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11 Dec 2002 : Column 366—continued

Winter Fuel Payments

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Jim Murphy.]

10 pm

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 islands—hardly cold weather areas—for 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 House—Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative, Plaid Cymru, Scottish nationalist, Ulster Unionist, Social Democratic and Labour, and Democratic Unionist.

In the other place, Lord Ashley of Stoke, Lord Rix and Lord Addington have all pressed the Government—to no avail—to reconsider on this issue on a number of occasions.

The all-party Trade and Industry Committee report on fuel poverty, dated September 2002, recommended:

The all-party parliamentary group on disability has challenged Ministers several times on this issue, and many disability organisations are campaigning on the matter. They include Disability Now, the Disability Rights Commission and 21 other groups at the last count. Ann Robinson, chair of Energywatch, gave evidence to the Trade and Industry Committee, saying that she, too, supported payment of the allowance to severely disabled people.

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

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are exactly the arguments that we used to hear on behalf of pensioners before they became entitled to the allowance.

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 day—unlike those who go out to work—and 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?

Another Government response has been to refer to the availability of insulation grants, but Tricia Higgins wrote to Disability Now to say:

The Government have also argued that older people suffer the most from fuel poverty, and that that is why they, and not disabled people, are targeted for the winter fuel allowance. Even if that were true, it would not

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represent a humane and just approach to severely disabled people. Lord Ashley was given figures from the 1998 follow-up survey to the English house conditions survey that showed that, while 29 per cent. of pensioner households were in fuel poverty in 1998, 22 per cent. of disabled households were also in fuel poverty—a not dissimilar proportion.

The Government have also said that additional payments are available for people on income support—the 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.

10.9 pm

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 benefits—social security benefits—for 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 over—only 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.

Paul Holmes rose—

Malcolm Wicks: Obviously, I want to respond to the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, but of course this is his debate, so I am happy to give way.

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