Sustainable Energy Bill

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Mr. Robathan: Does my hon. Friend agree that the recent departure of the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton from the Government, which was portrayed as a resignation, showed a certain feeling of frustration on his part?

Gregory Barker: I agree that the right hon. Gentleman must be a very frustrated man, but also a very liberated one. I look forward to hearing more from him on the subjects that he covered while in office. His departure has also ripped a fig leaf away from that Department and the whole Government: it leaves them naked before the environmental lobby, and it exposes their shortcomings.

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I am very disappointed that we will not get what we hoped to see in the Bill, but I look forward to seeing which way the Committee votes.

Mr. Drew: I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley, and I will not keep the Committee long. I rise in support of new clause 7, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North. I do not want to add much to his very eloquent explanation of why it is important, if it is at all possible, to toughen up the wording of the Bill.

Sometimes the Government actually do not realise when they have successes on their hands. They ought to tell people about those successes and work upon them. By pure chance in the past few days, I managed to get hold of ''Warm Front: Helping to Combat Fuel Poverty'', a report by the National Audit Office. The report is interesting. It is critical in some respects about the way in which money is spent, but last year we managed to introduce a range of measures into something like 370,000 households. That is a considerable number, but there is a lot more to be done.

The main point about the report is that increasing energy efficiency, as my hon. Friend rightly said, is a win-win situation. In a sense, it is a win-win-win situation because energy efficiency leads to conservation that meets our international obligations, it helps individuals, and it builds industry. When I intervened on my hon. Friend, I made a point about the voluntary sector in response to his mention of the private sector.

It must be remembered that, for all the work that the Government do, they target their resources, and there has to be a clear commitment by the individual household. My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth made a compelling point about what type of houses need to be energy efficient and have fuel poverty measures applied. We know that the most vulnerable people live in the oldest property. If we are serious about dealing with fuel poverty, that is the problem that we have to attack. As we know, those people will not necessarily fit into the right category of benefit support, or meet the criteria of the scheme. Such matters need to be taken into account.

I am clearly aware that such features have to be introduced according to the way that we operate in the House. I am always aware that the passing of legislation may be the stick, but the carrot has to be the way in which people change their mindsets, and we must ensure that we do the best we can. I hope that the debate has been useful, that the Government treat seriously the new clause of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North and that the required work is taking place.

10.15 am

I see that my hon. Friend the Minister has a copy of the NAO report, and I apologise if I put my foot in it because I did not notice the embargo on it. I still think that it is useful for us to know what is being done. The Government ought to take credit for it. When we have done good things, we should say, ''This is working and we are going to put more resources into it.'' The qualification is that we have had to reduce

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slightly the funding for the warm front scheme next year because of DEFRA's budgetary problems. However, everything can come together; there is a need for coherence and legislation can provide a coherent framework. I hope that the Minister will give a good hearing to our plaintive pleas and will give the Bill the teeth that it needs to make the differences that all of us want to see.

Sue Doughty (Guildford): I, too, would like to see the clause agreed. It has reasonableness stamped all the way through it. It is not trying to tie the Government down beyond what is practical. It recognises that situations change, new technologies come along, and the Minister might decide that the targets could be tougher. In fact, it is almost too reasonable. Last year, I debated the Home Energy Conservation Bill believing that it would really work towards helping the fuel poor and alleviating the situations that we heard described earlier, only to find that nothing would be done for the fuel poor because it was talked out—nul point so far as they were concerned.

Sustainable energy is essential and the Government's energy White Paper was most welcome in that it made reference to it. However, as somebody with only a couple of years' experience of Parliament, I still get very confused. How is it that the Government put targets in their White Paper, but when other targets are introduced in a private Member's Bill we suddenly find ourselves with something referred to as aims, which are not even very well specified? I came into Parliament to pin people down as to what they were going to have to do. I thought that that was what the legislative process was about.

Brian White: A noble concept.

Sue Doughty: Yes. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am sorry that he has associated himself with so much of the watering down of his own Bill. I know that he worked tremendously hard to ensure that there was something concrete in the Bill—nothing unreasonable or irrational, but an enactment of part of the White Paper that would take us one stage further. I have a lot of sympathy with the view of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle about targets. The Government are obsessed with them; hospitals quail under them, as do schools. I have been in and out of my local schools during the past few weeks thanking teachers for their achievements despite the targets that the Government rain down on them all the time.

Yet when a target comes near, the Government duck. In fact, they crawl and hide. Committee sittings are constantly rearranged so that the Government can try to find the fig leaf of which we have heard, and attach it in the right place to achieve the shred of decency that they seek. I am not convinced that the fig leaf is where it should be. This is a Bill that—

Mr. Chaytor: Will the hon. Lady tell us exactly where the fig leaf should be?

Sue Doughty: I would like to, but, being in a Room full of men, I feel that I really must draw a veil over the matter now. However, the Bill is scarcely a macho Bill.

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Some comments have been made about fuel poverty, which is desperately important. Over the past few months we have seen the contrast between what the true price of energy is, and the problems with British Energy and the money spent on bailing it out. We have never really paid the true cost of nuclear and we know that adjustments need to be made in the market, both in renewables and in traditional fuels, to get the right price for energy. All the time we say, ''We can't do this, because it would affect the fuel poor.'' The reality is that some of the objectives in the Bill to do with energy efficiency, CHP and home energy conservation, which we looked at last year, would go a long way to dealing with fuel poverty and reducing the amount of fuel that people need, and in that way we might see a more sensible approach to energy pricing.

One cannot take such things one by one, but having the original objectives of the Bill in place would have helped with the wider argument on energy as a whole. We need to work on that. I am happy to support the clause, but would still be fascinated to know why DEFRA is not happy—I am sure that the Minister will refer back to what happens in that Department. If the rumour that DEFRA lawyers were not happy is true, the question of who actually runs DEFRA arises—we know that it changes from week to week. It is possible to achieve a sensible compromise in DEFRA through what I think is now known as the domestic kerbside recycling Bill. That Bill was watered down, but some teeth were left in place—there are to be two sorts of recycling, which means that a vehicle will have turn up at the premises to bring about kerbside recycling. I do not think that the Bill will lead to any vehicle turning up to do anything by the time it has been so watered down.

On the whole, we are likely to support the Bill in order to get something on the statute books, but what poverty of ambition the Government have. I am afraid that I must say to the promoter of the Bill that it is a compromise too far—I am sorry to say that in view of the enormous amount of work that he has done. I hope that the Minister, who is an intelligent, thoughtful person, might be able to lift his sights to the horizon a little bit to see what we can do to give the Bill teeth, because it underpins so many other things that we need to do to improve the position not only of business, but, importantly, of the least privileged in our society.

Mr. Timms: I welcome and support new clauses 8 and 9, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East, which have the aim of introducing a new duty to take reasonable steps to achieve energy efficiency for residential accommodation that has been designated for the purposes of the legislation. I must say to the Committee and to the hon. Member for Guildford that I think that that is a worthwhile and significant step. I am absolutely sure that we shall hear a lot more about that duty in the years ahead. Just as hon. Members in this debate have looked back on significant legislative changes on fuel poverty by this Government and the previous Government, the

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provisions will be an important step in improving energy efficiency, and are a good illustration of the progress that will be made if and when the Bill reaches the statute book, as I very much hope it will.

Taking forward work on energy efficiency is a key part of our work in following up the White Paper on energy, which it is my job to deliver.

 
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