Sustainable Energy Bill

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Mr. Stunell: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a meeting was held last week between the manufacturers of condensing boilers and micro-CHP and Lord Whitty, and that the manufacturers came away very disconcerted at the apparent lack of focus and intention as a result of that meeting?

Mr. Chaytor: I was not aware of that meeting, and I am not privy to Lord Whitty's diary. The point is important, however, as it indicates the dangers of sending out the wrong signals and is another important argument in support of new clause 7. We should offer the manufacturers of condensing boilers and others working in the energy efficiency technologies more reassurance so that they can plan their investment programmes more effectively.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): My hon. Friend's argument is compelling. Does he agree that the voluntary sector is especially affected by the need for clear signals? We all know about the warm front scheme and its potential budget cuts for next year. If we raise expectations, we must be clear about having to deliver them. If people expect new central heating or to have their central heating improved, we must give clear reasons why they can expect that to happen. If not, we will end up in a very difficult situation.

Mr. Chaytor: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The wider issue is that improvements in domestic energy efficiency are an entirely win-win situation. No one is opposed to improving domestic energy efficiency, apart from the most irresponsible suppliers of fossil fuels, whose only interest is in selling more energy without considering its use or the wider consequences for climate change of a profligate use of energy. Everyone gains by improving domestic energy efficiency. I deeply regret the fact that the Government do not yet seem to have appreciated that fully, or to understand fully what a huge amount of political capital can be accrued in the industry and among consumers for an ambitious programme and ambitious aims.

To return to the role of the voluntary sector and to local authorities, the proposals in new clause 7 are crucial if the Government are to meet the fourth objective of their energy policy to eliminate fuel poverty. For a wide variety of reasons that we do not need to go into, we know that energy prices will rise in the years to come.

For several years, we have been living in a fool's paradise of unjustifiably low energy prices. We have been conditioned to believe that energy prices can continue to fall year after year, but history teaches us that when energy prices are low, people become more profligate in their use of energy and take less heed of the importance of conserving energy. That period of low energy prices is now passing. The price of all forms of energy will increase in the next few years, and the

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consequences will be quite dire if no correcting action is taken to achieve fuel poverty targets.

The only way to achieve our fuel poverty targets in an era of rising energy prices is to make more efficient use of energy.

Gregory Barker: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's extremely articulate and eloquent explanation. I know how much thought he gives to these issues because he contributes so much to the Environmental Audit Committee, which he has just joined. Without interrupting his flow and before he concludes his remarks, will he say why he is withdrawing the motion and whether he believes that what is left in the Bill goes any way towards meeting the ambition and strategy that he outlined this morning? I am puzzled about where all this is taking us? The hon. Gentleman has described so well for the record what we have to do and why we have to do it that I am struggling to put myself in the position of backing him, agreeing to the withdrawal of the motion, and voting for a quisling version of a watered-down Bill.

Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Gentleman is making assumptions about what I intend to do. It would be misguided of me to respond to his question before I have decided what I will do. Having said that, I accept that the hon. Gentleman has made an important point. The description of the new clause that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East has tabled as ''quisling'' is a little harsh. The hon. Gentleman will know that if one is not able to achieve 100 per cent.—or even 85 per cent.—of what one has set out to achieve, sometimes 70 per cent. is better than nothing.

9.45 am

I have tried to argue the positive reasons for supporting new clause 7. However, I also wish to reassure the Minister that accepting new clause 7 would not lead him into any difficulties. Safeguards have been built in. New clause 7 refers to ''reasonable steps''. We all know that ''reasonable'' is an extremely useful word, and that one person's conception of what is reasonable is not always the same as another person's conception of what is reasonable. New clause 7 also provides for the taking into account of any likely costs, so that if totally unexpected costs arose, that would not cause a major problem.

The new clause specifically ties the Minister to the current policy document; currently, that document is the White Paper. The objectives are defined as carbon savings, but if the Government decided that the objectives in the White Paper had to be changed, the new clause would provide the flexibility for such a change. I hope that if changes were made to the White Paper, a more stringent policy would emerge. However, to be more realistic, the clause allows for a relaxation of the ambitions of the White Paper.

Having made those few remarks, I reiterate the crucial overriding importance of improving domestic energy efficiency, and—as the White Paper states—doubling the rate of that improvement over the next 30 years. If the wording of new clause 7 was acceptable last week, it should be acceptable this week.

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Mr. Robathan: That was an extremely thoughtful and sensible speech by the hon. Member for Bury, North. It pains me to ever agree with the Liberal Democrats, but the hon. Member for Hazel Grove made a similarly sensible speech with which I disagreed with very little. It is nice to see the Liberal Democrat representation present today. Last week, they were very much missed.

This is not a partisan matter, although we are in a partisan place. Everybody in the Room, including, I suspect, the Minister, believes in much the same ethos. The question is how we get a better sustainable energy policy. If anyone is not convinced of the reality of climate change, they should look at what is happening to the climate in the United Kingdom. It is not just nostalgia that leads me to remember that I went tobogganing every winter when I was a child. Climate change is here; it is happening. We see it in droughts in March; in muggy, clammy Mays, when they used to be fresh; and in snow in Jerusalem. This is such an important matter that we should not make too many silly partisan points.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East has done an excellent job in bringing the Bill before the House. It is enormously important, and his heart is in the right place. He may have been somewhat seduced by too close contact with Ministers, but perhaps that is one of the disadvantages of politics. Similarly, I have no doubt that the Minister's heart is in the right place. I would like him to put his words and actions where his heart is. I turn to the departure of the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North, who was on the Committee when it met two weeks ago. I much regret his departure, not because I am sorry to see the new Minister, but because his heart was in the right place and he was working hard for what all of us in the Room believe in. I suspect that his frustration with other Departments may have been part of what was behind his decision not to go on—although, of course, I cannot speak for him.

We must ask why the Government are trying so hard to water down the Bill. The Government have form. Last year, there was a bizarre occurrence involving a similar Bill. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown talked out his own Bill on the promise, I understand, of a ten-minute Bill. I do not know whether that was the case and because the hon. Gentleman is not present I do not want to malign him, but it was pretty strange.

No Governments—this goes for Conservative as well as Labour Governments—like having duties imposed on them. We understand why. God willing, after the next election I shall be the Minister with responsibility for energy. If I were, I would not like having duties imposed on me either. I understand that dislike. However, we want real obligations in the Bill. If I were the Minister, I would accept that.

Do we have time to move more slowly in good spirit and with good intentions? I have mentioned climate change. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East referred to a 5 per cent. increase in the efficiency of housing stock over eight years. That is just too slow. It is not good enough. Climate change is here and

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energy efficiency improvements have to be here is spades as well, because things can only get worse.

New clause 10 places obligations on and gives targets to local authorities, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Why are the Government so keen not to have obligations themselves? If obligations are good enough for local authorities, they should be good enough for Governments.

We are talking about domestic energy efficiency. We all know that our housing stock is woefully inefficient. Two years ago, I bought a farm in my constituency. I lived in the farmhouse for 18 months. I am glad to say that we have now moved to a warm, well insulated, relatively well thought-out building with a photovoltaic roof. However, when I lived in the farmhouse, the wind came in through the holes around the cellar and went out through the holes in the roof. We had central heating, but it was pretty antiquated and if it was going full blast, it just took the chill off the house, which was really damp. That is an extreme example.

It is partly a cultural and educational thing. Far too much of our housing stock is in a similarly appalling condition. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove referred to culture and the hon. Member for Bury, North to education. I vividly remember an article in my local newspaper, the Leicester Mercury, which featured a man complaining about his central heating in his council house. It had been off for two days and there he was, in December, sitting in his vest in his drawing room, complaining about it.

Every single individual in the country must learn that we do not need to have our living rooms heated to 80º. We should put on extra jerseys and have well insulated and ventilated houses. We should not expect to be able to live in T-shirts in the middle of December. It is a bit of a bugbear of mine, but it is important. [Interruption.] Sadly, I did not hear the intervention. We are talking about the education not just of local authorities, but of individuals.

I want to ask the Minister about the point made by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East about new clause 7. Was it agreed? I have looked at it and it is pretty innocuous. I do not see why anybody should get frightfully upset about it. What was the problem that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had? New clause 7 wisely keeps referring back to the Government's energy White Paper and their climate change programme that was presented to Parliament in November 2000. What possible problems can the Government have with that?

 
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