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7.58 pm

Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barking(Ms Hodge) on securing the debate, and on the powerful case she made on behalf of her constituents in both Barking and Dagenham. My constituency adjoins those of my hon. Friend and of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes). That being so, I am very familiar with the problems that they have described. I associate myself with the proposal so recently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, that London City airport would be an appropriate place for a weather station. I hope that the Minister will consider that suggestion.

This is an extremely serious matter. A report produced this month by that excellent organisation, Neighbourhood Energy Action, entitled "Heating Action for Older

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People", reminds us that, in the winter of 1991-92, there were 33,000 cold-related premature and avoidable deaths in the United Kingdom. That is an enormous number. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barking said, it is two or three times more than the number of comparable deaths in countries such as Canada and Sweden.

It is clear that we have a serious problem with the way in which we deal with cold in this country and how it affects older people. We have not managed to resolve the problem in the same way as other countries. The present winter has been a good deal colder than that of 1991-92. It is estimated that, in the most severe weather--this estimate was made before the present winter--during a winter period, there could be up to 50,000 premature and avoidable cold-related deaths.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the high cost to the health service of treating illness caused by cold in winter. I understand that it spends about £800 million a year on treating illness caused by cold and damp housing. The failure to deal adequately with it is a costly national failure, as well as being tragic for a remarkably large number of people.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) about the narrowness of the application of the current cold weather payments scheme. Not everybody on income support in Barking and elsewhere is eligible for such payments. What about people who are not on income support?

I had a telephone call today from a widow aged 76 who had lived in the same house for 49 years. Her husband died five years ago. She is living on the savings that they had accumulated, which are dwindling. She asked, "Why should I be penalised for not being dependent on the state?" That is a hard question to answer, and it is one that many people are asking.

In a recent letter, Councillor Jim White, of Rushmoor borough council, argued that the scheme should be extended to all pensioners. There is much sympathy for that case. I take the point that was made about the narrowness of the application of the present scheme. I hope that something more generous will be introduced.

The cold weather payments scheme is part of the measures that are needed to tackle the problems caused by the cold each winter. Another part is energy conservation. My hon. Friend the Member for Barking made the point that, tragically, the Government's home energy efficiency scheme has had £31 million cut from its budget of £105 million, despite the fact that, in December 1994, we were told that about £100 million a year would be available for three years.

Such a severe cut will mean greatly increased dependence on cold weather payments in Barking and elsewhere. For example, the amount available to people over 60 who are not on benefit will be cut from £315 to £78. That will mean that less home insulation will be carried out in Barking, and that there will be greater dependence on the cold weather payments. I very much regret that.

I make a specific point to the Minister. If he cannot answer it when he replies, perhaps he will write to me. One of the criteria for the higher rate of payment under the HEES is that the person is on disability living allowance. That should be amended to include the attendance allowance, because DLA is not paid to people over 60. There may be an inconsistency in the regulations.

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I understand that the HEES is to be cut further, because the money is being top-sliced to fund the new requirements on local authorities under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, which was piloted by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock). It is an excellent Act, but it is regrettable if it means that less will be paid for home insulation. Poorer insulation will mean greater dependence on the cold weather payments.

I was interested to learn recently of the proposed project for the Gascoigne estate in Barking, which is modelled on pilot work in my borough of Newham, where the money that has been put aside by London Electricity through its £1 per customer levy is being used, with funding under the HEES, to improve home insulation and reduce the consumption of electricity. That is welcome. It is hoped that that scheme will be adopted more widely, but there will problems, given the cuts in the overall amount that the Government are making available for the HEES. The cuts undermine the excellent training and employment opportunities that are provided, for example, by Newham Wise and Miller Pattison, network installers in my constituency.

There is much unhappiness about the scheme, as my hon. Friends demonstrated powerfully this evening, caused by narrowness, meanness and the arbitrary nature of the decisions related to it. I very much hope that the Government will be able to make changes in the light of those concerns.

8.6 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans): I hope that Ministers will always listen when Members of Parliament come up with a sound argument based on an allegation about the differential effect of a policy thathas disproportionate consequences on particular constituencies. That is what Adjournment debates are for, and that is why we are here to discuss the particular problem in Barking.

The hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) strayed from the important and central task of her argument, to make wider allegations about the Government's "penny-pinching" approach. I must tell her that the Government are spending £90 billion a year on social security--the largest amount by far of any Government in British history. I also heard talk about the narrowness and meanness of approach, but, frankly, the context is so astonishingly different that her specific case is undermined by a grotesque exaggeration of the context.

In trying to formulate Government policy, the targets that we have are to provide the most effective help at the most appropriate time to the most vulnerable people. The cold weather payments scheme has been very successful indeed. Last November, for this winter we increased the sum for the seven-day period from £7 to £8.50--a substantial increase of 20 per cent.

As the amount paid each year depends on the weather, it is not surprising that last year's winter led to payments of only £76,000, as the hon. Lady said, because it was an exceptionally mild winter. This winter, we have paid out £62 million so far--whether more is paid out depends on the weather criteria being met--which means 7 million individual payments to 3 million individuals.

The particular problem in focusing the scheme comes about in this fashion. The year 1991 was the key one, when the modern scheme came into operation. There is

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no mystery to the modern scheme. There is no accident in the linkage between postcodes and meteorological stations, because the regulations each year list both. It is not a question of discretion thereafter by the Government or the Benefits Agency. Parliament lays it down, and alters the list each year to some extent. I am told that the annual amendment regulations have never been prayed against to permit a debate to take place. Perhaps the system is less controversial than we might have gathered this evening.

The key factor in the 1991 change, in terms of administration and the provision of a better service, was that computerisation in the Benefits Agency had reached a point at which we could introduce an automatic payments scheme. That dispensed with the need to make a claim: when the average temperature was recorded or forecast to be below the qualifying level--0 deg C over seven consecutive days--computer scans would be carried out weekly, and everyone who met the criteria would be paid. The conditions relate not just to individuals whose qualifications depend on the scheme that we discussed earlier, but to the postcode of the area involved.

In the modern world, it is commonplace for commercial organisations to use the postcode system--which has become increasingly developed--to determine, with the help of a computer database, which groups should be targeted in one way or another. We have managed to arrive at a detailed local arrangement by using the postcode system, while linking it with the current number of meteorological stations--55.

Let me tell Opposition Members, who have made various local complaints, that the list of meteorological stations is reviewed after each winter, and it has been our practice to amend it to some extent. I stress that, on the basis of its professional judgment on climate grounds, the Meteorological Office advises Ministers on which meteorological stations, in climatic terms, can most appropriately be linked with particular postcodes. That is amended by regulations as may be.

Having received correspondence on the matter, I have slightly more sympathy for those who live in mountainous areas. When we were discussing Barking, the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) used a tremendous amount of parliamentary imagination to hint at problems in his constituency; I have no doubt that he will write to me about them at greater length.

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