27 February 1998

Dr George Turner MP (Lab. North-West Norfolk)

I have spent much of my professional career involved in energy matters. As a scientist and engineer I was glad to see that the Energy Efficiency Bill was appropriately called an energy-efficiency measure rather than an energy-conservation measure. As any physicist will quickly observe, energy conservation is a matter of science and one of the basic tenets of much of physics. Energy is conserved; how we use it, and from where and to where it flows, is the task and the problem that we are debating.

In my very earliest research work, I had the task of trying to keep things cold—indeed, close to absolute zero, at minus 232°C. Much of my mental work and research was spent finding the right materials to ensure that heat did not flow from high to low temperatures. Moreover, in those days, one had to consider a lesser range of materials than is available now. Later in life, I was involved with the opposite end of the temperature scale in designing furnaces for experimental work. The research work in our universities, which I applaud, has resulted in improvements to materials that are now more commonly available for building work.

Much of my professional work was done in a building shared with the environmental science group at the university of East Anglia, which is internationally known for its environmental work and which gave birth to a climatic research unit that has played an important role in the development of our understanding of the issues of energy efficiency and emission control. I am aware of the serious aspects of the issue before us today and of how important it is that we use the right materials in our buildings and construct them properly. People should be made more aware of the need to conserve energy in their everyday lives so that we can conserve our planet.

One lesson learnt from my 20 years in local government is that, while it is important to get the science and technology and the earnest politics right, we must take human nature into account and take people with us. If in their campaigning and lawmaking the Government do not take into account the foibles of human nature, they will fail to address this problem. Many of my friends are members of Friends of the Earth and other environmental organisations. I know that there is a danger of projecting a hair-shirt image. To be frank, environmentalists tend to believe that there must be something wrong—or that some environmental damage is being caused—wherever human pleasure is found. We have to ensure that we do not make the same mistake: we must avoid accusations of furthering the nanny state and we must take people with us in this area of Government policy, as in others.

In terms of car efficiency and emissions, we have had to use a mixture of exhortation, regulation and encouragement. We had to tell manufacturers that they had to meet more stringent standards; we must tell house builders the same thing. Through the MOT test, we imposed regulation on the consumer and ensured that standards were being met; there is a case to be made for introducing energy-efficiency regulation for houses in terms of fuel consumption. We recognise that simply telling the consumer how efficient his car is or what its emissions are is not sufficient.

What lessons are to be learnt? We should take into account what most people do when they read about the energy efficiency of their house as it is expressed in surveyors' language. If similar language is used when making statements to householders about the energy efficiency of their homes, the Energy Efficiency Bill could lose its value. The report needs to be written in a format that is understandable and to the point—and that householders can read and comprehend. We need to make clear to the householder what action is required.

It is appropriate that the work should be done at the time by the mortgage provider. I would hope that it might be good practice for the mortgage provider to encourage the appropriate work to be done where the return will be speedy by being willing to add to the mortgage for that purpose.

We already know the considerable dangers that exist in many residences as a result of inefficient boilers that burn badly, some of which have been highlighted in the courts. Such boilers not only waste energy, but put lives at risk. It would be appropriate, in terms of the efficiency and safety of households, to consider carrying out much more regular inspections than merely when a house is sold. Strong consideration should be given to requiring that boilers pass an MOT and, where homes are heated by gas—the majority of them, I suspect—that they are serviced so that we know that they are safe and efficient.

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