Clause 8 - Energy efficiency of houses

Sustainable and Secure Buildings Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:30 am ar 9 Mawrth 2004.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): I have great sympathy for the promoters of private Members' Bills, having recently been round that track. I have no wish to derail this one, because I know how sensitive they are. Having said that, I am afraid that the Minister has some more serious explaining to do, because this clause should not be needed in the Bill, as it should have been covered by the Housing Bill that is passing through the House. It was not in that Bill as it went into Committee. It is my understanding that that has not been altered in Committee.

My Bill set out to license houses in multiple occupation. One of the main reasons why it set out to do so was to deal with the appalling conditions encountered in many HMOs, particularly with their energy efficiency. That relates to the wider policy implications that we aired this morning. In places such as my constituency, there are far too many ancient terraces where impoverished tenants sit in draughty, icy rooms, huddled over single-bar electric fires, struggling to keep warm and keeping an anxious eye on the meter to see whether it needs to be fed again. Those are archaic conditions, but they still apply today.

In many cases, we are talking about buildings that have a standard assessment procedure rating in single figures. In other words, they are appalling in terms of the environment, comfort and fuel poverty. This is housing stock that has the worst energy efficiency, energy conservation and fuel poverty. Those are three key parts of Government policy. The content of the clause was agreed in my Bill; it was consistent with Government policy, and I am faintly appalled, and very disappointed, to find this Government, of all Governments, not going forward consistently in policy terms, but retracting. Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South reminded us, they are retracting on the most serious issue facing the world: that of climate change. We can make a significant contribution to climate change by dealing with the energy condition of HMOs.

I understand that there may be some reservations on the part of the ODPM. It does not want to deter landlords. It does not want to lose private rented accommodation from the market, where it is needed. On the other hand, if we permit standards as low as they are now, there is little point in having HMO registration in the Housing Bill, because it legitimises the worst possible conditions. That is what provoked the desire for legislation. I require a serious explanation from the Minister on that. I realise that it is not his fault, and I do not hold him personally responsible, but he is the unfortunate person who must justify his Department.

Perhaps I am simple—do not answer that one—but I cannot see why the ODPM finds the issue a problem.

It may feel that setting excessively rigorous standards will drive landlords out of business, but it is in control of the situation because it will set the energy standards that landlords will have to meet. It can ensure that standards are not unduly rigorous. Obviously it is unreasonable to expect to turn a Georgian or Victorian terrace into the most energy-efficient building that could be built today; they do not have cavity walls and so on. However, there is a reasonable level of energy efficiency that can be expected and achieved at a reasonable cost. Moreover, it is perfectly possible for registration schemes to allow landlords a reasonable time in which to conform to new requirements. Indeed, that is covered in the clause.

What is the problem, then? I cannot see one and I do not know where the ODPM finds one. Considering the question on pure principle, I am strongly tempted to invite the Committee to oppose the deletion of the clause, but, for the sake of the Bill, I am not going to do that. However, the Minister owes us not only an explanation, but a commitment that the Government's long-held policy will be upheld and delivered through appropriate amendments to the Housing Bill. That way, the clause will become genuinely surplus to requirements.

Brian White: Does my hon. Friend agree that achieving the same objectives through the warm front programme and other alternative schemes would be far more expensive?

Dr. Turner: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which underlines my point. The energy efficiency commitments and warm front schemes would be far less monetarily efficient if they were applied in the context that we are discussing, instead of by landlords, in a strictly commercial context. We shall achieve less energy conservation for our money and take fewer people out of fuel poverty. I ask the Minister for just two things: a coherent explanation of the reasons for deleting the clause and a clear undertaking that the issues will be properly addressed in the Housing Bill.

Alan Simpson: I follow that eloquent argument in favour of retaining such an important clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) is right that the most coherent argument for removing it would be an assurance that the relevant provisions would be made in the Housing Bill. We have had meetings with the Minister on the matter. It is correct that the clause was not originally in the Bill and that there is still some resistance to including it now.

Without the clause we would be in deep trouble. In the debate on the previous clause a number of hon. Members talked about the importance of setting ambitious targets and high hurdles. However, we should remind ourselves that those targets and hurdles are already in place. We have an unambiguous, non-negotiable legal obligation to eradicate all fuel poverty in the UK by 2016. We have set an interim target of eradicating fuel poverty among the most vulnerable by 2010, but we have made a legal undertaking to eradicate the whole problem by 2016.

I mention that because the Government's Fuel Poverty Advisory Group has recently issued a report that says that, based on the current spending allocated to the warm front programme, we shall not succeed. The report says that we shall have to increase expenditure on warm front by at least 50 per cent. to have a cat in hell's chance of fulfilling the Government's legal undertaking. We must make a choice on how to meet those undertakings.

The clause gives us a get-out-of-jail-free card. It is not necessary to go to the Chancellor and try to persuade him of the case for a 50 per cent. increase in the warm front budget. We can do by legislation and regulation what in other cases must be done by direct investment. The funny thing is that this is not only a win-win-win situation; it is hard to find anyone who objects to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown was right to say that the Government did not object to the clause in his Bill. It is difficult to understand what has happened in the meantime to make it objectionable when other changes have come on side in support of the proposal.

In my constituency the major landlords' organisation is asking for a clear regulatory framework because that will allow decent landlords to be distanced from cowboy landlords. Its members say that they all pay the penalty for and suffer the stigma of the reputation given to them by cowboy landlords. Decent landlords are not afraid of decent standards. They can play a contributory part in the programme that the Government are rightly setting and they want to be part of the credit list rather than the debit list.

We are also now getting pressure from those in the private energy sector, which has an energy efficiency commitment obligation to put money into energy efficiency and renewable energy resources. They have hit difficulties and reached some of the limits of what they can do easily. They are coming back to us and saying that they are in an impossible position under the current law. When they go to private landlords, particularly those of houses in multiple occupation, and say that they can provide different energy and insulation systems which will help to provide decent standards of thermal efficiency in the home, by and large the landlords say, ''Get out. You only want to sell products. Don't call us, we'll call you.'' Those in the energy sector are coming back to us as parliamentarians and saying, ''We're on side; the Government asked us to be part of the solution and we are keen to be part of it, but we cannot compel people to engage with your programme. You must set a rules-based framework in which people must work. We will then become part of the solution and not the ogres who turn up on the doorstep and put an armlock on the landlord.''

The solution will come if we engage with the proposition that we need a national licensing regime that allows energy efficiency standards to be incorporated as part of the licensing process. It is an easy transition and we can do it in many ways. We have already done it with white goods in shops where people now know the energy efficiency of the product they buy. The measure will allow us to incorporate an

energy efficiency component into the housing product that we are offering to every citizen in the land. Given that that is a legal duty, I ask the Minister to return to the Committee and explain how on earth we can meet the targets that our own advisers say we cannot meet under our current programmes if we will not incorporate the regulatory process alongside the direct investment process.

Phil Hope: The clause is evidence of a lot of passion on the part of hon. Members who are concerned to see what we might be able to do. As hon. Members are aware, we propose to establish, through the Housing Bill, a system of licensing for houses in multiple occupation. The clause would make it a condition of the granting of a licence that such houses had reached a minimum standard of energy efficiency. I regret to say that the Government are unable to accept the clause, but I want to say a few words in response to hon. Members' comments, because I understand the level of commitment, feeling and passion behind this important issue.

We shall be dealing with unacceptable conditions in residential properties, including licensed and unlicensed HMOs, through part 1 of the Housing Bill, which has recently completed its Committee stage. Under the new regime to deal with housing conditions, local authorities will have wide powers to assess hazards in all dwellings and, where necessary, require remedial works. For example, where cold is assessed as a hazard, the local authority could require the provision of adequate insulation and heating. It would also be able to require adequate ventilation and measures to deal with damp and mould growth.

The housing health and safety system introduced by the Housing Bill will ensure that all the hazards that might typically be found in a house, including an HMO, can be assessed. Moreover—this picks up on some key points that hon. Members raised—it will enable the local authority to prioritise and target the most serious hazards that it finds in the local housing stock. We think that the health and safety system is a proportionate response that does not require landlords to carry out unnecessary work, but which will deal with some conditions that hon. Members so forcefully argue need to be addressed.

Dr. Turner: Will the Minister please explain why the Government still resist any energy efficiency requirement as expressed in whatever rating? If local authorities are objectively to carry out the duties that he has just outlined—for instance, assessing how hazardously cold a building is—they must have an objective framework to apply. An energy efficiency rating is the obvious way to go about that. Why should this not be done?

Phil Hope: I understand my hon. Friend's point, but rather than setting overall energy efficiency targets in the way that he has described, the new health and safety system will deal with the conditions—cold, mould or lack of ventilation—in a property. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham,

South, we are endeavouring through the Housing Bill and the new system that is being introduced to achieve a certain outcome—tackling the appalling conditions that blight so many properties where many of the poorest in our community live.

Setting overall energy efficiency standards and targets, however, would not achieve that outcome. I fully understand that it would achieve other outcomes—energy efficiency outcomes—which is why we are debating these matters while considering a Bill that deals with sustainable and secure buildings. However, we shall tackle conditions that are connected not with poor energy efficiency but with appalling housing conditions through the Housing Bill and the new health and safety rating system associated with it.

Brian White: Given the Minister's remarks, I can understand that local authorities will be able to find a way, using the new system, to address those issues. Why can they not be permitted to get on and do it?

Phil Hope: I am trying to explain to my hon. Friends that our reason for taking this approach is that we want to deal with the bad conditions—the health and safety hazards—in which many people live. I do not have conditions in my constituency similar to those described as existing in Brighton, Kemptown, but I recently visited Derby, where I shadowed a housing standards officer at work as part of the Government's examination of how to reduce bureaucracy. We are trying to ensure that we raise standards without imposing unnecessary bureaucratic measures. I was aghast at some of the conditions. I saw a lot of people; some were drug addicts and there were needles around. I could see the all the difficulties involved and the hazards of an HMO with an absent landlord—who did not, as it happened, turn up to the meeting.

I suggest to my hon. Friends that the action being taken through the Housing Bill and the new health and safety rating system will address those appalling conditions, in which too many of our constituents still live, without the risk of the housing stock needed for people to live in being removed from the market. I think that that is the right approach to take.

I understand that my hon. Friends' priority is energy efficiency, but I am suggesting that we can tackle energy efficiency questions through the health and safety rating system. We must do so by taking into account the genuine personal needs and deprivation of people experiencing hazards and living in cold, damp or mouldy buildings.

Dr. Turner: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way once again, but I must return to the point that we must have an objective means of measuring those outcomes. Otherwise, this will not be very meaningful.

Phil Hope: That point has been made, and the Derby city council officer I was shadowing showed me the new booklet that housing standards officers will use. The system uses objective measures and a complicated formula, which I will not go through now, although we can send it to Members if they require it. The system will ensure that when an HMO is being assessed for licensing and so on, objective

criteria, through a complicated series of standards, will determine the extent to which the HMO lives up to the standards that we want and expect.

Alan Simpson: I understand what the Minister is trying to say, and having shadowed officials he will have experience of the front line. However, in the context of what he said about better regulation, will he consider this? If a local authority official will have to go in and apply a complicated formula, and then have to persuade a landlord and/or seek enforcement measures, that will be much more difficult than saying to the landlord, ''Look, unless you meet these conditions you don't get a licence.'' Bureaucratically, it is much simpler if everyone knows the hurdles and that unless they get over them they will not be part of the game.

We are in danger of sending a different message to landlords, which is that unless the worst landlords are able to offer the worst conditions we fear driving people out of the market, and that our process must cater for the worst in the market, not everyone's entitlement to a decency standard that all are expected to meet.

Phil Hope: I hope that I have not misled the Committee. There is no doubt that licensing will identify the properties with the worst conditions in which people are living in the worst circumstances, who the landlords are and the extent to which they do or do not meet the fitness requirements—the standards in part 1 of the Housing Bill, using not an energy efficiency standard, which my hon. Friends are pressing for, but the health and safety rating system that it will establish.

By ensuring that we get the people who are managing the properties, the health and safety rating system will allow local authorities to tackle the worst cases and conditions that my hon. Friends and I have seen at first hand and find unacceptable in the 21st century.

My hon. Friends and I have a shared objective; we are arguing about the means to that end. The clause is inappropriate and unnecessary because we are working towards such outcomes through the Housing Bill, the health and safety rating system, and the licensing system for HMOs about which my hon. Friends are concerned. I appreciate that the health and safety rating system does not go as far as they would like, but, given how it will work, it is moving towards their desired system.

Ms Walley: In view of what the Minister has said, I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown can look forward to any further amendments to the Housing Bill as it goes through another place.

Phil Hope: I am being drawn towards providing assurances in areas where it would be unwise for me to do so. The Housing Bill is not my Bill, although I daresay that those points are being argued in full. If my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown or any member of the Committee examines the Housing Bill with its health and safety rating system, detailed requirements, ability to target those landlords who are causing the most difficulty and licensing

system as well as how new measures will enforce changes relating to cold, ventilation, mould and other issues, they will be reassured that energy efficiency is being delivered through those mechanisms.

Dr. Turner: The very reason I keep returning to these points is that I have read the Housing Bill and it does not deal with them.

Phil Hope: I appreciate that concern, but it is not for me in this Committee to determine what may happen in other Committees dealing with other Bills.

I shall just add another point. I have spoken about how the health and safety rating system addresses certain points that have been raised—I appreciate that some of my colleagues feel that it does not go far enough—but there are other requirements in building regulations. In particular, part L of the building regulations refers to such things as replacement boilers, hot water storage systems and replacement windows and doors.

The powers under clauses 2 and 3 will enable improvements in energy efficiency to be achieved in HMOs because they apply to all buildings in the appropriate circumstances. It is not as though HMOs are not covered by all the other regulations that we are trying to improve and develop, which the Bill will enable.

Clause 8 does not require improvement of energy efficiency, only the possibility that failing HMOs would not be able to continue as HMOs. That is the point that I was trying to make. If we introduced the clause, we would have a problem in deciding where tenants should go if their building failed to meet energy efficiency requirements. I know that we have been around that circuit. My hon. Friends have made points on that matter, but I want to ensure that we understand the significance of the new licensing regime under the Housing Bill. It concerns management standards and identifying properties on which the landlord needs to carry out particular work in respect of the authority intervening. The new health and safety rating system is designed to consider each building and to tailor improvements regarding the need of that building, instead of taking a blanket approach.

I suspect that I have not satisfied to the fullest extent all the concerns of my hon. Friends, but I hope that, to ensure that the Bill is considered on Report, I have given some assurances—their concerns notwithstanding—on how what we are doing elsewhere meets some of their needs. Having said that, I hope that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove does not press for the clause's retention.

Mr. Stunell: We have to make progress and I do not want to detain the Committee. There are 1.5 million homes in multiple occupation in this country and 600,000 households in fuel poverty live in them. They have low standards on average. There are no incentives for landlords to change or improve the situation and tenants face exceptionally high fuel costs compared with the average household. Hon. Members have set out their concerns and their puzzlement at the Government's approach to the clause. However, it was made clear to me from a very early stage that the

Government would not wear the clause under any circumstances, whatever its merits or demerits.

I certainly do not want to sacrifice what is in all other respects a very necessary and appropriate Bill by making a political statement on the clause. I assure the Minister that I and other colleagues in the House will return to this matter, but I shall not press for a vote at this stage.

Question put and negatived.

Clause 8 disagreed to.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.