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Mr. Sayeed: It has been suggested that the extra burden on local authorities will be about £29 million. Does the Minister confirm that figure? Does he agree that it is about right? Is he saying that he does not have access to that amount to reimburse local authorities?

Mr. Meacher: I do not confirm the figure of £29 million. Several rough and ready estimates have been produced, for example by the Local Government Association and the Association for the Conservation of Energy, for which we are grateful: the possible costs range between £29 million and £1 billion. That is an enormous range, so one can hardly give credence to £29 million. Even if the figure were £29 million, however, everything that I have said continues to apply. I should have to find a way of reducing expenditure for local authorities by that amount, especially in the energy efficiency field. I repeat that no one has suggested how that can be done fairly or properly, or, indeed, that it would be right to do it.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I am a little confused. The Government set a target of 30 per cent. by 2010. My right hon. Friend has made the criticism that local authorities have not been meeting that target. Is he saying that the Government have not made available the money to meet that target?

Mr. Meacher: I am saying that the Government did not set the target of achieving a 30 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency in domestic housing stock. That target was set by the last Conservative Government as an aim, not a statutory requirement, and they provided no money with which to achieve it. That is the situation that we inherited and we have to confront it. Are we serious about the issue? I do not think that the last Government were serious. We are trying to confront the situation. We believe that there needs to be an improvement in energy efficiency, especially among the laggard local authorities—those who have achieved hardly anything. Some have obtained good results, but many have not. If we are to make those improvements, we have to find the extra money. That is the problem.

The Government provide money through the spending review. We are currently in the third year of the 2000 spending review, and there will soon be an announcement—presumably in the summer—about the 2002 spending review. Those reviews are carefully prepared and a private Member's Bill, such as this one,

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would insert a requirement for an unspecified sum, perhaps between £29 million and £1 billion. That is where the problem lies.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): The House understands that on money matters, the Minister can say only what the Treasury authorises him to say, so if we argue with him we are really arguing with the Treasury and we are actually on his side. We hope that he will be successful. Can he tell us, in plain language, whether the Government have that aim, or not?

Mr. Meacher: If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the aim of a 30 per cent. improvement in home energy efficiency, I repeat that that aim was set by the previous—[Interruption.] Let me answer in my own way. That aim was set by the previous Government, but they did not provide the money for it. If I am to take over that aim, I have to explain to local authorities where the money is to come from. It is an aspiration. I should love to have an improvement of 30 per cent., but I cannot simply declare it with a wave of the wand, and say that the Government accept the target unless I can say where the money will come from. The proposition in the amendment is that we shall make the best endeavours to achieve that aim, but only when I have the money available for the improvement. That is the only possible way forward.

I am not resiling in any way from an improvement of something in the order of 30 per cent. but there is no point in pretending that one can pluck a figure from the air unless one can say where the money will come from. It is not a quarrel with the Treasury: the Government are united in the view that if we commit to something, we have to say how it will be achieved and where the money will come from.

Peter Bottomley rose

Mr. Meacher: I am being extremely generous to the hon. Gentleman, as I hope he realises.

Peter Bottomley: I accept that.

As I made plain, I am not making a personal attack on the Minister, but are the Government saying that the aim of the previous Conservative Government is not currently their aim?

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman has heard me say in words of one syllable that that is not the case. I am saying that no responsible Government—and I think that the previous Government were irresponsible on this point—[Interruption.] It is not right for the Government to set a target, and to give guidance to local authorities drawing up their energy efficiency reports by mentioning a figure of 30 per cent., without saying where the money is to come from. That is not responsible. All I am saying is that this Government are not going to do that.

I want a big improvement in energy efficiency. We are already massively committed to that, through the home energy efficiency scheme, the energy efficiency commitment and the upgrading of local authority housing stock. That will have a massive effect, so any suggestion that we need to be prompted to accept a 30 per cent. target is beside the point. We are going far in that direction, but if I am to give a commitment that by a certain date we

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shall have achieved exactly that target, I repeat—for the last time—that I have to say where the money will come from, and when we are between spending reviews, I am not in a position to do that.

Sir Sydney Chapman: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Sayeed: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Meacher: I warn hon. Members that my speech is very long, so this must be the last intervention. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Sayeed: What the right hon. Gentleman has just said leaves me, as well as some of my hon. Friends and others, perplexed. In paragraph 3 of a letter of 18 September 2001 to the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), the Minister said that the Government

That sounds a bit like a target. In the penultimate paragraph of the same letter, the right hon. Gentleman talks about making the 30 per cent. target more robust. Clearly, for some months, the right hon. Gentleman has been asking local authorities not only to set themselves targets but to fulfil them. So what has changed?

11 am

Mr. Meacher: That is exactly what the HECA was designed to do. It asked, not required, local authorities to make substantial improvements in energy efficiency. The previous Conservative Government set a 30 per cent. target, but did not provide the funding to implement it. That letter of September 2001 is exactly within the parameters of the HECA. This Bill goes further than that and requires the achievement of particular targets, which I am all in favour of if I can fund it.

Since taking office, we have provided good grant increases. In the main, councils have used that money to improve services in our priority areas of education and social services, but any unfunded new burdens will result in local authorities looking to other areas of their services. The environmental protection and cultural services block of the revenue support grant, which covers many of the areas for which my Department is responsible, such as waste management, is often viewed as a source of provision which is raided to pay for pressures that councils face.

When I put on another hat and debate waste management legislation, many hon. Members rightly complain about our low recycling achievement. Local authorities say that we require them to achieve a doubling or trebling of recycling targets—as I do—and they in turn expect us to fund that, and that is exactly what we did do. In the third year of the spending review 2000, the current year, the increase in the EPCS block is £1.1 billion, which is large. It deals with much more than environmental issues and waste management. But if one suggests taking money from that in order to achieve the Bill's target, there will be complaints that local authorities are not adequately funded for waste management. We cannot have it both ways. If hon. Members want this as devoutly as I want it, they must explain where the money will come from.

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In order to establish the likely costs that the Bill, agreed in Committee, would impose, my Department commissioned an independent study. As I have already said, that produced wildly different results—somewhere between £29 million and £1 billion—so it is difficult to put much reliance on any figure.

If the Bill had been part of the Government's programme—a key point—its funding would have been an integral part of policy development and included in the spending review process, but that is not the case for a private Member's Bill. The Bill's essence is that a private Member, with the best motives, which I strongly support and for which I respect my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown, seeks to insert a demand for a significant stream of Government expenditure, of an unspecified total, in between what the Government have already planned for in their spending review. That is the problem.

If DEFRA had to find the money for the Bill, it could be done only by reducing expenditure on other energy efficiency programmes. I do not believe that any hon. Member would think that that was the right way to proceed. There would then be no resultant gain in energy efficiency because other programmes would have to be reduced so that this one could grow. That is not the way to proceed.

In accordance with the local government White Paper, our priorities and the policy areas where we want to set targets for local government will be brokered through the spending review and the national public service agreement for local government, not locked in through legislation. That is the central point. The approach set out in the amendment achieves that aim. Once full funding is available, we will set statutory targets for local authorities, which they will have to meet by given deadlines. That is the significance of this Bill over the HECA. Local authorities will be given the funding and support that they need to undertake the new task, and that is what my hon. Friend, I and other supporters of the Bill hoped that it would achieve from the outset. It will achieve that. I undertake to start discussions with the Local Government Association as soon as resources are available. I can also say that targets will help to ensure that every authority makes a contribution to conserving natural resources and reducing greenhouse gases and fuel poverty.

Once a target had been set for an authority, that authority would be under a new duty to prepare an energy efficiency report. That would set out measures that the authority considers practicable, cost-effective and likely to result in the target being met. That differs from the energy conservation reports prepared under the old HECA, which did not require the achievement of any given target. That is the crucial point. Instead, they had to set out measures likely to result in significant improvement in energy efficiency, hence my letter of September 2001. The Bill would move away from that imprecise requirement to a much stronger statutory duty to have a report that will achieve a given percentage improvement in domestic energy efficiency by a given date.

Most of the improvement will in fact be made, as I keep on saying, through non-local authority programmes, such as the energy efficiency commitment and warm front, as well as action by millions of individual householders. The role of authorities is to facilitate and encourage take-up of those programmes and activities as

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far as they can, and to take action with regard to their own stock. They do not have to achieve the whole target on their own. I fully realise that, but it is difficult to establish the residual amount that will be needed to achieve a 30 per cent. target, if that is what we would like to achieve, after warm front, the energy efficiency commitment and the upgrading of local authority stock have been fully implemented. That is why the requirement would be to achieve the target as far as is reasonably practicable.

The amendment requires the Secretary of State in England and the National Assembly for Wales to consult the Local Government Association in England and in Wales when setting domestic energy efficiency targets for energy conservation authorities. Those targets would include a date by which the given improvements were to be made and could be varied. That means requiring a bigger improvement from those authorities that have done the least up to now.

We all know of authorities that have decided that improving domestic efficiency should be a priority in their area. In that respect, they are good local authorities. They recognise that that can bring about social, economic and environmental benefits for their community. The Bill is not aimed primarily at those authorities. Nor is it aimed at those authorities that have tried hard to make improvements but, because of local conditions, have not been as successful as they hoped. No; it is aimed primarily at authorities that have not even prepared an energy conservation report, and there are some of those. It is aimed at those authorities that have not set a target. There are more of those. It is also aimed at those authorities that have set targets without doing anything to achieve them. It is certainly aimed at them.

Strictly speaking, all those things were allowed under the HECA. That was not the wish of the Act's promoter, but the way in which it was drafted allowed local authorities that gave low priority to such measures to do so with impunity. That was one of the faults of the Act. However, I recognise that it is not in the spirit of the Act, nor does it provide communities with the leadership and the services that one would expect from local authorities.

I do not want anyone to think that the Bill is an excuse to stop doing anything until the targets are set. That is an important point. We shall be pursuing local authorities, as we already are, under the HECA. This Bill is not a laggard's charter. Authorities should continue to work towards their existing targets until new targets are agreed, and we shall be chasing them to ensure that that happens. This Bill sends clear signals to authorities currently not taking their responsibilities seriously that this is not acceptable. Authorities that have made little progress to date will have considerably more to do in the future.

I do not accept the argument that authorities do not have the resources to improve energy efficiency now. Some authorities have been able to make considerable improvements through proactive and imaginative use of existing financial provision. It is important to remember that authorities will not have to meet the full cost of improvements—far from it. The gas and electricity suppliers and warm front will maximise the improvement of energy efficiency in their area.

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A further important element of the proposed approach to target setting is that the targets should be established in consultation with representatives of local government. There are a number of reasons for that. The first is that merely imposing targets on local authorities from above is not compatible with the Government's view of the desirable relationship between central and local government. It is crucial that local authorities take ownership of the targets. The active participation of local authority representatives in developing them will help to achieve that aim, and to ensure that we get robust and stretching targets that deliver the improvements that we all want.

Variation is another important aspect. Targets can be varied as necessary. The need to improve domestic energy efficiency will not suddenly stop in 2010. Authorities should not rest on their laurels once they have met their targets. Some authorities have attained 20 per cent. improvements, so they are already well on their way. The amendment will allow the targets to be revised as necessary, following the same consultative approach. That will make the HECA a more flexible tool to help to deliver national objectives. For example, under the climate change programme we will systematically have to move from the Kyoto protocol target of 5 per cent. or the United Kingdom's commitment to 12.5 per cent. towards 40, 50, 60 or 70 per cent. over the next few decades, and energy efficiency is a key part of achieving that.

In addition to introducing a new HECA regime once targets are set, the amendment also makes changes to two provisions agreed in Committee.

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