HC Deb 24 July 1979 vol 971 cc330-2
5. Mr. Bowden

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what steps he is taking to protect elderly people from the risk of suffering from hypothermia in the coming winter.

8. Mr. Stallard

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what new steps he is taking to protect elderly people from the risk of suffering from hypothermia in the coming winter.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

Authorities and practitioners in all disciplines are well aware of the need to be alert to the possibility that some elderly people may suffer the effects of cold and to be ready to take appropriate action.

Mr. Bowden

Is my hon. Friend aware of recent research which shows that up to 500,000 elderly people could be at risk this winter? Will she stress to the Secretary of State for Industry the importance of introducing a fuel discount scheme to include not only electricity, which was all that was provided by the previous Government, but solid fuels, gas and, above all, paraffin?

Mrs. Chalker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We are aware of the research. However, there is at present no firm evidence that the incidence of hypothermia is high. We know that many people feel the cold intensely, and action must, therefore, be taken. The electricity discount scheme is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. I assure my hon. Friend that I am in close touch with my right hon. Friend on all the matters that he mentioned.

Mr. Stallard

Does the Under-Secretary of State agree that there is no substitute for an adequate living pension that will relieve pensioners of the fear, worry and indignity of this annual exercise? Is the hon. Lady aware that last year 600 death certificates gave hypothermia as a possible reason for death? That was an increase over previous years.

In addition to taking the action recommended by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden), will the Under-Secretary of State recommend to the Cabinet the abolition of the standing charges on all heating and heating appliances for pensioners who live alone?

Mrs. Chalker

The bitter winter led to hypothermia appearing as the underlying cause of death on 20 death certificates. It was mentioned as a subsidiary cause on about 600 further certificates. Last winter was one of the harshest for many years. In the uprating this year we have increased the heating addition for pensioners. I shall bring the hon. Member's comments to the notice of my colleagues.

Mr. Maclennan

Will the Under-Secretary of State prevail upon her colleagues to reconsider the decontrol of the price of paraffin, which will ration paraffin by price and deprive the neediest members of our community of the fuel on which they will most rely this winter?

Mrs. Chalker

This is a matter for the Department of Energy. All the effects of price increases in whatever fuel an elderly person uses are being carefully considered. I note what the hon. Member says.

Mr. Freeson

Is the Under-Secretary of State aware that the House will not be satisfied with her rather generalised answers? The original question asked what steps the Secretary of State was taking. Is it not possible for the Government to take action under the Homes Insulation Act, which has been operating for 12 months? Is it not open to the Government to introduce a scheme of special assistance to elderly people who are suffering and who are at risk?

Is it possible for the Government to take action on the report published by the Department of the Environment entitled "An Exploratory Project on Heating for the Elderly", on which consultations were proceeding when the general election was called? That report described ways in which many elderly people could be assisted under the Homes Insulation Act. Why cannot action be taken before the winter?

Mrs. Chalker

The Act enables local authorities to give grants towards the cost of home insulation. It limits the grant to 66 per cent. of the total cost and a maximum of £50. Obviously, there are other things that we must do to help the elderly. Local authorities are also able to provide help to elderly people who are in need. The Supplementary Benefits Commission is prepared to pay extra lump sums for heavier curtains and simple draughtproofing. We shall be examining what can be done further to help elderly people who may be in need because of the severity of the cold and the cost of fuel.

Mr. Freeson

The hon. Lady has got the Act wrong. There is a scheme such as she described, but is she aware that the Act allows the Government, with parliamentary approval, to introduce new schemes of special assistance of a different kind? Will the Government take action on the report to which I referred?

Mrs. Chalker

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the operation of that Act is a matter for the Department of the Environment. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman has more knowledge of this than I do, and I shall examine all that he has said. He may be assured that I shall not rest when it comes to a question of helping elderly people who may suffer from the cold this winter.

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