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Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) : I am sure that the hon. Lady will readily concede that many elderly people have to shop in second- hand shops and, because they have lived through the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, have a history of shopping in such shops to find warm clothes. The hon. Lady, myself and many other hon. Members, have visited elderly people who sit huddled around one-bar fires dressed in such clothes. Is that what the Minister seeks to perpetuate?
Mrs. Ewing : I am in total agreement with my hon. Friend. As one who has canvassed over the years in various inner cities as well as rural areas, I have come across many such instances and, sadly, I do not find that the numbers are declining. It is a terrible condemnation of our society that, in the latter part of the 20th century, people should still live in such circumstances.
The Government are tinkering around the edges of a very real problem and are not taking full cognizance of the effects of their own legislation. Trying to score political points in this issue is a false move on their part. It would be much better if we saw a radical approach to trying to safeguard our elderly, weak and handicapped. We welcome the alteration of the seven-day regulation, because it was ludicrous to expect weather conditions to fit into a neat regular pattern. We very much welcome that, and we appreciate, too, the fact that we shall now see families with children up to the age of five included in the regulations, because that will take account of all the under-school-age children.
Nonetheless, there are major criticisms. One of the reasons for the prayer is to give us a real opportunity to lay before the Government the Opposition's deep concerns--and, I believe, those of some Conservative Members--about how we deal with our climatic conditions. I believe, for example, that the £5 payment takes no account of rising fuel costs. The notional fuel element, which is included in the old housing benefit regulations, indicated a minimum of £8.80 per week to take account of fuel costs to keep a house warm and to ensure that there were adequate supplies of hot water and cooking facilities. The £5 payment obviously comes nowhere near meeting those needs.
Likewise, the £500 capital limit, about which I intervened during the Under-Secretary's earlier comments, is seen by many people as an insult to the independence and the dignity of many pensioners who have saved that sum of money as a way of meeting their funeral costs. It is not good enough for the Government to say that they are trying to target, because they are missing the target. If they
Column 804were to move the £500 limit up substantially, we might then accept that they were trying to target effectively. However, the limit of £500 savings is a minimum sum. It is a sum which nowadays means nothing to most people, but to the pensioners £500 often represents their life savings from their poor wages.
I am from a family where my mother took out the penny-a-week Prudential insurance policy to save for her funeral, so that she would not feel that in death she would be a burden to her family. That may seem to us strange, but it is the reality in which many elderly people find themselves. To set the limit at £500 is to deny the efforts that those people have made to save over the years to ensure that they give their family--in death as well as in life--the kind of opportunities they did not have. They do not want to be a burden in death, and the £500 limit is a gross insult.
I reject, too, the idea that there should be a regressive claim for severe weather payments. What we need is a progressive attitude, which ensures that the payments are there before the cold weather arrives. When the first frosts come or the first snow falls, we must ensure that people can turn on their fires, or put extra coal on their fires, or switch on their gas heating, or use whatever their source of fuel may be, and not have to worry about whether they will be able to meet the bill at the end of the day. We would especially like to see the regressive aspect of the claim removed.
The Under-Secretary spoke about 63 places of measurement of temperature for severe weather payments. I represent a constituency which contains Tomintoul, the highest village in Scotland, and the whole area of the Braes of Glenlivet, which are perhaps better known to many people as a source of the golden liquid of Scotland. [ Hon. Members :-- "Inner warmth."] These are very cold areas. While hon. Members joke about the inner warmth, I assure them that the outer cold in those areas is especially severe.
I point out to the House that the measurement of the temperatures in those areas are not taken at Aviemore, which would be the logical place, but on the coastline, where the temperatures are, naturally, much warmer. We must look at the 63 places of measurement--a point made, too, by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon)--if we are to take account of the real climatic conditions in which many people find themselves.
These regulations also do not take account of the realities of the climatic conditions. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) mentioned the wind chill factor. The Under-Secretary has said that we only need to worry about exceptional as opposed to normal conditions. Normal conditions must be taken into account, because the prevailing climatic conditions are significant to people's health during the winter months.
Scotland accounts for 9 per cent. of the United Kingdom population, but 25 per cent. of deaths from hypothermia are recorded in Scotland. That reflects the effects of Scotland's prevailing weather conditions, the wind chill factor, the dampness and so on. People's health is affected by such weather and it is unnecessary for them to suffer the severe weather conditions that are the subject of this debate, and thus become ill. The Government have failed to take account of those prevailing weather conditions.
We in the SNP have suggested that there should be an overall cold climate allowance that would take account of
Column 805the climatic conditions from the north of the United Kingdom to the south. Tapering payments should be made during the winter months to all those who receive income support, to pensioners and to the handicapped. We believe that that is the best way forward. In Glasgow it is 20 per cent. more expensive to heat a house than in Bristol ; in Aberdeen it is 30 per cent. more expensive. Sometimes such figures underestimate the problems. Recently the Department of Energy published "Degree Days" figures which suggested that a house in Aberdeen would need 50 per cent. more heat to achieve the same average internal heat as a house in Bristol.
A cold climate allowance that took into account the varying climatic conditions from north to south would ensure that people need not worry about heating their homes and would ensure that they were not left in a ridiculous situation.
I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak and my final plea is that the Government consider the standing charges imposed by the gas and electricity boards. I met an elderly widower at a recent surgery--I shall not give his name--and his basic charge for electricity in a quarter was 83p. One wonders how on earth a pensioner had such a basic charge. His standing charge, however, was £8.44. I asked him what he did with his days to try to keep warm. He told me that he walked around a supermarket, he went into a cafe for a cup of tea and stayed there for many hours. That was his alternative to sitting at home and having to put on an electric fire, which he might not be able to afford. The Government should take up the removal of the standing charges directly with the boards, and they should do so forthwith, because it is important.
If an automatic allowance was given to all pensioners and those with handicapped relatives within their families, the Government could achieve major savings. I noted that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was here earlier. I hope that he was not here to carry out a penny-pinching exercise. We impose burdens on our Health Service by allowing people to develop illnesses such as bronchitis and other chest diseases that are associated with winter cold. Often, such diseases result in death. Major savings to the Health Service could be achieved if people were not placed in circumstances where they are prey to such diseases.
I believe that we have a moral obligation to speak out, given that, compared with the rest of Europe, we have the highest number of deaths as a result of cold-related illnesses during the winter months. That is a terrible condemnation of our present system, and all sides of the House should sincerely fight against it.
Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh) : Three things, I think, are in juxtaposition. First, I have the opportunity yet again to explain to hon. Members and others where Langbaurgh is. Secondly, it is actually two months after this affair should have first been debated, and one has to thank God that during the two months we have not had cold weather. Thirdly, it actually identifies and epitomises the way in which bureaucracy runs Governments, whichever party is in power, because the research notes provided by the Library tell me that there are no data available on the frequency and amounts paid during the period of the last
Column 806Labour Government. They have not even kept the records, so whether they paid any or not is a matter which the Library certainly does not know about.
I wanted to catch your eye this evening, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would have sought to catch the eye of Mr. Speaker two months ago, although the debate finished in the early hours of the morning, and one would not have been very popular getting up and speaking at 3 am on the cold weather payments and keeping colleagues here. Langbaurgh is a marvellous place. Few people know where it is. Few people besides those from this House who ventured there are aware that Langbaurgh is in the north-east of England.
One lot of people who apparently do know where it is are those responsible for drawing up the lists of the areas which will be conditioned by the cold weather should it come about, but it is not straightforward for the whole of Langbaurgh ; it is split. I cannot understand how one can justify the fact that, in an area as small as one's constituency, people on one side of the road can have additional payments because it is jolly cold and people on the other side of the road cannot because it is not quite so jolly cold. The Government have got themselves hooked--one might say something a little ruder about something twisted--on RAF cold weather points for choosing weather stations. Why choose Leeming for Langbaurgh? Why choose Whitby for Langbaurgh? Both are considerably further south than Langbaurgh. Would it not have been better to choose somewhere further north? We might have had the natural benefit of the fact that it is normally colder in the north than in the south, but it did not fit the bureaucratic mind ; bureaucracy has to be satisfied. I had a look to see how this expressed itself in the north of England generally. I find that an area way up into Northumberland is covered by the RAF station at Leeming. Let anyone try to tell the good people of Northumberland that the temperatures and weather up there are exactly the same as the temperatures and weather down in RAF Leeming.
Of course, if one reads the regulations very carefully, one sees that the Government pride themselves on having moved away from the Monday-to-Sunday scenario to a seven-day rolling scenario ; but there is that little sting in the tail--that if any one day in the average period under review counts as exceptionally cold, and then becomes slightly warmer, it then does not count. There might be five very cold days, then two days which happen to take the average temperature up a little bit, followed by another five days of very cold weather. Over 12 days, my constituents will have had extremely cold weather. RAF Leeming may have had two days when it was not quite so cold, but no one gains any benefit.
I wonder what kudos the Government expect to gain from this, because they are gradually, slowly, inexorably being dragged through the bureaucratic mess to a common-sense solution. And what is that common-sense solution? I will tell my hon. Friend. Last year, it was darn cold in this country, cold almost everywhere, to the point that even in this place it was freezing cold. Every Member on every side said to the Minister, "You cannot live with these regulations. You have got to give the cold weather payment." What happened? The Minister gave it. Despite all the rules and regulations, the pressure from hon. Members on all sides of the House made him change his mind.
Column 807The regulations came into force in 1985. They were amended in 1986 and 1987. They should have been amended in 1988 ; they are about to be amended in 1989. Eventually, however, the Government will recognise the reality of the world outside this place and say to themselves, "We intend to live no longer according to what the bureaucrats say ; we shall live in the real world, where Members of Parliament are to be found."
We realise that 90 per cent. of civil servants are to be found throughout the country--Customs and Excise officers, those who work in Department of Social Security offices and all the others--but all the policy advisers and policy makers live in the south of England. They never go to the north of England ; they do not understand about the north of England. Consequently, they devise regulations that will never affect them.
The regulations are an improvement : seven days, on a rolling basis, instead of being based on Monday to Sunday, is better; children under five instead of children under two is better, and zero deg instead of minus 1.5 deg is better. So why not face up to the responsibilities of office and say that, when it is cold in this country, it is cold all over the country, instead of seeking to say, as these pettifogging, bureaucratically led regulations say, that lists of parishes shall be identified--sometimes two houses and a pub?
Somebody has taken thousands of hours of bureau-cratic time drawing up these lists. When I asked whether I could be provided with a map, the official reply was that no map was available but that the Department had a map that was not in a form that could be photocopied. If the map is not in such a form, I have to ask : what the hell form is it in? Why cannot hon. Members have a look at it and show it to their constituents?
My hon. Friend the Minister, who read his civil servants' brief so beautifully, said that our constituents will know when the cold weather trigger applies to them. Poppycock. They will not know when the trigger applies to them. Does the Minister expect each of my constituents in one half of my constituency who fall into this category to phone RAF Leeming or, if they live in the other half of my constituency, to phone RAF Whitby and say, "I think I have a right to put in a claim"? That is bureaucratic nonsense. It is time that the Government faced up to this responsibility and recognised that, when exceptionally cold weather occurs, we do not have to be told by a junior ex-Minister to put on an extra vest ; we do it for ourselves. We know when exceptionally severe weather occurs. Why, therefore, are we even debating the regulations this evening? They are an improvement, but would it not have been far better if the Government had adopted a more generous attitude, although not in terms of money? It will depend on the weather. Even the Treasury cannot control the weather.
The amount of money that has been spent on cold weather payments each year has been increased from £2 million to £5 million and then to £11 million. If we tried to find that amount in the small print of the annual outturn figures, I bet that we should spend hours in the Library trying to find it.
One wonders how much money the Government have set aside for the cold weather payment. Is it £10 million, is it £20 million, or is it £200 million? Who knows? I can
Column 808guarantee two things : the Treasury will have it lower than it should be and the Minister responsible will not have a clue what it should be.
Why do the Government not face up to reality and say to themselves, "Cold weather is an exceptional thing ; we do not want the elderly, the sick and children to die because of an inconvenience"? I must make a personal plea for my constituency. I notice that, among the categories so far excluded, are the long-term unemployed, of whom I have too many, with children who are over five years of age. One of the worst categories in which one can find oneself in this country is that of people who are trapped as long-term unemployed and have growing children who are over five. No provision is made for them. That is an aside from the thrust of my main argument--that the scheme should be simpler and more generous in that there should be no pettifogging regulations tied to parishes. We should look at Scotland and perhaps divide it east-west and north-south. I do not know too much about Scotland, but I can tell my hon. Friend the Minister that, if it is cold in Newcastle, it is cold in Hartlepool and Langbaurgh. The elderly do not feel any difference if it is 0.9 deg cold or 1.1 deg cold ; in either case, it is cold. We should take a broader brush. I promise the House that the Government will reconsider the regulations before many moons have passed. They will be forced to do so by power from the Back Benches.
Few Back Benchers are present at this time of night, and few will read my speech in Hansard ; I would not ask them to do that, even as a punishment. I may have put the case in a slightly light-hearted way because I have often found that that is the best way to get one's point across, but these regulations are tight, bureaucratic and nonsense. I urge my hon. Friend to take the plaudits for what the Government have done. This provision is more generous and better than any previous Government have done. We have not received enough praise for what we have done in this context, but, if there had been a small move further forward, we would not have had this debate this evening. We could all have gone home half an hour ago, thankful that the Government's generosity has been recognised.
Mr. Jimmy Wray (Glasgow, Provan) : Surely the Minister cannot convince us that this scheme has been a success. It is sad and disappointing that a Minister of his calibre should tell us to advise our constituents to go to jumble sales. I shall advise my constituents to go to jumble sales when I know to which jumble sales the Prime Minister sends her clothes.
The days of the army and navy stores are all well past. I was embarrassed going to school as a Japanese general ; we do not want to go back to those days. It is nonsense to impose this £500 limit. We all know that it takes £1,000 and more to bury a pensioner. Pensioners live in this world without dignity and they do not want to die without it, but that is what will happen as a result of this crude scheme.
How can the Minister say that the scheme is a success when 40,000 people die from cold and hypothermia? The scheme cannot be a success when half a million people do not file a claim. There is considerable concern at the moment because, since the change in the social security system, people have become more vulnerable. The system of transitional payments has not been taken up. Some people who applied months ago have received no
Column 809payments. If people do not claim, they do not get paid. In deprived areas, such as my constituency of Provan, surely they should not have to sit down on a winter's day and fill in a form to get a miserable £5 a week. The £5 payment should be doubled at least.
The people who receive the benefit are the most vulnerable in society. They are on the margins of supplementary benefit. Why, then, is the Minister not compassionate and why does he not include pensioners who are receiving housing benefit and are on the margins for supplementary benefit? The Government may say that they do not know the numbers involved, but in the early 1980s one of the biggest authorities in Scotland, Strathclyde, made them well aware of that. A fuel poverty committee was set up and during one of our coldest winters it ran around distributing barometers to pensioners so that they did not die of hypothermia.
We should set up a special committee to look into cold weather payments and, instead of asking people to fill in forms, we should say that if it is cold enough, they qualify, and give them the payments.
Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown) : To feel cold and to be cold is always unpleasant, and that must be true for the elderly. A significant number of pensioners find it difficult to keep their homes warm. There are many reasons for that and they are not all related to money or to what is available through the present system. But every estimate and survey consistently reveals that about 50 per cent. of our pensioners are living in under-heated homes, so we must accept, as I know my hon. Friend the Minister does, that there is a real problem.
It is a pity that during this debate there has not been a more generous response from the Opposition about what has been achieved in the past 10 years because we have taken a substantial step forward compared with the 1970s. To that extent I warmly congratulate the Government on the major improvements in the heating cost provisions, but there is still a great deal to be done. With full computerisation now in the process of coming into operation for identifying the financial position of our 10 million pensioners, we should be able to bring into place systems which will act much more efficiently and ensure that those who need additional resources but who are not claiming them, receive them.
Tonight nobody has commented on the 1 million or so pensioners who are not claiming income support when they could do so. Because of that those people lose out on heating additions. Can the Minister tell the House that, when the system is fully in place, his Department will be able to identify all those who receive only the basic pension and should be claiming income support-- [Hon. Members :-- "It has."]--more clearly and specifically than now?
If that is the case--and I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments--we are obligated to ensure that people receive not just heating additions but income support, and to find out why 1 million of them have not been claiming it. In that way, we shall ensure that those at the very lowest end of the scale, who currently receive only
Column 810a basic pension, will also be given income support and heating additions, and will benefit under the new measure before the House. The time is coming when we must think in terms of automatic payments. I give full credit to the Government for the progress that has been made. In past years, one had to claim for every specific period for which one might be entitled to heating benefit. Now, one claims only once, which ensures that payments will automatically be made for the rest of the year, as and when the appropriate terms are met. But automatic payments should continue not just for one year but for the year after also, so that those entitled to payments will continue receiving them, even if they forget to claim again. That will steadily eliminate the number not in receipt of their full entitlements.
I strongly support the appeals made by a number of hon. Members in respect of the existing £500 limit. I say to my hon. Friend that it is not good enough. The wartime generation of pensioners in particular have saved and put aside a sum of money for their funerals--and they will go without food, heating and clothing rather than touch those savings. Many of them incorrectly believe that, if they cannot pay for their funeral, they will have a pauper's burial. Only a few months ago, an elderly constituent well into her eighties told me that she will never touch her £500 savings because she believes if she dies in Brighton without that money to ensure that she will be properly buried--"to give me the right send off," she said --she will be put in a cardboard box. I eventually managed to convince her that that is not true, but for every case that we hear about, there are 100 more who believe the same. Those pensioners insist on keeping £500 aside, but they are placed in an unfair situation as a result, in respect of their entitlement to cold weather payments.
I beg the Minister to reconsider that aspect as soon as possible and to twist the arm of my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend is no longer in the Chamber, but we understand the pressures on all Ministers. Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister will twist my right hon. Friend's arm severely, to see whether he can at least raise the savings limit from £500 to £1,000, which will be a good start to increasing the sum still higher in the future.
We must never be satisfied until there is 100 per cent. take-up of social security entitlements, and until every pensioner has a warm and comfortable home.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : I am always grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden), because his record of speaking up in the House for pensioners' rights is well known. I also have the pleasure of serving under him on the all-party pensions committee. I respond to his opening remarks by acknowledging that these are welcome changes, as other right hon. and hon. Members will also recognise. However, as the hon. Member for Kemptown said later, much more can be done. The additional resources that the changes make available are not very significant. I was interested to hear the Under-Secretary say that the amount devoted to severe weather payments, if calculated on a national basis, is
Column 811increased from £4.7 million to £10 million. What rate of take-up does the Department presume in arriving at that figure?
At any rate, much more can and should be done. The Government have the power by regulation--not a difficult thing in this place--to increase the size of the groups who qualify, and the range of climatic conditions that allow cold weather payments to be made. They should use that power more generously than they have in the past. Present income support levels are not adequate to cope with extended severe weather. That has been agreed on both sides of the House. Statistics have been passed to and fro across the Chamber about the impact of severe weather, particularly on pensioners. Hon. Members have spoken about the unacceptable numbers of deaths from hypothermia. I agree, but many of our pensioners, especially those of the war generation, also find their life-styles restricted by the severe weather in a way that leads to a loss of dignity and many other problems. Those in the lowest 20 per cent. income group had to increase the proportion of disposable income that they devote to heating from 11 to 14 per cent. between 1979 and 1985--a significant increase.
Finally, I come to one or two improvements that could be made. The Government could easily reduce the seven-day qualifying period to three days. That would double the size of the eligible group. The Minister should bear that in mind as a possible future improvement to the scheme. I endorse the arguments that have been made for automatic payments. There should be better temperature monitoring, too. It is possible for ordinary mortals to measure temperature ; we do not need meteorological experts to do it. Local offices of the DHSS should be able to do it independently, and to make the scheme more sophisticated by including, for example, wind chill factors. The Department should give that careful consideration.
As the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) reminded the House, the Minister has a residual power, which he used last year, which he should exercise more liberally to declare severe weather payment periods. He should be prepared to use it, and to tell the House of his intention to do so.
As has been said, £5 is inadequate. When will it be uprated? The payment has stayed at that amount for a number of years and its value has been eroded by increases in the retail prices index. I agree, too, that the level of capital disregard is too low, at £500. The hon. Member for Kemptown was right to make an eloquent plea that it should be raised immediately to £1,000. That is the only fair way in which to deal with people who suffer real hardship and to provide for heating costs without eating into their nest eggs for funeral bills. The Government should do more, which is not to say that I do not welcome the fine print in the regulations.
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) : The debate has rightly focused on the pressures on the elderly during the winter. The Government's record of helping vulnerable groups such as the elderly with heating their homes is lamentable. Not one Conservative Back Bencher was able to commend the Government's record unreservedly.
Column 812The regulations help few of the 14,700 senior citizens in my constituency. One of those pensioners, Mr. Ian Christie, who died last weekend, sad to say, was a tireless worker for the elderly, and he would have been the first to remind the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary that £5 is a miserly sum. Just to keep pace with the 15 per cent. increase in the price of electricity that the Government have forced on consumers in the 13-month period that the debate covers, the £5 payment would have had to be increased to £5.75 a week. It has not been increased at all. The average fuel bills in my constituency are at least £16 a week and they often rise to as much as £30 a week. The £5 payment is quite inadequate to provide even minimal levels of heat for elderly people and it is an insult to suggest that it could. It is even less than the £5.55 weekly payments to hundreds of thousands of pensioners and others that the Government abolished last April.
The Opposition will not vote against the measure, because it incorporates two valuable Labour party amendments. However, the Under-Secretary has severely provoked us with his reference to elderly people being encouraged to go shopping for second-hand clothes. The plain truth is that the Government have abolished any help with payments to such elderly people with clothing and grants.
Mr. Griffiths : No. The hon. Gentleman has had plenty of time for himself. I can say to him and his colleagues that I am proud of what the last Labour Government did for the elderly. I am proud of the electricity discount scheme which, in one week beginning 22 January 1979, paid £5 not only to a select group of claimants, but to all claimants. If that £5 were uprated for inflation, it would be worth almost double that amount. The matter did not rest there. Claimants whose bill exceeded £20 received for the quarter 25 per cent. of the extra payment made under the electricity discount scheme. That is the record of the Labour Government, which I am proud to defend. It is time that the Government recognised the problem of hypothermia. It is time they introduced a proper scheme that would allow people to heat their homes, and it is time that they stopped freezing allowances for the poor to bolster the incomes of the rich. 11.38 pm
Mr. Flynn : By leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to dwell too much on the political battle that has been joined. However, it seems extraordinary that the Library does not possess details of the electricity discount scheme, under which £45 million a year was spent in 1979. It is entirely wrong to say that there were no cold weather payments under Labour, although that has often been repeated by the Government. It is simply untrue. The Supplementary Benefits Commission guidance for 1977 makes it clear that "a lump sum payment can be made to help with the debt where there has been serious illness or prolonged severe weather leading to fuel consumption greater than normal."
So there were schemes.
However, the Government have ignored the main thrust of our argument, that fuel poverty is only one small part of general poverty. Tonight, we are talking only about a minuscule payment of £5--or perhaps £10--a year. There was boasting about the Government spending £400 million in additional payments at a time when, by severing
Column 813the link between earnings and pensions, they had robbed the pensioners not of £400 million, but of the enormous sum of £3 billion. That sum will run at £6.3 billion by next April. For the tiny amount of £10, we must take into account the £11 that is lost every week of the year by single pensioners and the £17.40 that is lost by pensioner couples.
The points made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) are well understood. The system in the past was automatic. We have asked the Minister in a series of questions why that should not apply again. It makes so much sense. Why waste payments of £87,000 on advertising alone when all the information except one piece is already held on the computers in the Department? There is no need to go through a pile of files. The details can be flagged up on the computer, and the payment then sent out. The only information that the computers do not have is on those who have a capital sum of £500. They have information on those with a capital sum of £3,000, however, and the difference between the two is not very great.
As the hon. Member for Kemptown rightly pointed out, the nest egg that many pensioners have is very precious and important. It is wasteful and cruel that their allowances should be deducted because of that. The whole scheme of fivers and tenners is pathetic, paltry and ineffectual. As the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) and many Opposition Members have said, the scheme is basically unworkable : it is far too complicated, and when put to a real test it collapsed under the weight of public ridicule of its complexity and all the contradictions within it.
As has been said, the wind chill factor is crucial. A public inauguration ceremony for an American president was cancelled, not because of the temperature but because of a combination of temperature and wind chill factor.
Sadly, the Minister's response tonight has been atrocious, but there have been constructive suggestions. Every hon. Member has emphasised the seriousness of the problem. We have listened in despair to a defence of the ill-judged comment of a junior Minister. It is still not understood that she told people to wear woolly bonnets when they went to bed to make them look fools while everyone else had comfortable central heating in their houses. The point about that statement is that it was patronising, sending pensioners in need the message : "We don't understand you and we don't really care. You are on your own." Tonight we have heard a repetition of that statement from this Minister, who answers that, although the scheme is paltry, wasteful and indefensible, what the old must do is go out and get clothing from jumble sales.
Column 81411.41 pm
Mr. Peter Lloyd : By leave of the House, I will reply to the debate. I was interested in the way that the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) finished his speech. He started by claiming credit for changes that he said he welcomed, but during the evening he began an archaeological exercise to try to dig up a scheme that could be said to have operated under the last Labour Government, which brought special payments to vulnerable groups in times of really cold weather. In so far as he managed to disinter one, it seemed to me much more complicated and more difficult to follow and claim than the present one. Perhaps it was automatic, but only to some ; not all fell into the correct category. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do a little more work on that, because Conservative Members do not understand what the scheme is for which he is trying to take credit. It seems that he discovered it himself only this evening. Several Opposition Members made much of the fact that they do not consider a payment of £5 per week sufficient to meet fuel costs during spells of very cold weather. But the £5 is not meant to cover the entire cost of fuel. The help provided by the regulations is over and above the provision made via income support for normal heating expenses. The best estimates suggest that the average household spends about £11 a week throughout the year on fuel, light and power, of which about half represents heating costs. The extra £5 therefore provides very real help to vulnerable people with extra costs during cold spells.
My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) was in some confusion about what happened when the scheme was changed before. It is not just that the Minister changed his mind and decided to declare a general payment. The regulations were changed. They were changed so that the trigger would be activated when the temperature fell to 0 deg whereas previously it had been activated at minus 1.5 deg. Contrary to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), the Minister has no power to alter the regulations at will. The regulations are as they appear on the Order Paper and I hope that the House will not pray against them. My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh also seemed to be suggesting that there should be the same payment--
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion, Madam Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business).
Question put and negatived.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Garel-Jones.]
Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North) : I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the gambling addiction that can affect young people who play amusement-with-prizes machines. I am pleased to have support from hon. Members on both sides of the House, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie) who, I hope, will have the opportunity to intervene during the short debate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for attending the debate and for his courtesy in receiving a delegation from Norwich on this subject last summer. We have also had further discussions since then.
The Eastern Evening News in Norwich has been running a series of strongly written and effective articles on the extent and nature of the addiction in Norwich and the surrounding area and the misery that can be suffered by families. The newspaper has referred to horror stories such as the mother at her wit's end who said that she was afraid her son might kill, the teenager who slashed his throat with a broken bottle to mask his shame over his addiction, and the woman who sobbed and said she still loved her husband but had to throw him out because of his gambling. Such stories have come to the fore in Norwich and elsewhere. This is a serious matter.
Although there have been many calls for reform of the Gaming Act 1968, I raise the issue again because I am convinced from interviews and research conducted in Norwich that the problem is real and serious. Arcade addiction is widespread nationally and has been the subject of much attention in the national press and on television. The experience of Mrs. Cindy Elliff in Norwich is typical. When speaking about her son, Simon, she said :
"Simon's personality changed he changed into a sullen, mean and aggressive person it was like living with a drug addict you wouldn't see him for three or four days until he'd turn up filthy dirty and smelly, white and drawn because he'd had nothing to eat during the period he'd been away he got funds wherever he could illegally. He has put the whole family in debt over this". Disturbingly, I have had several similar tales from other parts of the country. Therefore, this problem is not associated just with Norwich or my constituency. It is a national problem. there is a story about a killing in Gwent which was associated with the problem and about a young boy, from the area close to that represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown, who committed suicide. There are stories from all over the country about the problems facing families.
Time does not allow me to quote from the many surveys that have been conducted, but a picture of truancy and deviant behaviour emerges. The trouble with surveys is that they finish up as statistics and we all know what can be done with those. I prefer case histories, and I have heard many of those. Norwich social workers have described behaviour ranging from borrowing money to child prostitution. Many cases go unreported because families, not surprisingly, wish to protect their children. A child psychiatrist in Norwich confirmed that the problem is widespread; she said that it is better to reduce the
Column 816opportunities for children to develop the gambling addiction than to treat them afterwards. After all, the same argument applies to alcohol or any other addiction.
The question we must debate tonight is whether a change in the law is called for. I believe it is, and I hope the Minister will discuss this, not only tonight but in future, and will keep the question of a possible tightening of the law under review and will keep an open mind on this matter.
Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown) : As the amusement trade has itself said that there should be legislation, that should have great influence on the Government in introducing a Bill. Until legislation is introduced, it is vital--I know that this is the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale)--that there should be the closest co- operation between the industry and local authorities in each area in operating voluntary control schemes.
Mr. Thompson : I agree, and there is increasing, sensible and well- thought-out pressure for a tightening of the law and for such legislation. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) in his place. I am aware of his keen interest in this subject.
Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie (Glasgow, Pollock) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, when somebody under the age of 18 is found gambling in an amusement arcade, the owner of the premises should be held responsible, that a financial penalty should be imposed on him and that, should he continue to allow people under 18 to gamble on his premises, his licence should be revoked?
Mr. Thompson : I welcome the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I am aware that he has a Bill of his own that he intends to present to the House. His thinking is along similar lines to mine and many others. Some local authorities have expressed concern, and a dialogue with the Home Office has clarified their powers to an extent. Although amusement-with- prizes machines can be removed from cafe s, fish and chip shops and so on, attempts to stop the spread of arcades have met with remarkably little success. Under schedule 9 to the 1968 Act, operators must apply for permits to local authorities, and planning permission must also be obtained from them. If either is refused, the applicant is entitled to appeal, and of course planning control cannot take moral considerations into account.
In a recent written question, the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many local authority refusals of permission to open amusement arcades had been overturned on appeal by his Department. Replying, the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), said that, of 304 planning appeals involving amusement arcades decided since January 1984, the earliest date from which such information was available, 203 had been allowed. Those figures make the point more effectively than anything I might say. Under the leadership of Westminster Councillor Robert Davis, more than 80 authorities have joined the Amusement Arcade Action Group, which was set up in 1983 to campaign for a change in the law. Many of them have wisely used the Home Office advice given in 1969, which states that an authority can refuse a permit on
Column 817grounds of social considerations. But this advice cannot be used in the courts, so many appeals result in victory for arcade owners. Westminster city council has been ingenious in using its powers more effectively. Indeed, it is interesting to note that Brighton borough council is also pursuing a policy of zoning in the allocation of permits. In my area, Norwich city council is also concerned about the issue. So far, it has confined its energies to calling for a change in the law, but it too is striving to use its powers more effectively. I hope that the Minister will comment on that and add further advice for local authorities in my area.
Recent attempts to change the law include the Amusement Arcades Bill in 1983, introduced into the other place by Lord Campbell of Alloway ; an attempt in 1984 to insert a clause into the Greater London Council (General Powers) Act ; and attempts to amend the Criminal Justice Act 1988. All those attempts failed. Lord Campbell's Bill would have refused access to those under 16 unless they were accompanied by an adult, and extended local authority powers to impose conditions on arcades. It is interesting that that Bill passed through all its stages in the House of Lords, again demonstrating the pressure that exists for a reform and for a tightening of the law. I acknowledge the fact that the British Amusement Catering Trade Association has introduced a code which instructs owners to prohibit entry to inland arcades to those under 16. This week I hope to meet representatives of that organisation to discuss it further. But it is voluntary and easily can be ignored. Certainly parents in Norwich have challenged the effectiveness of the code. In a survey of 119 arcades conducted in 1984, Westminster city council found that only 55 per cent. were actually members of that trade association. Recently, the Home Office research and planning unit published a study entitled, "Amusement Machines, Delinquency and Dependency", which is very critical of many earlier reports and surveys. It concluded :
"there does not seem to be any substantial evidence to support the notion that young people are generally at risk of becoming dependent on playing machines".
It must be clear from my remarks that I am not sure that the Home Office has reached the right judgment. The pressure for change is greater than the Home Office judge it to be at the moment. I hope that this debate is part of the process of consultation for which the Home Office is anxious and which my hon. Friend the Minister will speak about when he replies to the debate.
I hope that my hon. Friend will also be willing to discuss the change in the law to which I have referred before, but I stress again the importance of keeping it under review. In a letter to me last summer, my hon. Friend the Minister said that the present powers of local authorities are substantial. He pointed to the procedure of the planning and licensing stage and reminded me of local authority powers. However, recent cases in Norwich and other parts of the country make a strong case for a change in the law.
Like the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollock (Mr. Dunnachie), I am considering possible changes which might be achieved via a suitably drafted Bill. One option would be to strengthen the law so as to incorporate Home Office guidance as contained in the 1969 circular, although I gather that it would be difficult to draft. Other approaches involve an age limit, either at 16 or, as has been