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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. I hope that the hon. Lady will shortly come to Barking and Dagenham.

Ms Hodge: I will indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My constituents in Barking and Dagenham are suffering. The Government are fostering division in my constituency, not creating social cohesion. They will be judged on that. For the sake of my constituents, I hope that the day of judgment will come before next winter and before they have to endure yet another winter without the benefits of the emergency cold weather benefits system, when they will not dare to turn their heating on or up in order to stay healthy and keep warm.

Ten years ago, the Government introduced a national system of cold weather payments because the previous system of local office discretion was deemed to be unfair. The aim of the current scheme is to help the most vulnerable groups in society and to ensure that they are not frightened to turn up the heating in cold weather. The

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intention is to provide extra money to poor and vulnerable people when the weather is extremely cold. Over the years, the scheme has been amended, but its purpose has remained unchanged. In 1991, when the right hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir N. Scott) was the Minister responsible for the scheme and amended it in response to pressure from Opposition Members, he said:

    "I propose to assure eligible people that if very cold weather arrives, they can turn up their heating."--[Official Report, 14 June 1991; Vol. 192, c. 697.]

If cold weather arrives, and one lives in the wrong part of Barking, that assurance is utterly worthless. If some of my constituents turn up their heating, they will have to fork out for the extra bills--which now include the Government's 8 per cent. value added tax on domestic fuel.

Eligibility for cold weather payments is triggered by the temperatures recorded by the Meteorological Office acting on behalf of the Benefits Agency. The temperature must be 0 deg C or less every day for seven consecutive days. That is a tough criterion, but it reflects the limited help that the Government will give to vulnerable groups. Only pensioners on income support, disabled people, and families on income support with a dependent child under five years of age can claim cold weather payments. We are not talking about a large group of people or about huge sums of money. Figures supplied by the Library show that last year the Government spent just over £76,000 on the scheme and that in the extremely cold winter of 1991-92 they spent £23 million.

Large numbers of vulnerable people do not receive the payments because they do not claim income support even though they may be entitled to it. Age Concern estimates that in 1991 between 22 per cent. and 23 per cent. of pensioners entitled to income support did not claim it. People with incomes even a few pence above the support threshold receive nothing.

If one lives on Lodge avenue--which has one postcode--on the Dagenham side of my constituency, eligibility for cold weather payments is triggered by temperatures taken at Stansted airport. If one lives on the Keir Hardie estate, which is on the other side of Lodge avenue and has a different postcode, eligibility is triggered by temperature readings at Heathrow airport. Quite apart from the fact that neither airport is anywhere near my constituency, there is something rather sickening about the use of airports to assess temperatures when the old, cold and poor in my constituency can only dream about flying off for a sunny break on the Costa del Sol.

This winter, constituents in Barking received cold weather payments for only one week while their neighbours on the other side of the road--who, for administrative convenience, have a different postcode--received four payments. I am talking not about different villages or constituents who live on opposite sides of a dual carriageway or motorway, but about people in neighbouring streets, whose relatives living just up the road receive cold weather payments that they themselves are denied.

The temperature at Heathrow may be slightly above that at Stansted--it is all to do with the east wind, apparently, but that makes no sense if one is old, cold and living in Barking: the weather does not change with the postcode. Even the high and mighty cannot ensure that it snows on just one side of the thin white line.

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On 18 January, in response to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley(Mr. Redmond), the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security said:

In reply to another written question, the Minister said:

The Government have got it wrong. The Minister may say that the Government can do nothing and respond with the tired, "Yes Minister" riposte that a line must be drawn somewhere. Of course a line must be drawn somewhere, but that somewhere must make common sense. The public must understand and accept it. It must mean something, and no one in Barking accepts the current nonsense.

When the temperature dropped on one side of the road in Barking in the week from 5 December, it also dropped on the other side of the road. That did not helpMrs. Havers, who is 86 years old, hard of hearing and lives on the wrong side of the street. She survives on a paltry £71 a week and has no central heating. Ten years ago, the council took away her old boiler, so she even lost the benefit of the heat that that old-fashioned equipment gave out in her kitchen. She needed the £8.50 cold weather payment to keep warm. When the temperature dropped in the week from 21 January, that did not help Mrs. Oakes, who is Mrs. Havers' next-door neighbour and in her 70s. She lives on £65.10 a week. She has no central heating but two gas fires, yet she cannot afford to use them both. The £8.50 payment would have made all the difference to that lady--the difference between basic comfort and distressing cold.

When the temperature dropped on one side of the road in Barking in the week from 28 January, that did not help Mr. Knight, who is unemployed, desperately looking for work and has a six-month-old baby. His parents on the other side of the line received a cold weather payment but Mr. Knight, his partner and their baby, struggling to live on £75 a week, had no emergency help. They have no central heating. For them, £7 extra a week to pump up the heating from their gas fire represents 10 per cent. of their weekly income. What a way to have to bring up a baby in a modern industrial country. Is that really what the Prime Minister meant when he lectured the country about a classless society?

Another of my constituents, Mr. Bardwell, is living on income support and sickness benefit following a triple heart bypass operation. He receives a pitiful £57 a week. This winter, he has had to fork out an extra £5 to £6 every week for heating. That again is 10 per cent. of his income. It is hard enough for him to make ends meet without having to try to find that extra money, which he would receive in benefit if he lived at the other end of the same parliamentary constituency. What a farce. Is that fair? Can that be described as a commonsense approach? Is that how we want to treat our old folk, our disabled folk and our young children?

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Child poverty has trebled under the Government and now those living through that poverty are being denied the meagre assistance of cold weather payments. That cannot be fair or right. The Government must think again.

According to the Government's census, my constituency has a higher percentage of families with children under five than the average for London. So if Barking misses out, more children miss out than elsewhere. In my constituency, a higher proportion of the population are pensioners than elsewhere in London. Barking also has the highest proportion of single-pensioner households. The Minister may sigh, but that is true. So if Barking misses out, more elderly people miss out than elsewhere. My constituency has the highest percentage of the population who are long-term sick and disabled in London. So if Barking misses out, more disabled people miss out than elsewhere. In Barking, we have the lowest proportion of families who enjoy the benefit of central heating. The costs to those families of heating their homes are higher than elsewhere in London. When they miss out, that costs them more.

Research undertaken by Age Concern in 1993 showed the results. It found that single-pensioner households on income support spent as much as 18 per cent. of their gross income on fuel bills, while single non-pensioner households spent a mere 5 per cent. If the elderly heat their homes, they cannot afford to eat. What a choice. Age Concern found that a third of the older people it interviewed lived in temperatures below 16 deg C, preferring food to fuel. Yet medical research suggests that the risk of respiratory infection increases sharply when temperatures drop below 16 deg. This is a typical Tory con and the health service picks up the tab for the Government's penny-pinching approach to social security.

We know that the number of deaths in winter in the United Kingdom is three times greater than those in places such as Sweden and Germany, where the winters are much more severe but the homes much warmer. I am not prepared to stand by and see that unfair and, in the end, life-threatening maltreatment of my constituents just because of a temperature difference between Stansted and Heathrow.

The unfairness is shown by some further facts that I have gleaned from the Library. In the week to11 December, when the temperature at Stansted averaged0 deg, at Heathrow it was just 1 deg above the trigger. The same is true for the week ending 27 January. That marginal difference of 1 deg in temperature made all the difference to the old, the disabled and the young living in Barking. They lost out on their entitlement to an essential payment that would help them to keep warm.

The whole point of the emergency payment is to ensure that the very old and the very young keep warm in cold weather. It is the Government's job to make the system work and they have plenty of options. Why cannot the temperature, for instance, be measured at every benefit office or at the local town hall or civic centre? Is it that difficult to get an accurate measurement? Why cannot the boundaries be more sensibly defined, so that at least everyone in the same borough gets treated equally? Why cannot the home energy efficiency scheme be maintained? Why cut that scheme by £31 million, when investment by the Government today would ensure affordable warmth for pensioners tomorrow? If people's homes were effectively insulated, the savings could be immense.

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Why cannot the Government make greater use of forecasts of periods of cold weather, rather than the actual temperature recorded? In 1991, the right hon. Member for Chelsea stated:

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