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Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): The Government have repeatedly pledged to eradicate cold-related diseases by 2010, yet current statistics show that up to 50,000 elderly people may be dying of cold in Britain every winter. Commenting on the apparently laudable intentions of the Government's 10-year fuel poverty plan, the Minister described himself as

When the fuel poverty strategy was announced, the Minister admitted—as he did again today—that the targets were challenging, but said that the strategy was

I acknowledge that the Minister has addressed some of our concerns about fuel poverty in new clause 1, but he could have done so much more. If he had used the eight months since the Bill was published to devise and propose fundamental improvements, he would have earned the gratitude not only of all in this place but, even more important, of those in greatest need. If he had used that time to tackle energy inefficiency and reduce energy consumption, we all would have applauded. If he had used the time to reverse the farce whereby, under the Government's own plans for housing, the certified standard assessment procedure rating scheme for social housing is considerably lower than that set as part of building regulations for private housing, we would all have helped him.

That means—shorn of its jargon, so that all hon. Members can understand it—that local authority homes for poor people are being built to be less energy efficient than those of the better off. In consequence, those who are in local authority and housing association

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accommodation—often the poorest people in society—are likely to be those who will remain in fuel poverty the longest. When the Minister talked about

what he should have been doing was ensuring that local authority and social housing was at least of the same energy efficiency standard as private sector housing. If we add to that the absurdity that, under current plans for energy efficiency and fuel poverty, the poor pay more and the rich pay less to achieve the same degree of warmth, we have a very clear indication of how the Minister could usefully have spent the last eight months of his time.

This is a Government who continue to congratulate themselves on their commitment to lifting people—most prominently, children—out of poverty. I wish they would. But the figures show that if they think that they are achieving that, it is just another example of Labour's social delusion. [Interruption.] Just wait for it! At the last general election, the Chancellor asserted that Labour had lifted 1.2 million children out of poverty. Recently released Government figures show that the true figure was not 1.2 million but 500,000, which simply takes the poverty rate back to roughly where it was in 1994–95.

Another deception on the part of the Government has involved the definition of fuel poverty. The long-standing definition of someone in fuel poverty is someone who would need to spend more than 10 per cent. of their disposable income on the fuel required to heat their home to a reasonable level of warmth, disposable income being the money that people have left over after paying for housing costs. By sleight of hand, the Government changed the definition from 10 per cent. of disposable income to 10 per cent. of total income.

In other words, if a pensioner received £130 a week, paid £30 rent and had fuel bills of £12.50 a week, under the old definition they were fuel poor, because they were paying 12.5 per cent. of their £100 disposable income on fuel. However, once the UK fuel poverty strategy was introduced by this Labour Government—the same strategy that the Minister has been lauding today—that pensioner was suddenly no longer fuel poor, because their fuel bills were less than 10 per cent. of their £130 income. Of course they were not actually any warmer; they had just been defined out of fuel poverty. That is no doubt the reason why the Government now tell us that the number of households classified as being in fuel poverty has been reduced by about 1.5 million across the United Kingdom. That just shows how changing the definition has helped the Government to massage their figures.

We can give a muted cheer to new clause 1, so far as it goes, but, by George, the Minister could have used the eight months since this Bill was published much more profitably.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): I am delighted to be able to contribute to the debate on new clause 1. The hon. Member for Mid–Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) has just said that he gives it a "muted cheer". In Committee, he gave more enthusiastic support to the strategy to combat fuel poverty, and I am slightly disappointed to hear his slight change of tone, now that we are discussing it on the Floor of the House. As a member of the Committee, I give my great support to the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner). He has worked immensely hard on this Bill, and I am delighted that the compromises and

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discussions that have taken place between him and the Government have now resulted in new clause 1, which we can all support.

My interest in fuel poverty goes back some 20 years, to when I first studied a book written by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), now the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He wrote several books, but his seminal work on this subject was called "Old and Cold: A Study of Hypothermia", which dealt with the problems of fuel poverty, especially among the elderly in this country. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire referred to the debate about the definition of fuel poverty. I understand that that definition is up for consultation, and I hope that an agreement will soon be reached.

I was the only member of the Committee from a Welsh constituency, and I would like to address my comments to the position in Wales. There is no direct estimate of the number of fuel-poor households in Wales, but there are some indications. The 1997–98 Welsh house condition survey estimated that 220,000 households were deemed eligible for help under the energy efficiency scheme in Wales, in that they lacked basic insulation and/or heating, and could potentially suffer from the problems of fuel poverty. One hundred and fifteen thousand people live in social housing, 84,000 in owner-occupied housing, and 23,000 in the private rented sector.

According to Age Concern Wales, 20 per cent. of the Welsh population are classified as pensioners, and, as my right hon. Friend the Minister has pointed out, the problem of fuel poverty is most serious among the elderly. A Shelter Cymru report estimates that a quarter of a million households in Wales are

10 am

Fuel poverty in Wales does not just affect densely populated areas; it is also a significant problem in rural areas. That was discussed at the rural fuel poverty conference in May 2001, when it was noted that

My constituency, which is very rural, contains a socially isolated community in Llanelly Hill, near Blaenavon. The area has no mains gas, and, being in a particularly cold part of Monmouthshire, it would benefit from a commitment by local authorities to provide the gas that it needs.

Help the Aged has contacted me about fuel poverty among the elderly, and the link with winter deaths. It estimates that, nationally, between 20,000 and 50,000 people die as a result of inadequate heating.

I commend the new clause, which is part of the Government's commitment to eradicating social exclusion. I also commend the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown.

Sue Doughty (Guildford): I pay tribute to all who have worked so hard over the past few months to bring the Bill to this stage. It has taken a tremendous amount of hard work and negotiation. Sadly, we are not out of the woods

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yet. On day one, we were presented with what appeared to be a practical solution to the problems of local authorities—what they were expected to do and how they would meet their targets while conforming to the Government's strategy for the eradication of fuel poverty and delivering on other environmental targets—but we are not much further down the line. Clauses go into the Bill and out again, and we still have the same worries about the Government's commitment not just to ending fuel poverty, but to meeting the environmental targets that the Bill supports so strongly.

The Bill goes some way towards dealing with fuel poverty. I am sure that we are all committed to dealing with that problem. It cannot be right for one of the most prosperous countries to suffer the scourge of fuel poverty nowadays. Its rapid elimination is essential as a matter of social justice. We must, however, give local government the tools with which to do the job. It is ridiculous that, while local government chases one Government target after another, measures that would make a real difference are inserted in the Bill and then taken out again. Now we are having to debate them yet again.

A fortnight ago, I visited a council house in my constituency. I was shown crumbling windows where people had put newspapers in the cracks to keep the warmth inside. Students line roof vents with newspaper, which causes a huge fire hazard. These people are among the poorest.

I asked the council's chief executive why the council was planning to have the windows painted. As they were falling apart, it would simply be throwing good money after bad. What, I asked, had happened to the window replacement scheme, which would have been of real benefit? The chief executive said, "We were going to do that, but we had to think again because the Government gave us a different set of targets." Eminently sensible schemes have been junked. The council will paint the crumbling windows, and people will go on lining them with newspaper. The newspaper may be painted at the same time for all I know.

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