Sustainable Energy Bill

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Gregory Barker: Before the Minister moves on, I want to probe him a little on what he takes reasonable steps to mean. It seems that in its second term, new Labour is developing a new language of irregular verbs that says to subordinates, ''You have a binding target. I target reasonable steps.'' What does the wording mean to the layman?

Mr. Timms: That form of words is extremely familiar in legislation. I shall return to that subject, but I now want to respond to several points that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members raised about the Government's general approach to targets.

We want to achieve a step change throughout the economy in energy efficiency. We are preparing an implementation plan for delivering the strategy set out in the energy White Paper. In order to deliver our commitments, in particular in chapter 3, we will work with the energy efficiency industry, and others who have an interest, to develop that plan. We shall ensure that we provide the time to do that successfully.

New clauses 8 and 9 bring the Bill into line with policy on energy efficiency and our wider climate change objectives. The hon. Member for Blaby is right to say that climate change is happening. We need to make far-reaching changes to the way our economy works to respond to that. The new clauses are helpful steps in that direction. They provide flexibility to allow the designated energy efficiency aims to be altered and improved, and ensure that the appropriate legislation is in place for both England and Wales.

I would like to say a little more about new clause 10, which I am pleased to support. The new clause would have the effect of giving the Government power, following consultation with local government representatives, to give a direction specifying a level of improvement in energy efficiency in residential accommodation to be achieved by energy conservation authorities. It would require those authorities to implement measures that they consider to be cost effective, practical and likely to result in achieving the improvement.

The Government do not want to place new burdens on authorities without offering funding to meet them in full, so we would not issue the directions until the necessary funding could be made available. Until that time, there would be no new financial burdens on authorities. Once full funding was available, we would be able to issue directions; the authorities would have to achieve the improvements in residential energy efficiency by specified deadlines, and they would be given the funding and support that they needed to undertake that task.

New clause 10 would require the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales to consult the Local Government Association in England and the

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Welsh Local Government Association—we have heard a little about them today—when setting targets for improving efficiency in residential accommodation for energy conservation authorities. The direction would include a date by which the improvements were to be made, and that could be varied by the Secretary of State and the Assembly.

Under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, most authorities have set themselves targets, but those vary considerably. Of course, targets should reflect local circumstances, such as housing type and the state of the stock when the 1995 Act was introduced. However, an important element of the proposed approach is that the direction should be worked out in consultation with representatives from local government, rather than simply imposed from above.

Earlier, we had a good discussion about fuel poverty. I listened with great interest to, and was in agreement with, my hon. Friends the Members for Bury, North, for Monmouth and for Stroud (Mr. Drew). I am pleased that new clause 10 includes a requirement in subsection (6)(a) for local authorities to have regard to the eradication of fuel poverty in the course of carrying out their duties. The fuel poverty strategy that came from the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 sets a target, as we have heard, for the eradication of fuel poverty as far as is reasonably practicable. We are committed to meeting that target, and that provision will help us to do so. We have linked the proposed duties on fuel poverty action to the issue of a direction to achieve improvements in residential energy efficiency, so authorities will be required to undertake additional activities only when full funding is available.

I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud for drawing attention to the progress that we have made. To his credit, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle made that point, too. There has been a good deal of progress on dealing with fuel poverty in the past few years. The White Paper says that in 1996 there were 5.5 million households in fuel poverty. There are now about 3 million. That is substantial progress. The White Paper also makes it clear that there is still a long way to go. We must keep up the momentum. The proposed new clause would help us do that and it may, perhaps, further speed things up.

I was especially impressed by my hon. Friend's diligence in obtaining a copy of the NAO report, which is due to be published tomorrow, and for giving us a sneak preview. He is correct to draw attention to that, because it is another indication of the seriousness with which the issue is being addressed.

10.30 am

My noble Friend Lord Whitty has been referred to during the debate. When I was the Minister at the Treasury dealing with such things, I discussed this topic with him a number of times. No one should underestimate his personal commitment to making progress on dealing with fuel poverty. I look forward to working with him on the present matter in my current role. I am confident that we will be able to make further progress. It is vital that we do.

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I enjoyed reading the comments of my hon. Friend—now a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions—in his 1970s book on the subject, which reflect the great importance and enormous impact on millions of people and households of dealing with the matter during the years ahead.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North made a good, thoughtful speech in support of his new clause 7. He reassured me that I would not run into any difficulties if I accepted his proposal. Notwithstanding that, I will resist it. It would replace the target in clause 2 with a duty to

    ''take reasonable steps to achieve the carbon saving aims in relation to the energy efficiency of residential accommodation specified in any policy document''

designated for the purpose of the legislation. I have made it clear that taking forward energy efficiency measures is a key part of our work in following up the Energy White Paper. We remain completely committed to the commitments made in that document. We want to achieve a step change in energy efficiency throughout the energy economy.

Mr. Robathan: I had forgotten that the Minister was a gamekeeper turned poacher, or vice versa—I am not sure. I do not doubt his good faith, but I doubt his ability to deliver. If we were to accept new clause 8, to which his name is appended, we would agree to a lot of talk about the ''energy efficiency aim''. There is some doubt about that. I hope that before he sits down he will explain exactly what that aim would be.

Mr. Timms: Our aims are set out fully in chapter 3 of the White Paper. It is my job to deliver those aims.

Mr. Robathan: When the new clause says

    ''at least one efficiency aim'',

does that refer to at least one of the aims in the White Paper?

Mr. Timms: We set out in chapter 3 what we intend to achieve on energy efficiency. The proposals in the new clause are a helpful step in that direction.

Mr. Robathan: I do not doubt the Minister's good faith, but he has not answered the question. What will be the energy efficiency aim? Will it be one of the aims in the White Paper? It is mentioned in subsections (1), (2) and (3) of new clause 8.

Mr. Timms: I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to the White Paper, in which our 135 aims are set out fully. Those relating to energy efficiency are in chapter 3. We remain committed to all of them. The steps that we are taking in the Bill, as it is now framed, will be helpful in achieving them.

Brian White: Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the fears that a number of people have is that, given the way that new clause 8 is now worded, a strict interpretation could allow the Government to do something on the building rate, and then say that that has achieved the Bill's energy efficiency aims, without doing anything else in chapter 3? Would he give the Committee an assurance that that is not the Government's intention, and that it is the Government's intention to bring forward a range of proposals?

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Mr. Timms: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that helpful point. I can give indeed give him that assurance. We are committed to making progress across all those areas. I have listened to some of the points that have been made during the debate, particularly from Opposition Members, who have given me the impression that they believe that by tying the Government down—passing laws that constrain the Government—they will advance the aims of the White Paper. That is not the case. I will return to that matter because representatives of both Opposition parties made those points.

As for new clause 7, the White Paper applies to the whole of the UK, not just to England. It is important that we are clear about the respective responsibilities of the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. The amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East has tabled spell that out very clearly. Those amendments make it clear that energy efficiency aims would be designated for both England and Wales, and that the Secretary of State for Wales and the National Assembly for Wales would be required to take reasonable steps to achieve those aims. New clause 7 is not as clear about that matter. There has been some debate about the discussions of the last two weeks. I have been a party to those discussions only for the latter part of that period. However, it is clear that this is a matter on which the thinking has moved over that period.

New clauses 8 and 9 are helpful in that they require the designation of energy efficiency aims that are contained in published documents that relate to the energy efficiency of residential accommodation in England. That gives us a useful and a better way forward. I reassure the Committee that my job is to deliver on the aims of the White Paper, and to work with colleagues across Government to achieve all 135 of the commitments that it contains.

In both of this morning's debates, Opposition Members have criticised the Government's approach to targets. We have heard denunciations of the Government for issuing targets; the hon. Member for Guildford was doing that a moment ago. Targets can be important, and in certain areas it is right to have them. The hon. Lady criticised us, only to call for many more targets in the area of energy efficiency. It is not unfair to ask for a little more consistency.

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