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Mrs. Wise: Once again, I agree with my hon. Friend. It is regrettable that we are having to take the Bill in this way. The Minister did me the courtesy, which I appreciate, of having a discussion with me about the Bill. I approached him, as did Age Concern, and we had a courteous meeting, for which I am grateful. In the course of that meeting I said to the Minister that I was anxious that the Bill should be a non-party matter, and I think that I have demonstrated that.

I took steps to ensure that the sponsors were cross-party. Everyone knows that that is quite a difficult thing to do. I offended some of my hon. Friends by preferring to take Conservative Members and members of other parties. I did so because I wanted the Bill to be a cross-party matter. I told the Minister--

Several hon. Members rose--

Mrs. Wise: I shall give way in a moment. I ask my hon. Friends to let me intervene in my own speech.

I told the Minister that I do not need to use cold weather payments to batter the Government. I have numerous issues with which I can batter them, as has every Opposition Member. We did not need cold weather payments for that purpose.

I have been accused by some hon. Members of electioneering. Yet Age Concern, which is a non-party organisation, offered the Bill to every Member who secured a place in the ballot, and far more Tories than Labour Members came up in it. I was the one, however, who took the Bill. If the matter becomes party political, it is through no fault of mine.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington): May I say to my hon. Friend on behalf of my colleagues in the northern region and the north of England that throughout that region, where there has been extremely bad weather this year, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are hoping that the Bill will pass through the House today? It is vital that that should happen if deaths are to be avoided during the winter months. Will my hon. Friend press the Minister to establish whether he is prepared to give the Bill Government time, even at this late stage, so as to ensure that it gets on the statute book within a matter of days, and helps people who are living in great difficulties?

Mrs. Wise: I would like that to happen, and I have no doubt that the Minister is listening. I am anxious to make progress in explaining the merits of the Bill.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent) rose--

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) rose--

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) rose--

Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich) rose--

Mrs. Wise: I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) was first.

Mr. Smith: Is my hon. Friend aware that the Minister--who is obviously determined to kill the Bill--

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represents Monmouth, which contains the community of Llanelly Hill? A large proportion of that community is elderly. It is one of the poorest parts of the constituency--if not the poorest. It is certainly one of the coldest parts of Wales. Will my hon. Friend do the senior citizens in that community a service by ensuring that the conclusions of this debate are sent to the local papers in that area? That will help to ensure that the Minister, who represents a marginal constituency, will not be here in a few months' time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady said that she was going to make progress on her Bill. Perhaps now would be an appropriate time to start. [Interruption.] Order. The last intervention was particularly long, and the one before that was equally long. If interventions are made, they should be short. We have had many interventions. I assume that hon. Members have come to listen to the hon. Lady present her Bill and not to make interventions.

Mrs. Wise: What we are seeing is the consequence of feelings and opinions being held back all morning. Hon. Members have been waiting to take part in this debate. When I tabled this modest, cross-party Bill--I shall describe its modesty and utility shortly--I hoped and expected that there would be an adequate debate. I planned to make a short speech, so I did not particularly want hon. Members to intervene. I wanted to give other hon. Members a chance to speak, but they are being deprived of that chance both on the Floor of the House and in Committee. I am conscious of the sweep of passion about this matter.

Hon. Members may be interested to know that they should all be wary, because a week ago Age Concern had collected no fewer than 2,500 column centimetres of coverage in local newspapers. This matter has attracted a great deal of interest. Journalists have been surprisingly quick to understand the merits of the Bill.

Mr. Connarty: My hon. Friend is making it clear why so many of our hon. Friends are present today. I travelled from Scotland after an engagement hoping to take part in a full debate and vote.

The Minister was also the Minister who was on the Committee considering the statutory instrument on social fund cold weather payments on 18 December 1996. Opposition on that occasion was supplied by four Labour Members: my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Davidson), for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes), for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) and myself. My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central referred to what the Meteorological Office's report said about taking the wind chill factor into account. It said:

The Minister replied:

    "If we continue to explore the question of wind chill and, possibly, a more complex modelling"


    "may be put before the House next summer or autumn".--[Official Report, Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 18 December 1996; c. 5, 10.]

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already made a firm ruling from the Chair that interventions should be short. The hon. Gentleman spoke for more than a minute. That is not acceptable.

Mrs. Wise: My hon. Friend made a valid point. If the Government are so keen on a review, why have they not already instigated one? The Minister made a similar point when he said that the Bill was unnecessary because he could amend the regulations. We know that, but he has not done so. Nor has he made any firm promises to that effect.

Mrs. Ewing: As convenor of the all-party warm homes group, which is well represented in the House today, may I thank the hon. Lady for introducing the Bill and for the coherent and co-operative way in which she has worked to ensure that it received cross-party support? We both realise that the Bill will not solve all the problems faced by people who suffer fuel poverty, but it is particularly urgent given the Government's cut in the home energy efficiency scheme and the fact that Britain suffers excess winter deaths. In Finland, excess winter deaths are only 9 per cent. on average while in Scotland they are 16 per cent. That demonstrates the urgency of addressing the matter and the Bill certainly represents a major step forward.

Mrs. Wise: The hon. Lady is right and I shall expand on some of the points that she raised. I am grateful to the all-party warm homes group, the all-party group on pensioners and the all-party group on disability for their support. If there is a party row about the Bill, it is certainly not my fault nor that of other hon. Members who are concerned about social issues.

Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West): On behalf of all the elderly people in Northern Ireland, I thank the hon. Lady for introducing the Bill. I should like to raise one central point. She referred to hypothermia. Wearing my medical hat, let me say that hypothermia sometimes appears on death certificates, but it also affects many people who die of chronic heart failure or chronic obstructive airways disease. I have no doubt that for thousands of people death is hastened by hypothermia even though it does not appear on their death certificates.

Mrs. Wise: I am well aware of that. It is a medical fact that cold weather thickens the blood. That is why it is beneficial for elderly people who can afford to do so to spend the winter in the Algarve because the warm weather prolongs their lives. That is not within the reach of most people, but we should do everything we can to help elderly people heat their homes so that their blood does not congeal.

The same applies to people with disabilities. New babies also have very unstable thermostats. The Royal College of Nursing pointed out that disabled children are particularly vulnerable because of their lack of mobility. It is all very well for us. Not only are we in warm buildings, but we can move about, exercise and keep warm.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Wise: I shall give way in a moment, but I have given way many times and I should like to make some progress. I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman is here to support the Bill.

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Many elderly people who cannot afford proper heating dread cold weather. The Bill has received support not only from elderly people but from people who are not pensioners, do not qualify for cold weather payments and are not on low incomes. During the cold weather there was a wave of sympathy and empathy for elderly people who were sitting at one-bar fires or turning off the heating. Most of them do not have central heating, so it is a matter not of turning down the thermostat but of turning the heating off. There was a wave of feeling on the part of those who are able to keep warm for those who are not--an interesting social phenomenon that is not often found on benefits issues.

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