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Column 791Wray, Jimmy
Young, David (Bolton SE)
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Nigel Griffiths and
Mrs. Llin Golding.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Bill read a Second time and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).
That, at this day's sitting, the Motion in the name of Mr. Neil Kinnock relating to Social Security may be proceeded with, though opposed, until half-past Eleven o'clock, or for one and a half hours after it has been entered upon, whichever is the later.-- [Mr. Fallon]
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Social Security Bill it is expedient to authorise--
(a) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of-- (
(i) any expenses incurred under the Act by a Minister of the Crown ;
(ii) any increase attributable to the provisions of the Act in the sums payable out of such money under any other Act ;
(b) the making of payments into the Consolidated Fund.-- [Mr. Scott.]
Motion made and question proposed, That the Social Fund Cold Weather Payments (General) Amendment Regulations 1988 (S.I. 1988, No. 1908), dated 2nd November 1988, a copy of which was laid before this House on 3rd November in the last Session of Parliament, be revoked.-- [Mrs. Beckett.]
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : With our customary generosity and magnanimity, it is a pleasure to congratulate the Government on adopting two of the improvements that we suggested to the severe weather payment scheme that we suggested, and on removing some of the-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Flynn : With this measure, the Government have removed one of the scheme's more demented features, whereby the seven-day qualifying period had to start on a Monday. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) said last year that, unfortunately, in the past the frost had proved incapable of grasping the administrative convenience of starting any cold snap at the beginning of a working week. Are we perhaps experiencing a few flakes of Government generosity? Alas, no. The Government are propelled more by baser motives--particularly the crucial embarrassment factor.
In our last debate on social services, the House was treated to the announcement of the LEB money, or the Lawson embarrassment bonus. Money that was not available three weeks earlier, at the time of the Autumn Statement, or of the uprating statement, was suddenly found. All the arguments on the side of compassion, justice and fairness failed--but the purse strings snapped open to save the face of a vain and crumbling Chancellor. That was a valuable lesson for us all. Tonight, perhaps we will hear again about the winter premiums, because they were rejected by a previous Minister on the ground that he would be embarrassed if he had to increase the payments to pensioners in the autumn and then reduce them later, in the spring. Many deserving groups throughout the country are praying that the Chancellor will devote another unattributable briefing to their cause, witnessed only by 10 journalists and a silent tape recorder. Many past decisions have been affected by the embarrassment factor. Perhaps one day there will be a scientific treatise on what happens as soon as the embarrassment quotient reaches a certain level and triggers Government action.
When the cold weather payment scheme was put to the test in 1986-87, it collapsed under the weight of its own complexity and absurdity. It is claimed that last winter it worked well--but it was not put to a severe test then. Tonight, the House is considering a scheme that remains wretched and ineffective. The miserly payment is still stuck at £5, despite soaring fuel costs and before electricity privatisation and the dreaded nuclear tax.
The average amount paid for heat and light by pensioners on the basic pension is £8 a week throughout the year and more than £16 a week throughout the winter months. There is no compensation for losses suffered by the elderly, the disabled and young
families--losses which have been caused by the Government, principally by
Column 793abolishing heating additions that the elderly and people with children automatically receive under supplementary benefits. The Government will have taken £11.05 a week from all pensioners and £17.50 a week from couples by next April by severing the link between earnings and pensions. Instead of paying out automatically, they have chosen again to persist in forcing everyone to claim, thereby wasting money and reducing take-up. Last time there were claims on a significant scale, in the winter of 1986-87, 500,000 people out of a total of 1,400,000 who were entitled to claim did not. The cost of advertising the scheme in 1987 was the same as the severe weather payments to 82,800 people.
Why not change the system to an automatic pay-out? I was told in an answer from the Minister about the social security settlement that all the necessary details were available, except the information about whether the recipients possessed sums of £500. That problem could be eliminated by raising the limit above the rather disagreeable level of £500, the sum that many elderly people possess as funeral money. It should be raised to £3,000--that is the simple answer. Many people would then be given the extra money automatically and simply.
We could do with another examination of the local temperature figures which have been the subject of so much ridicule. The pay-out should be national or regional. In this context, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are treated as nations. That was what happened in 1987, when the Secretary of State decided to ignore his scheme and to declare a national trigger. A national system would mean a slight increase in the numbers receiving the benefit, but the administrative costs would plummet and take-up would rise to 100 per cent. Such a system would be simpler and cheaper and would reach those in greatest peril.
For peril it is. Each British winter, 40,000 people die because they are cold as well as old. The message from the Government to vulnerable people should be : turn up the heating when the bitter weather starts--your extra payment is guaranteed. In Britain, the death rate among the over-60s rises by 20 per cent. in the winter, as compared with the summer, and the death rate for children under one year old is 40 per cent. higher. These differences do not occur in Canada, Sweden or Norway, although those countries have far more severe winters.
We know that there is no scientifically accepted causal link between winter deaths and the cold, and that the matter is now under investigation, but we should not be guilty of avoiding the obvious explanation, which is that we, like New Zealand, which has a pattern of winter deaths similar to ours, have exceptionally unpredictable weather. To these unpredictable changes we need a response that is entirely reliable and predictable.
The recent report by the King's Fund Research Institute, based on World Health Organisation figures, found that men over 65 can now expect to live longer in 20 other countries, including Sri Lanka and Uruguay, than in Britain ; and that women of the same age have a higher life expectancy in 16 other countries, including Greece and Spain. The poor showing in Britain is blamed on severe poverty and disadvantage among a large minority.
Our task is to convince those who are at risk that they have nothing to worry about when severe weather hits them. Fuel poverty is, sadly, just one symptom of general poverty. Many families and individuals are being cruelly hit by the cumulative effects of the neglected basic pension, of the losses of housing benefit, which has been cut by £600
Column 794million, and of the problems of repaying budget or crisis loans. People are now finding that their additional bills are not covered because their benefits are frozen by transitional payments. The "keep well, keep warm" campaign message, which could have been useful, was eclipsed, or rather obliterated, when a junior Minister patronisingly told the old to dress up like Mother Hubbard. The Government's message should have been that they would guarantee extra payments, but that unfortunate statement by the Minister showed that the Government do not understand or care, and that people are on their own. Of course, the Government proved in the Budget that they care for some people. There was a tax handout to Sir Ralph Halpern of £4,728 a week, which over a year is the price of severe weather payments for 49,171 people. The Government do care for the old and the cold, but they care 49,000 times as much for the super-rich. We have frequently quoted the figure that, under the Labour Government, basic pensions increased in real terms by 20 per cent., whereas under this Government, basic pensions have increased by a mere 2 per cent. From a new look at the figures, we have discovered that the pensioners who are worse off have had no increase in income at all in real terms. A pensioner on income support now receives, in real terms, £1 less than in 1979. If we make comparisons between pensioners who are over 80 and the disabled now and then--even those who enjoy the higher pensioner premium-- we find that the same difference exists. Those pensioners in greatest need have suffered a loss in income in real terms of £1 a week.
That scheme is crude and does not take into account fuel costs, which vary widely. Not all homes are adequately efficient thermally and not all people enjoy the same health. The elderly, the disabled and those young families will feel the cold coming in the next few weeks and are wondering what their reaction will be. Will the Government make another attempt to hold down the cost of benefit by discouraging people, or will we hear from the Government tonight suggestions for really improving the scheme? If we do not, fuel poverty will intensify in depth and extent.
I have had letters from constituents about the matter, as I am sure many other hon. Members have. One letter says :
"Yes, I have central heating"--
many elderly people enjoy central heating now--
"but I took a drop in income in April and with inflation, which doubled the drop, I cannot afford to put the heating on." Unless the Government have a serious policy--rather than one that is mainly ornamental--to tackle the great winter cull caused by fuel poverty, there will be even more deaths in the future. We look forward to hearing about the Government's new policies.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lloyd) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr.Flynn), who has had a busy evening, on his skilful speech. He wisely said little about the amendment regulations against which the Opposition are praying, except to take credit for them, rather eccentrically. However, his approval is welcome. No one would have known from his speech, which inveighed against the Government for parsimony, that the
Column 795last Labour Government had no effective scheme for giving extra help to the least well-off in times of severe weather.
The regulations extend to more people the provisions contained in the regulations laid before the House on 7 October. As the hon. Gentleman has said so little about them, the House may find it helpful if I spend a few minutes describing what they do. The amendment regulations, coupled with the earlier regulations, make extra cash available to vulnerable people receiving income support, who have less than £500 capital, to help them to pay their heating bills during any very cold spells this winter.
Mr. Lloyd : Because we wish to direct the help to those with the most limited means. That is the fairest way of doing it. Those with more capital have a cushion with which to meet any extra payments. Does the hon. Lady deny that that helps to direct the scheme to those who need it most?
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : The Minister must know, as do all hon. Members who hold constituency surgeries, that old people keep £500 against their funeral costs, and hold it sacrosanct. That £500 disqualifies them from receiving the severe weather payments that he is trying--as we are all trying--to enable them to receive.
Mr. Lloyd : It does not disqualify them. They may disqualify themselves if they hold that view, but most do not. They have the resources ; we are directing the scheme towards those who do not. We are continuing that additional help--which the Government have provided in one form or another for the last few years, but which their Labour predecessor did not match--for those members of society most likely to worry about using extra heating during any spell of unusually cold winter weather.
The help, of course, is over and above the provision made via income support for normal heating expenses. Indeed, all the money paid out in previous years as heating additions--£417 million in the year ending last March--has been included in the income support allowances and premiums. That £417 million, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Newport, West knows, is some 55 per cent. more in real terms than his party was paying out in heating additions in 1978-79.
What is more, the heating additions that the Labour Government did pay failed to reach some 30 per cent. of pensioners on supplementary benefit. Whether that was because they did not qualify or because they could not find their way through the byzantine regulations the hon. Member for Newport, West may like to tell us when he winds up for the Opposition. What I think that he cannot tell us is that that 30 per cent. did not include many who need extra assistance in exceptionally cold weather. Nor can he deny that since last April that £417 million is being redirected automatically through the premiums to all in the vulnerable groups on income support. The new regulations bring forward and significantly extend the scheme that was operated successfully--
Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) : Will the Minister confirm that the paragraph that he has just read to the House itself confirms--albeit in the subtext--that what the Government did to heating additions last April was abolish them in their entirety?
Mr. Lloyd : No. What they did was include them in another form in the premiums that went automatically to the vulnerable groups. The hon. Gentleman knows, as do all his hon. Friends who have truly studied the matter, that the various additions did not always reach those whom they were intended to reach and who would have benefited from them, because they were complex and because they operated under various rules. Those who received them would have had them back through the various premiums.
Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South) : I am sorry to challenge the Minister again, but he has said twice that no such scheme of payments existed under the previous Labour Government. If he looks back, he will discover that a scheme--a better scheme--did exist under that Government. The only justification for his statement, which I have also heard the Prime Minister make--although I accept that the matter may not have been explained to him in its entirety--is that the present Government redefined the scheme as one that operated only in exceptionally severe weather, to reduce its scope. That is the only justification for saying that the scheme is unique. It is actually a worse scheme than the one operated by his predecessor.
Mr. Lloyd : What the hon. Lady has not told us is what that scheme was. Perhaps she or one of her colleagues will do so. As far as I know--I look forward to hearing from Opposition Members--in times of particularly severe weather the scheme gave insubstantial amounts to those who were most vulnerable.
Mr. Lloyd : That scheme did exist. That is why I said that there was no effective scheme, not that there was no scheme at all. As the hon. Lady knows, payments for exceptionally severe weather were negligible. If she can give me figures that demonstrate otherwise, I shall be very interested to hear them. But I chose my words carefully, and I think that they will stand up to close examination, in relation both to what happens under our scheme and what happened when the Opposition were in power.
Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown) : As my hon. Friend will know, I have not always agreed with the Government's policy on pensioners. But, in fairness to my hon. Friend--and I wish to congratulate the Government on these measures--is it not a fact that 10 years ago we were spending approximately £100 million a year on all forms of heating additions, whereas in the last financial year we spent well in excess of £400 million? That must be a positive step forward, although there is still a great deal more to be done.
The new regulations link entitlement to the income support pensioner premiums, thereby allowing men and
Column 797women aged 60 to 64 to qualify for the first time. They also provide for people receiving a disability premium, or families which include a child entitled to a child disability premium to qualify, affording continued provision for those most vulnerable because of ill health.
We have deliberately kept the arrangements as simple as possible by linking entitlement to these straightforward criteria. This has the advantage of making the rules easy for people to understand and for our local offices to operate. It also has an added advantage, as income support makes no distinction--unlike supplementary benefit--between householders and non- householders. Consequently, under the new regulations non-householders on income support will qualify for help for the first time.
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) : I appreciate what the Minister said about simplicity, because it is on the grounds of alleged lack of simplicity that he has never been sympathetic to the question I have put many times about the wind chill factor. If the Minister has difficulty in trying to cope with meteorological data, would it not be simpler to designate various areas of the country that have a record of more severe weather and allow higher increments for the payments in those areas?
Mr. Lloyd : I do not think so. The shape of the scheme is such that in areas of the country with more severe weather the trigger will be activated more often. Therefore, there will be more payments. The scheme is sensitive to the areas of the country with, on average, colder weather than elsewhere.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) : My constituency rests in the Pennines, and our weather station is in Leeds. Many of the communities that house elderly people and families are well above the snow line and the Leeds weather centre does not reflect that cold weather. Wind chill is relevant when one is on a housing estate on the top of a hill in the Pennines, and Leeds is lower down.
Mr. Lloyd : I do not think that I should. There are 63 weather stations throughout the country and they were chosen to give the best representation for the area they serve. I heard what the hon. Lady said, and I shall take note of her point. I will be in touch with her at a later date. I cannot rebut her point at the Disptach Box now.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Will the Minister reflect on the fact that it is possible to assess the wind chill factor for any point in the country? It is done in other countries, including the United States and many eastern European countries where winters are very cold. Can he not simply instruct his officials in the Department that henceforth the wind chill factor as well as the ordinary temperature should be the deciding factors in whether the trigger is activated? Simply using the temperature clearly understates the cold weather in which many elderly people suffer.
Mr. Lloyd : The best guide to temperature and the need for extra fuel use is the air temperature, not the wind chill. That is an added complication which could make it much more difficult to determine how payments should be made,
Column 798without being any fairer. In many respects it would be less fair, because wind chill affects differently the top and bottom of a building and varies according to the direction in which a building faces. If one were to operate that system fairly, as I am sure the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) would, it would have to be far more complicated than he suggested and, ultimately, it would be less fair. I am certain that the air temperature is the best guide.
The hon. Member for Newport, West wants to put in place of this simple but responsive and fair scheme a much more wide-ranging winter premium which, if I understood him aright, should be paid regardless of whether the winter is cold or mild and regardless of whether the individual lives in an area that is experiencing the worst of the winter or an area that is faring comparatively well.
I fear that such a proposal would not be seen to be meeting the particular cold weather need, because such a premium would quickly come to be regarded as part of normal benefit. Inevitably, those people suffering the worst of any winter weather would claim--on grounds of common equity, wind chill or some other factor--some additional benefit in recognition of their special need for extra heating.
Such calls would be entirely logical. They are met now by the provision that we are debating but which the hon. Member for Newport, West wants to change and which, technically, he is praying against. Moreover, the introduction of a winter premium would, as he rightly remarked, cause considerable administrative difficulty, because provision for only part of the year would oblige large numbers of claimants to float on and then float off benefit--hardly the sort of simplification of the system that we have tried to achieve through the social security reforms.
There is no doubt that the hon. Gentleman would have great difficulty in explaining to claimants why their benefit was being reduced each April, just when benefit rates for others were being increased, especially to those on solid fuel who stock up for winter during the summer and pay the bills then.
Mr. Flynn : I mentioned a winter premium only to illustrate the embarrassing problems that the Government face. I regret that the Minister is not treating this matter with the seriousness it deserves. There are 40,000 extra deaths in the winter. We have made a number of suggestions to the Minister. This matter is of great importance and it deserves a better response from him, rather than the political point-scoring in which he is now engaging.
Mr. Lloyd : The point-scoring has come from Opposition Members. The bills come in after the payments have been made. The hon. Gentleman said he mentioned the winter premium in passing, as it were. Perhaps I am taking the issue too seriously by replying to it. Certainly I am taking it seriously because I appreciate that, as an idea, it has superficial attraction to people other than those who think carefully about what it would imply.
The changes that we are making are all beneficial and practical. They double the potential number of payments that might be made under the scheme this year as compared with that which operated last year. As a result, we would expect to pay out a potential maximum of £10
Column 799million in a single week this winter should the whole country experience very cold weather, as opposed to a cost of £4.7 million under the same regulations last year.
Those changes also ensure that arrangements for making claims this winter will continue to be straightforward. I believe that if there are many more claims, they can be met administratively most efficiently, contrary to the suspicions that the hon. Member for Newport, West has voiced. Notices will be placed in local newspapers telling people whenever a weather station records temperatures that trigger payments. The notices will include a simple application form which may be completed and sent to the local office. The simplicity of that is illustrated by the fact that, once a payment has been made as a result of such a claim, no further claim is necessary for the rest of the winter and payments will automatically be made for any subsequent spells of cold weather.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : The Minister did not seem to appreciate in his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) the point that we are making, which is that, even in the sort of weather we have been having this winter--not freezing--large numbers of pensioners and others are finding it almost impossible adequately to heat their accommodation because they do not have sufficient money. That certainly applies to those on income support and those living at the poverty or near-poverty level.
Mr. Lloyd : We debated those points in the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate just before Christmas. I do not want to debate them again, but I stress that income support levels are set so that they are sufficient to meet normal heating costs. We are now discussing extra costs in exceptional weather. That is what the scheme is designed for ; it does it well and efficiently. As well as making those substantial improvements, we are promoting the scheme widely in co-operation with a number of voluntary bodies. The hon. Member for Newport, West mentioned the "keep warm, keep well" campaign which we are organising with Help the Aged, Neighbourhood Energy Action and Age Concern. The campaign is to increase public awareness about the need for people to take the proper precautions to keep warm during very cold weather. It is a mark of the success of the initiative--however attention was drawn to it--that the subject has already generated such public debate so early in the winter.
We have taken the opportunity to tell people about the social fund cold weather payments in the publicity which has been given to the "keep warm, keep well" campaign in England and Wales and the "keep warm this winter" campaign in Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the very worrying problem of excess winter mortality. Excess winter mortality has shown a welcome decline during the past 30 years. If he draws political lessons from those statistics, perhaps he would like to comment on the fact that there was an upward movement during the last Labour Government, but the downward trend has been resumed and is continuing. However, the number of excess deaths-- some 35,000 each year--is still far too high. We are very pleased that the Medical Research Council is undertaking a study to report to the Government where it
Column 800would be worth while for additional research to be carried out so that the problem can be understood and effectively tackled. Clearly, it is not just a matter of money, although that might be the case if one compared the amount spent on heating and conditions under the last Labour Government with what is spent now. Some of the research shows that if one compares the mortality rates among elderly people in accommodation where there is full central heating and there is no penalty if the heating is on all the time with those who have to watch their fuel costs more carefully and sharply, there is no difference in mortality. It is perfectly clear that some problems arise when elderly people go out not dressed warmly enough for the winter.
I make no apology for saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) was right to suggest that one thing that elderly people could do in their own interests was to dress up warmly for the winter. It is a great pity that Opposition Members jeered and scoffed at that, helping to lose the important message that she was conveying.
Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) : Does the Minister agree that dressing up warmly is also a question of money, and that a really good warm winter coat is very expensive? Is is not ironic that councils are trying hard to install central heating, but some pensioners with central heating are still huddled over their gas ovens in the kitchen because they are afraid of the bills? Would it not make more sense for the Government's campaign if pensioners knew that when the temperature and the wind chill factor--which should also be taken into account--triggers off a very cold spell, they should automatically get payment for every day?
If a bank can calculate interest on a daily basis, surely the Government can calculate payment for cold weather on a daily basis. If a pensioner lays out money for a cold spell that lasts six days and gets nothing back, he or she runs into debt. That is what they are afraid of. They should not have to be pauperised by savings of as little as £500. Any Government who are really serious about pensioners' health and mortality rates should take that into account.
Mr. Lloyd : The hon. Lady has made several points and will no doubt make them again if she joins in the debate. In answer to her first point, many elderly people can dress much more warmly than they think with the clothes that they already have. Although I agree that a new coat can be quite expensive, not everybody necessarily needs to wear new clothes to keep warm.
Mr. Wallace rose--
Mr. Wallace : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I know that time is getting on. However, I have been puzzling for some time about in what possible way the inclusion of the wind chill factor could make the system
Column 801less fair. Surely the Minister is not suggesting that it could produce a situation where people who qualify under the existing scheme would not qualify if the wind chill factor were taken into account. For many people the wind chill factor has a real effect-- making their homes and lives colder. It is real and measurable, so at the very least, will the Minister say that he will look into the matter? That would be one small concession, but we would appreciate it far more if he were willing to take that factor fully into account.
Mr. Lloyd : I did look into that and can only repeat that the most significant factor in all this is air temperature, not wind chill. That is why we have not included the wind chill factor--although the administrative problems are very real as well.
The regulations are generous, and make the payments more widely available. They are more sensitive to sudden changes in temperature than were last year's arrangements, and they offer real help to those most at risk. I therefore commend them to the House.
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Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : Many of us who had hoped that we would see a change of attitude from the Minister must be extremely disappointed by his remarks. Although we recommended the changes that come about in this statutory instrument, some of his remarks were appalling and insulting to the elderly and the handicapped in our community. The idea that our elderly population--people who have worked all their lives, earning a decent living and trying to save for their old age--should somehow be condemned to the second-hand shops for their winter woolies is despicable from a Government Department, and I am extremely distressed by it.