HC Deb 31 October 1979 vol 972 cc1392-412

11.7 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the draft Family Income Supplements (Computation) (No. 2) Regulations 1979, which were laid before this House on 22nd October, be approved. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the House on 22 October about the steps that we were taking to help needy families pay their fuel bills this winter. Part of this help is through the family income supplement scheme. FIS families will benefit by a £1 a week from 13 November if these regulations are given the support of the House. This complements the help being given through the supplementary benefit scheme, to which I shall refer later.

In order to make these FIS payments the approval of the House is sought to these further increases in the new FIS rates already approved and due to take effect on 13 November.

The regulations before us now provide for a further £2 increase in the FIS prescribed amounts. This will give the majority of families on FIS their weekly extra £1, because benefit due is calculated as half the difference between income and the prescribed amount. I say "the majority" because families who would already qualify for maximum FIS payments will not benefit from the increase in the prescribed amounts. Instead, they will still get their weekly extra £1, but through a £1 increase in the maximum payments themselves.

Raising the FIS prescribed amounts inevitably brings some more families into FIS who would not be entitled to it under the rates earlier agreed by hon. Members. Most such families will get less than £1 in FIS each week, in total, but they will also have the passport entitlements that FIS brings with it, such as automatic relief from National Health Service charges.

People who are awarded FIS from now on will get their extra £1 as part of their normal weekly payments. Many families already receiving FIS have already had their payment order books altered to show the rates due from 13 November according to the first uprating order which was debated in July. As this uprating will be superseded by these regulations, slightly different arrangements will apply. To minimise inconvenience to beneficiaries and to keep our staff costs as low as possible, they will receive the weekly £1 increase as a single payment. The payment, in the form of a Girocheque, will be made up of £1 for every week that their FIS awards have to run after 13 November, in the current payment order book. Future books will, of course, carry the full weekly FIS payment—including the £1 to help with heating costs.

These FIS proposals, which will give an extra £1 each week to families in receipt of family income supplement, complement the 95p a week rate of heating addition to be paid by the Supplementary Benefits Commission to all supplementary benefit householders with a child under 5 years old, including those who do not receive it now.

As my right hon. Friend pointed out in his statement to the House, wider coverage of all FIS families is appropriate because, unlike supplementary benefit, the FIS scheme makes no other special provision for extra help with fuel bills. As hon. Members know, the Supplementary Benefits Commission will also be paying the 95p heating addition to supplementary pensioner householders who are over 75 years old or who have a dependant who is over 75, if they are not getting the addition now.

The extra £1 a week will add about £5 million to the cost of the FIS scheme in the year up to November 1980. It will benefit about 85,000 families, half of them one-parent families.

To avoid confusion I should make it clear that the extra £1 a week will become part of FIS; it will not be withdrawn at the end of the winter or have its value in real terms whittled down in future upratings. FIS families will make a permanent gain from the increase.

I do not wish to stray out of order on these FIS regulations, but as they form part of the wider provision to help the most needy with their fuels bills I hope that I may put them in context.

The Opposition will criticise the Government for introducing a smaller scheme than they provided last year. I repeat to the House the point made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The Opposition, when in government, made absolutely no provision for this winter either for a repeat of the electricity discount scheme, or for any successor scheme. There was no public commitment from their Department of Energy to continue the scheme, whatever may now be protested by hon. Members.

Despite the harsh economic situation, the money that can be made available is to be concentrated through the FIS scheme and the supplementary benefits heating addition on those most in need. We are well aware that the last Government planned to spend £45 million on their electricity discount scheme, but the provisional outturn shows a total spend of £38 million, of which a massive £4 million went on administration. The average help per family was about £7.50.

What we are doing this year is to give worthwhile help—about £50 over the year—to those in the greatest need—the very young, the very old, and working families with children. Let us not forget that after the increases in supplementary benefit heating additions at the uprating, total expenditure on heating additions, even without the extra now announced, will be running at the rate of over £100 million a year.

These FIS regulations are positive and help families in work. Whatever the Opposition's nostalgia for the electricity discount scheme, it was criticised from every quarter. FIS families will clearly gain over what they received under the discount scheme. They received a basic £5 last winter. They received a discount if they claimed it and if they had an electricity bill in their own name for over £20. That bill had to be for over £200 if the total of lump sum and discount was to equal the £52 that this further FIS increase will give them over the next 12 months.

These FIS regulations are a positive step in the right direction. As my right hon. Friend has said, we shall continue to keep under review the question of help with fuel bills. The whole question of help with heating costs embraces not only the Department of Energy and my Department but essentially the Department of the Environment as well as the Treasury. We intend to keep every aspect of this problem under close scrutiny and the House may be assured of our determination.

I ask the House to approve the regulations.

11.15 p.m.

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

I do not think that there will be any difficulty about the House approving these regulations. Certainly the Opposition do not intend to oppose the regulations, for obvious reasons. However, that does not mean to say that we do not have anything to say about them and why they are being brought in now, and about the related matters to which the Minister has referred.

It is no good the Government trying to pre-empt what may be said from the Opposition Benches tonight by saying that no provision was made by the Labour Government. The fact is that in 1977 £12 million was made available, in 1978 it was £23 million, and in 1979—as the Minister has just confirmed—£38 million was spent in helping poor families with their fuel bills.

Of course, the Labour Government's schemes were subject to criticism. I think that it was probably only in the second week of this Parliament that I had an Adjournment debate on the problems related to the reading of electricity meters. Therefore, I shall not deny, and neither will my hon. Friends, that the schemes were unnecessarily complicated. However, the fact is that the Government are making available about £16½ million of new money, according to the Secretary of State when he made his statement the other day, whereas under the previous Government it was £38 million at the very least—and that was last winter, at last year's prices.

The fact is that there has been a cut in the help that the Government are offering the poor and the needy with their fuel bills. The Government claim that they have concentrated help, as they are doing in these regulations, on those who really need it.

When the Secretary of State made his statement he made great play of the point that a lot of money was going to supplementary benefit recipients who were school leavers. But the fact remains that the Government cannot tell us now how many recipients of the £5 were school leavers, yet Ministers claim that this is a major reason for altering the scheme. They ought to come clean and tell us whether that is just an argument on their part for wanting to cut back, because that is what has happened.

In this matter the DHSS have been walked all over by the Treasury, the Department of Enery and the Prime Minister. If they had a policy for poor people, we would not now be dealing with these regulations. They do not mention anything about fuel bills or help with fuel. All that they do is to replace provisions which the House approved in the summer, on the day after they had come into force. In other words, those provisions are abandoned after one day.

If the Government had come in with a policy of helping the poor and the needy, they could have put this matter right when we dealt with the first regulations, instead of having to present these regulations, in which no mention is made of fuel bills or help with fuel.

In the background note provided by the Government there is reference to the fact that the extra £1 is for fuel bills. The Minister has asked for the indulgence of the House and yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hope that you will bear with me, because the debate is a little wider than the detail of the regulations. Sticking to these regulations, however, the Minister tells us that the majority of 85,000 families will get the £1 a week. Not all of them will get it. It is well known, of course, that not all families that are eligible draw FIS anyway. The Minister's estimate is 75 per cent. On that basis, 27,000 families do not draw FIS, and they will not get this £1 a week.

What will Ministers do to increase the FIS take-up? It just is not good enough to say "We are concentrating the help where it is needed, which is more than you did under the previous Administration," and then at the same time, with another voice, to say "Of course, only three-quarters of those whom we think ought to get this help will be getting it in the first place." About 27,000 poor families will be missing out on this benefit.

The Government have been rightly attacked from all quarters for the Secretary of State's announcement. I am surprised that he had the gall to come to the House and make it. One would almost have thought that the Government were offering a new benefit. Age Concern is a modest charity that is not known for putting in the boot, but it has done that to the Government on this occasion.

The people who will lose out are the millions of pensioners who were getting rent and rate rebates. They will no longer be able to go to the post office with their electricity bills and receive a discount. If they do that this winter, the post office will turn them away. The millions who have missed out may not yet realise it, but in the coming winter Ministers will have to face these complaints. There is less help for the poor and elderly under this Government.

I accept that the Labour Government's schemes in the past three years were ad hoc. They were never announced until after the Summer Recess, and the announcement could not have been made this year after the Government's defeat in the vote on the motion of confidence. Financially our hands were tied. This Government cannot, therefore, bemoan the fact that there was no provision for such a scheme. Had the Labour Government remained in office, we should certainly have spent as much as or more than last year, and that would amount to about £53 million with the current rate of inflation.

Mr. John Heddle (Lichfield and Tamworth)

Will the hon. Gentleman explain why the electricity discount scheme was announced in 1976, 1977 and 1978 and was not announced in 1979, before the vote on the motion of confidence in March?

Mr. Rooker

The hon. Member entered the House only in May, and if he checks back he will discover that such announcements were always held back until after the Summer Recess. The scheme changed each year. We wanted to increase the amount spent and to simplify and extend the scheme. We did not want to cut back on the help that had already been offered. I admit that there was always a problem as to which Department carried the expenditure. In this Government that has clearly been a major problem. No Department wanted to carry it and that is why these Ministers have been walked all over.

We put more money into the scheme each year. The enormous rise in energy costs between 1976 and 1977 created the need for the scheme. With the help of the supplementary benefit system and the uprating of pensions we hoped that eventually there would be no need for the scheme. This Government, however, are planning to cut back on pension increases. In the years of rising costs it was necessary, before the onset of winter, to have such an ad hoc scheme, but eventually we hoped to do away with it.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

The Tories criticised the Labour Government for announcing these schemes too late. It is therefore odd to expect the scheme to have been announced way back before the election.

Mr. Rooker

That is correct. The Labour Government were criticised by their Back Benchers for bringing in the schemes late in the day. They have never been announced as early as March.

Family income supplement is a system where the State subsidises mean employers. If people were able to earn a decent wage, it would not be necessary, and I should like to see it abolished. We should have decent wages and we should not then require such State handouts. However, the Government are now building on the State handout that now exists, which goes only to the wage earner, to cushion the bad employer.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

As a new Member with 20 years' service in a great city, perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman to be even more patronising. First, if the Socialist heart is so big, and is so concerned with the issues that face us, why is it that only four of his hon. Friends are present to defend the downtrodden masses? The hon. Gentleman also talked about miserable and mean employers. Does he agree that the only way in which miserable and mean employers can afford to pay is if they earn something in the first place? The problem that faces the country is not mean employers, but the ability to earn a profit. The hon. Gentleman may talk about a new hon. Member daring to raise a point, but he forgets that only four of his colleagues—who are supposed to be the only hon. Members who have compassionate hearts—are here to express that fact.

Mr. Rooker

I am glad that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tam-worth (Mr. Heddle) will accept that in no way was I being patronising. I was giving a historical answer to the factual question that he asked.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) does not have a lot of experience of the low paid, but some of those people are employees of the State. Some are policemen or firemen and some work for the DHSS. Therefore, the issue of profit does not come into it. The point is that they should get a decent rate for the job. So long as this scheme remains in being we shall not get the correct wage rates for the low paid in society, be they working for the private employer or the public sector. I and my hon. Friends are ashamed that people working for the public sector have to resort to a scheme such as FIS, and, of course, the Government are building on it.

The Minister said that the scheme was now permanent and would be part of FIS. However, FIS represents only £5½ million out of a total of £16½ million. Will the arrangements covering other people be permanent? What will happen when the uprating for next year's FIS takes place? Will there be an extra input for any increased cost of fuel? Although the regulations do not mention help with fuel bills, will families get help with their fuel bills in later years? The Government must answer these points, because they have cut back on help for the poor and needy. While some people will get considerably more than they did, it will be only a few tens of thousands compared with the 3½ million to 4½ million people who were helped under the previous Labour Government's schemes.

I understand that only 345,000 people will receive help under the FIS regulation, and that is why I want to know what help will be given under the other schemes. Will that help be continued, as is claimed? I do not think that there will be extra help with fuel bills each year for FIS recipients. That is the whole point of the exercise. How will Ministers separate the help given to FIS recipients with regard to fuel bills?

These regulations and the Secretary of State's related statements last week mean a cut in help with fuel bills for the needy in this country. If it is an average winter it will be cold comfort for the millions of pensioners below 75, for pensioners who have only rent and rate rebate, and it will be cold comfort for those who are eligible for FIS but do not receive it. That is a crucial point that the Minister must answer.

The Government have criticised us because our scheme involved a 10 per cent. administration cost of nearly £4 million. We worked hard to try to get the benefit across to those who needed it. What will the Government do about getting the FIS take-up increased? Will they just sit back and accept the fact that there will always be a large minority—25 per cent.—who will never receive FIS, who do not know about it and who do not apply? The Government must tell us their plans, and admit that the scheme will help far fewer people.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

I suppose that, from the Opposition Benches, one has to welcome these regulations, in that it was only a few days ago that there was some doubt whether there would be any help with fuel costs this winter. However, it seems most disappointing that the Government's total package is so meagre.

It is not much help to those in greatest need for us simply to compare what the last Government did with what is proposed by this Government. What people are interested in is how much help they will receive. As the winter goes on they will realise how disappointing the scheme is. Even the few small groups which have been selected for special help will find the scheme not particularly fair or helpful in its application.

In discussing any help with fuel costs we have to look at two aspects—the resources which a family can spend on fuel and the fuel needs of a family. This scheme, as it affects old-age pensioners and those on family income supplement, takes into account the income of the family to a certain extent, but does not take into account the heating needs of the family. There is some small provision for those on supplementary benefit in that help goes to those families with children under five. The FIS provisions, however, do not help those families in greatest need, namely, those where children are at home all day with the result that heating costs are likely to be high.

For many people the problem with heating costs is that they are trapped in accommodation which has high heating costs built in. This is the major problem. I can think of many of my constituents in Stockport who would like to help themselves in solving the problem of high heating costs. They could do this if they could choose their own accommodation. What they would particularly opt for is accommodation with a fireplace Then they could help themselves by searching round for old wood or anything else which they could burn. Because they are trapped in all-electric flats, or in district heating schemes, or in homes with gas heating, they have no choice. Society has committed them to high heating costs. This year, however, society is to give them no help.

One advantage I could see in last year's scheme was that it picked out those who were forced to live in all-electric housing and said that they should receive extra help because society had committed them to such costs. This scheme makes no such provision. Those living in all-electric flats can save only by being disconnected or by voluntarily cutting back on electric heating and using a paraffin heater. We have already debated the increase in paraffin prices which makes this form of heating less attractive for people. It is most disappointing that the Government have not looked at the needs of different groups of people and said that because society has condemned certain groups to live in high heating cost accommodation it ought to give them extra help. As the winter goes on I feel sure that many more of my constituents will come to me, begging me to persuade the Stockport housing department to re-house them, not because they are dissatisfied with the housing, but because they are condemned to a system of heating for which they cannot pay. I hope that the Government will reconsider all of their aid and in particular the plight of those in all-electric accommodation.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I gather from those who like to indulge in delivering sermons that the reason for beginning one's speech with a text is not only to concentrate the mind of the speaker on what he should be delivering but to aim the message home at those who will most benefit from receiving it.

It is appropriate tonight to begin, not with a biblical text, but with a quotation from what the Minister herself said earlier this year after she had become the Minister. She told the House— I shall not rest when it comes to a question of helping elderly people who may suffer from the cold this winter."—[Official Report, 24 July 1979; Vol. 971, c. 332.] This was a key policy commitment from a new Tory Government.

From that flow a number of key questions. First, given what the Government are doing to help poorer people to meet their ever-escalating fuel bills, particularly the poor wage earner—because that is what we are considering this evening—do we need to congratulate the Minister tonight, or do we need to probe her a little further about how effective this measure is?

In many ways it is a pleasure for me, as a Member who represents a constituency bordering the Minister's constituency of Wallasey, to say that locally she is thought of as a very good constituency Member. However, if we consider what the Government are doing for poor people in Wallasey this coming year with the Minister as their protector, a slightly different picture emerges. Last year, under a Labour Government, 7,900 people in Wallasey were helped with their fuel bills. Under the measures being commended to the House tonight, only 540 people in Wallasey will be helped with their fuel bills this winter. In other words, comparing the record of the Labour Government with what will be done by the Tory Government, about 7,300 poor people in Wallasey who were helped with their fuel bills last year will not be helped with their fuel bills this year. That is the result for them of how the votes were cast at the general election earlier this year. It is relevant not only to Wallasey. It has its effect on Birkenhead and every other constituency.

The first question is: who is getting help? The easy answer is: many fewer than last year.

Even if we accept that the Tory Government are concentrating help on fewer people, are they concentrating it on those in the greatest need? Here we need to consider those who are claiming supplementary benefit and those who are claiming FIS. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we do not have the chance to debate tonight the supplementary benefit changes, but it is relevant to consider them along with FIS. The Government are saying that the most vulnerable of the poorest on supplementary benefit are those aged 75 and over. However, the only national survey that has been done on hypothermia—the very important study by Malcolm Wicks—shows that over half of those who are vulnerable and who are at risk from hypothermia are under 75—that is considering merely those over pensionable age. So, taking one criterion, it is just not borne out by the facts that the Government are concentrating help on those in the greatest need—the most vulnerable of the oldest pensioners.

I turn to the second group—the low wage earners. We are told that this mechanism of linking the benefit to FIS will ensure that those in greatest need are helped under the new Tory Government's scheme. I am grateful to the Minister for releasing figures at Question Time this afternoon on the number of poor families below and up to 10 per cent. above the supplementary benefit level. For the purpose of this analysis, let us exclude the supplementary category. From the Minister's figures we find that there are 200,000 families below the supplementary benefit level and a further 140,000 families between that level and 10 per cent above. That amounts to a total of 340,000 vulnerable and very poor families, the vast majority of whom earn their poverty. That is the group which we can compare with the FIS group who will be lucky enough to receive help under the scheme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has said, that group numbers about 75,000. Therefore, on the second criterion, whether we are helping the most vulnerable in work, we have to conclude that we are helping only 75,000 out of a total of 340,000.

Why are these changes being brought about? The strategy is clear. Shortly after May of this year the Labour Party began the general election campaign which will decide how votes are cast in five years' time. The Conservative Party has a clear strategy on how growth should be achieved in the country, whereas the previous Labour Government had no strategy on the matter. The Tory strategy can be expressed briefly. It is that the country will achieve economic growth by making society more unequal. One look at the last Budget shows the extent to which that philosophy is being carried out. The poorest 10 per cent. of wage earners picked up 2 per cent. of the tax cuts, whereas the richest 7 per cent. picked up 34 per cent. We shall be watching to see whether growth is achieved and, if so, whether the poor will be the main beneficiaries of that new-found wealth. The reason why the Tories are cutting public expenditure and dismantling the Labour Government's scheme is that they believe that it is important to reward the rich because that will result in growth.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)

I find the hon. Gentleman's remarks extremely interesting. In the careful calculations that he has carried out, has he made a computation of how much it would cost to provide the number of people who were covered under the previous Government's scheme with the sort of concentration which the present Government are suggesting?

Mr. Field

I had hoped that certain parliamentary questions would have been answered by now—they have not been. Otherwise, I might have been in a position to provide the hon. Gentleman with an answer. It is important to get the answer to that question.

There are two immediate questions which should be asked of the Minister tonight. The House should ask the longer-term question how, over the next few years, when fuel prices will double in real terms, the poorest in the community will be protected. I regret that the House will not be dividing on the issue of changing the FIS eligibility limits, because the Division would be one where the public mind would be concentrated wonderfully on how mean is the administration scheme. Prior to the operation of these provisions, a large number of families will have applied for FIS. Will the Minister give an undertaking that those who applied under the old regulations and were found to be ineligible will be followed up and told about the new eligibility rates? We know that large numbers of poor families depend, in deciding whether they are eligible for such benefits, on knowing whether their neighbours are eligible, claim and receive benefit or have claimed in the past and been refused. Will the Minister undertake to mount an advertising campaign on commercial television and in the popular press to tell people about their right to FIS and the new eligibility levels in the heating allowance that will come with claiming?

Although it is late, I hope that we shall take a few minutes to turn our minds to the future. It would be dishonest for my hon. Friends and me to say that we had all the answers to the problems of fuel poverty. I was reflecting earlier that until recent years one could prophesy which people would be poor. They would be those in the "stages of dependency"—those who had children, were unemployed or sick or were old. We now live in an age in which poverty for many families is caused by rising fuel prices.

There are a number of considerations to put on the agenda if we are to move away from the mean scheme that the Government are commending or the slightly better scheme that the Labour Governmen operated in the past three years. Neither is satisfactory, though the previous scheme was more effective.

I hope that when thinking about how to tackle fuel poverty we shall not look only at the size of fuel bills and debts. There is a difference between the attitudes of young and old people. Young people, thank goodness, put the fuel on, particularly if there are young children in the home. I know from experience, not only from those who come to my surgery but from a wide spread of people throughout the country, that old people are fearful of running up debts that they cannot meet. Their needs for fuel are disguised because they do not run up the enormous fuel bills that are incurred by families with young children. When estimating the need for families, old and young, to meet their fuel bills, I hope that we do not take a crude gauge by considering only those in massive debt.

It is clear from the evidence possessed by poverty organisations that there are vulnerable groups—the very old, who are partly helped by the Government's scheme, and those who have to remain home during the day. The latter category does not consist solely of those with young children. There are considerable numbers of people who nurse elderly or sick relatives and they will not get any help from the scheme, even though they are performing a tremendous feat for the community and are providing effective community care. They got help from the previous scheme, but they will get no assistance from the new scheme.

Other vulnerable groups are those living in homes that are difficult to heat and those who are trapped in all-electric households. When we consider the long-term policies for tackling the new cause of poverty, which will grow in importance as the real price of fuel doubles in the next decade or so, we must take those matters into account.

I started my speech, which I hope has not sounded too much like a sermon, with a quotation from the Minister. I end with another. In a reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), the hon. Lady said: I promise … that the Government will give all these issues the consideration that they deserve to help those who will be in need through the winter, whatever the costs of fuel."—[Official Report, 27 July 1979; Vol. 971, c. 1312.] The sad aspect of our debate is that that commitment has been totally ignored. The scheme has been brought forward not because it is the most effective way of helping poorer people to meet their fuel bills, but because the needs of the poor have again been subjected—as they always are, whichever Government are in power—to the main economic strategy of the ruling party.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

This is another tragic day for the House. There will no doubt be tragic days in the future. We are discussing a problem that particularly affects the lower income groups. I represent a constituency in Nottinghamshire. Since the election, there have been statements by Government Ministers on helping the elderly with their fuel bills. But elderly people complain at my weekend surgeries that they will not be catered for as they were under the Labour Government. Government Ministers, and county councillors in Nottinghamshire, which is Conservative-controlled, go on repeating that they care and that theirs is a caring party. That is a sick joke.

The Government will put people in their graves if this winter is similar to last winter. Conservative Members can shake their heads. They do not know what happens at the level of life to which I refer. I have experienced it. I come from it. I know what it is all about. Hon. Members can say what they like. I intend to get off my chest what I want to say. Hon. Members are again shaking their heads. The recent Budget, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) referred, dealt with handouts for the rich. This is what it is all about. This is the cost—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. It is right that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) mentioned the matter. I allowed him to continue with his speech. But it has nothing to do with these regulations

Mr. Haynes

I apologise and I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I repeat, however, that elderly people in my constituency will suffer seriously under the proposals being made by the Government tonight. The message I will take back to my constituency this weekend is that the Government are not prepared to help those people when they are in need but intend to allow them to pass away. If there is another winter like last year, there is no doubt that many of the elderly and those in the low income groups, receiving no benefit from the proposals in these regulations, will suffer—like many more people—from the Government's policies.

11.55 p.m.

Mrs. Chalker

With the leave of the House, I shall try to respond to some of the questions raised on the regulations. I am sorry that Labour Members have not been able to give them a more enthusiastic welcome—

Mr. Rooker

What about the Tories?

Mrs. Chalker

My hon. Friends are very happy with the FIS regulations. They expressed that point of view very loudly when I sat down—but perhaps that is too long ago for the hon. Gentleman to remember.

I do not doubt the sincerity of all those, in the House and outside, who have voiced concern about families who will not be specifically aided by the measures announced for this winter. But I fear that they have seriously overestimated the virtue of last year's scheme. Some of them, indeed, were markedly less enthusiastic about that scheme when it was in operation and when the House discussed it. Many critics of this year's package are criticising with no regard to the state of the economy or the strict discipline that any Government must now follow to improve the economy for the future.

The electricity discount scheme was cumbersome, as everyone has said. It was inefficient. Most important, it was not very generous to individual families. The average amount paid out was £7.50. This winter's scheme will give substantial amounts of cash to families most in need. What is more, they will get this help whatever fuel they use. One of the major difficulties with the electricity discount scheme is that it was precisely that—and the only additional money was the £5 paid to supplementary beneficiaries, regardless of their age or their responsibility for heating costs.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett


Mrs. Chalker

I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would allow me to continue now, but if I do not cover his point, I shall be glad to give way later.

I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) about FIS take-up. Since the introduction of FIS we have had a good deal of experience of advertising the scheme. It is essential at the time of an uprating that we have sound advertising on television, if the number of beneficiaries is to be raised and then to remain at a satisfactory level throughout the year.

It is easy to do the advertising when something is new, but television advertising, which is probably the most effective—along with other media—cannot continue indefinitely. However, I have already had specific discussions about this worrying 75 per cent. take-up. We shall be looking at all reasonable ways of improving it—particularly among single-parent families, many of whom do not claim the increase they should.

This is very much on my mind, and we shall see what can be done. However, each year the figure gets a little better, so far as I can tell. The more that we can talk to lower-paid families about FIS the better. Perhaps I should repeat that, for a family with one child, the prescribed upper limit on earnings under these regulations will be £56. That is a fair amount and a single parent need work only 24 hours in a week with earnings of under £56 to benefit.

Mr. Field

This is a simple question, although the hon. Lady is trying to make out that it is difficult. Will she or will she not have an advertising campaign on television to get this information over to people—not only those who do not claim but the large numbers who claimed previously, and who will be eligible under these regulations? Yes or no?

Mrs. Chalker

The answer is that an advertising campaign is planned to start. I am sure that the rates will be put on the screen. It will alert those who may have tried to claim previously. The increase of £2 in the prescribed amount will affect a fairly small number. There will be some, however, and they should be alerted by the television campaign that will occur at the time of the uprating from 13 November.

I was interested in the argument earlier in the debate about whether funds had been set aside for a fuel scheme for this winter. If the hon. Member for Perry Barr talks to his right hon. Friend the former Chief Secretary I am sure that he will let him in on the secret. It is perfectly clear that the last Government set aside no funds in this financial year for the provision of a fuel scheme this winter. I am sad to say it. Many have pointed out to me that that was because it was an election year, and whatever happened it was not as vital as in previous years when we were awaiting an election. I am not so mean as to think that that was the only reason. I know the main reason. It was the one to which I referred in opening. Any Government faced with an economy in the state in which ours is would be forced to take very strong measures to avoid national decline.

However much dispute there may be among the hon. Member's right hon. and hon. Friends, it is clear to me that no money was set aside for any fuel scheme when this Government took office.

Mr. Rooker

That must be nailed. Whatever the former Chief Secretary may or may not have said, the former Secretary of State for Energy has confirmed that his Department would have made available the money to fund the scheme for this winter.

Mrs. Chalker

I hate to remind the hon. Gentleman, but no matter what an individual departmental Minister decides he wants to put forward it does not go forward without the blessing of the Treasury. The hon. Gentleman is well aware of that. The assertion of the former Secretary of State for Energy simply does not match the facts of public expenditure projections, and neither was it sustained by the television campaign that will occur Labour Party was in Government.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr also spoke of FIS being a subsidy to mean employers. I must remind him that the levels that are now available to lone parents are quite high for short-time employment. I realise that those who can get only short-time jobs and are on low wages are in difficulty. But families with children receive child benefit in addition to the family income supplement. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) is relevant. Unless firms are allowed by other aspects of the economy to move ahead and create jobs they will not be in a position to pay their work forces more.

The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) referred to something I said in replying to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) in a debate earlier this year. I said that I would not rest when it came to helping the elderly. That is true. I made that comment in my opening remarks. I said that it was not just a question of what the DHSS and the Department of Energy did, but that it was also a matter for the Department of the Environment and the Treasury. I added that we intended to keep every aspect of the problem under close review and that the House could be assured of our determination to do so. What I am anxious to do, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is to seek better ways of reaching the poorest elderly and the poorest with young children. That is what we have tried to do within the firm limits set for us in the scheme this year.

The hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) rightly spoke about the difficulties of many families in housing accommodation with unsuccessful heating schemes. I think that we might fairly call them that. This is a matter that every Government Department must examine. It is a problem, because such families use a great deal of energy for little relief of cold. The hon. Gentleman has made that point on previous occasions. I can assure him that I am very conscious of the issue, and that I shall continue to keep it under review, as my right hon. Friend said when answering questions on the statement last week.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Because of this difficulty, there should be some provision in the scheme giving most help to those who are committeed to the highest-cost fuels, particularly electricity.

Mrs. Chalker

I accept that some families in certain types of accommodation have this problem, but the hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the reasons for giving heating additions are not simply the health conditions of the family but can be the type of heating appliances in the household and the size, dimensions and general unsuitability of old rooms for modern living. Therefore, through the heating additions of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, there is already something built in. I agree that there is a problem for people who are not recipients of supplementary benefit. This is a matter that needs wider and longer consideration than we have been able to give it.

I do not want to make a meal of the regulations, with which the hon. Member for Perry Barr was kind enough to say the Opposition were in agreement. It is important to realise that the size of bills and the fact that the elderly are fearful of debt—and therefore do not turn on heating—are the underlying reasons why we must concentrate the available resources on those most in need.

I hope that as time goes by we shall learn more from modern science to help deal with the sorts of problems to which the hon. Member for Birkenhead referred. However, I should be in error tonight, on the FIS regulations, if I went too far down that path and strayed on to the territory of colleagues in other Departments.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned other people with special needs, people who were at home during the day, nursing elderly and sick relatives. Clearly, that is much cheaper than the relatives being in care in an institution—and much nicer for them and their families. That is well understood. The ways in which they can be helped will depend on their individual circumstances. There are various ways in which they may be in receipt from time to time of a totally different benefit, which they choose to use to help with additional heating.

When we look at the total problem of a scarce energy resource and the difficulty of paying for it, we see that families with young children, families in low-paid work, are among the most needy. Among the FIS families are some of the poorest families in Britain. We also know that there are others on the margin, and there is a worry about them.

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that when FIS is awarded it is awarded for a full 52 weeks. If in the interim period there is an increase in wages, that does not immediately mean that the family loses the benefit of FIS; it continues unabated until the end of the 52 weeks.

I am sure that the families that we are talking about, the FIS families, who, by definition, show a great determination to work and support themselves, deserve this help, that we are right to raise the prescribed amounts under the regulations, and that we are right to ensure that the maximum amount is raised for those who are near the top—in fact, for all, but it applies most to those who are near the top.

We shall keep all the matters that have been mentioned under close review. Heating costs must be kept under close review. We cannot do more at present. I commend the regulations to the House as a good starting point, and one that we should support.

Question put and agreed to

Resolved, That the draft Family Income Supplements (Computation) (No. 2) Regulations 1979, which were laid before this House on 22nd October, be approved.