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As I am sure many people know, the scheme is currently experiencing very high levels of demand, and managing that demand within the resources available has necessitated an extension of the time in which measures can be taken. Insulation work may take up to three months to complete, and Warm Front customers who are eligible for a new or replacement heating system may have to wait up to six months for it to be installed. In recognition of the pressure on the scheme, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in his pre-Budget
report an additional £150 million for Warm Front in the current spending round. I realise that the potential waiting times may seem significant, but Warm Front is not intended to be, and cannot act as, an emergency service.
I cannot deny that the customer's experience is not always as good as we would like it to be. We, and Eaga in its role as scheme manager, continue to focus on that as a priority for action. We have made significant progress over the past few years. In 2008-09, 0.63 per cent. of complaints about Warm Front's work for assisted households were upheld. According to a recent report on the scheme by our independent auditors, WYG, customer satisfaction remains high, and 90 per cent. of all those surveyed were satisfied with the work that had been done.
Mr. Benyon: I apologise for interrupting the Minister, who is giving a great deal of important information about the scheme, but I do not want to let him sit down without referring to the specific case of Mr. Smith. I apologise again if he is about to deal with it, but can he assure me that he will address himself to the points that I have raised?
Mr. Kidney: I believe that there is plenty of time left for me to deal with Mr. Smith's case, and I intend to do so. However, I think it important to record the successes of Warm Front and the scale of the enterprise, and to explain the reasons for the procedures and processes that the hon. Gentleman has railed against.
I welcome the results of the WYG report and the National Audit Office report last year, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded when he mentioned the Public Accounts Committee, and which found the scheme to be largely effective and to deliver value for money. One of the NAO recommendations was to seek alternative technologies under the scheme. I welcomed that recommendation at the time, and have acted on it since. For example, we recently undertook trials on solar thermal systems, and are currently looking at air-source heat pumps and solid wall insulation.
In 2009, we trialled solar thermal systems on 125 homes. Unfortunately, we found that the systems do not generally reduce heating costs and therefore have little impact on helping to tackle fuel poverty. In rural properties off the gas grid, we are now undertaking a small-scale trial of air-source heat pumps. We are also trialling solid wall insulation on a 100 park homes in eight different locations. An evaluation of each of these technologies is planned for this summer. I hope both technologies will be a success in helping Warm Front customers.
The hon. Gentleman has previously raised the possibility of making retrospective payments to customers who have been awarded a Warm Front grant and who then arranged to have the work done privately. It is very important to me that customers receive a high standard of work at a competitive price. For that reason, we have in place an established procedure for the appointment of installers to work on the scheme and for the allocation of work.
The NAO report found the measures provided by the scheme to be competitively priced. However, we are making more changes to the way in which work is allocated to the scheme in order to be even more competitive.
Under the new arrangements, which are now being rolled out across England, up to 35 per cent. of work will be allocated to appointed installers at a new, competitively derived, set price. For the remaining 65 per cent. of work, Warm Front-registered installers operating in each region will be able to bid via an electronic auction to establish the lowest price. That will help to ensure the continued focus on maintaining a competitive pricing structure. It will also provide customers with a choice when a contribution is required. Individual households will be free to choose between the three lowest bidders and will have access to the installer's performance rating, which will be measured through Eaga audits.
We have also recently introduced computer-aided design surveys that are done at the customer's home and immediately show where any heating and insulation measures will be placed. Engineers have been trained to use this new technology, which enables a quicker, more thorough survey process and reduces any misunderstandings the customer may have about recommended measures.
In using these processes, we honour our commitment to making sure customers receive high-quality installations that are competitively priced. We also honour our commitment to allocating work through the scheme to registered installers, while providing an element of choice for those who are being asked to make a contribution.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern with regard to the scheme being less flexible than he might wish for some customers. However, we must have safeguards in place to ensure the best outcomes for all. That is why we cannot fund work that has not been undertaken as part of the scheme.
I heard the hon. Gentleman raise concerns about workmanship in respect of the installation of Warm Front measures, and there has recently been some press coverage on the matter. The reality is that installing a heating system is often a complex and disruptive process. Just because Warm Front is a Government-funded scheme does not mean it is immune from these difficulties, and there will inevitably be isolated cases where the installation goes wrong. We cannot, however, let the existence of these isolated cases paint a misleading picture of the standard throughout the scheme. Warm Front performs an independent inspection of every central heating measure installed to ensure the work has been completed to a high standard. It also provides two years of emergency breakdown service and two annual service visits for gas installations. The Warm Front scheme manager operates an installer rating system which ranks the performance of contractors against criteria such as the inspection pass rate, complaint levels and waiting times. This system is then used to determine the levels of work allocated to each installer, with jobs diverted to the high performers. This system places continual pressure on installers to drive performance higher and ensure clients receive an excellent standard of service. I hope this provides some perspective in respect of the overall high standard of service that Warm Front delivers and is committed to maintaining.
I come now to the case of the hon. Gentleman's constituent, Mr. Smith. I am satisfied from my study of it that the appropriate advice and procedures have been followed when dealing with that application. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that I have written to him in the past, and I wish to confirm to him that I studied the file
and read the papers from Eaga about the case before replying to him. I would not want him to think that my response was in any sense dismissive of the case he made. I have listened to the greater detail that he has described in tonight's debate and, without giving any commitment to changing past decisions, I assure him that I will return to the office, study the record of this debate, look again at the file and speak to him again.
As I have outlined, we cannot make payments for work carried out outside the scheme, because we need to protect both the customer and the scheme. I wish to end by re-emphasising the vast positive impact that the Warm Front scheme is having on the lives of millions of households across the country. The scheme is recording the highest levels of demand we have ever seen; during the severe weather in January, the scheme manager received the highest number of inquiries ever in one week-50,000. That is 50 per cent. more than is normal for this time of year.
The vast majority of recipients are delighted with the service provided from the point of contact to the follow-up check after installation. It is difficult to overstate the difference a well-heated, well-insulated property can make to the health, financial security and well-being of a household. There will be instances when complications occur, and we will continue to work with Eaga to ensure that standards are pushed even higher. However, across the Warm Front scheme a high quality, value-for-money service is being delivered, which is helping people to keep warm in their homes. I am proud of what the scheme has achieved, and I look forward to it continuing to help many more of our most vulnerable citizens in the time ahead.