Promoted by Alan Beith (LibDem, Berwick-upon-Tweed), the Energy Conservation Bill would have placed a duty on local authorities to prepare a plan to improve the energy efficiency of homes in their areas. It would also have obliged the Secretary of State to set them deadlines for completing and implementing their plans.
The Bill sailed through Committee stage in February after the Government failed to table any amendments to it (ENDS Report 230, pp 30-31 ). But Ministers warned at the time that they considered it as unnecessary and too expensive, and on 22 April almost 220 amendments were tabled in a successful bid to prevent the Bill completing its Report stage. More than 50 were put down by Environment Secretary John Gummer.
The procedural propriety of the Government's approach was questioned by Mr Beith. Ministers, he said, were "adopting a new strategy of ignoring a Bill's Committee stage because holding back amendments for Report increases their opportunities to delay and block Bills."
The amendments would have gutted the Bill, converting the duty on councils to prepare energy efficiency plans into a discretionary power, and wiping out the duties of the Secretary of State to set deadlines and scrutinise the draft plans.
Junior Environment Minister Tony Baldry told the Commons that the Bill was unnecessary because "many local authorities are already doing much of what is involved in the Bill". By turning their existing power into a duty, "local authorities' incentive to carry out such work as cost effectively as possible disappears," he argued, and the Bill would place "extra, unnecessary and unreasonable costs...on taxpayers." And the Bill was not needed in any event because "the one measure which should ensure that every householder will look to the energy efficiency of his home is our imposition of VAT on domestic fuel."
The Bill's supporters, on the other hand, maintained that if it was true that "many" councils are already doing what it required then turning their power into a duty would not be as burdensome as Mr Baldry had claimed. But they disputed that local authorities' powers were as wide-ranging as he had suggested. Those powers extend only to surveying and improving the energy efficiency of their own housing. This accounts for only 23% of the total housing stock, and the proportion is declining.
The idea that local authorities should be able to carry out energy audits of private properties provoked several absurd allegations from the Bill's opponents. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North) claimed that it would give councils powers of entry and entitle them to force individuals to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. And Peter Butler (Milton Keynes, North-East) alleged that individuals would be able to take councils to court for a breach of their duty if they refused to carry out an energy audit of their properties.
Mr Baldry dismissed as "ridiculous" suggestions that the Bill was a "touchstone" of the Government's energy efficiency policy. But Andrew Bennett (Lab, Denton & Reddish) claimed that that policy had collapsed following the refusal of the gas industry regulator Ofgas to provide funding for the Energy Saving Trust, whose activities are intended to make a major contribution to the Government's strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions (see below).
The arguments ended after five hours with few of the amendments debated, and the Bill now has no chance of becoming law. But the impressive coalition which formed to support it is unlikely to be dispersed, and Labour is expected to attempt to bring it back in the next parliamentary session.
The Government may also be reminded about one of the minor amendments which it tabled. This would have enabled the Secretary of State to impose a ceiling on the amount which local authorities could charge for copies of their energy conservation plans. An analogous power is not available in recent environmental legislation, and some local authorities have been criticised for charging the public £1, £2.50 and even £5 per page for copies of entries on their public registers.