Kwasi Kwarteng – 2020 Speech on Cavity Wall Insulation

Below is the text of the speech made by Kwasi Kwarteng, the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, in the House of Commons on 16 March 2020.

I thought that was an informed and well-researched speech, so I thank the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for it and congratulate him on securing this important debate. I found one phrase in his speech particularly engaging, as it sums up what we are doing in this House, and that was when he referred to “proper access to redress”. That is a universal theme in this place. All constituency MPs feel that we want to give our constituents proper access to redress, and it was a very fair observation.

The Government acknowledge the charge that some companies have installed CWI in homes that were unsuitable for those measures and that they have done so using poor building practices. We also acknowledge that some of these companies have, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, gone into liquidation, which has meant that they have avoided any redress to former customers. But it is precisely for those reasons that from 1 January this year we introduced new design and installation standards into our main domestic energy-efficiency policy, the energy company obligation. I will talk a bit more about that in a moment.

Let me give some background. Cavity wall insulation has in the past been delivered through several Government schemes, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in passing. ECO is the most effective at protecting consumers. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that some of the schemes did not work, which is why we are having this debate. The current iteration of the scheme, ECO3, is worth £640 million a year and will run until March 2022. Since it commenced in its first iteration in 2013, ECO has delivered nearly 2.7 million heating and insulation ​measures in more than 2 million households, including the installation of boilers, electric storage heaters and wall insulation.

I know that the hon. Gentleman said that he is not against cavity wall insulation but wants to raise the issue of the egregious and unacceptable cowboy companies that are exploiting vulnerable people, but I have to say that more than 8% of the homes in his constituency have received measures under the scheme and, as far as I understand it, the vast majority of them have worked out in a beneficial way. The current focus of ECO is on fuel poverty. It reduces the heating bills of those households that are least able to insulate and heat their homes. The hon. Gentleman made the point that many of the people who were exposed to these sharp practices were the most vulnerable people in our society. The ECO scheme is directly focused on that population.

In Great Britain, cavity wall insulation is present in around 70% of the homes for which it is appropriate. It reduces energy bills and saves carbon. However, I fully accept that the insulation work carried out under the predecessors of the ECO scheme did not meet the standards that are now required—I am afraid most cavity wall insulation was installed under those schemes —which is why, from the start of ECO in 2013, the Government made clear guarantees and specific installation standards a requirement, to improve consumer protection. In addition, to monitor compliance, some 5% of all the measures taken are independently checked and the result is reported to the administrator, which is Ofgem. Installers of cavity wall insulation also now have to provide a 25-year guarantee for the measures that they install.

Nevertheless, we know that standards and consumer protection can improve. The hon. Gentleman mentioned an independent review; we are implementing the recommendations of the comprehensive and independent Each Home Counts review of quality and standards. As I have mentioned, from 1 January this year all installers that work under ECO have to be registered with TrustMark, which is the new Government-endorsed quality framework for energy efficiency. Compliance with TrustMark leads to improved and comprehensive consumer protection, and that includes a clear route to the redress that the hon. Gentleman talked about for his constituents. We now have updated design and we have installation standards, so the picture today is far better than the one that he described.

I fully understand and appreciate that we have had historical problems. We have consistently tried to improve standards, but we are aware that some historical installations of CWI have led to significant problems. Those problems have been seized upon by some companies that are, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, part of the evolving claims culture. There are instances of claims management ​companies having contacted householders directly to report that they may be able to get compensation for failed cavity wall insulation. I am not saying that this is the case in the majority of instances to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but it has been reported that householders have been led to believe that their insulation is deficient when it is working perfectly reasonably.

The Government have recently published additional guidance for consumers who suspect that they may have had faulty cavity wall insulation installed in their homes. This published guidance is useful for some people who feel that they may have been led astray. My Department is consistently working with the ECO administrator, Ofgem, the Treasury, the Insurance Fraud Bureau and the Financial Conduct Authority to explore further options for addressing this issue across the sector.

I do not know the details that the hon. Gentleman very ably set out in his speech. The first that I heard of many of them was today; I read the article that he had written and I was aware of some of the difficulties. What I would say in the spirit of candour that he adopted when he opened his remarks is that I am very happy to meet him and to discuss some of the more specific cases with which he is very familiar and with which, regrettably, I am less familiar. None the less, I do know the policy and the various schemes under which many of his constituents might have sought or had this insulation installed.

Broadly, cavity wall insulation remains one of the most cost-effective measures delivered under the ECO scheme, and we are absolutely committed to making sure that a measure of confidence in ECO and CWI continues. To reduce the chances of poor insulation, the Department continues to engage with suppliers, the industry and also with TrustMark, to ensure that continuous improvement in standards. My officials also work closely with the main provider of guarantees, the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency, which, when I have spoken to its representatives, has embraced the move to more rigorous standards.

It is not the place for me, as a Minister at the Dispatch Box, to comment on those specific charges about individuals. That is not what I would be expected to do. What I would be happy to do is to talk more in a private situation—one on one—so that he can explain the particular faults and irregularities in CIGA as they transpired to him.