Energy Bill [Lords]
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Alison Groves, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Written evidence to be reported to the House
‘and that the recommendations have been made without bias toward, or in promotion of, the products or services of any one green deal provider, and that person has disclosed (in writing and verbally) their connection with any green deal installer or green deal provider to the improver and the bill payer.’.
Good morning to you, Mr Leigh, and to members of the Committee. It is good to be under your stewardship again on this lovely day. We had a good debate in the previous two sittings, and I am sure that we shall have a good debate today. The amendment deals with the assessment of property, and I know that a lot of Members are concerned to ensure that we get this right. We discussed, in the previous sittings, making sure that people have real confidence in the process. Ultimately, it comes down to the moment when someone walks through the door. Householders must have strong trust in that person, because they are entering into a very long-term relationship with the supplier and assessor.
The amendment focuses on disclosure, and clause 4(2) deals with the authorised person. All aspects of the clause try to bolt down certainty with regard to the first visit; the clause states that the person must be authorised, must be well trained and skilled, and must give an estimate of the likely savings resulting from the green deal assessment. They have to give an estimate of the payback period and have to say that the householder can pay by instalments. All those things are good. As we discussed in previous sittings, to avoid what happened elsewhere when versions of the scheme were tried in haste, we need to make sure that the scheme is right.
The amendment focuses on disclosure. That is about knowing that, when the person puts a foot beyond the door, there will be frankness in the dialogue between them and the customer about who they are, who they
The main reason for proposing what would be a welcome change to the Bill is that, under the current measures, if there were not full disclosure of who that person represented, there would be nothing to prevent a green deal assessor from being incentivised by the provider to attract business when making an assessment. We must bear in mind human nature and corporate behaviour; there would be the potential for the assessor to say, “We have some very good solutions for your property under the green deal and, by the way, I have the precise product”, and not suggest a better policy that might do the job better and far more cheaply.
I stress to the Minister that that does not mean that the assessor should not be able to say, “Yes, I am here from a subsidiary of Kingfisher”—or a small independent retailer, B&Q, Tesco, or British Gas Centrica—“and, based on our assessment, we have some good products that will do the thing for you.” However, full disclosure is an imperative. If the measure was a blanket behind which people could hide their true colours, it would be likely to damage consumer confidence and greatly jeopardise the green deal’s chance of success, and we all want it to be a great success.
Understandably, the Minister is very optimistic about the green deal, as we are. We want to ensure that it succeeds. He has talked about it being a game-changer in how we deal with energy efficiency and, to come back to our earlier discussion, how we tackle the low-carbon agenda and fuel poverty, which I am sure we will debate more. It is, however, predicated on confidence in the human interaction that takes place when the assessor comes through the door.
As I understand from the discussions that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, and I have had with the Minister and his officials, the types of businesses interested in taking part in the green deal imply that assessors are likely to fall into at least two categories. First, there might be genuinely independent green deal assessors, who are not tied to any company whatever, but make a living carrying out assessments. In the same way, independent energy performance certificate assessors may act as individuals or as part of an assessment company. Many of us are familiar with that. I have been through the process in my home, and I knew that the
The second type will be far more likely, because the source of the green deal is the idea that we should energise the market to drive take-up, as the Minister has said clearly and repeatedly. We do not disagree with that approach; if it can be made to work, that is fantastic. However, that means that it is far more likely that assessors will be employees of small, medium or large green deal installers. By employees, I do not mean shop workers who are given a little additional training, but properly qualified assessors. As we have discussed, the assessors will have to be trained to the same standard as energy performance certificate assessors, or probably to a higher standard, but they will still be employees of, and have their wages paid by, the green deal provider.
We have to energise the private sector industry, just as we have to acknowledge that providers have a vested interest. Many of them show great corporate responsibility and wish to make the green deal work for several reasons, but they also want to make business out of it. If we do not capitalise on that, there is no way that enough assessors will be trained to meet the Government’s ambition of refitting 14 million homes by 2020. Does the Minister share my view of the types of assessors there will be, and what proportion does he anticipate will be purely and genuinely independent or, in one way or another, tied to a small, medium or large branded company?
Although I accept the need for the scheme to operate successfully, I think that the majority of assessors will be linked to green deal providers. The amendment seeks to provide more confidence that consumers will have complete protection in receiving unbiased assessments and full disclosure, and to avoid any suspicion of mis-selling. If there is not disclosure, the company will be not a gamekeeper turned poacher, but a gamekeeper and a poacher at the same time. Inserting a requirement for disclosure will prevent that happening. As the Bill stands, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which companies incentivise their assessors to push improvement packages containing only, or limited by, their products, and not recommend other, possibly better, solutions that would improve the property’s energy efficiency but are outside their range of products and services.
Such an assessment could in theory lead to the creation of a green deal package that is not accurate, is later found not to meet the golden rule or, just as importantly, undermines the workings of the competitive market that Ministers want, and which they tell us the green deal is predicated on. It might also restrict consumer choice if the full raft of improvements available to the property were not properly disclosed. Alternatively, the assessor should say, “I am from this company, but there are other companies that you could and should go out and look for,” because choice is part and parcel of the measure. I have questions to ask at some point during our discussions about how we ensure that choice is extended to all parts of the country, including remote, rural areas, where the choice of green deal providers might be narrower simply because of the geography.
Without disclosure, the assessor might recommend measures that were best suited not to the tenant, home owner or landlord, but to the product portfolio or the profit margins of a particular business. It might also
Would such a situation worry the Minister? I am sure that he shares my concern to ensure that market growth around the green deal, and the other societal benefits that will come from it, are on a level playing field, so that there is at least an opportunity for many smaller providers to benefit. Disclosure would assist in that, because as people sat in their living rooms with an assessor, they could say, “Thank you, energy provider; I came to you first, but now I’m going to look around at one or two others.” We need disclosure for that to happen. Companies cannot simply say, “Look, you trust us. We’ve been servicing you with your energy bill for the past 10 years and you haven’t bothered switching,”—as many people do not—“so trust us; we’re the biggest player around. Stick with us.” That company may be the best, but it must say, “We are linked, and our advice is based on what we’re offering within our products and services—you should go out and look at some others. Let’s make that clear.”
The amendment is supported by consumer protection bodies such as Which? and others, as the Minister will know. They recognise, as we do, that proper disclosure—provided for in the Bill, rather than wished or hoped for in secondary legislation—by a person promoting green deal services and products would be a sufficient and necessary safeguard. With it, customers can make an informed choice in full knowledge of a provider’s strengths and limitations, and they would be more likely to shop around. The amendment would not prevent or prohibit green deal assessors being trained by, employed by or linked to a green deal provider that promoted its products and services. It would, however, require assessors to disclose clearly and early on to consumers that they were linked to a provider, and to conduct an assessment without bias.
I am sure that the Minister will respond that he is fully aware of those issues and that they are all dealt with in the document, “Consumer protection in the Green Deal”, which he has released in the past couple of weeks and to which I have referred. I welcome that document, which contains good, sensible proposals, particularly on the green deal code, which is to be developed with industry, and the green deal helpline. He and his officials have been rushing to bring detail forward, but it would have been helpful if it had been available when the other place debated the Bill, all things being equal; we could then have debated it here. We should focus on it now.
Although I support the Minister’s announcements in “Consumer protection in the Green Deal”, voluntary approaches, consultation and Department documents are simply no substitute for what the consumer bodies are asking for: measures that will pass into law. If Ministers are saying that consumer protections will be in place when the scheme is operational, it would be strange if they did not support the amendment.
We have taken ministerial assurances on other aspects of the Bill. We have put the trust of the Committee and consumers around the country in the idea that the
Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore discussed the disclosure of the relationship between the green deal assessor, the provider and the installer. Clause 4 outlines the conditions relating to the green deal plan and the assessment of the property, which give rise to a whole number of concerns. As we have agreed, consumer confidence is a key issue with the green deal as a whole, and it is essential that we have consumer confidence if the green deal is to be successful.
We have made a number of presumptions. We have presumed that members of the public will welcome the assessor into their homes, but that presumption is fraught with great difficulties, particularly when it comes to the elderly and the vulnerable. They will probably see the visit as some sort of investigation into their private lives to scrutinise how they live. We therefore have a lot to do if the assessor is to gain access to people’s properties, and we need to make sure that the people being visited have confidence in the assessor.
My hon. Friend outlined some of the problems we face. Another problem is mis-selling on the doorstep, which has haunted successive Governments, and the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change recently raised the issue with the big six electricity generating companies. We must make sure that such things cannot take place in relation to the assessor or any part of the green deal.
A BBC news bulletin said that an energy firm had been guilty of mis-selling to doorstep customers. It frightens the life out of me that people will, whether they are accredited or not, be knocking on doors and saying, “I’m the new green deal assessor. You need your house assessed. Can I come in and have a look?” People do not understand what that means. I know that that is simplifying things, but we need to bear it in mind.
We should listen to some of the language used about the mis-selling by the big six companies. These are reputable companies; they are the top six in the country—they hiked their prices up yesterday, but that is another issue. Scottish and Southern Energy was found guilty of tricking people into switching from their existing energy firms. According to the BBC bulletin, the
We must make sure that there is a proper relationship, because although assessors will be accredited, that does not necessarily mean that they will not be forced to do what the likes of salespersons from the big six do and mis-sell on the doorstep. Mis-selling is therefore a big issue.
The assessor’s independence and accountability are of paramount importance, and people must be comfortable and confident that the green deal assessor is wholly independent. However, the clause does not provide for that in any way, shape or form. The Department of Energy and Climate Change document published in May 2011, which was circulated to members of the Committee, deals with supporting confidence in the green deal. Page 3 clearly states—
The Chair: Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman is quite new to this, but there is a clause stand part debate, so if he wants to attack the clause as a whole, he can do so later. Now, however, he must address his remarks strictly to the amendment.
Ian Lavery: Thank you, Mr Leigh. Amendment 35 refers to the green deal assessors, who are accredited advisors. They will assess the energy performance of a property. That will be calculated, and certain measures will be recommended to improve energy efficiency. Although a code of practice will list the approved products, materials and specification standards, tighter regulation is required. When the assessor recommends the energy efficiency improvements for a particular property, those recommendations must be made without any bias or favouritism for any specific product or green deal provider. It is only right and proper that, regarding disclosure, a means of regulating the assessor should be in place. The assessors should disclose, in writing, any connection they have with any green deal installer or provider to both the improver and the bill payer, as outlined in the amendment.
Depending on which report one reads, the figure for the number of homes to be included in the green deal varies from 20 million to 31 million; it will perhaps be more than that. The figure bandied about for the average cost per household of the energy efficiency measures is approximately £6,500, with no upper limit. That is an awful lot of money—billions of pounds. The DECC document suggests that at least £7 billion of investment will be required. As the old saying goes, where there is money, there is corruption. The Bill needs to avoid any criticism that it does not tackle potential issues of corruption. It is essential that the accredited assessors are accountable. That will protect not only the improver, but the assessor. May I respectfully request that the Minister carefully considers the amendment, which simply asks the assessor to disclose any connection with any green deal installer or green deal provider to the improver and the bill payer?
Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): I shall be brief. I want to express my support for amendment 35 and make the point about the importance of the reputation of, and trust in, the green deal—a point that I think the Minister himself made a number of times on Second Reading and earlier in Committee. I am sure that everybody in Committee wants the green deal to be a success. For it to be a success, we need people to have confidence in it. There is not necessarily anything wrong with a connection between an assessor and a provider of particular products or particular measures; that is not what the amendment is saying. The issue is disclosure, and disclosure at an early stage. If there is no disclosure, there is a risk that confidence in the green deal could be undermined at the very start.
A number of my constituents have concerns about door-to-door selling by energy companies, an issue to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck alluded. I accept completely that that is a very different issue, but in many cases, my constituents will see the practice that we are discussing as part of the same issue—the same scam, as they might think of it. Having disclosure early on, and having a requirement for disclosure set out clearly in legislation, would prevent newspapers—the Daily Mail or whoever—alarming people with all sorts of headlines about how people are going door to door to try to rip them off. The extent of that alarm among some of the people who I think will benefit most from the green deal should not be underestimated. The issue is really about the importance of confidence, reputation and trust in the green deal. That is why it is important to set out that requirement in the Bill, and I hope the Minister will look kindly on the amendment.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): Good morning, Mr Leigh. May I thank the hon. Members for Ogmore, for Wansbeck and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West for their contributions this morning? I think that we are singing from the same hymn sheet on these issues. We are coming from the same place and also looking to end up at the same destination. They are absolutely right. Consumer protection will be essential to the success of the green deal, particularly, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said, at the early stages of the programme, so that it does not get derailed by unfavourable headlines in newspapers. The concern about assessment and assessors is part of a wider concern that has been expressed by the Committee about the need for robust consumer protection. There is also a need to ensure that any measures installed are fully guaranteed for a minimum period during their operational lifetime while green deal payments are being made.
This would be a good point to mention that the existing market for guarantees and warranties is complex and mis-selling could arise, particularly where there is a mix of arrangements that could confuse consumers who are interested in the green deal at the point of purchase. I am therefore pleased to announce that we plan to require green deal providers to provide a single guarantee to their customers. Not only will the original customer be protected, but future occupants of a green deal property during the repayment period will enjoy the same coverage. Providers will guarantee all the installed measures for their operational lifetime under green deal plans.
Furthermore, we will consider requiring green deal providers to contribute to an insurance scheme that will protect customers should the providers go out of business. We expect that to operate in a similar way to the scheme operated by the Association of British Travel Agents for the travel sector, where consumers are brought home from abroad if a travel company goes bust. As always, we are collaborating with stakeholders on the details, and we will introduce secondary legislation in the autumn.
On the specific issue of people coming in to the homes of potential green deal customers and receiving impartial assessment, hon. Members are absolutely right, but I can assure them that we want to go further than simply voluntary agreements or the code of practice that we have already disclosed. Will the assessor be obliged to disclose whom they represent? Absolutely,
I know that it can be frustrating for the Committee to understand why we need details in secondary legislation rather than in the Bill. The fact is that we need to ensure that we do not have requirements that overlap or conflict with the principles of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. Therefore, it is better to enshrine such requirements in secondary legislation, which is a better place to put them into effect. That approach not only allows us to act quickly if any loopholes are subsequently discovered, but it is a more flexible means of adapting to unexpected problems.
Ian Lavery: On a point of clarification, is there the potential for assessors to be in competition with other providers? For example, could there be two or three assessors going to one property and offering the best deal? If so, that could present huge problems. I simply want clarification.
Gregory Barker: I am not absolutely certain what the hon. Gentleman is getting at, but there will be a cost for a green deal assessment. A proper, thorough, professional assessment of any given property will incur a charge. If the consumer goes ahead with a green deal implementation on the property, the charge will either be rolled up into a green deal package, or it may be that some retailers or green deal providers will offer it for free and write it off in return for going with them. That will be down to their commercial discretion. There will be a cost to the assessments. The assessors are not being asked to come in and give a quote; it is much more akin to an MOT in a garage. It is a robust assessment rather than a visit to give a quote, such as for double glazing.
Ian Lavery: The point is that if the assessor from B&Q goes to No. 1 in a street in my constituency, and the assessor from Marks and Spencer goes to No. 2, and they both make a green deal plan assessment for the same sort of work, but one is more costly than the other, does that not present some sort of competition issue?
Gregory Barker: I see what the hon. Gentleman is getting at. There is a difference between the assessment and the cost of the assessment. One hopes that assessments will be done to the same exacting professional standards. Of course, assessments may vary, because a human element is involved, but they should result in an objective prescription for that property. That prescription is then costed. It might be costed by the firm represented by the assessor, but it will be open to the householder to take that prescription to another provider, or as many providers as they like, and get them to quote. I would hope that they would. The improvements might cost £10,000 or more, so the notion of always getting three quotes is particularly well placed in this instance.
Gregory Barker: Again, I think that the hon. Gentleman has slightly misunderstood the difference between the impartial assessment of the property’s requirements and the offer of installations or products at a range of prices to meet those problems. The assessment will basically say, “You require the following treatments, interventions or installations.” Part two of the assessment will say, “and this is our response to that.” However, the assessment should be entirely independent and not tied to any provider. I said in my opening remarks that the assessment should and will be, as prescribed in secondary legislation, entirely independent and interchangeable.
Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): What happens if someone is not happy with the first assessment? My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck touched on that point. If someone feels that the first assessment is not right, where is their redress? Is it a commercial situation? Can they get a second assessor to come in? Technology and the interpretation of it changes. The situation will be fluid as we pass through the years, and there will be different variables, and different ideas and perceptions about how money can be saved. Can a second or third assessor be asked to a property after the first assessment, although it might have been objective, if someone feels that they want a different view?
Gregory Barker: Of course it will be open to anybody to get a second opinion. If they choose not to proceed with the first green deal opinion, it could be a matter of commercial practice. There will be a cost for the consumer, however, unless there is some sort of commercial offer.
Graham Jones: I welcome that comment. Will the Minister ensure that if there are financial penalties for not proceeding, that is made absolutely clear on the face of the deal, rather than fine print at the back saying, “If you don’t take it up, it will cost you £200,” or whatever? Will he ensure that that is on the face of the deal offered?
Gregory Barker: That would have to be clear before an assessor stepped over the threshold into a person’s home, but redress would be available under the code of conduct and the accreditation scheme if the person did not wish to proceed with the green deal assessment because of unprofessionalism or lack of a proper service. If someone just did not fancy what was said to them, it would be their prerogative to get another opinion, but they would have to pay for it. In exactly the same way, a person is entitled to get an opinion from a second doctor, and to take their prescription somewhere other than Boots or the local chemist. There are those two parts to the assessment.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I genuinely thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way. We are now getting into the detail that we should have got into in the other place, or in pre-legislative scrutiny. I understand what he is saying about the two-phase assessment, but is not the reality that, when it is linked to a company, it will be done during one visit?
Gregory Barker: It is entirely possible that there will be a linkage, absolutely, but it is up to the customer then to say, “Well, thank you for that, and now I’ll get a second, third, or even fifth quote for that prescription.”
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Is it not exactly the problem that if someone gets three or four quotes, as the Minister has rightly recommended, they will inevitably start to incur a lot of costs? It is likely that the green deal provider will do the assessment for free only if the customer then decides to go with its product. I am concerned that that will be a barrier to the take-up of the scheme, and am worried about how interchangeable the assessments will be. For example, when someone has more than one company do a survey on a property before they buy it, the assessments can be very different; one says that the property will fall down tomorrow, and the other that it will survive for another 500 years. The sense that the assessment is objectively independent and will always be the same whoever does it is misplaced.
Gregory Barker: No, there will be a clear and standardised professional assessment process. Obviously, we cannot rule out some difference based on the individual going in, but one would expect the assessment to be objective, not subjective, and to be done to a clear set of agreed, uniform criteria. The assessment is the prescription for what is required. We can think of it like an MOT. If someone takes their car for an MOT and is told that four things need doing—brakes repaired, and work on headlights, indicators and clutch—they might phone another garage, and perhaps a third one, and ask them for a quote for fixing the four items.
Gregory Barker: May I just finish the point? Otherwise, I will never pick it up again. That person would get quotes for the actual interventions, not for having the MOT done again. In this case, the person would not keep getting the household reassessed, but would simply get different quotes for the recommended measures, unless they were unhappy with the professionalism, or had reason to question the integrity of the process, in which case there would be redress under the code of practice.
Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): I apologise for my lateness this morning. Is it not also the case that unlike a property survey, which we have all been through and which can lead to a laundry list of hundreds of items, there is a limited menu of proposals that will come up here? There are probably 10 or 20 things that we could realistically do to green-up our houses. We can then take away that finite list and get quotes.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Mr Leigh, your guidance is absolutely right: we should focus on the amendment. The amendment, which is on disclosure, goes to the heart of how the assessment is carried out in the two phases. Now that we are getting into the detail, does the Minister have some pro forma that shows us what phase 1 of the treatment assessment is, and how that is completely disassociated from phase 2, which must look like a different sheet? That would be the commercial company saying, “We have things to fix to ensure your energy efficiency.” Does he have that? Could he share that with the Committee? The MOT analogy may be misplaced, because we are all aware of having been ripped off by garages when we have taken our cars in for an MOT. Garages may give us things that we do not need, so that we spend a lot of money.
Gregory Barker: The hon. Gentleman should come to Bexhill in that case. The whole point of our using secondary legislation, and not looking to cast things in stone in the Bill today, is to engage industry, consumer groups and other stakeholders that have expertise so that we can stress-test the type of pro forma that the hon. Gentleman sensibly suggests. We will be doing that over the next few months before introducing solid secondary legislation that will encapsulate all those concerns.
Perhaps I have not explained the matter as well as I could have, but I think that all members of the Committees are trying to get the same thing, which is a comprehensive assessment that is a standardised and trustworthy document that may be put out to competitive tender.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Would it not be sensible to include, in whatever guidance the Government wish to issue, almost a cooling-off period, perhaps of 14 days, after an assessment, and to provide for a person not to come back with their recommendations and their costs? That would allow someone to have their MOT and then approach other people who might provide the solution. If the cost is attached to the assessment but is not attached to the work recommended by any particular potential provider, that would allow—
Gregory Barker: My hon. Friend the Member for Wells makes a good point, and I will ensure that the cooling-off period, which is a sensible idea, is included in the secondary legislation. I hope that that will give her some comfort.
We have already set out that we believe that robust consumer protection, including full declaration and disclosure and the ability to take an assessment to a number of retailers or installers, is the right way forward. We want to get there and ensure that proper redress is available. However, we believe that the issues need to be dealt with after we have had the opportunity to engage
Huw Irranca-Davies: The Minister has made a good fist of trying to explain how far he and his team have progressed in bolting on, week by week and day by day, additional protections for the consumer in the assessment process, in which someone visits a house. That is the most personal aspect of the green deal—not the high theory, but someone walking into someone else’s home. The Minister has gone a long way, and he is listening. The measures are progressing rapidly.
I understand what the Minister says about secondary legislation. We will have the time to work through some of the intense details, but in all honesty, while it is wonderful to hear about them today, every time we turn over a new detail and hear a new insight, another half a dozen questions relating to this amendment and others are raised. That is the problem—we are being asked to take an immense amount on trust.
Let me turn directly to what the Minister has put to us today. I congratulate him and his team on introducing proposals for a single guarantee on all installations. That is absolutely excellent. Nobody on this Committee would do anything other than support that wholly. Similarly, there is the insurance scheme. The Bill is being improved literally day by day, even moment by moment, and those improvements are taking some of us by surprise, so I want to ask the Minister if we could have the full details of all these schemes during our proceedings. Perhaps, Mr Leigh, with your consent the details of these schemes could be laid on the Table as we come in each morning, if not before, so that when the Minister stands up, there will not be another surprise dramatic improvement. It would be nice to get our heads around things a little bit, as we stay up until after midnight preparing for each sitting.
Gregory Barker: What I have announced today is simply our intention to bring that detail forward in secondary legislation. I am not keeping any detail from the hon. Gentleman that we have in private and are not sharing. I can announce the intention to share that detail. I emphasise to him that the nature of the Bill is that we are creating the framework in primary legislation and will bring forward the detail in secondary legislation, all of which will be subject to the affirmative procedure. So we will have other chances to debate the detail. However, putting the detail in the secondary legislation will be more flexible; it will allow us much greater opportunities to amend it with the benefit of experience once the green deal gets under way.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank the Minister for that statement and I appreciate the fact that much of the detail will be provided in secondary legislation. Having said that, he cited the Consumer Credit Act 1974 when
Graham Jones: We are coming to a crucial point. The relationship between the assessor and the green deal provider is crucial in the journey of trust that must be made, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore said, from when people call at the front door to when the green deal is delivered. Which? is concerned about this tying-in of assessors and the providers—that is, the people delivering the green deal—and the issue of sales commissions. There needs to be far more clarity about that relationship and about the amount that the Government pay the assessors.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Many parts of the industry—small, medium and large—are not only very good professionals but display an integrity and honesty in their work that is laudable. That includes most of the major players, including players in his constituency. As other hon. Friends have pointed out, however, we know that there are cowboys out there. They will come in and try to rip off, confuse and bamboozle pensioners and vulnerable people who are on their own, and people who do not have a voluntary organisation, neighbour or relative that they can turn to easily for advice. That is what this amendment is about.
I will test the Committee’s opinion on this issue, Mr Leigh. I want to press the amendment to a vote. I want to see where all the members of the Committee are on this issue. Whether the vote succeeds or not, I want to encourage the Minister to reflect on what has been said today and to consider introducing his own amendment at a later stage. If he does so, we would work with him on such an amendment to ensure that the broad principle of disclosure is enshrined in primary legislation. We will work with him on the secondary legislation and the code to ensure that it is right, as will industry and voluntary sector groups.
Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): I have listened to this debate with great interest and concern on behalf of the vulnerable and older people whose protection the hon. Gentleman has been discussing. I will support the Minister, because I trust that the secondary legislation
Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank the hon. Lady for her support on at least the principle of what we are trying to achieve. Across the Front Benches, we are trying to achieve the same thing; we just have a different approach to how it should be done. I regret that the hon. Lady will not be able to support the amendment, but I suggest that, if the amendment is not made, she continues to encourage the Minister on this issue not only with regard to secondary legislation, but in the later stages of consideration of the Bill. It would be a simple amendment for the Minister to make, which we would support. I have heard some good words from the Minister, as always, but they have not reassured us as to why he objects to a broad principle of disclosure being in the Bill. The Consumer Credit Act 1974 applies to regulations as well. He knows that, so he should put a broad statement in the Bill. That is all I have to say.
Gregory Barker: The hon. Gentleman would be pressing his amendment unnecessarily, because we are in the same place. There is strong agreement that we need robust disclosure and consumer protection and that the assessment needs to work in an impartial way. If the hon. Gentleman presses his amendment to a vote, he will not be able to bring it back on Report. I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I remain of the view that we do not need this amendment to the Bill. It could undermine our ability to have a robust regime through secondary legislation. I am prepared, however, to reflect on what he has said, without guaranteeing it. I leave the decision to his judgment.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank the Minister for that helpful intervention. This is what a Committee should be about; the Minister is listening. Is the Minister willing to intervene on me one final time? Is that an offer to sit down with all members of the Committee that are interested in this aspect and to at least discuss in detail whether we can bring forward an amendment at a future stage of the Bill, if that is possible? If the Minister is willing to offer that as a possibility, without any guarantees that it can be done, I will consider withdrawing the amendment.
Gregory Barker: I certainly would be happy to have such a conversation, with the clear understanding that it cannot in any way compromise the shape, integrity or framework of the Bill. The primary legislation should be a framework, with the detail in secondary legislation. That is the architecture of this legislation. I am happy to have that discussion.
To clarify that the cost of any energy efficiency measures being installed under the Green Deal, including the entire cost of the financial package, must not exceed the expected resultant savings on the customer’s energy bills over a specified time scale.
Tessa Munt: This follows on neatly from the previous amendment. According to subsection (8), the seventh condition is that the green deal provider should give the estimated total of the proposed instalments and the estimate mentioned in subsection (4), which refers to
Bearing in mind the Minister’s previous comments, I would like the entire cost and financial package of any works to be made absolutely clear to those people who wish to avail themselves of this opportunity, who will end up paying for it. It will be a huge advantage if we are fair in how we do this. It is a matter of clarity for the consumer.
I am happy to have worked on the amendment with the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which has promoted it. The proposal has much to do with the financial stability of the consumer. The worry is that if green deal providers are able to price their finance deals in accordance with the creditworthiness of the consumer, there is a risk that some lenders might build in a high-cost package for low-income customers or those with poor credit histories. I would like to see explicit information about the calculated cost of the measures that shows the entire cost to the consumer, particularly the interest and any charges on the finance package.
I seek reassurance that we will have that fairness and clarity for those vulnerable customers who are most likely to suffer from fuel poverty. They may not have all the equipment at their disposal to interpret deals. We already know how people can find themselves involved in appalling consumer packages and get caught up in deals because they do not understand the implications.
Caroline Lucas: I would like to associate myself with the hon. Lady’s comments. Amendment 105, which I have tabled, follows a similar vein. Members will be aware of the concern about the unknown overall cost of the green deal package, due to the uncertainty over interest rates in particular. Over a 20-year loan, even
“Ultimately, however, it comes back to the golden rule: the cap on interest rates. The golden rule will demand that the costs, taken together—whether the costs of installation, labour or financing—do not exceed the savings that will accrue to the home owner, whether the interest rate is variable or fixed.”––[Official Report, Energy Public Bill Committee, 7 June 2011; c. 38.]
Huw Irranca-Davies: I, too, signal my support for the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Wells, to which I have added my name, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree and for Southampton, Test, and for the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion. The encapsulation of all the costs involved in the green deal is an issue that has caused a fair bit of discussion and concern among many groups. Rather than reiterate the hon. Lady’s eloquent exposition of the amendment, I turn to the words of the commentators. The Minister will be aware of them; perhaps he can respond to their concerns directly.
“The Green Deal is a good idea, but risks becoming a lame duck unless the Government tackles the big questions of financing and uptake. The Government faces an uphill challenge convincing home owners to sign up to the Green Deal, given that three-quarters admit they don’t consider energy efficiency when looking at a property.”
“In a survey of over 2,300 people, the level of interest rates charged for taking up the scheme was viewed as a key issue. At 2% per annum, 33% of homeowners said they were ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ likely to take up the Green Deal, but this fell to 7% of homeowners when an annual interest rate of 6% was deemed likely.”
“very concerned about whether in practice the Green Deal will succeed in significantly increasing the installation of energy saving measures. For the scheme to succeed the finance must be provided at sufficiently low interest rates to make it attractive for consumers and to allow for more comprehensive packages of improvements to be delivered within the Golden Rule. Without a low interest rate”
Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I support both the thrust and the detail of the amendments. This morning and in our last sitting, we discussed in a great deal more detail the relationship between what the assessor will undertake and what the green deal offer will consist of. I remain concerned about how that relationship will encapsulate all the factors that should be on the table when the golden rule is applied to the financing of the green deal package.
We discussed on Tuesday to what extent the assessment of where the golden rule bites will relate to the actual energy cost incurred before the measurement was undertaken. The energy cost incurred over the year before the assessment of where the golden rule should be applied could relate to several different factors, including the energy cost undertaken in the house and advice on how equipment and energy could be used in the house to reduce bills. Alternatively, the householder might simply be on the wrong tariff; had they been put on a different tariff, their energy bills could have been considerably lower.
All that information is important in determining how the golden rule will apply, because the decision where the golden rule cuts off can make a considerable difference to how much assistance can be supplied within the terms of a cheaper energy bill in future. That can make a great difference between whether there is a small amount of passive insulation or a lot more work. That cut-off point is therefore important.
The question then arises as to who ensures that all the information is there to allow the golden rule decision to be made. Is it, as we have said this morning, the MOT-style assessor? Is it the green deal provider, who must put the measures in place and relate them to the golden rule? They must decide how the offer works competitively in terms of the maximum amount of work that can be done, given the money available. Does someone else give the advice? The quality of the amendments lies in the fact that they would fix the idea that somebody must give that advice at some point and make sure that the decision takes everything into account.
If we do not, one way or another, have an assurance that the information will be there, there remains a substantial possibility that such considerations will simply fall between the cracks. The Minister gave assurances that the golden rule would be applied conservatively, but the subsidiary danger is that unless the information is clearly there and is gathered before the decision is made, we may, in a reflection of the possibility that life is not as it looked when the golden rule decision was made, end up applying a series of golden rule decisions that gravely underestimate what could be done in a household. As a result, the programme that is undertaken could be much more conservative” than would be the case if we had got things right in the run-up to the golden rule decision being applied.
The amendments go to the heart of getting these things right so that we can have a guarantee at the point of decision that everything has been taken into account and properly applied for. We could therefore get the maximum steam out of the machine in terms of future energy efficiency improvements.
Gregory Barker: I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wells and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion for tabling the amendments, which have allowed us to have a useful discussion. They address the important issue of ensuring that the calculation of the golden rule includes all the costs of taking out a green deal.
As set out in clause 4, we propose to use the framework regulations to specify how we will apply the golden rule—the principle that the charge attached to the energy bill should not exceed the expected savings at the time of the assessment. We envisage the golden rule taking account of the total cost of the green deal package, including the expected cost of finance and labour, as well as the interventions and products.
An amendment is not needed to achieve those aims. Indeed, the point raised by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test is an argument for specifying these things in the much more detailed way that secondary legislation would allow and allow to be subsequently amended. Once the green deal is under way, the market develops and there are new technologies—there may be an advance in the way these energy savings are calculated—we may have reasons to revisit the regulations. That will be much easier to achieve, and it will be much more effective, if things are dealt with in secondary legislation rather than in primary legislation, which would have to go through Parliament.
That flexibility to come back, tighten up and improve the regulations is important. We are clear about what we want to achieve, and there is unanimity across the Committee on that. None of us can have absolute 20:20 vision on how these things will be implemented at scale, until the market is up and running. I am sure that there will be, perhaps not immediately but in years or Parliaments to come, opportunities to improve the framework even further. That said, we should remember, as we have said previously, that the Consumer Credit Act 1974 applies to domestic green deal plans in full, bar a few essential amendments that we have made to clauses 25 to 28 of the Bill, to allow the green deal to operate smoothly. That provides a high starting point for consumer protection, particularly in respect of the information that must be given to consumers about the total cost of finance. To the extent that specific additional provision is needed for the green deal, clause 5 will enable the Secretary of State to put additional protections into the regime via the terms of the plan.
In conclusion, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion are absolutely right to have drawn the issue to the Committee’s attention, but it is not necessary to include the provision in the Bill and I hope that my hon. Friend will be content to withdraw the amendment.
Tessa Munt: I understand absolutely the ability to tweak the secondary legislation and I am happy that the issue will be dealt with, now that I have brought it to the Minister’s attention. I am comfortable that the Minister is on the record as saying that that is the case, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘(9A) The ninth condition is that the assessment must clearly detail those energy efficiency improvements that qualify under the Green Deal and when making an assessment the assessor must—
(a) include all energy efficiency improvement options that qualify under the Green Deal;
(b) identify energy efficiency improvements that—
(i) sit outside the Green Deal; or
(ii) collectively exceed the total amount qualifiable under a Green Deal plan, where this is clearly identified on the assessment.’.
“may be opportunities for green deal providers to offer water efficiency measures and other improvements that complement the green deal, at the same time as offering the standard green deal measures. Those measures would be separate from, and therefore not covered by, the green deal framework. They would therefore need to be funded through an alternative route.”––[Official Report, Energy Public Bill Committee, 7 June 2011; c. 9-13.]
Those alternative or additional measures need to be identified at the time of assessment and clearly communicated to home owners, landlords, tenants and consumers, and a clear distinction needs to be made between energy plans and green deal plans.
The Minister earlier compared the green deal assessment to an MOT, but it is likely that it will be much rarer. Legally, an MOT has to be completed every 12 months on cars that are more than three years old, but green deal assessments will not have that legal push behind them. The same is true of an energy performance certificate, an assessment for which has to be conducted on a property every 10 years. A green deal assessment is voluntary and is therefore less frequent, so it is vital that as many measures as possible are identified during the assessment of the property, regardless of whether they would be part of a green deal plan or an energy plan.
The amendment seeks to ensure that every single assessment identifies improvements that would meet or exceed golden rule repayment standards, so that consumers have access to information about all energy-saving improvements suitable for their homes. The amendment would also ensure that assessments were standardised for all assessors, particularly for evaluations of measures outside of the green deal.
The basis for the amendment is that if the Energy Bill aims to promote energy-saving measures and reduce the UK’s carbon footprint, it is vital that home assessments for energy-saving measures are as comprehensive as possible, and provide consumers with information about all the ways in which they could reduce energy consumption within their homes. A comprehensive assessment would thus need to include measures that will meet golden rule standards and—I reiterate this—measures that would not qualify under the green deal.
Back in March, at DECC Question Time, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) asked the Minister what steps he was taking to ensure that consumers received advice on energy-saving measures. He answered:
“Reliable advice will form an important part of the new green deal framework to be introduced in 2012. Having a comprehensive assessment setting out energy efficiency measures that are likely to be suitable for each individual property along with the potential opportunities for microgeneration and renewable heat will be a crucial step in every green deal journey.”—[Official Report, 24 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 1079.]
It is necessary for absolutely all feasible energy-efficiency measures that can be implemented to be included in all assessments, because even devices as simple as a thermostat can greatly affect our energy consumption. We did not explore thermostats on Tuesday. Information provided by the Association of Controls Manufacturers reveals that around 8 million UK homes do not have a simple room thermostat and that 70% of existing homes have fewer controls than specified in building regulations. The absence of such controls means that comfortable conditions cannot be maintained, so the expected savings from other energy-saving measures, such as insulation, will be lower than estimated. Many energy-saving improvements may not qualify under a green deal plan, but would none the less substantially benefit consumers. The recent DECC paper, “What measures does the Green Deal cover?”, states:
“Whilst Green Deal finance supports measures that pay for themselves through savings, if we are to make significant in-roads in cutting overall household emissions we must look beyond these measures to the next most cost-effective measures.”
I know that there is a challenge with relatively small supply chains making energy-saving measures too expensive to qualify under the green deal. We will discuss and explore solid-wall insulation and microgeneration in later clauses on energy company obligations. Measures such as those should still be identified to consumers if they are suitable for a property, not only because of their energy-saving benefits, but because the more they are identified, the more they could be taken up. Demand would increase and prices would fall, leading to more measures being available and included in a future green deal package.
While other provisions aim to ensure that green deal assessors work independently and provide unbiased assessment, the Builders Merchants Federation suspects that there will be assessors who, for whatever reason, will give biased or incomplete advice to favour a particular business or solution. The amendment seeks to ensure that all assessments are standardised to include all feasible energy-saving measures, not just those under the green deal or those provided by a particular installer or company. That goes back to some of the discussions that we had on earlier amendments. That would mean that even for measures that are not green deal compatible, consumers are receiving the same recommendations and fully comprehensive evaluations for the optimal energy efficiency improvements to their property.
We have heard the Government insist many times that they will be the greenest Government ever. A fundamental element of the Bill should be to ensure that all energy-saving measures are identified by assessors, not just those that qualify under the green deal’s golden rule or those provided by specific installers or big companies. While assessments that only include green-deal qualifiable measures may be green, only comprehensive assessments that identify all possible energy saving measures can truly be called the greenest.
Gregory Barker: I thank the hon. Lady for tabling amendment 36. I assure her that we support the principle that the assessment must be of a robust and high quality and be able to deliver a reliable indication of suitable measures, including those likely to be eligible for green deal finance, to help householders and businesses make informed decisions. That has always been at the heart of the measures that we introduced.
It is also essential to deliver estimated savings that can be used by the green dealprovider to provide their quotes and the final green deal plan. The distinction between energy plans and green deal plans results from legal drafting and not policy. A green deal plan must meet all the conditions set out in this Bill and must be paid for via energy bills. An energy plan is simply an arrangement to install improvements and can be paid for in any way.
The assessment will be a comprehensive evaluation of the property’s energy efficiency and how it can be improved. I have to say to the hon. Lady that there is a degree of consumer protection, as we have ensured that the green deal covers only those interventions and assessments that are green deal approved. If we extended it to cover absolutely everything, we might be in the reverse position whereby people start trying to push outside the green deal—under the cover of green deal protection—to use unproven quack technologies that do not qualify for green deal status. Moreover, I do not know how we would define absolutely everything.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I could make a suggestion to the Minister as to how he might do that. As a former Environment Minister with responsibility for the water industry, I know that it has vast expertise in the commercial sector. It would not be beyond the wit of man or certainly the Minister, who could turn his ample resources to this, to have that discussion with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs over the summer period. By the time we get to secondary regulation, on the basis of this amendment, he could provide a list of the type of technologies that it would be appropriate to offer .
Gregory Barker: We do not need to talk to DEFRA. We will have a list of technologies that will be green deal accredited. It is crazy to suggest that we could have a plan that encompassed all the technologies in the entire universe that are not only green deal approved but non-green deal approved. It raises important issues of consumer protection. We could have totally inappropriate measures that are outside the green deal and that are not on the green deal approved list being pushed by salesmen. We need to protect the veracity of the green deal and allow people to have total confidence in it.
Claire Perry: I express my strong support for what I think is the spirit behind the amendment—although, of course, I support the Minister. The proposal is about not extreme, unproven technologies, but simple things. The thermostat example is a good one as are the water-saving measures that I supported on the first day of our debate. It would be helpful to know whether those sorts of simple, cost-effective suggestions, which may be entirely for the householder to pay for because they are not part of the green deal, could also form part of this recommendation. That would be a sensible thing to do, given that we have one shot to include them.
Gregory Barker: I thank my hon. Friend for that, but if the suggestions are cost-effective they will, by their very nature, be included in the green deal. The only reason for not including them in the green deal is that they are not cost- effective. They have up to 20 years to pay for their cost under the green deal. Something that takes more than 20 years to pay for itself is not, by definition, cost-effective. I totally appreciate my hon. Friend’s point, but the water-saving measures that she mentioned do not fall into that remit. However, I am cautious about extending the remit on energy-saving measures.
Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): Although I understand the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, it is a very dangerous path for us to go down. If we go back to delivery of the green deal and the effectiveness of this piece of legislation, the danger is that we lose people’s trust. They will be offered all sorts of things outside the green deal, some of which will be proven to be false or misleading, which could lead them to say, “I don’t want to do this because this thing is far too complicated.”