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3 Mar 2010 : Column 271WH—continued

10.44 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr. David Kidney): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing an important debate on a important subject, and on his thoughtful, constructive approach to it, which was in stark contrast to that of the previous speaker, who turned it into a party political argument.

In respect of the point made by the right hon. Member for Gordon partway through his speech-that real people really die in the cold of winter if we do not get this right-eradicating fuel poverty is an important challenge to Government. That is my responsibility in this Government and I take it seriously.

I prepared what I think is a brilliant speech to respond to the debate, but I did so before I heard hon. and right hon. Members speak. It would be a much more constructive use of my time, certainly to begin with, to try to answer the points that were raised, so that is what I intend to do.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the trend in fuel poverty. Back in 1996, 6.5 million households were in fuel poverty. By 2003, partly because of benign global prices, partly because of the system of regulation of energy companies and partly because of the first successes of some schemes that I may have time to mention later, that figure decreased to 1.5 million, which
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is a huge change. Then came four years of incredibly high price rises. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) mentioned that huge growth in prices in quite a short time. However, no hon. or right hon. Member has said that there was something that the British Government could do about worldwide oil prices and their knock-on effects on energy prices around the world, but clearly that blew us off course in eradicating fuel poverty in this country.

The result of all that is that the 2007 figures-frustratingly, for me, those are the latest official statistics-based on all the information having been collected and assessed, show that 4 million households in the United Kingdom are in fuel poverty. Doubtless, prices continued to rise after 2007 and, although there was a fall-off more recently, which I might mention in a while, the figure is probably higher, not lower, as we speak. I take seriously my responsibility for trying to get that figure down again, rather than have it go up, despite what happens to global prices.

I acknowledge what the right hon. Gentleman said at the outset about certain properties. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) also mentioned what happens when we have taken all the quick wins and insulated all the lofts and cavity walls. That has been done to great effect over the past 12 years-perhaps I will be able to provide some statistics later-and by 2015 we aim to insulate every loft and cavity wall that can be filled, provided that the owners and occupiers of properties permit the work to be done.

When all those easy wins have been achieved, we are left with the harder-to-treat properties, many of which, as the right hon. Member for Gordon said, have solid walls with no cavity. It is incumbent on us to find the solutions to deliver sufficient energy efficiency measures to those properties to bring them up to a good standard of energy efficiency.

In the past, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the answer has been a fairly cumbersome system, usually external wall cladding, which sometimes, although I should stress not always, leaves quite a visual impression on a property that most people do not like. Developers have been working hard on modern forms of external cladding that are much easier on the eye and, crucially, on clever technologies and innovations in technology for internal-wall cavities that can be created with a modest loss of space inside the property, which is key to consumer acceptance of the technology. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has visited BRE's research centre at Watford, as I have, and seen some of the work that is going on to develop such technologies, but that work is in hand.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Government's strategy that was launched yesterday. When I say "HEM" from now on, that stands for the household energy management strategy. He is right to ask for all the details of that strategy and when it will take effect. The point about the strategy-given sufficient time, I will mention the works that we are doing up to 2012-is that it is our view of what happens from 2012 to 2020 to improve properties, especially those that have so far been regarded as hard to treat.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about local authorities working independently and not being co-ordinated or given the tools to do the job. HEM gives local authorities a central role in co-ordinating our activities to tackle
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fuel poverty and make properties more energy efficient. He referred to a woman who said that what she really needed was accurate advice from someone. HEM provides the solution of a new cadre of certified and well-trained advisers who can provide independent advice on all the options.

In the meantime, I do not want to diminish in any way the excellent advice given by the Energy Saving Trust, which is funded by my Department and provides a national system of call centres to provide advice. On the internet, through our branded website, actonco2, people have access to accurate and independent advice from the Energy Saving Trust.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about watching out for cowboys, whether installers or those who offer products, and it was suggested that there should be a reliable system of certification. In the HEM strategy, we discuss how we intend to provide a reliable system of certification. I hope that he can see how the strategy in each area will be valuable, although I acknowledge that, as he said, it will come into effect in coming years and is not in effect today.

The right hon. Gentleman made an important sally on the significant issue of properties that are off the mains gas grid, most but not all of which are in rural locations. I shall start with his request for statistics. He said that 1 million properties in Scotland are off the gas grid. If so, my figures are not sufficiently accurate, so I must be careful. According to my statistics, in 2007 in Scotland, 278,000 properties were off the mains gas grid, which is 12 per cent. of the total. In the same year in England, 2.6 million were off the grid, representing 13 per cent. of the whole. In Wales, 230,000 were off the grid, which is 19 per cent. of the total.

The picture in Northern Ireland is very different. There is effectively no mains gas grid, and 621,000 properties are off the grid, which is 88 per cent. of the total. I hope that those statistics are helpful in showing the scale.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what we are doing to help people who are off the mains gas grid to keep the cost of keeping their homes adequately warm at a reasonable level. I mentioned the drive by the regulator, Ofgem, to incentivise the energy companies to extend the mains grid to 20,000 more households that are in fuel poverty during the current five-year price control round. That is one measure.

Under schemes such as CERT-the carbon emissions reduction target, which is the obligation on energy companies to deliver energy efficiency measures-there is no reason why properties off the mains gas grid should not be helped, but I take to heart the point made by the right hon. Gentleman that the Government should direct energy companies to do more work in such areas, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said, they too, driven by volume targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, have taken the easy wins, which are often in concentrated areas such as urban areas. Perhaps they have not given the necessary attention to that in the past. Under HEM, as we continue the obligation on energy companies, we intend to take more power to give directions on the sort of work that we want done.

As an example of how we are already flexing our muscles, we recently consulted on extending CERT from 2011 to the end of 2012. In the consultation, we
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asked for people's views on directing the energy companies to do more of their work as energy efficiency measures-no more free light bulbs posted to people's homes-and to aim more of its work at a super-priority group, which we intend to define as those most in danger of being in fuel poverty to have more work done to their properties under CERT. That is an example of the more activist approach that the right hon. Gentleman urges on me.

Very recently, in September, we launched CESP, the community energy saving programme, which is the next step on from CERT and our publicly funded programme, Warm Front. Under CESP, we ask energy companies, local authorities and community groups to form local partnerships and go house by house, street by street, to improve the energy efficiency of every property, whether hard to treat or not. CESP has been a good forerunner of what we expect the landscape across all those schemes to look like post-2012.

Two of the first schemes announced by British Gas were in Glasgow and Dundee in Scotland, but they are urbanised areas. My ambition, as a Minister with a keen interest in rural communities, is to see some CESPs formed in rural areas. There is no reason why they should not be, if energy companies and local authorities form partnerships in such parts of the country.

I urge right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate to go back to their local authorities and to use their contacts with energy companies to ask why there is no CESP in their area. That is another example of what we can do for such areas.

The feed-in tariffs that will start in April are an incentive for people in rural areas to consider microgeneration as a source of energy, and now as a source of income as well. In 2011, there will be a renewable heat incentive, which will be hugely significant, especially in rural areas and for people off the mains gas grid to take their energy from renewable sources of heat, and to receive a reward from the Government for doing so. That is a strong message to people, as is that about microgeneration.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what efforts are being made to promote microgeneration. This Government had the first ever microgeneration strategy in 2006. We are renewing and refreshing it to deliver an up-to-date microgeneration strategy. There is a certification scheme for the goods and services under microgeneration, and grants are available for people under the low-carbon buildings programme to fit some forms of microgeneration to their properties. There are already encouragements for microgeneration.

Danny Alexander: Will the Minister explain briefly how the Government intend to fund the renewable heat incentive?

Mr. Kidney: The clock is against me and I have much more to say, including my answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about the renewable heat incentive. I do not have an answer today, but there will shortly be an answer in the Budget, so I ask him to be patient.

Malcolm Bruce: First, will the Minister answer my question about the range of products available under the microgeneration certification scheme? My point was that they are more expensive. Secondly, will there be some sort of retrospective allowance for people who have already invested in microgeneration to benefit from feed-in tariffs?

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Mr. Kidney: I will deal with those points. On the range of products, when we go from no certification to certification-there is already a certification scheme for microgeneration-it takes time to build up sufficient products and sufficient people with the skills to carry out the installations, but we are determined to drive that forward. On a different point, the right hon. Gentleman said how important it is that there are certification schemes to avoid the cowboy scenario. We need to do the work, and I am keen to do so.

I had not quite finished explaining what we want to do to help people who are off the grid. The social price support, about which several Members spoke approvingly, means that there would be money off the bills of fuel-poor households for their electricity. Generally speaking, people have an electricity supply wherever they live, so off-mains gas grid customers will have the benefit of social price support if they are in danger of fuel poverty.

For those who must pay for heating oil or liquefied petroleum gas and have difficulty with the up-front cost of bulk buying, National Energy Action is carrying out work at the request of the Department of Energy and Climate Change to see whether there are ways-for example, through credit unions-to help people with up-front costs. That could be a significant development.

On feed-in tariffs, our judgment is that people who decided to fit renewable energy sources before we announced the scheme based their decision on the scene as it was at the time. They may have received a grant from the low-carbon buildings programme, but they did their own calculation, so we do not feel too guilty about the fact that the system is to drive more investment in future, not to reach back to reward those who based their judgment on the situation at that time.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the location of weather stations and cold weather payments. The Department for Work and Pensions reviews the locations every year and takes into account the representations made by hon. Members and the public. I remember statements by that Department of changes that it had made in response to representations. I urge right hon. and hon. Members to make their representations.

I have so much more to say just in reply to right hon. and hon. Members' questions, but on the issue of confusion, no one has mentioned Consumer Focus, the consumers' champion. I am keen to support it so that everyone talks about its role-its help is very significant.

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Isle of Wight NHS Primary Care Trust

11 am

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am grateful to have secured this debate on the Isle of Wight NHS primary care trust and its regulatory burden, and I welcome the Minister who is going to respond.

As hon. Members are aware, nationally set targets and inspections are seen by the Government as the best way of ensuring high-quality patient care in a primary care trust. Too often, however, such targets are counter-productive; visits by patients to hospitals and doctors are important, not visits by inspectors. Targets are regarded as a burden to be shouldered rather than a catalyst for best practice, and national priorities get in the way of effectively responding to local needs.

The NHS is a national organisation, but health care is delivered locally whether in the surgery around the corner, the hospital in the larger town or the ambulance anywhere, any time. The population of the Isle of Wight is in excess of 130,000 people, and less than half that number would usually support a district general hospital. Let me be clear: there are no road or rail links to the mainland. Patients transferring off the island are dependent on the weather, so St. Mary's hospital in Newport is essential. When health care in the south-east was reviewed four years ago, it was recognised that the island's health service needed to be organised in a different way. Established in October 2006, the Isle of Wight NHS primary care trust is a single organisation that combines the commissioning function and the provider function for all health care on the island. That is unique in the NHS in England.

On the mainland, ambulance, hospital, mental health, community, learning, disability and primary care services are the responsibility of separate trusts. On the island, however, they all fall under the remit of the Isle of Wight NHS PCT. For patients, the merits of such a unitary approach are borne out by the evidence, which suggests that fewer patients are referred to secondary care on the island and that more patients return to their homes following hospital discharge. Care for those with long-term conditions is of a very high standard.

In a recent survey, 82 per cent. of islanders said that they were satisfied with the local NHS; 90 per cent. were satisfied with the local ambulance service; and 92 per cent. were happy with their GP. Indeed, in the Care Quality Commission's 2009 annual health check, the Isle of Wight was one of only three PCTs in the country to receive an "excellent" quality rating.

I can speak personally about the outstanding quality of care because in 2006 I suffered a stroke. My recovery-and the fact that I am standing here today-is testament to the hard-working doctors and nurses on the island, and I would like to pay tribute to the dedication of all health care professionals on the Isle of Wight. Without them, our unique system of health care would not be possible.

Through working in partnerships, the PCT delivers a comprehensive and cost-efficient service, but its unique nature has not been recognised in the national inspection regime. We have a single Isle of Wight NHS organisation that should be recognised with a unified set of inspections and targets. Instead, however, each part of the whole is held to account as though it were autonomous, and is
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monitored separately. Although that may be right for other places, such an approach is not valid on the island and leads to an unhealthy level of targets and inspections being imposed on a single health authority. That disproportionate regulatory burden threatens to undermine the benefits of a joined-up approach.

The island's PCT receives up to 70 external visits from 20 different regulators or monitoring bodies. No other PCT or trust is subject to such intervention. Furthermore, for 2010 and beyond, the Care Quality Commission has proposed 13 special reviews for NHS trusts, and it is likely that all of those will apply to the Isle of Wight's PCT. It could get to the point where it becomes necessary to employ people full time simply to satisfy the demands of bureaucracy. That represents money that could be better spent on the front line.

In his response, will the Minister tell me why such a level of visits is necessary, and why they cannot be more effectively co-ordinated? Nationally, each individual trust is subject to separate targets. For example, acute trusts currently have 10 existing and 14 new national priority targets to reach. Mental health trusts have 12 national priority targets while learning disability trusts have five. Ambulance trusts have four existing and six new national priority targets, while primary care trusts have 14 existing and 24 new national priority targets to meet.

Although I do not agree with such numbers, for the sake of argument I accept that such a division of targets is necessary on the mainland. However, on the island it means that our single PCT has 28 existing and 61 new targets to achieve-89 in total. Such a high number does not apply to any other trust or PCT, and such excessive national targets simply do not correspond in the case of the Isle of Wight. Will the Minister indicate whether such a level of targets is necessary for an organisation that exists outside the organisational norm?

More generally, I question whether such a level of targets really caters for the best interests of patients. We need only look at the tragedy in Staffordshire, where managers were motivated more by central targets than by patients who needed treatment. The Government must ensure that targets help to provide for patients' needs rather than taking money away from front-line care.

On the Isle of Wight, the burden of regulation not only places demands on the time of professionals that could be better spent treating people, but imposes a heavy financial burden. I am told that all NHS trusts and service providers will have to register services with the CQC by October this year. For the Isle of Wight PCT, that means 18 different service types across 12 different locations. Such a level of bureaucracy for a single organisation is bad enough, but from 1 April 2011, an annual registration fee will be required for each service provider. The Isle of Wight PCT is an amalgamation of many local providers, and such fees could therefore have acute financial consequences. Will the Minister give me an assurance that when the new fees system is put into practice, he will look carefully at the fees that the Isle of Wight PCT will have to pay?

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