In Committee, the Minister felt that the Bill already made provision for wide public consultation and that it was inappropriate to list specific consultees in the Bill. However, the Bill makes no reference to wide public consultation, merely referring to,

“such other persons as the Secretary of State considers … appropriate”,

which could of course mean no one at all. The Secretary of State needs to issue clear guidance about how, and with whom, consultation is to take place. This is surely a necessary provision if, as the Minister stated during discussion in Committee, the Government wish to,

“engage fully with all … stakeholders, including, where relevant, those who represent an environmental perspective”.—[

Official Report

, 9/7/13; col. GC 52.]

The House will note that the amendment as worded no longer lists consultees. This, I hope, addresses the Minister’s concern. However, it does require the Secretary of State to issue firm guidance to cover arrangements for wider public consultation.

Viscount Ridley (Con): My Lords, I declare my interests in various forms of energy as listed in the register. Before I turn to the topic of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, it has been drawn to my attention that when I spoke on the Bill at Second Reading I perhaps should have declared a potential interest. Having taken advice on the matter and satisfied myself that a shareholding was declared in the register, I do not believe there is a conflict. However, for the sake of good order, I am happy to declare that I have a shareholding in a company called the Weir Group, one of whose divisions supplies equipment to the oil and gas industry. I was unaware of Weir Group’s activities in this area at the time but I am happy to add the declaration now if it is thought necessary.

I have a lot of sympathy for what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has said. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can reassure us that we can close some of the loopholes through which developers can currently drive

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what is nothing less than the despoliation of many of our most beautiful parts of the countryside in the name of supposedly saving the planet. In particular, I would like to seek reassurance that the Bill will not weaken but will strengthen the guidance issued in June by the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protection. Reaction to that planning guidance has been disappointing. The wind industry boasted in July that the national policy has not been changed by recent ministerial statements. It seems to me that there is insufficient protection at the moment for the most treasured landscapes of this country from the blight of wind farms. It is, to quote a spokesman for the Council for the Protection of Rural England,

“a bit of a free for all. The general view held by developers is to have a go—to put in an application and see what happens”.

Some 188 onshore wind farms were approved in the first eight months of 2013. Applications have trebled this year. National parks are affected either directly or indirectly, areas of outstanding natural beauty as well, and in Scotland, national scenic areas. We read this week of the threat to Hardy country near Tolpuddle. Navitus Bay off the Isle of Wight—the New Forest is seeing a connection to this—mid-Wales, Snowdonia, the Llyn peninsula, the Meifod valley, are all affected by enormous numbers of applications for wind farms. All too many parts of the highlands of Scotland are seeing what is effectively the industrialisation of the countryside. It is not just the turbines but the pylons that connect them to the grid which are marching through people’s most favourite views.

Already many of the most beautiful parts of this country have been scarred. In my native Northumberland my view of Simonside is now affected by wind farms, as are the Cheviots and the Wannies. Above all, the sensational view of the Northumberland skyline from Lindisfarne has been turned into a Golgotha. To quote the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle, who is not in his place:

“There is no evidence that I have seen that wind farms will ever provide the reliable controllable energy this is required by our society, however many there may be. It is a basic Christian truth that we all have a duty and a responsibility to care for and exercise wise stewardship over God’s creation, which has been entrusted to us”.

That echoes what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said about our temporary stewardship of the planet.

The right reverend Prelate made a crucial point because this might all be worth while if these things produced worthwhile amounts of electricity, but they do not. This morning, about 6% of our power was coming from wind, which is about 1% of our total energy. There is a feeling that wind seems to be exempt from the normal rules. If I were to erect a structure 140 metres high, doubling the height above sea level of the hills alongside the valley of the Stinchar in Ayrshire, for example, there would rightly be an outcry. If I were to kill hundreds of birds of prey every year, there would be outrage. If I were to kill thousands of bats, I would go to gaol. How can it be that the wind industry uniquely is allowed to ride roughshod over the environmental rules that protect the rest of us from anyone spoiling the view, killing eagles, decimating bats, and pouring concrete into peatland?

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The wind industry has proved uniquely insensitive when it comes to looking after the countryside. These amendments are a chance to put environmental safeguards in place to ensure proper consultation.

Baroness Whitaker (Lab): My Lords, I would like to record my support for this group. I declare an interest as president of the South Downs Society. I, too, thank the John Muir Trust. Environmental protection does not go by default. It cannot be left to arrive on its own. The whole history of our relatively commendable standards of environmental protection is vigorous, defensive and positive action by individuals, associations and states. State action, state confirmation of the quality of our environment, is necessary to protect the future. I hope that the Minister will accept these amendments.

Baroness Worthington (Lab): My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Judd for tabling this group of amendments and for his incredibly detailed explanation of the points that he seeks to raise. He not only gave an incredibly detailed explanation of why the group is so important; he also very commendably addressed some of the answers that the Minister gave in Committee. We are very grateful for that.

It is absolutely clear that, at the moment, we talk about an energy trilemma—the difficulty of marrying up the needs to tackle change, to keep bills affordable and to keep the lights on—but actually it is a quadlemma, if noble Lords can bear my coining a new phrase, because in the process of meeting those three objectives we cannot see the sacrificing of social and environmental standards in the process. For that reason, this group of amendments is very important.

I came into environmental campaigning through an interest in the natural world and the natural environment. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act was one of the first pieces of legislation that I worked on because I care passionately about preserving areas of beauty, species and habitats and the diversity of the natural world for future generations. But that is not incompatible with moving forward into a low-carbon energy system.

The noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, has singled out wind for particular opprobrium in terms of despoiling our landscape. It is easy to forget that one of the major sources of despoiling our landscape is industrialisation in general. This includes mining, particularly opencast mining, and the new form of industrialisation which may well be coming upon us in the form of gas fracking. If you want visual disturbance, then the rigs that will need to be placed for fracking will also have an impact.

The noble Viscount was correct in also highlighting pylons and grid connections as an issue. However, those apply to all forms of generation, not just wind. The reinforcement of the grid for nuclear will also be an issue that needs to be taken into account.

We are very supportive of the principle behind these amendments. It is important that the first amendment is about demonstration of compliance. If noble Lords read these amendments, it might be easy to dismiss them and say, “Of course they have to comply with laws. That is why we have laws”. However, I think that my noble friend’s point is about the degree to which the authority is required to demonstrate compliance.

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The very important point is that the Bill seems to be removing and repealing existing guidance and replacing it with a second-order replacement. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reassurance that that is not the case and that social and environmental guidance is not being made subordinate to other primary concerns.

The final amendment on public consultation is also very important. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply. We are sympathetic to this. It is rather late in the day and other forms of wording might be more appropriate but I very much support the principle behind these amendments.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for his amendments. The Government recognise that energy production and consumption should be sustainable. That is why Ofgem has been given duties to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development and to have regard to the effect on the environment of activities connected with the conveyance of gas and the generation, transmission, distribution and supply of electricity.

Ofgem can also consider sustainability implications when it carries out impact assessments for important regulatory decisions. The amendments before us would require Ofgem to demonstrate that it has complied with its general environmental duties. We agree that Ofgem should be accountable. It already has to produce an annual report on matters that fall within the scope of its functions, including its environmental obligations. This accountability will be reinforced by the strategy and policy statement as Ofgem will be required to set out its strategy for implementing the statement in forward work programming. It will also be required to report annually on its contribution towards furthering the delivery of the policy outcomes.

6.30 pm

The amendments would also require the Government to issue social and environmental guidance. It may help here if I explain why the Bill removes the guidance provision. The Ofgem review found that the guidance has not achieved coherence between the Government’s energy strategy and the regulatory regime. They recommended that it should be replaced by a strategy and policy statement. This statement will set out the Government’s strategic priorities, the main considerations which have informed their energy policy and the policy outcomes which are to be achieved to implement this policy.

Ofgem must have regard to the strategic priorities when it carries out its regulatory functions and it must carry out these functions in the way it considers best calculated to further delivery of the policy outcomes. This is a stronger requirement than applied in the guidance, to which Ofgem only had to have regard. The Bill therefore goes further than the noble Lord’s amendment and the statement will be a fitter mechanism for achieving coherence between energy policy and regulation. The strategy and policy statement can include material on social and environmental matters. We will take the current guidance into account as we develop its contents but keeping the guidance alongside would dilute the value of the statement.

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The amendments would require the Secretary of State to publish guidance on wider public engagement, which would apply before he decided either to leave the strategy and policy statement unchanged or to withdraw it after a review. The Bill already provides for the Secretary of State to consult Ofgem, Scottish and Welsh Ministers and such other persons as he deems appropriate. In practice, when the Government review the statement, they will consult a range of stakeholders before deciding how to proceed. Guidance on wider public engagement, as proposed by this amendment, is therefore unnecessary. I should also stress that the strategy and policy statement will not be used to introduce new policies. It will reflect on established policy, which would have been consulted upon previously, as appropriate.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd asked whether the repeal of the social and environmental guidance would reduce protection for social and environmental matters. I hope that I have reassured him that social and environmental matters will be taken into account in identifying which policy outcomes should be included in the strategy and policy statement. Ofgem already is required to have regard to social and environmental matters as part of its existing remit.

The noble Lord also asked what practical difference the strategy and policy statement would make. I hope that he is reassured that it clearly lays out the strategic priorities of the Government’s energy policy and that the policy outcomes are expected to be achieved as a result of implementing that policy. Ofgem will have new duties to have regard to those strategic priorities when carrying out its regulatory functions and must carry out these functions in a way that it considers best calculated to further the delivery of a specified policy outcome.

I hope that the noble Lord feels reassured that the Government have taken very much into account his concerns on sustainability. Ofgem has a range of powers and duties, including its principal objective to protect the interests of existing and future consumers in relation to electricity conveyed. These statutory duties are applied through the price controls that regulate the monopoly networks. The aim is to drive real benefits for consumers and to provide companies with strong incentives to meet the challenges of delivering a sustainable energy sector at a lower cost.

Lord Judd: Perhaps I may ask the Minister a question, because her answer would be immensely helpful for me in considering what to say in my reply. Will she reassure me that she will write to me a letter, which can be placed in the Library and elsewhere, setting out precisely how the Government will satisfy themselves that Ofgem will pay due regard to the effect on the environment of activity connected with the conveyance of gas through pipes or generation, transmission and the distribution or supply of electricity? What measures and benchmarks, and associated matters, will be taken into account and used in establishing those benchmarks?

Baroness Verma: My Lords, of course I am absolutely happy to ensure that I write to the noble Lord on the points that he has raised today. I also say to my noble friend that I hope I have reassured him that planning decisions are as they have been laid out and that we will take very much into account the views of the local

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communities, as has been laid out by the Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government. I hope that on that note I have conveyed enough reassurance for the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Judd: My Lords, first, I thank those who have spoken in support of my amendments. I particularly welcome the strong support from my Front Bench. The Minister certainly has reassured me that she takes these issues seriously. I think that she is a civilised person who sees the force of what I have been arguing. I just would like to make several observations. First, we all bemoan, and English literature is full of references, what happened in the Industrial Revolution. Without in any way undermining the drive and everything that was so important in the Industrial Revolution, with the benefit of hindsight we can see that things could have been done much better. We would not have seen the same degree of rape and misuse of valuable rural, scenic assets in the country.

My second observation draws on the OECD report that has just been published. One of the reasons why the UK apparently scores relatively highly as being a good place to live is because of the environmental considerations of living here. We should jealously preserve that quality in our life. I have no doubt whatever that, in the context of what I have come to regard a very ideological age with its total commitment to the market, the quantative issues in forward policy will be very well put forward and strenuously advocated. If we really take seriously the preservation of our heritage, the landscape and all that makes for a wonderful country in which to live, those arguments will not necessarily automatically by market mechanisms come forward in the same way, because these are public goods. Therefore, from this standpoint, a much stronger argument about just what it means to take into account these considerations and who should be involved in representing and presenting them should be in the Bill. At the moment, because she is a very reasonable person, I am sure that the Minister will understand that however much aspiration there is in the drafting of the Bill, it leaves an awful lot to the subjectivity of the regulator. To be told that the regulator is going to have to report annually on the fulfilment of the objectives is, again, a nice aspiration; it is full of good intention, I am sure. But against which precise benchmarks is he going to report? That is why the letter could be so important, and why I hope—I am sorry, I should have stipulated this—that it will be with us before Third Reading.

From all the standpoints, it is important to recognise that we are talking about what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle expressed so well, as put to us by the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley. We are talking about our duty to the future. I am sure no noble Lords want their children and grandchildren to grow up in an age in which we have enshrined in law and legislation the need to know the price of everything, but in which we have allowed the decline of knowing about the value of things. That is why the considerations before us are of such importance.

I do not question the Minister’s goodwill, but I suggest to her—because we are friends, I can put it to her bluntly—that in the light of experience it could

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quickly look like an awful lot of waffle. What matters is to have some muscle in the Bill, supporting the excellent aspirations of the Minister, and that we ensure that the right course is taken. At this stage, in thanking those who participated in this, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 93 withdrawn.

Amendment 94 not moved.

Clause 125: Review

Amendments 95 and 96 not moved.

Clause 130: Power to modify energy supply licences: domestic supply contracts

Amendment 97

Moved by Lord Roper

97: Clause 130, page 100, line 16, at end insert—

“(ba) require information to be provided in a form that is clear and easy to understand;”

Lord Roper (LD): My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Maddock, who is away from the House with her Select Committee today, I shall move Amendment 97 and speak to the other amendments in this group. At Committee stage, she tabled an amendment to the tariff reform clauses in the Bill which we are now considering, suggesting that suppliers should provide details of their cheapest tariff on bills,

“in a clear and easily understood format”.

She developed that in her speech in Grand Committee. For those who were not in Grand Committee, I recommend that they read it, because she made her argument extremely effectively. The clauses in question provide the power to require suppliers to provide a message on bills telling customers if they offer a tariff which could save them money, and how much money they could save by moving the tariff.

In Committee, my noble friend Lady Maddock raised concerns that suppliers would make this confusing on their bills, and gave examples of how much difficulty people had in reading their existing bills. She suggested that her amendment, which indeed is being proposed again at this stage in a slightly amended form, would prevent them from doing this. My noble friend the Minister agreed with the sentiment of the amendment during Grand Committee, and said that she would consider it. I know how grateful my noble friend Lady Maddock is that the Minister gave a great deal of attention to it and has been able to add her name to the set of amendments which we are considering today. Although this amendment is not exactly in the same place as originally envisaged by my noble friend Lady Maddock, it sits within the same clause and has the same intent and legal force as the original proposals.

The remaining amendments in this group are minor and consequential to ensure consistency in the terms used throughout the clauses. I look forward to these amendments being made to the Bill. I beg to move.

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6.45 pm

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I would briefly like to add our support to these amendments. It is very good that the intentions of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, have been taken on board by the Government, and it should lead to a significant improvement in the way in which consumers understand this market and their own bills. At the end of the day, with the massive changes that are expected in energy policy, unless consumers are themselves convinced that this is all part of a coherent and positive strategy there will be serious political problems down the line for the Government in power, whoever they are. I therefore think the Minister has been very sensible. I congratulate her on taking this initiative and making it her own, and give my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Lord, Lord Roper, for pursuing it in the first instance.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury (LD): My Lords, I will comment briefly on this clause because in my life hitherto I have spent a great deal of time trying to help the great British public understand some of the contracts that have come their way. I am afraid to say—and I do not think anyone in the House will disagree—that a good deal of cynicism has been employed by some of the very large energy suppliers, and indeed other suppliers in recent years, designed expressly to confuse the consumer with a view to preventing ordinary folk from understanding what their best tariff, for example, might be. This is a clause of great virtue, which should be supported.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their support for this amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Roper, for speaking on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, to her amendment. These amendments would place in the Bill a requirement that information in consumer energy bills must be,

“provided in a form that is clear and easy to understand”.

My noble friend Lady Maddock raised the importance of this at Second Reading and in Committee, and the Government agree it is vital. Ensuring consumers are provided with clear and simple information regarding their existing tariff and others available to them is one of the key aims of the powers in question, and of Ofgem’s retail market review. I am therefore very grateful to my noble friend for bringing forward these amendments and I can confirm that the Government are happy to accept them.

Lord Roper: My Lords, in the circumstances, there is nothing I need to say.

Amendment 97 agreed.

Amendments 98 to 100

Moved by Lord Roper

98: Clause 130, page 100, line 18, leave out from “information” to “about” in line 23

99: Clause 130, page 100, line 24, after “terms” insert “to be provided”

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100: Clause 130, page 100, line 24, at end insert—

“(c) make provision about the way in which information is to be provided, which may in particular require information to be provided—

(i) by means of a code or otherwise using a format readable by an electronic device, or

(ii) in a way which facilitates processing of the information by means of an electronic device.”

Amendments 98 to 100 agreed.

Amendment 101

Moved by Baroness Verma

101: Clause 130, page 102, line 9, at end insert—

“(13) A statutory instrument containing an order under subsection (10) is subject to annulment in pursuance of an order of either House of Parliament.”

Baroness Verma: My Lords, Amendments 101, 103 and 104 make the order-making power relating to domestic tariffs in Clauses 130 and 131 subject to the negative resolution procedure. This was a recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I again thank the committee for its consideration of the Bill. The Government agree that the recommendation would be an improvement, so I will move these amendments to give effect to it.

Lord Roper: My Lords, I welcome the response that the Government have made to the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. This and other recommendations were raised in Grand Committee. In virtually every case the Government have been able to come back and accept those recommendations.

Lord Grantchester (Lab): My Lords, the House is rightly wary of allowing wide discretionary powers without being able to suitably assess their application later. Your Lordships’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee expressed concern about the powers in the Bill. In Committee, on 9 July, along with the noble Lord, Lord Roper, we highlighted these concerns. At the time the Government agreed to bring forward amendments to ensure that the Bill and the secondary legislation would be complicit. While it has taken several iterations between the Minister’s department and the Select Committee to get it right, I am pleased to see that the Government finally listened to the recommendations that were made and tabled these amendments. Parliament must be able to scrutinise the Secretary of State’s complicated power to make orders about domestic supply contracts. After all, the power under Clause 130 would in effect enable the Secretary of State to categorise the terms of domestic supply contracts as “discretionary terms” or “principal terms”, which is a significant power. We welcome the government amendments because they will ensure that any such order is given appropriate parliamentary scrutiny under the negative resolution procedure. There will be a 40-day window during which Parliament can review the draft of the proposed modifications.

Amendment 101 agreed.

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Amendment 102

Moved by Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

102: After Clause 130, insert the following new Clause—

“Transparency for consumers

The power under section 130 to modify energy supply licences may be exercised so as to make provision requiring a licence holder to provide information on a consumer bill that breaks down the total cost charged to the consumer by showing each of—

(a) the amount that goes to Government environmental levies or programmes;

(b) the amount that goes to administration costs;

(c) the amount that goes to wholesale energy costs;

(d) the amount for raw energy costs; and

(e) any other categories of cost.”

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con): My Lords, my noble friend Lord Marlesford is doing his duty with the European Union Sub-Committee in Berlin and has asked me to move this amendment, to which I have added my name with some considerable enthusiasm. I find it quite extraordinary that my noble friend put her name to the previous amendment, the first line of which refers to requiring,

“information to be provided in a form that is clear and easy to understand”.

In preparing for this amendment, I looked at a selection of energy bills from various providers. They are almost impossible to understand. Some of them provide information about the amount that is being levied in order to meet the Government’s green agenda, while some do not. Some provide the information in the form of percentages. But surely an absolutely basic example of justice for consumers is that they should know what they are paying for. If you take your car into the garage to be serviced, you expect to see what the items were that make up the bill at the end of the day. What we have here, I am sorry to say, is a kind of conspiracy within the political classes to load on to people’s bills the cost of the green agenda in a way that is not transparent.

Although the Government’s rhetoric is continually about the need for transparency, as people go about their day-to-day business and receive their electricity and gas bills, they are not able to see how much is going on subsidising windmills and how much is being used to provide for the transfer of electricity by building huge pylons and other infrastructure programmes. For example, a line of pylons is being erected all the way down the A9 in Scotland, going past Stirling Castle, in order to deliver power from windmills which are themselves being subsidised. I believe that most consumers in the country have no idea that all this is being levied on their bills, and as such it is a highly regressive tax that is being paid by the poorest. At the very least, whichever side of the argument one is on, it is right that people should know exactly how much of their bill is going towards government environmental levies, how much is going towards wholesale energy costs, how much relates to raw energy costs, and the various other elements.

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During the course of what has been a frustrating day—I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Verma, her special adviser and her officials for discussing this amendment with me—I have found it impossible to understand why the Government are not prepared to ask Ofgem to ensure that all of the providers of gas and electricity break down their bills in a way that is consistent and comparable. It should not be done in percentage terms, but in financial amounts. If the bill is £300 for the quarter, it should show how much of that was spent on the various added components but which are hidden in the bill at present. I have a horrible feeling that there is, among those who are keen on pursuing the green agenda, a desire to keep this quiet because of the concern it would cause among the electorate and in the population; namely, that we are asking some of the poorest people to pay what is a highly regressive tax.

I know that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has promised to roll back these green taxes on people’s bills, which were originally the idea of the leader of the Opposition, Mr Miliband, when he was the environment Secretary. I would respectfully suggest to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister that if he wants to get any credit for rolling back the green levies on people’s energy bills, it would be a good idea to identify them before they are rolled back, because they are likely to be subsumed into the price increases that are being brought forward by the energy companies. Consumers will then be unaware of the impact of the policy, which presumably would mean yet another burden being placed on taxpayers. In the light of recent experience, that actually means the people in the middle, who are bearing the brunt of the additional tax burden which is already being levied by this coalition Government.

I hope that my noble friend will feel able to accept this amendment. If she is unable to do so, I hope that she will at least give us a clear statement of the Government’s policy on this matter. Is it the Government’s intention that every consumer of electricity and gas in the country will receive a bill that is broken down in explicit terms, showing how it is made up and what the costs of the Government’s policies are? They should include the policies in terms of insulation and the policies that are paying for additional, expensive offshore and onshore wind generation. If the Government’s position is that consumers should not have that information, can they explain exactly why they feel that this should not be a priority? I know that my noble friend will say that the Government are in favour of transparency and that they would like to see less complex bills, but we already know that the utility companies are capable of producing them. What we need is a conductor to make sure that they do so on a consistent and comparable basis.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has also said that it is important that people should be able to switch in order to get value for money. If you do not know how much of your bill is being spent on, say, insulation programmes—one energy provider may be more efficient than another—how can you choose between different providers according to their efficiency if that information is not made available to you? A cursory scan of some of these bills reveals that the

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regulator requires all sorts of information to be included. That may be of interest, but not, I suspect, to many customers. What they want to know is how much is their bill and how much of it actually relates to keeping the lights on in their homes and how much relates to other desirable or undesirable policies. I hope that my noble friend will feel able at the least to give a commitment that this shambles, because shambles it is if one studies the way in which these bills are presented, will be put right quickly. I beg to move.

Lord Campbell-Savours (Lab): My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I am a strong supporter of the green agenda. This is an amendment about transparency, and I like it. I like it a lot and I strongly support it. It appeals to a belief that stands at the heart of my politics: transparency shapes conduct, knowledge and understanding. However, the current arrangements for utility billing make understanding impossible in precisely the way the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has set out in his speech—much of which I support but, of course, much of which I do not.

In the last Parliament I moved a whole series of amendments on a number of Bills. I call them the transparency amendments as they were all based on a simple principle: shine a light, expose the truth and trust the people to make the right judgment. I believe that the issue of transparency will dominate the politics of this century. It will transcend partisan, party political debate. It is the principal driver behind justice, fairness, honesty in administration and personal conduct, integrity in politics, restraint in exploitation—which is what we are considering here—and general enlightenment. It will help restore public confidence in our public institutions and ultimately the private sector.

7 pm

This amendment is adventurous because it is about the private sector. The response of my party should be a knee-jerk “yes” to this amendment. We have everything to gain from it. It would be a worthy component in the series of Miliband initiatives which are now regularly being announced. The reality is that there has been an undignified assault on the whole spectrum of environmental taxation, much of it based on untruths. Those attacks need a response. We are not winning the argument. The tabloids are slaughtering our case in the absence of readily available information which the public understand. The amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, seeks to make information available which the public can readily understand.

If we want to win this argument, let the people decide for themselves on the basis of the facts, not partisan political tabloid fiction. The provision of this kind of information will lead to a far more sensible, informed debate. It will reveal the truth behind green taxation. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, is to be congratulated. I am sorry that he is not here today to hear this debate which he will no doubt read. I strongly support this amendment and I hope many of my colleagues do as well.

Lord Teverson: Normally when we have bills, either from supermarkets or other places, we do not actually have a breakdown of those costs but in an industry

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that is regulated as much as energy has become, I think this is a really excellent idea. It is something that would become a myth-buster. My noble friend Lord Forsyth is right that there has been an embarrassment in terms of trying to shield some of these costs or sweep them under a carpet. That has backfired because they have been used as an excuse by energy companies to justify major increases when clearly they are not the major cause of the increases. One way of breaking that myth about the extent to which green taxes—or however they are described—have contributed to the rise of energy bills would be to have this level of transparency.

Which?, as noble Lords will know, is one of the major consumer campaign organisations and puts the green tax at 5% of total electricity bills. If you add in all the other government initiatives it comes to about 9% of the total. I think that is the most trustworthy of organisations because it is consumer-focused. I would also like to see on regulated industries’ bills how much UK corporation tax they pay in relation to their total turnover and profit. I am not saying the electricity industry is particularly bad in that way, but such a scheme would be particularly interesting in an industry which, through its bills, receives a fair degree of public subsidy towards the generation it undertakes.

In principle, I think that this amendment is excellent. I am not saying I would vote for it if it came to a Division but more transparency would break the myths and anti-green propaganda that we have seen, particularly over the last couple of years.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: Before the noble Lord sits down can he just explain—I am very puzzled—why he would not vote for an amendment that he believes is right?

Lord Teverson: That is because I feel there are some proposals that are even more important. If the noble Lord wanted to test me, I suppose it would be interesting to see what I would do. Perhaps he can put me on the spot. It would be interesting in terms of gas bills but of course the figure would actually be zero.

Viscount Ridley: My Lords, I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. There is no doubt that the policy of putting green subsidies on to consumer bills was designed to disguise and hide the costs and hope that we would not notice. We can disagree about whether the results are going to be pleasing or not, but we have noticed that the consumer has rumbled the ruse, so it is time, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said, to be transparent and honest. It would help to resolve some of the disagreements we have heard again this afternoon about how much green levies are adding to bills.

There is an infographic on the Government website that says that £286 will be added in 2020. The Department of Energy and Climate Change says that the figure is £199. The Committee on Climate Change, as we have heard this afternoon, says it is only £100. A lot of these calculations leave out VAT, upgrades to the grid and system integration costs. They often make unreliable assumptions about wholesale gas prices and how they

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are going to change but above all these calculations leave out the indirect bill—the cost of green levies that is added to industrial and commercial users of electricity who then pass it on to individual consumers through the cost of goods and services. A pint of milk will be more expensive because of green levies paid by the dairy and the supermarket. If you look at the quantums involved, this roughly trebles the cost of green levies, two-thirds of which fall on commercial customers.

The way we have of doing things at the moment is underhand, regressive—as has been said—and unfair. Those who heat their homes with electricity are hit the hardest by these green levies. Contrary to what has been said today, 2.9 million people in this country heat their homes with electricity and those include many of the poorest people. Ideally we would remove these costs altogether and put them into taxation. Then the rich would pay more of them and the poor would pay less. If we cannot have that, then let us break it out honestly and transparently and see what there is. To those who say that it cannot be done and that it is too difficult, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has shown me one of his own bills where it has been done very nicely. I think it is definitely possible and it should be done.

Lord Berkeley of Knighton (CB): My Lords, I would like to follow up on that point and also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I feel I represent people in mid-Wales—another area which is profoundly threatened with pylons and wind farms. When I get my council tax bill, the police, the fire services and everything else is listed in just the way the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is suggesting. I do not really see any problem in bringing greater transparency which we would all like to see and which might help us to understand how these bills are put together.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: Some years ago I moved amendments to an energy Bill to the effect that the bills should actually show the breakdown of the costs on the supplier that is then charged on the bill. I was therefore quite pleased when I found that my electricity bills—I draw my supplies from British Gas—in fact do that. They do not show the details of what it paid up but have the total cost of government, environmental and social schemes. It is 11%. I can understand the desirability of providing people with an opportunity to break that down and find out how that figure is made up.

When we debated this in Committee, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester made this case very strongly. As it was in Committee there was quite an exchange between him and my noble friend on the Front Bench, at the end of which my noble friend said very firmly:

“My Lords, as I said earlier, I am taking the amendment away and shall reflect on what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester has raised. Like noble Lords, I am very keen that information is available, simple and understandable, but I am also keen to ensure that I can deliver what I am able to. Part of that is by taking this away and giving it further consideration”.—[Official Report, 9/7/13; col. GC 80.]

That she did, and subsequently sent a letter to those of us on the Committee. I will not read the whole passage, but it is headed “Information on consumer bills” and states:

“I undertook to reflect on”—

the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester’s—

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“suggestion that companies should be obliged to include information on consumers’ bills about Government environmental levies and programmes”—

thereafter pointing out that the bills are pretty crowded documents. My bill not only tells me what I have incurred during the quarter in question but what my estimated total consumption will be and how that compares with the estimated total consumption of the previous year. All those things are quite interesting, but one feels, how far does one go?

My noble friend continued:

“I agree that we must be transparent about the impact of Government environmental levies and programmes on consumer bills and that is why the Government has committed to publishing this information annually, through the Price and Bill impacts Report. In addition Ofgem produces fact sheets that provide a breakdown of costs which make up a typical energy bill”.

How many consumers are aware of those documents? Even if they were aware, how would they get hold of them? I understand the difficulty in seeking to break down that 11%. If someone is really interested in that, no doubt they can pursue it by looking it up on the internet, where I am sure that the figures are available. I hope that my noble friend can give us some reassurance about the information. As my noble friend Lord Ridley said, the public have rumbled that already; they now know that that is what is happening; hence the suggestion from the Prime Minister that some of it should be placed on taxation and not on the bills. That will no doubt be considered.

My noble friends Lord Forsyth and Lord Marlesford have a point here. I am not entirely sure that the letter from my noble friend Lady Verma has dealt with that. Can we not be told how people can best get hold of that information if they want to? Why is it not possible for every energy supplier to do what British Gas does on my bills and what Southern Electric does on a sample bill which it has given to me, which shows the cost of government, environmental and social schemes to be 11%. That does not seem an unreasonable thing to ask for, and I shall listen to what my noble friend says with considerable interest.

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard (CB): My Lords, it is probably quite unnecessary to add to the avalanche of support for the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, which I am sure that the Minister will accept. Just in case she is still in any doubt, I will add my support for the amendment, which is absolutely right. Of course, this is the anti-hypocrisy amendment. It is much needed today, when we have spent a lot of time discussing fuel poverty. One very good way to deal with fuel poverty would be to keep prices down and finance environmental and social objectives through general taxation. That would be socially wise and would assist in dealing with the problem of fuel poverty.

I should say that my interests recorded in the register include the fact that I am the director of a power company. I am delighted not to hear boos and hisses—although I think that there was a silent one. There is hypocrisy in the current criticism of the power companies, given that this year sees the introduction of the Energy Companies Obligation and the Green Deal. The energy companies are obliged to spend huge sums of money on insulating domestic property. Then they are criticised for putting prices up.

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7.15 pm

I do not know exactly what number would be shown if a breakdown of that kind showed the amount that goes to government environmental levies or programmes. I do not know what is the correct number among those listed by the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley. Like him, I think that it would be far better to have none of them and do all this through taxation. It is right that the public should know what the levies are. I know that you can work it out company by company if you are very clever and use the website, but I do not see why it should not be in the Bill. I therefore agree with the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. He and I might dispute what is myth and what is reality, but let us have it all out there. Let us get away from all the hypocrisy. I totally disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, who talked about deliberate obfuscation in energy bills. That is absolutely not the case. If the regulator required the companies to produce information as set out in the amendment, the companies would, in my view, be delighted to do it.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I hate to see my noble friend Lady Verma surrounded, as though she is having to defend the OK Corral. She has defended the Bill, with its many complexities, with superb clarity and energy, but in this case, I see the walls closing in around her. It seems to me that the case is nearly unanswerable. I will give her one defence.

We all have our own experience. I am currently resident in London. My gas bill specifically says that 19.3% is added as a result of green levies, charges and taxes. I imagine that that includes VAT. That probably sounds too much. Some clarity would make clear whether it was too much or too little. On the other hand—this is possibly the only argument against the amendment—it does not show all the other green elements locked into the charge that the energy company makes as it delivers the gas or electricity before all those identifiable levies and taxes.

My noble friend Lord Ridley reminded us that the costs involved in the accelerated decarbonisation programme—driven by various EU directives, among other things, I cannot resist saying—the closing down of coal-fired power stations and our need to replace our nuclear fleet at colossal cost to the consumer in future, are already incorporated in the final price of the gas or electricity product before any of those additional taxes. The real cost of the whole programme—which may or may not be worth it; we are not debating that now, although I have my views—is not in the same league as the very small figures we heard earlier from my noble friend Lord Deben and others for the marginal additional cost of the identifiable levies.

We really need to take a step forward on that front. My noble friend Lord Marlesford has, rightly, been arguing about these things for many years. The time has come when, if there is to be a sensible debate about the price being paid, who should bear that cost, how regressive it should be and how much of the burden the poor, and particularly the older poor, should bear, the case is almost unanswerable for requiring energy suppliers to say what charges they are making, what is the origin of the charges and how they make up the total bill.

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Lord Lawson of Blaby (Con): My Lords, I, too, support my noble friend Lord Forsyth. I do not think that anyone can disagree with this amendment—although, sadly, I suspect that the Minister may. It has been striking that there has been no disagreement on any side of the House, and support on all sides, for this transparency amendment. Indeed, support has come not merely from all sides of the House but from all sides of the green debate. Everybody agrees that there should be transparency. Everybody agrees, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, suggested, that there should be no hypocrisy. There is no argument against this amendment other than a desire for concealment. A desire for concealment is not a very reputable position for the Government to take. As a strong supporter of this Government, I regret that they should be in the business of promoting concealment, for that is what this is about.

If the amendment is not carried and the Government do not get the credit for introducing this transparency, sooner or later—I suspect it will be sooner rather than later—one of our great newspapers, maybe the Daily Mail, will run a great campaign, saying that the Government are concealing the position and that consumers should be told. Eventually the Government will have to give in. It will be a great triumph for the Daily Mail, or whichever newspaper it is, and it will be a great defeat for the Government. It is very foolish for the Government to go into this knowing they will get—I do not know whether this is a parliamentary expression—a bloody nose. So I ask my noble friend to think again. She is skilful and politically aware. Her officials are not—that is not their job. She should have the nous to accept this amendment, which has been so reasonably proposed by my noble friend Lord Forsyth and so widely, indeed universally, supported on all sides of the House.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch (UKIP): My Lords, very briefly, I, too, support this amendment. My only regret is that perhaps it does not go far enough in suggesting that all the various environmental levies should be broken down to show how much has been spent on wind power, and what percentage of electricity consumed and paid for came from wind. If that were revealed to the general public through this amendment, it would hasten the end of the absurd and socially unfair wind farm project.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, this has been an interesting debate. Nobody who spoke was against transparency of costs. In passing, as an avid reader of the Daily Mail, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, that the Mail has made a pretty good job of drawing the consumer’s attention to the fact that there are such charges—although not always accurately, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, implied. It may be that from all points of view that a different form of transparency would make things clearer.

My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours hoped to get a knee-jerk reaction from his Front Bench in support of this, and that was my initial inclination. I am in favour of transparency for consumers. I am not in favour of concealing any costs which make up the bill, including those imposed by the Government,

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whether the charges were started under the previous Government or were, like the carbon floor price, started by this Government. The problem all Governments have with this is that it is all very well to argue for this all going onto direct taxation—intellectually that must be the case and in terms of fairness one can argue it—but I am afraid that there are those in government, one of whom is not unknown to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who would object to significant amounts of money coming from direct taxation. To be frank, I do not think any Government would easily be persuaded, having put these charges on consumer bills, to move them back to direct taxation. However, that option is always there.

The other, less drastic option is to make these charges less regressive, because they are effectively a poll tax. However, I am not completely joining the surrounding of the Minister on this because, while it is right to seek transparency, it is not right to do so in order to attack the Government’s green or social charges. We should look at the totality of costs which make up the consumer bill. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, is right, but it needs to go further.

The corporations have used the green charges to explain price rises. Sometimes they have been right and sometimes they have been, at best, misleading. There are other things which go on within supply companies. We do not know the cost of the network. Network charges are a significant part of costs. Nor do we know how the internal finances of the energy companies operate. Some of these companies are vertically integrated. Are they buying from themselves? What is the actual price that is reflected in the bill?

The Minister should take this away and look at how we would break down all costs in a way which consumers could understand, and which did not highlight just one aspect of them. With my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, I support green charges. I do not think they are geared in the proper way, and perhaps schemes funded by taxation might be better, but I am in favour of green charges. I am also unafraid of scrutinising them and getting greater transparency, but that should be done in the context of looking at all the costs which make up a bill.

The list here is incomplete. If it had been a longer list, or if it had stopped as a general principle at the word “consumer” in the last line of the main paragraph, I think that the Minister could accept it and I would support her. I hope she—

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: How can the noble Lord say that the list is incomplete when the last item on it is,

“any other categories of cost”?

Lord Whitty: Because it draws attention to the first four, which relate to other matters. It does not allow for the lumping together of tax costs and environmental charges, as some companies voluntarily do. Rather than end with a vague, catch-all phrase we should be balanced, we should look at the totality of costs and we should list them. I hope that the Minister will take away the spirit of this amendment and the wording of

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the first couple of sentences, and look at it in a rather wider context, perhaps coming back at Third Reading with a rejigged amendment. However, I cannot support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Forsyth for moving the amendment on behalf of my noble friend Lord Marlesford and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester. I sympathise with the aims behind this amendment. Consumers have a right to know what they are paying for, particularly when it is a basic essential, such as energy. The Government recognise the importance of providing clear and consistent information about the content of bills. Every year my department publishes a breakdown of costs that make up an energy bill along with a detailed assessment of the impacts of our policies. We feel strongly that suppliers should be open and honest about the costs that they incur, and noble Lords will have heard my colleagues in the other place repeating this call in recent weeks.

7.30 pm

Our priority is to make bills as useful as possible for consumers and to ensure that they have the clearest information possible to help them engage in the market. We want to see key information presented clearly and simply, including information on the cheapest tariffs available to them. We want the information that suppliers provide on bills to prompt consumers to consider whether they are getting the best deal that they can and to empower them to shop around. Ofgem’s retail market review proposals are designed to do just that, and have required suppliers to make a major overhaul of their bill design in order to comply with the new requirements.

I do not want to pre-empt the work that is going to be done by the Cabinet Office as laid out by the Prime Minister in the context of the competition test. My noble friend is aware that I am sympathetic to the idea of ensuring that consumers know exactly what they are paying for.

I have listened very carefully to arguments from across the House. Given the strength of feeling shown in today’s debate, I would like to take away the arguments that have been made and perhaps follow through with noble Lords who are happy to discuss with me how to better look at this amendment. In the mean time, my noble friend needs to recognise that I and the Government have a commitment to transparency and clarity on bills. While I undertake to take my noble friend’s amendment away, I reassure noble Lords that it is not about not wanting clarity and greater transparency; it is also about ensuring that consumers do not get an overload of information on their bills that will make it even harder for them to disaggregate what they are actually paying for. With that undertaking to take this away and to work with noble Lords, I hope that my noble friend will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend and to colleagues around the House who have spoken in support of this amendment. It is a remarkable thing to have an amendment that

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unites the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, with the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, and I do not think that even the speeches from the Front Benches could quite bring themselves to oppose it.

I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to take this away, think about it again and talk to people about it. Of course, the very last thing that I want is to create a Division and thereby put my noble friend Lord Teverson, not to mention many of his colleagues on those Benches, in a position where they might have to vote against something that they thought was the right thing to do.

Rather wisely, my noble friend Lord Lawson pointed out that this matter has considerable strength of feeling in the country behind it, and it would be a pity if this cause were taken up by a tabloid newspaper, for example. It would be an even greater source of concern to me if that proved to be more influential than the combined voices around this Chamber. If it were taken up by a tabloid newspaper, judging by the brief that the Minister has been given by her department, I would not want to be the press officer responding to the inquiries because the Government have nothing to say on this.

This is not an issue about whether we are for or against decarbonisation or whether we are sceptics or enthusiasts—it is an issue of trust and transparency. I welcome the Minister’s comments that she is sympathetic, that she believes in transparency and that she would like to get there, but she is sounding a touch like St Augustine. Still, I take her commitment seriously, even though it is a commitment that she made earlier, in Committee. Therefore, while giving notice that we will return to this at a later stage in the Bill if no beef is produced following what has been a widespread consensus position in the debate, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 102 withdrawn.

Clause 131: Section 130: procedure etc

Amendments 103 and 104

Moved by Baroness Verma

103: Clause 131, page 102, line 13, leave out paragraph (a)

104: Clause 131, page 102, line 21, leave out subsections (3) and (4) and insert—

“(3A) Before making modifications under section 130(1) the Secretary of State must lay a draft of the modifications before Parliament.

(3B) If, within the 40-day period, either House of Parliament resolves not to approve the draft, the Secretary of State may not take any further steps in relation to the proposed modifications.

(3C) If no such resolution is made within that period, the Secretary of State may make the modifications in the form of the draft.

(3D) Subsection (3B) does not prevent a new draft of proposed modifications being laid before Parliament.

(3E) In this section “40-day period”, in relation to a draft of proposed modifications, means the period of 40 days beginning with the day on which the draft is laid before Parliament (or, if it is not laid before each House of Parliament on the same day, the later of the 2 days on which it is laid).

(3F) For the purposes of calculating the 40-day period, no account is to be taken of any period during which Parliament is dissolved or prorogued or during which both Houses are adjourned for more than 4 days.

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(3G) The Secretary of State must publish details of any modifications made under section 130(1) as soon as reasonably practicable after they are made.”

Amendments 103 and 104 agreed.

Amendment 104A

Moved by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

104A: After Clause 132, insert the following new Clause—

“Carbon monoxide detection

(1) The Secretary of State may make regulations to ensure—

(a) any particular class of residential premises is fitted with an appropriate carbon monoxide alarm where any carbon fuel burning appliance is in situ,

(b) the supply, sale and fitting of a carbon monoxide alarm may be undertaken by any registered carbon fuel burning appliance engineer, smart meter installer or by local authority fire and rescue service personnel.

(2) Regulations under this section shall be contained in a statutory instrument which shall be laid before Parliament and subject to annulment by resolution of either House of Parliament.”

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (CB): My Lords, the amendment before the House today is greatly simplified from the one that I tabled in Committee. It is a regulation-making power, and that is all. It would allow the Government time to gather information from the review that was helpfully announced today. Northern Ireland and Scotland have already introduced a requirement to fit carbon monoxide alarms when new or replacement boilers or heating appliances are installed in a dwelling. In England and Wales a domestic carbon monoxide alarm is required only when a new or replacement solid fuel appliance is installed, and does not apply to other types of fossil fuel.

So far as we know, there has never been a death from carbon monoxide in the UK when an audible alarm has been present. The first part of the amendment concerns a recommendation from the inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group, which I chair, which recommended that the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998 be amended to require all rented properties to be fitted with an audible carbon monoxide alarm, manufactured to European Standard EN 50921. The amendment’s wording would ensure that any property, including local authority housing, rented housing, holiday lets, rented static caravans and other high-risk properties received attention around carbon monoxide that they currently lack. All carbon fuels, including biomass, are covered in the text of the amendment.

As I said in Committee, recorded figures on carbon monoxide poisoning are the tip of an iceberg. The true morbidity and mortality remain unrecorded. The current increases in fuel prices, along with the increased cost of living, mean that many are likely to forgo the annual servicing of appliances. Initiatives to increase home insulation have decreased draughts in houses, effectively making them sealed units, so that if carbon monoxide is produced the concentration steadily rises and thereby endangers life.

The second part of the amendment relates to fire and rescue services, such as the Chief Fire Officers Association voluntary Blue Watch scheme, which attempts

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to address the national absence of carbon monoxide alarms. It would allow others who fit or service fuel sources or appliances or meter fuel usage to supply, sell and fit an alarm. A co-ordinated fire rescue service response was shown with smoke detectors. Before the regulations changed, about 8% of homes had smoke detectors; now over 80% of households have a working smoke alarm.

The final part of the amendment would require a statutory instrument to be laid. That would ensure that Parliament was aware of the progress being made in addressing this silent killer, and would demonstrate how seriously the Government were taking the issue of these preventable deaths. I beg to move.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab): My Lords, I support the noble Baroness. I speak as president of CO-Gas Safety. Like the noble Baroness, for many years I have been concerned about the lack of action in relation to carbon monoxide poisoning. As she said, the official figures disguise the true extent of the problem. Because the official figures have not really reflected the size of the problem, various agencies, particularly the Health and Safety Commission, have never really been prepared to take this issue seriously. The noble Baroness has found an ingenious way to bring this to your Lordships’ attention within the Energy Bill.

This afternoon, the Minister gave a very welcome announcement in relation to a government review. However, we would like to see this issue go further. All that my noble friend is doing is setting a framework within which the Government can take action following such a review. I think it particularly important that it gives the Government a regulation-making power. As the noble Baroness has said, not only are the figures just the tip of the iceberg but there is a real concern at the moment about the cost of servicing appliances. If people put that off, particularly because of concerns about the cost of living at the moment, the risk to many people will be greater. For that reason, I hope that the Government might be sympathetic. If not, perhaps the noble Baroness will decide to press this at some point. I hope that she does.

Lord Teverson: Regrettably, my Lords, as has already been mentioned, my noble friend Lady Maddock is in Berlin on an EU Select Committee. It seems to be the place to be this afternoon. I know that she is very keen to support this amendment.

We hear of many tragedies that have happened because of this silent killer, often, but not exclusively, within rented accommodation. It is perhaps worth reminding those of us who are landlords in any way that we are already under an obligation to have our gas installations checked. I think it would make sense for a way to be found, without requiring more bureaucracy or a lot of extra work, to include carbon monoxide indicators through a clause of this sort.

I had a new wood-burner fitted in my house recently. Although carbon monoxide is often thought about in connection to traditional gas boilers, I was reminded by my installer that wood-burning stoves can be far more dangerous than gas boilers in this area. They

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took it upon themselves to install a carbon monoxide indicator and alarm in that room before they left. I thought that that was excellent; the industry was starting to get ahead of the problem. However, I hope that the Government will pursue this agenda in whatever way they feel is appropriate in order to ensure that more of the tragedies which have happened in the past do not happen in the future.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Stowell of Beeston) (Con): My Lords, as I said at Oral Questions this afternoon, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, for raising this issue, both at Questions and by bringing forward this amendment this evening. She has given us a clear description of the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning and the terrible consequences that it can have on victims and their loved ones. As I think I indicated at Questions today, this is something that the Government take very seriously indeed.

I will start by reminding your Lordships, as some noble Lords who have contributed tonight have reflected already, that the most important element that we must ensure is in place is effective public awareness and education of the risks around carbon monoxide poisoning and of the fact that safety measures apply to people whether they live in homes that they own or homes that they rent.

As time is short, and noble Lords are keen to move onto other business, I will not go through the measures in detail, but they have been increased recently and are quite extensive in ensuring that the public are aware of the risks. As I mentioned at Questions today, there are now warnings on the sale of disposable barbecues, for instance, and Ofgem has placed a requirement on gas distribution network operators to ensure that they raise awareness. One of the important reasons why they are the right people to raise awareness, rather than the suppliers, is that the network providers are constant in the supply of gas to people’s homes as they are in charge of the pipes, while consumers are encouraged often to switch between suppliers in order to get the best deal that they can for their energy bills.

7.45 pm

Of course regulation has its place. Following a comprehensive review of building regulations by the previous Government, new regulations were brought in in 2010 that require the installation of a carbon monoxide alarm when a new or replacement solid-fuel appliance is installed. I note what my noble friend Lord Teverson said about the installers of his wood-burner. The new regulations actually require the noble Lord to have a carbon monoxide detector.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, I thank the Minister for putting me right on that. I shall no longer praise my installer but say “quite right, too”.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: Very good. All new gas appliances are subject to various standards laid down by the European Union. People in rented accommodation

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are covered by the requirement on landlords in the gas safety regulations to ensure that there is an annual gas safety check

As discussed at Questions today, we in Government feel that the real risk is to those people who live in rented accommodation where their landlords are not reputable or do not take care properly of the property that they rent out. We are putting in place a package of measures that we think will lead to greater safety for those who are in rented accommodation. As I said earlier today, I am pleased to announce that we have decided to extend the scope of the review announced a couple of weeks ago, so that it considers whether there is a need to require the installation of carbon monoxide alarms in privately rented housing. We are working on the matters to be covered in this review but I envisage that they will include questions as to whether the actions that I talked about earlier today are sufficient to raise and maintain awareness or whether other approaches, including regulation, might be needed.

When we think about regulation, we need to consider how any regulatory approach sits with building regulations, fire safety rules and housing standards regulations, because there are overlapping regulatory regimes. We will certainly want to look at the interaction with regulations on smoke alarms and perhaps include the scope for promoting combined carbon monoxide and smoke alarms.

Clearly, there are a lot of technical issues to consider, but once we have completed the review, if regulation is considered to be the right course of action, we must take all the necessary steps so that it is done in a proportionate and targeted way and interested parties, including housing groups and landlords, are properly consulted. The last thing that we would want would be ineffective regulation that did not result in the outcomes that we all want—reduction in deaths and in the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning—and that made the situation even worse by forcing up rents or discouraging good landlords from being in the market, thereby limiting choice to renters.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for her constructive response up to this point, when she came to the noble Baroness’s actual amendment. Surely it is not the contents of the regulation that are being determined here; what the noble Baroness is seeking to do is to give the Government a regulation-making power that can then be constructed in the light of the review that they have undertaken. Of course, the Minister says that if it were decided that regulation was needed in the future, she would find the vehicle for it. We all know the difficulty of finding suitable legislative opportunities in this area—now is the time. I really hope that she will give this further consideration.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: As much as I was very happy to give way to the noble Lord, and I had finished the point that I was making at that time, the noble Lord still managed to intervene before I had finished making all the points that I wanted to make today. I hope that by the time I finish—in what is going to be a matter of seconds—he will feel a bit more reassured by what I have to say.

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Before I conclude, it is worth repeating that the noble Lord’s Government did a very comprehensive review of building regulations in 2009 and concluded that the regulations they should introduce are the ones that I have just spoken about, which apply to the new wood-burner that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has had installed in his house. I commend the work that his Government did, but the point that I am making, while he is pressing me, it that it is not so long since his own Government did a very thorough piece of work and concluded that the regulations should be limited as they are currently.

All that said, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, not least because of my recent arrival in this post and this being the first opportunity I have had to consider these points and respond to a debate on this matter. I am happy to reflect further on this in light of today’s debate. Of course, I will discuss this matter further with my ministerial colleagues and, if the noble Baroness is willing, have a further conversation with her before we reach Third Reading. On that basis, I hope that she feels able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: I am most grateful to the Minister, who has already met with me prior to this debate and been most helpful. I accept her offer to look at this again, discuss it further and come back at Third Reading. Therefore, I will not be pressing my amendment tonight.

Amendment 104A withdrawn.

Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.52 pm.

Health: Birth Defects

Question for Short Debate

7.52 pm

Asked by Lord Rooker

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of fortifying white flour with folic acid on the number of pregnancies affected by neural tube defects.

Lord Rooker (Lab): My Lords, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to raise the subject of fortifying white flour with folic acid in the interests of public health.

Deficiencies in folic acid have been found to lead to neural tube birth defects, including spina bifida and hydrocephalus. It is both a national and an international issue. Public health policy has been to encourage those planning to become pregnant to ensure a voluntary input of folates, either by supplement or by folate-rich foods, in that crucial period covering conception and the first 12 weeks. However, this policy is known to fall on deaf ears in some socioeconomic groups, and does not cover the issue of unplanned or unintended pregnancies. In some countries, where bread is part of the staple diet, it has been found that fortifying bread flour with folic acid can cover both the issues of the target group and unplanned pregnancy.

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Bread has been a staple food in the UK for centuries. Consumption has fallen a little but it still contains more than 10% of our daily intake of key nutrients and remains a major source of them. Since the 1940s, just after the war, most of our bread flour has been fortified with four added nutrients, and that is still the case today. On 5 August this year, at the start of the Recess, Defra announced the result of the consultation on the bread and flour regulations, which was that the mandatory fortification of flour will continue on health and scientific grounds.

The idea of folic acid fortification has been around for many years. I can confirm from my own personal experience that in 1999, as Minister for food safety—before my Food Standards Agency days—I was lobbied on the issue by a leading scientist during a journey to a food conference. My initial reaction was, “It’s mass medication”. But I soon realised it was not then, and it is not now. By 2007, Her Majesty’s Government had been advised by the independent Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and the Food Standards Agency to go down the route of mandatory fortification. This advice was reinforced in 2009-10, during my term as chair of the Food Standards Agency.

Scientists involved in the research, such as Professor Nicholas Wald of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, have chased the issue up over the years. Others, such as Professor Colin Blakemore, have raised more generally the issue of the lack of feedback from government on advice from scientists, where there seems to be no clear decision on policy or action to be taken, or not taken, on the basis of the advice. He cited folic fortification as a recent example.

Delay has been caused by some scientific doubts regarding the effect of too much folate in the diet, which might be the cause of some rare cancers. Justifiably, Ministers and Chief Medical Officers required reassurance on this aspect. I believe—and this is why I am raising the issue now, after leaving the FSA—that the publication in March this year of the paper by Vollset et al in the Lancet puts the concerns to rest. The study analysed data on 49,621 individuals in 13 evenly randomised trials and found that there was no significant effect of folic acid supplementation on the incidence of cancer of the large intestine, prostate, lung, breast or any specific site. Furthermore, in interpretation, the scientists pointed out that the fortification of flour and cereal products involves doses of folic acid that are on average an order of magnitude smaller than the doses used in the trials they examined.

On 1 July the noble Earl, Lord Howe, the Health Minister for England, told Parliament that Ministers were “taking stock”. Has that included talking to Ministers in the other three countries of the UK? More than 50 countries are fortifying flour with folic acid, including the United States, Canada, Iran, Argentina and South Africa. So far, none in Europe are, due to the concerns I have mentioned, which are no longer justified.

Australia introduced mandatory folic fortification in September 2009. It has been found, in a paper by Brown et al in the Medical Journal of Australia in January 2011, that,

“the introduction of mandatory fortification with folic acid has significantly reduced the prevalence of folate deficiency in Australia, including in woman of childbearing age”.

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A study in the American Journal of Medical Genetics in 2010 found that food fortification with folic acid prevents neural tube defects but not other types of congenital abnormalities. The study covered more than 3 million births in Chile, Argentina and Brazil over a 25-year period, according to the authors, Lopez-Camelo et al. The paper by Blencowe et al in 2010 in the International Journal of Epidemiology concluded:

“The evidence supports both folic acid supplementation and fortification as effective in reducing neonatal mortality from NTDs”.

So it works.

The latest study, published earlier in the year in the Lancet, clears the way to vastly improve the health position in the UK. We start from a low position. England has the highest rate of unintended or unplanned pregnancies after the USA—well in excess of 200,000. As such, the women concerned will see no need for supplementation. So far as the pregnancies that are affected by neural tube defects are concerned, there are hidden and avoidable family tragedies involved.

The best figures I have—they are a little old but I am advised they are the best—are those used by SACN, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, in its report, drawn to my attention by the Shine charity. In England and Wales, there were 178 neural tube defect-affected births from 853 neural tube defect-affected pregnancies. That means that there were 675 terminations. In Northern Ireland, there were 11 affected births and no terminations. In Scotland, there were 49 affected pregnancies with 50% terminations. That means that there were more or less 238 neural tube defect-affected births and 913 affected pregnancies, with around 700 terminations. These will be late, following the 20-week scan, when neural tube defects show. In summary, therefore, there are 150 to 200 babies born with neural tube defects leading to spina bifida and other conditions, with a total of 750 to 1,000 pregnancies. Eighty per cent of the neural tube defect-affected pregnancies are terminated.

Nothing I say diminishes my life-long support for a woman's right to chose, but it is self-evident that decisions for termination based on neural tube defect-affected pregnancies would decline with folate increases. More than one in 1,000 pregnancies in the UK is affected each year. Folic fortification has been shown in the countries that have a mandatory policy to have prevented between 27% and 50% of cases of neural tube defects. Based on these figures, we have a potential to save 100-plus neural tube defect-affected births per year in UK; and significantly we could prevent hundreds of late terminations every year. Putting it crudely, the current reduction in the number of babies born with neural tube defects is actually brought about by the termination of pregnancies. I do not like the idea that in the past some DoH officials have claimed that NTD is well managed.

The Prime Minister said at PMQs on 27 February that,

“conditions such as spina bifida have come down and that folic acid has an important role to play”.—[

Official Report

, Commons, 27/2/13; col. 311.]

They have “come down” as terminations go up, due to the rate of diagnosis getting more accurate. What we need is primary prevention. Putting folic acid in white

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bread flour is not mass medication. Those who wish to avoid it just avoid white sliced bread. It gets to the groups of women most difficult to get to.

I want to hear what assessment the Government have made of the impact over the past seven months while they have been taking stock of the operation in England and what discussions have taken place with the devolved Administrations and their Chief Medical Officers. It is better to have a UK solution, as I know that flour mills are not always in the most convenient locations for four separate policies.

The science policy advice to government is to do it. Scientific concerns have been raised and cleared. It is not mass medication; it saves lives and misery, and it saves money. It reduces the hidden cost of the present policy, namely the costs of terminations as a management tool. It produces more healthy babies and improves public health.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD): My Lords, one speaker has scratched. That will allow us to stretch speaking times from seven to nine minutes, provided that the next four speakers all observe that when 9 comes up on the clock, they stop.

8.03 pm

The Countess of Mar (CB): My Lords, I do not think I am likely to get to nine minutes. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for bringing this subject to our attention this evening.

Under normal circumstances, I would prefer that young women should all have a good balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and leafy vegetables, regardless of whether or not they were considering pregnancy, to give them sufficient folic acid to prevent neural tube defects and, come to that, a very large number of other subclinical conditions linked with folic acid deficiency. Unfortunately, life does not work like that. Many young people—women and girls in particular—lead rather frenetic lives and tend to eat on the hoof. Food which takes little preparation and cooking is the easiest way for them to get their calories. Many have little idea of the nutritional values of the food they eat and cooking a good, balanced meal comes very low in their order of priorities. Others simply cannot afford to buy fresh green vegetables and fruit on a regular basis. While some cereal and snack manufacturers fortify their products with folic acid, these too might be out of range for those on benefits. No amount of education or health promotion material can overcome these problems.

As a mother and grandmother of healthy girls, I find it hard to imagine the anguish and grief that a pregnant woman suffers when told that she is bearing a baby with neural tube defects. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has pointed out the abortion rates for this condition. She and her partner have to decide whether they wish to continue with the pregnancy. She has the added knowledge, and the guilt that would accompany it, that if she had taken folic acid before she became pregnant, or immediately she knew that there was a possibility that she was pregnant, she might have prevented potential disaster.

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There are people who object on principle to what they regard as mass medication. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, again has made very clear that it is not without consent. We are all aware of the objections to fluoridation of drinking water. I know that there have been discussions about removing calcium fortification in flour, although these seem to have stalled. Few people realise that, as well as calcium, our white flour is already fortified with thiamine, iron and niacin. They also ask why they should have to have their products made with flour fortified to prevent disease in a very small minority. I believe very strongly that, in the case of folic acid, flour should be fortified. This belief is endorsed by researchers at the Institute for Science and Society at the University of Nottingham in their 2007 report The Ethical Implications of Options for Improving the Folate Intake of Women of Reproductive Age.

The prevalence of neural tube defects started to fall before folic acid supplementation was introduced in the 1970s. Perhaps the abortion laws that came in around that time had some effect. When I was newly married I was told to avoid eating green potatoes because these were seen as the cause of spina bifida. The prevalence fell quite steeply for about 20 years but it has remained stubbornly at between eight and 15 per 10,000 pregnancies since the 1990s. One possible reason could be that nearly half of pregnancies are unplanned; by the time a woman finds she is pregnant it is too late for the supplements to have the greatest benefit.

Most of the UK population eats white flour in some form or another as part of their staple diet, although we must not forget those who are gluten sensitive and do not eat wheat for medical or other reasons. A standard loaf of bread is relatively cheap and filling. It tends to be a substantial part of the diet of those who cannot afford fresh fruit and vegetables or other foods rich in folic acid, such as offal and pulses. It seems likely that fortified bread has a better chance of reaching the target than education or promotional campaigns to encourage this group of women to take folic acid as a precautionary measure. It would also catch those who have unplanned pregnancies.

As well as preventing neural tube defects, folic acid may have a role in reducing congenital heart defects, cleft lips, limb defects and urinary tract abnormalities. It may also help to protect the unborn infant from disease in the mother. It seems to be important that vitamin B12 levels are checked as there is concern that high prenatal levels of folic acid combined with low B12 may cause epigenetic changes. There is a complex interaction between B12, folic acid and iron. As our flour is already fortified with iron we would need to ensure that B12 deficiency would not be masked by the other two.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has already said, concerns have been voiced about the possibility that folic acid fortification might mask vitamin B12 deficiencies in the elderly and that it might cause bowel cancer, but recent research would appear to negate both these concerns, particularly for the elderly. There would appear to be very little, if any, risk from fortified bread to the general population—indeed, it might even prevent a number of subclinical conditions which could become serious, particularly in the elderly.

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The one small concern that I have is that, if white flour is fortified, it will be difficult to determine the folic acid status of women who want to become pregnant or who are pregnant because we will not know their average daily intake. The Department of Health recommends that,

“‘all women who could become pregnant should take 400 microgrammes”—

that is, 0.4 milligrams—

“of folic acid per day as a medicinal or food supplement prior to conception until the twelfth week of pregnancy”.

The RDA for folate equivalents is 600 micrograms. The BMA suggests that the guidance level set for the UK of 1 milligram a day is satisfactory,

“provided there are appropriate controls on mandatory fortification to ensure that individuals do not exceed the upper intake level of 1mg per day”.

There must be huge variations in the amount of white bread and other white flour products that UK consumers eat on an average daily basis. How are we to ensure that young women get enough folic acid to protect their unborn children, or that the elderly do not get too much? What advice about additional supplements will be given to women of child-bearing age who do not eat a lot of bread and to those who have had a previous pregnancy with neural tube defects or who have a genetic risk? We need to be cautious about depending too much upon fortification of white flour with folic acid to solve all the problem of neural tube defects. Nevertheless, that is not an excuse for not doing it.

I support the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who is himself supported by the BMA, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, the Department of Health’s Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy and the Food Standards Agency. I hope that the Government will listen to him.

8.11 pm

Baroness Grey-Thompson (CB): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for tabling this interesting debate. As ever, your Lordships’ Chamber gives us a wonderful opportunity to think about certain topics in more detail and to challenge ourselves and our opinions.

Until this debate was tabled I had not previously considered other methods of taking folic acid apart from the pills that were available over the counter. My first thought was that I was not sure that it was a terribly good idea—mass medication, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has said. However, I thought of other areas where there is fortification, such as fluoride in the water, mentioned by my noble friend Lady Mar who raises some good points on the level of folic acid that should be taken. I came to realise that it is probably a reasonable idea if it can be done in the right way and not cause any other issues.

I felt compelled to speak because I have spina bifida—that is why I am a wheelchair user—and perhaps if the benefits of folic acid had been known when my parents were planning a family, my life might have been very different. Many of the opportunities that I have experienced are due to the fact that there was little knowledge in this area, whether it was around supplementation or various scans that are now routinely available. For me personally, it is kind of hard to regret that there was no knowledge at that time.

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When I was born, my parents were told that I had spina bifida. I do not think that they really knew what it meant. There was little education and disabled people were not as visible in society as they are now. My parents were also told that if I had been born just a few years earlier, because of my condition, I would have been taken away and not fed.

My parents were also given a whole host of reasons why I had spina bifida. My mother was blamed. She was told that she had not eaten enough vegetables, even though she was virtually a vegetarian. My father was then blamed because of other family conditions or illnesses which were then a precursor. The final reason we were given was that it was more common in areas of coal mining or industry, so therefore the figures were much higher for the Welsh mining valleys, Nottingham and Newcastle. I grew up in Cardiff; I do not know whether that is good or bad.

I am very pleased that there is better knowledge today. Although everything I have read says that spina bifida was not hereditary, I and other family members were told that there could be a slightly higher incidence of the condition, and I was advised to take a double dose of folic acid. Obviously I was able to take it because my daughter was part of a planned pregnancy, but we must consider unplanned pregnancies and, indeed, women taking folic acid for the correct amount of time. When I was pregnant, it was not made that clear that it was meant to be for 12 weeks of pregnancy. I know that, in my own case, I experienced dreadful day sickness—I dreamed that it might just become morning sickness—and, as a result, I was never entirely sure of the amounts I had taken or whether it had remained in my body. I took several pills a day, just hoping that some of it would benefit me. I treated taking folic acid in the same way as I thought about my diet; I do not drink or smoke. It was about doing the best I could for my unborn child.

I read with interest the documents produced by the British Medical Association in April this year about the falling rates of spina bifida. Like my noble friend Lady Mar, I believe that part of it is about scanning and the opportunity to discuss and offer termination in a different way. That certainly was not available when I was born. Certainly, it appears that the best medical advice is that taking folic acid will contribute to preventing this condition.

This is a difficult subject to discuss because it would be so easy to move into a wider discussion on scanning and termination, but that is not what this debate is about. In a note which I received from Jackie Bland, the chief executive of Shine—the charity for people with spina bifida and hydrocephalus—she indicated that we might well have a situation where it seems many of us are more comfortable managing the occurrence of spina bifida through scanning and termination, when fortification combined with more robust public health information could reduce occurrence by up to 72%. This is really interesting.

Perhaps there is also a failure to acknowledge the extremely traumatic consequences of a late-pregnancy termination. I do not believe that termination is an easy option. I also know of several people who, knowing that they are having a child with spina bifida, have

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chosen to carry on. Shine’s health advisers have also said that many parents have reported a strong pressure to terminate and a sense of guilt if they choose to continue. That is a consequence of the acceptance of management by termination. We must recognise that whatever people choose, these are hard decisions that families have to take.

When I was pregnant I was asked so many times what I would do if I knew I was going to have a child with spina bifida or who would become a wheelchair user. I think that people were expecting me to give a definite, immediate answer. My response was that I would ensure that my child had the best self-propelling wheelchair on the market from the age that they were meant to be crawling. It is about managing it, and the choices that you make.

I have only one question. I was wondering, when researching this area, whether consideration had been given to including folic acid in other food products. I do not eat a lot of bread and am not planning on having another child. It is about understanding the right amount of folic acid that should be taken.

Finally, I reiterate that I am strongly in support of prevention, in the way that I support things like the seat-belt law, which had a significant impact on the rate at which people experienced traumatic spinal cord injuries, or something like cycle safety. Prevention is a positive step forward. I look forward to debating this again in the future.

8.17 pm

Lord Turnberg (Lab): My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Rooker for bringing the subject to our attention and for introducing it in his usual robust and forthright way. It is a privilege, too, of course, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, who spoke so movingly of her personal experiences.

It is pretty obvious that spina bifida in its severe form is indeed a nasty disorder. It affects one or two in every 1,000 pregnancies, causes paralysis of the legs, problems with bladder and bowel control and, in some children, learning difficulties. It can cause serious lifetime problems and distress both for the children and their families. On top of all that, it poses a considerable economic burden on the families and on the health service.

Yet we can prevent—according to my figures—about 70% of cases with a simple dietary manoeuvre; that is, by increasing the intake of folic acid in women before they become pregnant. It was in 1991, 22 years ago, that a study by the Medical Research Council was the first to show that we could prevent these neural tube defects by giving mothers 4 milligrams of folic acid a day, before and during their pregnancy. The incidence went down by about 70% which was a remarkable discovery first made here in the UK. Even much smaller doses were shown to be equally effective. Since then, it has been more or less routine practice to recommend that folic acid should be given to all pregnant women.

However, the problem that soon arose was that simply prescribing it to women who were already pregnant did little or nothing to prevent the disorder. It had to be given before they were pregnant, because

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the defect arises very early in pregnancy. The neural tube closes at 23 to 27 days after conception; that is before the first period is missed. By the time a woman realises she is pregnant, it is usually too late. She has to take the folic acid before she is pregnant for it to be effective and that immediately eliminates all those women who do not plan their pregnancies. That is particularly the case, for example, in single women and it is exacerbated in those with poor dietary habits whose intake of green vegetables, the natural source of folic acid, is limited. In fact, there is a linear relationship between the level of folic acid in the red cells and plasma and the incidence of neural tube defects. The higher the folate level, the lower the incidence—that is a clear relationship.

So how can we make sure that all women take it before they become pregnant? We inevitably come to the conclusion that we should fortify our food. The Government’s own Expert Advisory Group and COMA, the Committee on Medical Aspects of Nutrition, have been repeatedly recommending that we fortify our flour with folic acid over many years. The idea is that everyone eating average amounts of bread will take about 280 micrograms, about a quarter of a milligram, of folate per day. It is a very small amount but sufficient to prevent spina bifida in a majority of cases. We in the UK have unfortunately not taken that advice, even though more than 70 other countries around the world, including the USA and Canada, supplement their flour with folic acid.

Of course, there is always a reluctance to add things to the diet that everyone is going to eat. Noble Lords have talked about this. Worries about side-effects and unexpected adverse events are always raised and it is usually wise to be cautious. In the case of folic acid there were worries about the possibility of two sorts of danger: that it could cause cancer; and that it might cause a peripheral neuropathy in those elderly people who were also deficient in vitamin B12. This is a disorder of the nerves going to the arms and legs, a condition caused by a combination of B12 deficiency and folic acid excess. So delay in taking up the recommendations of COMA was inevitable until these dangers could be eliminated.

Now we know from a huge number of studies that they have indeed been eliminated. In the meta-analysis that noble Lords have referred to of a large number of trials by Vollset and his colleagues in the last year, trials covered almost 50,000 individuals given a largish dose of 5 milligrams a day for five years or more and there was no sign of an increase in the overall number of all cancers or of any individual specific type of cancer. Incidentally, these trials were done largely in the belief that folic acid might prevent coronary artery disease. It did not show that, but it did show that cancers did not increase, which was a useful side-effect. Nor has there been any sign that the B12 deficient neuropathy I mentioned has increased in the population of America or Canada where they have been fortifying their flour since 1998, 15 years ago. Incidentally, the manufacturers of breakfast cereals—All-Bran and the like—routinely fortify them with a range of vitamins, including folic acid. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, could take breakfast cereals; that might help her.

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It is hard now to refute the scientific evidence, gathered from huge populations, that supplementing the diet of everyone by an average of 280 micrograms a day of this vitamin is harmless to the population at large. It clearly reduces the incidence of this nasty and burdensome disease in our children. It is more than 20 years since we discovered that we could prevent neural tube defects by this simple measure. The discovery was made here in the UK and it is high time we caught up with much of the rest of the world and took advantage of what we now know.

8.23 pm

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab): My Lords, I am delighted again to applaud my noble friend for raising this matter and I hope that we can look forward to a positive response from the Minister. My noble friend Lord Turnberg explained the science and it is clear that there is very credible support for my noble friend’s position. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s 2006 report recommended mandatory fortification of flour to the Government. That was endorsed in 2007 by the Food Standards Agency board. More recently we have all, I think, had a briefing from the British Medical Association which also supports folic acid fortification of flour. I thought that the BMA was very much to the point when it argued that the current guidance to women to take folic acid supplements has a number of limitations. As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said it does not take account of unplanned pregnancies and, given that almost half of all pregnancies in the UK are unplanned, it is clearly an inadequate response. It is also a fact that poor compliance with the advice to take supplements means that women planning a pregnancy only marginally increase their compliance with folic acid supplement use. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, made some very powerful points about this and about the very hard decisions parents subsequently have to make.

Noble Lords have already dealt very effectively with the concerns that have been raised about the links between folic acid and cancer. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, which advises the Food Standards Agency, said that the evidence in relation to bowel cancer was insubstantial and that any increase in cases could be down to improved screening. It recommended that those deemed to be at greater risk of colon cancer should receive precautionary advice on taking extra supplements containing folic acid and that the situation should be monitored. The Chief Medical Officer then requested further investigation by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition into the potential link between folic acid and colorectal cancer. The committee upheld its previous recommendation, with an amended recommendation to clarify the advice on supplement use for particular population groups.

We roll forward to January 2013, when the noble Earl, Lord Howe, told the House:

“Additional advice on folic acid and cancer risk was requested by the then Chief Medical Officer and provided by SACN in 2009. The papers underpinning the advice from SACN have not yet all been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal. Ministers need to very carefully consider this complicated issue and would like to see all information in the public domain before making any decision”.—[Official Report, 8/1/13; col. WA 44.]

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I am a great admirer of the Department of Health, having enjoyed many happy years there, but I recognise long-grass briefing when I see it and that is the kiss of death. I hope that the Minister, if she cannot say that the Government are going to go down this route, will at least give a timetable for when the Government will make a definitive decision, or must we wait, month after month, for every single paper to be peer-reviewed? I think that that would be a great pity.

In conclusion, I shall ask the Minister a rather more general question coming back to the issue of advice given by health visitors and midwives in relation to vitamins and minerals generally. The reason I do so is that in September 2012 in another place my honourable friend Kate Green secured a Westminster Hall debate about the rise in the incidence of rickets. She talked about vitamin D deficiency across large sections of the population and quoted a study by the Clinical Effectiveness Unit at Stockport which found a surprising lack of awareness among health professionals about vitamin D across eight acute and six primary care trusts in the north-west. Only 24% of health visitors and just 11% of midwives reported having had training in vitamin D supplementation. I realise that this is a little distant from folic acid, but since the Government now put such reliance on advice given to women, does the Minister think that, as part of a wider response to the issues raised by my noble friend tonight, more needs to be done to ensure that midwives and health visitors are adequately trained in providing advice in relation to vitamins and minerals in pregnancy and before?

That is not a substitute for the action that my noble friend wants, and I very much hope that the Government will recognise that this would be the right thing to do. I hope that the Minister will be able to make a happy announcement.

8.30 pm

Baroness Jolly (LD): I am grateful to the noble Lord for securing this debate on this very important issue, and I thank all noble Lords for this thoughtful and informative debate. The department is considering this issue very seriously. We know that approximately one in every 1,000 pregnancies is affected by a neural tube defect, which can result in miscarriage, neonatal death or lifelong disability. We also know that poor folate status is an established cause of neural tube defect-affected pregnancies, and therefore how important folic acid is for women of childbearing age. I will take your Lordships briefly through the detail of how the Government are currently taking action to reduce the risk of women having insufficient levels of folate—a risk that may result in potential neural tube defects such as spina bifida in unborn children.

It is possible to get all the folate you need from food in a healthy diet, but for women who are trying to conceive or are newly pregnant, getting enough particularly matters. That is why, since the 1990s, the Department of Health has advised women who can become pregnant to take folic acid supplements before conception and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and to increase their intake of folate-rich foods. That advice is promoted as strongly as possible through all the channels we use to communicate with women and health professionals.

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NICE guidance ensures that health professionals are equipped with comprehensive advice on folic acid and on action to take with women who may become pregnant.

For women, advice is disseminated through a variety of sources such as the NHS Choices website, which sets out why folic acid is important for pregnancy and gives guidance on taking supplements. The Department of Health also provides funds to the charity Tommy’s to produce The Young Woman’s Guide to Pregnancy, which advises young women to take folic acid. Start4Life, a campaign to give the best start in life to nought to two year-olds, gives information on five key healthy behaviours during pregnancy, one of which is taking folic acid and vitamin D supplements. Their leaflets are written in a friendly and accessible style and are very popular with healthcare professionals as a tool to facilitate conversation with parents and expectant parents. The NHS Information Service for Patients offers to send e-mails and texts to women and their partners in the fifth week of pregnancy to remind women to take their folic acid.

Folic acid supplements are widely available and cost as little as £1 for a month’s supply, but are also available on NHS prescription. Pregnant women and women who have had a child in the previous 12 months are exempt from prescription charges, as are people on certain benefits or those who qualify through the NHS low-income scheme. We also offer free vitamin supplements containing folic acid without an NHS prescription to pregnant women and new mothers in very low-income families throughout the UK who are supported by the Healthy Start scheme. More than 150,000 pregnant women and new mothers are eligible to claim vitamins through that scheme. However, we know that some women do not take supplements, and of those that do, some start too late. That is of real concern to the Government and health professionals, and an area on which the Chief Medical Officer is keen to see action, as she set out in her recent annual report.

In 2000 the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy first recommended the fortification of flour with folic acid to reduce the risk of NTD-affected births. Your Lordships will be familiar with the developments of the scientific advice since then. The Government are very grateful for the full advice which has been provided by consecutive expert committees and for the rigour and scrutiny with which the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition—better known as SACN—considered the issue for its report in 2006 and its subsequent reviews of evidence. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will know that SACN sought to understand and clarify the risks of fortification carefully as it sought to make clear the benefits of its recommendation.

The advisory committee concluded in 2006 that mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid would reduce the risk of NTD-affected pregnancies, but that there was a potential risk to some population groups, particularly older people, including a potential increased risk of bowel cancer. In 2007, the then CMO asked SACN to further consider the evidence in this regard. In 2009, SACN’s majority view was that the new evidence did not provide a substantial basis for changing the original recommendation. However, it recommended

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fortification only if accompanied by a number of other actions, including restricting voluntary fortification of foods with folic acid, developing guidance on supplement use for particular population groups, and implementing measures to monitor evidence of long-term exposure to intakes of folic acid above the guideline upper limit per day.

SACN’s recommendation about monitoring and review explicitly reflected concerns around the potential for the numbers of people consuming levels of folic acid above the guideline upper limit. Health Ministers considered it prudent to ensure that all available evidence on the risk of colon cancer was peer-reviewed and in the public domain, which noble Lords referred to earlier, and the evidence was published in the Lancet this January. Following publication, Ministers confirmed earlier this year that they were taking stock of the issue. I assure the noble Lord who, as former chair of the Food Standards Agency, will understand this better than many, that because of the complexity of the issue it is essential that we weigh up carefully the risks and benefits in coming to a decision, and that we fully think through the implications of the other recommendations made by SACN. We are now doing that, and, thanks to the expert scientific committees and the consideration of this by the FSA and others, there is a wide range of evidence and advice to consider.

I pay tribute to the work of the voluntary sector, and in particular to one organisation mentioned earlier in this debate, Shine, which supports individuals and families as they face the challenges arising from spina bifida. It works tirelessly to raise awareness of the importance of folic acid and in May this year held the first ever national Folic Awareness Day.

Noble Lords have asked many questions, and I will work through them in the time I have available. However, if there are any still outstanding I will be happy to write to noble Lords after the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, asked whether we had talked to Ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As noble Lords are aware, food and health policies are devolved issues and discussions on fortification outside England are for those Administrations. However, the views of those authorities will be taken into consideration by Ministers.

Lord Rooker: I am sorry to interrupt, but this dismissal of devolution is symptomatic of Westminster; it just does not do devolution. Rather than simply saying that it is a matter for them, it would be better to have a UK-wide policy. Is the Minister admitting that Ministers in England—this is what we are talking about here—have not discussed the matter with Ministers in Scotland, who may take their own route, as they are free to do, and that the four chief medical offices have not discussed the issue among themselves?

Baroness Jolly: My Lords, I am telling noble Lords what I have been briefed. I am more than happy to write to noble Lords and, if they are happy for me to do so, leave the letter in the Library for everyone to check. I will also need to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on his question regarding terminations.

The noble Countess, Lady Mar, asked about the risks and benefits, and assessing impacts, of fortification, giving due consideration to the implications of additional

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recommendations by SACN. We will take into account the views of the Chief Medical Officer, who raised the issue in her annual report, and of the devolved Administrations. The other point raised by the noble Countess was on ensuring that NTDs are avoided in pregnancy and on preventing vitamin B12 masking. We need to get this right. SACN considered the amount of folic acid to recommend and also recommended developing guidance on supplement use for particular population groups, along with implementing measures to monitor evidence of long-term exposure to intakes of folic acid. We are carefully weighing the benefits and risks of SACN’s recommendations and will take account of all views.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, asked what foods would be considered for fortification. Currently, breakfast cereals are voluntarily fortified with folic acid in the UK. The FSA considered other foods, including soft drinks, fruit juice, milk and chewing gum, when it made that recommendation, but the consumption rate of these products is not considered to be universal across women of child-bearing age and would therefore not be suitable for fortification. Other foods were also considered. Bread was finally decided upon as the universal food as—to answer a point raised by both noble Baronesses—it is universally consumed across the population and all socioeconomic groups: more than 90% of households eat bread. Fortification of wheat flour would also include other wheat-based products such as pizzas, pastries and biscuits.

I think I have replied to several points that were raised.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, will the Minister write to noble Lords—clearly the Government will have to consider this—and set out a timetable on when they will come back to Parliament with an answer?

Baroness Jolly: That sounds eminently sensible. I am happy to write to noble Lords to give them that information. I hope that I have provided reassurance—I am not convinced that I have—that the Government are committed to reaching the right decision on the fortification of flour with folic acid, doing proper justice to the work of SACN and others and ensuring that, while seeking to deliver the benefits, we minimise the potential risks. In the mean time the Government will continue to raise awareness of the need to take folic acid supplements and are supportive of all those who are raising awareness of this issue. I thank the noble Lord for securing the debate.

8.42 pm

Sitting suspended.

Energy Bill

Report (3rd Day) (Continued)

8.52 pm

Clause 135: Consumer redress orders

Amendment 104B

Moved by Lord Whitty

104B: Clause 135, page 104, line 5, at end insert—

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“( ) Within six months of the coming into force of this section, the Secretary of State shall, following consultation, propose regulations that provide for collective redress by consumers of gas or electricity.”

Lord Whitty (Lab): My Lords, this amendment relates to the redress element of Part 6. I approve of the increase in protection for consumers in the redress provisions in the Bill and have supported them throughout. However, there is a dimension that is not there, and there is one that has been discussed with successive Governments but has never been fully put into operation. The present Government, in their consultation through BIS on consumer rights and protection in general, mentioned the possibility of moving to a system of collective redress.

In the energy situation, the whole structure of the market and the whole history of the scandals in relation to consumers underline the need to have some collective resolution of these matters. If you look, company by company, at most of the mis-selling and misrepresentation, the overcharging, the failure in billing and the wrong billing, right up until the very recent case where Ofgem fined ScottishPower, you will see that thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands, of consumers have effectively suffered from exactly the same mistake-cum-misdemeanour by the relevant energy companies.

At the moment, complaints against energy companies are running at an all-time high—you have only to look at the ombudsman’s figures and facts. The need for redress systems is very important, but if every individual consumer has to take that case either through the ombudsman or through the courts, the ombudsman’s agenda is going to get cluttered up and the courts are going to lead to individual decisions, which may be different in different parts of the country. A form of collective redress for everybody who has suffered from what the regulator will have found to be a mistake, or an error, or a breach of the licence or other regulations, affecting tens of thousands of consumers, needs to be treated in a somewhat different way.

I am not stipulating here precisely what way. There have been a number of formulations for collective redress in different sectors. The best of these was never put into legislation, but was dropped during the wash-up at the end of the last Parliament, because the Treasury was proposing very effective collective redress systems within the financial services sector.

The Government, in their draft Consumer Rights Bill, which is now being considered in pre-legislative procedures, have not followed up on what was in their consultation paper, which had a different formulation. In relation to gas and electricity, the degree to which there are large numbers of people suffering from the same act of a company, the fact that there are licence conditions attached to that and the fact that there is a whole structure of regulatory ombudsmen in that area, make it a relatively easy sector, in principle, for which to produce a system of collective redress.

My amendment requires the Secretary of State to come forward with regulations to that effect within six months of the passage of this Bill, so I am leaving the Minister and her colleagues a bit of time to do this, but I think the principle will be recognised. This would be pretty much well supported by, I think, all the

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consumer groups and many of those who have dealt with individual cases of consumer detriment which have arisen within this sector. I hope that the Government will consider this and, at least, give me some encouragement, if not tonight then in the future, that they will be looking in this direction. The way in which this industry has treated its consumers; the degree of mistrust among them and the level of redress that individual consumers have achieved in this sector show the need for something more systematic. I hope that the Minister and her colleagues will use this amendment to have another look at the issue. I beg to move.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Baroness Verma) (Con): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for this amendment. Amendment 104B would require the Secretary of State to consult on and then bring forward regulations to allow collective redress for energy consumers. I agree with the noble Lord that consumers need to get the redress that they are due by the most straightforward means available. I fear, however, that the introduction of collective redress in the energy sector would not achieve these aims. My concerns centre mainly on the time and cost of bringing such cases.

The noble Lord has said previously that collective redress offered a quicker and cheaper solution for cases than if cases were pursued by individuals either through the ombudsman, Ofgem or the courts. This presupposes that action through the courts is the only option available where an issue affects more than one consumer. That is not the case. One of the reasons we have introduced the consumer redress order powers in this Bill is to provide consumers with the means of redress without the need to initiate individual complaints.

9 pm

Consumer redress order powers offer an alternative to lengthy and expensive litigation in that investigations are initiated by Ofgem to benefit all affected consumers, with no legal fees to pay. These powers benefit consumers without the need for consideration of the relative merits of an opt-in or opt-out, as orders can be made on behalf of all affected consumers, whether they come forward or not, including many who may not have been aware that they have suffered a loss. The powers are proportionate, and build on the redress available to consumers through the ombudsman and the power to impose penalties on energy companies when things go wrong.

Collective redress, on the other hand, cuts across the role of the ombudsman as the most cost-effective and simplest form of agreeing redress when things go wrong. Collective redress opens the prospect of court action becoming the first route to redress. I ask: what is wrong with that as an approach? It is true that some would be happy if this were the case, as collective redress inevitably requires third parties or intermediaries to take action on the consumers’ behalf. In the event that a case is successful, these parties will seek to recover their costs from either the pay-outs due to individuals or from the energy companies. The problem with this approach is therefore that it introduces an entirely new cost that these companies will pass on to

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consumers. Permitting private collective redress would not just encourage advocates intent on righting things when consumers are harmed; it could also encourage litigation on the finer points of law. The cost of litigation is not cheap and this would again be passed on to consumers as a whole.

As has been referred to in previous debates, the draft Consumer Rights Bill puts forward proposals to amend the existing collective redress regime for cases where competition law has been broken. These proposals, together with the consumer redress order powers in this Bill, represent a far more streamlined and cost-effective means by which consumers can be compensated. I hope that the noble Lord is reassured by my explanation and, on that basis, will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am disappointed by that reply because I do not think that the Minister is right in the description of consumer law. You could write the regulations so that you would have to go to the ombudsman before going to such a system. The cost to consumers of starting a process in the court is prohibitive but, were it a collective provision and the ombudsman had found in a certain way, that cost would fall on no one.

If you take the equivalent of the PPI scandal in the financial sector, there is not a collective redress but there is a collective problem. If anything, the banks probably have paid out more money than they otherwise would have done had they offered a collective form of redress right at the beginning of the process. They have been obliged to try to find all sorts of people who may or may not have been aware that they had been mischarged.

However, it is clear that the Government are not prepared to pursue this issue in that context, which is disappointing. I also think that the briefing that the Minister has is not entirely in parallel with what is being discussed in BIS and in the consultation on consumer protection in other arenas. This is an area where common problems arise much more frequently than in the normal buying and selling and contractual arrangements throughout the economy. That is because everyone has similar Bills and similar charges whereas in other places there are differentiations to be made. Therefore, this is a prime potential sector for collective redress. However, for tonight, I accept the Minister’s rebuff and I will say no more. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 104B withdrawn.

Clause 136: Fuel poverty

Amendment 104C

Tabled by Lord Whitty

104C: Clause 136, page 104, line 14, leave out “a target date for achieving the objective” and insert “targets for 2020 and 2030 for achieving energy efficiency improvement of dwellings of low income households and for the reduction of total numbers of the fuel poor, leading to the eradication of fuel poverty.

“(2A) The Secretary of State shall set further targets beyond 2030 in line with the 2008 Climate Change Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.”

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Lord Whitty: My Lords, had this Bill and the procedure taken a slightly different course, I would have pursued this amendment. It was debated earlier. Normally, the vote would come up at this point.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall) (Lab): My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord. If he is proposing to speak to this amendment, he should move it first.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am referring to Amendment 104C, which was debated earlier. I am not going to move it. I am just registering with the Minister that, had it fallen differently, this amendment would have been the most important one in the first group and I would have called a vote. I therefore hope that the Minister and her colleagues will have another look at it.

Amendment 104C not moved.

Amendments 104D to 104G not moved.

Amendment 104H

Moved by Lord Whitty

104H: Clause 136, page 105, line 3, at end insert—

“( ) For the purposes of allowing a comparative assessment of progress in addressing fuel poverty, assessments under this section must include, until at least 2018, the extent of fuel poverty as measured according to the definition set pursuant to the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000.

( ) Reports under subsection (5) shall also include an assessment by the Secretary of State of the impact and projected impact of implementation of the strategy on—

(a) the mortality rates and health needs of persons living in fuel poverty;

(b) the cost of cold-related illness to the National Health Service and wider economy;

(c) the level of debt as a result of energy bills, and the number of unpaid bills;

(d) any change in the number of jobs created and supported as a result of implementing the strategy; and

(e) emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from fuel poor households.”

Lord Whitty: My Lords, these amendments relate to the strategy which will be required under Clause 136. As I indicated earlier, the clause itself should be beefed up. At the moment the Government clearly think it can all be done by secondary legislation. But whatever the substantive content of the strategy, and whatever definition of fuel poverty is adopted, careful and regular reporting and monitoring of progress on improving the energy efficiency of the houses in which low-income households live, and on reducing the total numbers of the fuel poor in our economy, are important to hold the Government and the supply companies to account. This reporting would also ensure that the policies the Government intend are pursued, whether they are the current ones via the ECO or, to some extent, the Green Deal, or whether they are new policies that the Government come up with at a later stage.

Noble Lords earlier argued for it to be a taxpayer-resourced intervention in improving energy efficiency. As my noble friend Lord O’Neill said earlier, we need to measure the success of that policy in terms of the energy efficiency of buildings, and to look year by

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year—and in particular to set target years—at how the energy efficiency of our dwellings is improving, as other noble Lords have acknowledged. Even now, after nearly 20 years of activity in trying to improve the quality of our buildings, we fall far short of the northern European standard in terms of insulation and warmth retention. We are therefore far more afflicted by the resultant fuel poverty than other equivalent countries.

One problem is consistency of reporting. We need to report on the achievement of the objectives: on energy efficiency, and on reductions of the number of the fuel poor; but we also need to report on the effects of fuel poverty, and how we are managing to reduce those. Some of those are set out in the amendment. There are references to mortality rates due to fuel poverty; to the cost of fuel poverty-related diseases to the NHS; to debt; and to emissions of carbon dioxide, because this is an energy efficiency and carbon reduction policy as well as a fuel poverty and social policy. These should all be monitored and reported on, and checked against the milestone targets which I hope the Minister will eventually come up with in the strategy.

The other point is consistency with past data. There is a problem here because there is some cynicism that a change of definition of fuel poverty has statistically got rid of nearly 2 million homes without anybody actually being any better off. Some people should have been excluded from the total, but most people would regard that the majority of those are still fuel poor, and the run of statistics we have had from the year 2000 or even earlier onwards would be discontinued if the change of definition also led to an end of those historic statistics. We also have the complication that in Scotland, Northern Ireland and, I think, Wales, the old definition is to be retained. Therefore, when we look at UK numbers for the fuel poor, there will be an inconsistency between the adoption of Professor Hills’s definition and the government monitoring and tracking that, and what is happening in the devolved Administrations, which would mean that we could not have an overall UK figure.

That may change over time, but all I am suggesting is that for a few years we mandate that the old series should continue so that the old definition—as I say, we already have a 15-year run with it—should be extended at least to 2018 and be reviewed at that point. For the first few years of the strategy, the two criteria could be judged. There would be the new definition, which will have a starting point in, say, 2014 or 2015 and is the Government’s preferred definition—for the moment I accept that—and a comparison with the old, historic trend. We would then be able to see whether the change in definition led to a change in outcome statistically and whether that change actually meant something real on the ground. In some ways, the two might diverge significantly, because while the criticism of the old definition was that it was too price sensitive, the criticism against the new definition is that it is not quite sensitive enough. In the end, the judgment of poverty is that someone cannot afford something because the price is too high. I fear that the Government will find that even if they have a relatively successful policy on energy efficiency, if prices continue to go up, that will not show in the figures. It is my subjective judgment that that will be a problem.

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All I am saying tonight is that the Government should accept, for a limited period, that we should run the two series together to see if they diverge and whether there are any policy or future monitoring conclusions to be drawn from that. I hope that the Government can accept that, and that there should be systematic reporting of the level of fuel poverty, the success of energy efficiency activity, and of its outcomes and impacts in the terms of these provisions. I beg to move.

Lord Jenkin of Roding (Con): My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has made a sophisticated case for his amendment. When I read it, my first reaction was to say, “We have all agreed that the Hills proposed definition is likely to be more effective in dealing with real fuel poverty than the existing one that was suggested under the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act”. Indeed, as I said earlier today, having reread the debate on this subject that we had in Committee, I had the impression that there was very little disagreement that the new would be a good deal more effective than the old.

The noble Lord has now given two reasons for running on. One is to be able to have a continuous process whereby the old one goes on while the new one is being introduced so that there is no gap, and with that I have some sympathy. But if he is saying that the second reason for running the two in parallel is so that you can compare one with the other, I would find that more difficult. I am not sure how the officials would manage to do that. If the old definition has been established by Professor Hills’s report as really not being an effective measurement of fuel poverty and therefore providing the basis for annual reports, it would seem that the less one relies on it the better, and the quicker one can go on to the new one the better. However, it may be that I have misunderstood the noble Lord. I do not think it can be used to compare; the only possible reason should be for continuity, which I am sure could be achieved in other ways.

9.15 pm

Baroness Verma: My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for his amendment. It sets out the issues that must be contained within the strategy that will set out how we are going to meet the target. As I mentioned earlier, we will publish the strategy for consultation next year and intend to use this opportunity to set out our plans for how we will tackle fuel poverty. I agree with noble Lords that there are clear links between fuel poverty and health, and a clear health benefit to the NHS by acting in this area. That is why we already include excess winter death rates as part of the annual statistics we publish on fuel poverty. We are working to better understand the costs and benefits to the NHS and we will be building on this within the strategy.

The proposed amendment also suggests that the strategy covers a number of other issues such as debt, the depth of fuel poverty and the number of children who are living in fuel-poor households. These are all very important concerns. It is for this reason that we already report widely within the annual fuel poverty

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statistics and these issues are included. In reference to the noble Lord’s query about the old and the new definitions, I confirm that we will continue to include fuel poverty numbers under the 10% definition. This is something to which we are already committed, and it will continue to appear in the annual fuel poverty statistics. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is reassured that the fuel poverty strategy will be a comprehensive one and that it is not necessary or appropriate to set out the issues that it will cover within the primary legislation. I trust that he will feel reassured enough to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Whitty: I am very grateful to the Minister. If she is saying that the method of reporting and the issues which we cover in those reports will continue, I certainly welcome that. On the issue of the measurement, I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and to the House that I do not think Professor Hills’s definition is necessarily a better one. I agree that there are defects in the old one but I think there are also defects in the new one. Professor Hills’s proposal of measuring the depth of fuel poverty as well as the absolute numbers of fuel poverty is a very useful tool and I strongly support it, but time will tell as to whether or not his definition is better than the old one.

I am gratified that the Minister is saying that the series will be continued, at least for some time. By implication she may have meant for longer than is provided for in this amendment. That will give continuity and time for the new series to build up because the new definition will start from next year. We will not have much of a series for very long. That will greatly help those who have campaigned long on the basis of the 10% definition to understand how the policies are impacting that, and to see whether or not the new definition is robust. I am reasonably assured by the Minister, rather more than I expected to be, and so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 104H withdrawn.

Amendments 104J and 104K not moved.


Amendment 105

Moved by Lord Campbell-Savours

105: After Clause 137, insert the following new Clause—

“Rising block tariff energy supply scheme

(1) The Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of establishing specifications for the introduction of a rising block tariff scheme governing electricity and gas prices and shall consult representatives of the gas and electricity supply industries prior to the establishment of such regulations.

(2) A rising block tariff system of energy pricing is one in which there is a basic threshold price for electricity and gas and an additional percentage price premium applicable to each block of units above that threshold.

(3) A national standard for rising block tariffs shall cover the following matters—

(a) the number of units of gas or electricity to be provided by the supplier of the basic threshold price annually;

(b) the number of units comprised in each subsequent block of units;

(c) the additional price premium payable per unit applicable to each block;

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(d) the calculation for the purposes of setting the minimum number of units to be applied at the basic threshold price quarterly;

(e) the arrangements for the setting of standing charges.

(4) Nothing in this Act permits the Secretary of State to determine the basic threshold price of electricity where a rising block tariff is in force.

(5) The Secretary of State shall report to Parliament on the operation of the scheme within 12 months of the coming into force of this section.”

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I apologise for my non-attendance in Committee. This was due to a clash with sittings of a number of domestic committees which I needed to attend.

This is a subject I have raised on a number of occasions over the years both at Question Time and in the form of amendments to previous legislation. Since last raising it in 2008 I have had the opportunity to further refine and simplify the scheme. RBT— rising block tariff—arises from what appears to the public to be an anomaly in energy pricing which defies all logic. The rising block tariff applies to domestic suppliers of gas and electricity.

If we examine our gas or electricity bills, we will note that initial units of electricity and gas are charged at a higher rate than subsequent units. Low-use consumers are penalised by the pricing structure, not only because of the early units penalty but by the levying of standing charges. The present system is regressive in its financial impact by penalising poorer sections of society. The system also lacks any incentive to conserve energy. If we are serious about energy conservation, we should use the pricing structure for units of energy to influence investment in conservation.

The problem is that, although a relatively free market in domestic energy prices can influence conservation investment as prices increase, the effect is limited due to a lack of real incentives. We need a penalty built into cost to the domestic consumer, whereby the higher the consumption of units, the higher the price—in other words, a reversal of the present arrangement. Furthermore, introducing such incentives would provide an opportunity to affect the position of people on low incomes without necessarily drawing them into means-testing.

Why cannot domestic energy prices be set at a discount for the first block of units, with subsequent blocks priced at increasing rates? It would be perfectly possible for the first block, what we might call block A, to be set at a discount from block B, the standard tariff, which itself could be priced at less than block C, the premium tariff: discount tariff over standard tariff over premium tariff. The block A tariff would be universally available to all consumers and set at a level that maximised the benefit to low-income households in blocks A and B. A fixed allocation of units would be available to all domestic customers. The Government would set the number of units in each of those blocks and the percentage difference in cost per unit in between blocks A, B and C.

However, it is critical that the block A price, the discounted tariff, is set in the free market by the energy suppliers. The Government would play no part in setting the block A discounted tariff unit price, but would leave suppliers free to set their prices, which

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would need to be at a rate to ensure that their block B and C prices were viable, competitive and affordable for consumers.

What would be the advantages? The system would induce investment in conservation, and there would be more careful management of energy use by householders, as consumers sought to avoid moving into higher blocks, particularly into block C. There would be an element of redistribution. It would reduce the growing shift towards means-testing. It would reduce CO2 emissions. Suppliers would retain control of the price by, crucially, being responsible for setting the block A discount price.

I recognise that it would be difficult to set the volume of units to be applied to each block—in particular, block A. It would be necessary to calculate and agree a reasonable number of units to be allocated to block A for a core usage of electricity—I call that the CUE. The CUE would be set taking into account multiple occupancy, disability and basic energy requirements per household. As I said, the RBT would be available to all, but set at a level that provided for basic energy needs. It could be calculated on the basis of an agreed square footage space energy requirement. In particular, pensioner households’ space requirements would need to be fully considered, but it is likely that many pensioners would move into block B areas of consumption; certainly in heating fuel requirements. The RPT does not do away with state support for low-income pensioner households but, as I said, it would reduce dependency on the state for heating support and transfer responsibility for that support to “heavy users” in the process of redistribution.

Some households are single fuel, and would lose out compared with dual-fuel households. The answer is to provide every domestic hereditament with two energy entitlements: one for gas and the other for electricity. Single-fuel households would be entitled to two electricity entitlements. The need to provide two entitlements for single-fuel households stems from problems with heating requirements. It may seem complicated as I put it to the House, but when you analyse it, the system I am advocating is quite simple.

It might be possible to have a separate RBT for certain separately defined disability groups with prescribed greater heating requirements. They could be assessed on a different basis. In their case, it might be possible to have either fewer blocks with greater spread in terms of volume of units, or a greater number of blocks with a narrower spread. Regarding seasonal temperature differentials, householders invariably consume more energy in the winter months, when there are greater heating requirements. It would be necessary to ensure the transfer on of units between quarters at the end of each quarter, as is currently done with free minute allocations for some mobile phones.

Differentials in regional temperature are not fully considered under present domestic energy pricing arrangements. It has been argued that a national pooling arrangement should be in place to compensate consumers in colder regions for their higher energy costs. Privatisation of the industry and competition in the market place have made this difficult to introduce. Under RBT, any

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such pooling arrangements, if required, would need to be based on block A volumes of units allocated, rather than on price.