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Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and referred to the Examiners. Bill ordered to be printed.

Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill [H.L.]

4.3 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [Grants for improvements and repairs, &c.]:

Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 2, line 16, leave out ("these") and insert ("the above").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 1 follows the amendment which was introduced in Committee to deal with the vital issue of grants to assist mainly elderly persons on low income to have their homes improved by insulation and other means. The process by which that has been built up over the years has been regarded as very successful and has received continuing support from the Government. As explained in Committee, in the Finance Bill which preceded the latest Finance Bill the Government committed themselves to provide £100 million per annum for three years for the support of this important humanitarian and advantageous venture.

However, suddenly in the latest Finance Bill the Government decided to reduce the contribution by one-third, although the commitment had been made for three years. That will mean that approximately 200,000 houses, which would otherwise have been improved with beneficial effects for their occupants, will not now be improved. Furthermore, several thousand people who would have been employed in carrying out that work will no longer be so employed. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, queried the figure of 200,000 and I undertook that the NEA, which carries out such work, would write to him to explain how that figure had been arrived at. It has done so.

Now is the moment when the Government can think again about the matter. They achieved great acclaim when they decided to make £100 million available and

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committed themselves to continuing to do so for the ensuing two years. The sudden reduction in that has created doubts about the Government's ongoing support for this important venture. I hope that at this late stage in the Bill the Government will give an indication that they will think again. I beg to move.

Lord Elton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, am I right in believing that he is speaking also to Amendments Nos. 2 and 15, which are material to the point that he is making, or is he abandoning the group that has been published?

Lord Ezra: My Lords, I should have made clear that I am speaking also to Amendments Nos. 2 and 15.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I am delighted to support my noble friend in moving the amendment, and in particular in speaking to Amendment No. 15. I urged him to take precedence in speaking because energy efficiency and home improvements are matters about which my noble friend speaks not only with knowledge and understanding but also from the heart.

I had thought of the Government as priding themselves in being a government of good housekeeping. I was astounded when I discovered the reduction in the budget, given that spending on home energy efficiency appears to be such a good measure of economy as well as producing beneficial effects for individual householders.

I support the amendment not only for its intrinsic worth but because it is typical of some of the points which have arisen in respect of the Bill. It is a Bill of many parts and much of it is concerned with home improvements and renovation. However, I fear that other parts are a screen for the reduction in spending on home improvements and renovation. I believe that the amendment is appropriate and that it is appropriate to press the Government on their proposals.

Perhaps with the leave of the House, I may apologise for having to leave the Chamber soon. I should be chairing a conference and I have left a jobsharer doing so. However, I felt that it was important to support my noble friend today and, despite what I said about the Bill, to wish it well.

Lord Elton: My Lords, neither the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, nor the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, adverted to the contents of Amendment No. 15. There your Lordships will see a proposal to insert on page 80 at line 31 the words:

    "The Secretary of State shall ensure that the resources available to fund grants under section 15 of the Social Security Act 1990 are at least equal to £100 million annually until the end of the financial year 1997-98".
Those are words sufficiently unusual to find on a Marshalled List that I tried to satisfy myself why they should be so. Your Lordships will be aware that this House has no power to raise taxes. Therefore, it is generally thought inappropriate for it to lay down what precise sums out of taxation shall be devoted to any particular project.

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More particularly, your Lordships will recall that before we conclude our proceedings this afternoon, we shall be blithely agreeing to the privilege amendment. I remind your Lordships what the amendment says because it has moved so often that nobody listens to the wording. It states:

    "Nothing in this Act shall impose any charge on the people or on public funds, or vary the amount or incidence or otherwise alter any such charge in any manner, or affect the assessment, levying, administration or application of any money raised by any such charge".

The effect of the amendment will be wholly to wipe out the effect of Amendment No. 15 as proposed. Of course, the privilege amendment is a formality and protects the privileges of the House of Commons. It is up to the other place whether or not it wipes out this amendment with that amendment. But it is worth reminding the House that it is not our function to quantify any vote in any budget. Therefore, while I accept that this is an appropriate occasion for the noble Lord and the noble Baroness to ventilate their feelings on a policy which they feel is not being sufficiently carried out, I hope that your Lordships will not go so far as to accept any of the amendments.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for moving this amendment and for speaking to Amendment No. 2. I share the doubts expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in relation to Amendment No. 15; and from these Benches, I should not like to put a figure on any amendment moved by your Lordships. Nevertheless, the point is important and should be discussed, even at this late stage. The reason that it is discussed at this late stage is because the provision comes at a late stage of the Bill. Therefore, in our debates both in Committee and on Report, we have not given sufficient attention to the issues raised by what is proposed in Clause 138.

We should have the home energy efficiency scheme quite firmly in our minds. It provides insulation grants for the over-60s and people on benefits. It is worth pointing out that since the Government announced that eligibility for the elderly will be reduced as from last April, the number of applications has soared.

My honourable friend in another place, Ms. Ruddock, has tabled a number of Questions for Written Answer which have elicited a response from the Government which is perfectly clear; namely, that that is perceived to be a valuable initiative for those who are elderly and on benefit. The Government say that the scheme is intended to help 600,000 people this year; but, according to our information, more than 530,000 applications have already been received. There is still time for the Government to take a different view on this. I very much hope that they will do so before the matter is pursued in another place, which no doubt it will be, under the terms which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, quite rightly pointed out to your Lordships.

It is unfortunate that the way in which the clause is drafted spreads the grants for home energy efficiency wider than they were before while reducing

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in budgetary terms the quantum. That simply means that fewer people will benefit from what is the fundamental objective of the scheme; namely, to relieve the poorest households which are under-heated either because the combination of poor insulation and inadequate heating makes it impossible to achieve an acceptable standard or because householders switch off or turn down their heating to ensure that fuel bills remain affordable.

I am informed that research conducted by the Building Research Establishment confirms that 77 per cent. of the current HEES measures are taken up in improved comfort and 23 per cent. in fuel bill savings. That is a desirable objective of any government of whichever party.

Again, I recognise what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said. Indeed, he will find that my name is not attached to Amendment No. 15 because I do not believe in pre-judging any financial issue before it goes to another place. I think that is right and proper. But I believe that the principle is right. The Government should think again about the home energy efficiency scheme, which has after all proved extremely valuable. We should be sure that it is directed to those who are specifically in need. If it works--and the number of applications shows that it is working--it will result in substantial fuel bill savings which can only be good for the environment.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, in speaking to this group of amendments, I wish to raise two specific issues. The first is in relation to the privilege amendment and the constitutional issue which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, mentioned. My understanding is that the other place guards jealously, quite rightly, its sole powers to raise money for the public purse and effectively to levy taxation on the British people. No Member of your Lordships' House would quarrel with that power which should not be trammelled. It is only right that that should exist.

However, we must make a distinction between raising taxes and spending public money. In that situation, I make a distinction and say that we are talking about spending public money. That is quite a legitimate area of concern for your Lordships' House. If we did not have that ability, we should not be able to entertain, for example, any amendment to the Asylum and Immigration Bill which is before your Lordships' House which would require the repayment of child benefit to asylum seekers of the right age category.

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