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Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes: I apologise to the hon. Lady, but I am about to finish. I am usually very generous with interventions, as she well knows, but I want to give other hon. Members time to speak. Perhaps she will be one of them.

The freedom from fear and the freedom from want are fundamental objectives of any decent Government, and this Government should live up to those principles—[Interruption.] Well, the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) may chafe, but there are people on this side of the Chamber—and, I am sure, on his side—who believe that the mitigation of disadvantage is the greatest purpose of politics. I believe that to be the case, and I make no bones about stating it. I have always believed it, and I have said so many times. This is not a recent conversion for me.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Hayes: I am not going to give way, so I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman is standing.

We have been told that the Minister is a literate, numerate and rational man. I think that he is also a good man, and that he will want to be remembered as a good Minister. On that basis, and in the spirit of agreement that he called for at the beginning of tonight's proceedings, I ask him to support the amendment and to
 
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adopt this standard, thus gaining the support of the broad consensus of opinion. His doing so would cast the Government in an entirely different light.

Matthew Green: I shall be brief, because I know that at least one other hon. Member would like to speak.

I have a little bit of sympathy for the Minister's position on this amendment; I am perhaps not as dogmatic as others on the issue. However, in attempting to fight it, he has done himself no credit whatever. Uncharacteristically, he has read things into the amendment that are not there, and cited figures that I do not think he could defend on closer examination. For instance, he talked about demolishing large numbers of homes in order to meet the standard, when the amendment says only that it should be met

I do not think that anyone would find it reasonably practicable to demolish lots of houses and build new ones. That takes £20 billion out of the £28 billion that he cited. I will not start delving into the rest—perhaps other hon. Members will want to tackle the question of the remaining £8 billion—but the figure certainly drops dramatically with a more accurate reading of the amendment.

The Minister is on difficult ground with this issue. As he himself explained, the definition of fuel poverty involves the amount a household spends on fuel in relation to its income. However, fuel prices are rising, and they are likely to continue to do so. Many people in the House, myself included, do not think that that is   necessarily a bad thing, from an environmental viewpoint. However, by definition, it causes a problem, because if things stand still more people will be put into the fuel-poor categories. The figures that the Minister accounted for—the 120,000, the 240,000 and the 1.1 million people—could all increase.

9.15 pm

There is a great danger that the advantage that the Government have had for the past few years, largely as a result of low fuel prices rather than Government intervention, will disappear. The Minister will be Minister for Housing and Planning when more people enter fuel poverty. Rather than taking an aggressive attitude against the amendment, which is well-meaning and has good practical thoughts behind it, and setting himself dogmatically against it, he should perhaps have moved some way towards meeting it, as it is clear that increasing the SAP rating of properties where it is relatively practical to do so does, as the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment has made clear, bring people out of fuel poverty.

I am saddened that the ministerial response has been so dogmatically against the amendment. I shall go against the Government tonight, because I want them to make some move to suggest that they are aware of the gap between where they are and where they will be—it will be a problem—in a couple of years with the continuing rise of fuel prices. I hope that we hear from the Minister that he at least acknowledges that there is such a problem and that he has some action plan to deal with it.

Alan Simpson: I have no doubt that both Opposition
 
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parties will vote in support of the Lords amendment and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the comments made by both Front-Bench spokesmen, but I must point out in terms of questioning the depth of this commitment that not a single Opposition Back-Bencher has been present throughout the debate on this clause. That is not the case in respect of Labour Members, and I want to address Labour's commitments in my remarks.

The Minister rightly said that a number of different objectives are built into the decent homes standard. I do not think anyone in the House would dispute the value of that, but it is not true to say that the Government can then use that as a pretext for getting out of what we have set for ourselves as the non-negotiable obligation to eradicate, in its entirety, fuel poverty by 2016.

The Minister will know from a number of delegations that I have been involved with, particularly from the parliamentary warm homes group—I brought them to see him to discuss this matter—that we have also tried to explore other choices that the Government have. By and large, we have taken a twin-pronged approach to the eradication of fuel poverty: one through the warm front programme and the other through income support measures, involving the Chancellor and the Treasury. However, it is absolutely right to say, as the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) did, that the viability of that intervention in income support will be put seriously to the test.

We have seen the end of the era of low energy prices; we are knee-deep in an era of dramatically increasing energy prices. None of us should kid ourselves that it will come cheap to the Government to intervene to pay people to throw money out of poorly insulated properties for no gain at all. There will certainly be a negative consequence of massively undermining our commitments to carbon reduction targets. The best way to tackle this is to address the structural condition of Britain's housing. As other Members have mentioned, on 19 April this year my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment pointed out that the best way to do that would be to set a minimum SAP rating of 65 for all social housing.

I suspect that if we were to do that, some other points that have been made to the Minister would come in on the shirt tails of it. He could, for example, also meet the fuel poverty reduction targets by making those standards apply to the private rented sector. We have tried to make the same representations. But we see in subsequent clauses that we will not go down that path either. We could, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) pointed out, give a fresh remit to local authorities for a new era of council house building, which is by far the cheapest and most effective way of intervening in the social sector. As yet, however, none of the promises of a level playing field in respect of local authority housing are in the framework for delivery by either the Minister for Housing and Planning or other Ministers.

What should we do to meet our existing legal obligations to eradicate fuel poverty? The Government's Fuel Poverty Advisory Group is now saying, in consistent terms, that we are not on track to meet our legal targets. We have choices about how we can meet those targets, but one choice that we do not
 
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have is to do nothing. Unfortunately, one of the ways in which we have built up cost consequences is by structuring the warm front programme so badly in the first instance that we are duplicating costs. We began by quoting numbers of households in fuel poverty that we have helped—we never said that we were not helping them out of fuel poverty, but we said that we were helping them in it.

The reality of the fuel poverty benchmark will not go away. The amendment gives the House the chance to address a structural issue with a structural solution. I beg the Minister to take that on board, not as a threat or challenge from the other place, but as a way of helping us out of a hole into which we have been digging ourselves.

Ms Keeble: I had not intended to contribute to the debate today, and only the challenge from the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) made me feel that it was worth saying something in support of the Government's position and opposing that of the other place.

It seems to me that the Conservative party has completely misrepresented some of the basis of tackling fuel poverty and of the intent of the decent homes strategy, for two reasons in particular. First, we needed a decent homes strategy because of the legacy of disrepair that we inherited when the Conservative party left government. I was a council leader in one of the areas with some of the worst social housing in the country, and I recall how those homes were starved of funds, the price paid in terms of the discomfort of people living there and the real hardship of thousands of families in social housing that was on the skids. We needed a decent homes strategy so that social housing could approach a reasonable level after all that disrepair.

Like so many things that the Government have done, that strategy might not seem the most wonderfully heroic new socialist dawn. Given what we took over, however, it was a supremely ambitious programme, and extremely difficult to deliver. Once it is achieved, which I am sure it will be, the Government will have every right to be extremely proud of it. The only way to achieve our decent homes target is to balance the key measures that make homes unpleasant and unfit for people to live in. That is a question not just of technical standards but of what happens to the people who live in those properties and what they need.

Secondly, when we came into power we were confronted by massive fuel poverty, particularly among the old. A key factor in fuel poverty, which the Minister addressed and the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings did not, was income. That is why we introduced the winter fuel allowance, which the Conservative party opposed bitterly. It ill behoves a party that so opposed the winter fuel allowance to preach to anyone about fuel poverty. The reason why it is residual groups such as single people on low incomes, households with families or people with disabilities who are in fuel poverty is that we dealt with fuel poverty among pensioners with the winter fuel allowance, which has been increased year on year.       

If we are talking seriously about tackling fuel poverty, I can certainly describe my wish list—as the Minister well knows, for I have berated him about
 
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housing improvements on several occasions. We should think not just about social housing but about private housing. Social housing sometimes has to be knocked down and replaced, but we must also deal with fuel poverty in the private sector—[Interruption.]—I see that I am now being asked to finish my speech.

There is a huge agenda to be tackled. I agree that we should keep to the programme that we have set and observe the priorities involved in it, but we should not lose sight of bigger goals. I do not think that the amendment would help us to achieve those goals, on which I am sure we all agree.


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