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House of Lords

Wednesday, 5 March 2008.

The House met at three o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.

Fuel Poverty

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bach: My Lords, the Government have a package of measures to support households vulnerable to fuel poverty. Spend on energy efficiency measures for those on low incomes for the period 2008 to 2011 will be in excess of £2.3 billion. This is in addition to the winter fuel payments payable to all pensioners. Energy companies have recently increased the support that they provide to vulnerable customers, with overall funding of £56 million this winter.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Does he accept that fuel poverty—where more than 10 per cent of total income is spent on heating—which fell to 2 million in 2004, has now risen to more than 4.5 million? That represents nearly 20 per cent of all households in Britain. Can he confirm that it is still the Government’s intention to eliminate such poverty in the most vulnerable groups by 2010, eradicating it altogether by 2016-18? In those circumstances, in addition to the measures that he has already mentioned, will the Government contemplate taking further measures, such as adding to the Warm Front funding?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we have achieved substantial reductions in fuel poverty since 1996, with more than 4 million households removed from fuel poverty, although the noble Lord is right that in the past few years the numbers have begun to go up again. The reason for that is largely the increase in energy prices. We stand by our commitments with regard to 2010 to 2016 and I tell the House openly that, although this is a tall order, we will do our very best to ensure that those targets are reached. As far as additional action is concerned, we are in ongoing dialogue with suppliers and Ofgem. We would like to see more progress and we do not rule out the need for legislation in the future on social tariffs. However, legislation may not be the answer here.

Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s encouraging declaration on social tariffs. However, the Government, like many of the energy companies, have been the beneficiary of the increase in value added tax revenues, because the price has gone up, the tax take has increased accordingly and the Government therefore have more

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money to spend on helping the poor. Under these circumstances, can he give an assurance that in the Budget next week proper weight will be given to the needs of the fuel poor in our country?

Lord Bach: No, my Lords, I am afraid that I cannot.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, a group that suffers very much from cold weather is the disabled. Is there a case for the Government to increase the range of people who get the winter fuel payment to cover those who are in receipt of a full disability allowance? In that way, the numbers would be limited. These people need to be kept warm perhaps more than most other people who are under 60.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness’s point. As I understand it, there are no plans to extend winter fuel payments to that group of people, but of course I shall take back her suggestion. Winter fuel payments have been a terrific improvement for everyone over 60 for many years.

Lord Palmer: My Lords, will the Government make payments to those trapped in fuel poverty according to the climate of the area in which they live?

Lord Bach: No, my Lords.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, as we have heard, the latest estimate has suggested that the number of households in fuel poverty is now 4.5 million, which is the highest since Labour came to power. While we understand that the noble Lord, Lord Jones, has an enthusiasm for selling Britain, is it not time that he stayed home to concentrate on the wretched poor in this country?

Lord Bach: My Lords, if that question had been asked from almost anywhere else in the House, I would have taken it seriously. What the noble Baroness’s Government did for fuel poverty can be written on the back of a postage stamp. We have done a huge amount. We have been frank with the House; the numbers have gone up in recent years because of a rise in energy prices. However, the number of people who are now helped but were never helped when the noble Baroness’s Government were in power is huge.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, on Monday we had a Question about energy efficient housing and a supplementary question was asked about upgrading inefficient boilers. As many of those boilers will be in the homes of elderly people, what assistance is available to those people to improve their boilers?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I do not have the details in front of me. There are clearly a lot of methods available to help people in all categories, including the category that the noble Baroness talks of. I shall write to her with a complete answer.

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Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the CBI’s recent report, Climate Change: Everyone’s Business, which concluded that more energy efficient buildings could make the biggest single contribution to reducing carbon emissions by 2030. To achieve this, 15 million homes need better insulation. I did not hear the Minister respond to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, about Warm Front payments. Will the Government commit to reversing the recent cut in the Warm Front budget and possibly even, as the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, suggested, to extending it?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the spend for the next three years on energy efficiency measures to enable homes to be kept warm more cheaply will be in excess of £2.3 billion, which is £680 million more than in the previous spending period. The Warm Front programme is, as the noble Lord rightly says, being reduced from £869 million to £810 million, but £1.5 billion will be spent in the next three years by suppliers under the carbon emissions reduction target. The overall increase is £680 million over the next three years.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, the Minister has said in detail how much the Government have spent on trying to help people to keep their homes warm, but does he recognise that, although we are one of the richest nations, we have the greatest number of excess winter deaths in the civilised world? I hear what he says about talking to his friends in another place and to the Minister, but should this not be higher on the Government’s agenda, particularly given rising fuel prices and where we stand as a rich nation?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I can tell the noble Baroness that this is very high on the Government’s agenda and has been since we came into office in 1997. The number of people who die, tragically, during cold periods in the winter because they cannot heat their own homes is very much lower than it used to be, but of course there is room for improvement.

Afghanistan: UK Forces

3.15 pm

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will join me in welcoming the noble Lord back to his rightful position on the Front Bench.

The United Kingdom Armed Forces continue to receive the full support and co-operation of the Afghan authorities as we work together to expand the writ of the Government of Afghanistan, to increase the capacity of the Afghan national army and to dismantle the insurgency.

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Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for those kind words. I am also, of course, very grateful to the paramedics who saved my life and the wonderful doctors and nurses who looked after me so well in East Surrey Hospital.

Does the Minister agree that it is rather dispiriting for our troops, who, after all, are fighting and dying in Afghanistan, when President Karzai rejects the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, as the UN special envoy and publicly denigrates our Armed Forces and their achievements, even though their departure would inevitably see the return of the Taliban?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, there were remarks attributed to President Karzai that received significant publicity, remarks which I think none of us would wish to see anybody in that situation make. However, when President Karzai visited this country at the end of January, at a press conference he restated his respect and his gratitude for the British development and military assistance that we were offering in Afghanistan. He has also said that he was misquoted in some of the remarks.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, we were very sorry indeed about the blackballing of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown. However, on a separate matter, may I ask whether the Government’s intention is to deploy the Eurofighter Typhoon into Afghanistan? If so, what is the likely timing, and how many aircraft are likely to be involved?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, at present there are no plans to deploy Typhoon to theatre. So far as that aircraft is concerned, we are focused on developing its air-to-ground capabilities in order to optimise its potential. It is a world-class aircraft, and we think we can make further improvements. The Harrier is there at the moment and is performing well. Close air support is very important to our operations and we will continue to assess what capabilities can best achieve it.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, why is it necessary for Afghan national army battalions to have attached to them more Europeans than the Frontier Force Rifles or the Baluch did European officers in the days of the Indian Empire?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I cannot say that my knowledge of the Indian Empire is perhaps what it should be, but I can say that the assistance being given to the Afghan national army has been very significant. In the recent operation in Musa Qala, the Afghan national army took the lead. It was able to do so because of the training and assistance it has been given by a wide range of nations.

Lord Inge: My Lords, the reply given by the noble Baroness was much more optimistic than I had expected; she is obviously talking to different people from those I am talking to. Is there nothing she thinks President Karzai and his Government could do to help the British Armed Forces in Afghanistan?

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Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I think that my reply was realistic; I was simply reporting what President Karzai said when he was in this country. However, I think that the Afghan Government have to face some significant issues and challenges, in particular the extension of good governance throughout the country. That is one of the areas on which we are trying to assist, because we are very well aware that there is still a great deal to do in that respect.

Lord Elton: My Lords, do the Government think that we have enough Chinook helicopters deployed in Afghanistan? If not, when we are going to get some more there?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, we have enough helicopters to do the key tasks but we would always like more. We recently had an agreement with NATO that it would supply provide significant helicopter lift in Afghanistan. That would be very helpful to us, particularly in southern Afghanistan, because we think it will free up some of our helicopters for operational use. However, this is one of the areas where we are continuing to try to make improvements.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, we are getting good reports about the Afghan national army, but what can be done to improve the Afghan national police?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, at the moment 76,000 people have been recruited into the Afghan national police, another area in which much of the work we have undertaken on training and reorganisation has been very important. Some of the countries that are not willing to perform in other operations are willing to undertake training and mentoring in areas such as this one. That mentoring is important and ongoing and a wide range of contributors are helping with it.

Lord Freeman: My Lords, can the Minister say what steps the British Government have been taking to encourage the Afghan Government to impress upon other nations the need to make a contribution—in addition to those of the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries—in the defence of their own country?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, it is correct that the International Security Assistance Force’s operations in Afghanistan are conducted at the invitation of the democratically elected Government of Afghanistan and with the authority of the United Nations. It is incumbent on those who stand by that organisation to try to do what they can. We have been trying to use our influence within NATO to get greater contributions. We have had a degree of success but would certainly like more.

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Bottled Water

3.21 pm

Baroness Quin asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, the Government consider the decision to drink bottled water to be a matter for consumer choice. However, this may be influenced by a number of factors, including cost and the impact on the environment. The Government and their agencies have a role in informing such consumer choice.

Baroness Quin: My Lords, given the efforts that successive Governments and the EU have made to ensure safe, healthy water from our taps, and given, too, the environmental costs involved in the transportation and packaging of bottled water, would the Government none the less look at possible ways of discouraging the consumption of bottled water, either through green taxes, labelling or just simply heightened public awareness of the issues? In particular, will the Government add their voice to prevent restaurants denying customers the option of tap water when they request it?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend on the latter point, and the Government will give support to it by talking up the use of tap water and its effect on the environment. But, ultimately, it is a matter for consumer choice.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, is not one of the more delightful results of our EU membership that we have been forced to spend some £64 billion on pointless European water purification directives when there was nothing wrong with our water? Is it not logical for Brussels to issue a regulation now banning bottled water?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, that goes to the point that I have just made: it is up to consumers. Tap water is available in most areas, it is completely safe to drink, and it is fully inspected; but, ultimately, it is a matter for consumer choice.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, while it is clearly a matter of consumer choice, should not that choice involve including the cost of carbon in what is purchased? In fact, the cost of carbon should be included in carbonated water.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, some of the carbon in carbonated water may be natural; some of it is not, of course. I have found that I cannot get Malvern sparkling or Badoit out of the tap. Eighty per cent of the water is still water. Bottled water can have 300 times the amount of carbon footprint than tap water. That point has to be put across because that is a part of the environmental cost. That is what the Government and their agencies will deploy as part of informing consumer choice.

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Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the reason a great many people drink bottled water instead of tap water is not that they think tap water is dangerous but that it tastes perfectly disgusting?

Lord Rooker: Then they have a choice, my Lords. I am not sure whether the noble Lady is referring to tap water in the United Kingdom being disgusting; if so, I hope she has made a complaint to the relevant authorities. It is properly inspected by the Drinking Water Inspectorate and the local authority environmental health officers.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, to carry on from what the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, said, is the Minister aware that last week in the south-west of England I drew water from a tap and it was opaque in colour? It may well have been perfectly fit to drink, but I did not try it.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, that matter should be reported to the Drinking Water Inspectorate, which monitors tap water. The Food Standards Agency is responsible for bottled water. The Government are setting an example: by the summer of this year, most government departments will not be using bottled water in any shape or form in meetings.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, is it not regrettable that bottled water costs much more than milk? Perhaps, in their promotion, the Government might consider telling members of the public the value of drinking milk. Our ordinary tap water in this country is of a very high standard, but there seems to be a lack of knowledge about the value of drinking good milk, particularly British milk.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am tempted to say that there is skimmed, semi-skimmed and full fat milk, and people have different views on it. Yes, milk is a healthy food—but it is a food, and this Question is about bottled water.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords—

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I cannot be the UN in these circumstances. Noble Lords have to work it out for themselves. Your Lordships have time for two questions, if one noble Lord will give way to the other now.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: Thank you, my Lords. Will the Minister do more to inform people how they are being ripped off when they drink bottled water? Will he confirm that the cost of tap water, which is very pure these days, is about 80p per tonne, which breaks down to 0.4p per gallon and 0.08p per litre? Why would they go out and pay 80p for bottled water in those circumstances?

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