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Mr. Barker: I am sorry to hear the Minister go on so intemperately. Is he aware of the newly published independent research carried out by the Association for the Conservation of Energy which shows that the cost would be £29 million, but that if the Government spent that amount it would be ratcheted up more than 10 times by other moneys from the private sector? Has the Minister actually seen that research? Has he spent any time examining it?
Mr. Meacher: Of course I have seen it. I cannot remember whether the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber when I made my opening speech, but I referred to it at some length. I said two things about it. One was that that estimate is at the bottom end of the range of estimates that has been produced. It is, as the authors will recognise, a fairly rough and ready estimate for the second reason that I am about to come on to. The top figure of the range is £1 billion. It may well be that the real figure is towards the lower rather than the higher endI suspect
My second point was this, and it is important. The hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) asked why the Government could not come up with a figure that they were sure about. The answer is, to use a phrase sometimes heard in universities, that the figure is a residual variable; it is the cost that will remain when all the other costed programmes have been carried through.
Until we have seen the results of the home energy efficiency scheme over a period of 10 years and the effect of the energy efficiency commitment between 200205, which will probably be extended although the Government have yet to take that decision, and until we have seen the results of the upgrading of local authority stock, which obviously improves energy efficiency within those buildings, it is impossible to be clear, beyond a fairly wide margin of error, how much will still remain to be done to meet a given target of, say, 30 per cent. We cannot know for certain how much will remain undone, and to be done under the Bill. I certainly believe that the cost will be significant, but I cannot put a figure on it. However, whatever the figure, even if it is only £29 millionI believe it would be more than thatwhere will that money come from?
The hon. Member for Gordon rightly drew attention to the fact that the Government can, under pressure, produce money rapidly when they have to. For example, in the event of unpredicted disasters, such as the outbreaks of BSE and foot and mouth, of course the Government must provide funding, but that is completely different from funding a desirable objective. All Departments and Ministers have their shopping list of desirables, but the Treasury and the Chancellor would rightly say that there must be firm prioritisation in terms of the Government's overall accounting.
There is pressure from my Department to ensure that we have more money for energy efficiency, and that is why I am in no way foreclosing on the possibility that we can make some progress, possibly fairly quickly, although I do not know. We certainly want to. However, what I cannot do is tell the House today that I have the money in my back pocket so that I can, with assurance and certainty, back a Bill that will cost at least £29 million and possibly £100 million or £200 million. I simply cannot do that. I appeal to all hon. Members to recognise the constraints under which Ministers act.
Mr. Meacher: To put an aspiration in the Bill does not alter the position one way or the other, as I have already said. An aspiration is not a statutory requirement. It could be construed as constraining the fixing of targets over the period. It is not a requirement; it merely sets the backdrop against which those targets might be measured and assessed. It does no more, but I suppose no less, than that.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle made the fair point that, if the Secretary of State were to do nothing, absolutely nothing would happen and there would be no advance under the Bill. In a technical, legal sense that is
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) made a fair and balanced speech, and I am grateful as always for the generous things he said about me. He raised the issue of new burdens, as if this is a new doctrine that has come down from the heavens and descended on Government and we are beholden to it. I do not think that it is all that new, although it has been sharpened under the Government. The view taken by previous Tory Governments was that they could place extra obligations on certain bodies, such as local authorities, but did not need to provide extra funds as the necessary measures would be funded by efficiency savings. There is some truth in that, but to continue to impose such obligations, as they did repeatedly, was nonsense, and was recognised as such. We have tried to correct that. Local authorities have pressed us to accept that if we want them to do something, they are prepared to do it but we must provide the funding. That is a perfectly fair doctrine.
We could continue with the HECA as it is, under which improvements have been made. Some authorities have done extremely well, and have achieved improvements of up to 20 per cent. They have done so voluntarily, because they have made that their priority. I am sure that we will continue with that, and that there will be further improvements whatever the Government do and whether or not this Bill goes through.
The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) referred to authorities that have achieved only a 0.003 per cent. improvement. Some have not even produced a report; some have produced a report but have done nothing about it; and some have produced a report with a tiny target and that is all they have achieved. Those are the authorities that we should aim at, which is why we need a statutory requirement, and I fully accept that. If it is a statutory requirement, it is also an obligation, which is not currently the case. If we are to require local authorities to do something over and above what they are already doing, which is the purpose of the Bill, they must be funded. It is as simple as that.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) asked whether we were letting 350 of the 360-odd local authorities off the hook. No, we are not. We are concerned about the large proportion of thema quarter to a halfthat have done miserably. But it is not just those that have hardly done anything or have not produced a report: we are concerned about laggard local authorities that are nowhere near the level of the best and are not performing adequately to achieve the target set by the Tory Government in their 1996 guidance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South unfairly drew attention to the quality of advice that I have received. He said that the drafting of amendment No. 11 was therefore very late. The reason that it was produced so late was that there was endless negotiation with the promoters of the Bill over changes. At least three times I thought that agreement had been reached, but then there
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. So far in this small debate, the Minister has spoken for 58 minutes. We know that the Government do not like the Pensions Annuities (Amendment) Bill, but for the Minister to talk for so long is unfair to all those pensioners and others who are relying on that Bill making progress.
Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman is concerned purely with reaching another Bill. I will say nothing about its merits or otherwise. He is uninterested in this Bill and sees it as something he has to step over to get to his preferred alternative. That is contemptible. His Front-Bench colleagues have repeatedly told the House how incredibly important this Bill is and how the Government are failing to carry out important objectives. We now see the other face of the Tory party, which wants to get rid of the Bill and move on to the real business of the Pensions Annuities (Amendment) Bill. That is despicable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South said that the advice I get is simply to minimise my commitments so that I will be held to the least account. That is not fair. My civil servants know extremely well that I am keen to advance the environmental agenda and, where necessary, to set targets and commitments. They know that perfectly well, and I believe that the advice I get is proper and balanced in order to enable me to reach the right conclusions, not to minimise my commitments.
On funding, I appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for Gordon. The money is being found to deal with child poverty, fuel poverty, climate change and the Kyoto targets precisely because they are Government targets that are part of our policy development process. They have been planned over years and years and written into spending reviews to meet policy programmes and objectives.
The difference here, as I have tried to explain, is that this is a private Member's Billit is meritorious and worthy, and has entirely proper objectivesthat is being inserted between spending reviews when there has been no planning for it within Government at all. It could be financed only by reducing other commitmentspresumably in energy efficiency but maybe in other areasby the same amount as the measure costs. That is not a proper or desirable way to legislate.