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Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman then put the remaining Question necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

To report progress and ask leave to sit again. —[Mr. Watts.]

Committee report progress; to sit again tomorrow.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 145 (3) (Liaison Committee),

Question agreed to.



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Post Office Closures (Oxfordshire)

10.48 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I am glad to have the opportunity to present a petition on behalf of some 5,000 to 6,000 residents of Grimsbury in Banbury.

The petition declares:


Support for Armed Services

10.50 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): We have the bravest and the best servicemen and women in the world. We send them to fight for our country; some will not return, and others will return damaged by war, and they and their families fail to get the support that they desperately need, particularly medical and mental health support, or housing support. The Royal British Legion, which compiled this petition, is a highly respected British institution and no branch more so than the Canvey Island branch. Veterans are particularly concerned about those sent to serve their country in the most difficult places, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is an important petition and I warmly congratulate and thank everyone who supported it. It calls on the Government to ensure that our troops and bereaved families are given more support at all levels.


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Warm Front

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Watts.]

10.51 pm

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): May I begin this debate by making it clear that the idea behind Warm Front is excellent, and that I have tried over a long period to get acceptable answers to the questions raised by my investigations so that I would not need to raise the matter in the House?

Warm Front has the laudable objective of ensuring warm houses for the most in-need citizens of our country, backed by £2,700 of funding per household from this Labour Government, but something has gone very wrong. Over the course of the past year, the trickle of complaints coming to my desk has turned into a flood of complaints. People came forward with case after case where they were asked to contribute between £200 and almost £1,000 on top of the generous Government grants to have work done.

Initially, I thought that my constituents were getting a complete heating system for the money. After all, I can go out in Stoke-on-Trent and engage a CORGI-registered plumber to fit a combi boiler and half a dozen radiators for about £3,000. But no, they were getting a boiler and, generally, just one radiator. I thought that perhaps the boiler concerned was a top-of-the-range combi boiler, but again, despite official correspondence telling me that the best materials are used, I found that the boilers in question are not those instant-hot-water types, but a bog-standard, heat-a-tank-of-water sort, and certainly not a high-specification one. Indeed, having finally got the breakdown of material and labour costs, I found that the cost of the materials was not that great—quite reasonable, in fact.

I inquired, and was told that the workmanship was of the highest quality, and that extra work, such as the removal of any back boiler, must be done as part of the scheme. But that, too, was shown to be incorrect. It seems that the charge is £2,700 plus, whether back boilers are removed or not. The work is not consistently of the highest quality and, when the costs are looked at in detail, it seems that the contractors are charging about £1,000 for labour each day. I know that plumbers demand a high price—much higher than MPs—but £1,000 a day just for fitting? When I asked, I was told that the work was guaranteed, that there is a rigorous inspection regime and that if there were any problems, the work would be put right. Forgive me, but if I engage a local plumber and the work is not good enough, I expect them to come back and put it right, and I do not expect to pay extra to have that guarantee.

Now might be a good moment to illustrate my point with an example. Mr. Degg, one of my constituents, contacted me, like so many others, about the work he had done. For the princely sum of £2,914.73, he did not have a combi boiler and six radiators fitted, which a local firm gave me a quote for, but a bog-standard condensing boiler and one radiator. The fitter turned up, saw how little work there was to do, ate his breakfast and disappeared for the morning, returning at lunch time. Mr. Degg knows a thing or two about plumbing and asked about the power flush that accounts for up to £500 of the costs of the job. The fitter laughed and said
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that it was not necessary. When the boiler and all the bits were fitted, my constituent complained about the poor brick work, where the flue went through the wall. That was not done satisfactorily and, in the end, Mr. Degg had to rebrick it himself. When the inspector came to examine the work—as I was told in official correspondence, the highest inspection regime pertains—and was told about the power flush and all the other problems, he said that all he could do was send an e-mail. There is not much value in that costly benefit. Sadly, Mr. Degg’s experience is not a one-off.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. A constituent returned to my surgery on Saturday. She said that she had her boiler replaced and valves put on the existing system for more than £2,000. She is a pensioner and she got quotes from different companies. The highest quote was £1,500 from a local firm. Does my hon. Friend agree that many people are not asking questions, but those who are, including Mrs. Young and others in my constituency, are dissatisfied not only with the work but the fact that Eaga might be ripping off the Government?

Mr. Flello: My hon. Friend is right. Rip-off is the only phrase that I can think of in the circumstances.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): My hon. Friend got there before me. Only last week, I told Eaga that I would seek an Adjournment debate because people are being ripped off. The pensioners whom we are supposed to help are losing money because of the money that they have to contribute on top of the Government grant. It is disgraceful that they are being treated in that way. Moreover, the Government are saying that, from April, they will allow people to choose the hospital to which they go and which saves their lives, yet under the operation of the scheme that we are considering, people cannot choose at a sensible price the man who arrives with the spanner. It is outrageous.

Mr. Flello: I could not put the point better myself. It is outrageous. I have heard many such experiences. Colleagues who cannot be in the Chamber have also given examples. An hon. Member told me about a constituent who lives in a bungalow but was charged for scaffolding.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for holding the debate. I do not know whether he realises that I have been pursuing the matter for some time, in public, on the radio and so on. I have had dozens of e-mails, from not only my constituents but many other people, who suffer from another complaint: long delays of up to six months after they have paid their deposit. In one case in my constituency, a local plumber had to come to the rescue and provide the installation because the person concerned would have been cold over Christmas.

Mr. Flello: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I am also aware of the voucher scheme, under which people who do not qualify for the grant get a voucher. I understand that £50 from the £300 voucher is deducted for administration costs. If enough money was not already being generated for certain people out
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of the scheme, it appears that they are considering other ways in which to extract some cash.

I have spoken to a contractor, who did not want to be named, who said that it was routine not to bother doing the power flushes. Mr. Degg is not the only person by a long way to experience problems with the workmanship and rip-off costs. In my constituency, Mrs. JB from Meir had a boiler and one radiator fitted. She had to pay £535.61 on top of the £2,700 Government grant to cover the £2,303 labour costs. Mrs. AC, also from the Meir, had a bog-standard boiler, one radiator and a new heating tank installed. She had to pay £614.70 of her own money on top of the Government grant to cover labour costs of £2,538.65.

Lightwood residents Mr. and Mrs. H had a bog-standard boiler fitted and paid £253.40 of their own money on top of the Government grant to cover labour costs of £2,302. There appears to be something magical about the figure of £2,300 or thereabouts. Hanford resident Mrs. BW had to find a staggering £1,266.88 personal contribution because she had already had cavity wall and loft insulation the previous year, and the labour costs for replacing an old boiler and a pump were £2,356, not including the parts themselves. I have case after case after case.

You may be wondering why you have not heard of hundreds of other cases in the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The reason is simply that the problem is being hidden in many parts of the country, with local authorities or charities meeting the extra costs of the scheme. Not only are many of my constituents being ripped off, but in other parts of the country local rate payers and charities are being ripped off, too.

What can be the reason for such high labour charges? The answer from Eaga is, “We can’t tell you how much each bit of work costs for reasons of commercial sensitivity.” That poor excuse means that we can do only one thing, and that is speculate. So let us speculate. As I have pointed out, the reason for the high labour charges is not that the whole house is being fitted with radiators or that the workmanship is of such high quality that the jobs are painstakingly done. Indeed, the July 2007 quality assurance assessor’s report from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs quotes a figure of £23 an hour, which would mean 100 hours of work to fit a boiler and a radiator. That would be painstaking work indeed.

The reason for high labour charges is not the costs of guaranteeing work, either, so perhaps it is that a cut is being taken at each level, from Eaga to contractor, sub-contractor and sub-sub-contractor. Perhaps the reason is that the work is Government contract work and therefore easy pickings for businesses on the approved list. Perhaps the reason is that at least one of firms doing the work is owned by Eaga, which operates the Warm Front scheme. Indeed, it would be interesting to know how many of the firms are owned by Eaga.

I hope the reason for the high costs is not that people in one part of the country are subsidising folk in another. Put simply, I do not know why the labour charges are so high, because the information is “commercially sensitive”, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can find out. Can he also find out
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why inspectors are pretty much powerless; why it takes two days to put in one boiler and a radiator; why power flushes have routinely not been done; why poor quality work has been allowed; why firms owned by the Warm Front administrator are allowed to do the work; and why it costs £2,000 or more, excluding the equipment, to install a bog-standard boiler and one or two radiators when a local CORGI-registered plumber would charge that for fitting a combi boiler and six radiators?

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will give great care and attention to answering those points. However, I should like him also to dwell on the other important question that arises from what would otherwise be an excellent Government-funded scheme: how many of the most in-need citizens have not had their heating improved because they simply cannot afford to top up the grant?

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that many vulnerable people have benefited from the scheme? Does he agree also that the important thing is to have detailed talks with the Minister at DEFRA, so that we understand exactly where the costs of all the contracts are, but at the same time ensure that there is enough money, a high enough ceiling and sufficient criteria, so that previous work to install insulation is not deducted from the overall cost, but time-spent? We need to ensure that we deal with the issues of fuel poverty and energy efficiency. We also need to ensure that we have local contractors, so that the scheme creates a win-win situation for all those who benefit now and all who have done so in the past, because we do not want people who would otherwise benefit to be deterred from taking advantage of such a wonderful Government scheme.

Mr. Flello: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for, as ever, making an extremely good intervention. It is important that Warm Front should be a good scheme. Equally, the danger with what, in the case after case that I have encountered, can be described only as a rip-off is that it will deter people from having the work done, and it must not, because it is important that the work should be done.

I agree with my hon. Friend’s point about time limiting. There should be a cut-off point for anyone who has had cavity wall or loft insulation done, so that it no longer counts against the budget in future. However, I am concerned that if DEFRA simply increases the grant funding, that will continue to add to the profits instead of addressing the underlying problem. I would rather not have secured this debate, if only I had received some sensible and proper answers from Eaga, rather than its “commercial sensitivity” avoidance.

Rosie Cooper: I totally agree with the points that my hon. Friend is making. It is important that there should be accountability all the way through the system, from the cost to how we treat people. People need the scheme; therefore we must deliver it for them. However, it is a disgrace that for many, many months MPs have not been able to get answers out of Eaga, because only one person there has been dealing with MPs’ inquiries. If that is not saying, “We don’t care about being accountable”, I do not know what is.

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Mr. Flello: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It would almost not matter whether Eaga had one person or 100 people. The problem is that the answers are simply not forthcoming. I have not been given the information, but suspect that that is because those answers cannot be forthcoming. I cannot see any way of justifying £2,300—which seems to be the ball-park figure—for installing one boiler and one radiator. That boiler is just a bog-standard boiler, not an all-singing, all-dancing one, and the service is not a fantastic service that could not possibly be had from anyone else.

I have gone through all those points in my speech, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that answers are sought.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Answers need to be given to the points that my hon. Friend has raised. Does he also agree that Eaga’s structure ought to be investigated? I remember it when it was a small organisation in Newcastle many years ago, but, as I understand it, some of the senior directors have now made an awful lot of money—through share ownership or in other ways—as a result of their employment by Eaga.

Mr. Flello: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I think that a root and branch investigation is required.

The quality assessor’s report document dated July 2007—which was based on the Warm Front scheme’s central heating installation costs and charges appraisal—has miraculously, and quite coincidentally, appeared in many right hon. and hon. Members’ e-mail inboxes today. It seems to represent some kind of last-ditch justification of the costs. As I said earlier, however, a figure of £23 an hour is quoted in it, and a total charge of £2,300—the cost of 100 hours’ work—just does not stack up.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): I came along tonight because I saw that Warm Front was the subject of the Adjournment debate and I wanted to talk about the good work that had been done in my constituency. I note that 4,000 households there have benefited from the various services that Warm Front offers. I have therefore been astonished to hear some of the things that have been said tonight. I hope that my hon. Friend would agree that the last thing that we want is for the scheme to end, and that what he would like to ensure is that no more pensioners or vulnerable people are ripped off, especially where public money is involved.

Mr. Flello: My hon. Friend makes her point very well.

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