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House of Commons Hansard
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Warm Front (Mr. D. R. Smith)
01 March 2010
Volume 506

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Mudie.)

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I welcome the Minister to the Treasury Bench to discuss an important matter concerning the Warm Front scheme. The idea behind Warm Front deserves nothing but praise. The scheme was introduced for the best of reasons, but too often it is failing in terms of how it is delivered. Like many hon. Members, I have received a number of complaints about how Warm Front, which involves loft insulation, cavity wall insulation, replacement boilers and heating systems, is implemented. There is a recurring theme of poor communication, broken appointments, missing paperwork, overpricing, offers being withdrawn at the last minute because funds are no longer available, and bad workmanship, the latter having resulted in two cases being brought to my attention by constituents forced to evacuate their homes, as they were uninhabitable. The Public Accounts Committee recognised the problem last July, when it identified the many failings in the scheme, and other organisations, such as Help the Aged, have been frank in the words that they have used.

The case that I would like to discuss today—the case of my constituent Mr. Dennis Smith—is of particular concern. Mr. Smith lives in a park home in Elm Grove in the town of Thatcham. He is an elderly and very vulnerable gentleman, but someone who strives to maintain his independence. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease and associated problems. In short, he is an example of the very sort of person whom the scheme set out to help.

Mr. Smith attended one of my surgeries in November 2008 and told me that he had applied for, and been allocated, a Warm Front grant to cover the installation of a new boiler in his property. Unfortunately, he had inadvertently failed to follow the strict—and, I have to say, complicated—procedures to the satisfaction of Eaga, the company tasked by the Government to administer the scheme. This action resulted in the company’s refusal to honour Mr. Smith’s grant, after he had borrowed the £2,800 necessary to pay the installation engineers. Since then I have written some 20 letters and e-mails to Warm Front, to Eaga, to the Department of Energy and Climate Change and to the Minister, in an effort to get someone to examine his case with compassion, to apply some discretion and to give Mr. Smith the support that the scheme should offer.

Quality Heating Services—a Warm Front-appointed installer—undertook a technical survey of Mr. Smith’s home, which was completed on 16 November 2007. The company informed Mr. Smith that the existing one-pipe heating system was unsuitable and needed to be converted to a two-pipe system, which would be external to the building. This was in spite of the fact that all park homes on the site, including the new ones, have one-pipe systems, and that the two-pipe systems are appropriate to bricks-and-mortar buildings, and not to park homes. Furthermore, the site manager was not happy with the proposal for the additional exterior pipework, and queried the need for it.

However, the installation was to go ahead, but when the three engineers arrived to carry out the work and saw the assessor’s plan, they did not agree that it was suitable, and after a disagreement with the assessor on the telephone, they left. A few days later the assessor returned, collected the materials and the boiler, and told Mr. Smith to contact Eaga and ask for a different assessor to come out and look at the proposal.

Mr. Smith raised his concerns with Warm Front, and it was agreed that an alternative installer would be appointed to establish whether a different system type or configuration could be identified. The one-pipe or two-pipe system was not an issue for Eaga, but there was a problem concerning the layout and specification of the improvements. Mr. Smith is adamant that at no stage in the process did he dismiss the company, and had merely stated that he needed a minor change to the proposed specification.

On 27 February 2008 a telephone conversation took place between Mr. Smith and Alan Symes of Eaga, during which Mr. Smith expressed his concern that the work proposed was not what he had originally been led to believe. Following this conversation, Alan Symes contacted Eaga heating services and cancelled the work. This was confirmed in an e-mail, which I have seen. Eaga asserts that Mr. Smith cancelled the work during this conversation, but although it states that its telephone calls are recorded, the company has been unable to provide any evidence to back up this assertion. In the absence of proof to the contrary, I believe that we have to accept Mr. Smith’s word that he did not cancel the work.

As a result of extreme confusion and frustration with the Warm Front system, and of the inadequate advice given, Mr. Smith instructed another firm to carry out the work in April 2008, in the full and certain knowledge that he had been awarded the grant. Apparently, that firm—Ultimate—was carrying out work on a neighbouring park home, and Mr. Smith was informed that that too was being done under the Warm Front scheme.

Unfortunately, it later transpired that the firm had not been appointed by Eaga, and Mr. Smith was subsequently informed that because he had had the work carried out privately, his outlay of £2,800 would not be reimbursed. Mr. Smith had borrowed that sum of money specifically to pay Ultimate’s bill, under the mistaken impression that it was his responsibility initially to pay the installers, and he would be reimbursed by Warm Front. The work was carried out almost two years ago, and Mr. Smith is now in a position of extreme financial hardship as a consequence of Eaga’s inability or unwillingness to resolve this matter.

In a letter to Mr. Smith dated 2 June 2009, Janelle Xavier of the customer contact unit at the Minister’s Department stated:

“Although the installer you hired”—

Ultimate—

“may also carry out work for Warm Front,”

which it does,

“they had not been appointed to your particular case and so you did actually hire that company privately.”

Ms Xavier goes on to say that she understands why Mr. Smith took the decision to appoint Ultimate, but that Eaga plc, the scheme manager,

“are unable to provide retrospective payments other than in cases where they can identify extenuating circumstances.”

I believe that Mr. Smith’s case demonstrates such extenuating circumstances.

I first wrote to Eaga on Mr. Smith’s behalf on 15 December 2008 and received an unsympathetic response from a Mr. Redmayne, dated 27 January 2009. Although Mr. Smith admits that he inadvertently did not do things in the way prescribed by Eaga, this does not detract from the fact that he had already been awarded the grant. I cannot believe that no one has the ability, common sense or just plain compassion to use a little discretion in this particular circumstance. Mr. Smith is typical of the kind of person this scheme was set up to help, but unfortunately for him—he has this in common with a number of my other constituents—it is causing stress and aggravation, and is not achieving what it was intended to do.

Eaga relies on two points in its refusal to honour Mr. Smith’s grant. First, it asserts that Mr. Smith himself cancelled the work, in February 2008. Mr. Smith vehemently denies this, and Eaga is unable to produce any transcript of the alleged telephone conversation in this regard—despite confirming that its telephone calls are recorded. Any sense of justice suggests that we have to rule out that assertion.

Secondly, Eaga asserts that Mr. Smith was applying for a grant retrospectively. This is just plain wrong, as it has never been disputed that Mr. Smith’s application was approved before any engineers were instructed to visit the property. In fact, Eaga instructed the first contractors, but the work could not go ahead as the system planned was suitable only for a brick dwelling. As I said earlier, Mr. Smith’s residence is a park home, which required an alternative method of installation.

Mr. Smith has co-operated with Eaga at every turn in supplying evidence and answering questions. He has written to a total of 10 different people, reiterating the same information time and time again. He has supplied full details of the installation finally carried out by an appropriately qualified engineer, together with a copy of the building regulations compliance certificate and confirmation that the local authority building control department has evidence of this work. The work is also covered by the CORGI workmanship warranty scheme for a period of six years from the date of installation. Eaga has not indicated that there is any problem with the work done. In fact, the installers meet the criteria laid down in Warm Front’s own brochure.

It is cruel, and just wrong, to use the understandable confusion of an elderly gentleman to avoid paying a grant that was previously agreed. Furthermore, it has been reiterated in several letters that the money is still available to Mr. Smith at such time as he needs further assistance from Warm Front. Given that Warm Front’s stance is that he is applying for a grant retrospectively, which it will not pay, it would seem that it is suggesting that he has his new heating system removed and reinstalled by a designated engineer, at which time they will pay up the grant that was agreed some two or three years ago. That is madness; it amounts to nothing more than a taunt.

You can detect in my delivery, Mr. Speaker, that I am intensely frustrated in dealing with this particular issue. Other people in my office have been dealing with it—seemingly day in, day out. At the end of it, we just have to consider that there is a vulnerable sick person who needs a bit of common sense to be exercised to sort the problem out. That is why I am asking the Minister to intervene.

This is a case where process has become the master, while compassion, flexibility and understanding have been forgotten. The Government should be proud of the Warm Front scheme, but Eaga and others involved in its implementation are letting them down. More importantly, Eaga is letting down precisely the kind of vulnerable people whom the Government seek to help. The Minister can intervene; he has the authority; it is taxpayers’ money. I look to him now to rectify this wrong.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) on securing the debate, standing up so strongly for his constituent, Mr. Smith, and examining the record of the Warm Front scheme. I share his view that this hugely important scheme should bring maximum benefit to vulnerable households that would otherwise struggle to heat their homes.

Warm Front is the Government’s flagship scheme when it comes to tackling fuel poverty. It has assisted more than 2 million vulnerable households across England since its inception in June 2000, including half a million households in the last two years alone. On average, each household receiving Warm Front assistance has the potential to save more than £300 a year on energy bills. That is a huge achievement, and we must not lose sight of it.

Every Warm Front applicant is offered a free and confidential benefit entitlement check. During 2008-09 just over 78,000 benefit entitlement checks were completed, 45 per cent. of which resulted in householders’ entitlement to a new or additional benefit. That meant an average weekly increase of £31 in household income. Since the scheme began in 2000, 843 households in the Newbury constituency have benefited from a main heating or insulation measure.

Warm Front helps to mitigate the risk that households will be unable to keep warm at an affordable cost. A vital part of my Department’s work is helping those vulnerable households to improve their quality of life, and helping to promote their health and well-being. The challenge involved in delivering such huge numbers of measures for vulnerable households should not be underestimated. The popularity of the scheme, and the fact that we are engaging with some of the most vulnerable members of society, mean that processes and procedures need to be followed to ensure a high standard of work and to provide the best possible outcomes for the customer and the scheme. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the appropriate mechanisms are in place to ensure that Warm Front delivers a high-quality service to those who come to us for assistance.

As I am sure many people know, the scheme is currently experiencing very high levels of demand, and managing that demand within the resources available has necessitated an extension of the time in which measures can be taken. Insulation work may take up to three months to complete, and Warm Front customers who are eligible for a new or replacement heating system may have to wait up to six months for it to be installed. In recognition of the pressure on the scheme, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in his pre-Budget report an additional £150 million for Warm Front in the current spending round. I realise that the potential waiting times may seem significant, but Warm Front is not intended to be, and cannot act as, an emergency service.

I cannot deny that the customer's experience is not always as good as we would like it to be. We, and Eaga in its role as scheme manager, continue to focus on that as a priority for action. We have made significant progress over the past few years. In 2008-09, 0.63 per cent. of complaints about Warm Front’s work for assisted households were upheld. According to a recent report on the scheme by our independent auditors, WYG, customer satisfaction remains high, and 90 per cent. of all those surveyed were satisfied with the work that had been done.

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I apologise for interrupting the Minister, who is giving a great deal of important information about the scheme, but I do not want to let him sit down without referring to the specific case of Mr. Smith. I apologise again if he is about to deal with it, but can he assure me that he will address himself to the points that I have raised?

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I believe that there is plenty of time left for me to deal with Mr. Smith’s case, and I intend to do so. However, I think it important to record the successes of Warm Front and the scale of the enterprise, and to explain the reasons for the procedures and processes that the hon. Gentleman has railed against.

I welcome the results of the WYG report and the National Audit Office report last year, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded when he mentioned the Public Accounts Committee, and which found the scheme to be largely effective and to deliver value for money. One of the NAO recommendations was to seek alternative technologies under the scheme. I welcomed that recommendation at the time, and have acted on it since. For example, we recently undertook trials on solar thermal systems, and are currently looking at air-source heat pumps and solid wall insulation.

In 2009, we trialled solar thermal systems on 125 homes. Unfortunately, we found that the systems do not generally reduce heating costs and therefore have little impact on helping to tackle fuel poverty. In rural properties off the gas grid, we are now undertaking a small-scale trial of air-source heat pumps. We are also trialling solid wall insulation on a 100 park homes in eight different locations. An evaluation of each of these technologies is planned for this summer. I hope both technologies will be a success in helping Warm Front customers.

The hon. Gentleman has previously raised the possibility of making retrospective payments to customers who have been awarded a Warm Front grant and who then arranged to have the work done privately. It is very important to me that customers receive a high standard of work at a competitive price. For that reason, we have in place an established procedure for the appointment of installers to work on the scheme and for the allocation of work.

The NAO report found the measures provided by the scheme to be competitively priced. However, we are making more changes to the way in which work is allocated to the scheme in order to be even more competitive. Under the new arrangements, which are now being rolled out across England, up to 35 per cent. of work will be allocated to appointed installers at a new, competitively derived, set price. For the remaining 65 per cent. of work, Warm Front-registered installers operating in each region will be able to bid via an electronic auction to establish the lowest price. That will help to ensure the continued focus on maintaining a competitive pricing structure. It will also provide customers with a choice when a contribution is required. Individual households will be free to choose between the three lowest bidders and will have access to the installer’s performance rating, which will be measured through Eaga audits.

We have also recently introduced computer-aided design surveys that are done at the customer’s home and immediately show where any heating and insulation measures will be placed. Engineers have been trained to use this new technology, which enables a quicker, more thorough survey process and reduces any misunderstandings the customer may have about recommended measures.

In using these processes, we honour our commitment to making sure customers receive high-quality installations that are competitively priced. We also honour our commitment to allocating work through the scheme to registered installers, while providing an element of choice for those who are being asked to make a contribution.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern with regard to the scheme being less flexible than he might wish for some customers. However, we must have safeguards in place to ensure the best outcomes for all. That is why we cannot fund work that has not been undertaken as part of the scheme.

I heard the hon. Gentleman raise concerns about workmanship in respect of the installation of Warm Front measures, and there has recently been some press coverage on the matter. The reality is that installing a heating system is often a complex and disruptive process. Just because Warm Front is a Government-funded scheme does not mean it is immune from these difficulties, and there will inevitably be isolated cases where the installation goes wrong. We cannot, however, let the existence of these isolated cases paint a misleading picture of the standard throughout the scheme. Warm Front performs an independent inspection of every central heating measure installed to ensure the work has been completed to a high standard. It also provides two years of emergency breakdown service and two annual service visits for gas installations. The Warm Front scheme manager operates an installer rating system which ranks the performance of contractors against criteria such as the inspection pass rate, complaint levels and waiting times. This system is then used to determine the levels of work allocated to each installer, with jobs diverted to the high performers. This system places continual pressure on installers to drive performance higher and ensure clients receive an excellent standard of service. I hope this provides some perspective in respect of the overall high standard of service that Warm Front delivers and is committed to maintaining.

I come now to the case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, Mr. Smith. I am satisfied from my study of it that the appropriate advice and procedures have been followed when dealing with that application. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that I have written to him in the past, and I wish to confirm to him that I studied the file and read the papers from Eaga about the case before replying to him. I would not want him to think that my response was in any sense dismissive of the case he made. I have listened to the greater detail that he has described in tonight’s debate and, without giving any commitment to changing past decisions, I assure him that I will return to the office, study the record of this debate, look again at the file and speak to him again.

As I have outlined, we cannot make payments for work carried out outside the scheme, because we need to protect both the customer and the scheme. I wish to end by re-emphasising the vast positive impact that the Warm Front scheme is having on the lives of millions of households across the country. The scheme is recording the highest levels of demand we have ever seen; during the severe weather in January, the scheme manager received the highest number of inquiries ever in one week—50,000. That is 50 per cent. more than is normal for this time of year.

The vast majority of recipients are delighted with the service provided from the point of contact to the follow-up check after installation. It is difficult to overstate the difference a well-heated, well-insulated property can make to the health, financial security and well-being of a household. There will be instances when complications occur, and we will continue to work with Eaga to ensure that standards are pushed even higher. However, across the Warm Front scheme a high quality, value-for-money service is being delivered, which is helping people to keep warm in their homes. I am proud of what the scheme has achieved, and I look forward to it continuing to help many more of our most vulnerable citizens in the time ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.