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1.5 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and to discover such broad support around the House for the Bill’s objectives, even though, of course, points have been made that can be properly taken up in Committee.

Throughout my youth, it was customary just before midnight on new year’s eve for someone—usually the darkest person—to go outside the door of our home and to come back in with coal, bread and a coin. Those were the three things that every household was thought to be in need of. They symbolised prosperity and a satisfactory life—and the coal was not irrelevant.

Mr. McGovern rose—

Simon Hughes: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will be brief, as the Minister and possibly other colleagues are still to speak. As I was saying, coal was one of the three, because energy and the ability to keep warm was fundamental to everyone’s happy existence.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on introducing his private Member’s Bill, which he said would be good for the vulnerable, good for health within the UK, good for our environment and good for the economy. It rises to the four great challenges of our age: we need a more equal society, to which the Minister and the Government are committed; we need to protect our environment, to which the Minister has shown a lifelong commitment; we need to rescue our economy from its difficult times; and we need to give maximum employment to people—and there is no more obvious contribution to getting us out of a recession than expanding the construction industry.
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The Bill’s objectives will allow us to save carbon, save money, save jobs and, most importantly as my hon. Friend said, save lives.

Members have put the situation we face on the record. Dealing with inadequately heated homes—fuel poverty is the technical term, but I am never very comfortable with it, because it is not the sort of phrase people use on the Old Kent road—has been a challenge for decades. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) said, it was that problem that brought him and people like him into politics in the ’80s.

There is the old phrase that “An Englishman’s home is his castle”—it applies in Scotland, too, and to a lesser extent in Wales—but castles were often draughty. Although most Englishmen and women do not live in castles, the reality is that most of their homes are still draughty and not well insulated. After an exchange at Question Time on 20 January, the Minister for Housing wrote to me, confirming that only 1 per cent. of current housing stock in the country reaches the rating of 81 on the standard assessment procedure, which is recognised as the best way to assess what counts as a satisfactory energy-efficiency rating. Thus only 1 per cent. of our housing stock is adequately insulated and 25,000 people or thereabouts die every year unnecessarily—and we should not pass over such figures lightly. Many more people are ill and are looked after at huge cost to the NHS. We must not forget to put the costs of the current position on one side of the balance.

Furthermore, figures are available showing how many people are in fuel poverty in every single constituency in the country. I looked at the figures for London and found that 15 out of 100 homes in the Minister’s Lewisham, Deptford constituency are in fuel poverty. The figures for the two other constituencies in my borough—15 in Dulwich and West Norwood and nearly 15 in Camberwell and Peckham—are about the same. Most amazingly, although there is an explanation for it, my constituency with 13 out of 100 has the least fuel poverty in London. I think that the explanation is that we have the largest amount of council housing stock. If anyone ever wanted an argument that council housing has been good for people, there it is, as it is much better heated than privately rented or owner-occupied property. The figures are there for all to see.

To any colleagues in the House who are nervous about the Bill, perhaps including the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) and the hon. Member for Hendon, I would say that where there is a will, there is a way. We have to take this Bill and turn it into legislation that can deliver what we want, which is a job for a Committee, not for proceedings here. I endorse what the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) and the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) said about the inadequacy of the present system. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome is seeking to deal with a system that is not just piecemeal but confusing.

There are three failures. There is the problem that although some people are being targeted who should be targeted, others are being targeted when they should not be. Apparently, more than 100,000 households with a combined income of more than £100,000 a year receive the winter fuel allowance every year. Members
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of the House of Lords have told me that they receive it because they are pensioners, but clearly they do not need it. That is a nonsense of a system.

Secondly, the explanation of the tariff options is very confusing. I looked at the Consumer Focus website, which customers are supposed to consult. With the best will in the world, I do not think that people should require a table that takes up an entire page. The eventual figures depend on whether people are low, medium or high users, on whether they use gas, electricity or dual fuel, and on who supplies their fuel. Then there is the small print. If any of us tried to read all that, we would be lost for accurate answers.

The third failure—the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made this point very tellingly—is the prepayment meter system, under which in many instances the poorest and those who use least will pay more.

We live in a country that provides us with huge amounts of our own fuel—gas, oil and coal—along with the potential for renewables. We also face a huge challenge in dealing with carbon emissions, 27 per cent. of which emanate from domestic households. What should we do now? The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) introduced a similar Bill in 2000, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) introduced another in 2004. The Bill presented today by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome seeks to pick up where the law appears to have left off after last year’s High Court judgment—which, I should point out to the hon. Member for Hendon, is currently on appeal. We do not know what the final judicial decision will be.

As other Members on both sides of the House have observed, this is exactly the sort of Bill that gives credibility to Parliament. These are the issues that matter to our constituents. The Bill is central to what we should be doing. It is in the great tradition of the social legislation that gave us pensions, national insurance and the national health service. We have a job to do in dealing with the social issues of the day, and the Bill gives us an opportunity to do that job now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome referred to the huge amount of support that he had received. I echo the tributes paid to Ron Bailey and others. The fuel poverty charter movement involved a range of supportive non-governmental organisations. Members in pretty well every corner of the House have signed the relevant early-day motion: many Labour colleagues, Conservative colleagues, Plaid Cymru colleagues, Democratic Unionist colleagues, Scottish National party and Social Democratic and Labour party colleagues, and independent colleagues, as well as a large number of my Liberal Democrat colleagues.

I commend the local press—many local papers have taken up the issue—and the national press, particularly Nigel Nelson and the Sunday People. As soon as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) became leader of our party, he chose this as the first subject on which to challenge the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time. We have published our proposals, which, like those of the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), include a national programme to ensure that not a single household would not benefit from the scheme, except those that did not wish to do so. The finance can be raised by the utility companies, and the system would save money as it proceeds.

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Finally, let me point out to the hon. Member for Hendon and others who are worried about the duty in this Bill that the Climate Change Act 2008 clearly imposes a duty on Government. If we are determined together to implement the Government’s policy, we must set ourselves a duty. The wording may need to be changed, but I hope that today we will have the conviction—

Janet Anderson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hughes: No, I will not.

I hope that today we will have the conviction to give the Bill a Second Reading and send it into Committee. I am sure that our constituents will want that to happen. I hope that the Bill will receive positive encouragement from the Minister so that it can move to its next stage, and my hon. Friend’s aspirations can be fulfilled this very afternoon.

1.14 pm

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on his Bill, which deals with a very important subject. It is, I believe, far too important to be discussed along with four or five others.

I am reminded of something that one of my favourite comedians, Woody Allen, once said. He was looking at the back of one of the American comics, featuring X-ray specs, Charles Atlas and so forth, when he spotted an advertisement for a speed-reading programme. He decided to go for it. Lo and behold, within four weeks he could read “War and Peace” in four hours. When someone asked him what it was about, he said “I think it concerns Russia.” I feel a bit like that now. How is it possible to compress such an important subject as fuel poverty into four and half hours?

I would like, with your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to comment on the attendance today. I was going to say that there is only one person from Her Majesty's official Opposition here, but there now appears to be three—that is three times as many as they have in Scotland. Obviously, there are quite a few Lib Dems present, who for the most part I have never knowingly understood, but I am glad to see them. They are obviously here to support their colleague the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.

As I mentioned earlier, the Scottish National party claims to stand up for Scotland. However, not only does it fail to stand up for Scotland, but it fails to turn up for Scotland—there is not one SNP Member here. That should be on the record.

I welcome the debate. It is an important issue for all of us and all our constituents. I am pleased that the Government have maintained their commitment to tackle fuel poverty. They have a statutory target to end fuel poverty, so far as is reasonable, for all households across the UK by 2016. The three impacts on fuel poverty are household income, energy prices and the energy efficiency of the home. We have tackled all those elements in different ways.

First, on income, the Government introduced the winter fuel payment in 1997 specifically to help older people who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of cold weather with their winter fuel bills. Earlier this year, millions of vulnerable people and pensioners received
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the highest ever cold weather payment, which has been trebled by the Government this year from £8.50 to £25 a week. The latest payments mean that the Government had paid more than £100 million to pensioners and vulnerable people to help with fuel bills as the cold snap hit Britain this winter.

That was not the only extra help announced by the Government for vulnerable people and pensioners this winter. There was an extra £575 million spent on winter fuel payments this year, with £250 for those in households with someone 60 or over and £400 for those with someone 80 and above. There has also been the biggest increase in the state pension since 2001 and the biggest increase in pension credit since it was introduced. In 1997, the poorest pensioners had to live on just £69 a week but now, thanks to pension credit, no pensioner need live on less than £124 a week, and that will rise to £130 in April.

Secondly, while prices were on their way down and incomes were rising, fuel poverty declined. Prices started to rise recently, and that has been the biggest problem in our efforts to tackle fuel poverty. People need to be confident that the prices that they pay are fair. It is wrong that people face unfair prices because of where they live or the method that they use to pay.

The recent Office of Gas and Electricity Markets investigation of retail gas and electricity markets identifies several unfair pricing practices. Ofgem was right when it called on the energy companies to end those unfair practices, and the supply companies have partly responded by addressing excessive premiums charged to some groups of customers. However, there is more to be done. It is also essential that changes are made to ensure that customers, particularly the vulnerable, are not discriminated against. We need to ensure that pricing remains fair, so I support Ofgem’s work to establish licence conditions for suppliers to achieve that. The changes that it proposed in January to the licences of suppliers will change the law to ensure that such unfair practice does not happen again. If that approach fails, I agree that the Government will need to act.

I was pleased that the Government managed to get voluntary agreement for social tariffs from companies. The Bill suggests giving the power to the Secretary of State to mandate social tariffs. That is a serious step and I hope that the Government are examining it in their fuel poverty review. I also welcome the agreement with energy suppliers to increase how much they are spending on their social programmes in the next three years. Already 800,000 customer accounts are benefiting from social tariffs—almost double the number in March 2008. This is the first year of our voluntary agreement with energy companies to spend more on social programmes and that spending will increase further over the next three years.

Despite that positive news, we must not forget that there are still unfair practices from energy companies with regard to prepayment meters. Some companies have backdated bills to customers on prepayment meters. Debts have built up on the old-style meters, often through no fault of the customer after the company failed to update the token meters with price changes that must be done manually. The amount owing has come to light only when the old token meter has been upgraded to a
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more modern version and customers have then received backdated bills, in some cases for four years. That is unacceptable and I am pleased the Secretary of State is keen for energy companies to do right by their customers in these difficult times by not backdating their bills for months and years and by making efforts to replace the meters.

Energy efficiency is crucial in tackling fuel poverty. The Warm Front scheme has helped 1.8 million householders with new heating and insulation measures, but there are improvements to be made and I am glad that the Government will be working hard to ensure that the result is a fair, efficient and effective programme. A recent National Audit Office report makes a valuable contribution. It is right that the Government are taking steps to improve the scheme and I welcome the hiring of an independent troubleshooter to review the contract. I welcome, too, the increased funding of £174 million since September. I also think that there is a strong case for raising the current grant levels, and I would like to hear the thoughts of my hon. Friend the Minister on that.

Let us be in no doubt, however: the Opposition’s plans to cut the Department of Energy and Climate Change budget would put Warm Front funding under threat for thousands of families. A 1 per cent. cut in the Department’s budget would mean a cut of £80 million in Warm Front funding. That would mean 32,000 fewer of the most vulnerable households getting the help that they need to heat and insulate their homes. Labour increased the money for Warm Front by £100 million in the pre-Budget report, which the Opposition opposed. If the Opposition were to have their way, that would mean another 40,000 vulnerable households not getting the help that they need.

The Government also have a serious and ambitious programme for energy efficiency. They are launching an ambitious package that aims for nothing less than a fundamental shift in our approach and the way we use and save energy at home and at work—an energy revolution. The plan has three elements: first, a street-by-street, house-by-house approach with offers of comprehensive advice, or in other words an “energy audit”; secondly, a financial package that will support whole-house and in some places whole-area makeovers, where payback is linked to the house not the individual, with people better off from day one; and thirdly, a commitment to ensure fairness in what we deliver and the way we deliver it. A community-based approach will often be the way to ensure that we deliver those measures fairly.

We need an energy revolution to keep energy affordable and secure and to make it low-carbon. Labour offers real help now for people to cut their energy bills and reduce their carbon footprint, but preparing for the long term—a low-carbon future—requires a radical shift in the energy efficiency of our homes and buildings, and decarbonising our heat supply. Labour’s ambition is to support and help people make their homes part of that future. People will be offered home energy advice, and the chance to have whole-house treatments, which could be paid for through a financial package, and which should mean overall savings on their energy bills from day one.

We cannot leave fairness to chance. The Government will ensure that the vulnerable get the extra help that they need, working closely with community organisations
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and local authorities. We cannot leave tackling climate change to chance and to the enthusiasts. All of us can gain by doing our bit. Our ambition is for 7 million homes to get whole-house treatments, including insulation and low-carbon heating supplies, by 2020.

Stephen Pound: The Government’s flagship tool, the carbon emissions reduction target, is the largest domestic energy efficiency obligation in the EU. Does my hon. Friend think that the Government could do more to encourage our European friends and neighbours to try to match the commitment we have shown in this country?

Mr. McGovern: I agree entirely. “Global” has become something of a buzz word recently, but what we in the UK are trying to achieve should be not only a Europe-wide but a global aspiration.

As I was saying, our ambition is to achieve that whole-house treatment target by 2020, be it privately owned, privately rented or social housing leading the way, with Government support. The heat and energy saving strategy is an ambitious package that aims for nothing less than a fundamental shift in our approach to using and saving energy at home and at work—an energy revolution. It sets out short-term action to help consumers save energy and save money, but it also sets out options for a longer-term strategy to support and encourage everyone to work together and make the changes we need in the fairest way possible.

Success means moving beyond relatively inexpensive and easy energy efficiency measures to more radical ways of saving energy and decarbonising the supply of heat. I am pleased that the Government are making sure that there is comprehensive support for those who need it most. We are doing that by looking at new delivery models to provide house-by-house and street-by-street approaches, targeted particularly at the poorest communities. We are looking, too, at the idea of linking finance to the property, rather than the householder, and at new measures to stimulate community-scale generation. The options that the Government have put forward are of a scale that is different and more ambitious than anything we have considered before.

Our aim is that all the houses for which it is feasible will have cavity wall and loft insulation by 2015. That, in itself, is a very significant task, but we must go much further. By 2020, to cut emissions by a third, the Government will have offered 7 million homes a whole-house refurbishment—not just basic energy efficiency measures, but more radical approaches such as solid wall insulation and new technologies to generate heat and power for the home. By 2030, we will need to have gone even further, with cost-effective energy efficiency measures available to all households, and by 2050, every home will have to be near zero-carbon.

So this cannot be about energy companies helping a few million houses; we have to think bigger than that. That is why the Great British refurb is based on a plan that, over time, will cover every area and every house in every area. We have serious plans to tackle fuel poverty and carbon emissions through energy efficiency measures that would be entirely cut across by this Bill. I doubt the commitment of the Conservative party, which has opposed our measures, including the winter fuel payment. The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), the then shadow Social Security Secretary, said the following when opposing it:

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