Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Peter Bottomley: The hon. Gentleman has talked about commitment. The Minister for Industry and Energy told the Environmental Audit Committee last week that, with commitment, the 30 per cent. target could be achieved. The argument of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) leaves us wondering whether the Treasury has lost the will to realise the Government's commitment. The point about whether it should be specified in the Bill is underpinned by the question whether the Government have the commitment that, according to the Minister for Industry and Energy last week, is needed to achieve the target. Without the commitment, how can the target be achieved?

Alan Simpson: I do not believe that the Treasury has lost the will or that the Minister has lost a battle with the Treasury. I do not believe that a battle has taken place. There is a different, legitimate problem of confusion about how modernised government works. I shall consider that shortly because it is an important obstacle that we must tackle, not only in the Home Energy Conservation Bill but in others.

10 May 2002 : Column 443

I am worried that the use of parliamentary counsel and the drafting and timing of amendments has worked to the serious disadvantage and disempowerment of Parliament and Ministers. That is why I speak in favour of amendment (a), which is a good amendment. I know that because my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown drafted it. Apart from a change of wording to provide for the original HECA targets rather than those set out by the performance and innovation unit—they are pretty indistinguishable—amendment (a) is almost exactly the same as the amendment that my hon. Friend drafted through parliamentary counsel.

The amendment was not dreamt up on the back of a cigarette packet. My hon. Friend had the wit and wisdom to assume the right to go to parliamentary counsel to get amendments drafted to ensure that they were good. We were fortunate in having someone who had been a parliamentary counsel for more than 20 years and drafted Treasury Bills to produce the wording that we are considering. It is therefore not fly-by-night wording; it was produced by parliamentary counsel in good time, circulated for consultation, and not rushed at the last minute. That is the opposite of using parliamentary counsel to undertake a last-minute hijack of Ministers and Members of Parliament.

However, if we are considering overcoming the problem of not being able to tackle targets because they are connected to budgets, let us do a reality check with other Government commitments. We are committed to ending child poverty in the decade, we have a legal commitment to end fuel poverty in 15 years and it is Government policy to meet the Kyoto targets. None of the moneys for those commitments is currently in the budget of the Minister for the Environment or that of anyone else, but that does not stop us making them. They are commitments in principle to deliver an outcome. The timetable will be measured against the outcome.

The most important reason for accepting the amendment is that it is wrong to say that a commitment cannot be made in principle because the money is not in a single Department's budget or because we would fall foul of the new burdens obligation if we did otherwise. There are many ways in which the costs can be met. Proposals in part 3 to introduce a national licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation will, through regulation, make massive contributions towards the 30 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency. The money will not have to come out of the Minister's budget but be found as a result of Government legislation.

Stock transfers have already taken place. The Minister spoke about requiring the Housing Corporation to account to local authorities. The same duties will be placed on housing associations and the Housing Corporation. They welcome that because the money will come from their finances and commitments.

Most important, we know from the consultations of the warm homes group that the private sector is desperately keen for us to set targets and time scales. Through its energy efficiency contributions, it is an active and willing partner of local authorities in the energy partnerships that it is constructing. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) asked how, in areas where 80 per cent. of the worst properties are privately owned, we

10 May 2002 : Column 444

persuade or put an arm lock on people from the private or public sector to do something that they have no legal duty to do. The answer is probably to use the same methods as under the Clean Air Act 1956, which provided for statutory duties.

The energy industry has said that if we provide the targets and timetable, it will not have to cajole people into being more energy conscious; it can offer solutions. Unless we offer targets and timetables, the industry is perceived as bullying to sell its products. That is hopeless. The industry has asked for the targets so that it can help to foot the bill.

I should like the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) to be right that amendment (a) will put an arm lock on the Government and teeth into otherwise toothless legislation.

12 noon

In truth, however, the amendment being proposed is much more modest and limited than I would wish it to be. It talks only about a "principal aim", not about a statutory duty. The idea of putting a principal aim on the face of the Bill was, in fact, undertaken by the Government in 1995—the same year the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 was passed—in the Environment Act 1995. Section 4(1) of the Environment Act states:

the Environment Agency—

A principal aim is set out in that Act, and that is all that this amendment would achieve. It would not compel a Minister to say or do anything at any particular time. It would simply make a requirement that, when the Secretary of State chose to say anything about energy efficiency targets, it would be against the benchmark measure of meeting

That is not a draconian power. It simply asks the Minister to accept the duty to say something useful, when he chooses to say something. It suggests, to echo a phrase from the Clinton campaign, that we put on our ministerial or parliamentary wall a plaque that says, "It's targets and time scales, stupid." That is what the public expect us to do, it is what the amendment asks us to do, and I hope that the House will have the sense to do it.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): I rise to support amendment (a), which puts back into the Bill a measure that reflected the prime purpose of the Bill in the first place. While I understand the Minister saying that he has good intentions, and that if he could find the money, he would want to meet the targets—I think that we all agree that he, personally, means that—we would need a piece of legislation to achieve that, as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) has pointed out.

Indeed, it is often ministerial practice to resist amendments by saying, "I give you my assurance that the Government are committed to this." The purpose of legislation is to commit every Government—and, of

10 May 2002 : Column 445

course, local authorities—to achieving objectives, and we need legislation to be specific. As has been said, the Minister for Industry and Energy has suggested that the target that is, for all practical purposes, contained in this amendment is achievable in the time scale, "with commitment". Obviously, the matter for concern here is whether that commitment exists in the Government to deliver on that target.

I can understand the reticence of Ministers in relation to targets. I can specifically understand the reticence of this Minister in that respect. He is probably responsible for more targets than anyone else, many of them imposed from the EU and elsewhere, and he is finding it difficult to produce answers to demonstrate that those targets are being met. I say that in good faith. Targets being missed, however, are not the same as targets being irrelevant. Targets are there to be hit, but, sometimes, underachieving does not mean that we are not making progress. So long as there is a genuine drive to achieve the targets and a policy to ensure real movement towards them, a substantial percentage of what we are trying to achieve will be delivered. Not having targets, however, leaves us wondering why we are all here.

This is another issue on which the Minister is unable to provide any useful figures. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) has suggested that, in any case, even at the global top end of the figures quoted, they would not all be from central Government. There would also be private sector figures, and figures from local authorities with different budgets. So, even at the top end, the figure is not terrifying. The data are also spread over a substantial period of time.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has suggested, there never seems to be any constraint when we need to go to war. The Government like to talk about a war on poverty. Indeed, the Minister's Department has spent billions of pounds dealing with BSE and foot and mouth disease; that was not budgeted for.

Mr. Meacher: And fridges.

Next Section

IndexHome Page