HC Deb 28 July 1977 vol 936 cc1074-121
Mr. Brooke

There are 500,000 pensioners who could be on supplementary benefit and who are not choosing to take it up and, by not doing so, are losing the opportunity of taking the heating addition as well, since they cannot do so unless they are on supplementary benefit already. If this figure can be eaten into during 1977, we may hope that the percentage will rise still further. The recent leaflet on how to keep warm, which has been published in admirably large print for the elderly, is an encouragement in this regard.

As to the calculation of the heating additions, I have seen evidence from the Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission indicating that from November 1970 to February 1976 the Retail Price (Fuel) Index—I distinguish that from the general index—went up by 112 per cent. whereas the extra heating additions went up by 120 per cent. over the same period.

The Retail Price (Fuel) Index, of course, embraces and includes much larger increases in recent years in the cost of coal, coke, and, especially, electricity, than in the cost of gas, paraffin and heating oil. It will be helpful if the Minister, when he sums up, will shed light on the present status of the fuel index and say whether he is happy about the protection which extra heating additions furnish at the moment in respect of the rise in electricity prices.

To the best of my knowledge, neither the general R P I nor the fuel index allows for greater heat usage among the elderly and the disabled, whose budgets are thus put at risk by the extra usage which outside observers and reports have emphasised that they have to deploy. This particularly applies in the context of central heating in those blocks of flats where the tenant has no control at all over the central heating that he uses.

As to solutions to the problem, I emphasise that I have a non-partisan attitude to it, and my only object in raising the subject is to help to solve it. Those who follow these matters will be aware of the simple narrative of recent years, over and above the extra heating additions which have been deployed in response to the problem—the code of practice on the disconnection of supply, in both the gas and the electricity industries, the electricity discount scheme which the Government brought in a year ago and have now renewed, the start of research on a self-cancelling token meter system, and the encouragement of home insulation.

In opening the debate I want to deal very briefly with these four subjects before I sit down. Concerning disconnection and the code of practice, all of us will be aware, at the local level, in our own constituencies, of a degree of argument about the way in which that code of practice should be interpreted in minor respects. There has been debate on that subject.

At the time when the Government introduced the electricity discount scheme, a year ago, I understand that electricity disconnections represented 0.8 per cent. for the country as a whole, and that gas represented rather less than 0.4 per cent. for the country as a whole. The encouraging thing is that while those disconnections, both gas and electricity, had been steadily rising up to a year ago, in 1976 and 1977 they fell for the first time, and in electricity they fell significantly.

In terms of the distinction between the 0.8 per cent. for electricity and 0.4 per cent. for gas, I notice that a year ago, when the electricity discount scheme was first introduced, there was a marked discrepancy between the time that elapsed in the two industries. In the electricity industry the supply was disconnected, on average, 20 days after the final demand and 40 days after the first bill, whereas in the gas industry it was 25 days after the final demand and 55 days after the first bill. Whether those statistics have any impact on the fact that there are more electricity than gas disconnections, I do not know. If the Minister can shed any light on the matter I shall be grateful.

As for the electricity discount scheme, which the Government have just renewed, disconnections in the current year were down almost 25 per cent. on the previous year. I hope that the discount scheme is responsible for that marked reduction.

I should like to make two comments on the electricity discount scheme. First—this point has been brought to my notice in the last 24 hours since the subject for this debate was determined—I understand that in claiming the discount an electricity bill has to be produced. I believe that it is done through the Post Office. It has been represented to me that those who get their supply while living in caravans or as private tenants do not have access to electricity bills and consequently are unable to get the discount.

The second observation on the electricity discount sheme is that considerably more pensioners use solid fuel than electricity, by a margin of about 50 per cent. I understand that there is no move at present that solid fuel should enjoy the same kind of discount as electricity under the plan that I gather was confirmed as recently as today. Others of my hon. Friends may care to pursue that matter further. I shall leave others better qualified than myself to speak on the question of metering and the tariff in general.

I confess that I have not read the joint departmental report on Energy tariffs and the poor, which came out last year. I understand from those who have read it that some of its data and evidence were regarded as being incomplete and out of date. Indeed, the National Consumer Council, in its interim report of 27th May last year to the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, felt that the data presented proved a case totally opposite to the conclusion reached in the joint departmental report. I understand that it proved that tariff restructuring did offer a way of helping the poor with their fuel bills.

Not having read the report, I should add that the Heating Action Group, which includes Age Concern, Help the Aged and the Child Poverty Action Group, is broadly in agreement with the conclusions in the departmental report.

There remains the question of insulation, on which a number of my hon. Friends may choose to follow my remarks. Partly stimulated by voluntary groups throughout the country—I cite the Friends of the Earth in particular—and sustained by the considerable work done under the job creation scheme—I understand that between 50,000 and 100,000 insulation projects have been undertaken —a little progress has been made. But three matters occur to me in that regard.

First of all, for every possible national investment and energy-saving reason, insulation should be pursued as a matter of priority. Secondly, the insulation industry is somewhat fragmented and small scale, and lacking in the kind of large companies with large marketing budgets that would stimulate demand from the public. Thirdly, the Government have not been lending great force to the expansion of the insulation campaign, as they prefer to regard it as something that is better left to the private consumer.

The fact that the industry is fragmented is not the responsibility of the Government. However, it seems to be more the responsibility of the Government, in areas where they can do so, to wield influence to get this campaign moving.

There is no national help in the area that we are discussing. I am not aware of the Government's giving any help to insulation beyond the job creation projects that I have mentioned. These are not available for improvement grants. In the case of the elderly and disabled, local authorities can apply to the Secretary of State for the Envionment for consent, under his direction in paragraph 8 of the DOE Circular 8/76 for help to be given with heating insulation for the elderly and disabled. But everything that I have heard suggests that it is a rather long-winded process, which takes up to nine months or more through these channels. To get such help for this coming winter would be impossible, because the nine months' delay is too long.

My general feeling is that what we need is a much more concentrated campaign, led by the Government, to help resolve the problem. Years ago, in the Christmas issue of one of the relevant professional magazines, a light-hearted but rather aggressive critic of Good King Wenceslas claimed that he had committed every possible mistake in the social field. There were reservations about whether flesh and wine were too rich for yonder peasant. Pine logs, it was claimed, would not burn properly, but would smoke, and there was concerned criticism about about what the page was made to do in being sent a good league hence.

The same comparison seems to apply to the Government. Everybody's heart is in the right place, just as Good King Wenceslas's was. We all know what we are trying to do, but we are not achieving as much as we should or we might. Good King Wenceslas did not use his head, but there was drive behind his actions. The reservation that I have is that this campaign is not being properly co-ordinated or pursued with the drive and energy that the question demands.

10.13 p.m.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I congratulate hon. Members opposite on being so successful in drawing an early place in the Consolidated Fund debate. In the past I have drawn positions Nos. 1 or 2. The Conservatives' success means that tonight some of us can get away much earlier than we have done on other occasions this week.

The title of the debate covers a wide area and I do not think that I could possibly disagree with anything said by hon. Members opposite or anything that will be said by my hon. Friend who is to reply to the debate. Every hon. Member taking part in the debate, except myself, will be speaking about issues and problems which he can rightly say affect his constituents and are relevant to the rest of the population

I am not in that position because I shall raise one aspect of help with heating costs that is provided by the DHSS and is unique to the city of Birmingham. This help is not widely known. I suspect that if this debate were not taking place shortly before the Summer Recess, many hon. Members would now put down questions asking why the people in Birmingham should receive special help from the Government, over and above what is received by others in the country. That would be a legitimate point, and it is one upon which I can assist the House. The Government are about to remove the assistance that is given to Birmingham, although I wish that things were the other way round and that the assistance was to be extended to the rest of the population.

I shall briefly describe the background to the scheme, because it is extremely important. Pensioners in Birmingham who are council tenants are covered by a scheme whereby they can pay their heating costs with their rent. The scheme is known as HARP—the heating and rent payments scheme. It covers all form of heating—gas and electricity. The scheme commenced early in 1973 and came into operation in January and February 1974. It was started by the city housing department following investigations into hypothermia which had revealed a trend of which I am sure hon. Members are aware. It was that the elderly were unwilling to spend sufficient money on heating. Hon. Members will not need to be reminded of the horror stories of the winters of 1972 and 1973. Things have not been as bad since then, because recent winters have been milder.

Birmingham City Council decided to do something about it. The council could act only for its own tenants. That is one of the problems. The council worked out and fixed a scheme based on the size of the household and the number of rooms in a house. It applied to pensioners' households only where there was not more than one dependant. That point is important. The scheme is not freely available to all citizens. The city council fixed a set of charges, and under the scheme—as originally defined—each pensioner had to pay a weekly charge with the rent, but once a pensioner was in the scheme all his gas and electricity bills—whatever the amount of fuel used —were covered by the single charge.

The scheme was not like an ordinary budget plan, with which hon. Members must be familiar, whereby at the end of the year the gas or electricity board works out whether it owes the consumer money or the other way around. The scheme was an open-ended commitment based on a fixed single charge related to the size of the household. All the bills were paid. Gas and electricity bills were sent straight to the housing department.

When the scheme was about to be introduced, the housing department approached the Department of Health and Social Security saying that it wanted to set up the scheme, which it believed would be a good idea. Birmingham has a good track record on many aspects of municipal life—such as banking—and this initiative was unique. Such a scheme has not been operated by any other local authority in the country. Other authorities have looked at the scheme and shied away for reasons that I shall explain later. The DHSS told Birmingham housing department that it thought that the scheme was a good idea and that the Ministry would put some money into it.

The Birmingham HARP scheme is the only example that I or anyone else in what might be called the poverty lobby know of as an open-ended commitment for expenditure. The housing department was worried about pensioner tenants who were entitled to extra heating allowances under the rules of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. There is a whole list of such rules and categories, but I shall not bore the House with them now. I am sure that hon. Members know them from dealing with the cases of their own constituents. The settlements vary between 70p and £2.40 a week, although those were not the rates at the time that the scheme started. The HARP charges were quite high, and had to be so because the scheme was initially intended to be self-financing. It was not envisaged that money paid by way of rates would be used for the scheme. The DHSS said that it would pay to pensioners in the scheme the difference between the notional amount of heating costs that are already included in pensions plus the supplementary benefit extras and the HARP charges. Pensioners in the scheme have been getting a bonus that is unique to the city of Birmingham. No other pensioner in this country receives the special help from the Department.

Problems arose within about a year because of the rise in electricity prices. The Government phased out subsidies to nationalised industries and, because of this, together with oil price rises and other factors, electricity prices went through the roof. However, for pensioners who joined the HARP scheme before November 1975, the notional figure of £1.80 for heating costs has not changed. Those in centrally-heated properties now receive a bonus of more than £2 a week over and above extra benefits such as exceptional needs allowance.

When electricity prices went up in 1975, some households dropped out of the scheme, despite the bonus that they were receiving. There were 22,000 pensioner households in the scheme in 1974–75 compared with about 14,000 households now. About 2,500 are on the budget plan and recoup any excess paid to the HARP scheme—but they still! get the bonus from the Department. Of course, the DHSS does not like open-ended commitments. A number of pensioners dropped out of the scheme, electricity prices increased and pensioners did something that they were not expected to do—they used heating to keep warm.

Last month, the Minister for Social Security wrote to every hon. Member representing a Birmingham constituency to tell us that the Supplementary Benefit Commision proposed certain changes in the support given to supplementary pensioners participating in the HARP scheme. I am not talking about the electricity discount scheme. Pensioners in the HARP scheme do not get help under the discount scheme because they do not receive the electricity bills. However, they do get the bonus from the DHSS, and that is where the problem arises. They do not appreciate that they are getting a bonus and they still have trouble making ends meet. Now they are to be told that they are getting the bonus and that it is to be taken away from them.

When my right hon. Friend wrote to Birmingham Members, I was ensconced in the Finance Bill Committee and had other things on my mind. It took a couple of days for the letter to sink in. It was a three-page letter sent to hon. Members who should be able to understand these things, but the quality and precision of the language was such that one had to read and re-read it before getting the message. The message was that at the November uprating this year, the Supplementary Benefits Commission proposed to take away some of the extra bonus up to a maximum of £1.50 a week for a married couple and £1 a week from a single person.

Some of the pensioners are getting more than that, and it is intended to take away the rest of the bonus in November next year. My right hon. Friend said that this would be done at the time of the uprating because the Commission considered that the impact of the withdrawal would be less if it were done at the time of the uprating than if the HARP additions were withdrawn at any other time of the year.

That is pure Orwellian Newspeak. I am not accusing anyone of trying to slip the change through on the quiet. There is no chance of that happening when a letter is sent to hon. Members for Birmingham constituencies. But it is being done in a way which will prevent 14,000 pensioner households from realising the full impact of what is proposed. What they will know in November, when they are supposed to get their pension increase, is that they have not received the same increase as everyone else. I know that they are getting a bonus over and above that received by others, but my argument is that it is a damned good scheme. It is administratively convenient.

That is one reason for the scheme having the approval of the DHSS in the first place. It admitted that the scheme had certain administrative advantages. It took away all the worries and problems of disconnection and the problems that pensioners suffer when they receive one massive fuel bill. It took away hundreds of thousands of individual problems. The Department wanted pensioners to have the extra help in the knowledge that they would be able to keep warm as a result. It is as simple and crude as that.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has answered several of my Questions in Hansard. One of them is answered in columns 425 and 426 of Hansard of 4th July. My right hon. Friend has said on the record that it is not the extra money that is being paid to Birmingham pensioners that is the problem but that the payment is unfair to other supplementary pensioners who do not receive the increasingly greater advantages that go to those in the HARP scheme.

Whose fault is that? It is the fault, by and large, of the DHSS or the Commission. I believe that they are one and the same. I shall not be fobbed off by the answer that this is a Commission decision. The Commission is answerable to the DHSS and Ministers are answerable to the House. That is where responsibility lies. It is said that the extra advantage given to the Birmingham pensioners is unfair as it is not given to other pensioners. If the scheme is good, stops pensioners dying from hypothermia and is administratively convenient, and if it is not the cost but the unfairness that is the worrying feature, the answer is to allow other pensioners to receive the increased benefit, not to take the advantage from those who benefit from it.

What is the extra subsidy that is paid to Birmingham pensioners? It seems that we do not know the cost. It is said to be approaching £1 million a year. Originally there was £25 million set aside for the discount scheme. According to the Supply Estimates only £7.6 million has been spent. It seems that the budget for next year is £11 million, which is nowhere near £25 million. That is the sum that was mentioned when the scheme was announced many months ago.

The money was allocated but the take-up has not been organised properly. However, we in Birmingham have organised our affairs especially well. I agree that the scheme applies to a select group of people who happen to be council tenants. There was a problem in making the scheme available to other pensioners. However, that is no reason for not going ahead with it. We have organised our affairs so well that the take-up has been substantial.

There has hardly been a scare story or otherwise of pensioners dying from hypothermia in Birmingham during the last two winters. I accept that they have been mild winters. The scheme costs about £1 million a year for Birmingham, which is a large city. I do not see why other local authorities should not be encouraged to follow suit. No money need come out of the rates. In 1975 Birmingham spent £750,000 from its rate fund but the district auditor soon put the kybosh on that. It was said to be ultra vires. There is no rate fund contribution. It is the taxpayers' contribution.

Whatever their age and family commitments, most taxpayers do not like to think of old-age pensioners dying from the cold. Notwithstanding public expenditure cuts, I do not think their is anyone who complains about the level of income tax when a scheme is introduced that is designed specifically to protect pensioners. I do not think that anyone would attack such a scheme.

The cost of the subsidy is not very great. The charges for the scheme are not modest. The HARP charge for two persons in a two-bedroomed household is £4.85 a week without central heating and £4.45 with it. That is not a modest level of charges. I must have at least 1,200 to 1,400 pensioner households in the scheme in my constituency. No one can say that they are getting a massive subsidy from the taxpayer.

Mr. Tim Sainsbury (Hove)

With regard to the figures that the hon. Member has just quoted for the variation between houses with central heating and those without, is the central heating figure for full central heating or a partial installation?

Mr. Rooker

I am sorry that I cannot answer that question. The document says "Homes with central heating." By and large, in Birmingham I think that this would apply only to tower blocks of flats with under-floor heating, and I suspect that that is the form of heating about which we are talking. It is an increase of about 60p a week. Usually the HARP charge refers to the same number of people in a household with the same number of bedrooms. It is about 60p a week higher if there is central heating. We should bear in mind that some are getting a substantial bonus and that others are not getting very much.

Three-quarters of the pensioners in the HARP scheme are supplementary benefit pensioners, who can probably apply for any of the rates available in Leaflet OC2. The minimum is 70p. That is going up by the fantastic amount of 10p in November. The minimum extra heating cost will then be 80p. Therefore, many of them would be able to get this extra benefit which is available to everyone else. But they have been getting benefit over and above that, and I am not seeking to hide the fact.

I want the Government to think twice about doing the phase-out in November. First, there has not been enough time to discuss it with hon. Members. In the last sentence of my right hon. Friend's letter of 28th June, there was an offer. He said, I hope you will find this letter helpful, but if you would like to discuss it, David Donnison and I would be very happy to meet you and those of your Birmingham colleagues who want to come and see us. If you will let my private office k now if you wish to attend they will arrange a convenient time for the meeting. David Donnison is the Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission.

I did let the private office know. There has not been a meeting. Why? In telling hon. Members why, I make no criticism of my colleagues in Birmingham in any way. It so happens that I was the only Birmingham Member to telephone the private office. I was told, "we shall not meet one Member."

I know that there are problems in Birmingham. Some of my hon. Friends have said to my right hon. Friend "Rooker is stirring it up. He is alleging that hundreds will die from hypothermia." That is not true. I have made one public statement in Birmingham on this subject. I said that the phasing out of the HARP additions could mean more old people dying of cold next winter than was the case last winter. That is not an extremist statement. I was angry when I' said that, but I meant it. I also said that more pensioners would face disconnection problems than has been the case in previous winters. I am talking only about Birmingham.

The other factor is that the City of Birmingham housing department runs the scheme, and not the DHSS. When the letter was sent to the hon. Members, the housing department had not been informed of the matter. It is true that it knew a year ago that the Supplementary Benefits Commission wanted to phase out the additions—I have copies of the corre- spondence—but no action was ever taken. I forwarded a copy of my letter to my councillor, a former chairman of the housing committee. He took it into the housing department. It was the first time that that department had heard about it. Up to 14th July, the city of Birmingham housing department had still not been informed officially that the additions were to be phased out.

That is what worries me. The letter said that the DHSS and the housing department would be writing to all pensioners in the HARP scheme explaining why they will lose this extra bonus. When I tabled a Question, there was panic in the DHSS, and in Birmingham some people hot-tailed it over to the housing department with a draft letter to the tenants. That was thrown straight out. The housing department said that the letter would not be going to its tenants, simply because it would look as though it was the city authorities that were making the decision.

I am not making any party points. The scheme was initiated by a Labour-controlled authority with full support from the Conservative opposition, and it has been operated by a Conservative-controlled authority with full support from the Labour opposition. This is not a party point at all. Surely the people in charge of the administration of Birmingham have the final right to say what letter goes to their tenants, since it will go out in their names.

Having been prevented from meeting formally the Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission and my right hon. Friend I urged that the phasing out of the bonus should be delayed until hon. Members have seen the letter that will go out. I have seen the letter that was sent to hon. Members. We are supposed to understand these things, but I shall be absolutely astonished if the quality of the letter which is sent to the tenants differs from the one that came to us, unless we step in and stop it.

It will terrify the tenants. It already has, because I had the responisbility of making public the letter that was sent to us. The scheme has been applauded throughout the country. Even The Times, when reporting the phasing out, said that it was a widely acclaimed scheme.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

This is primarily a social services matter concerned with helping those who have difficulty in meeting heating costs. There is another aspect with which I am interested, and that is energy conservation.

I do not want to pursue this, but am I right in thinking that the HARP scheme was so structered to povide that heating costs were collected from tenants on a weekly payments basis and that while the majority of tenants have observed this perfectly honourably there were no restraints in terms of the cost to the tenant with regard to whatever heating they chose to use?

Mr. Rooker

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is also a problem. I am not suggesting that there has never been any abuse. Indeed, I know of a case where someone went into a pensioner's house and found all the windows open and all the heating switched on. That is absolutely potty. In a city like Birmingham, with 1 million people, there are bound to be a few nut cases, but by and large, that sort of thing does not happen.

People have been educated about the cost of this scheme, but when the cost goes up from £2.35 per week to £5.50 they start to think twice about it.

What was really wrong was that tenants were never informed of what heating they used. The bills went straight to the local housing authority. There was no system whereby tenants were told how much extra they would have to pay and how much heating they had used.

While we want to ensure that people keep warm and use sufficient heat, we also want to ask for restraint. It is therefore only right that we should tell these people what heating they have used and how much it has cost.

Mr. Tom King

It may not have been explained to the tenants, but are there any figures to show how their heating costs compare with other properties where this scheme has not operated?

Mr. Rooker

These figures are available in a form. I shall give them to the hon. Gentleman. He is quite right, and has made fair points, which I accept.

When electricity costs went through the roof in 1975, many people said that they could not afford the cost of the HARP scheme. The number of people taking part in the scheme fell from 22,000 to 11,000. There is also a budget plan scheme whereby, at the end of the year, if a person has not paid enough he pays an extra amount and, likewise, if he has paid too much he gets the excess back. I think at present that 2,500 pensioners take part in that scheme. They are paying more of the real cost of their fuel than those on the fixed charge scheme.

Membership of the budget plan, under which there is a responsibility to pay at the end of the day, stood at 2,499 at the end of March 1977. The income in 1976–77 from that scheme was £392,700 and expenditure amounted to £362,800. Pensioners will receive money back because they paid in £30,000 more than was needed for the fuel that they used. Because they know that they must pay their bills, they have been moderate in the use of fuel. They used less than was estimated by the Birmingham Corporation for the size of dwellings.

The income from the HARP fixed charge scheme in 1976–77 was £628,000 and expenditure £2,341,000 for 1,146 dwellings. It is anticipated by the city housing department that despite known fuel price increases the current charges will be maintained until April 1978 in both cases. During the last financial year the usage compared with the estimate has been less for both schemes.

Mr. Tom King

If I interpret the figures correctly the interesting point is not how well the budget balanced but what was the actual usage of fuel in the scheme where there was a responsibility to pay. From the hon. Member's figures it seems that it cost about £150 per household and that the cost was between 50 per cent. and 60 per cent. higher in the scheme which was open-ended. I calculate that by quick mental arithmetic. I imagine that there is no basic difference between the households involved.

Mr. Rooker

That might be correct. It is a crucial point. The charges under each scheme are not the same. Those on the fixed scheme pay 60p or 70p a week. It is natural that those who must settle the account at the end of the year use less fuel, and therefore the charge is less for them.

Mrs. Lynda Chalker (Wallasey)

Is it suggested in the letter of 28th June that those who are to lose the SBC bonus will be put on to the fixed scheme, or will they suffer twice over?

Mr. Rooker

Supplementary benefit pensioners are in the budget HARP scheme. The scheme is not to disappear. But once the extra subsidy goes, more people will withdraw from the scheme, the numbers will drop, and the authority might have to scrap the scheme. It is possible that on the fixed HARP scheme, when they lose their bonus, will transfer to the budget scheme, and perhaps they will come out all right.

Perhaps we shall have to scrap the fixed HARP scheme and run a budget HARP scheme for everybody. But even that does not detract from the point that we have been discussing. The city of Birmingham wants letters sent from the DHSS to 14,000 households in non-Civil Service language—certainly not in the language that we have come to expect from the Civil Service in correspondence, replies in this House, and all the rest of it. That will not be good enough for those concerned, because of the problems and queries that they will wish to raise. Most of them do not appreciate that they are receiving a bonus. That was why there was such a row when they realised that they could not become involved in the 25 per cent. winter discount scheme run by the Department of Energy. They were told "You are getting an extra bonus over and above everybody else", and that was a view which those concerned did not accept.

I hope that hon. Members will put pressure on the DHSS and press local authorities to consider schemes on a self-financing basis. We have shown that it is possible to come within striking distance of self-financing schemes to help pensioners, and in this context we are dealing mainly with the elderly. There are, of course, other problems connected with the disabled and non-council tenants, neither of whom are covered.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)

The hon. Gentleman does a notable service in bringing these matters before the House. I want to be clear what he is seeking to persuade the Government to do. Does he think that the SBC additions should continue to be paid to those who enjoy the benefits of the fixed HARP scheme, as he calls it, or is he asking the Government to delay withdrawing the SBC benefit until he and his colleagues have had a chance to vet the letter that is to be sent to them?

Mr. Rooker

That is a simplistic way of putting the point. I know that eventually the bonus will be withdrawn. The DHSS will point to the inherent unfairness in one group as opposed to another. I am seeking to salvage a scheme of this kind, which provides assistance. This can be done by seeking first not to proceed with the first part of the phasing out this November. I should like to see a delay until the beginning of next spring, which is a time when fuel bills are not so high. That will give those involved more confidence.

I think that the Minister should examine the question of phasing out. The Government tried to phase out in August 1976, but the proces was delayed. The SBC has taken no action in this respect. I am asking for a delay in phasing out, but I am also asking for more attention to be paid to the way in which people are notified about these matters. This is a legitimate request when we consider that no hon. Member has been granted audience with the Chairman of the SBC. I am not asking for an open-ended scheme throughout the country. I am defending the status quo in Birmingham because I feel that it is a good scheme. The scheme has been of great use in Birmingham, although I accept that there are problems since it is open-ended. The old notional figure was £1.80; the present notional figure in terms of pension and supplementary payment is £3.20.

When the notional figures were operated each November account could have been taken of that, and no one would have complained. There are now unfairnesses between people, even in the fixed HARP scheme. If one joined before November 1975 one receives bigger bonuses. That is unfair, and I shall not defend it.

Mrs. Chalker

We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has told us. Will he repeat the number of people on the fixed-price HARP scheme and the number on the budget HARP scheme, and the cost of each? The point that the hon. Gentleman has made tonight is important, because it might set a precedent to meet the concern already being expressed by other local authorities which would like to do something to help elderly and handicapped who are beset by increasing heating costs.

Mr. Rooker

The local authority is not helping. There is no rate fund contribution. It is organising the scheme, but local government has no power to use any part of the rates to subsidise heating for anybody. The sum of £750,000 was used earlier, but the district auditor threw it out.

On 31st March 1977 there were 11,286 household members of the fixed charge scheme. During the previous 12 months, income from the charges they paid every week was £2,628,000, against expenditure of £2,341,000. On that basis the charges will be maintained until April 1978. There is no need for an increase. Membership of the budget plan HARP scheme on 31st March 1977 was 2,499 pensioner households. Over the previous 12 months, income from charges was £392,700 and expenditure was £362,800. This enabled refunds to be made where appropriate in subsequent weeks. Not everybody had a refund. The individual bills were checked, and some people may have had to pay more into the scheme.

I have made my point, which, although strictly a constituency matter in many ways, has a bearing on what other hon. Members may wish to say.

Mr. Speaker

I know that every hon. Member feels free to speak for as long as he likes, but there are many of our colleagues whose debates will never be reached if we have many more speeches lasting 39 minutes. It is customary to bear in mind those who are waiting through the night to make their speeches.

May I tell the House that copies of the Lords disagreement to Commons amendments to Lords amendments to the Unfair Contract Terms Bill are now available in the Vote Office. A formal communication will of course be made to the House if it is eventually decided to consider the Lords disagreement at a later hour.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Robin Hodgson (Walsall, North)

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has again proved an assiduous researcher into matters affecting the needy, and has clearly caught the imagination of many hon. Members. We all look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I do not go into his detailed argument on the HARP scheme as it relates to Birmingham. I should like to deal with the winter electricity discount and how that scheme fits into the wider scheme of social security payments.

One of the problems with the Welfare State is the enormous complexity of the system. That complexity comes about not only because the establishment of eligibility for benefits is highly complex but because eligibility for one set of benefits is often dependent on a person's proving eligibility for another set.

Through your good offices, Mr. Speaker, I raised in an Adjournment debate earlier this summer the question of benefits payable to the blind. As researched that subject the number of benefits that emerged was truly fantastic. According to whether one was warblinded, industrially blinded or medically blinded, the benefits and the inter-linking network under which they were payable became more and more complex and incomprehensible.

The complexity in the supplementary benefit scheme is well illustrated by the Department's own handbook, of which I have a copy with me. It is interesting, informative and clearly written, but it runs to 115 pages and covers only supplementary benefit. It does not cover many of the other social security payments that are available.

It is not surprising that elderly people who are perhaps primarily dependent on the social security system are almost defeated by the paper work. With the discounts on electricity bills the confusion is compounded, because a new Department—the Department of Energy—is running the scheme, and it has no other social security links. The people in the Department are unfamiliar with the workings of the system. It is also a new method of payment. Instead of payment of cash at the post office, as with other benefits, a voucher is issued for claiming against an electricity bill.

This leads to the first weakness of the scheme. Its complexity means that the take-up is very low and therefore the relative administrative cost is rather high. Local DHSS officers get many inquiries about the scheme, but they know nothing about it because it is not their responsibility. They have to refer inquiries to another authority, probably the electricity board. I wonder how many of those inquiring, particularly the elderly, are thus put off and do not bother to press their claim with the alternative source to which they have been directed.

My hon. Friend the Member for the City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), in an illuminating speech, said that many people do not draw supplementary benefit because they are too proud to do so. Others on supplementary benefit do not draw the heating addition. There is the more extraordinary case of those on the direct payment mechanism who do not participate in the discount scheme. Under that mechanism the DHSS makes a direct deduction from the supplementary benefit to help people who find it difficult to meet their fuel bills. Having taken the deduction, the Department makes a payment direct to the electricity board on the claimant's behalf. By this method the board can identify customers who are in the scheme. Their accounts are specifically marked and amended to show the special method of payment.

In the West Midlands—and I have no reason to suspect that the situation is different elsewhere—a large number of customers whose Bills are being paid by the direct payment mechanism are not receiving the electricity bill discounts, and did not do so last winter. This problem could easily be tackled at the administrative level, because if the customer's account is specifically marked to show that he is using the direct payment mechanism, it also indicates that he is on supplementary benefit and needs help with his fuel bill. Here is a simple way of connecting one factor with another.

I hope that the Minister will examine means whereby the system can be simplified by payment being made through more conventional channels. One electricity board told me that it was not in the business of social work or of making social security payments.

The second unsatisfactory feature of the discount scheme is the arbitrary nature by which it is paid. It is available on electricity, and that has introduced a haphazard element into the scheme. Since the scheme has so many commendable aspects, why should it not be applied to gas, paraffin, heating oil, coal and coke? In my constituency many elderly people prefer to have a heating system with which they are familiar. They are—rightly or wrongly—frightened of gas, because of the possibility of leaks. They may be frightened of electricity. They prefer to stick with the old coal and coke range. This is particularly true amongst the elderly. It is a pity that the discount scheme on fuel is not available to them as well. It is wrong that an elderly person should suffer additional hardship because of the pure chance of the means by which his house is heated.

The secondary arbitrary aspect concerns those eligible to take part in the scheme. It is available only to those on supplementary benefit. It ignores many other classes of people who are just as much in need—handicapped persons on other forms of benefit and those in receipt of straightforward national insurance benefits. Both these categories of people can in certain circumstances demonstrate just as great a need as those on supplementary benefit. I hope that when the Minister replies he will explain why the scheme should not be extended in a more even-handed manner.

I turn to the vexed question of disconnection policy. I believe that the Government were right to confirm, as I understand they have, the local board's power to disconnect. I greatly regret that this ultimate weapon is needed and must be retained by the local boards if we are to ensure that consumers behave responsibly. Against this background of the ultimate deterrent of having their fuel cut off, I welcome the new code of practice drawn up by the industry which I believe will nearly always act as a failsafe mechanism and should give consumers greater information about their rights and privileges. None the less, I hope that the local boards will keep in close touch with local social service departments and the DHSS with a view to avoiding any tragedy that might result from a premature disconnection. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when he issues his instructions to local electricity boards and gas boards about their policy during the coming winter.

I believe that the Government were right to adhere to the policy of disconnection, because it is becoming a power which is increasingly rarely used. In the West Midlands area in 1968, out of 1.6 million consumers there were 22,000 disconnections. By 1976 the number of disconnections had fallen to nearly half—13,000—even though the number of consumers had risen to 1.8 million. That is about ½ per cent. of the total consumers on the electricity supply.

However, in all these points we are dealing with symptoms rather than causes. We are trying to tackle the results of problems rather than tackling the problems at their roots. This will always be a constraint upon the success of the efforts that may be made. I hope that in future two points will be borne in mind by the Government. The first is the need for greater emphasis on the policies for insulation. These were commendably clearly laid out by my hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South.

The second point I want to stress is the importance of the voluntary movement. There is a feeling abroad that the Government do not approve of the voluntary movement—Meals on Wheels, WRVS, and so on—and that when cuts have to be made in Government expenditure it is the grants in aid to the voluntary movement which have been sacrificed first.

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

I must interrupt the hon. Gentleman on that point, because he is completely off beam. I must pull him up immediately. In the current year my Department has in fact increased from about £3 million to £5 million its grants to a whole variety of voluntary organisations covering every aspect of social endeavour by 60 pe rcent. It is quite incorrect to say that this Government, or, indeed, any other Government, are not aware of the worth of and the valuable contribution made in our social endeavour by the volunteers in all the various movements.

Mr. Hodgson

I thank the Minister for that comment. Of course, £5 million is a large increase over £3 million, but that has to be set in perspective against the massive sums at his disposal. It is all very well to talk about £5 million as being a large increase over the previous figure, but the fact remains that there is a feeling abroad that it is the voluntary bodies which will bear the brunt of any Government action. That fear has certainly been repeated in my constituency, and I am sure that others of my hon. Friends will confirm what I say.

I hope that the Minister will emphasise the need for and the importance of the voluntary bodies in identifying and helping in cases of this kind, particularly among the elderly, where people need help with heating, in order to avoid some of the tragedies which have hitherto disfigured our news each winter.

The discount scheme to help with heating, in my opinion, has been only half thought out, and its operation has revealed many omissions and discrepancies. It has shown itself as working in an arbitrary fashion, not necessarily helping those in real need. We want a scheme which is more evenhanded in its application. Such a scheme could operate effectively under the tax credit system which has been proposed so many times by the Opposition, and I regret that this Government have taken so violently against that policy. I look forward to its introduction by the next Conservative Government. I am sure that it will do much to channel help to those really in need.

11.6 p.m.

Mr. Tim Sainsbury (Hove)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for the City of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) not only on his choice of subject but upon his position in the draw. It is, perhaps, lucky that we have reached this point after 10 o'clock because, in parliamentary terms, I am in another day and another copy of the Official Report, separate from the discussions that we were having not so many hours ago about the housing of the homeless.

We are all familiar with the nature of the problem before us—the problem of heating bills and keeping warm. We all suffer from the cold, regardless of age, and, as hon. Members have already said, we are well aware that it is the elderly and the retired who suffer or who are at risk most severely. One can fairly add that with increasing age the risk increases. There is no magic point in retirement at which the problem of hypothermia and illnesses associated with the cold suddenly develops. The risk increases as people grow older.

I am sure that the Minister knows that one of the features of the demographic profile of our country brought out clearly in a recent publication by Age Concern is the ever-growing number of people over the age of 75 as opposed to over 65. I see that the hon. Gentleman is aware of that. It is these people who are most at risk. Perhaps I may add a constituency point here. I think it fair to say that, apart from the fact that in my part of the country we have a high concenration of senior citizens, and, indeed, those who are over 75, a large number of them live in property which is much exposed to the elements. Although the climate generally in the South is a little warmer than it is in the North, those concerned with energy and heat conservation know that wind pressure is an important factor leading to loss of heat through walls, roofs and windows and in creating draughty conditions in buildings. Therefore, in a windy area—I assure the Minister that Hove can be very windy on occasion—people are that much more at risk.

Moreover, as several hon. Members have said, we may well be overdue for a hard winter. It is much better to be prepared for it than to be caught out and have very unhappy experiences when it comes.

I accept that we have Government recognition of the problem. This debate has shown that we welcome what has been done, but there is a general feeling that not enough may have been done. Clearly, in the present economic climate—I shall not stray out of order into a discussion about why we are in a period of financial stringency—we must look for the most cost-effective ways of helping with people's heating bills.

I put it to the Minister that we must all accept that the best way to spend the money that is available—not necessarily all of it, but an increasing amount—is to encourage conservation. The drawbacks of the other means that we can use to help, and to which hon. Members referred, are well known. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Rooker) said that too many people spend insufficient money on heating. We are all familiar with cases in our constituencies where elderly people, because of the expense that they know they will incur if they try to warm to the proper level the premises they occupy, do not spend the money to warm their premises sufficiently.

In some premises, particularly in a hard winter or when there are very high wind velocities, it is not possible, with the heating installation available, to heat them to a reasonable temperature in order to avoid the risks with which we are all familiar.

As has been pointed out, particular help is given to people who use electricity and not enough is given to those who, for a variety of reasons, use other methods of heating, which are very often preferred methods.

Another problem is the extent of the take-up. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) pointed out that the selective benefits have to be applied for, and that there is inevitably a shortfall in the take-up. There must be many cases in which there is eligibility and need but no take-up.

On the energy side of the equation, it should be recognised that if we are just helping people with their fuel bills and not helping them to conserve fuel and get better use out of the fuel they use, we are increasing the peak demand on the whole country, particularly at cold times of the year, and especially when people are cooking the Sunday lunch.

The cost of meeting peak demand, as I am sure the Minister is aware, is very expensive. It falls upon all consumers. If we put up the cost of producing fuel in order to meet peaks which could be reduced by proper conservation, we are imposing an extra cost on every consumer of fuel, and particularly on every consumer of electricity. But, most of all—this is the drawback of helping people with the bill instead of helping them get better value—we are wasting fuel, which is a limited resource.

I am sure that we are all grateful to the voluntary bodies for what they have done to remind us and the country at large of the nature of our finite resources, but I particularly mention what the Friends of the Earth have done in encouraging conservation. We should give more positive encouragement to programmes of conservation and really encourage some of the simple and very economical work which could be done in this connection.

There has been reference to the job creation scheme. I very much welcome the scheme that has been introduced for insulating the roofs of the homes of council tenants. This creates jobs at a time when there is an appalling level of unemployment, particularly among school leavers, many of whom could easily, with limited supervision, carry out this sort of work. We are saving fuels and also creating work as a result of the demand for insulating materials. We are at the same time reducing the problems of inflation for the elderly and for everyone else if we can help people with the running costs of their fuel.

In addition to this, to the extent to which we can conserve our finite fuel resources now we are to an extent buying time for programmes for the development of alternative sources of fuel to become sufficiently developed to make a really worthwhile contribution to the total fuel needs of the country.

The disadvantages of doing nothing are obvious. Youths who could be employed will remain unemployed. Companies could go out of business because of lack of demand for their insulation skills.

We tend to be limited in our ideas regarding conservation programmes. People tend to think that putting an insulating quilt in the loft is enough or that stopping up the more obvious draughts is sufficient.

I should like to refer to an official publication entitled "Warmth kept in keeps heating costs down" prepared by the Housing Development Directorate of the Department of the Environment. It has a useful and simple diagram with the caption Where does the heat escape? About 25 per cent. escapes through the roof.

As I said, we tend to think that is the simplest, easiest and first place to tackle. It is the easiest place to deal with, so it is a good start.

About 15 per cent. of heat goes in draughts and 10 per cent goes through the windows. There is a vogue for double glazing, but in practical terms that is a more expensive method of saving fuel than other methods. There is the benefit of sound insulation, but in terms of saving fuel I suggest that double glazing is of dubious value.

About 15 per cent. of heat goes into the ground. That is the most difficult saving to make in buildings which are already constructed. We should do more about raising the requirements for ground insulation in new buildings.

The biggest waste—this is often not appreciated—is through the walls. In an average property, 35 per cent. of heat escapes through the walls. Having developed a greater awarness of the need to insulate, that indicates that we should direct attention to methods of dealing with wall insulation.

I hope that the Minister is aware of the advantages of cavity foam insulation in this connection. I fear that he may not be as aware as he might be of the damage that is being done to the cavity foam insulation programme by his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of the Enviroment. I should like to think that the Minister will devote some time in the Summer Recess to discussing with his colleagues in the Department of the Environment how to revitalise and speed up the programme of cavity foam insulation.

Cavity foam insulation, which is carried out by a variety of firms in a broadly similar way, is claimed to reduce heat loss through cavity walls by 70 per cent. to 75 per cent. That, by reference to my earlier figure of heat loss through the walls, would save over 25 per cent. of the total heating costs for an average detached or semi-detached cavity wall house of two storeys. Therefore, the pay-back period on the original outlay is about four years. That seems an extremely worthwhile investment.

The potential energy savings are very large. Calculations have been made by various organisations and figures have been quoted. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the figures that I am about to quote, but they give an indication of the scale: Heat from more than 1 million tons of coal, 100 million gallons of oil, 470 million therms of gas and 8,000 million units of electricity—worth £200 million per annum—is unnecessarily pouring out from the cavity walls of 5 million centrally heated houses in the United Kingdom. Of course, over the years more and more of the 8 million homes with cavity walls will have partial or full central heating and will be in need of cavity foam insulation.

In February, 1975 the Secretary of State for the Environment determined to treat cavity foam as a bridge between the walls, so counting it as a structural alteration, requiring relaxation of the building regulations prior to installation. There has been some question why this decision was reached, but the fact is that the result has been disastrous.

Once we had a situation in which foam insulation came under the building regulations we ran into problems of applying these regulations and applying the relaxations suggested by the Department. Various councils seem to have been rather obstructive in refusing the relaxations, and others in requiring an exceptional amount of paper work. In one case that has been drawn to my attention site locations marked on grid reference maps, topographical maps of the surrounding countryside depicting trees, a complete description of every wall, and the height of the building above sea level—and in triplicate—were required. In those circumstances it it not surprising that some people who would have been quite enthusiastic for such a fuel saving measure have been somewhat daunted by the realisation of the problems that they face.

Some building officers and some councils have given the misleading impression of the risks of cavity foam insulation. I suggest that Government-owned publications fall into the same category. When the Department of Energy publishes communications on the insulation of water tanks and roofs, it makes it all sound very attractive and simple, but cavity foam insulation is made to sound rather like a nasty disease—"every packet carries a Government health warning" sort of attitude. It gives the facts with a lot of qualifications, instead of pointing out that this is a very good idea even though there can be problems, and that if there are problems the consumer should consult and expert and have them put right.

I suggest to the Minister that there is an area in which we can make progress. There is a lot that the Department can do to encourage progress. I suggest that we make 1978 Insulation Year. This year has been Jubilee Year, and 1973 was Plant-a-Tree Year, so why should not 1978 be Insulation Year?

I do not expect the Minister to cover the question of the extent of encouragement given to insulation through improvement grants, but perhaps he could return to it in detail on another occasion. We need a determined and co-ordinated effort by the various Government Departments concerned, looking at ways of helping people with their fuel bills—particularly the elderly and disabled—by determining the best cost-effective way of using the money available.

While I would wish to continue to help those most in need, I believe that we should direct attention to ensuring that there is no easily avoidable waste of fuel which leads to people being unable to warm themselves and their home to the required extent.

11.21 p.m.

Mrs. Lynda Chalker (Wallasey)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) not only on bringing the subject before the House tonight but on his moving speech and on the way that he drew our attention to the many and varied problems. We are all concerned about misery, particularly in the case of the elderly and handicapped. We know that their number has now been supplemented by many other who cannot cope with the increased cost of heating their homes as adequately as they used to do.

The Minister will probably recall that this is my third year of participation in debates on this subject. In 1975 we started talking about this matter in the autumn. In 1976 we discussed it during the Summer Recess Adjournment debate, while this year I brought up the subject in the spring because I felt that it was important that all the Government Departments involved in the issue should be fully prepared before the winter for whatever may beset us. I had in mind, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said, the fact that we have had a series of winters that were milder than those of 1972 and 1973.

During the Adjournment debate last year I said that I thought that it was most important that we should look at preventive measures. We have heard much discussion of that again tonight by the hon. Member for Perry Barr, and my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson), Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) and the City of London and Westminster, South.

The concern of the whole country on this issue is exemplified by this being the second debate on the issue this week. The first took place in the Lords on Monday when the matter of winter provision for the disadvantaged was thoroughly discussed.

In considering the matter we must remember by how much heating costs have risen during the past three years and five months. Earlier this year the Minister said that in that time there had been heating fuel price increases averaging: 50 per cent. for gas, nearly 70 per cent. for paraffin and heating oil, 100 per cent. for coal and coke, and nearly 125 per cent. for electricity."—[Official Report, 14th March 1977; Vol. 928, c. 187] Since then gas prices have gone up by about 10 per cent., electricity tariffs are to go up yet again, and we know that various other heating costs either have already increased or will do so.

The problem will be very much with us during the coming winter. I am not yet convinced that we have explored all the avenues, but if the Minister can implement half of the suggestions that have been made in the House tonight we shall be well on the way to tackling the problem before the winter of 1977–78. My hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South referred to the number of heating additions that have been awarded to recipients of supplementary benefits. It is more than double the number in 1974, and that shows one way in which we can get help to those most in need. However it is not getting to them all. We know that the Government recognise that, but additional attention must be turned to the subject during this recess so that we shall be prepared when the winter arrives. I shall always remember the Government's failure to produce the leaflet "Help with Heating Costs" before the end of January in 1976—although we had suggested way back in the summer of 1975 that information should be given out in due time to allow people to budget and prepare. We do not want to see that repeated.

There is a further difficulty. Many people are in receipt of rent and rate rebates and therefore not on supplementary benefit and entitled to the heating additions, which will go up in November together with other social security benefits. Even more worrying are the comments that have been made by the Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, who has said that three-quarters of pensioners questioned in a random sample were unaware that they were entitled to additional heating help. What proposals does the Minister have for getting information to these people in time so that they do not run up big bills this winter?

We know from a recent report of Action Research that disabled people, especially those in wheelchairs, have extra heating costs that are dramatically higher than the bills of those who can move freely. The disabled cannot keep their bodies warm by the movement that we all accept naturally.

We also know from the annual report under Section 124 of the Social Security Act 1975 that for those receiving invalidity and other national insurance benefits, the increased heating costs are in proportion to the increase included in the index of retail prices for an average family. The Government should look at the additional heating costs of the disabled and handicapped for whom national insurance benefits do not come through as addition benefits. These people cannot benefit from the 25 per cent. discount on electricity prices during the winter quarter because they are not family income supplement beneficiaries or supplementary benefit recipients.

Progress has been made by many local offices of the Supplementary Benefits Commission on exceptional needs payments, but these are shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Money has been spent on heating that has not been accounted for because the people involved do not realise how they are using their heating. I hope that the Minister will consider this problem.

The local DHSS offices will arrange to collect, say, 50p a week for arrears that may have been built up by supplementary benefit claimants and will deduct a further sum from the benefit and pay it directly to the fuel board. That arrangement has been in operation since February 1976. A problem arose during the spring. The Department makes lump sum payments to the fuel boards and some supplementary benefits recipients were increasing their usage, but not having greater sums deducted from their benefit. Because of the intervals between payments by the Department to the boards and because of the increased usage, it has become possible, despite the code of practice, for there to be a possibility of disconnection. This should not happen if the scheme is working properly. It should be avoided.

This situation highlights some of the interesting points made by the hon. Member for Perry Barr about the Birmingham scheme. We shall examine the figures on that scheme with great interest. We are concerned that where there is no relationship, because of the fixed charge, between the amount paid and the usage problems may develop for the fuel boards unless a better relationship can be achieved on a month-by-month, rather than a quarterly, basis.

It is estimated that last winter local authority social service departments spent £1 million helping the elderly and disabled who were ineligible for any Government scheme. That is not a large sum in comparison with some of those that we have been discussing, but it shows that there is a need to help those who slip through the net.

I believe that families with children could be better helped under Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1963. Local authorities have the power under the Act to pay special amounts where children, especially small children, are at risk or where there are bronchial troubles in a family. That is something about which many local authorities are not well pleased. We ask the Minister to consider what can be done to ensure that families with children at risk that experience difficulty with heating costs are aware of this provision.

We could talk for a long while about the results of non-payment. It is pleasing to note that the number of disconnections for electricity users has reduced in the past year. That may be in part due to the Government's scheme for the one-quarter deduction on the winter quarter bill. However, I regret that many elderly people did not understand that scheme. Only 57 per cent. of the potential beneficiaries actually took up that scheme. Parliamentary answers indicate that the cost of the scheme will be between £11 million and £12 million in total, £1 million of that being for administrative costs. We feel that the scheme could do a great deal better. Many of my hon. Friends have referred to its being restricted to electricity users, and a quarter of all elderly people heat by solid fuel compared with only 17 per cent. who heat with electricity.

Help the Aged has recently told us that it reckons that there are more than 2 million pensioners who live in heat conditions that, if they were working, would require instant prosecution under the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963. We know from the 1972 survey that about 55 per cent. of pensioners' living rooms were below the minimum temperatures required by that Act. Hypothermia may not be a large problem but it is a contributory problem to the nightmare faced by some old people. If it contributes to more elderly people requiring hospital care and expensive hospital beds, whether they be £40, £50, £60 or £70 a week, we should be tackling the problem at source and not spending the money when pensioners are ill, unhappy and in hospital. That is a preventive role that we need to adopt.

We have seen much progress made in the past few years towards meeting this problem but the greatest lost opportunity seems to be insulation. Despite Government strictures—for example, the "Switch Off Something" campaign and reminders about energy conservation—there has been a failure to adopt an energetic insulation programme. The job creation programme, thanks to the energies of Friends of the Earth and others, has led to improved insulation in about 68,000 properties. We know that this year the Department of the Environment, after pressure, has increased the mandatory standards of thermal insulation that are required under building regulations for new properties and those homes where there is a grant application for roof work. That we welcome, but it is a slow start. If the answer in column 849 of Hansard, House of Lords, of 25th July is correct, it seems that 80,000 homes were better insulated at a cost of £25 each. It appears that for relatively small sums we can do a great deal more on insulation.

Although some of my figures differ from those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hove, I am told by reliable sources in the building industry that in the average uninsulated semi-detached house 70 per cent. of all heat produced is wasted, whether it goes through the roof, the walls, the floors or the windows. That is waste that must not continue.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Dr. John A. Cunningham)

I have hesitated to interrupt as there is a debate later—perhaps I should say earlier —on energy conservation. However, the hon. Lady and a number of her hon. Friends have persistently made comments about house insulation. They are aware that money is available to local authorities under the job creation programme They are aware that massive discounts on the cost of insulation materials have been encouraged by the Government. How many speeches have they made asking Conservative-controlled local authorities to get on with the job?

Mrs. Chalker

For my part, I can only answer in respect of my own local authority, where the issue has been discussed on many occasions. I hope to see that local authority appear in the next list of local authorities that have taken up the Government's scheme. I regret to say it was missing from the list published the week before last.

However, we know that only 61 schemes have been actually approved. Another 23 are in the pipeline, 19 have been withdrawn and one has been rejected. But this is still small as compared with the total number of local authorities. Although the Minister was attempting to be highly critical, I would welcome the spur to local authorities to get on with the job and take advantage of the money that is being provided. If this debate does one good thing, it may be to spur on more of them, and each hon. Member can take up the matter with his local authority.

Will the Minister, through his hon. Friend, be able to tell us when the promised circular to local authorities will be sent out? Circular 8/76 of August last year is a little old now. We know that a new one is coming. It would aid the Minister's campaign if the circular was sent out in very good time for councils to progress with this work as soon as possible.

We have over 6.7 million accessible lofts with no insulation, and a further 5.5 million have inadequate insulation. Four million of our hot-water tanks are uninsulated and over 8 million are inadequately insulated.

That is the size of the problems with which we are dealing. That is why we have all welcomed the efforts of many voluntary bodies. The "information kit" produced recently by the Leeds Anti-Freeze Campaign to tell people how to keep warm also not only deals with heating costs, how to pay bills and how not to be disconnected; it tells people how to do something positive about conserving energy.

All these efforts will come to nought if we do not have adequate co-ordination of Government, and that means the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and their hon. Friends at the Department of the Environment, because it is in that sphere that most, perhaps, is needed to be done anew, whereas in other spheres it will be reminders and advertising.

Roof insulation should be regarded as a basic amenity for improvement grant purposes, and not just as a useful addition. We hope to see that changed. Wall insulation ought to be made eligible for grant aid. We hope that there will be an insulation scheme for all old-age-pensioner dwellings and that the Government will re-stimulate the use of the job creation programme and voluntary schemes to identify and then insulate homes of the elderly and the handicapped. There needs to be a little concerted effort and all available resources must be used.

In addition, I hope that the Plymouth project on 37 homes to see what energy savings may result from insulation will be extended, because such a project in other places around the country would help to engender interest in the whole question of insulation and the saving of heating costs.

Back in the sphere of the DHSS, I hope that the Minister will reconsider a suggestion that I put to him last August. It is that local authorities throughout the country should establish registers of those at risk. This has not been done, except on a piecemeal basis. We suggested last August that discreet routine checks might be made, to prevent illness and to prevent the take-up of hospital beds, thereby avoiding many of the hours spent today by workers in local authority social service departments in running around to stop the supplies of pensioners and others being cut off. If the Department were to back a "risk-disc" system, or a code attached to every pensioner's bills, it would help. At present, this scheme is still not being implemented automatically. Many pensioners could avoid the heartache that they suffer when a big bill comes in, and many have not yet understood that they are protected between the months of October and March by the code of payment.

We are grateful for this opportunity to put on record in the summer, when many have no thought of their winter heating costs, just what needs to be done. Above all, I hope that it will be a real preventive campaign—preventive of illness and preventive of those tragedies that can happen when people do not realise the use they are making of fuel.

I also hope that we shall start anew an insulation scheme. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) told me before I came to the Dispatch Box, perhaps the best code for us all to adopt is "Insulate in '78".

11.46 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) for choosing this subject for debate and also for the entirely nonpartisan way in which he introduced it. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman's whole speech was on that basis.

A number of points have been made and I shall do my best to deal with them, but I must point out that this subject covers more than one Department. Where there are points that are of interest and concern to those Departments I shall naturally draw them to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends. That particularly applies to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, who has been present during the debate, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment.

The dramatic increases in fuel prices over the last few years have hit us all, but in particular they have hit the more disadvantaged sections of society, such as the millions of people over pension age. Our debate has concentrated almost entirely on those people.

No one has been able completely to escape the consequences of fuel price rises, but most of us are able to take certain steps to minimise their effect. We can reduce our consumption, install some measures of insulation, change to a cheaper and more efficient heating system and so on. In short, we have some opportunity to adjust to the new conditions, to choose the way we react. But for the more vulnerable social groups these opportunities and choices do not exist. They cannot afford to install insulation or to buy a better heating system.

Many who live in rented accommodation could not get such a system installed even if they wanted to and could afford one. Indeed, they might have no control whatsoever over their fuel consumption. For others there may be a simple and brutal choice: to spend more on heating and less on something else which may be equally essential—switching on the fire may mean going without a proper meal. A choice between necessities is really no choice at all.

The problem of what has been termed fuel poverty is one that has to be attacked on two fronts: first we must ensure that poorer people can pay for the fuel they require and, secondly, we must see to it that everyone—particularly those most at risk fom the cold, such as the elderly and the increasing number of the elderly who are very old indeed—get enough warmth.

On the financial front, we have taken several important measures. First and foremost we have made great improvements to the social security provision. Between October 1973 and our last up-rating in November the rates of pensions and other long-term benefits rose by 97 per cent. Prices in that period rose by only 72 per cent., and thus the real value of long-term benefits increased by 15 per cent. This November, at a cost of £1,500 million, we are increasing benefit rates by over 14 per cent. and this should at least restore the purchasing power they had at the last uprating.

In addition to the increases in benefit rates we have greatly widened the scope and coverage of the social security scheme. Particularly in respect of disabled people. That was a point of concern particularly to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs Chalker). Moreover, we have introduced three new non-contributory benefits specifically for disabled people and their families: mobility allowance, invalid care allowance and noncontributory invalidity pension. A fourth benefit—housewives' non-contributory pension—will come into effect in November.

The new benefits that we have introduced and the large upratings that we have undertaken represent concrete assistance to over 12 million people—the most vulnerable sections of the community. Benefit increases take account of increases in the retail price index. Therefore, to the extent that fuel price rises are reflected in that index, beneficiaries have been protected. We know, however, that poorer people spend a higher proportion of their income on fuel than those who are better off, and we have therefore provided extra help for them directly related to their fuel costs.

Last November we increased by about 27 per cent. the rates of supplementary benefit heating additions. This increase means that these additions have gone up 133 per cent. since 1973 and this coming November they will be going up another 14 per cent. Heating additions provide up to £2.10 a week now and will provide up to £2.40 from November for supplementary beneficiaries who need extra heating because they are ill or infirm or because their home is difficult to heat. Those beneficiaries who have to bear the extra costs of central heating can also get a weekly addition. Moreover, the number of supplementary beneficiaries getting a heating addition has more than doubled in the last three years. Well over 1 million claimants—including more than half of those on supplementary pension—now get them, and the Supplementary Benefits Commission is trying to ensure that every claimant who is eligible receives one. We are not trying to save money by not giving adequate publicity.

The Commission also uses its discretionary powers to make lump-sum exceptional needs payments towards fuel bills in certain circumstances. A payment may be made, for example, where a severe illness, or some other emergency which could not have been foreseen, has resulted in the claimant's having to spend the money that he had saved to meet his fuel bills. As well as helping with fuel bills, the Commission can make lump-sum payments to help people get the most from their heating systems. It can, for instance, provide for the repair or replacement of heating appliances, and for simple measures of insulation such as draught-proofing, floor coverings and curtains.

But the Commission's discretion is not unlimited. In exercising it the Commission must have regard to the constraints put upon it in legislation by Parliament and restrict such payments to cases where there are exceptional circumstances. Decisions in these cases, because they involve questions of hardship, cannot be easily made, and the criteria for reaching them can always be questioned. The Commission, however, believes that the criteria should be as widely known as possible and it has set them out in some detail in publications such as the Supplementary Benefits Handbook.

To help in those cases where a lump-sum payment for a fuel bill would not be justified, the Commission has agreed some arrangements with the fuel authorities. Under these arrangements, which began in February 1976, people likely to suffer hardship—the elderly, the sick and disabled, and families with young children—would not be disconnected if part of their benefit was paid direct to the fuel boards to cover current consumption together with a small amount—normally 50p—towards the arrears. If after two years there are still arrears outstanding the Commission will consider clearing these by a lump-sum payment. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) made a point about people on supplementary benefit not getting the advantage of the discount arrangements. I was not aware of this and I shall take it up with the Commission and write to him about it. The hon. Member for Wallasey also mentioned it and I shall write to her.

The heating additions, exceptional needs payments and "fuel direct" arrangements provided by the Commission cannot be the perfect answer for every claimant in difficulty with his fuel bills. Nevertheless, they do offer welcome assistance for many supplementary beneficiaries, who are among the poorer people in our community.

The subject of the Birmingham HARP —heating and rent payment—schemes was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). The issue here is the discretionary payments for extra heating made by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. As I have said, these are normally paid weekly at one of three standard rates according to the claimant's state of health or if he has special difficulty in heating his accommodation. Alternatively, they are paid if he has central heating at one of three standard rates according to the number of rooms.

Birmingham Corporation's HARP scheme, introduced in 1973, was an imaginative scheme to assist the Corporation's pensioner tenants to pay for their fuel week by week and so to relieve them of any anxiety about budgeting or disconnection. A tariff of charges was fixed according to the size of the home and the number of people in it, and charges were collected with the rent. The money collected was pooled to pay for all the bills, which went to the corporation rather than the tenants.

The Supplementary Benefits Commission agreed to treat its claimants in this scheme in a special way. Rather than pay standard heating additions, it paid the amount by which the HARP charge exceeded the notional figure for heating costs normally used in cases where a rent net of heating had to be calculated because the rent includes an unspecified amount for fuel. When the HARP scheme started, its charges were such that this special treatment resulted in a fairly small number of heating additions, and these were at rates broadly comparable with the standard additions. Since then, however, the HARP charges have gone up considerably—fuel prices went up, a measure of support from the rates had to be withdrawn, and pensioners' fuel consumption was above the expected levels. The heating additions have gone up too, both in number and amount.

All the supplementary pensioners in the HARP scheme now get a special addition, and the amounts range from about £1.50 to over £4 a week. By comparison, the lowest standard rate of central heating addition is currently 35p and the highest £1.40; the lowest rate on health grounds is 70p and the highest £2.10. What is more, the increasing HARP charges led many people not on supplementary benefit to leave the scheme, so that now, of those who remain, some two-thirds are supplementary beneficiaries.

The Commission has carefully considered the question of continuing its support, but concluded last year that, in the interests of fairness to other beneficiaries not getting special help to this very considerable extent, it would have to withdraw. The details of how to achieve this withdrawal, how to replace the special additions with the appropriate standard addition in each case, have taken a considerable time, and have been discussed between officials of the Commission and of the Corporation's housing department.

So as not to make the changeover too sudden, the Commission proposes to achieve it in two stages, the first to coincide with this year's uprating of benefits in November, the second with next year's uprating. The special additions will be reduced this November by £1 for single people, £1.50 for couples. The overall effect is that the uprating will result in a smaller increase in benefit for people in HARP—but this was felt to be preferable to an actual reduction in benefit at some other time of the year. At next year's uprating, any amount by which the special additions still exceed the appropriate standard addition will be withdrawn in the same way.

My hon. Friend criticised the manner in which this was being handled, but I should have thought that he would have been even more critical if we had done it at any other time than when the additions were being put up in the uprating. These tenants would then have suffered loss of income.

All pensioners affected will receive a letter informing them of these changes and their effect. My hon. Friend was also critical of the draft of that letter. The letter on the subject of HARP is going out from the SBC to its claimants. It is going out not to everybody in the HARP scheme but to those on supplementary benefit. It was shown in draft form to the housing department in Birmingham and some amendments were accepted, but in the last analysis it must be for the SBC to decide what it says.

My hon. Friend was also critical of the letter sent by my right hon. Friend to Birmingham Members of Parliament. I do not wish to weary the House by reading more than one or two extracts—

Mr. Rooker

My hon. Friend has read most of it.

Mr. Deakins

I have given the details of the scheme. My hon. Friend underestimates his own powers. Any hon. Member who is capable of sitting through the Finance Bill is well capable of understanding fairly complicated issues.

Let me give two examples of what was said: The Commission propose achieving their withdrawal from the HARP schemes in two stages. At a first stage at the time of this year's uprating in November, the special HARP additions will be reduced by a maximum of £1 for single people and £1.50 for married couples. There is then a paragraph explaining why that is a maximum, and I shall not go into detail on it. It continues later: These first-stage reductions will still, in many cases, leave in payment heating additions greater than those to which HARP members would be entitled under the normal rules. It will therefore be necessary to have a second stage. and so on.

I think that my right hon. Friend was right to write to hon. Members. I do not think that letter could have been written in any other fashion because the HARP scheme is undoubtedly a complicated one.

My hon. Friend also said that he had replied to my right hon. Friend's invitation to meet the Birmingham hon. Members. That is news to me, but I accept what my hon. Friend says. However, no other Birmingham Member has responded to my right hon. Friend's invitation. I draw no conclusions from that lack of response, but it is a little harsh on my right hon. Friend to suggest that he is trying to force the scheme through against the wishes of Birmingham hon. Members when they have a chance to meet him. I shall speak to my right hon. Friend about my hon. Friend's approach, because if he knows that my hon. Friend wishes to see him I am sure that something can be arranged.

The Commission did not reach its decision lightly. It has sought to spread its impact. I must stress above all that its decision was not taken on grounds of costs. Its overriding concern has been fairness to other pensioners throughout the country, over whom Birmingham's pensioner tenants on supplementary benefit were enjoying a substantial and increasing advantage.

I turn to the hon. Member for Wallasey's point about publicity. The Commission is trying to ensure that the help it can give is know both to everyone who might need it and to those people who offer advice and assistance to the poorer groups. In May it published a new edition of its handbook, to which I have already referred. More than 30,000 copies of this handbook have been distributed, and I believe that every hon. Member has received one. In addition, it is bringing up to date its leaflet "Help with Heating Costs", which sets out in simple terms what help it provides. Half a million copies of this leaflet are being printed and will be available in November.

As well as the strictly social security provisions, we introduced last winter the electricity discount scheme, which provided for people getting family income supplement or supplementary benefit to receive a 25 per cent. discount of one winter quarter's electricity bill. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced on 15th July, a similar scheme will be operated this coming winter. Experience of last winter's scheme is being evaluated to see whether any changes will be necessary for the new scheme. Further details, including the starting date, will be announced in due course.

Nearly every hon. Member who has spoken has pressed me on the limitations of the scheme. Far be it from me or any Minister to defend the scheme as being the perfect answer. It has limitations, on which detailed points have been made. The hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South wanted it extended to solid fuel. The hon. Member for Walsall, North wanted it extended to all fuels, and a number of other criticisms were made. I shall bring the points that were made to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, but I cannot undertake that the scheme will be extended, for reasons that will be obvious.

I turn to methods of payment. Recent years have seen not merely the rapid increase in fuel prices but another phenomenon, whose consequences are perhaps not so generally appreciated. That is the trend away from coin-in-the-slot meters towards quarterly credit meters. For the majority of people this trend has been a welcome one, since it is far more convenient to clear the bill with one cheque every few months than to have to rummage around for a few coins every time the meter runs out. But for the poorer people, many of whom receive their income on a weekly basis, this trend can be anything but a happy one, for it means not only that they must face increased fuel costs but that they have to budget efficiently for their consumption over a relatively long period—a period in which they may have no real idea of the amount of fuel they are using.

There are several ways in which we have tried to help poorer people overcome the problems of budgeting. In December the fuel authorities announced a code of practice on fuel bills which sets out to draw attention to the easy payment and other methods by which people can be helped to budget for their large quarterly bills and provides that needy pensioners will not be disconnected during the winter months. The operation of this voluntary code is being closely monitored by area electricity consultative councils and the national and regional gas consumer councils. The industries are keeping the Government closely informed about this operation. As a Government, we have a strong interest in it.

The industries have a wide range of easy payment schemes, including budget and stamp schemes, which they are publicising widely. They have also agreed that in cases where other payment methods are not appropriate they will provide any consumer on request with a pre-payment meter, provided it is safe and practical. Furthermore, they are exploring the possibility of developing and introducing meters operated by self-destroying tokens, which would overcome the problems, such as the possibility of theft, that are associated with coin meters.

I turn to the question of insulation, which was mentioned by a number of hon. Members. Improved cash provisions will have only a very limited effect so long as many people, particularly older people, live in cold and draughty houses —not merely at the seaside—where there is little or no insulation and where switching on the fire may produce a big increase in the fuel bill but very little extra warmth.

We have therefore taken steps to encourage the insulation of housing in both the public and the private sectors. The job creation programme is being used to operate schemes for home insulation particularly for the houses of the elderly and disabled. By the end of last month 86 local authorities were involved in schemes in which over 80,000 houses had been insulated at a total cost approaching £1 million. Furthermore, we are providing local authorities with a subsidy to help with the cost of installing roof insulation in their existing houses. Where this is done for the elderly or disabled, the grant is payable without any other work having to be carried out. And in the private sector, an elderly or disabled person who wishes to install roof insulation can get an improvement grant for that purpose.

The hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South asked about insulation grants. Although this is basically a matter for the Department of the Environment, I understand that a recent circular has given local authorities discretion to provide, under the Housing Act 1974, improvement grants towards the cost of roof insulation in some circumstances if an elderly or disabled person has special needs. Applications do not now have to be approved centrally.

There has been comment on the state of the insulation industry in view of the numbers of small firms in it. I note that point and will pass it on. A number of other British industries consist of small units. Frankly we do not know what the appropriate remedy is to help such industries improve in efficiency.

The hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) made a number of points, not all of which are the direct concern or responsibility of my Department. I shall pass them on to the relevant Minister. I was interested in his remarks on cavity wall insulation. This is a question which is facing me personally at present as I try to decide whether to have it installed. There is a great deal of conflicting advice on the matter, and I may have to take advice from the Department of Energy on it.

The Department of Energy is conducting, with other Departments, a major review of possible further action to promote energy conservation. This includes consideration of ways to secure economic levels of insulation in building. Moreover, last winter several case studies were carried out by the Department of the Environment in conjunction with the Research Institute for Consumer Affairs to determine what improvements could be made in heating arrangements for old people. The results of these case studies will be published in a booklet before next winter. The implications for existing systems—for example, improvement grants—will be considered carefully.

We are also acting to alert everyone to the dangers that the elderly face from the cold. In meetings and through the professional journals the DHSS will be reminding health and personal social services staff to watch out for old people suffering from the effects of cold. Moreover, the Health Education Council produced last year a leaflet "Keeping Warm in Winter", which contains practical advice on ways to keep warm, and this winter it will again be publicising the leaflet and conducting a campaign in the Press and on television alerting elderly people to the dangers of cold and reminding others in the community that old people are at risk in winter.

Then there is the good-neighbour campaign, launched last November by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. This campaign has been a great success and we have had reports from all over the country showing how voluntary action has been stimulated. There was a remarkable demand for campaign literature. For example, over ⅓ million leaflets were distributed in response to specific requests from voluntary organisations, local authorities, Churches and many others. The leaflet included information on help that could be given with simple practical tasks including making sure that the sick, the elderly, the handicapped, the disabled and others in trouble and difficulty were kept warm in winter. The campaign is being continued and developed and the second phase will be launched by the Secretary of State this autumn.

The campaign has developed as a partnership between the Secretary of State, voluntary and statutory organisations, professional associations and trade unions. A small independent campaign secretariat, based at the Personal Social Services Council and financed by the Department, is being set up to act as a focal point for national publicity. The second phase of the campaign will be launched in the autumn.

The Government are continuing to study these problems urgently, particularly in the light of recommendations from the House of Commons Select Committee on Nationalised Industries and from the National Consumer Council in the Report on "Paying for Fuel", to which we replied in May, and in the Fuel Payments Review, better known as the Oakes Report. We have already done a conserable amount, as I think I have shown, within the current severe constraints on expenditure. I hope that hon. Members will understand from what I have said that the Government share their concern over these problems and are determined to do everything possible to alleviate them.

These are indeed formidable problems that we have been discussing tonight. The debate has been valuable, even if we have taken up perhaps rather more than our fair share of time. Nevertheless, I do not think that any other topics which will be raised can exceed in importance the subject that we have discussed.

The protection that we are giving is not all that we, or our critics, would wish it to be, but the various measures that I have outlined, improvements in the coverage of the social security scheme, increases in benefit rates, special action such as the discount scheme, action on methods of payment, the fact that increases in fuel prices are now coming into line with prices in general and the encouragement of voluntary initiative through the good-neighbour campaign, are all playing their part. We shall continue to make improvements as and when resources permit.