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Winter Fuel Allowance

4. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): How many pensioners in Warrington, North are receiving the winter fuel allowance. [141804]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): Our latest information is that around 11 million payments have already been issued for this winter, 16,300 of which have been made to those entitled in Warrington, North.

Helen Jones: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that pensioners in my constituency are very grateful for the ability to turn up their heating without worrying about the bills in winter? In the light of that, can he assure me that all eligible pensioners will receive their cheques before Christmas? Can he also tell the House what assessment he has made of the impact on the health and well-being of pensioners if the Opposition were ever in a position to withdraw the winter fuel allowance?

Mr. Darling: Everyone who has received a winter fuel payment in previous years should now have received their winter fuel payment. People who need to claim will also get their money by Christmas if they claimed by the beginning of November. We are still looking at the claims of a small number of people who have claimed since that time, and they will be paid early in the new year.

As for the health of pensioners in the future, most Labour Members recognise the very real problem of fuel poverty, particularly among pensioners, that we inherited. When people judge the political parties, whenever the election comes, they will wonder at the Conservatives, who are making it clear that they will give less money to poor people and that there will be no Christmas bonus, no reward for saving, no free television licence and nowinter fuel payment. That sounds like a remarkable manifesto--[Interruption.]

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Mr. Speaker: Order. May I make a request to the Secretary of State not to talk about Conservative policy? It is his policy that I am interested in hearing.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Is the right hon. Gentleman genuinely satisfied that all backdated winter fuel payments to people in the Warrington, North constituency have now been received? In reflecting on his answer, is he conscious that on 11 April he said that all backdated payments would be made as soon as possible; that on 20 July, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), said that they would all be made by the end of September; and that on 13 November, the hon. Lady said that the target date for ensuring that those backdated payments would be made was the end of March 2001, although she could not be certain that that target would be met? In the light of that, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us when he will get his act together? Secondly, can he offer us some indication of which will arrive first: the backdated winter fuel payments that are due or Billy Bunter's postal order?

Mr. Darling: If the hon. Gentleman had his way, those payments would never arrive at all, because he wants to get rid of them. As I have just told my hon. Friend, all those who have received winter fuel payments in previous years should now have received them because they were sent out in good time for Christmas. The only people who needed to apply were men aged between 60 and 65, whose addresses the Department of Social Security does not necessarily have because there is no obligation on men of that age to tell the DSS where they live.

All those who made their claims before the beginning of November should now have received their payment.A small minority of people applied after that time; their claims have to be processed, and we want to make those payments as soon as possible. We are anxious to ensure that all those who are entitled to this year's winter fuel payment of £200 get it. The payment is having a big impact on pensioners--something upon which the hon. Gentleman might care to reflect.

Fuel Poverty

5. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): What steps the Government are taking to reduce fuel poverty. [141805]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): We are developing a comprehensive strategy to tackle fuel poverty. The winter fuel payment makes an important contribution. For this winter only, we have increased the amount to £200--double the amount paid last winter.

Mr. Bennett: May I assure my hon. Friend that the pensioners in Denton and Reddish are delighted with the £200? However, will he address two particular problems? First, some pensioners are reluctant to spend that money on heating and still live in houses that are inadequately heated. Spending the money on heating will improve the quality of their life no end, so will he plead with them to do so? Secondly, is he aware that too many pensioners

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still live in houses that are heating the neighbourhood,and that he needs to work very hard to promote the Government's home energy saving scheme?

Mr. Bayley: I thank my hon. Friend for those questions. Eliminating fuel poverty is important, and more needs to be done. The Government will soon publish their strategy on fuel poverty, which will address the issues raised by my hon. Friend. The reason why a one-off payment is made at the start of winter is precisely to encourage people to use it for the purpose of heating. It would be far less likely that the money would be spent on heating if the winter fuel allowance were abolished, or paid in weekly instalments.

The old home energy efficiency scheme provided grants of up to £315 per household; the new scheme, which we introduced in June, can make payments of up to £1,000 per household and £2,000 for households with people aged over 60. That is a substantial improvement. By 2004, the new HEES budget will be £600 millionand the scheme will be helping 800,000 vulnerable households--more than half of which will be pensioner households.

Social Fund (Administration)

6. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): What percentage of the social fund is spent on administration costs. [141806]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): In 1998-99, social fund payments and recoveries amounting to £1,114 million were made at an administrative cost of £215 million. That cost represents 19.3 per cent. of both expenditure and recoveries.

Mr. Pike: Although those figures show a massive improvement in the administrative costs of the social fund from those under the previous Conservative Government, does my hon. Friend agree that, as the Labour Government's priority is to help the poorest section of the community and as the social fund is aimed at that group,the fund and loans through it remain too expensive administratively? Is it not time that we introduced a better and fairer system to help the people who are most in need?

Angela Eagle: We keep the system under review. Clearly, we need to drive down administrative costs as much as possible, although any system that entails us making detailed inquiries into individual circumstances will, by its nature, cost more than a more automatic scheme, such as child benefit. The Conservatives have said that they would take £90 million from the social fund; that would make it increasingly harder to give money to the poorest and most vulnerable.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Will the Minister confirm that there was a 9 per cent. rise in a single year--last year--in applications to the social fund? What are the implications of that for the Government's progress in tackling poverty?

Angela Eagle: The rise, I suspect, has something to do with the changes to the budgeting loan system, which we introduced last year and which enabled more peopleto apply. There has been a 9 per cent. increase in the

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number of grants given; that is because extra people became eligible after the changes to the budgeting loan system.

That system and the social fund can only be the fund of last resort. We are trying to tackle child poverty and other forms of poverty at their source. That includes introducing programmes such as the working families tax credit and enabling lone parents to go out to work to support themselves and their children by setting up child care and by allowing them to have access to initiatives such as the new deal for lone parents--which the Conservatives would scrap. We believe in dealing with the causes of poverty as well as its symptoms.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Will my hon. Friend confirm that the overall administration costs of the DSS may have increased because of its extra responsibilities of dealing with the miners compensation scheme? Is there a case either for scrapping that clawback altogether, or for increasing the number of administrators at the DSS to speed up the average of 28 days taken to deal with those claims?

Angela Eagle: I can reassure my hon. Friend that the miners compensation scheme does not feature at all in the administrative costs of the social fund. I know that my colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry are doing all that they can to speed up payments and to ensure that the oldest and most ill people are the first to receive the payments that they deserve.

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