|Home Energy Conservation Bill
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I have tabled amendment (a) with the hon. Members for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) and for Guildford (Sue Doughty). As the Minister explained, it would remove the notion of targets from guidelines and put them into the Bill. It is a simple and straightforward proposition, which was endorsed by the House on Second Reading and by the Minister and many of his colleagues.
To set out why an amendment is needed, it is always helpful to cite the Minister whose amendment one is trying to amend. Debating the money resolution, the Minister for the Environment said:
The Minister has realised, as we have, that targets are the lynchpin of the Bill. We know from reports that were prepared for the Minister on the performance of local authorities under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 that the average improvement rate of 6 per cent. is at best a partial success. Some authorities such as Chester made great progress in delivering a 19.56 per cent. energy efficiency improvement since 1995, while those at the unacceptable end of the scale include Maldon, which had a reported improvement rate of 0.09 per cent., and four authorities with no figures available. At that rate, some authorities will move nowhere while others continue to set the pace in
Column Number: 28delivering what the Government and Parliament wanted in passing HECA.
The importance of having targets is perhaps best reflected in two other references about where the measure fits in with the plans to meet the Government's overall targets. We have clear commitments on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. They are part of our Kyoto commitments and ones for which the Minister has been pre-eminent in fighting, not only in this country but on the international stage. He deserves enormous praise for that. The difficulty comes in questions about whether we have the programmes, mechanisms and targets in place for delivering that to which the Government are already committed. In a report from the Solar Millennium Project of Forum for the Future, which was published in September 2001, the prospect for meeting our existing targets were set out starkly in the report's summary. The opening sentence says:
At the end of the two-paragraph introduction, it states:
and the conclusion is:
The report of the performance and innovation unit, which has not yet been formally published but appears on the website, notes that the report
The two reports together present us with an awesome challenge. The first acknowledges that we will not reach our existing targets on our current framework of commitments. The second says that the targets themselves are not sufficient to meet our climate change obligations. We should consider the Bill against that backdrop.
Many hon. Members know how serious the Minister is about performance and targets. In September last year, he wrote to his ministerial colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about performance under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995:
The Minister asked his civil servants to consult and work on the basis of that instruction.
There is not a shred of evidence that the Minister has been uncommitted or unenthusiastic about
Column Number: 29delivering on our targets. However, a scenario unfolded in the events that followed. The closest that I can come to visualising the exchanges that must have taken place is a re-enactment of one of Victoria Wood's songs, ''Let's Do It'', in which she has a wonderful cameo exchange with herself. One part of her says, ''Let's do it, I want to lose control, this has to happen.'' The response of her other self is, ''I can't do it. I'm really not in the mood.''
I believe that discussions took place, not between Ministers but between Ministers and civil servants, about whether we can do it. The exchanges were a behind-the-scenes version of ''No, Minister'': in a succession of advice notes and discussions, civil servants consistently gave the Minister wretched, misleading and, at times, dishonest advice. The obstructions thrown in front of the Government do no credit to the notion that the role of the civil service is to enact Government policy, rather than to frustrate it.
As part of the follow up to his committees, the Minister pulled together a steering group of representatives of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, non-governmental organisations and local government as part of the local authority energy review. The review sought to deliver what the Minister described as more robust targets. However, that was not the message conveyed to those who took part in it. Somewhere in the transmission process, civil servants began to talk not about strengthening the targets and making them more robust, but about watering them down; they talked about aspirational targets rather than legally binding obligations.
The steering group was thus presented with a number of problems, not least of which was that it discovered when it tested the water that far from being hostile to the notion of having legally binding targets, local authorities were quite keen on them. A letter sent recently by Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, as secretary of the Local Government Association, stated:
The steering group found itself in a bizarre, Catch-22 situation. Its members were invited to be members of the panel, which met on three occasions, and the panel's presumption was that it would develop on the basis of what DEFRA referred to as shared ownership of the review's recommendations. However, as set out in a letter to the Minister on 1 February, the local authority and NGO representatives
It is hard to understand how anyone can have shared ownership of a process if they are denied access to the
Column Number: 30relevant documents, or sight of the recommendations forwarded to the Minister.
The members of the panel include Tim German of the Cornwall local authority support programme, Richard Hurford from the London borough of Lewisham, Michael King of Energy Efficiency Partnership for Homes, Graham Osborne of Brighton and Hove city council and Andrew Warren, director of the Association of Conservation of Energy. They are not fly-by-night interests in the energy efficiency programme but key partners who stood by us and worked with all parties in Parliament to produce this constructive measure, irrespective of the party in government. They are the social partners who are keen to work with the Government to deliver this programme, yet they say that they have been specifically and systematically excluded from the real partnership in the review process. Their letter concludes:
Far from their being hostile, or dragging their feet, they are asking the Government and the civil service to deliver in a robust manner against a statutory obligation.
The next part of the process involved a series of representations in which Ministers were told that colleagues in other Departments objected to the notion of including targets in the Bill. Several hon. Members have spoken to ministerial colleagues in various Departments and were surprised at their surprise at the reluctance to include targets in the Bill. Many Ministers were surprised to discover that objections had been registered. It emerged that objections to the system were not ministerial or party political—it was not people in the Government or on Opposition Benches who were holding back the targets. The objection and hostility came from civil servants.
Looking through the figures on delivery of the HECA targets, the objections are not surprising. It is conspicuously obvious from consideration of the table of local authority performances that departmental initiatives to ensure delivery of HECA in the period after its implementation were not followed. Non-delivery became the order of the day. Not having targets is an effective mechanism for concealing the amount of work that has not been done in implementing an Act. Merely having aspirations to pursue is a fabulous position in which the civil service should find itself. Aspirations are like mists that disappear in the night, but targets require us to state exactly what we have delivered.
I understand those who have spent much time not delivering being keen on a framework in which non-delivery continues to be the order of the day. The amendment would move us from a culture of non-delivery to one in which we can legitimately follow through the partnership that exists throughout the different parts of Parliament and reaches out to almost every sector of the country and the public interest. Targets involve our own credibility—not only of the Committee but of Parliament. They mean that we are seen not only to issue warm words but to deliver home
Column Number: 31warmth in programmes for which we are willing to be held accountable.
The second set of objections that were presented to Ministers on targets stated that even if they were desirable, they are not legal because parliamentary counsel will not allow them. Fortunately, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown had the wisdom to go directly to independent parliamentary counsel to have the Bill and several related amendments drafted. That is what happened with my amendment (a). Lesley Furlonger, who has a background of 20 or 30 years' experience in parliamentary counsel, went through the Bill, the amendments and the arguments that one could not have targets in the Bill. Her written response was:
That is probably true. The policy differences are not between hon. Members or parties but between Ministers and officials.
The final point that I throw in the Minister's path is the notion that even if targets were desirable or legal, they are not affordable. That presents the Minister with a different Catch-22. If one considers the progress that has been made under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, it is clear that the best performing authorities have delivered energy efficiency improvements within the framework of government provision. They have done it out of their existing allocations and by drawing on specific government schemes. They have entered into or constructed local partnerships, all aimed at delivering home warmth and home energy efficiency.
The best performing authorities have stayed within budget. There has not been a cavalry charge of local authorities saying that they can deliver only on receipt of a blank cheque. Why have the worst performing authorities done so little? The most common explanation is that if it is optional the authorities that understand the seriousness of the problem and want to do something follow the suggested path, but those with little or no interest opt to do nothing. Removing the option places an obligation on the worst to meet the standards of the best within exactly the same framework of provision and constraints. It is not a blank cheque commitment.
The more that the Government seek to remove targets from the Bill or obligations in respect of residential social landlords or houses in multiple occupation, and the more that they remove the regulatory framework that requires obligations to be in place across the piece, the more one is left with the presumption that the only way to meet the targets in the different sectors will be with a huge blank cheque provided by the Government. Ironically, the setting of targets throughout the Bill across the different sectors would assist the Minister in reducing the size of the cheque that is waved in front of him to sign. It could help him to convince his Cabinet colleagues that that wonderful sweeping gesture of environmental
Column Number: 32commitment and social responsibility will not bankrupt the Treasury. Perversely, all the pressure on the Minister to remove the targets from the Bill would increase the fear that without other people having shared obligations, the costs to the Government would be even greater.
Finally, if we have no targets in the Bill, we deeply frustrate and undermine the role that the private energy sector has sought to play in the development of energy efficiency programmes and partnerships. That has been frustrating at times. It is certainly complicated because it crosses different ministerial briefs, but it is worth putting on the record a tribute to the response from the different sections of the energy industry that are willing to go down a path of a much bolder and more imaginative commitment to energy efficiency that stretches well beyond the issuing of low-energy light bulbs. Many of the energy suppliers are already in discussions with local authorities about strategic programmes of serious improvements in home energy efficiency to which they can be long-term contributors, as long as they know the rules of the game.
In the last briefing of the energy industry to the parliamentary warm homes group, the consistent plea was for a rules-based framework within which it can operate, and it was specifically related to different sectors of the housing market. In houses in the multiple occupation sector, for example, we cannot ask the energy industry to twist the arms of private owners of rented properties or of residential social landlords and then say, ''We are not only going to make you do it but we will offer you the means of doing so, out of which we shall provide some form of contract.'' If the Government place them in that position, they will be seen as the villains, not the enablers. We might be seen as wreckers rather than reformers of the process of delivering a nation-wide commitment to energy efficiency across all housing sectors.
So the energy industry asked for a rules-based framework and for targets to be built into the Bill, which would facilitate discussions with property owners. The industry could say, ''We have targets to meet, so how shall we set about achieving them?'', and provide various options if the owners were interested—clearly an enabling and supporting role, built on recognition that everyone has obligations to meet the targets. The discussion would then be about how best, rather than whether, to achieve them. Building targets into the Bill thus strengthens the hand of the private sector to contribute to sharing the costs of the overall programme.
It seems perverse for me to be a champion of the private sector. It is not a role to which I am accustomed. It would be crass of me not to recognise that the energy sector has a genuine interest and commitment to delivering the Government's targets. It merely wants us to take the targets as seriously as it does. In that context, we should ask the Minister to accept amendment (a), which simply builds commitments to targets into the amended form of words suggested by the Minister. It takes issue with no
Column Number: 33part of his wording. Instead, it is designed to provide clearer meaning by defining a target-spaced framework to follow through.
I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment. As I said at the outset, it was tabled on a cross-party basis in the spirit of genuinely wanting to deliver what the Government have consistently said that they intend to deliver. It provides a mechanism that would give Parliament credibility with the public at large, who would see that we were willing to set out a targets base in primary legislation and then in subsequent guidance provide the mechanisms to achieve it. It is not a wrecking amendment. Instead, it provides the only basis for delivering the objectives that we all say we are serious about achieving.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2002||Prepared 5 February 2002|