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Mr. Harper: The Prime Minister makes an important point[Laughter.] I am sure that that Freudian slip has filled some hon. Members with great joy and others with great horror[Interruption.] I see that it would be joy on the other side of the House.
Given the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering about the fact that the Government are failing to stay on track to hit their targets, the Prime Minister might face the choice of either bringing a full and frank report before the House that made it clear that the Government had made little progress on reaching their targetsand, in fact, had hit fewer targets on the reduction of greenhouse gases than the Government led by Sir John Majoror producing a long and verbose report that skirted around the issues and made the steps that the Government had taken unclear.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, the Bill provides for a debate on the report. I welcome that, because it is always good to give the House the opportunity to debate such important issues. As he said, however, a vote after the debate would be unlikely because the Government would not want to put their policy on climate change to a challenge. Little concrete progress towards meeting targets would be made merely by bringing a report before the House.
Mr. Forth: Has my hon. Friend thought about what would happen if the motions in the two Houses of Parliament to which the Bill refers were put to a vote and the votes went in different ways? For example, the House of Commons might vote in favour of the report, but following the excellent House of Lords report to which he and I referred, their lordships might vote against the Government's report. Where would that leave us?
Perhaps the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith will explain what would happen if the Prime Minister laid a report before the House that made it clear that the Government had made little progress? The Bill does not seem to give the Government any specific duty to make progressthey must merely lay reports before the House. We would prefer the Government to take action, instead of merely generating more paperwork and red tape.
That relates to a point that I made in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark). It would be helpful to set out in detail the guidance that we would want to give the Chancellor. Given the Chancellor's record so far, if he gets anywhere near this, people who produce their own power in a
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micro-generation plant and sell it back to an electricity company will almost certainly be pursued by the Inland Revenue for tax. Hon. Members have pointed out that people who already partake in micro-generation are pursued for national non-domestic rates. Given that the Bill invites the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider fiscal measures, I cannot believe that he would come up with any such measures that would reduce tax. He would not pass up the chance to increase the amount of tax that people pay. If the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith gets his right hon. Friend the Chancellor involved, he might set back the course of micro-generation and energy efficiency, rather than enhance it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst questioned the hon. Member for Lewes about targets. I understand why the Government might be attracted to the concept of setting a national target and having every local authority in the land set a local target. However, nationally and locally driven targets have not been remarkably successful in any other area. The centre can be too prescriptive about its targets, and if such targets were to drive people in one way or another, despite the rapid pace of technological change, valuable changes in generational technology could be missed because people would be sent off in a different direction. Given the lack of success of Government targets in other areas, I am a little sceptical about the targets in the Bill.
Mr. Forth: Does my hon. Friend share my worry that if we took that provision literally and the Secretary of State felt so obliged, it could represent an open-ended commitment to public expenditure? If progress was not forthcoming in any other way, might not a Secretary of State, in adhering to the aims and provisions of the Bill, feel obliged to spend large sums of public money to reach the targets that had been set?
Mr. Harper: I invite the Minister to comment on the good point that my right hon. Friend makes. Although I listened to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith with great care, I do not think that he spoke at any length about the possible cost of some of his proposals. We must be cognisant of that, especially in the light of their lordships' guidance on properly taking account of costs and being upfront and frank with the public about the options and difficult choices that must be made.
Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree and the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who is no longer in the Chamber, mentioned the policies of their local authorities. The Bill would put a duty on such authorities to set a local target regime. The Bill's long title refers to the "alleviation of fuel poverty", but I wonder whether an unintended consequence of the Bill might be to worsen fuel poverty.
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I think I am right in saying that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith confirmed that the Bill would put several duties on local authorities that would result in some cost. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will agree that we receive many letters from our constituents about the burden of council tax, which falls especially heavily on pensioners, who obviously make up one of the groups of people most affected by fuel poverty.
Mr. Newmark: I briefly remind my hon. Friend that the beauty of Braintree district council's proposal is that it is inexpensive and simple and has an immediate pay-back. One pays £170 for the insulation and the energy savings are approximately £100 per annum, so there is pay-back in less than two and a half years. The amount that is paid is not so expensive. We need a general broad set of targets, perhaps set by Government, and a light regulatory touch coupled with strong fiscal incentives. That is the combination that I propose to my hon. Friend.
Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point but he slightly misunderstands my point. I was not talking about his scheme but considering the burden on local authorities. Braintree council's scheme gives a council tax rebate. The problem is that, if a local authority gives, without support from the centre, a rebate to one citizen, it is a burden on all the other citizens in the local authority area. If we burden local authorities and do not support them through central Government grant, thus driving up council tax, that will be detrimental to those in the poorest communities. They may find that they have even less spare funds available to purchase necessary fuel. Perhaps the Minister for Energy would like to comment on that later.
I want to consider the sale of electricity. I freely admit that I am not an expert or an engineer. Perhaps hon. Members with such backgrounds can advise me. The hon. Member for Lewes referred to losses in energy transmission. If we made a success of the approach that we are discussing, and millions of people throughout the country had their own micro-generation capacity and produced electricity that they wished to sell back to electricity companies, the Bill obliges the energy companies to purchase the energy at market rate. Hon. Members of all parties have welcomed that. I have a concern, which the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) also mentioned, about transmission charges.
If we lay on electricity suppliers a requirement to purchase electricity, what physical infrastructure would be required to enable the transmission of those relatively small quantities of electricity into the local distribution network? How efficiently would that happen, and at what cost? If the obligation to purchase the power causes electricity companies to spend a great deal of money, the cost must be borne either by the person selling the electricity back to the transmission networkthat would probably offset the amount of revenue they getor electricity companies. In the latter case, the cost would be passed on to many consumers.
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