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Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab):
May I express the disappointment of, I am sure, the whole House that lawyers have interfered with the democratic will of the people? In areas such as Wakefield, where many houses were traditionally reliant on coal-fired fuel, estate agents have welcomed HIPs and have advertised their services in the Wakefield Express. People will feel very cheated by this latest delay. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in areas such as mine, where people are heating water with very inefficient back boilers or
heating their homes through often dodgy flues, energy performance certificates have the potential to reduce the number of accidents and the number of people dying of carbon monoxide poisoning or from scalds?
Ruth Kelly: I know that my hon. Friend has championed the cause of safety in the home ever since she became a Member of this House. I give her credit for doing so. She is right that many estate agents up and down the country have been implementing systems to bring in HIPs and energy performance certificates at the beginning of June. No doubt they will be disappointed by todays news. The fact is that we have to minimise the risks and ensure that we sensibly introduce measures that provide some work for energy assessors, continue to build the market and inject a greater degree of confidence in the system.
Justine Greening: Sorry, I mean a three-bedroom house where a planning application has been granted for a fourth bedroom. When a home information pack has been commissioned for a four-bedroom house, but it is not received by the time of exchange, will the purchasers be allowed to go ahead?
Ruth Kelly: The hon. Lady clearly wants to become involved and help us with the definition of a four-bedroom property. Trading standards, which will enforce the regulations, will take a common-sense approach. I have outlined an approach whereby a potential seller who has commissioned an energy performance certificate and has it in place at the point of exchange will be able to proceed with the sale of the property.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Last week, I was in favour of the principle of energy performance certificates and of the principle of changing the way we buy and sell houses in this country. I am still in favour of those principles. I recognise that my right hon. Friend has found it necessary to make some changes and postponements today, but I greatly welcome the idea of rolling out energy performance certificates for social housing, which could help some of the poorest families in our community. Does she agree that, however regrettable the resistance of the RICS to energy performance certificates on this occasion, it is nothing compared to the double standards of Conservative Members who want to vote blue and talk green only if no effective action follows?
Ruth Kelly: I welcome my hon. Friends support. I am absolutely clear that energy performance certificates and home information packs have an important role to play, and everyone should take the opportunity today to back those principles. Faced with tough decisions on tackling climate change, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and his party duck the challenge at every opportunity. Today is yet another example of their failure to live up to their slogans.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The Secretary of State has told us that there are only 520 fully accredited inspectors, and that that number is inadequate to implement the regulations on 1 June. That was also true last week. Why were we not told that in last weeks debate on this matter? Why were we told last week that, on the contrary, there were sufficient inspectors? That was not true. I would have thought that this was a resigning issue.
Ruth Kelly: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is not right. The House was told the appropriate number of energy assessorsthe number who had passed their qualifications and who intended to start work. Since those figures were given to the House, the number of energy assessors who have completed their training and passed their exams has risen by a further 1,000. We only need 2,000 in place at the beginning of the process. There is clearly sufficient demand, but there is also uncertainty about whether to pay the accreditation fees. The package that I have put before the House today is designed to give that extra certainty.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I understand why my right hon. Friend has had to make this statement today, but I have to say that I am deeply disappointed. In my constituencywhere there is not 18 per cent. of four-bedroomed houses270 people are working for a specialist company providing HIPs. As a result of the action of the RICS and the support of the Conservative party, there is a risk that they will be put out of work. When laying the necessary orders, will my right hon. Friend take into account the needs of the people working for those specialist companies so that they do not suffer unemployment as a result of the Tories actions?
Ruth Kelly: I certainly will. I have been very concerned about the impact on individual energy assessors, who have parted with good moneytheir own moneyto be trained and who intend to work to provide valuable energy certificates for my hon. Friends constituents and others. That is why we intend to introduce the full scheme at the earliest opportunity and why we are bringing forward work in the social housing sector. That will not only help us to meet our climate change goals, but provide additional work for energy assessors.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): The right hon. Lady has come here to make a statement about problems that she has now resolved. She has been asked a simple question about the definition of four-bedroom and three-bedroom houses. Let me remind her that only one group is lower in public opinion than we are: the estate agents who will now be responsible for this provision. She knows very well that people will be able, quite happily, to take one of their four bedrooms and turn it into a boxroom, creating a three-bedroom house. There is no way that she can define that in any legal sense. This is a thoroughgoing disaster. Why does she not drop it and start again?
It is pretty clear to me that if a house owner has applied for planning permission for a fourth bedroom, it must be a three-bedroom house. It is pretty hard to carry out an energy performance assessment on
an extension that has not yet been built. This just serves to prove that a common-sense approach will be adopted by the trading standards officers who will have to enforce our policy.
Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I hesitate to use words such as capitalism in this place, but is it not a prime example of the wasteful nature of market forces to insist on a situation in which the same survey is carried out time after time on the same property by different purchasers? This process is designed to end that practice, which the Conservatives and their lawyer friends are trying to keep going. It is essential that we get the process back on the road and ensure that the careers of people such as my constituents who have committed themselves to becoming inspectors are protected, preserved and enhanced. They will not be impressed by the hilarity on the Conservative Benches this afternoon.
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend has made an extremely good point. Home information packs are incredibly important to the transformation of the home buying and selling process, which has not changed for a great many years. It is right for us to provide information up front, in as successful a form as possible, for purchasers before they enter into protracted legal negotiations.
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): Last week, the Minister for Housing and Planning told the House that there were more than enough energy assessors and that she had every confidence that the scheme could go ahead on 1 June. More important, she told the House that the RICS judicial review was completely groundless, as can be seen in column 643 of Hansard. Why is the Secretary of State having to cover for the incompetence and arrogance of a Minister who is not doing her job sufficiently well?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend the Minister spelled out the position to the House. She outlined the numbers of those in training and those who had passed their exams. In fact, since then the number who have passed their exams has increased by 1,000.
Ruth Kelly: In six days. The figures are changing rapidly as more and more energy assessors pass their exams, gain their qualifications and pay their dues to become fully accredited. However, they clearly need enough certainty in the system to part with the final £300, and we are not providing that certainty.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The Secretary of State must know that the vast majority of the public want to make their homes more energy efficient, but does she really believe that this bureaucratic and expensive measure is the best way of achieving that? Given all the problems and all the retreats, is it not time to get everyone around the table to think about what is in the best interests not just of energy efficiency and climate change, but of the public?
No doubt my hon. Friend will contribute her views to the consultation that we are organising. The results of the area trials, which are continuing, and wider consultation with the public show a clear need to provide clarity and transparency in the home buying
and selling process. The purpose of home information packs is to deliver more transparency and information at the beginning of the process of purchasing a house, rather than waiting until the end of the process to provide that vital information. I consider that to be a common-sense change.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does the Secretary of State not understand that vendors do not want to incur what is effectively a tax on their transaction before they have gained any money from the sale that they are trying to carry out? Does she not understand that when in a hole one should stop digging, and that it is not a good idea to go against the wishes of the many people who would like to sell their houses or flats in the normal way without Government interference and an effective tax?
Mr. Redwood: I hear the right hon. Gentleman say, from a sedentary position, that he does not support mandatory energy performance certificates. Is that the view of his partys Front Bench? If it is, I suggest
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer? This delay is clearly hugely to his advantage, because it will give him the opportunity to knock home information packs on the head when he becomes Prime Minister and, hopefullyfor himnot to lose quite so many votes at the next general election.
As the Secretary of State will know, for many weeks I have been asking a named-day question about the number of accredited domestic energy assessors. Week after week, the Minister for Housing and Planning has replied, I will answer shortly. The Department chose to answer the question in that way for one of two reasons. Either it knew that it did not have sufficient accredited domestic energy assessors, which would be negligent, or it did not know how many it had, which would be incompetent. Which was it, negligence or incompetence?
Ruth Kelly: As a result of my comments today, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the figures are changing rapidly. I will put a full set of figures before the House todayI will place a copy in the Libraryand I will also make sure that his parliamentary questions are fully answered.
I have come to this House to be as open and transparent as possible. It is clear from the figures that I have presented today that a huge number of people want to become trained energy assessors. However, it is also clear that many of them feel worried about paying their accreditation fees because of the uncertainty that has been hanging over the process. The way ahead that I have set out today is designed to resolve that uncertainty.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I listened to the statement with great interest and it seemed to me to be bizarre and surreal. Among those blamed were solicitors, the market and the Opposition. Do the Secretary of State and her Ministers accept any responsibility for the situation in which they find themselves? If they do not, I suspect from the tone of the debate that the House will soon be roofless.
Ruth Kelly: Our policy is the right one: there should be up-front information for the consumer and we should introduce energy performance certificates to try to meet our climate change goal. However, the uncertainty created by the campaign of misinformation led by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, combined with the threat of judicial review, has led in the final weeks to not enough energy assessors paying their dues. I have come to the House to put that right.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): I wish to make a statement on the modernisation proposals announced by Remploy earlier today. Remploy was established after the second world war to support injured servicemen and women to progress into mainstream employment. Today, Remploy factories employ about 5,000 disabled people across a range of sectors, from office furniture to electronics. Despite profound shifts in our economy over the past 60 years, there has been relatively little change in the nature of Remploy factories. However, the combination of new technology and the most far-reaching programme of disability rights legislation in Europe is creating new opportunities for disabled people in mainstream employment.
most of the businessesparticularly those in more traditional manufacturing and factory settingsare not currently sustainable in economic terms and are unlikely to become so in the future.
The NAO also found that Remploy Interwork, which places people primarily in outside employment, appears to offer a more cost-effective service and accounts for three-quarters of all progressions to unsupported employment. The report stated that
there remains substantial advantage in expanding this area of provision further, both in terms of reduced costs and the number of individuals who can be helped.
Following the publication of the NAO report, in March 2006 I commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers and Stephen Duckworth to conduct a strategic review of future business options for the company. The report set out a range of scenarios for the business, from no change to complete closure of the factory network. I explicitly ruled out both of those options. In responding to the report last July, I said that I was willing to invest more in Remploy, but on the basis of reform, to help more disabled people and to provide better value for the taxpayer.
The average subsidy for a Remploy factory worker is about £20,000 per year, which is substantially more than the subsidy available under my Departments Workstep programme, and also far greater than the £5,300 average one-off cost of getting someone into a mainstream job through Remploys work placement arm. Last year, Remploy placed 5,200 people into mainstream employment, thereby outstripping for the first time the number employed in its factory network. Last July, I set out a five-year funding envelope for the company, maintaining baseline funding of £111 million per year to give it stability, and asked its board to bring forward a restructuring plan to modernise the business to support substantially larger numbers of disabled people into work. I also made it clear that any such proposals must fully and fairly protect Remploys disabled employees from compulsory redundancy.
After extensive consultation with the representatives of the work force, Remploy has today produced its proposals. There are five core components. First, and most importantly, the company aims to quadruple mainstream job entries to 20,000 a year over the next five years, helping more disabled people gain sustainable
employment. Secondly, it is planning significantly to decrease management overheads by £49 million over the next five years. Thirdly, it proposes the closure of 32 of the existing 83 factories, with a further 11 factories to transfer employees to neighbouring sites. Fourthly, the company has again confirmed that there will be no compulsory redundancies for disabled employees. And fifthly, a comprehensive support package will help employees through the transition. That latter step will ensure that all disabled employees continue to enjoy their current terms and conditions, including their membership of Remploys final salary pension scheme, should they decide to take employment outside of Remploy. The company is now beginning a formal consultation with its trade unions and employees, as well as preparing a disability impact assessment as part of its disability equality duty obligations.
I understand the concerns that the proposals will raise for some of Remploys employees. It is important that employees, and the trade unions representing them, are now given the time and space to respond to the consultation. Support and guidance is being made available for all Remploy staff through the factory network today and throughout the consultation period. That will include the option of counselling and advice from an independent organisation. I recognise that many hon. Members in the House today will have Remploy factories in their constituencies. I want Members to be fully involved in the consultation process and I will make sure that that happens. I understand that the Remploy chairman has already briefed Members earlier today.
I expect to receive the companys final proposals later this year. No decision on the future of the company will take place until then. Once final proposals have been submitted, I will consider whether we are able to offer the company additional funding to facilitate modernisation beyond the £555 million already pledged.
Reform of Remploy is about extending opportunity to disabled people. It is about the fundamental principle that disabled people should have the opportunity to work in mainstream employment, but that a sheltered environment should also be provided where that is the best option. As six of the biggest organisations representing disabled people made clear last week in a letter to The Guardian:
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