HC Deb 09 February 1978 vol 943 cc1659-61
17. Sir Nigel Fisher

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will increase the subsidy on fuel for old people who cannot afford to heat their homes because heating costs in Northern Ireland are higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Concannon

No, Sir. The supplementary benefits scales of requirements include an element for expenditure on normal heating costs, and in cases of special need an addition can be given for heating. Elderly persons in Northern Ireland who are in receipt of supplementary pension are entitled to assistance under the winter fuel discount scheme. In Northern Ireland this scheme applies to gas as well as to electricity and offers a 40 per cent. discount on bills due at the end of the current winter quarter compared with 25 per cent. in Great Britain. These additional benefits under the winter fuel discount scheme take into account the higher cost of gas and electricity in Northern Ireland.

Sir N. Fisher

Is the help that is given enough, bearing in mind the discrepancy between costs in the United Kingdom as a whole and costs in Ulster? Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that there are cases of genuine hardship among retired and older people who cannot afford to heat their homes properly in this cold weather?

Mr. Concannon

That is why benefits in Northern Ireland are better than those in Great Britain. There is also a £5 addition in Northern Ireland which people can use however they wish, whether they have solid fuel heating or any other sort of heating. We have had strict parity in supplementary benefits, but the Supplementary Benefits Commission in Northern has made representations to us on this point and we are considering them.

Mr. Carter-Jones

I do not wish to sound unkind, but is my right hon. Friend aware that hypothermia among the elderly knows no boundaries?

Mr. Concannon

Yes, of course I understand that.

Mr. Wm. Ross

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that, when supplementary benefit is being assessed for old people, sufficient account is taken of the high cost of electricity in the all-electric homes in which many old people live?

Mr. Concannon

The hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends have always insisted that we should retain strict parity in benefits. I would advise caution on the question whether, in this one area, we should go outside that parity.