Sustainable Energy Bill

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Mr. Stunell: Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the irony that the Department of Trade and Industry, which is responsible for the generation and supply side of the industry, is in favour and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has responsibility for efficient use of energy, seems to be objecting?

Mr. Robathan: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. If we care about the environment, surely we should be heading that way. If the Department of Trade and Industry can come on

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board, surely the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs can as well.

An excellent point was made about business investment and in this country we have a bad record. Some of us attended the debate on energy policy a couple of weeks ago when it was pointed out that Britain had been at the forefront in the development of wind energy 20 or so years ago, but, sadly, is now in the rearguard. I suspect that throughout the Committee and the country among those who care about the matter there is grave disappointment about the watering down of the Bill. I pay tribute to the commitment of the Bill's promoter—I am not weeping crocodile tears—but if the Bill goes through in the way that the Government want, is it really worth having with such watered down clauses?

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): I thank you, Mr. Illsley, and the Committee for the opportunity to be here and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East. I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill to which he referred earlier, which was introduced by our hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown. I seem to recall speaking to a clause similar to new clause 10, which is effectively the fuel poverty clause. It was a pleasure to be on the Standing Committee that considered that Bill but it was disappointing to have to vote against my hon. Friend when he had to talk his own Bill out. That was a disappointing experience and I hope that we have—

Brian White: I assure my hon. Friend that I shall not talk this Bill out.

Mr. Edwards: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I and, I am sure, the Committee are mightily relieved to hear that. It is a terrible dilemma when we are asked to do something like that.

New clause 10 relates to the directions that the Government would want to make to local authorities in England and Wales—I speak as a Member representing a Welsh constituency—to co-ordinate activities in their local communities for developing local strategic partnerships to achieve the aims of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 to eradicate fuel poverty. I have had an interest, but no expertise, in the matter for a number of years. I used to be a social policy lecturer and sometimes lectured on the theme of hypothermia and social policy. The seminal work in the area was a study called ''Old and Cold'' by Malcolm Wicks, the same Malcolm Wicks who is now my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions. I sometimes take particular pleasure in reading the recommendations made to Government by academics who subsequently become a member of the Government. When we were here last year with the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) who had made many pertinent recommendations to Government in his social policy research—he was at York university, as I was—we were able to quote some of the recommendations that he had enthusiastically advocated when he was an academic, but was reluctant to implement when he was a Minister. I hope that he will be able enthusiastically to advocate those recommendations again.

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Mr. Robathan: Is that not a lesson for us all?

Mr. Edwards: Indeed it is. Perhaps another lesson is not to wish to be a Minister and to keep one's integrity by making recommendations to Government from the Back Benches, maintaining some consistency in our academic and political careers.

Fuel poverty is a serious problem and relates to insufficient income to keep one's home warm and dry. It was a particular problem and was investigated in the 1970s. The focus of ''Old and Cold'' was hypothermia among the elderly. Our concern now is fuel poverty as it might affect all aspects of all age groups, and it is a considerable problem.

There is a particular problem in Wales. My constituency, Monmouth, is relatively affluent, but it has pockets of deprivation, and one is in a wonderful community called Llanelli Hill. I do not know whether hon. Members know south Wales, but if they go up the heads of the valleys road, past Abergavenny, they will be getting to the true valley communities. One of the first is Llanelli Hill. Then one moves towards Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen. When those communities are shrouded in mist, one is aware that they can be very deprived in terms of the environment. They are former mining communities. Often, houses were put up rather cheaply in the early part of the 20th century. They are poorly insulated and suffer from energy inefficiency. That is the very type of property that we expect this legislation to address.

Hon. Members may also know north Wales. Blaenau Ffestiniog is the traditional centre of the slate mining community. I think that it has the highest rainfall of anywhere in Britain. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) is not on the Committee, but I am sure that he would speak fondly of the richness of that community. It is the type of community to which such legislation should apply.

To the previous Government's credit, they introduced the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. It is to the credit of this Government that we have the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000. The aim of the clause is to apply those measures to local authorities to achieve the aims of eradicating fuel poverty by 2016 and, in respect of the most vulnerable, by 2010.

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I was particularly interested in the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North about the likely rise in energy prices. That will have a significant impact. It is to the credit of this Government and previous Governments that since studies were conducted in the mid–1970s—25 or 30 years ago—a number of measures have been introduced to improve housing conditions, social security provision, public health provision and the co-ordination of health and social services. That ensures that fuel poverty is dealt with in different ways.

The aim of this measure is to give local authorities the lead role in co-ordinating activities with public bodies, voluntary bodies, public health agencies, advice agencies such as welfare rights agencies,

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agencies that represent people in the area of disablement, refugee organisations, community groups, energy suppliers and local businesses. The need for a more co-ordinated approach is at the core of the Bill.

It is estimated that more than 200,000 homes in Wales need support under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, of which 150,000 come into the category of social housing, 84,000 are in owner occupation and 23,000 are private rented accommodation.

I noted the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East about the Local Government Association. I place on the record my great respect for the officers of the Welsh Local Government Association—

Mr. Robathan: Vice-president?

Mr. Edwards: I am not a vice-president, but I know one or two of the leading officers well and I know their commitment to working with local government and, within the new democratic framework in Wales, with the National Assembly for Wales. It is to the Assembly's credit that it has made social inclusion one of its central themes covering all policy areas. This legislation will give the Assembly duties to work with local authorities in Wales to achieve greater home energy conservation and to eliminate fuel poverty by 2016. I am therefore pleased to support new clause 10.

Gregory Barker: I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) for the articulate speech that he has made and for bringing the Committee's attention back to fuel poverty. May I say how disappointed I was, having moved the amendment to put the teeth back into the Home Energy Conservation Bill last summer, to see that Bill eventually fail through the machinations of the Government Whips and the collaboration of its sponsor? When I made a brief contribution earlier, I asked why the Government were shying away from targets, which is particularly apposite when examining targets around fuel poverty.

The Government have not been totally silent on fuel poverty and I pay tribute to the progress that they have made. They brought in the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which imposes a statutory duty to end fuel poverty in vulnerable sectors and in all social housing by 2010. The Government have made repeated promises that they would achieve that target on the wider definition of fuel poverty, which is 10 per cent. of disposable income, rather than 10 per cent. of total income, needing to be spent on keeping warm. That promise was reiterated most recently by the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton at the annual conferences of National Energy Action and the national right to fuel campaign.

Again it appears that the Government are starting to slip, slide and backtrack away from a target because they are not making progress, are not putting the effort in and are not backing their promises with resources. The fuel poverty advisory group's

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recommendation that at least 50 per cent. more resources are needed if the 2010 target is to be met has been ignored. The FPAG has advised the Government that at current rates of progress 2.3 million vulnerable households, which contain 3 million people, will still be in fuel poverty by 2010, which will lead to the Government missing that target by a wide margin.

The Government's statutory duty under the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 to end all fuel poverty in all sectors by 2016 is equally under threat. The White Paper claims that 3 million people in the UK are in fuel poverty, 2 million of whom are in the vulnerable sectors. Even if one accepts that low figure, the Government have still ignored and abandoned 1 million vulnerable people by using the narrower definition of fuel poverty, which is 10 per cent. of total income rather than 10 per cent. of disposable income—they have untruthfully claimed that that definition is normal. They have also broken numerous ministerial promises to end fuel poverty on both definitions. They have abandoned a further 1 million households by ignoring evidence from the NEA, which has been reiterated by the FPAG, that 1 million households in social housing who comply with the Government's specified decency standards are in reality still in fuel poverty.

Furthermore, no new resources were announced in the White Paper to achieve the 2010 target, despite the recommendations by the FPAG and others that I have mentioned. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Government do not want to see binding, ambitious targets on the face of the Bill. More than that, they are backing away from the spirit of their existing commitments. It is particularly worrying that the turf warfare raging between DEFRA and the DTI has resulted in collateral damage to the wider agenda of eradicating fuel poverty, promoting sustainable energy and coming up with an ambitious programme for Britain's renewables sector.

All those things are vitally important, but they are casualties of DEFRA's inability to get its act together and the inability of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to marshal her Department behind the promises that the Government made when they came into office. The Ministers in that Department have been unable to deliver on their manifesto objectives and previous promises. DEFRA, which is at the heart of the Government, is slowing down the machinery of the whole Administration.

 
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