HC Deb 25 October 1976 vol 918 cc10-2
7. Mr. Greville Janner

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what plans he has made to assist the less-well-off to cope with their fuel bills during the coming winter.

Dr. John A. Cunningham

Detailed arrangements will shortly be published for the scheme that my right hon. Friend announced on 2nd August to allocate £25 million to help those likely to have the greatest difficulty with electricity bills this winter. The gas and electricity industries, together with the Government, are making good progress with the code of practice designed to help poor consumers to make suitable payment arrangements and to protect them from disconnection.

Mr. Janner

I welcome my hon. Friend's statement about the imminence of details. Is he aware that it is not merely electricity which is worrying people, but coal, coke, oil, paraffin and—

Mr. Skinner

Solicitors' fees.

Mr. Janner

—other fuels for which people have to pay? Is he further aware that elderly people do not consider this to be a joke, whether the joke is made on one side of the House or the other? This is one of the greatest and most imminent problems that will worry many of them to death before the winter arrives.

Dr. Cunningham

The Government are well aware of the problem of heavy bills in the winter, particularly in the case of the elderly. The point about allocating money for electricity bills is that almost everyone receives an electricity bill, as opposed to bills for other fuels. We felt that help ought to be concentrated in the area where it would be most effective. Many elderly people live in houses heated only by electricity. Another point about the scheme is that, with limited public resources at the Government's disposal, we recognise that we cannot help everyone.

Mr. Thompson

Will the Minister assure us that people who experience difficulty in budgeting will have restored to them the facility of prepayment meters?

Dr. Cunningham

An important part of the discussions on the code of practice has been concerned with the availability of prepayment metres. I cannot anticipate the publication of the code, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall have his point very much in mind.

Mr. Mike Thomas

When does my hon. Friend expect the Government to reply to the Select Committee report on this matter? What confidence has he that electricity and gas boards will carry out the instructions given to them by him and his colleagues, bearing in mind that I have had continued correspondence with his predecessor, instancing examples of occasions when the boards do not carry out the spirit of what I know to be the Secretary of State's intention?

Dr. Cunningham

The answer to the first part of the supplementary question is "As soon as possible". The answer to the second part is that trade unionists within the industries are concerned about the attacks being made upon them which seem to indicate that they do not care about the welfare of people who have difficulty in paying their bills. I know that is true in the gas industry, because I used to represent trade unionists in that industry before I came to the House. It is also true in the electricity industry. We should bear in mind that there are people in the industries who are as concerned as are many hon. Members to ensure that people who are in difficulty with their bills are treated fairly. As I said in answer to a previous question, our aim will be to ensure that the spirit of the code of practice is interpreted effectively at local level.

Mr. Beith

Does the Minister recognise the difficulties which arise because so much of the assistance given with fuel bills goes to those who are already in receipt of social security? Does he also recognise that there are many categories of people, particularly among the working poor, who experience difficulty with energy bills and do not receive any benefit?

Dr. Cunningham

We are aware of this problem. That is why the £25 million scheme will cover those who are in receipt of the family income supplement as well as those who are in receipt of supplementary benefit. But the hon. Gentleman, and other hon. Members who are pressing me, in the next breath will be pressing the Government to cut public expenditure. They cannot have it both ways.

Mr. Sainsbury

Does the Minister agree that improving home insulation, particularly for the less-well-off and the elderly, is an effective and sensible way to help them cope with their fuel bills? Is he satisfied that enough is being done by interdepartmental discussion to ensure that this method is progressed?

Dr. Cunningham

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important matter. We understand that 66 per cent. of all local authority housing has no loft insulation of any kind—and a large number of elderly people live in local authority accommodation. The Department of Energy is concerned to try to improve this situation. One of the aims of the recently announced job creation project, to which £70 million has been allocated, is to improve loft insulation in local authority houses for the very purpose mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.