So here we all are back in our constituencies after a fortnight of Parliament, where we turned up all fresh from the beaches and ready to go with some cracking legislation, prior to dissolving again to enable those pillars of the state, the Party Rallies (oops- I mean conferences) to take place over the next three weeks. It is now done, I know, to address the perceived ‘turning up in Parliament’ deficit, but it can be a little pointless, really: the clerk of works is usually still completing his annual attempts to stop the building falling down and the place is often semi closed and shrouded with sheets and plywood as works continue. There is also often a sense of being there for the sake of it in terms of what is actually on the order paper. It might be a good idea to bring the Party conferences forward to early September now that they no longer meet by the seaside and thereby extend the ‘summer season’ as they once did, and then get stuck in at the end of the month.
There were no fewer than five days on ‘remaining stages of bills,’ one lot of Lords amendments, a general debate, and an opposition day. You get the picture. But…and here’s the counter argument to all I’ve just said: the Bill managers for the Energy Bill managed to squeeze in a slot for its remaining stages just before the end of week two, and now, subject to some tidying up in the Lords, we will have an Energy Act on the Statute books, probably by November.
So in terms of timetabling not quite as bad as I and others had feared. But still difficult in terms of the fifty or more sessions upstairs to thrash out the detail of the new Acts provisions through secondary legislation, if Green Deal and the Energy Company Obligation, the centrepieces of the legislation, are to become a reality and start anything like within the timescale originally intended.
That’s one big worry for the new piece of legislation. The other is the strange case of the vanishing Energy Companies Obligation. ECO, as we know has already been spent several times over: According to DECC in the spring (yes, the document with the hilarious diagram) they state that “ECO will be entirely focused on
- The needs of the lower income and most vulnerable, and
- Those properties needing the next most cost effective measures that do not meet the Golden Rule – for example Solid Wall Insulation (SWI)”
I’m reminded here of those people immediately adjacent to said holiday beaches who rush up to you as you walk along the sea front and past the open air eateries cajoling you to come into theirs and telling you “today – everything special:” making ECO stretch to the many billions of pounds needed to resolve fuel poverty and patch up the seven million or so hard to treat homes with “SWI” will be a trick worth pulling off.
But of course the reality is nothing like that. We’re promised about two billion pounds a year for ECO, although that started to look a bit peaky when Treasury announced its cap on levies, as I’ve previously posted. I was privately briefed at the time that Treasury had given DECC clear understandings that ECO would be given its own room within any cap limit for the future, but as the bill has progressed ministers have sounded droopier and droopier about the prospects for two billion pounds or indeed any billion pounds within the new levy arrangements. At report stage last week Energy Minister Greg Barker said in a new low of droopiness: “Government has not yet come forward with [a]…proposal” to fund ECO.
Oh dear. The problem that is emerging for Ministers, I think, is the traditional scylla and charybdis buffeting. If an amount is announced, and the levy cap is raised to accommodate it, then the Government will look like it is happily piling costs on the electricity bill payer just after it has taken stern action to limit it, taken the Carbon Capture Levy away , put the Renewable Heat Incentive outside it and so on. If it doesn’t announce an amount, fairly soon, then ECO has no credibility, and all the talk (also present in Report Stage) of guaranteeing Green Deal through ECOs ability to act as a backstop to those who need home warmth but can’t afford it will be just that. And of course, we’re already light- years away from amounts that would pass muster for these ambitions, even if two billion pounds were magically to turn up. It’s a dilemma for the Opposition too, of course: do they push for a large ECO and get accused of wanton bill inflation, or do they push other sources of funding (Green Investment Bank, ECO mortgages – of which more later – income from Carbon Floor Price for example) to fill the gap? At the moment, I am afraid my money is on the emergence of a feebly resourced ECO, especially in light of the emergence of various right-wing think tank papers on the “cost to the taxpayer” of renewables and anti-climate change measures; but I remain open to being pleasantly surprised.