HC Deb 09 July 1979 vol 970 cc14-6
9. Mr. Dubs

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what plans he has to extend the electricity discount scheme to users of other types of fuel.

29. Mr. Rooker

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he is satisfied with the operation of the winter fuel discount scheme.

34. Mr. Cartwright

asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether he proposes to continue the electricity discount scheme during the coming winter; and if he will make a statement.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Norman Lamont)

As my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for the disabled said in answer to a question in the House on 18 June, the Government have the question of assistance with fuel costs under review against the background of their public expenditure objectives and the need to avoid further complication of the social security system. The Government will make a statement in due course.

Mr. Dubs

Is the Minister aware that many elderly people are particularly concerned about their fuel bills this winter? Will he make a statement soon to allay their anxiety?

Mr. Lamont

The Government are well aware that elderly people are particularly likely to be hard hit by the rising cost of energy. This is a matter we have very much in mind in our review, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that a statement will be made.

Mr. Rooker

As I understand that the Summer Recess will not end until early November, will the Minister make a statement before we rise for the Summer Recess so that the working poor and the pensioners know what is going to happen next winter? If the Government intend to reintroduce the scheme next winter, will he give the House an assurance now that he will not allow the sharp practice occurring in my constituency by the Midlands Electricity Board of bringing forward meter readings? In that context, I thank the Minister on behalf of my constituents for the action he took following my Adjournment debate on 16 May.

Mr. Lamont

Of course, the Government appreciate the urgency of the matter and the need for a statement to be made at the earliest opportunity. I hope that one will be made before the House goes into recess. It is not right, however, for the hon. Gentleman to describe what happened as " sharp practice ". The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that I and the officials investigated the matter that he brought to our attention and that we were able to get a rebate for his constituents.

Mr. Cartwright

Is the Minister aware that the policy of rationing fuel by means of high prices causes tremendous hardship to pensioners and other poor families? Does he accept that the electricity discount scheme, welcome though it is, does not help a great many families in need? What steps is he taking to co-ordinate Government policy to ensure that there is a genuine attack on this problem of fuel poverty so that even the poorest families can afford adequate heating for their homes?

Mr. Lamont

I note what the hon. Gentleman says concerning rationing by price, but there are many disadvantages to rationing by other means. The system of open rationing and allocations that he seems to advocate will not ensure that help goes to the most needy. He points out various disadvantages in the discount scheme and those are precisely the factors that we are bearing in mind in our review of the scheme. My hon. Friends and I are in touch with the Department of Health and Social Security all the time about this very important question.

Mr. Sainsbury

Will the Minister take into account the fact that it would probably be fairer to all pensioners, regardless of the type of fuel they use, if such sums of money as were available were to be given for insulation, or for the installation of more efficient appliances, rather than for subsidising the consumption of electricity?

Mr. Lamont

I note what my hon. Friend says. There are more competing claims on public expenditure and obviously energy conservation is of great importance.

Mr. Ashton

The Minister is aware that we have had a rent rebate system in this country for many years. In his statement will he announce the establishment of a fuel rebate system? Is he aware that many pensioners and poor people in rural areas will have trouble in paying for the fuel for their Aga cookers and that many pensioners who rely on paraffin will not be able to obtain supplies this winter? Will the Minister take action before the House rises at the end of July to let those people know what the situation will be?

Mr. Lamont

I have already said that we are considering the whole question not just of the discount scheme but of fuel costs and assistance with those costs. We are well aware of the problems facing elderly people and others in rural areas and this has been taken into account in our uprating of benefits. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that a full statement will be made.

Mr. Alan Clark

Does the Minister agree that all forms of concession that allow one section of the community to get something below the market price can be paid for only by the rest of the community? Does he recognise that that is, in effect, a redistribution of wealth and that this Government were not elected to bring that about?

Mr. Lamont

My hon. Friend is quite right. These schemes have to be paid for out of public expenditure. I said in reply to the first question that we have very much in mind the matter of public expenditure.