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The Minister's reaction to any form of justified criticism is outraged bombast. I must warn him that my remarks will raise his blood pressure, so I hope that he has his tablets with him. First, I offer particular congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker), who has done this House a considerable service by speaking extremely cogently to amendment (a) to amendment No. 11, and by persuading Members on both sides of the House of the merits of his case.
One person whom my hon. Friend did not have to persuade, however, was the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson). He has been an extraordinarily doughty fighter in the warm homes group, which owes him a considerable debt of gratitude. He has generously praised my party for doing its level best to support the Bill in every way through all its stages, and in doing so to improve it, and I thank him for that.
The Bill was first published on 18 July 2001. It received its Second Reading on 30 November 2001. Despite the fact that it was published some eight months ago, it was only some 26 hours ago, on Thursday morningat the last moment possiblethat substantial amendments to the Bill, tabled by the Government, were published. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South touched on the question of why it has taken so long for the Department to produce substantial amendments.
The Government have acted in that way because they do not dare to be seen to kill a Bill that seeks to promote energy conservation, to eradicate fuel poverty and to drive out bad landlords. The Minister has permitted the Bill to be gutted of much of its meaning. I am deeply disappointed by the Minister. He knows that in Committeeon which the Labour party had a substantial majoritythe Government's proposals were defeated by 12 votes to two. So on Report the Government have tabled amendments that strip out much of the meaning of the Bill.
The evidence is clear. We rightly wanted the Bill to contain statutory, enforceable targets with stipulated time scales. Indeed, we were led to believe that that is what the Minister wanted. After all, it was the Minister who tabled a new clause that said:
Why has the Minister changed his mind? I am not sure that he has. I think that his environmental heart is in the right place. I think that he has, however, been overruled by his civil servants and by the Minister for Local Government. So the Minister may huff and puff about the environment, but, as the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said, other Departments always seem to blow him down. The Minister has become an environmental fig leaf for the Government because, by their actions, they have shown that they do not give a fig for the environment.
This is a view we shareand it is for this reason that we support the Home Energy Conservation Bill, which makes the targets a duty rather than a discretion . . . Your amendments remove all of these provisions. We are deeply saddened by themall the more so because we know you to be a friend and an ally."
If these able and knowledgeable people were deeply saddened by what the Minister proposed then, they would be furious at what the Government are doing now. They would be right to be furious, because the Government are gutting the Bill.
Mr. Meacher: I have not heard so much arrant nonsense for a long timeeven from the hon. Gentleman. To suggest that the Government are gutting the Bill is not only parliamentary exaggeration; it is utterly ridiculous. The Government have got behind the Bill; we are putting in a statutory requirement for local authorities to meet a significant improvement in the HECA record on energy efficiency, and supplying the moneywhen it is availableto do so. That is the only responsible action for any Government and we are taking it.
Under the Conservative Government, there was a complete dereliction of such action during 18 years. They did nothing of the kind, and fuel poverty increased. There is no point in Conservative Members shaking their headswe all know their record.
We heard some colourful language from the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker), who described the Bill as wishy-washy, toothless and a waste of time. That is utter rubbish. For the purposes of his
The hon. Gentleman's point is that if amendment (a) is accepted, we would not be gutting the Bill; it would no longer be wishy-washy, toothless and a waste of time. What utter balderdash! There is no logic in that at all. The amendment would provide no statutory requirement whatever. In my opening remarks, I pointed out that the amendment was purely presentationaland it is.
The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot say that the Government are gutting the Bill and that the insertion of amendment (a) would change that. It would do nothing of the kind. We are not gutting the Bill. As a result of the Government's support, the Bill is substantive. There is no profound objection to the amendment but, for the reasons that I gave earlier, it is not appropriate. It certainly would not provide a statutory requirement; it would not add force to the Bill.
I have listened to the comments of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. No onewith the possible exception of the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce)has addressed the question of finance. There is no difference between us as to what we should like to dowe all want a substantial improvement on the gradual improvements that have been made under the HECA. However, the only certain way to secure that improvement is through statutory means, and that has to be funded. That is the central question. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle did not mention that.
In opposition, it is easy to make great claims, to set fantasy objectives and to throw confetti goals around the Chamber and tell the Government that they are not going for them. Everyone knows that it is different in government. In government, the buck stops here. If we make a commitment, it has to be responsible and we must be able to justify it with the income stream necessary to deliver it. That is the difference. It is utterly irresponsible to come to the House and make grandiose and grandiloquent gestures without backing them up with the one thing that mattersthe money to achieve them.