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should be carried out on a bilateral or multi-lateral basis, between departments which deal on a day-to-day basis with the issues at stake.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): If the plenary committee is to meet, does the Secretary of State agree that it will require the kind of approach to which he says he is committed, which is to recognise that devolution is a continuing and developing process that needs constructive engagement? On the other hand, Scottish Ministers from the Scottish Parliament need to recognise that they do not have a mandate for independence.
Des Browne: I am sure that the Executive in the Scottish Parliament know fine well that they do not have a mandate, because they can count. They know that about two thirds of the people in Scotland voted for parties that seek to maintain the Union, and for obvious reasonsbecause the Union serves the people of Scotland well and has done for some considerable time. I should point out, however, that the right hon. Gentleman slightly misrepresents my position. I am a devolver, but I am not an evolving devolver. I will ensure that the settlement, which I think is the right settlement, works properly for the people of Scotland, but let us test it.
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne): As Secretary of State for Scotland, I work closely with the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns). As is normal practice, he will undertake duties on my behalf if I am absent on other official duties.
Des Browne: I am often tempted to give a one-word answer to certain questions at the Dispatch Box, but I will resist that temptation today. I would put myself forward either as Superman or as a time lord. I would also say to the hon. Gentleman that, in considering whether to take on these responsibilities, I thought long and hard about whether both jobs could be done. Given the level of ministerial support that I was being offered, and the knowledge that I had of the responsibilities involved at the Ministry of Defence, I took the view that both could be done. Time will tell whether I was right. I suspect that we should stop speculating about how this appears and just see whether there are issues in either Department that are not being dealt with properly.
Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): In response to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), the Secretary of State said that he prided himself on always doing his jobs to the fullest. When it comes to the £50 billion of defence contracts due to be awarded over the next few years, which job will he be doing to the fullest in order to avoid any conflict of interest? Will he be lobbying for Scotland and the local defence industry, or for the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces? He cannot do both.
Des Browne: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench. Like me, he brings with him experience of defence issues, and I look forward to his questions both here and at Defence questions. I will give him the same answer that I give to this question every time: the decisions that I make as Secretary of State for Defence will be made in the best interests of the defence of the United Kingdom. I guarantee to do that, so there will be no conflict of interest between this and any other job that I have, whether it be as a constituency MP in Scotland, which I have been since I was elected, or as the Secretary of State for Scotland.
The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): Over the past five years, the labour market in Scotland has performed very strongly. The most recent figure, 2.53 million, marks a record high in the number of people employed.
Mr. Devine: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Unemployment in my constituency stands at 2.4 per cent., but it will rise substantially as a result of the actions of members of the Scottish National party and Tory-controlled West Lothian council, who are scurrying about my constituency as we speak issuing redundancy notices to hundreds of their own members of staff who, this time last year, were working for the best-performing council in Britain. Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning the actions of the SNP and that Tory-controlled council, and tell the latter that it should go back to the negotiating table?
I am concerned at my hon. Friends news. It will be of some comfort to his constituents to know that employment levels in his constituency are at record highs. However, it will be of little comfort to
them or to people throughout the rest of Scotland to know that, if the plan goes ahead to replace the council tax with a local income tax capped at 3p in the pound, it will leave a black hole in local government finances of nearly £1 billion
David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman says Jackanory, but it was actually the Institution for Fiscal Studies that demonstrated that. The only ways to plug that gap will be either to impose tax hikes on the hard-working families of Scotland or to implement massive cuts in local government services, which will mean hundreds more redundancies of the kind that my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) has described. It is incumbent on those who advocate this policy to explain how they will fill that £1 billion black hole.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) suggests that redundancy notices are being sent around West Lothian. Is the Minister aware that the letters that have been sent out implement single status under the delegated powers given to West Lothians chief executive by the outgoing Labour Administration. The letters make it perfectly clear that not one single redundancy is intended and that not one single redundancy notice has come out [Interruption.] Given the unemployment trends, will the hon. Gentleman have a quiet word with his friends to stop the trend of raising the spectre of redundancy where none exists? Will he recognise that it is the intent of West Lothian council that employment should be maintained for all staff?
David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to explain exactly how his party promises to plug that £1 billion black hole, but he failed to do so. He spoke about delegated powers to councils and also had the opportunity to explain his partys policy to remove from councils the right to raise local revenue [Interruption.]
From time to time, the media expose gaps in our security systems, especially as far as obtaining security passes is concerned. Bearing it in mind that the terrorists at Glasgow airport appeared to have infiltrated the national health service, will the
Secretary of State ensure that all future personnel requiring security clearance are subject to the most thorough background checks before passes are issued? Will he also liaise with the Scottish Executive to ensure that the police and security services carry out these checks where private companies or contractors are involved?
Des Browne: I trust that those who issue security passes in areas where danger to the public is possibleareas it is important to keep securerecognise and live up to their responsibilities and their duty of care. That duty is shared not just by the UK Government, the Scottish Executive and their agents but by private security companies. I will take every opportunity I can to remind those who have the ability to influence that sort of practice that it is important that they live up to their duties.
The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): As we have set out before, over the past three or so years the Government have spent £19.5 million on the development and trials of energy performance certificates and home information packs. Energy certificates could save nearly 1 million tonnes of carbon a year.
James Brokenshire: The figures do not include the considerable sums spent by assessors, inspectors and businesses on qualifications, training and preparing for the introduction of the HIPs regime. Is it not time that the Government apologised to them for the inept way in which they have handled the issue and the consequent impact on those peoples livelihoods?
Yvette Cooper: We are concerned about the position in which energy assessors find themselves. It was certainly a problem when the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors decided to take a judicial review against energy certificates. However, it applied to energy certificates, not HIPs. We are working with housing associations and local councils to bring forward some early energy certificates in the social rented sector so that we can also help to support some of the energy assessors in advance of 1 August when the programme begins.
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Does the Minister share my astonishment and that of Milton Keynes association of home assessors that Tory MPs are trying to pin the blame for the debacle on the Government rather than on themselves? The Milton Keynes inspectors certainly know where the blame lies and were not surprised that none of the Tory MPs whom they contacted even bothered to meet them.
Yvette Cooper: I am sure that that will have been a disappointment to those involved at Milton Keynes. This issue is about providing useful energy information for peoples homes. We already see such information on fridges and washing machines, for example, and it is about time we had it on our homes as well.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Will the Minister admit that the introduction of HIPs was too big a step to take in one go and that she should now go back to the drawing board and see how to make energy performance certificates work? I have a suggestion for her. The European directive requires an energy performance certificate only every 10 years, so the Government should look further into that and similarly require such a certificate only once every 10 yearsirrespective of how many times a house is sold within that period.
Yvette Cooper: I am slightly surprised at the hon. Gentlemans suggestion, because I think it important for people to have up-to-date information. If we want sellers and buyers to take decisions on the basis of information about their homes, the ability for them to do so if it is 10 years out of dateit could refer to fuel prices that are 10 years out of dateis much more limited. It is disappointing that he has decided to back the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors view on the issue. We think it right that there should be more up-to-date information. We have said that we will consult further, but we are clear about the importance of recent information.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that there have been problems with the implementation of HIPs, but I am sure that she will also accept that the principle behind themnamely, that a prospective buyer should have as much information as possible before making an offeris absolutely right. The major problem with our process of buying and selling houses in this country is the number of offers that are withdrawn because a prospective buyer finds out after making an offer information that they did not know about, but could have known about, before. Will she give a degree of certainty to those involved in the buying and selling process that the Government intend to pursue and go ahead with HIPs based on that principle?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right that there is a series of problems with the current way in which homes are bought and sold. In fact, first-time buyers often face the greatest pressures. One of the advantages of the home information packs is that they will provide information for first-time buyers for free that previously they would have had to pay for. We are clear that HIPs and energy performance certificates need to go ahead on 1 August. There are wider issues as well around home buying and selling on which we want to work with a range of stakeholders to improve.
Robert Neill: She has risen to heights that I am not likely to achieve. That may owe something, of course, to her charm and abilities, but she must concede that it owes nothing to the fact that her Department spent £895,000 in three months marketing a policy, the centrepiece of which has been ditched, in which the latest research by Saga indicates that 50 per cent. of the population has no trust, and which the local authority inspectors who must enforce it say is unenforceable. Will she use her new Cabinet-rank status finally to lay this disaster of a policy to rest?
Yvette Cooper: May I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post and congratulate him on his Front-Bench appointment [Interruption.] His elevation, indeed. He should, however, think carefully about the position of his Front-Bench colleagues on this matter. They have said that they support measures to improve the environment, but the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is considerable. It is no good having warm words if they are not prepared to back measures to deliver warm homes.
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): It is on days like these that I really regret that there are not more engineers in the House, simply because, as my hon. Friend will know, the measures on the energy performance certificates and HIPs represent the most significant action that we have taken on the domestic market in terms of energy conservation and improving standards. Will she assure me that having started this process we will continue to monitor it and roll it out completely over the housing stock of this country?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance and potential benefits of the programme. It could not only save customers and consumers about £300 a year on their fuel bills, but also save a million tonnes of carbon a year. That is important. It is why we have made it clear that it needs to begin on 1 August and then to be rolled out. We will monitor it. We are setting up a new advisory group, working with stakeholders, including estate agents and Which?, to ensure that the process is as smooth as possible and properly benefits consumers.
The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): We have a range of programmes to support improvements in the energy efficiency of existing homes. As well as the energy performance certificates that are being introduced, we have the decent homes and Warm Front programmes, and are working with energy companies through the energy efficiency commitment. However, we recognise that we need to go further to improve the energy efficiency of existing homes.
I am sure the Minister agrees that it is most important to improve energy efficiency in existing housing stock. That would, after all, produce a win-win situation: warmer homes, lower fuel bills, and
the tackling of carbon emissions from a significant source. When will the Government extend the code for sustainable homes to existing houses, as recommended by the Sustainable Development Commission?
Yvette Cooper: The code will apply to new homes. As the hon. Lady knows, we have set an ambitious time scale for all new homes to be zero-carbon within 10 years. As for her important point that we need to do more for existing homes, the energy efficiency of several million homes has already been improved, and the energy performance certificates will not only give people information about energy efficiency but suggest ways of cutting their carbon emissions and fuel billsimproving the lagging in their lofts, perhaps, or installing cavity wall insulation. We want that information to be linked with financial support, for instance through the energy companies.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Is not one of the most important ways of encouraging householders to undertake energy efficiency measures the provision of reliable local advice? Will my right hon. Friend speak to her colleagues in other Departments about the possibility of extending the support of the Energy Saving Trust to one-stop shops and other ways of promoting such advice?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right, but it is not just a question of information. Improving energy efficiency has to be relatively easy: householders who find it a real hassle to obtain quotations or find out how to get work done are much less likely to make the necessary improvements. We are working with the Energy Saving Trust to find ways of making it easier. We also see a potential for the private sector to step in. Some companies are considering green mortgages, which are linked to advice and suppliers. We will need to go further, however.
I am sure the Minister knows that the 21 million homes in this country are the economys biggest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions, and that at least 15 million of them will still be here in 2050. Has she decided when she might begin to implement the powers she has had since 2004 to require the upgrading of those homes? That would cut bills, improve comfort levels and tackle climate change. Can the Minister assure us that, in her new role, she will work hard with the Cabinet to persuade it to make progress on this vital aspect of climate change?
We are considering a range of ways of helping people to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. As I have said, we have already helped several million householders with our existing programmes, and over the next few years the new energy certification programme involving energy companies is expected to help 3 or 4 million people to install cavity wall insulation. Those are substantial improvements.
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