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It cannot be right that one in three older people live in one room over winter to keep warm. It cannot be right that one quarter of all older people stay in bed to keep warm. It cannot be right that one in 10 older people in this country cut back on essentials such as food and clothes to pay fuel bills because they cannot do both. That is a national disgrace and it is one that we
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need to address. It cannot be right also that every year in this relatively temperate country of ours people die because of the cold. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs figures from 2004 show that, each year in the United Kingdom, there are between 25,000 and 45,000 excess winter deaths—that is the clinical and unexpressive term that is used. That does not happen elsewhere; it does not happen in much colder countries than ours, such as Norway, Sweden or the other Scandinavian nations. They have severe winters, but they keep their citizens warm in their homes. We fail, and we as a House are responsible for the fact that that is happening. Also of course, for every person who dies from a cold-related death, many more are made ill or put in hospital as a result of cold.

Given that we all identify climate change as the biggest and most urgent issue we face, it cannot be right that so many homes in our country leak energy—energy is wasted simply because the houses are not up to the necessary standard. If my Bill were implemented and the houses that we have identified as being lived in by people in fuel poverty were brought up to standard, their carbon emissions would be reduced by 59 per cent. Should that not be a priority for the House and the Government? If we are going to make a real difference on climate change, we must start with domestic households and stop wasting energy. Of course, that would reduce costs as well—not only costs to the individual, but costs to the state in providing support. It therefore makes sense to do something about such a loss of energy.

I have touched on the fact that this is a rural as well as an urban issue. Indeed, I have stressed the rural dimension, but I do not want Members who represent city constituencies to feel that I have left them out. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt); I think I would describe her seat as a suburb constituency, but perhaps that is a dangerous thing to say. [Interruption.] There are perfectly nice and very pleasant suburbs; suburbs are good—country is better, but suburbs are good. My point, however, is that this is an issue for the entire nation.

Let me reiterate the economic dimension. It makes sense to create green jobs. I thought the Government wanted to do that. I thought they said that one of their initiatives to beat the recession was to stimulate areas of the economy that were going to produce sustainable work for the future. That must start with those jobs that provide an environmental benefit. There is huge scope here, as a lot of individuals will be involved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has been very patient, so I shall now invite her to intervene.

Annette Brooke: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him on introducing the Bill. He has presented some shocking statistics on fuel poverty. Is it not also shocking that our poorest and most prudent constituents use prepayment meters and they are being rewarded with even higher charges? That is disgraceful.

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is one of the tragedies at the moment that some of our poorest constituents end up paying the most for their
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fuel. They do so via tariff systems, and prepayment meters are part of that. I do not think, however, that we can draw an easy equation between those buildings with prepaid meters and the people who are poor. It is not as simple as that. It is true that a lot of people who are in poverty have prepaid meters, but many people who are not in poverty have prepaid meters, particularly in London where many private sector landlords install them as a matter of course. Often yuppies who work in the City live happily in those flats—perhaps we should call them the new poor, but I do not think they are poor yet. The equation is, therefore, not quite that simple, but my hon. Friend is right that this issue needs to be addressed as part of the social tariff arrangements.

The Government are discussing social tariffs with the Ofgem-regulated electricity and gas companies, but, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn said, a lot of people in this country do not heat their houses with gas or electricity—gas because they cannot get it, and electricity because that is not the way they have traditionally heated their home. They rely on liquefied petroleum gas, fuel oil or solid fuel, and those fuel sources have increased in price the most over recent years. People who rely on them are now having the greatest difficulty in paying their bills. I should declare an interest here: my rural hovel relies on fuel oil and the bill has gone up enormously this year compared with last year. I can just about pay the bill, but I recognise that others will be in great difficulty.

There is a permissive element within the social tariff part of the Bill. It permits the Government to bring other fuel sectors into the equation if they can— although I am not sure whether it is possible. I would not necessarily want those sectors to be brought within the Ofgem bureaucracy, because that may result in more regulation than is required, but if we can find a way of extending the social tariff to non Ofgem-regulated fuel sources, that would be of great benefit.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I am glad my hon. Friend has mentioned the people who are not on the gas network and who rely on Calor gas as their only means of heating, because that is an even more uncompetitive market than the oil market. It involves a commitment to a tank, which effectively determines which supplier they are going to use. I hope that he will continue to stress, therefore, that there is a series of reasons why many people in rural areas are more likely to be fuel poor, and that is one of them.

Mr. Heath: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I have discovered that a number of people living in social housing in my constituency use LPG. It is the council that orders the LPG, but the LPG company sets the tariff, so the customer has no control at all. They have no involvement with the supplier, and the council obviously has no incentive to work on their behalf. Does the Bill contain any measures that might address those problems?

Mr. Heath: That is a very interesting observation. First, one wonders why the council feels it has no duty of care to those people; a council should have regard for the poorer people whom they house. There is certainly no barrier to that issue being addressed in the Bill.

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Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. I want to emphasise the point made by the two previous party colleagues who have spoken. In large rural constituencies such as mine, many houses are well outwith the 2 km distance from the gas network that my hon. Friend referred to earlier. There is no possibility of those properties ever getting gas, and they are reliant on a variety of other sources, such as oil, Calor gas and solid fuel. I hope the Bill gets its Second Reading today and that when it reaches its Committee stage we can explore ways of bringing such heating systems within regulatory networks, so that they too can benefit from regulation. Last year’s spike in oil prices is causing severe problems for people with those heating systems.

Mr. Heath: That is absolutely right, and I suspect that in the highlands and islands, part of which my hon. Friend represents, there is also an additional premium because of the distances involved in delivering to those far-flung areas—far-flung from us here, but not far-flung from them there. This part of the Bill covers Scotland and Wales, although I have to emphasise to hon. Friends representing constituencies in Scotland and Wales that the part that deals with statutory matters does not cover them because of the devolved arrangements. I hope that if we can succeed in getting the Bill through this House and on to the statute book, it will serve as a pattern for the devolved Administrations, so that they, too, will wish to do something similar in their own areas.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): May I be the latest in a long line of colleagues from all parts of the House to compliment my hon. Friend on this fantastic Bill and speak about its importance for all our constituents? The fact that, as he says, the entire United Kingdom is covered by certain parts of the Bill is very important. Clause 10, which relates to the energy assistance packages, is also important because it would require a supplier to supply energy to eligible customers at a lower tariff than any other rate available from that particular supplier. Earlier, he said that he had had some constructive discussions with the suppliers about that, so can he give us an insight into their response to that particular proposal? How can we make sure that those packages work as effectively as they need to do?

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Opinions differ—suppliers are not all united—on this; some think that the packages pose a potential difficulty in their competitive structure, whereas others are worried that the social tariff that they have introduced provides for a better deal than is likely to emerge in a universal concept. There are many discussions still to be had, but I know that Ministers are having such discussions at the moment and are committed to making progress. It would be wrong for me to prescribe in a private Member’s Bill anything that would cut across current work, and I have stressed that throughout in my discussions with everybody on this. My Bill is essentially a permissive one—it would put a duty on the Secretary of State to provide the strategy and it would permit the Secretary of State to bring in a statutory social tariff, but the elements making up that strategy and tariff would be left to the Secretary of State. I make
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no apologies for that, because this is a highly technical issue and the last thing I want to do is torpedo work that is in progress, but I want to focus that work in the right direction—the one that I think will achieve the best results.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): May I take the hon. Gentleman back a couple of minutes to when he mentioned the impact of his Bill on Scotland? I am sure that he will be aware that it appears that no Member from the Scottish National party is here. Does he agree that far from standing up for Scotland, as is the party’s slogan, more often than not its Members do not turn up for Scotland?

Mr. Heath: It is very noticeable that the SNP Members are not here today—I would have thought this matter ought to have interested them—and it is noticeable that Members from all the other parties, who have interests in all parts of the United Kingdom, are here—I shall leave it at that.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing his Bill, which I assume he is now getting on to discussing. I would particularly like to talk about the question of duty and clause 2. He knows that a legal action was brought for judicial review under the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 and was dismissed. Is his intention to create a duty that is fully justiciable against the Secretary of State, so that the courts could second-guess and, indeed, overrule the Secretary of State if we were not to meet the duties set out in clause 2?

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, for signing the early-day motion that stands in the name of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South and for the fact that he is committed to the Bill’s progress today, because his interest in the matter is much appreciated.

I was about to come to the contents of the Bill. The first thing that we need to address is the fact that this is not a new concept; there are Members in all parts of the Chamber who have achieved a huge impact on this policy area in previous Bills that have been taken through the House. A series of Bills and of initiatives have dealt with fuel poverty, and that tells me that there is an appetite within the House for tackling it effectively.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD) rose—

Mr. Heath: May I just deal with these issues for the moment? The most important is the one to which the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) referred. The most recent enactment was the 2000 Act, which we all felt put a clear duty on the Government to eliminate fuel poverty, with a time scale in which to do so. I do not think that there was any dubiety among Members of the House or among members of the Government as to the duty that that particular enactment conferred. That was the case until 17 October when the High Court determined that it was not a duty in the sense that any of us understand a duty and that it was merely a desirable outcome as far as the Government are concerned.

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That brings me to the justiciability of the duty. I have carefully set out in this Bill a duty to produce a strategy. That is a perfectly reasonable duty and I think that any court would hold that it is a perfectly reasonable duty for the Government to have. It is not a duplication of the previous duty—the one struck down by the High Court in a decision that, I believe, is still subject to appeal—because that would be a futile action on the part of the House. My proposal is framed in an entirely different way, but it reinstates what I believe to have been and, I assume, still are, the Government’s intentions.

I have good reason to believe they are the Government’s intentions because they have said so repeatedly. Labour’s election manifesto in 2005 stated:

That target has slipped a little, but my Bill’s provision in respect of 2016 is consistent with Labour’s manifesto. The then Minister of State in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), said in May 2006 that

set pursuant to the 2000 Act.

He went on to say that

The Minister who sits on the Treasury Bench today, the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), in giving evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 14 January—only a couple of months ago—said that the Government

There is a very clear intention on the part of the Government to do what my Bill requests.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this Bill. I understand the circumstances of a private Member’s Bill, which mean that he has to be as kind as he possibly can be to the Government. The problem is that the Government themselves told the High Court in October that

This Bill rightly would introduce a clear duty on the Government to carry out their previous promise, and I do not think he should be at all vague about that, because it is at the heart of the Bill and it is the reason I am here to support it.

Mr. Heath: I do not think I am being at all vague about it. I am merely saying that I am hopeful, even despite the performance to date, that the Government have the intention of meeting the targets in the Bill. That is one reason why I do not believe—I hope that I am correct—that the Government will disagree today with the Bill’s progress into Committee.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Joan Ruddock): I simply wish to reiterate what the hon. Gentleman has just stated, because that is, indeed, the policy of the Government and will
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continue to be so. The argument that I shall come to when I get the opportunity to speak is about the absolutist position embodied in the Bill and the fact that current legislation does say

Mr. Heath: I am not sure that my Bill is absolutist in any sense of the word, although we shall discuss that further.

Mr. Dismore: I assume that the answer to my previous question is therefore yes—that it is intended to be fully justiciable. I wish to correct something that the hon. Gentleman said. The duty would not only be to produce a strategy. The duty would be to achieve an objective, with no qualification, by 2016, no matter what happens, in this country or the rest of the world. Clause 2(1) would impose an absolute duty to achieve that objective, and that is one of the concerns that I have about the Bill. I support what he seeks to achieve in policy terms, but I am concerned that the Bill could create a duty that might prove to be impossible to meet, and the court could force the Government to prioritise it over all the other things that they have to do.

Mr. Heath: That is an interesting discussion that I will be happy to have in Committee. I do not want to resile from the objective, because it is very important. The Labour party manifesto did not put any conditions on the promise: it was a clear goal, and that is what I hope to achieve. But the Bill would provide sufficient flexibility within the strategy for the Government to adjust to circumstances and apply resources as appropriate.

We have to decide whether we are serious about dealing with climate change and ending fuel poverty. We cannot say, “But it might get a bit difficult.” It is a priority. People are dying every year, so I make no apology for making it a priority.

Paul Holmes: My hon. Friend has said that this is not a new issue, and he gave some examples from recent years. I first became politically active in 1983, when I joined a political party during the general election that year, and one of the policies of the then SDP/Liberal Alliance—the forerunners of the Liberal Democrats—was a massive programme of home insulation, to cut the fuel bills for those in fuel poverty and create labour-intensive work to get people back into employment to counteract the Thatcher recession. The 18 per cent. of my constituents who live in fuel poverty today cannot understand why, a quarter of a century later, these issues still need to be raised and the Government need to be pushed to take effective action on such a serious issue.

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend underlines why simply having good intentions is not enough. We have all had good intentions for a long time, but they have not delivered and that is why we now need something more concrete.

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