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Mr. Barnes: I am supposed to be receiving a response to letters that have already been written, and points raised in business questions, about problems in Derbyshire.

Mr. Evans: The hon. Gentleman's letters have not reached me yet, but when they do, they will be replied to, and the particular circumstances involved will be considered.

Normally, problems with cold weather payments relating to meteorological stations concern mountainous areas in Scotland, Wales, the Pennine region or the west country, where there are climatic differences between the tops of mountains or hills and coastal stations. We amend the list each year. Complaints were made, with some force, that a community in Braemar had been the subject of unfair prejudice through being linked with Aviemore; last year, we changed that.

The problem in London is slightly more complicated than was suggested by the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes). There are four meteorological stations to

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deal with the Greater London area: Heathrow to the west, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, Stansted to the north, Gatwick to the south and RAF Manston in Kent, which deals with a portion of east London--including the south bank of the Thames, a stone's throw from the constituency of the hon. Member for Barking. It is no accident that those stations tend to be airports. Traditionally, the Met Office has been provided with the service by either commercial operators or the RAF.

Ironically, this year--I suspect that it is an accident of this year's weather, which has highlighted the difficulties in London--Stansted has been triggered four times, which would provide £34; Gatwick has been triggered three times, which would provide £25.50; Manston has been triggered twice, which would provide £17; and Heathrow has been triggered once, which would provide £8.50. The problem of the constituents of the hon. Members for Barking, Ilford, South and Newham, North-East(Mr. Timms) is that, in that portion of Greater London, the overlapping boundaries meet. It is frontier territory.

Ms Hodge: In fact, the circumstances are not peculiar to this year. I understand from constituents who have approached me that my predecessor, Jo Richardson, had been campaigning on this very issue for many years, drawing attention to the absurdity of the bureaucratic differences.

I understand that a mountain would make a difference. If there were a mountain in the middle of London, the weather on one side of it might well be different from that on the other side. The point is, however, that there is no mountain in Newham, Ilford, Barking or Derbyshire. All those areas experience the same amount of cold at the same time.

Mr. Evans: I hear what the hon. Lady says, but mountains are a more obvious example than Greater London. The fact remains that temperatures have been different at those four points around London.

It is possible that, on a different basis, there might have been a less favourable result for the centre of London, which tends to be warmer. The fundamental problem is administrative, however, and the Government think it important. Obviously, money can be spent on administration and the creation of more weather stations--our minds are not closed, and we review the issue each year--but I wonder whether the hon. Lady is being realistic when she asks why there cannot be a weather station at every benefit office and town hall.

I also question the hon. Lady's suggestion of boundaries based on parliamentary constituencies. I do not see why drawing a line on a simple, arbitrary, administrative basis would deal more rationally with her constituents or those of her neighbours.

Mr. Gapes: I did not suggest that every constituency should have a meteorological station; I suggested that London's City airport should be used. It is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms), as well as being close to my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge). The provision of a meteorological station there would meet the needs of people living in

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east London, and would end the absurdity of parts of our boroughs being dealt with by Heathrow and other parts being dealt with by Stansted.

Mr. Evans: If the hon. Gentleman had been a little more patient, he would have heard me respond directly on that issue.

Whenever a Member of Parliament presents us with a specific proposal about a meteorological station, we are prepared to listen. I do not know--and I have no instructions immediately to hand--whether there is an appropriate meteorological station at City airport, but if there is, if the Met Office will then advise us, and if it is suitable, I will certainly consider the proposal when we review the scheme in the summer.

Ms Hodge: I do not understand why we need the whole meteorological outfit. All that is necessary is to measure the temperature: we need only a thermometer. Surely a simple system, rather than a huge bureaucratic system, would be more sensitive to real temperatures in London.

Mr. Evans: This is not a monstrous administrative or bureaucratic measure. Nowadays, everything is done electronically. The temperature is taken at 9 am and 9 pm GMT, and automatically relayed to the headquarters of the Met Office, which is, I believe, at Bracknell. I can also comfort the hon. Lady with the information that, because of the advance in technology, the cost of meteorological stations is falling. That depends, however, on the Met Office's being satisfied that the station is of a certain standard, and that the integrity of the data is sufficient.

Ms Hodge indicated dissent.

Mr. Evans: The hon. Lady shakes her head. She says that the requirements are simple; if they can be met, I will give careful consideration to any proposals that are put to us, but I warn her that there may be a problem. If there is a meteorological station at City airport, I shall be intrigued to know whether she will want me to find out exactly what it has recorded in the past few weeks. I wait to see whether it will be better than Stansted for all her constituents. She will no doubt come back to me on that. It may well be better on that gamble--neither of us knows; whether she comes out better is another matter.

The serious and important point is that it would not be rational to follow administrative boundaries. All that would happen if we were to do that is that I would have two hon. Members sitting next to each other on opposite sides of the House, saying, "Does it really matter whether you live in this constituency or that one?" It is better to operate the system on a climatological basis, on the basis of advice from the Meteorological Office. I have heard hon. Members ask whether that was too broad-brush an approach, but it seemed to us to be much more reasonable than introducing administrative boundaries.

It would be technically feasible, with the appropriate expense and the rewriting of computer software, to alter the Benefits Agency computer to have boundaries by parish, street, borough, county or whatever other small division might be desired. However, the modern method to do such things is by postcode. That method is extant, and it is the well-established and modern way of doing it.

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The difficulty is that the postal districts do not coincide with the constituency boundary of the hon. Member for Barking. Therefore, I can appreciate that the differences are particularly clear cut.

I do not want unduly to prolong this debate. I am prepared to listen to individual arguments for extra meteorological stations when we review the matter this summer. This year, because of the exceptionally bad winter, the operation of the scheme has been much more apparent, and the consequences of its operation have been more clear cut than last year, when the scheme scarcely operated at all because of a much milder winter. There is some opportunity for flexibility in this matter. Ultimately, however, Ministers will be guided by meteorological advice rather than special pleading on behalf of areas which contain constituents.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Barking had her facts right. I was a little concerned to read in Hansard--on 20 February 1996, at column 157--of her speaking about one side of Lodge avenue being covered by one station and the other side by another station. She probably did not mean Lodge avenue, but the places that are off Lodge avenue. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said:

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That is wrong. That portion of Lodge avenue--with all those numbers--is in the same postal district, and has been treated exactly the same.

I appreciate that hon. Members, very properly, wish to represent their constituents. However, the Government must have a scheme that is simple and effective, and that automatically delivers payments without a need to claim--which was the difficulty with predecessor schemes. I could go through the long history of those schemes, but, in terms of helping greater numbers of people, paying out greater amounts of money or the take-up arrangements, they were nothing like as successful as the current arrangement. That is one of the advantages of information technology, and the ability to perform computer scans based on local geographical areas and to say that the people who are within the qualifying groups can be paid automatically.

The system is effective. It pays more vulnerable people in the appropriate circumstances than anything that has existed before. As I have said more than once, we will listen to representations each year on whether specific meteorological stations are appropriate for specific postcode areas.

Question put and agreed to.

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