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I hope MPs will put pressure on the Government to go back to the drawing board.
The Conservative partys leader claims to care about the environment, but time and again it will not back the practical measures needed to help to cut carbon emissions. The right hon. Member for Witney took a trip to the Arctic, organised by WWF, to demonstrate his commitment to the environment. It was his photo-opportunity to hug a husky. While he was there, he was asked for his top tips for people to go greener. He mentioned bicycling to work and growing vegetables, and he said that some of the steps that we can take to reduce our impact on the environment, such as home insulation, will save us money. He also stated that leadership means doing the right thing not just saying it. Well, the Conservatives should do the right thing now. They should back these measures to bring in environmental improvements. However, they will not back them.
Your party is currently campaigning for the local elections, under the slogan Vote blue, go green
However, we are concerned that by attempting to block the HIPs, you risk scuppering one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation to affect households in recent years.
We therefore urgently request that you...reassure us that under no circumstances will you allow their introduction...to become a victim of moves by your party to delay the rest of the HIP.
The huskies have just cocked their legs on the Conservatives environment policy. If their environment policy were energy rated now it would get a big G. Perhaps that is not the only big G that they will have to reckon with in the next few months.
Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I was going to start by congratulating the Minister on her measured and emollient response to the debate, but she rather spoilt that plan in the last 30 seconds of her speech.
The Minister might have acknowledged that this scheme is in a bit of a mess. Those who believed in the whole gospel of compulsory home condition reports, home information packs and energy performance certificates were taken up the aisle by the Secretary of State and have been dumped. It is unsurprising that some of those people are angry and embarrassed, and are shouting, Betrayal. She cannot completely dismiss the fact that Which? and the Law Society, which were supporters of the scheme in its original form, have now backed away and are feeling very despondent about the scheme as it currently stands.
Those inside the Labour big tent who are still supporters of the scheme in its full-blooded, 1997 manifesto style could at least get some reassurance from the way that things were evolving by thinking that they would have the slimmed down scheme before them with the results of the evaluation of the pilot studies also available and that in this debate they would be able to rebut the challenges and accusations from the Opposition Benches by referring to the detailed results of those studies which would show that all the bad predictions were not justified. However, the pilot studies have not been completed; there has been no proper evaluation and there is no hard evidence of success. The safeguard of those trials producing evidence on which we could take a proper and balanced decisionwhich was much talked about last year when the scheme was debated on several occasions in this Houseis not available. The safeguard has been swept away.
I want to bring to the attention of the House some of the evidence that Mr. McDonald gave to the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee of the other place. Mr. McDonald appeared on behalf of the Department for Communities and Local Government, and he said that it cannot yet check the pilot studies to find out what savings have been made in transaction times. He said that that was because it would need at least 3,500 transactions to have been completed before it could make that assessment. I was surprised when I read that evidence; I was not surprised by the idea that 3,500 examples would be needed to reach a judgment, but I was astonished that 3,500 transactions had not been conducted so far. The Minister did not deal with the issue of the pilot studies. There was a good reason for that; to have done so would have underlined the embarrassing situation that she is in and the difficulties that the scheme faces.
The pilot studies were supposed to have started in July last year. They could not start because the regulations were not produced in time. They were supposed to restarthave their second startin October last year. Yet the evidence that Mr. McDonald
gave to the Committee was that most of the schemes had not started until January this year and that it was therefore too early to evaluate whether they were performing in accordance with the Ministers predictions.
Mr. Drew: Does not that bear out the fact that there is a problem in that we can have pilotsit will be good to see the evaluation from thembut unless there is also the power to make things mandatory people, will not make the changes that we all want them to make in terms of being sensible and serious about facing up to their climate change responsibilities?
Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, which brings me on to another part of the evidence given by Mr. McDonald. That related to whether there should be a voluntary or a compulsory element to the home condition reports. On that, the DepartmentMr. McDonaldwas caught betwixt and between. In one part of his evidence he said that the reason why the Department had changed to a voluntary system for the home condition reports was that it thought that it was right for that to be taken forward by the market, rather than be imposed by regulation. However, he also said that the Department estimated that a negligibly small amount of home condition reports would actually be taken up. On the one hand the Department wanted to rely on the voluntary principle to deliver home condition reports because it thought that the market would suck them in, and on the other hand it accepted that noneor almost nonewould be done. In support of his point of view that the voluntary scheme would not work, Mr. McDonald added that the Law Society had had its own voluntary scheme which it had tried to market in previous years and that it had failed and had to be withdrawn.
Mr. Hayes: It is most useful that the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to events in the other place, particularly as the Minister said almost nothing about the pilots in her speech. The hon. Gentleman has shown remarkable consistency on the matters under discussionwhich is hard to reconcile with his membership of the Liberal partyso I would be interested to learn if he has come to the conclusion that the pilots were of the wrong scale, or at least, set out on the wrong timetable, because that seems to be the conclusion that most people have drawn from the evidence given to the Lords.
I want to draw the Houses attention to a third aspect of Mr. McDonalds evidence. He was persistently asked what he thought the cost to the consumer would be of the packs in the form that the Secretary of State proposes. After what might in other circumstances be described as some shilly-shallying, he said:
It could be anything from nothing to several hundred pounds.
He could provide no evidence that the packs would reduce the transaction timethe whole point of introducing them in the first placehe could not
estimate the cost to the consumer, and he had to admit that the voluntary home condition report was going to be a dead letter. It is no wonder that the gloom among the Government has spread in the last few months as this situation has built to its climax.
Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman is making a valid point. Is it not reinforced by the contrast between the extremely vague and weak evidence given on the Departments behalf, and the very clear evidence on cost given by the Council of Mortgage Lenders? It specifically advised that buyers will still have to commission and pay for valuations and associated surveys, particularly if the loan-to-value ratio of the mortgage is more than 80 per cent.that will affect four in five first-time buyersand if the property is a flat. So that is specific evidence against HIPs, and there has been nothing from the Government to rebut it.
We have tended in this debate to adopt extremely polarised views about home information packs and the associated costs and liabilities. As a Liberal Democrat, I always feel slightly uneasy at aligning myself with the National Association of Estate Agents, and one does have to take some of the criticism with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, it has to be said that the Minister has failed to show the House any evidence that time will be saved in the overall transaction. There is no evidence on the likely cost imposition on consumers, and there is clearly no chance of home condition surveys catching on.
Adam Afriyie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I certainly welcome his moderate and emollient tones. The purpose of the pilots is to uncover the evidence, in order to form or modify a policy that the Government of course hope will work by making the market more fluid and contributing to their green goals. Does he therefore share my alarm at the fact that the Government will not hold off on this measure until the evidence is in? That seems bizarre.
Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman makes a very strong point. Back in July of last year, the Governments whole argument was that we should see the pilots come to fruition, which would satisfy our every qualm and concern. That is a perfectly fair starting pointbut not if the scheme is then introduced before the pilot study has been completed, before an evaluation has been made and before a report has been placed before this House.
In the emollient part of her speech, the Minister said that the pilot studies have in fact influenced the final documentthat changes have been made. If Members take a careful look at the Governments explanatory memorandum, they will see that it details some of the
changes that have been made as a consequence of taking account of the first half of the pilot studies. The Government found evidence of changes that need to be made, but they seem to have closed their mind to the possibility that the second half of the pilot studies might equally produce such evidence. Instead of taking time to consider that possibility, they have pitchforked us into these regulations, which could be described as half-formed.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I am a little confused by some of the hon. Gentlemans comments. He is talking about the introduction of home information packs; I thought that we were here today expressly to talk about the introduction of energy performance certificates.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: That is your view. Will the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) confirm that he is in favour of energy performance certificates, and that he can understand why they would be of particular use to those who are considering purchasing a property and therefore paying its likely running costs after purchase?
I want to make one more point about the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee hearing. The Committee was very scathing indeed about the regulatory impact assessment, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) mentioned. However, at least there is a regulatory impact assessment, be it good or bad, and regardless of whether the arithmetic stands up. However, where is the risk assessment of this project? I begin to wonder whether the Department has a new acronym: the WAAP assessment, which stands for with a wing and a prayer. Before we introduce this scheme, we need some evaluation of the risks of pressing ahead.
It will not do to say that the scheme is coming in regardless before the pilots have finished, given that the people who will pay the price, literally, are the 1 millionperhaps nearer 2 millionhouseholders who will be buying and selling. Who will carry the risk of this scheme going wrong? It might be a very low risk, and perhaps the Minister will be able to return to the House in a years time triumphant, but there is a risk. I doubt whether the Minister will carry that risk; it is the 1 million to 2 million householders who will face the extra stress and difficultly. It is they who will take the risk and face the music.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I was late for this debate because I was addressing a conference on HIPs this morning. The 150 surveyors present felt that at the very least, there will be a distortion of the housing market on and around 1 June. The Government proposed HIPs in 1997 but they have not trialled them properly, and they laid the associated major regulations before this House as late as 29 March, thus giving very little time for professionals to get to grips with the details of
this far-reaching scheme, which is part of a market worth £250 billion. Is that not reckless?
Andrew Stunell: The Government ought really by now to have learned from what happened last July, when the late issuing of their regulations led to the frustration of the timing of the pilot studies. Like the Irishman, I would not have started from here. It all started to go wrong way back when those regulations were not made available.
The moment may have come to answer the earlier intervention from the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who asked about energy performance certificates. If home information packs are, in the words of the Scottish returning officer, to be declared void for want of certainty, it is important not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Energy performance certificates are an extremely useful starting point for raising the awareness of sellers and buyers alike of the energy efficiency of their homes and what they can do about it.
By way of practical example and to support the Minister in what she saidin the emollient bit of her speechI point out that there are 5 million homes in this country with cavity walls but no cavity wall insulation. Most of the owners of those homes are probably in the situation that I was in until last November, when I unveiled, as MPs do, a warm homes project and met at the unveiling a cavity wall installer. Like me, those homeowners probably assumed that the house that they bought had cavity wall insulation, while not knowing for sure. I asked the cavity wall installer, Is there a simple way of finding out whether my walls have cavity wall insulation? He said, Yes, it takes five minutes. Do you want me to pop round? He came round, drilled a little hole, looked, let me have a look and said, No, you havent. I have got it now. It cost £250 and it was money well spent.
Another 5 million households do not have cavity wall insulation and the EPCs will make that explicit to the owners or the next owners of those properties. We need to make energy use by housing transparent and we need purchasers of new houses to take as much notice of the EPC as they do of a smart kitchen or a wood-strip floor in the lounge.
Angela Watkinson: How much confidence does the hon. Gentleman think that consumers can have in the findings of a home inspector who has been on a short course compared with the findings of a professionally qualified surveyor who has been practising for several years?
It is no secret that my party and I want to see a rapid and dramatic improvement in the energy performance of buildings. Indeed, my private Members Billnow the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004, which was well before the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) came into anybodys sightsgives Ministers the power to move much more decisively on
this important issue than just simply labelling. Labelling is important, but we need to go further. I remind the Minister that she has the powers to go further than she proposes today and my party recently set out a scheme that would assist owners in achieving that on a sensible time scale.
On the one hand we have militant opposition to anything to do with this project. We saw a wolf in sheeps clothing speak with great eloquence at the outset of this debate, but it is a fact that the Conservative party, whether it knew that it was doing it or not, prayed against both elements, including the EPC. The Liberal Democrats strongly support the EPC. We actually want the Government to go further and faster on that and to see some positive results. Whatever the merits and the theoretical benefits of the scheme in its original form, the Government have dithered and bungled on the HIP project. They should press forward with the EPCs and recognise the rest of the project for the train crash that it has become.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the House that the prayer is limited to one and a half hours. We must complete consideration by 3 oclock, but several hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Unless contributions are very brief, many people will be disappointed.
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): At the outset, I wish to draw attention to my declared interests, specifically as chairman of the Construction Industry Council and a director of Hometrack. As I have made clear in previous debates on this subject, I am a strong supporter, and have been for many years, of reform of the house buying and selling process, which is one of the most stressful experiences in most peoples lives, is unduly protracted and involves a scandalous level of waste and abortive costs. Only last night, I was talking to someone who had lost £1,000 because a seller had withdrawn after he, the buyer, had committed to expenditure on searches and surveys. That experience is repeated hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day. Every day £1 million is lost in abortive costs. I was very disappointed that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) simply ignored my question about what the Opposition intended to do about that very real problem.
Andrew Miller: My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. Does he agree with me that the fear of losing money in such a way creates inertia in first-time buyers and would not making this change stimulate the market for them?
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