25 February 1998

Gareth R. Thomas MP (Lab. Harrow, West)

The Government's commitment to the environment has been clear, and is reflected in the setting up of the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I, am delighted to serve. The Government have also helped to achieve international agreement for legally binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The Deputy Prime Minister and his team have rightly received considerable praise for their role in securing consensus among the 160 nations represented at Kyoto, many of which entered those negotiations with very different agendas.

Notwithstanding Kyoto, the Government's aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent of their 1990 levels by the year 2010 will be achieved only through a realistic programme of policy measure that encourage alternative energy sources, such as renewables, and encourage less energy to be used through much greater energy efficiency.

Consultations on the sustainable development strategy launched this week and a new UK climate change programme later this year, coupled with work already under way—for example, on the integrated transport strategy—will make important contributions to delivering greater energy efficiency.

Greater domestic energy efficiency has remained an elusive ambition. As the number of households has expanded, energy consumption has continued to rise substantially–by 30 per cent. from 1970 to 1996. A range of measures to encourage improved energy efficiency among home owners is, therefore, vital.

Many consumers remain unaware of or do not understand the potential benefits that the installation of energy-saving measures can have for reducing their energy consumption and saving often considerable sums. Greater domestic energy efficiency is important not only in environmental terms. It yields savings on fuel bills, reduces maintenance costs and improves comfort, especially for the less well-off.

Initiatives to promote energy efficiency awareness and to educate home owners on its benefits are important. More energy efficiency information will, I believe, be well received by potential home owners. The survey by Which? found that 60 per cent. of those questioned would have liked information on heating costs when buying their home.

The Government are already undertaking a wide range of measures to facilitate enhanced energy efficiency. The energy-efficiency best practice programme is well established and is an important source of advice and support for businesses that want to reduce their energy consumption. In the domestic sector, less well-off consumers are helped to improve the energy efficiency of their homes through the Government's home energy efficiency scheme, which provides, on average, 400,000 grants a year worth a total of 75 million.

At the end of 1995, only 25 per cent. of homes with cavity walls had insulation. As cavity wall insulation can achieve a reduction of up to 60 per cent. in heat loss through walls, the Government's decision last year to extend the scope of the home energy-efficiency scheme to cover a greater range of measures, including cavity wall insulation, is particularly welcome.

Also welcome are the plans by the Chancellor to reduce VAT on energy-saving measures for the less well-off. That will mean that an extra 40,000 grants may be made under the home energy-efficiency scheme alone.

The Energy Saving Trust has many initiatives funded by the Government: for example, a network of excellent energy efficiency advice centres and the energy efficiency campaign Energy Saving Trust initiatives grant funded by the Government to promote specific energy-saving measures by way of cash-back promotions also raise awareness and challenge consumer inertia.

In the context of Kyoto and the Government's commitment to the 20 per cent. target, the decision by the Deputy Prime Minister to reverse the previous Government's intention to cut funding for the Energy Saving Trust by 5.5 million in the next financial year is further proof of the Government's commitment to environmental and especially energy efficiency aims.

Local authorities can play a particularly important role by encouraging, promoting and delivering more energy-efficient homes. My local authority has a well-established energy efficiency programme, which is particularly effective for council housing in Harrow. Capital resources have been directed at the most energy-inefficient homes, a free energy efficiency helpline has been established and written energy advice is available to tenants. Similarly, a range of initiatives promoting energy efficiency to private home owners is also firmly in place.

I hope that those responsible for the Energy Efficiency Bill will be careful to ensure that its key clauses remain clearly focused on the provision of information. The Bill could make an important contribution, post-Kyoto, to the Government's delivery of key environmental and, particularly, energy efficiency objectives. I warmly welcome it.

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