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1 Mar 2010 : Column 771

Business without Debate

delegated legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Income Tax

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),


Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Social Security

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No.145),

Question agreed to.


Bellamy's Bar Closure

10.18 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): This petition, the first to be presented under the new procedure, was organised by Cassian Horowitz and is supported by some 470 staff working in the House of Commons. The large number of signatures was collected over just two working days, and that demonstrates the depth of concern about the proposals. It is a great honour to present the petition on behalf of these members of staff and perhaps others, who may have felt intimidated into not signing
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the petition when given the opportunity to do so. That was the subject of a point of order that I raised earlier today.

The petition states:


Extra Gritting (NHS Savings)

10.20 pm

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): It is also my pleasure, on this first evening of the new, improved procedures for the presentation of petitions, to present a petition initiated initially by me, but supported very much by the Spring Park residents association, under the strong leadership of its secretary, Marzia Nicodemi-Ehikioya. The petition concerns the important matter of how the national health service and local councils could work together to address the issue of expenditure arising from injuries from falling on ice on uncleared pavements, which leads to a great deal more expense for the NHS than is necessary and to a great deal of upset, concern and injury-and, for senior citizens who fall on the ice, sometimes life-changing injuries.

The petition reads as follows:


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Warm Front (Mr. D. R. Smith)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Mr. Mudie.)

10.23 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I welcome the Minister to the Treasury Bench to discuss an important matter concerning the Warm Front scheme. The idea behind Warm Front deserves nothing but praise. The scheme was introduced for the best of reasons, but too often it is failing in terms of how it is delivered. Like many hon. Members, I have received a number of complaints about how Warm Front, which involves loft insulation, cavity wall insulation, replacement boilers and heating systems, is implemented. There is a recurring theme of poor communication, broken appointments, missing paperwork, overpricing, offers being withdrawn at the last minute because funds are no longer available, and bad workmanship, the latter having resulted in two cases being brought to my attention by constituents forced to evacuate their homes, as they were uninhabitable. The Public Accounts Committee recognised the problem last July, when it identified the many failings in the scheme, and other organisations, such as Help the Aged, have been frank in the words that they have used.

The case that I would like to discuss today-the case of my constituent Mr. Dennis Smith-is of particular concern. Mr. Smith lives in a park home in Elm Grove in the town of Thatcham. He is an elderly and very vulnerable gentleman, but someone who strives to maintain his independence. He suffers from Parkinson's disease and associated problems. In short, he is an example of the very sort of person whom the scheme set out to help.

Mr. Smith attended one of my surgeries in November 2008 and told me that he had applied for, and been allocated, a Warm Front grant to cover the installation of a new boiler in his property. Unfortunately, he had inadvertently failed to follow the strict-and, I have to say, complicated-procedures to the satisfaction of Eaga, the company tasked by the Government to administer the scheme. This action resulted in the company's refusal to honour Mr. Smith's grant, after he had borrowed the £2,800 necessary to pay the installation engineers. Since then I have written some 20 letters and e-mails to Warm Front, to Eaga, to the Department of Energy and Climate Change and to the Minister, in an effort to get someone to examine his case with compassion, to apply some discretion and to give Mr. Smith the support that the scheme should offer.

Quality Heating Services-a Warm Front-appointed installer-undertook a technical survey of Mr. Smith's home, which was completed on 16 November 2007. The company informed Mr. Smith that the existing one-pipe heating system was unsuitable and needed to be converted to a two-pipe system, which would be external to the building. This was in spite of the fact that all park homes on the site, including the new ones, have one-pipe systems, and that the two-pipe systems are appropriate to bricks-and-mortar buildings, and not to park homes. Furthermore, the site manager was not happy with the proposal for the additional exterior pipework, and queried the need for it.

However, the installation was to go ahead, but when the three engineers arrived to carry out the work and saw the assessor's plan, they did not agree that it was
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suitable, and after a disagreement with the assessor on the telephone, they left. A few days later the assessor returned, collected the materials and the boiler, and told Mr. Smith to contact Eaga and ask for a different assessor to come out and look at the proposal.

Mr. Smith raised his concerns with Warm Front, and it was agreed that an alternative installer would be appointed to establish whether a different system type or configuration could be identified. The one-pipe or two-pipe system was not an issue for Eaga, but there was a problem concerning the layout and specification of the improvements. Mr. Smith is adamant that at no stage in the process did he dismiss the company, and had merely stated that he needed a minor change to the proposed specification.

On 27 February 2008 a telephone conversation took place between Mr. Smith and Alan Symes of Eaga, during which Mr. Smith expressed his concern that the work proposed was not what he had originally been led to believe. Following this conversation, Alan Symes contacted Eaga heating services and cancelled the work. This was confirmed in an e-mail, which I have seen. Eaga asserts that Mr. Smith cancelled the work during this conversation, but although it states that its telephone calls are recorded, the company has been unable to provide any evidence to back up this assertion. In the absence of proof to the contrary, I believe that we have to accept Mr. Smith's word that he did not cancel the work.

As a result of extreme confusion and frustration with the Warm Front system, and of the inadequate advice given, Mr. Smith instructed another firm to carry out the work in April 2008, in the full and certain knowledge that he had been awarded the grant. Apparently, that firm-Ultimate-was carrying out work on a neighbouring park home, and Mr. Smith was informed that that too was being done under the Warm Front scheme.

Unfortunately, it later transpired that the firm had not been appointed by Eaga, and Mr. Smith was subsequently informed that because he had had the work carried out privately, his outlay of £2,800 would not be reimbursed. Mr. Smith had borrowed that sum of money specifically to pay Ultimate's bill, under the mistaken impression that it was his responsibility initially to pay the installers, and he would be reimbursed by Warm Front. The work was carried out almost two years ago, and Mr. Smith is now in a position of extreme financial hardship as a consequence of Eaga's inability or unwillingness to resolve this matter.

In a letter to Mr. Smith dated 2 June 2009, Janelle Xavier of the customer contact unit at the Minister's Department stated:


which it does,

Ms Xavier goes on to say that she understands why Mr. Smith took the decision to appoint Ultimate, but that Eaga plc, the scheme manager,

I believe that Mr. Smith's case demonstrates such extenuating circumstances.

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I first wrote to Eaga on Mr. Smith's behalf on 15 December 2008 and received an unsympathetic response from a Mr. Redmayne, dated 27 January 2009. Although Mr. Smith admits that he inadvertently did not do things in the way prescribed by Eaga, this does not detract from the fact that he had already been awarded the grant. I cannot believe that no one has the ability, common sense or just plain compassion to use a little discretion in this particular circumstance. Mr. Smith is typical of the kind of person this scheme was set up to help, but unfortunately for him-he has this in common with a number of my other constituents-it is causing stress and aggravation, and is not achieving what it was intended to do.

Eaga relies on two points in its refusal to honour Mr. Smith's grant. First, it asserts that Mr. Smith himself cancelled the work, in February 2008. Mr. Smith vehemently denies this, and Eaga is unable to produce any transcript of the alleged telephone conversation in this regard-despite confirming that its telephone calls are recorded. Any sense of justice suggests that we have to rule out that assertion.

Secondly, Eaga asserts that Mr. Smith was applying for a grant retrospectively. This is just plain wrong, as it has never been disputed that Mr. Smith's application was approved before any engineers were instructed to visit the property. In fact, Eaga instructed the first contractors, but the work could not go ahead as the system planned was suitable only for a brick dwelling. As I said earlier, Mr. Smith's residence is a park home, which required an alternative method of installation.

Mr. Smith has co-operated with Eaga at every turn in supplying evidence and answering questions. He has written to a total of 10 different people, reiterating the same information time and time again. He has supplied full details of the installation finally carried out by an appropriately qualified engineer, together with a copy of the building regulations compliance certificate and confirmation that the local authority building control department has evidence of this work. The work is also covered by the CORGI workmanship warranty scheme for a period of six years from the date of installation. Eaga has not indicated that there is any problem with the work done. In fact, the installers meet the criteria laid down in Warm Front's own brochure.

It is cruel, and just wrong, to use the understandable confusion of an elderly gentleman to avoid paying a grant that was previously agreed. Furthermore, it has been reiterated in several letters that the money is still available to Mr. Smith at such time as he needs further assistance from Warm Front. Given that Warm Front's stance is that he is applying for a grant retrospectively, which it will not pay, it would seem that it is suggesting that he has his new heating system removed and reinstalled by a designated engineer, at which time they will pay up the grant that was agreed some two or three years ago. That is madness; it amounts to nothing more than a taunt.

You can detect in my delivery, Mr. Speaker, that I am intensely frustrated in dealing with this particular issue. Other people in my office have been dealing with it-seemingly day in, day out. At the end of it, we just have to consider that there is a vulnerable sick person who needs a bit of common sense to be exercised to sort the problem out. That is why I am asking the Minister to intervene.

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This is a case where process has become the master, while compassion, flexibility and understanding have been forgotten. The Government should be proud of the Warm Front scheme, but Eaga and others involved in its implementation are letting them down. More importantly, Eaga is letting down precisely the kind of vulnerable people whom the Government seek to help. The Minister can intervene; he has the authority; it is taxpayers' money. I look to him now to rectify this wrong.

10.35 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr. David Kidney): I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) on securing the debate, standing up so strongly for his constituent, Mr. Smith, and examining the record of the Warm Front scheme. I share his view that this hugely important scheme should bring maximum benefit to vulnerable households that would otherwise struggle to heat their homes.

Warm Front is the Government's flagship scheme when it comes to tackling fuel poverty. It has assisted more than 2 million vulnerable households across England since its inception in June 2000, including half a million households in the last two years alone. On average, each household receiving Warm Front assistance has the potential to save more than £300 a year on energy bills. That is a huge achievement, and we must not lose sight of it.

Every Warm Front applicant is offered a free and confidential benefit entitlement check. During 2008-09 just over 78,000 benefit entitlement checks were completed, 45 per cent. of which resulted in householders' entitlement to a new or additional benefit. That meant an average weekly increase of £31 in household income. Since the scheme began in 2000, 843 households in the Newbury constituency have benefited from a main heating or insulation measure.

Warm Front helps to mitigate the risk that households will be unable to keep warm at an affordable cost. A vital part of my Department's work is helping those vulnerable households to improve their quality of life, and helping to promote their health and well-being. The challenge involved in delivering such huge numbers of measures for vulnerable households should not be underestimated. The popularity of the scheme, and the fact that we are engaging with some of the most vulnerable members of society, mean that processes and procedures need to be followed to ensure a high standard of work and to provide the best possible outcomes for the customer and the scheme. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the appropriate mechanisms are in place to ensure that Warm Front delivers a high-quality service to those who come to us for assistance.

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