HC Deb 06 August 1976 vol 916 cc2384-96

3.26 p.m.

Mrs. Lynda Chalker (Wallasey)

I am grateful for the opportunity in this series of debates to discuss the problem of heating costs likely to be experienced by elderly and handicapped people next winter. The House may well ask why, at the commencement of August and the holiday season, I am raising this issue. The point is that last year we eventually received a leaflet OC.2—"Help with Heating Costs". It was due in the autumn, and in October I asked about it. At the end of November, we had a revised draft of the leaflet.

Yet still, at the end of February this year, many of the local offices of the Department did not have copies of the leaflet, and that was when the weather was just beginning to be warmer for a few days. My concern is to give those responsible a sharp reminder here in August, with sufficient time to make preparations so that the elderly and handicapped really do have help with their heating costs next winter, and so that they themselves may be well alerted to the problems which they may well face.

I acknowledge that the Government have been much more active in 1976 than ever before in this respect, and we thank them for their efforts, but those efforts are partly due to the vigilance and constant nudging of organisations such as Age Concern, the British Association of Settlements and the many other groups utterly determined not to let this matter drop and to make sure that provision for the elderly and handicapped and, indeed, all those with heating cost problems in winter time are better served in future than in the past.

I shall deal in a moment with some of the Government's actions so far, but I am more concerned to improve on what we have achieved already and in that way to make matters better next winter. The Minister does not need me to remind him that the problem arises from inadequate heating, from poor insulation and from the lower efficiency of elderly and handicapped people's bodies in coping with adverse conditions.

In addition, there is the effect of their low income, whether it be from pension or other means, and the fact that many people are poor budgeters in these circumstances. We know from statistical analysis that low income frequently correlates with poor housing and also that low income frequently correlates with an inability of individuals to apportion their funds according to real priorities.

For the elderly and handicapped there are additional problems. First, even today there is considerable ignorance about the available benefits. Secondly, help from Government with expensive heating costs is regarded as charity. That is dangerous because many elderly people do not realise how much additional help they might need to deal with the bills with which they will be presented. Thirdly, many elderly and handicapped people have a loss of faculties—either mental or physical or both—which lead to further major difficulties when they live alone.

The solution to the problem is a com-biped assault by the Departments concerned with such people. Government action through the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health and Social Security together with the housing departments and social services offices of local authorities will make a difference to such people next winter. I cite them rather than the fuel suppliers who have another responsibility to Government—to supply fuel to the entire community. There is no reason why those at risk should become a burden on the fuel suppliers when we should be tackling the problem from the other end.

The Department of Education and Science could also help by making young people aware, in the year before school leaving age of priorities in spending in later life. That would instil in them a correct budgeting attitude at the earliest possible opportunity.

In the last four months I have had discussions with various people in fuel supply offices about prepayment meters and the way in which they could help cope with the problems created by large bills. I discovered that there are grave difficulties about cash collections. Prepayment meters may be useful in certain cases, but they are not necessarily the answer to high heating costs. Further difficulties are caused by the necessity of having the right coinage in the house and the inability of an old or handicapped person to go out and get the correct coinage.

We need a new consciousness about coping from both Government and local authorities. That need is highlighted by several examples from last winter.

In one case, a 61-year-old crippled widow who had a bill for only £5, twice asked the Supplementary Benefits Commission for help but was refused. When her supply was disconnected, a community worker intervened and the Department of Social Security denied that her application had been refused.

For six or seven weeks the woman had no heating. Eventually the Department decided that she was entitled to a needs payment which would start from the date on which they made the decision. But that did not cover her previous bill. That illustrates the continuing problem caused by a breakdown in the normal system and the failure to recognise hardship.

A second lady, aged 79, fell over during the winter. She spent weeks in hospital and then went to convalesce with a granddaughter in Kent. When she returned to Newcastle, she found a bill for £10.88 had been overlooked before she became ill and that during her absence a disconnection notice had been sent. She contacted the Benwell community project which immediately telephoned the electricity board. But the community worker was told that the board could not help. The worker was told by the DHSS that it was not its duty to help in such circumstances. Eventually the community worker communicated with the regional office of the Department by standing on the doorstep at 9 o'clock in the morning and eventually the request for help was granted.

There we had a woman whose normal routine would have helped her pay the bill, even if bit by hit, but that routine was interrupted by illness and she did not manage to overcome the hurdles in the system and so sort herself out. She was caused a great deal of unnecessary distress by the failure to respond.

My third example is an elderly couple, one blind and one handicapped, who changed from a prepayment meter to a quarterly bill because they had a new savings system that they thought would help them. Despite repeated requests to the electricity board, their meter was not read for three and a half years. Eventually they received a bill for over £267. Their only income is a pension and supplementary benefit. This was a problem of failure of communication with the electricity board.

The fourth case is that of a thrifty elderly lady who owns her own house and has a private pension which takes her over the supplementary benefit level. She has been bed-bound since last autumn and has been told by her GP to keep warm. In February she received an electricity account of more than £80. She is outside the classification of those to whom help is given by the social services, and charities are trying to help. She did not even need to go into a local authority Part III home for two weeks, which would have cost more than paying her electricity bill for two weeks whilst she lived at home.

There are lists and lists of examples of people on low income, deserted women, poor budgeters. I am concerned with those who would cope if they could, but cannot, the elderly and handicapped. We welcome the plan of the Secretary of State for Energy to help electricity users to the tune of £25 million this coming winter, but this benefit is available only to those on supplementary benefit and family income supplement. Many cases, some of which I have described, are just outside the grounds of such recipients.

The gaps include not only those who are not receiving those two benefits but the elderly in council and other property where there is underfloor heating on combined billing to the whole block, those with gas and paraffin heating, which may be cheap to buy but not cheap to run, and those with prepayment meters for electricity or gas. There are also those who still heat by coal.

The problem is that most of the solutions the Government have so far proposed have been temporary. None answers the long-term problem, which is the control of inflation and better administration in all Government and fuel-supplying authorities so that we may have reduced costs, which will help everybody in all walks of life.

I should like to add some further ideas, which may be piecemeal solutions but which I believe would help. The first is that there should be better insulation. The thermal efficiency of a home has a great deal to do with heating costs. Our programme to insulate lofts, seal doors and windows and lag hot water tanks, should be greatly expanded. Another idea is to have sensible room arrangements for the elderly and handicapped, with the bed put into a recess off the main room, so that they do not become cold at night.

There is also the possibility of giving more advice on types of heating, including revenue outlay as well as capital cost. Here I pay tribute to the Friends of the Earth in Durham, who have done a great deal of good work under the job creation programme since last winter. It is up to the Government to advertise grants for insulation alongside the "Save-it" campaign. They are now beginning to do so. It is also up to them to list insulation as a missing standard amenity under the Housing Act 1974 and to use the job creation programme to help the most needy.

It is up to the fuel boards to institute a system such as the risk-disc suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) on the meters of all those at risk. This would require the maintenance of a register of the elderly and the handicapped at risk by the local authority. It would require not only a list to be held on the computer by the fuel supplying authority, but would remove the difference between those who will not pay bills and those who, through no fault of their own, cannot pay them.

We need from the fuel boards a national code of payment incorporating across the country the same method of paying and the same methods and regulation, because at present these vary. The advertising boundaries of newspapers and other media are not the same as those of the fuel supplying boards.

I believe that the right of the fuel supplier to disconnect must be continued, otherwise we shall face an impossible situation. If a bill has a risk disc notification attached to it, it will be up to the fuel hoard to contact the social services and to say "Something is wrong, because this person has a disc. Please investigate before any question of disconnection arises." I hope that that idea will be fully explored.

I wish to mention two further matters. First, I believe that the Department should look at the possibility of variable heating costs by different geographical areas. Parts of the country are colder than others, and obviously the heating bills will be that much greater. Where there are higher bills, there is a greater need for exceptional needs payments. We must also consider those who are ill for short periods. Again, the standard rates of payment do not always take account of individual needs. There is also the possibility of considering low summer heating allowances as against high winter heating allowances. The local department of social services could identify through the risk-disc system those who most need help. Special attention should be given to those cases first. Regular checks by those who service the meals-on-wheels facility and who visit the elderly could notify the social services when things are beginning to go wrong.

We should give our attention to publicity via local radio. Many old people may be unable to read because of bad sight, but they certainly tune in to the local radio. I hope the Minister will consider that avenue of publicity. I believe that firm action must now be taken to prevent real tragedy and hardship next winter. I hope that the Government will respond.

3.43 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Eric Deakins)

With permission, I should like to reply to this debate.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) for having raised this topic because it provides an opportunity to discuss a matter that is of great concern to us all.

We have been fortunate in this country in the past nine or 10 years because we have had a succession of mild winters. But as a Minister in the Department which is most intimately concerned with the problems of the pensioner, the disabled and the poorer sections in the community, I am worried that next winter might be a long, cold and difficult one. Therefore, it is as well that we take as many precautions as we can on the lines urged by the hon. Lady.

The general record of the Labour Government testifies to our continuing concern for the elderly and the handicapped. I wish to deal first with pensions—the basic means of income for a large number of our fellow citizens.

We came to office in 1974 pledged to raise retirement pensions to £10 for a single person and £16 for a married couple, and thereafter to increase those amounts annually in line with increases in average national earnings. The pension levels of £10 to f16 were introduced in July 1974—the highest increase in both real and money terms since the present insurance began in 1948.

The statutory obligation laid down by the Social Security Act 1975 is that pensions shall be increased at least annually by sufficient to restore their value in relation to the general level of earnings or prices, whichever is the higher. We have achieved this aim. Pensions were increased in April 1975 and again in November 1975 and, over the period from July 1974 to November 1975, pensions rose by 33 per cent. whereas prices and earnings went up by 31 per cent. In November 1975 therefore the real value of pensions was higher than in July 1974. The further increase of 15 per cent. to be made in November 1976 will, we are confident, be more than sufficient to keep pace with increases in prices and earnings and give the pension an even higher real value.

I now turn to supplementary pensions. The position of those who need additional help through the supplementary benefits scheme has also been protected against price changes, since the scale rates applicable to supplementary pensions are given, and will be given in November this year, the same cash increases as retirement pensions. The scale rates, together with a rent addition, represent the level of income to which the pensioner's other resources are made up. They are intended to meet all normal living expenses, including heating.

There is no fixed amount or proportion of the scale rates allocated to heating. It is left to the pensioner how he allocates his income, but the scale rates vary according to family size. The amount available to a married couple, for example, for living expenses including heating is clearly greater than for a person living alone. But because the scale rates cover all living expenses, increases in them have to be compared with price rises generally rather than with the increase in any particular commodity, such as fuel. Over the period from October 1973 to June 1976 the Retail Prices Index rose by 61.3 per cent. compared with an increase of 68 per cent. in the scale rates for supplementary pensioners up to November 1975.

It is of interest that the proportion of retirement pensioners who receive supplementary pensions has declined in recent years from 29 per cent. in 1966, when supplementary pensions were introduced, to about 20 per cent. This is a cause for satisfaction, and it remains the aim of the Government to reduce dependence on means-tested benefits. But it is a sad fact that throughout the existence of the supplementary benefit scheme a number of elderly people who have been eligible for supplementary benefits have not claimed them. This figure has also declined over the years but it remains significant, being currently estimated at 560,000. Continual publicity and direct invitations to claim have made only a relatively small impact on this problem, and we are currently considering how best to investigate the reasons for not claiming.

I now turn to extra heating additions. The level of discretionary extra heating additions is to be raised at the same time that pensions and benefits go up in November. The new rates of 70p, £1.40 and £2.10 a week will represent additional purchasing power of £36.40, £72.80 and £109.20 a year respectively. The rates of extra heating additions, as the hon. Lady knows, are fixed by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Originally based on the average expenditure on heating of pensioner households, the extra heating additions have been increased by reference to the movement of the fuel component of the Retail Prices Index, but, more crucially, the Commission also takes account, in fixing the new levels of future fuel price rises that have been announced at the time but not yet intro duced. In this way the position of those with special heating needs is fully protected.

The higher rates of heating additions to be introduced in November will represent increases of 133 per cent. since October 1973, compared with an increase of 91 per cent. in fuel prices generally up to June 1976, so that there will clearly be a margin to meet further fuel price rises.

The number of supplementary pensioners in receipt of extra heating additions has increased considerably. At the most recent count, 849,000, or just civet half of all supplementary pensioners, were getting extra heating additions. This compares with a total of 445,000 in November 1973 and 194,000 in November 1972. This increase is the result of both changes in the legislation and easements in the qualifying criteria, as well as increased publicity. Information about extra heating additions is made known in a number of ways. The need for such additions is considered automatically on each new claim for supplementary benefit, and on the review of every existing case which takes place at least annually.

General information about extra heating additions is given in our leaflet SB1, dealing with the supplementary benefit scheme for potential claimants. We also have a more detailed leaflet, mentioned by the hon. Lady, entitled "Help with heating costs", OC2, which should be available from local social security offices. I shall certainly check, in view of what the hon. Lady has suggested, to ensure that there are adequate supplies available of this important leaflet.

Information about extra heating additions is included in our supplementary benefits handbook, which is intended for social workers and others in a position to advise people entitled to supplementary benefit. This information is brought up to date when necessary in SBC Notes and News.

It has been suggested from time to time that we should incorporate the heating addition into the scale rates. This was a recent recommendation of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries.

There are currently more than 1 million extra heating additions in payment, of which 541,000 are at the lowest rate—that is, currently 55p a week, to be increased to 70p a week from November. While the proposal to add the amount of the heating addition to the basic scale rate has a certain logic and is attractive in the sense that it would ensure that all beneficiaries who are entitled will benefit from the addition, it must be ruled out on cost grounds. To increase all the adult scale rates by the rate of 70p applicable next November would immediately increase the benefit cost by £70 million a year. It would also leave a very large number still dependent on extra heating additions at other rates.

In any debate about heating costs, the risk of hypothermia to elderly people is bound to be discussed. I do not wish to go into technical detail about the condition and the different factors which may contribute to its development. In any case, I understand there is no firm evidence on what these might be. But it is important to keep the matter in perspective. It is, nevertheless, a matter of great concern that elderly people should avoid the risk. As in previous years, we shall take steps this winter to ensure that health and social services personnel who come into contact with the elderly are vigilant to the dangers of some of them suffering from the effects of cold and do what they can to help within the resources available to them. My Department has asked the Health Education Council to publish later in the year a leaflet giving simple hints on how to avoid the dangers of cold, so that old people themselves may be reminded of the need to avoid getting too cold.

But our greatest concern is to ensure that the elderly, the handicapped and other poor people have the resources to obtain sufficient heating. I have explained how we have maintained the purchasing power of pensions and supplementary benefits. In addition, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy announced on Monday, the Government have decided to allocate £25 million to help those likely to have the greatest difficulty with fuel bills next winter. This scheme will be designed to give to all recipients of supplementary benefit, including the elderly and the disabled, and of family income supplement who pay directly to electricity boards a discount on electricity bills. It is hoped that it will be possible to reduce bills by the equivalent of 25 per cent. of the payment for one winter quarter. Details of the scheme will be announced later when they have been fully worked out but in good time for eligible households to apply for the discount.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy also announced on Monday the Government's response to the recommendations of the review body which he had set up earlier this year to look into payment and collection methods for gas and electricity bills. In general the Government have commended the report of the review body to the electricity and gas industries. With regard to its recommendation that the power of disconnection should no longer be exercised, the Government have agreed with the industries that they should apply a code of practice designed to protect genuine hardship cases from disconnection. The question of legislation will be kept under review in the light of experience of the working of the code of practice. Details of the code have still to be worked out in consultation with the authorities, staffs and unions involved, but when ready it will be published and sent to all electricity and gas consumers.

The threat of disconnection is of great concern to all consumers, and may particularly trouble the elderly. The examples quoted by the hon. Lady were a telling illustration of this. During last winter, a moratorium was declared on disconnections for pensioner households, and I understand that it remains the policy of the fuel authorities in general not to disconnect such households. Under existing liaison arrangements, the fuel authorities notify potential hardship cases, both under and over pension age, to the Supplementary Benefits Commission, and disconnection can then be delayed to see whether they can help. Where help with a fuel debt is sought by a person not receiving supplementary benefit but who could have been entitled if he had claimed it, the Commission will help towards an outstanding fuel bill and encourage the person to accept the continuing supplementary benefit to which he is entitled.

If help is requested by someone already receiving supplementary benefit, the Commission is prepared to provide extra help with a fuel debt where there are exceptional circumstances, for example, where money saved for fuel bills has had to be spent because of illness or some other emergency, or because of unfamiliarity with a new heating system. If there are no circumstances which would justify a lump-sum payment, disconnection can still be averted under arrangements with the fuel authorities whereby part of the supplementary benefit will be paid direct, including a small sum off the arrears.

As with the elderly, supplementary benefit is available to handicapped people whose resources fall below their supplementary benefit level, including any need for extra help with heating. Turning to the help provided specifically for the handicapped, I am sure the House will agree that we have by no means neglected their needs. "Social Security Provision for Chronically Sick and Disabled People"—House of Commons Paper 276, of 31st July 1974—explained that many disabled people already received social security benefits and outlined a strategy for the future which we are steadily implementing. I would like to remind the House that with next November's uprating we shall have added about £550 million a year to the benefits paid specifically for chronic sickness or disablement and £925 million a year to the retirement pensions of 2½ million pensioners with some disablement.

Like the hon. Lady, I should like to refer briefly to the subject of home insulation. For council houses I understand that roof insulation may attract Government subsidy when installed in the interests of disabled tenants. In the private sector grants are not generally available to private owners for home insulation, but local authorities may exceptionally allow grants, with the consent of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, towards the cost of roof insulation in the case of elderly or disabled people.

For those eligible for supplementary benefits, the Supplementary Benefits Commission, while unable to assist towards the cost of major insulation, will help with the cost of materials for simple measures such as draught-proofing round doors. It is also prepared to help with the repair and replacement of heating appliances where these are broken, clearly inadequate for their purpose or excessively wasteful and therefore expensive to run.

The hon. Lady made a number of suggestions and I promise that I will look at them. She will appreciate that we have to bear in mind the need for restraint in public expenditure. I welcome this opportunity to explain the action the Government have taken to protect the elderly and the handicapped, generally, and in the particular area of heating costs. The groups we are considering today are undoubtedly the most vulnerable in that respect and our aim in the measures we are introducing is to provide help where it is most needed. I do not claim that the protection we are providing is yet as good as we would want it to be. That is why we have planned for improved pensions for retirement, invalidity and widowhood under the better pensions scheme. We shall continue to make improvements as the resources available allow.

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