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I know that my hon. Friend the Minister, for whom I have the greatest respect, will give great attention to the answers to all these points. May I also ask him to dwell on the most important issues that arise 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 do not have the money to top up the grant? How many cannot now afford cavity wall or loft insulation because all the grant has gone on rip-off Warm Front installations? I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend's answers—if not now, at the earliest opportunity—so that we can
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offer reassurance to the people out there who would like to have this work done, and so that we can put on notice those who are ripping off the system that they need to get their act together, otherwise the work will be taken away from them.

11.8 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): Congratulations are due to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) on securing this debate on the Warm Front scheme. The number of Members who have intervened on him has added to the seriousness of his questions and his criticisms. I am grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate.

I want to outline the good things about the scheme, as my hon. Friend and others did, but let me reassure the House that I take these issues extremely seriously. This is an important scheme for many hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people, and it is my pledge to the House that I will of course carry on looking into these problems and criticisms.

Perhaps, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would allow me to say—as have other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South—what is particularly pleasing about the scheme. It is because we value the scheme so dearly that it is so important to reinstate its integrity in the eyes of right hon. and hon. Members who have raised this issue.

The Government were the first in the world to set a target for the eradication of fuel poverty. We recognised that one of the key ways of making progress towards that was to support vulnerable households by providing efficient heating and insulation measures. That has been done on an unprecedented scale. Since the Warm Front scheme began in 2000, more than 1.6 million households have received assistance and this year we anticipate helping a total of around 240,000 households with some 100,000 receiving a heating measure: that could be replacing an old heating system or providing—in many cases, for the first time—central heating in the home. That significant action helps to mitigate the risk of those households struggling to keep warm at an affordable cost—a vital part of our work to help those vulnerable households to improve their quality of life.

We should also not overlook the value of the Warm Front scheme in reducing household carbon emissions. Saving energy is saving money for the household as well as cutting the amount of carbon, and we estimate a cut of about 500,000 tonnes of carbon.

In response to the debate, I would like to outline some of the measures and mechanisms in place to ensure that Warm Front delivers a high quality of service to those who come for assistance. I cannot deny that sometimes the customer’s experience is not as good as we would all like. That is something we in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Eaga in its role as scheme manager continue to focus on.

I am aware of the concern about the prices charged for Warm Front heating installations that has been expressed here this evening and elsewhere, and it is right that there should be an interest in seeing that we make the best use of the funding available to us in
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order to protect taxpayers’ money and, of course, help as many households as possible. Let me explain the pricing system.

The prices charged for Warm Front heating measures have been set on a regional basis, following an open and fully competitive procurement process. Installers in each region supplied tenders, outlining for how much they could perform each aspect of the installation work. Of those, the strongest tenders were chosen and they were used to set the prices for the scheme.

Mr. Letwin: Does the Minister accept that it is difficult to believe that the tender is straightforwardly open when, for example, in my region of the south-west, the winner of the tender is a wholly owned subsidiary of the manager of the tender?

Mr. Woolas: I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who has raised the issue diligently on behalf of his constituents. I have no complaint about that. In answer to the question, Iguana is a wholly owned subsidiary—albeit a legally separate entity—and is one of the 89 contractors granted access to the scheme. There is one other that provides insulation. I recognise the point, but I have never seen any evidence—I have looked into it, following concerns raised by the BBC, which also reported on the problem—of a conflict of interest. I acknowledge that the situation gives rise to concerns.

To provide further confidence that the prices charged for Warm Front measures continue to provide value for money, let me add that the Department has commissioned two independent price reviews. Both found that Warm Front offers value and provides heating measures at significantly below what can be found for the same measures installed under the same standards in the private sector. That is the picture that the independent review painted. We have heard some examples this evening, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South has asked me to look into the matter, and of course I will. I will meet my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) later this week. I will also speak to Eaga later this week, as I often do.

On the issue of excess payments, despite the fact that on the whole Warm Front provides well-priced installations, there are occasions, when the extent of the heating work is significant, or when the client has previously received assistance from the scheme, when the grant available for that household is not adequate to cover the cost of the measures recommended. In this financial year, that has been the case in 18 per cent. of households assisted. I cannot answer the other question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, about those who have not gone ahead as a result.

I fully understand hon. Members’ concerns about their constituents being asked to contribute towards their Warm Front measures, and paying more. My hon. Friend has raised that issue, and we take it seriously. Our clear aim is to provide everyone with the measures from which they could benefit at no cost to the household. One option would be not to have a grant limit. The reality, however, is that removing the grant
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spend limits per household would mean that the scheme could help many thousands fewer people.

The grant limits are currently being reviewed to ensure that they are set at the correct level. That will enable an assessment of the impacts on the range of measures and number of households that can be helped. I will update the House on that review. I will examine the issue of the charges and the instances that my hon. Friend raised, and I am grateful to him for not pushing those questions this evening, because I need to look into the particular cases.

Rosie Cooper: At the same time as examining those matters, will the Minister consider whether people could exercise choice on the high street to get a plumber to do the work to acceptable standards at a much reduced cost, which would enable DEFRA to help more people to beat heat poverty and get the heat that they need?

Mr. Woolas: This is a Government scheme, and the tender process, including for the scheme manager, has quality thresholds. Those people who passed the test and put in for tender have been granted contracts, of which there are 89 across the country. That has been done on a regional basis, and there has been an attempt to do it on a local basis too. Where local suppliers are willing to participate in the scheme, their tenders are taken seriously. Let me say to some of the sceptics among my hon. Friends that there is no immunity from the practices of the rest of the sector just because this is a Government scheme.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am sorry, but it does not work like that. According to many of my constituents, the people who do their work in North Durham come from all over the country and have no contact with them. According to local CORGI suppliers, they have no chance of getting the work because of the cartel and closed shop run by Eaga.

Mr. Woolas: The first point can be addressed by saying that the tendering process for contracts is on a regional basis— [Interruption.] Some of the cases that I have looked at involved company addresses that were some miles away, but local depots were being used. As far as I am aware—I choose my words carefully—none of the companies that have suggested that they could carry out the work adequately for a lower price than charged under the scheme put in tenders during the process. I am not saying that the situation is perfect, but I think we need a dose of realism when it comes to some of the accusations that are made.

Mr. Flello: I am listening intently to my hon. Friend, but how can he square that statement with the fact that companies on the approved list for Eaga are offering to do work in my constituency at a substantially lower rate than the rate offered for Eaga work?

Mr. Woolas: That is a slightly different point from that made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), but it is an important point, which is why I have offered to look into the cases that he has raised.

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Let me re-emphasise that the installers chosen to work on the scheme were chosen on the strength of their tender as part of the competitive process, and the subsequent confidence in their ability to deliver. To show preference arbitrarily when using taxpayers’ money—

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The motion having been made after Ten o’clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-one minutes past Eleven o' clock.

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