Writing about something genuinely alarming carries a risk – that you’ll be accused of being alarmist.
Never mind. Because, really, who is going to argue that a political manoeuvre that holds out the threat of imprisonment, or a £15,000 fine, for property owners not sticking to proposed new energy efficiency rules is anything less than alarming?
Who would not agree that such a threat is just about the very worst, the most draconian, the most outlandish excess ever to be dreamt up by any UK government?
This, though, is the nasty little surprise lurking, largely undiscovered by the outside world, in the depths of the Tories’ purportedly wholly benevolent and environmentally enlightened Energy Bill, currently ping-ponging between the Lords and the Commons.
This measure holds in reserve ministers giving themselves powers to create criminal offences and increase civil penalties as part of the drive to hit net zero targets.
Under the proposals, people who fall foul of regulations over energy consumption could face up to a year in prison and be fined up to £15,000.
A clause in the bill sets out the government’s ability to establish “sanctions” to enforce any “energy performance regulations” which may be established. Such rules would almost certainly relate in part to compulsion over installation of smart meters and the multiple ramifications over the potential for remote controlling of domestic electronic devices.
Sounding like the raspings of a despot, the clause states that these sanctions may include “the imposition of civil penalties” (fines) not exceeding £15,000 and “the creation of criminal offences” attracting a maximum prison term of 12 months.
The bill provides for “the creation of criminal offences” where there is “non-compliance with a requirement imposed by or under energy performance regulations”. People could also be prosecuted for “provision of false information” about energy efficiency or the “obstruction of… an enforcement authority”.
The bill also replaces and strengthens rules on energy performance certificates, which are required whenever a home is bought, sold or rented out and were previously based on now repealed EU law.
The fear is that the plans would lead to the criminalisation of homeowners, landlords and businesses.
But there’s cunning afoot, in the best traditions of behind-closed-doors government. While, if passed, the bill would give the UK Government the power to establish such offences and set out fines and prison terms, it would not itself create any new offences, or result in people facing fines or being sent to prison for not complying with existing regulations.
Accordingly, energy minister Andrew Bowie was able to tell the Commons on 5 September: “I can categorically guarantee before the House that we are not creating new offences.”
Indeed they aren’t. Instead, any new offences created using powers set out in the Energy Bill, once passed, would be brought into being using secondary legislation, which usually takes the form of a statutory instrument. They do have to be approved by the Commons, but they are typically nodded through, and none have failed to pass in the last 35 years.
So why is this madness attracting so little public attention? And is Wales going to be sucked into compliance with an oppressive regime of controls delineated ostensibly by concern for the planet but in reality infected by a dangerously authoritative zealotry?
Few MPs have spoken out publicly against these very disturbing proposals. Those who have are Tories who have said they are alarmed that ministers would be able to create new offences with limited parliamentary scrutiny.
One is Craig Mackinlay, head of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of Tory MPs opposed to some net zero policies. He has tabled an amendment to strip the “open-ended and limitless” powers out of the legislation. He told the Daily Telegraph: “The bill is festooned with new criminal offences. The ones we’ve found most offensive are where a business owner could face a year in prison for not having the right energy performance certificate or type of building certification.”
Welsh MPs have been worryingly silent on the issue. So what, for example, does Ceredigion’s Ben Lake think?
He told me: “The Energy Bill contains a number of welcome provisions that will help to enhance energy security. However, it would also empower the government to establish, through secondary legislation, new offences for non-compliance with energy performance regulations punishable by fines or indeed prison terms.
“Ministers have stated that there are no plans to include these powers in the Energy Bill, and any new offences would need to be considered separately by Parliament. Nevertheless, although it is important that there are sanctions in place for developers of new housing who fail to comply with new regulations, it would be disproportionate in the extreme to apply the maximum penalties to individual homeowners.
“I believe that MPs should ensure that homeowners are safeguarded should the government seek to introduce such secondary legislation in the future.”
Actually, it would be wholly disproportionate to jail anyone at all for a transgression over energy policy. This would be an expression of government by extremists.
Meanwhile, the Senedd is currently withholding its consent to the Energy Bill because it is being denied control over proposed new regulation-making powers linked to low-carbon heat schemes and heat networks in Wales, and concerns over the scale of carbon-capture, usage and storage in Wales.
These are devolved issues, and constitutional convention is that the UK parliament will not normally legislate over things in that category without Senedd consent. However, the energy minister, Julie James, believes the bill may be pushed through without Senedd agreement on the disputed clauses and is seeking an assurance that, if that happens, Wales will be excluded from the legislation altogether.
Exclusion may now be unavoidable and would by no means be a negative outcome. Broadly, energy is a devolved responsibility, but it’s clear the UK Government is content to shove that consideration aside when it comes to implementing policy in the Energy Bill.
Such an imperious attitude can’t be allowed to prevail. Merely consulting Wales on a piece of planned legislation of such magnitude is far from being enough, especially when the commitment is for the necessity of agreement.
Whether, in the end, an overall partnership with Westminster on energy will or won’t be possible, there is an immediate overwhelming priority.
This is that the Senedd urgently becomes aware of the absolute necessity of lifting the threat to the people of Wales of the outrageous prospect that they could be fined or imprisoned for less than total solidarity with UK net zero ambitions.
This a threat that simply must not be tolerated.