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20 Mar 2009 : Column 1192

The situation in Scotland is concerning. I have already mentioned the fact that the party that claims to stand up for Scotland is conspicuous in its absence here today. Rural fuel poverty is a particular issue in Scotland, and I am concerned that fuel poverty continues to grow. A recent Government review concluded that fuel poverty is more prevalent in Scotland than in England, that fuel poverty is likely to increase further, and that the energy efficiency measures currently in place are not enough. Most damaging of all, it stated that existing fuel poverty programmes in Scotland are not focused on the fuel poor. Surely the SNP-led Scottish Executive have to accept some responsibility for the situation

I am pleased that the Government are reviewing their policies, and I welcome the fact that the review will examine all three causes of fuel poverty—prices, energy efficiency and income—which I have discussed today. I am pleased that the Government are not dragging their feet and are still committed to their 2016 targets. This Bill is designed to set the Government up to fail, rather than to achieve its stated goal. Co-operating with the Government’s plans would be a much better way for people to achieve their goals, if they wanted to. Uncosted and unrealistic, this Bill, sadly, has to fail.

Mr. Heath: claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

The House divided: Ayes 89, Noes 2.
Division No. 81]
[1.29 pm


Ainsworth, Mr. Peter
Alexander, Danny
Baker, Norman
Beith, rh Sir Alan
Beresford, Sir Paul
Bottomley, Peter
Brake, Tom
Breed, Mr. Colin
Brooke, Annette
Burstow, Mr. Paul
Burt, Lorely
Byers, rh Mr. Stephen
Cable, Dr. Vincent
Caton, Mr. Martin
Clark, Ms Katy
Corbyn, Jeremy
Cousins, Jim
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey
Davey, Mr. Edward
Dobson, rh Frank
Dowd, Jim
Duddridge, James
Dunne, Mr. Philip
Farron, Tim
Featherstone, Lynne
Field, rh Mr. Frank
Foster, Mr. Don
Gidley, Sandra
Godsiff, Mr. Roger
Goldsworthy, Julia
Green, Damian
Greening, Justine
Grogan, Mr. John
Gummer, rh Mr. John
Hancock, Mr. Mike
Hands, Mr. Greg
Harris, Dr. Evan
Harvey, Nick
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Heath, Mr. David
Hemming, John
Hendry, Charles
Hoey, Kate
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Holmes, Paul
Hopkins, Kelvin
Horam, Mr. John
Horwood, Martin
Howarth, David
Howarth, Mr. Gerald
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay
Hughes, Simon
Huhne, Chris
Hunter, Mark

Jackson, Glenda
Jones, Lynne
Keetch, Mr. Paul
Kramer, Susan
Lamb, Norman
Leech, Mr. John
Linton, Martin
Loughton, Tim
McCafferty, Chris
McDonnell, John
Moore, Mr. Michael
Mulholland, Greg
Öpik, Lembit
Owen, Albert
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Randall, Mr. John
Reid, Mr. Alan
Riordan, Mrs. Linda
Rowen, Paul
Russell, Bob
Salter, Martin
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Steen, Mr. Anthony
Stunell, Andrew
Taylor, Matthew
Teather, Sarah
Truswell, Mr. Paul
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Viggers, Sir Peter
Webb, Steve
Williams, rh Mr. Alan
Williams, Mark
Williams, Mr. Roger
Williams, Stephen
Wright, Jeremy
Tellers for the Ayes:

Dan Rogerson and
Richard Younger-Ross

Brown, rh Mr. Nicholas
Cousins, Jim
Tellers for the Noes:

Stephen Pound and
Mr. Andrew Dismore

The Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided in the affirmative because fewer than 100 Members voted in the majority in support of the motion (Standing Order No. 37).

Debate resumed.

1.40 pm

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): May I begin by apologising for not being able to be here earlier today? I had a surgery in my constituency at the Golden Lane campus, a new school that was opened yesterday by Princess Anne.

Some of the people who came to see me at my surgery wanted to talk about this particularly important issue. I do not know whether one woman who came—she lives at Quaker court—would fall under the definition of being in fuel poverty; certainly, she feels that she does. Hers is a very good example of how complex the fuel poverty issue can be. Her problem is that she is in a three-bedroomed flat in Quaker court, shares a bed with her four-year-old son, has two other sons in another bedroom and a teenager in the third bedroom, and their water-heating system is not big enough for them all to have a shower. She contacted the energy companies and asked for some assistance, and was told that if she wanted to get a new combi boiler, it would cost £3,000. She simply does not have the money to ensure that she has enough hot water to keep her children clean.

Of course, an associated problem is that that person’s household is simply too large for the flat into which she has been put. As some in the House may know, Quaker court overlooks the site of what used to be a school, but which unfortunately my local authority recently sold off. Instead of its building larger homes for people such as her, there will be yet more student accommodation.

This person, this victim of fuel poverty, seemed to me a very good example of how the causes of fuel poverty can be very complex and varied. Fuel poverty is an issue of huge importance to my constituents, particularly after the very difficult winter that we have all been through in the south of England. Many of them have
been contacting me about fuel poverty and—again as a result of the weather—about the huge amount of flooding that has occurred and the dampness of flats.

All of us agree that people should not continue to suffer from fuel poverty in this day and age. I feel very strongly about this issue. When I was a child, we lived in a very large house. My mother was on benefits and we had a great shed next door where we used to keep our coal—until it ran out. However, we did have 2 ft of coal dust, and my mother used to try to keep the fire going with it. She was always worried that we would run out of coal dust before the winter finished. We used to keep our coats on in the house, and ice used to form on the inside of the windows. In the end, our problem was solved for us: the bailiffs turned up and chucked us out, so we went into social housing—a smaller house that, thankfully, had a better heating system. The issue of children in fuel poverty is one that I feel very strongly about.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) pointed out, this debate is about not just fuel poverty, but what we are going to do about it. It is not an issue on which it is of any assistance to any of my constituents for us simply to grandstand. We need to know what it is that we can actually do, and we need to be involved in real politics to make real change for people and to ask what the best ways are of tackling fuel poverty.

The common way of approaching the problem is to think of the three forces that drive it: low incomes, high prices and poor energy efficiency. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) talked about social housing as a possible solution to the problem in itself, but I am afraid that my experience shows that that is not necessarily the case. A couple of women came to see me who are in social housing in 67 Graham street—in new build built by the Notting Hill Housing Trust. I wrote to the trust asking why they had such huge bills, and was told that the properties passed the decent homes test and other tests relating to the thermal comfort criteria within the decent homes standard.

Nevertheless, the women came to speak to me about their huge bills and those of their neighbours. For example, a woman in a one-bedroomed flat is paying £40 a week for her heating. Another woman in a four-bedroomed flat is paying £50 a week for her heating. She says that she has turned off her heating, yet her weekly electricity bill is still £50. People in those flats are switching off their heating so that they are able to pay their electricity bills. The problem with the heating in those flats is that they have what is called a ceiling heater. The heat hits the top of the flats but does not percolate down to the people at the bottom.

That means that people in that block have bills of, for example, £40 a week, or £50 a week not including the heating. One resident pays £40 to £50 a week and says:

Another, who has a bill of £25 a week for a one-bedroomed flat, says

Another resident pays £50 a week and says that that does not include heating. In another flat in the same block, the resident pays £40 a week and comments:

In a one-bedroomed flat where only one heater is on at a time, the weekly electricity bill is £55 a week. In other one-bedroomed flats, people are paying £25 or £30 a week for electricity but, again, that does not include heating. It seems that despite the snow and the temperatures over the past winter, people in an entire block have not been switching on their heating, yet they continue to get huge bills.

I wholeheartedly support the Bill’s definition of fuel poverty, which is:

The people in the new build social housing that I have described must spend a great deal more than that, which tends to show that the problem is more complex.

Simon Hughes: To clarify the point that I made earlier, I was extolling the virtues of council housing, rather than social housing—that is, housing associations—which often does not achieve the good standards that good council housing has achieved.

Emily Thornberry: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Let me refer him to the case of another individual who contacted me. He is a leaseholder, and I know that the issue is close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart. That gentleman bought his council accommodation believing that that was the best thing to do in the 1980s and thought that it would be a way of investing for the future.

The decent homes standard and its implementation is one of the great achievements of this Government and one that I support wholeheartedly, but what disturbs me hugely is that when residents of a block are told that it is to be put into the decent home standard, it is a matter of dread for a substantial minority living in that block because they are so worried about the major works bills.

The gentleman contacted me to make it clear that he could not afford to pay the bills that the council had sent out for doing up the block, and went into some detail about the costs that he had to meet in order to survive. The paragraph relevant to today’s debate is this:

People have bought their council flats but cannot afford to meet the cost of a major works programme. On top of that, their heating costs too much—much more than it ought to, and much more than their incomes. That is why, for all of us, particularly for those of us who represent poor and deprived communities, it is such a major issue. We are extremely concerned about what will happen. With climate change and the unpredictability of the weather, constituencies such as mine in the south of England will be hit by colder weather than we have ever experienced before.

We have to ensure that our homes are sound and warm, and that we address the problem of fuel poverty. The question is whether this private Member’s Bill is a practical way to address that problem. I have a number of concerns about the Bill. I have been able to hear some of the debate, and I found it informative. I am concerned about some of the questions raised this morning, but I welcome the fact that the Government are reviewing the issue of fuel poverty and I will look to see what they can do to ensure that we address the problem properly. The ladies from 67 Graham street, the leaseholder whom I mentioned and the woman who came to see me in my surgery today all depend on the Government to address the problem properly and find a solution. I suspect, however, that the solution cannot be found in the Bill.

1.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Joan Ruddock): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who made some telling points in an excellent speech. She always has her constituents’ welfare very much at heart, and I appreciate her coming here following her surgery today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on his perseverance, on his success in gaining a place in the ballot and on how he has presented his Bill. I am grateful to him for acknowledging the work being done by the Government and for allowing us to have this important debate.

I have always valued private Members’ Bills, not least because I have successfully piloted two such Bills of my own, under Conservative and Labour Governments. I also pay tribute to Ron Bailey, with whom I worked closely on my Bills, although he has not been so engaged with us on this one. Both my Bills were environmental Bills and both presented the Governments with challenges. But the secret of a private Member’s Bill’s success is the choice of something additional to what the Government are already doing and something that can be complementary to an established policy direction.

Unhappily, this Bill is designed in such a way as to cut across everything that the Government have been doing on fuel poverty and, even more importantly, across the detailed work being done on the strategy in the light of changing circumstances. It also cuts across the consultations already in the public domain on future Government policies on heat saving and energy saving in this country.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome suggested that what he was presenting was compatible with our plans, but I am sorry to say that it is certainly not. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) suggested that the Bill was just aspirational or permissive. It is neither.

Mr. Heath: This is a crucial part of the argument between us. The Minister says that the Bill is incompatible with her plans. I should like her to say why. Presumably, she intends to have a strategy at some point. If so, will she tell me the time scale that she envisages for getting it in place, so that I can amend my Bill to make it compatible with her plans? As I have said all along, I am keen to work with the Government on this issue, not against them.

Joan Ruddock: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s willingness to work with the Government. Unfortunately, I think that he has been poorly advised. As I will go on to say, the point central to his Bill and how it is framed, as he acknowledged today, is that there is an absolute duty. The other issues are to do with the consultations being conducted, which cannot be prejudged in respect of our adopting a new and different fuel poverty strategy from that which exists under current legislation.

Fuel poverty and energy efficiency are huge and complex subjects of which we now have considerable experience. When I became a Minister at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, I was delighted to have the portfolio because it is an important part of the Government’s progressive agenda for people and the environment. It quickly became apparent that the huge rises in fuel prices had driven the achieving of our targets off course.

I share the concern of all those both inside and outside the House for people whose lives are blighted by living in the cold. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said so passionately in his opening remarks, it cannot be right. I share the genuine sentiments expressed by Members on both Opposition Benches and I thank them for their compliments. It is because we are deeply concerned that we have had, and continue to have, a raft of measures in place and have increased funding in the current spending round.

Understandably, however, non-governmental organisations with an interest in the field have spoken up on behalf of their constituents. That is their job and we respect them for it, but the Government have to take decisions for the whole country and the whole economy. That is why when the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 came into force, it set targets that the Government had to reach

That is all any Government could commit to do in primary legislation.

The Bill would remove that consideration from the duty on Government and I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) for so clearly setting out why the Bill would not work. Under existing legislation, a person is defined as living in fuel poverty if they are a member of a household living on a lower income and in a home that cannot be kept warm at reasonable cost. The Government’s fuel poverty strategy sets out that being fuel poor means spending more than 10 per cent. of income on fuel to maintain a satisfactory heating regime, generally defined as 21° C in the living room and 18° C in the bedroom.

Fuel poverty is not just about income, however; it is a complex interaction between fuel costs, household income and household energy efficiency. All three factors are variable, in that households can go into and out of fuel poverty, as the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) effectively outlined in his speech. A person on a low income with an unclaimed benefit entitlement can be taken out of fuel poverty simply by making a successful claim and, as he suggested, a person who is not in fuel poverty could become so on the loss of their job.

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