domestic energy efficiency.

As I said, special help will be given to lower-income consumers, who are almost certainly in the worst category of fuel poverty, by a requirement on suppliers to achieve at least 50 per cent. of their energy savings from householders in receipt of income or disability benefit or working families or disabled persons tax credit.

The energy efficiency commitment is expected to produce total energy benefits worth approximately £275 million. The average annual benefit for consumers taking up measures under the commitment will be around £11. For those in the priority group of lower-income consumers, it should be more than £15.

Local authorities are important strategic partners. Only last month, five local councils were awarded beacon status for their work in tackling fuel poverty. The beacon scheme aims to identify centres of excellence in local government from which others can learn. That is an important element of our local government modernisation agenda.

The warm zone initiative is another example of strategic co-ordination on the ground. It channels existing programmes in a local area. To enable that to happen, warm zones have formed partnerships between the energy utilities, health authorities, community and voluntary sectors, the Government and, again, local authorities.

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A pilot programme was launched last year with five zones across the country based in Northumberland, Stockton, Hull, Sandwell and Newham. The aim of warm zones is to deal with fuel poverty in a locality in three years. They are working on the basis of reaching all households in an area, providing assistance through available grant schemes.

I shall draw my remarks to a close, because this is rather a lengthy opening statement. Energy efficiency is a real win-win strategy, as all hon. Members will acknowledge. It takes people out of fuel poverty, creates jobs, cuts greenhouse gas emissions and reduces the burdens on the NHS and social services. One of the biggest difficulties, of course, is finding those in need. Schemes such as warm front can be helped by local community workers—doctors, nurses, social workers, voluntary groups and local authority officers—identifying and persuading vulnerable householders, particularly pensioners, to come forward.

There are other, often more difficult, issues that we need to consider: people whose homes are off the mains gas network; homes whose construction makes them difficult to heat; tackling fuel poverty among the healthy adult fuel poor in the private sector; and under- occupation. These are all challenging issues, and I would be the first to recognise that they still constitute a difficult problem for us. I believe, however, that the new clause will help to focus action at a local level, and, at the same time, ensure that a range of schemes and programmes remains to tackle the needs of the various groups in fuel poverty. I commend the new clause to the House.

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