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Mr. Bowen Wells (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury): The forecasts are used.

Ms Hodge: The hon. Member tells me--from a sedentary position--that the forecasts are used. They are not. On 24 December--Christmas eve--in the one week in which the whole of Barking qualified, only one weather station, in Dumfries, chose to use the forecast to trigger eligibility for those living in that area. Only in Dumfries could the elderly feel secure over Christmas that they would get their cold weather payment. One of the purposes of the changes to the scheme in 1991 was to provide reassurances to the vulnerable by introducing a fast-track system of eligibility and triggering through the use of forecasts.

Mrs. Havers came to my surgery last Friday. She told me, "I know those people over the avenue have had four payments. How can it be that it is colder over there than it is over here? It is crazy. We are virtually next to them. I have to have my little electric heater on all the time to stay warm." Mrs. Oakes also came to my surgery last Friday. She said, "It is so cold in my house I have to go to bed with a huge scarf wrapped around my head and wearing bed socks. I take a hot water bottle and I wrap myself up in all the blankets I have." That is not what we should be hearing from elderly people in Britain today. We are talking not just about woolly hats, but about intolerably cold homes. That is the human dimension of the bureaucratic nonsense.

Age Concern has estimated that around 8 million households cannot afford to heat their homes to adequate standards. Too many of those people live in my constituency in Barking. I urge Ministers, on behalf of my constituents, to think again. The rules are unfair and wrong. The points I have made may seem trivial to Ministers, but they are vital to the very old and the very young in my constituency who simply want to enjoy the right we all have--to keep warm in winter.

Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East) rose--

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) rose--

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I understand that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) has permission from the hon. Lady and the Minister, but I am not aware that the same is true for the hon. Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) and for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms).

I must also remind hon. Members that the debate is about cold weather payments in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham.

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7.38 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barking(Ms Hodge) on initiating the debate. If she succeeds on behalf of Barking and Dagenham, that might have a knock-on effect that would correct the situation in the rest of the country. My hon. Friend might win a minor victory that would affect only her area. For instance, it could be decided that the lowest of the two measurements from Stansted and Heathrow should be taken. The arrangements made under the scheme should be equitable in respect of distribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barking has argued in favour of various methods of measuring temperature. Temperatures should be taken locally, so that the needs of people in local areas can be met within the rules of the system. If my hon. Friend can make any progress on those terms, the effects will be felt further afield than Barking and Dagenham. The new arrangements will have to be applied universally, thereby improving a system that operates in the most dismal fashion across vast areas of this country.

The weather seems to be improving now. It is easy for politicians to forget a problem that is over with; easy to put down some markers for future changes; and easy to be distracted by more immediate concerns. But people have been in desperate straits recently, and it is likely that some could die because of the shortcomings of the scheme in my hon. Friend's constituency. Now is the time to keep up the pressure to correct the faults in the scheme.

My hon. Friend's constituents do not need a new system just for the next time the big freeze arrives. They need retrospective provisions to ensure that they receive the three payments that they appear to have missed. They have been encouraged to put their heating on so as not to die from the cold--on the promise that some money would be forthcoming. That money has not appeared, even though people thought it reasonable to try to keep warm.

The cold weather payments scheme is limited in its scope. It applies to pensioners, disabled people and parents on income support with children under five. Possibly many other groups should be considered for inclusion. In 1994, 300 pensioners in this country died of hypothermia--not counting the deaths to which it was a contributory factor.

The payments that people receive are modest: £8.50 a week. They are made when the temperature reaches freezing point for seven consecutive days, or when it is forecast to do so. If meteorological stations are being used for this purpose, the information that they give out should be much more widely available. The problem is that people need to know where to look for the forecasts for their area. In my hon. Friend's constituency, for instance, some forecasts will apply to one airport and some to another. What are people supposed to do? In some parts of the country people may have to tune in to television stations because their temperatures are being measured miles away from where they live. There must be places nearer their homes that could more sensibly be used to determine temperatures for this purpose.

I know of a person who has spent £10 on telephone calls trying to sort out being missed out for the payments. Supposedly, once a meteorological station has issued temperature details, the payments are triggered and then

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automatically made. We know, however, that the system does not work that well. Not everyone receives his entitlement. I am sure that my constituent's experience applies also to people in Barking and Dagenham, and that there are people who have never pushed hard for what they are entitled to.

The whole scheme needs looking at. Even under the current rules, the triggering arrangements and the determinations of who should be paid what are in need of serious review. The Government are very good at developing formulae that apply to the whole country but which are not tailored to particular areas. The standard spending assessment is one example; the method used for cold weather payments is another--it is crazy.

Weather stations alert the Department of Social Security, which decides on the basis of postcodes which areas should receive payments. I need not point out that postcode areas were not designed for cold weather payments. They exist for the administrative convenience of the Post Office. Some careful analysis would have to be done to show how such areas are compatible with the areas that deserve cold weather payments.

Some places are higher and more exposed than others. The "heat factor" sometimes operates in town centres, where there are surrounding buildings. It is therefore essential to measure temperatures locally so as to provide correct information.

I should love to use this opportunity to spell out the problems in Derbyshire, where the system is completely nonsensical, but I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are keen that I should relate my remarks to Barking and Dagenham. If the principles outlined in my hon. Friend's speech are adopted, I will be able to go back to Derbyshire and say that something has been achieved. I intend to elaborate at length on the nonsensical system in Derbyshire if I am lucky enough to secure an Adjournment debate on the subject.

As I have said, meteorological stations that are nowhere near the areas affected are being used. Postal districts that bear no relation to areas with differing climates are also being considered. Moreover, some of the meteorological stations are being de-manned, with the result that certain areas are transferred to other stations. Further de-manning can lead to chaos in such circumstances.

I hope that the Minister will indeed take a serious look at the points made in this debate. It is difficult to squeeze retrospective measures out of the Government to cover the problem, but I hope, at the very least, that there will be some reassessment--even under the present rules--of how areas and their temperatures are considered under the scheme. We should then progress to local temperature taking, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking.

7.48 pm

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) on initiating the debate. Our constituencies share a local authority. Although the bulk of my constituents live in Redbridge, half of one of the wards in Goodmayes was transferred to the borough of Barking and Dagenham in April 1994. Therefore, I have constituents who live in Barking and Dagenham and I am well aware of the problems that they have experienced. I am also well aware that those problems have been experienced by those of

27 Feb 1996 : Column 788

my constituents who are neighbours of those living in Barking and Dagenham but who live in the borough of Redbridge.

I tabled early-day motion 499, which referred specifically to the problems faced by my constituents, which are identical to those experienced by the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking.

Three weather stations monitor temperatures for the whole of Greater London: one is far to the south, outside London, in Gatwick airport; the second is far to the west of London, in Heathrow airport; and the third is far to the north-east of London, outside London in Stansted airport. These three airport stations are used to determine which of the London postal districts will have a temperature level assessment on any particular day.

In logic, one might assume that areas to the north-east of London would be assigned to the station north-east of London. Similarly, it might be supposed that those to the west would be assigned to the station which is to the west, and those to the south assigned to the station which is to the south. But when the Government introduced cold weather payments in 1988 they decided to present us with a puzzle.

It is interesting to assess the regulations and to read the listings of postal districts in the respective national climatological message stations for London. It is clear that the criteria are not straightforward. National climatological message station 26, which is at Gatwick airport, includes some of the Croydon CR postal districts, but not all. The station at Heathrow airport includes many postal districts, including the rest of the Croydon ones. The Heathrow station, being in the west of London, is responsible for the postcodes E1 to E18, EC1 to EC4, EN1 to EN11 and various others, including IG1 to IG11, which cover the bulk of my constituency and large parts of Barking. I should explain that my hon. Friend and I share the IG11 postcode.

Some of my constituents live in Mayesbrook road, which is on the borders of Barking and Dagenham and Ilford. Before talking about Mayesbrook road I shall refer to the Stansted weather station, which covers an area with RM postcodes. These are Romford postcodes. The station covers RM1 to RM20 as well as Colchester, Chelmsford, Southend and various other parts of Essex.

Romford is in the London borough of Havering and the relevant postcodes extend to Essex. But RM postcodes include postal districts in Barking, Dagenham and Ilford. I have constituents who have RM postcodes and are assessed by the Stansted station. I also have constituents who live a few yards away from them who have IG postcodes and are assessed by the Heathrow station.

Nos. 1 to 73 Mayesbrook road have the RM8 postcode; Nos. 75 to 143 have the IG3 postcode. Someone living at No. 73 Mayesbrook road has been eligible for four cold weather payments. Of course, if he was not eligible for income support he would not have received the payments. Theoretically, however, the payments could have been made. The person living next door, at No. 75, has an IG3 postcode: tough luck. That person was eligible for only one payment.

On the side of Mayesbrook road with even numbers, Nos. 2 to 72 are part of the RM postcode; Nos. 74 to 134 are in the IG3 postcode. It is not merely a matter of different assessments on each side of the road. Along both sides of the road people are being treated unjustly as a result of a mad bureaucratic system.

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How do we deal with this madness? How do I explain the system to my constituents? I have received several letters and telephone calls querying what has happened. One of my constituents said, "My mother has received extra payments but I had a payment for only one week. My mother lives only half a mile away from me." I repeat: how can I justify the system?

Some of my constituents who live in the borough of Redbridge are treated differently from others who live in the borough. Some of my constituents live in the area of the IG3 postcode, and they are treated differently from those in RM postcode areas.

According to the list attached to the Social Fund Cold Weather Payments (General) Regulations 1988, SI 1988/1724, there are 54 climatological message stations. The list includes some stations that have disappeared. In other words, there are not quite 54 stations. We know, however, that 56 million people live in the United Kingdom. In logic and fairness there should be some relationship between the number of stations and the population, or a relationship between numbers of stations and geographic areas. I estimate that the population of Greater London and of areas beyond is about 8 million or 9 million, yet we have--this includes Barking and Dagenham--only three stations.

If an airport station is supposed to be in London, why is London City airport not used as an assessment point? It is more likely than other stations to have temperatures closer to those in the boroughs of Barking, Dagenham and Redbridge and those in the IG3 and RM postal districts. Oh, no; that is too easy. Instead, we have an absurd, nonsensical system. I look forward to the Minister's explanation. Having read "Alice in Wonderland", I look forward to hearing him try to justify the present system.

I do not want to detain the House for much longer. I merely say that I hope that this will be the last winter during which anguished constituents will come to us, write to us or telephone us to try to secure an explanation of the cold weather payments system from us, elected Members of this place. As I have said, the regulations are nonsensical. Let us hope that a system can be introduced that is fair and just to all the residents in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking and to all my constituents. Let us have a system that makes sense in logic and can be publicly justified. The present regulations are absurd and must be amended quickly.

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