HC Deb 02 February 1971 vol 810 cc1438-40
5. Mr. Ashton

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what estimate he has made of the annual number of pensioners dying through hypothermia due to shortage of heating.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Michael Alison)

In 1969, the last year for which detailed figures are available, the deaths of 155 people of 65 years and over were attributed to excessive cold, hunger, thirst and neglect in which hypothermia was a contributory or underlying cause. Shortage of heating is not the only factor responsible for the onset of hypothermia; some of these deaths occurred in the warmer part of the year.

Mr. Ashton

Is it not a fact that there are other contributory causes of hypothermia which create serious illness, if not deaths, among many thousands of pensioners? Is it not time for an increase in pensions so that old people can afford the fuel that they need to keep them warm at this time of the year?

Mr. Alison

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Supplementary Benefits Commission is empowered to make special provision for the supply of extra fuel for those in this category who are in need.

Mr. Cant

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that heat is very much a question of psychology as well as degrees Centigrade, especially for old people? Will not he have a word with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and ask him to persuade local authorities to provide old people with alternative forms of heat so that if they want cheerful coal fires they can have them?

Mr. Alison

Local authorities have wide and flexible powers for people in this condition. We reminded them of their powers in a Circular which was sent to them in November of last year.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

In a prosperous country like Britain, is not it disgusting that people should die of hunger and cold? Why does not the hon. Gentleman refer to the fact that in the last few months the prices of gas, electricity, coal and even paraffin, the cheapest fuel, have risen by between 10 and 15 per cent.? Why is it that his right hon. Friend has not been able to extend the arrangements for people with special heating needs, who are a tiny minority of those on supplementary benefit, to everyone on supplementary benefit, as we have asked him to do repeatedly?

Mr. Alison

In reply to the last part of the hon. Lady's question, she will know that the supplementary benefit levels are flexible at the margin. She must also bear in mind the wide-ranging and flexible powers of the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the local authority medical and social services to help those in this condition. I agree with her first observation. It is unacceptable and shocking that people in this country, prosperous as we are, can be found in this condition and die.