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11 Dec 2002 : Column 366continued
Paul Holmes (Chesterfield): During a bitterly cold week such as this, it is appropriate and timely to debate entitlement to winter fuel allowances. I welcome the fact that pensioners are entitled to claim them, although a decent basic state pension might be a better alternative. We might question the eligibility of pensioners who over-winter in places such as Guadeloupe, Martinique, southern Spain or the Canary islandshardly cold weather areasfor claiming the #200 winter fuel allowance.
The real issue, however, is the denial of winter fuel payments to severely disabled people. Although it was a fully costed Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment in the 2001 general election, this is not a party political issue. The hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) submitted early-day motion 289 on the subject in October 2001 and I submitted early-day motion 209 14 days ago. The two motions were signed by more than 170 Members from every party in the HouseLabour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative, Plaid Cymru, Scottish nationalist, Ulster Unionist, Social Democratic and Labour, and Democratic Unionist.
Why does such a wide range of people, parties and expert groups believe that severely disabled people should qualify for the winter fuel allowances? Disability Now launched the campaign in October 2000 with a survey of its readers. More than 4,000 disabled people and their supporters responded. Of those, 1,800 severely disabled people filled in a questionnaire explaining how they manage and why they need the winter fuel payment. Their comments have much in common: they cope as best they can with extra layers of clothes and hot water bottles, by living in just one room in the house, missing out on holidays, skimping on food and by, as some describe it, hibernating. They all say that the #200 would allow them to turn on or turn up their heating. There is a widespread dread of heating bills, and some people are still paying them off over the summer. Those
In July 1999, major Government research, XDisability in Great Britain", found that disabled people most frequently put fuel and transport at the top of their costs. The research found that many severely disabled people with impaired walking function and care needs experience severe financial hardship because they are at home most of the time with no job and they need to maintain a constant temperature, including at night. As a discrete group, they are as likely as, if not more likely than, the broad, heterogeneous group of people aged over 60 to experience financial hardship and fuel poverty. Leonard Cheshire, in its research, found that one third of the disabled people in its survey could not afford to meet the extra heating costs arising from their disability, and that they had a lower average income than did the general population.
Severely disabled people often need extra heat and hot water because of their medical or physical condition. Because they are often housebound, they have to keep their heating on all dayunlike those who go out to workand they often have to keep it on all night because of their disability. It has also been pointed out in the Government's 1999 research and by Leonard Cheshire that such people are often in financial hardship.
Given some previous answers from Ministers, it is likely that we shall hear tonight that the disability living allowance can be used to cover heating costs. The need for extra heating is not, however, one of the eligibility criteria for disability living allowance. The mobility component of the allowance is awarded when someone needs help with mobility outside the home. It has nothing to do with heating requirements. The care component of the disability living allowance is awarded when someone needs substantial help with personal care. It does not even cover the full cost of such care. For example, two hours of care per day at #5 an hour is #70 a week. The disability living allowance care allowance is #37.65 a week. Despite that, disabled people are also told by the Government to put their disability living allowance towards any extra clothing requirements, laundry costs and special food requirements that may arise from their disabilities. Just how far is this one allowance supposed to stretch?
The Government have also said that additional payments are available for people on income supportthe disability income guarantee, which provides an extra #11.05. The introduction of this payment in 2000 was an admission that the existing support was inadequate, but it is only #11.05, not #200. Furthermore, it is only available to about 130,000 adults and 30,000 children who need 24-hour care. It will not help people with mobility impairment, for example, who need extra heat but have lower care needs, and so do not qualify.
Lord Ashley has argued that the Government's refusal to extend winter fuel payments is Xillogical, anomalous and unjust". He has said that severely disabled people suffer from immobility in the cold just as much as pensioners and, in some cases, more. The hon. Member for Kingswood has said that the Government's position on this matter is Xincoherent". I hope that the Minister will reconsider this illogical, anomalous, unjust and incoherent position, and end this powerful injustice that discriminates against severely disabled people.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) on securing this debate on an important subject at a very appropriate time. May I say at the outset that the Government do, of course, take the issues concerning people with disabilities very seriously? That is why we have provided extra cash benefitssocial security benefitsfor this group of at-risk people, as I shall demonstrate later. However, we introduced winter fuel payments during our first winter in office specifically to help older people with their heating bills. Research from the 1996 English housing condition survey showed that about half the households in fuel poverty contained someone aged 60 or overonly 4 per cent. were headed by a person receiving disability living allowance or their partner. We wanted to ensure that no pensioner was afraid to turn up the heating in cold weather, such as the spell that we are experiencing, owing to a worry over cost. Now, more than 11 million older people in about 8 million households are receiving help with their heating costs. We are proud of that.
The winter fuel payment cost some #1.7 billion last year, but as usual, the speech from the Liberal Democrat Benches was a cost-free zone. There comes a time in grown-up politics, however, when people have to discuss the cost of their proposals.