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Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): I congratulate my hon. Friend on presenting her Bill. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty), I was a member of the Committee that discussed the changes to the stations that are used to measure cold weather. That led to some improvements. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no point in tinkering at the margins, but that we should deal with the fundamental problems of cold weather payments? Few people get them and the way in which they get them leaves a great deal to be desired. I and many other hon. Members have had many letters from constituents who are unhappy about the current situation. This is the opportunity to put matters right.

Mrs. Wise: My hon. Friend is right. The cold weather payments scheme is better than nothing, but it is deficient in many ways. Eligibility is limited to those on income support and that leaves out of account people who are just above that level but who find it equally difficult to heat their homes. Hon. Members and Age Concern have had much correspondence from people in that position. Hon. Members will know, but other people may not, that it is not possible to solve that problem by way of a private Member's Bill, nor is it possible to reduce the number of days from seven to a more reasonable figure. The Bill is modest, partly because I have no alternative and partly because its very modesty gives it some extra power.

Mr. Austin-Walker: The Bill goes as far as my hon. Friend is able to take it. I welcome the way in which she has tried to get all-party consensus on the issue and the offer by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Sir A. Bowden) and her acceptance of it. In view of his comments about the home energy efficiency scheme, will my hon. Friend ask the hon. Member for Kemptown and other Conservative Members whether in their letter to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, they will request a commitment to reinstate the cuts in the home energy efficiency scheme and institute a cut in VAT on fuel? That would go a long way towards reducing hypothermia, especially among the people my hon. Friend has mentioned, who are just above the limit for eligibility for cold weather payments.

Mrs. Wise: I agree with my hon. Friend. I am whole-heartedly in favour of insulation. The cold weather payments scheme is an emergency one.

Mrs. Diana Maddock (Christchurch): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Wise: I should like to make a little more progress.

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As I have said, the cold weather payments scheme is an emergency one and not the whole solution. The Government say that the solution is insulation and have issued statements to that effect, but they have cut the insulation scheme by £30 million and that shows that they have a brass neck. There were strong protests and the Government were told not to cut the HEES, but they did. It is not the responsibility of the Minister who will reply to the debate but that of a different Department and they should talk to each other.

Mr. Nigel Evans: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Wise: The hon. Gentleman should have told his hon. Friends to allow a debate on this matter.

Mr. Evans: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. How can my hon. Friends, who sympathise with the thrust of the Bill, make our point if we are not allowed to make a normal intervention?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is not a matter for the Chair.

Mrs. Wise: Some 158 hon. Members signed the early-day motion supporting the Bill. I do not think that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) did. He had the opportunity and I feel more responsibility to those 158 Members than to him.

Insulation is important and the Government should not have cut their scheme. They have forced a waiting list for it, and many people will die before their turn comes. It will be many years before insulation grants can make much progress in solving the problem. We will co-operate with and support moves for insulation grant systems but they should not be used to beat this Bill, which deals with emergency payments.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most serious problems with the current system is the inappropriate siting of weather stations? The weather station at Glasgow airport, which is responsible for my constituency, is at sea level while many of my elderly constituents live several hundred feet above sea level.

Mrs. Wise: My hon. Friend is right. To be fair to the Government--I do not know why I should, but I will--they have helped by increasing the number of weather stations from 55 to 70. I am sure all Opposition Members welcome that. Nevertheless, so long as only the air temperature is considered, and not the wind chill factor, some places will find that the coldness that they experience is underestimated. That especially affects coastal and upland areas.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley): To continue that theme, thousands of pensioners in Sheffield do not get the cold weather payment because the monitoring stations are well outside the city. Sheffield is built on five hills and it is like a wind tunnel. I welcome the Bill, which would help thousands of our pensioners who live on the tops of hills.

Mrs. Wise: My hon. Friend is right.

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The measurement of air temperature gives a rough and ready approximation of the problems of pensioners and other poor people who live, as most of them do, in badly insulated houses. We could not get a precise measure unless we stuck a thermometer in every person's home, but no one is suggesting that; we believe that instead of one measure, there should be two.

It is interesting that of the 15 weather stations where payments have not yet been triggered, 14 are in coastal areas. On Wednesday, one Minister seemed to think that that was an argument for the Government. I think that it is an argument for us. I am a Geordie and I remember vividly from my childhood the bitterly cold east winds in Newcastle, which is one of the places where a payment has not been triggered. Where is the sense in that? That fact alone condemns the present measurement.

Preston is rather warmer than the east coast, but a payment has been triggered. Two would have been triggered if wind chill had been taken into account, because one would have been triggered over the Christmas week.

Most interesting of all is the fact that the first payment to be triggered in England was at Liscombe in Somerset. That is fine, but Yeovilton weather station--which is right next to Liscombe--did not trigger a payment. It showed a temperature of 1.5 deg C. Taking wind chill into account at Yeovilton--in Somerset, which is not represented by Labour Members--the effective temperature was minus 6.5 deg C, which would have triggered a payment. Surely no hon. Member would say that that would have been an unnecessary payment.

I am told that the scheme needs piloting--yet the Government managed to transform the entire health service without a single pilot scheme.

Mr. McLeish: Does my hon. Friend accept that I share her anger about the Government conspiring to kill off the Bill and insulting 10 million people in Britain in families who have only income support to keep them warm over the winter? Does she also acknowledge that it is scandalous that in August 1996 the Meteorological Office offered the Government a trial period using six weather stations in Scotland at a cost of £600, but that to date the Government have not said whether they intend to take it up? Does my hon. Friend accept that the Government are not only trying to kill the Bill but heaping insult upon injury for every pensioner and poor family the length and breadth of Britain?

Mrs. Wise: My hon. Friend is right. We are told that wind chill makes people colder, but that it is buildings that are affected by the cold weather payments. All surfaces, whether skin or brick, lose heat to the outside air, whether we like it or not. That is why we cover ourselves up. We lose heat through the walls of our houses. The more poorly insulated the house, the more heat is lost. Just as the wind whips the heat more quickly from one's cheeks and nose end, so it does from the outside walls of houses.

The measurement of the wind chill factor that we recommend should be used is called the Siple-Passel measure. It was originally designed to measure the wind chill effect on inanimate objects. It is the most useful and sensible, cheapest and easiest formula to use. For goodness sake, let us do it.

Mrs. Maddock: As one of the vice-chairmen of the all-party warm homes group, I congratulate the hon. Lady

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on introducing the Bill. I hope that she agrees that one of the reasons why it is so urgent that we do something is that the Government and we as a nation have been so laggardly about properly insulating buildings. If homes were insulated, pensioners would be able to turn up the heat and their bills would not increase.

Mrs. Wise: There is a Bill in circulation to introduce a 15-year programme of insulation. Many Members of Parliament have given their support to it, as have I, but it would cost more than my Bill. My Bill is not a costly measure. I have been asked how much it would cost. We have asked the Minister how much the present scheme will cost next year. He cannot tell us. It all depends on the weather. That is the point of it.

Last winter, the cold weather payments system cost £62 million. The winter before that, it cost £77,000. So the Government cannot forecast the cost, but of the last six winters, only one could be counted as expensive.

Age Concern obtained some extra figures about last winter--the expensive one--from the Meteorological Office and extrapolated from them an estimate of the difference that the Bill would have made if it had been in operation last winter. The extra cost would have been £20 million. I think that that would have been money well spent, but next winter might be mild. We are not asking for a fortune from the Treasury. There could not be a more targeted measure. It is too targeted for my taste. I have made enormous concessions here. I believe in more universal benefits and I do not apologise for that.

However, I am a realist and I want progress. I would rather have the whole loaf. I would rather have the whole bakery, but I will take some crumbs and say thank you. However, we are not even getting that.

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