HC Deb 25 January 1982 vol 16 cc618-67

Motion made and question proposed: That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to take immediate action to help those in greatest need to protect them from the consequences of extreme weather this winter by:(a) instructing the gas and electricity industries to cease all disconnections for the next three months, (b) extending Government help by paying to all recipients of State benefits a double payment in one week in the month of February and (c) extending further such help by paying a winter quarter's fuel bonus to those receiving rent and rate rebates and not otherwise included.—[Mr. John.]

Mr. Speaker

I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.39 pm
Mr. Alex Eadie (Midlothian)

Dealing first with the preamble to the motion, although I have been unable to list the freezing temperatures that engulfed the country, it is a fact that we have had the worst weather in the living memory of most of our citizens.

I have selected three examples from the press reports.

The Daily Telegraph of 9 January carried the headlines: Britain in grip of blizzards…Sea freezes as temperatures fall and went on to state: The weathermen say it is the worst winter since 1962–63, with the coldest December since 1890 being followed by, an equally icy January. More snow is on its way and there is no sign of a thaw until Tuesday. The Western Mail stated: Savage grip seizes most of Britain and continued in similar vein. The Daily Telegraph, again, on 11 January said: No let-up as big freeze beats record and went on to describe temperatures recorded as being the lowest in living memory.

I mention those facts because there has been widespread criticism of the Government for failing to act during the agony that the nation was undergoing. Because the terms of the amendment suggest that the Government are so busy congratulating themselves on its wording the Government leave themselves open to the charge that they have not fully grasped the severity of the winter period.

The House must be aware of the welter of controversy surrounding the arbitrary decisions of the gas and electricity boards involved. On 10 August last, reviewing Jane Lorant's pamphlet, "Poor and Powerless—Fuel Problems and Disconnections", The Guardian headline ran: Fuel cut off in 770 homes daily over unpaid bills". That may not be regarded as current, but the pamphlet is extremely relevant to this issue.

In order that the House may appreciate the magnitude of the problem, I quote an extremely current view from a letter that has come into my possession. Incidentally, it is not from a constituent of mine, but I shall not mention the name of the constituency. The writer says: I have to tell you, in the hope something can be done and goes on to state that in his district electricity and gas disconnections average 30/40 a week. One such case I have been with all day today trying to help her, a young widow with two small babies, a boy of 4 years and a girl of 2 years. When I went this morning the wee lad asked me if I was there to mend the fire. I, as a grown man, was choked. The young woman was disconnected, she has no heating or cooking facilities. The children are dressed in coats, woolie hat and gloves because it's bitter inside the home. There hasn't been a hot meal since Wednesday, 6/1/82. She was widowed 5 months ago and she has been and still is paying for her husband's funeral week by week, so she couldn't pay for the electricity that was being used so she has been cut off. I submit that such a letter diminishes every one of us in the House.

The Government must be aware of the various publications and the representations made by a wide spectrum of organisations pointing out the limitations and the ineffectiveness of the codes of practice. Since it became known that today's debate would take place, a shower of documentation has come into my hands. I received representations today from Age Concern. The Right to Fuel campaign estimated in its document that in the year ending September 1979, 86, 854 people were disconnected. Corresponding figures at September 1980 were 117, 189, with the two most recent quarters showing the highest figures since 1975.

The Minister must be aware of the Policy Studies Institute report, which states: Over the past four years there has been an annual average of 115, 000 electricity disconnections and 37, 000 gas disconnections…These figures represent 6 and 3 disconnections per thousand customers respectively. Those documents and other evidence that could be given suggest that there is a case for suspension. The motion states that, with the cruel weather added to all this, it is imperative that the gas and electricity industries cease all disconnections for the next three months. We do not regard seven days' notice of intended disconnection as sufficient. We wish to hear the Government's views on the PSI review. Moreover, the second part of the motion calls for the Government to help by paying to all recipients of State benefits a double payment in one week in the month of February". The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux issued a press release on 20 January in response not only to the PSI review of the electricity and gas industries dealing with the code of practice but to its own experience in the bureaux' day-to-day work. The chairman stated: Our bureaux are already inundated with enquiries from people with serious and multiple debts, among which those for fuel inevitably loom large. I dread to think what the situation will be when fuel bills for the current quarter, with its unusually hard weather, start coming in. It is essential that action is taken immediately to meet an exceptional situation. Referring to the code of practice, the association continued: Fuel poverty is caused by low incomes combined with the high and increasing cost of fuel and the problem cannot be examined fully without reference to these issues…The high cost of fuel is a result of Government policy and unless this is changed, and for example, fuel subsidies are reintroduced, the fuel industries can do little to lighten the burden on the domestic consumer. The conclusions and recommendations of the PSI report are summarised under a number of headings: Repayment arrangements…Prepayment meters…The welfare agencies…Monitoring and arbitration", and so on. It would take too long to deal with them all, but we certainly wish to hear the Government's view. Certainly, in this debate, we are entitled to ask what is to be done about the immediate changes that the PSI recommends.

First, the PSI recommends a timetable for discussions and implementation of the main recommendations in the review. What is the Minister's response to that? Secondly, the PSI recommends that the present codes be strictly observed. Its third recommendation is that tenants should not be disconnected in respect of a landlord's debt. The fourth recommendation is that boards in regions with above average disconnection rates should review their policies. Fifthly, the PSI says that customers with large accumulated debts should be offered a long-term payments plan.

The sixth recommendation is that the industry should list all the large accumulated debts so that a discussion of the possibility of a partial write-off can take place in the light of the scale of the problem. The seventh recommendation is that debt ceilings under the "fuel direct" scheme should not be applied and, lastly, that customers who have been without a supply for a month or more should be offered a pre-payment meter geared to recover the debt.

The Department of Health and Social Security has circulated its offices asking them to put into operation the new regulations that provide for single payments of fuel costs in exceptional weather. I have a copy of those regulations. They are anything but simple. An enormous responsibility will be placed on the Department if it is to implement them satisfactorily. The Minister should give an account to the House of how the regulations are to be implemented. We say to the Minister that a double payment in one week in February should be implemented.

The last part of our motion calls for help to be provided by the payment of a winter quarter fuel bonus to people receiving rent and rate rebates who do not otherwise receive such a payment. In the winter of January 1979 that section of the population received a discount if their electricity bill was more than £20. I do not suggest that that was satisfactory, but the principle was conceded. It was conceded that that section of the population deserved help. Why should such people be excluded from help when they have been confronted with such a severe winter?

We are discussing a section of population that earns low incomes. I hope that the Minister will not tell us that the money is not available and that he will not underline the present spending level. I assume that he will tell us that £250 million is the present spend.

Money is available. Let us examine the Social Security (No. 2) Act. Under that Act large sums of money were grabbed by the Government which should and could have been ploughed into fuel asssistance. I shall list the money that was grabbed from the poorer sections of our population.

Under section 1 of the Act a reduction of 5 per cent. in real terms took place in unemployment benefit, invalidity pensions and other short-term national insurance benefits. The Government told us that there was a saving of £140 million in a full year in that respect. Under section 2, the freezing of the earnings rule for retirement pensioners saved £16.5 million in a full year.

Section 3, which reduces the linking period for spells of unemployment and incapacity from 13 to eight weeks, saves £10 million a year. Under section 4 the abolition of the earnings-related supplements from January 1982 saves £360 million a year, and represents an average weekly loss on sickness benefit of £13; on unemployment benefit, £11.20; on injury benefit, £14.10; on maternity allowances, £8.80; and on widows' allowances, £14.90.

Under section 5 the reduction of unemployment benefit for certain occupational pensioners saves £25 million in a full year. Under section 6 there is a reduction of £13 in supplementary benefit entitlement for strikers' families, which saves about £1 million a year. Money is available to deal with the problem. The Government say that they are spending £250 million, but hundreds of thousands of pounds are available as a result of the Social Security (No. 2) Act.

The Government can do much more in addition. They could examine fuel and lighting. The Government will concede that fuel and lighting costs increased by 345 per cent. for domestic consumers between 1971 and 1981. People are trapped within their home environments. They have no choice in the heating that they can use. Their homes are constructed to give them two choices, at the most. Some homes have no chimneys, so that coal or any other solid heating material cannot be burnt. Coal stocks are at a record level of 40 million tonnes. It would help some consumers if a scheme for concessionary coal prices were introduced.

I promised my hon. Friends that I would speak as briefly as possible. I shall try to underline what I have said. Thomas Paine told the world that God did not make people rich or poor. He made male and female and gave them the earth as their inheritance. We want the people to whom we refer in the motion to receive that inheritance. Unless the Government respond to the motion my right hon. and hon. Friends and I are determined to march into the Division Lobby and vote for it.

3.59 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. David Mellor)

I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof, this House welcomes the steps taken by Her Majesty's Government to protect those most at risk from severe weather in having: (a) at the beginning of this winter fully maintained the value of last year's already substantial help with fuel costs, (b) maintained in the new supplementary benefit scheme provision for payments to meet the extra cost of additional fuel consumption during exceptionally severe weather and (c) continued co-operation with the fuel industries to ensure that the industries' code of practice on payment of bills is operated effectively; and further welcomes the consideration and initiative shown by electricity boards in recently suspending disconnections for seven days". The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) has spoken on energy matters for the Labour Party, in Opposition and in Government, for almost a decade. I congratulate him on that achievement. That makes it all the more difficult to forgive him for one or two of his assertions this afternoon. He will have on his mind, if not on his conscience, the record of the Labour Government of which he was a member. He knows that if our roles today were reversed he would no more accede to the motion than I can.

The hon. Gentleman would not for a moment, for instance, have contemplated a cessation of disconnections for three months. We have just come through a difficult winter, but there were hard winters under Labour. The winter of 1978–79 was in many respects harder than the one through which we have just come. Just how hard that winter was is brought to our attention today in the Electricity Consumers Council pamphlet on elderly electricity consumers, which received some press today.

What was not clearly explained was that that was based, in the main, on data collected during the lifetime of the Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a member. It is right to say that during the five years that he was at the Department of Energy no action was taken by the Government to persuade the industry to stop disconnections. I shall not go into the business of trading figures with the hon. Gentleman, but for every figure that he quotes for disconnections I can quote years during which the disconnection record under the previous Government was substantially worse.

The reason why the hon. Gentleman, when he was a Minister, would not have contemplated issuing such a directive to the industry is clear. It is because of the enormous cost implications that it has for, first, the industry and, secondly, for other consumers. It could only result in increased prices to many people who, while they pay their bills, would not consider themselves to be in a position to bear additional costs because of those who have not paid their bills.

The second part of the motion concerning an extra week's payment in February sounds all very well when advocated from the Opposition Front Bench, but the hon. Gentleman, with his experience of Government, must know that this is a wholly impractical suggestion. Even if it were desirable, it would be impossible to arrange in the time scale set out in the motion. Indeed, I almost rubbed my eyes in disbelief when I saw the proposal.

The hon. Gentleman knows that in the financial year 1975–76 the level of disconnections for both gas and electricity—those were the years when the hon. Gentleman was at the Department of Energy—were higher than in any of the years during which the present Government have been in office. Yet the hon. Gentleman and other right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench managed to keep their consciences still in 1975 and 1976, when they would not even pay the old folks their Christmas bonus.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

That is enough of all that. Let us get on with it.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mellor

I shall not give way now. I shall give way later on.

It is difficult to find very much in the motion that I can accept. I shall not allow—and this is where I shall aim to meet the point made by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham)—the manner in which the hon. Member for Midlothian has put the case this afternoon to deflect me from recognising that many people face serious problems this winter, just as they have faced serious problems during previous winters. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have the honesty to admit that. I am sure that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—whose record in these matters is free from any taint of hypocrisy, or almost free—is ready to admit that.

While it would be impossible for me not to begin my remarks by addressing myself to the two specific suggestions that were made to the Government, I wish to deal, in as non-partisan a way as circumstances will allow, with the problems that exist and the remedies that the Government have sought to put forward.

It is no part of the Government's philosophy that the old and the needy should be worried or cold this winter or any other winter. Well before the onset of this winter, it was clear that the Government accepted an obligation to assist the worst off with their bills. My hon Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security—the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker)—who is responsible for these matters at the Department of Health and Social Services, has a well-known commitment to the disadvantaged and it needs no commendation from me. She will have something to say on these matters when she winds up the debate.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

After that panegyric for his ministerial colleague, will the hon. Gentleman explain why, when the Minister met the South of Scotland Electricity Board in Scotland in relation to the £150 cut-off rate that it has against direct payment by the DHSS, an agreement was reached that an order would be placed before the House allowing for two separate types of payment to be made in "fuel direct" if a household's appliances were only electrical. The Minister promised that, but it still has not been done. That is creating problems for consumers in my constituency and for other consumers in the South of Scotland Electricity Board's area.

Mr. Mellor

I am sorry that if offends the hon. Gentleman that one member of the Government Front Bench speaks warmly of a colleague. I recognise that that does not happen as often on the Opposition side of the House. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security will deal with that matter when she winds up the debate. On the matter of the propriety of any fuel board having a debt limit for "fuel direct", I shall speak about that later, as I have addressed my mind to the matter.

I come to what the Government have been doing this winter for poorer consumers of fuel. About £250 million has been made available in heating supplements. Even allowing for inflation, that is the largest sum that has ever been allocated for that purpose. It is important to recognise that that figure is substantially more than was made available in the last winter during which the hon. Gentleman had care of energy policy. Any suggestion that this is in any way a niggardly response can be met by referring to the fact that each and every winter week some poor consumers are benefiting to the tune of over £4. That is well worth having in addition to all the other entitlements. About 2¼ million people are being assisted.

In addition my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has made it clear that a lump sum payment will be made in cases in which it can be established that an exceptional payment to cover increased demand on fuel bills this winter would be appropriate.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

Will the Minister clarify how that scheme will operate? Is it not a fact that the Government are still allowing regulation 5 of the regulations to operate, which forbids the giving of help to any claimant with savings of more than £300? As most pensioners have £300 put aside for their funerals, does this not mean that almost no pensioner couple or single pensioner will get help under the scheme and that, because they will not get help, some may have to spend their funeral money more quickly?

Mr. Mellor

That is the second perfectly proper interruption on matters of policy relating to the DHSS. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security will wind up the debate and it may be more appropriate for her to deal with that matter. [Interruption.] I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) considers that that was an improper observation. I am sure that the division of responsibility occurred under the previous Administration also.

On the subject of assistance, there is always an issue about whether the categories are wide enough. There is always a case to be made for people who are just over the limit. I know that my hon. Friend is aware of that, but the reality is that to spread more widely must inevitably mean spreading more thinly, given the difficulties under which successive Governments have had to operate.

I give, as an example, the electricity discount scheme. I was glad to see that the hon. Member for Midlothiam was not seeking to rewrite history and say that that was the answer. He knows, and the House knows, that the average payment under that scheme was one payment of £7.50 in one quarter. That is far less than the help that is being concentrated on more than 2 million people by the policies of the Government.

I deal next with matters of more central concern to the Department of Energy which are highly relevant to the matters under discussion today. Fuel prices to domestic consumers genuinely reflect the cost and other market pressures on the supply industries. The electricity industry made a loss last year and is likely to do so again this year. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, the 1970s was a decade of dramatically increasing prices to domestic consumers under successive Governments. I hope that that is now behind us. There is the prospect of that.

This winter domestic electricity consumers will receive a rebate of about 8 per cent. of their average quarterly bill. In cash terms that is about £5 per household. That is because the increase in the price of coal was less than the electricity supply industry expected. The National Coal Board intends that this increase should suffice for 12 months following its announcement. For the first time since 1973 the annual increase in the price of coal will be less than the overall increase in the retail price index. The price of coal is a factor of fundamental importance in determining the cost and hence the price of electricity. It is one of the principal reasons why the nation will welcome the outcome of last week's miners' ballot.

I now come to the gas industry. The Government have taken steps to alter the ludicrous situation that prevailed when the hon. Member for Midlothian held office, whereby the British Gas Corporation was making a loss on the sale of gas to the home. It should be understood by the House and outside that, even allowing for the increases that have been announced by the Government, gas is cheaper in real terms—indeed, 20 per cent. cheaper—than it was 10 years ago. For an elderly couple, dependent wholly on State pensions and other benefits, the cost of using a gas cooker and heating their living room will be about half in real terms what it was 10 years ago. This explains why gas sales have doubled in the past 10 years and why over 2½ million more householders are on gas compared with 10 years ago. International comparisons are frequently made. Domestic consumers in France and Germany are paying 60 to 90 per cent. more for their gas than their counterparts in the United Kingdom.

The question of disconnections, to which the hon. Member for Midlothian drew attention, has been of considerable concern to me during my time at the Department. I welcome the Electricity Council's recent announcement of a seven-day pause in disconnections during the worst of the winter. I have had the opportunity of discussing this matter with the chairman of the Electricity Council, who has every reason to suppose that area boards would act in a similar manner in future severe cold weather.

Mention has been made of the code of practice and the PSI report. I attach the greatest importance to the code of practice and to the supply industries acting with sympathy and discretion in matters of disconnection and repayment of debts. The code has already been revised once under this Government, when my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) was responsible for these matters. This led to a relaxation of the criteria for prepayment meters. The hon. Member for Midlothian will, I know, welcome that, as he will also welcome the news that, in the second quarter of 1981 as against the second quarter of 1980, the number of prepayment meters connected by the electricity industry was up 50 per cent. The code was also amended, under the aegis of my hon. Friend, to make mention for the first time of the blind and the disabled.

The PSI report was commissioned by the previous Government. The amendments to the code to which I have referred went forward notwithstanding the fact that the report was not available. This shows, I suggest, the importance that the Government attach to action in this area. The report shows that the code, on the whole, is working well, but it makes a number of suggestions for improvements. I was pleased to see the positive reaction from the industries and the consumer councils to the report at the meeting of sponsors of the report that I chaired on 13 October. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are now in a period of consultation. The report has been made widely available. Anyone with views on the matter is able to contact the industries and play a part in making suggestions for improving the code.

It seemed to me of the essence that a deadline should be set as early as possible. This would enable any amendments to the code that were necessary to be brought forward before the impact of the main winter quarter's fuel bill. That is why I have asked the industry—I asked back in October before we knew how bad the winter would be—that it should make its report to me in February so that these changes could be implemented before the March bills arrived. I have been asked for information on how these matters are going. I must say that I was impressed by the positive atmosphere that prevailed at the meeting on 13 October.

A number of points arose at the meeting that may interest hon. Members. It was clear on all sides that the code must be strictly observed by all boards. Secondly, it was clear that debt limits on fuel direct should be eliminated. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the proper course to adopt. There should be the closest liaison between the industries and the Department of Health and Social Security or the social services departments of particular local authorities in order to smooth over the difficulties that can arise both while "fuel direct" is going forward and to meet the case of people who may come off "fuel direct" but still need the right kind of repayment arrangements to be made. Further efforts should be made to ensure that reasonable repayment arrangements are available to all customers who might benefit from them.

The Government are not happy that all that could be done is being done on prepayment meters. This matter is being studied by the industry. Further efforts have to be made to find sensible solutions to the problem of large accumulated debts. I look forward with interest to the response of the industries. I shall welcome any representations that are made.

Mr. Maxton

Hon. Members and many electricity consumers will be grateful for the statement that the Minister has made on no limits in terms of fuel debts for direct payment. Will he give an assurance that there will be some form of legislation to ensure that electricity boards carry out what he says? So far as I am aware the South of Scotland Electricity Board has no intention of raising its limit, or if it has. of only raising it and not abolishing it altogether.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman may find that he is being pessimistic. It would be wrong for me to jump ahead on that basis. I have no reason to think that people will not take seriously the undertakings into which they enter It should come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that Conservative Members take a sympathetic view when in office. I represent an inner London constituency. I am aware of the problems, just as Opposition Members are aware of them. One is anxious, within the bounds of what is possible, practicable and fair to all consumers, to try to reach sensible arrangements that will assist the poorest members of the community.

I wish to make some remarks about the present winter. Plainly, the advice that comes from the industries and from my Department to people who are concerned about their bills is "Do not sit at home cold and fretting. Go and talk to the industries before the bills arrive. Get advice on easy payment methods." Much time, trouble and effort have gone into devising the different easy payment methods that are set out in the code. There is plenty of opportunity to make views known if it appears that people have been rebuffed. I have no reason to be cynical and think that they would be rebuffed. I hear hon. Members clicking their tongues. If they are rebuffed, the matter can be brought forward in the proper way.

I wish to be clear on one matter. It has been the view of successive Governments that the power to disconnect must be retained by the industries as the only way of protecting the interests of all consumers. However, it should only be a last resort after every fair and reasonable alternative solution has failed. About 0.5 per cent. of all consumers are subject to disconnection. It would be wrong indeed if, in some of those cases, people were permitted to build up large bills, which could only worsen the industries' financial position and lead to additional costs, which would fall on other consumers. I wish to stress, so that it is clearly understood, that disconnection has to be the very last resort. All those who contribute to the debate on the matter must do all in their power to make sure that all fair and reasonable steps are taken before that point is reached.

I apologise for detaining the House for longer than I had intended, but there is a further matter that I wish to mention. I have already spoken about prices and disconnections. The third limb, which is of great concern to me as a Minister at the Department of Energy, is insulation. We know that all householders qualify for some grant assistance under the Department of the Environment's schemes. I know that all right hon. and hon. Members will have welcomed the recent extension of the 90 per cent. grant to the disabled poor as well as to the elderly poor. I attach particular importance to insulation schemes for the poor and the disabled.

Last week I had the privilege of visiting two of the best neighbourhood schems, one in Fulham and the other in Newcastle. My Department is making grants available to help voluntary organisations in setting up insulation projects. The Manpower Services Commission will spend about £2½ million this year on funding some 37 projects employing about 400 young people, who would otherwise be unemployed, to insulate about 30, 000 homes of poor householders. Plans are already afoot to assist a further 12 schemes, employing a further 150 young people, to add a further 20, 000 dwellings per annum to the 30, 000 that I mentioned earlier. It is clear that many consumers, particularly the poorer consumers, have everything to gain from these projects, because they often live in accommodation that is not well insulated. My hon. Friend and I saw major works being carried out in Fulham on a pensioner's home, which cost the lady only £4 for a team of five men who took almost a whole day to insulate her loft.

We are under no illusion about the hardship that this winter has caused many people. Nor are we self-satisfied about the steps that we have taken. However, we are entitled to say that not only are we aware of the problems, but that we anticipated a number of them to a considerable extent and have done a good deal to alleviate them. It is clear that more is being done this year than in any previous year, however far back one looks. It is possible that more can be done in future years as resources become available, but I ask the House to accept that, in today's circumstances, real progress has been made to help the poorest off with their fuel bills at this difficult time. I hope that in due course the House will reject the motion.

4.23 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I am glad that this debate is taking place today. It certainly concerns a subject that should be discussed here.

There can be no doubt about the immense difficulties faced by many people on low incomes, certainly the elderly, in trying to keep their accommodation adequately heated during the winter months. Reference has already been made to the report of the Electricity Consumers' Council, and to the survey that has just been brought out by that council which shows the problems that are being faced, particularly by elderly people. It shows, for example, that on average pensioners spend less on fuel in the winter than other households do in the summer. It shows that 40 per cent. of elderly households do not heat their bedrooms at all during winter. As we expect, because of our knowledge of such matters, elderly people spend a larger proportion of their budgets on fuel, but have a lower level of heating that the average household.

Much play has been made by the Government today and on previous occasions of the amount of money that they are allegedly spending. The Minister said that £250 million is being spent to help low-income households with their fuel bills. That seems a rather impressive sum, but in a reply that I received recently to a question in which I asked for a breakdown of the £250 million, the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security, said that the bulk of that sum was linked to supplementary benefit payment, which in fact has been paid by successive Governments. What is important is how much new money out of that £250 million is being spent. It appears that it is very little indeed. For example, the sum of £1.65 that is given weekly to pensioners over the age of 70, who must be on supplementary benefit, does not add up to a large amount of money. It adds up to £21 million—that is all. For households on supplementary benefit where there is a child under the age of 5, the total amount is £16 million. Thus, the amount of new money that has been introduced by this Government to help the lowest paid and the lowest income groups with their fuel bills is very small. I might add that it is somewhat misleading of the Government to keep referring to the sum of £250 million as though they had introduced that amount of benefit in the first place.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

If the figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes are correct, surely it means that this Government have increased expenditure in this area by approximately 15 per cent. That is not too bad, is it?

Mr. Winnick

If one takes into account the discontinuation of the electricity discount scheme and the rate of inflation, the improvement is minimal, to say the least.

One of the Government's first priorities should be to pay the £1.65 weekly on a permanent basis to all those who receive supplementary benefit, bearing in mind, of course, that people on supplementary benefit are among those who receive the lowest income. It is difficult to go below the scale of supplementary benefits, and yet any elderly retired couple under the age of 70 on supplementary benefit receives no assistance at all. I leave aside, of course, the single payment that is to be introduced this winter. It should be a priority, in my opinion, to extend the increase to pensioners under the age of 70.

It is also unfortunate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) pointed out in an intervention during the Minister's speech, that the single emergency payment which is to be paid to those on supplementary benefit will not be paid if the person concerned has more than £300. The Minister said that the Under-Secretary would refer to this matter in her reply. I have already received a written answer from the Under-Secretary in which she confirmed it. People—pensioners in particular—who in many cases have saved at least £300—usually for burial purposes, and so on, as my hon. Friend said—will not receive any help under the emergency scheme. We already know that those who have more than £2, 000 cannot receive any supplementary benefit at all, but this is a new form of discrimination against the poorest people in our community, whereby those who have more than £300 cannot receive any help, if they are on supplementary benefit, towards winter fuel bills. I hope that the Government will reconsider this matter.

There are other people, about 1 million pensioners, who receive rebates—rent rebates, and so on—but who are not on supplementary benefit and who receive no help at all with their fuel bills. To receive a rebate in the first place it is necessary to have a pretty inadequate income. Here we have almost 1 million pensioners who receive rebates, so clearly their incomes are sufficiently low for them to qualify for rebates, but for one reason or another they do not receive supplementary benefit. Surely some help could be given. They receive no help on a permanent basis, and they will receive no assistance under the single payment scheme for this winter. The weekly payment of £1.65, which is a pretty small sum anyway, should be extended as a matter of priority to all those who receive rebates but who are not necessarily on supplementary benefits.

Some elderly people do not fear having their gas or electricity disconnected, because they do not run up high bills. The reason for that is simple: they are so afraid of receiving a bill that they cannot pay that they either turn off the heat completely on a cold day, or hardly turn it on. Therefore, their homes are inadequately heated and they try to keep warm by wrapping up in blankets, by going to bed in an unheated room, and so on. That is the way that many elderly people spend the winter months. They are terrified of using fuel properly, because of the bills that will probably follow. They believe that they will not be able to pay them. That is part of the scandal.

The Minister's speech was so complacent that he gave, on behalf of the Government, no glimmer of hope to those who face so many fuel payment problems. The danger of hypothermia increases when people are afraid of heating their homes adequately. As the Electricity Consumers Council survey pointed out, among those aged between 65 and 74 the death rate is 15 per cent. higher in the winter than in the summer and among those aged over 80, it is 25 per cent. higher in the winter than in the summer.

We should also bear in mind that it is not only the elderly who are affected, but the unemployed, single parents, the disabled and all those on low incomes who find it difficult to heat their homes adequately in the winter. For some time I have argued—I did so during the period of the Labour Government and I have tried to press Ministers in this Government—for a comprehensive fuel scheme that will assist those on low incomes. There is no controversy about rent or rate rebates. Is there not, therefore, a strong case for a fuel rebate scheme that would at least give some hope to those on low incomes?

Mr. Garel-Jones

What about the Labour Government?

Mr. Winnick

The Labour Government introduced an electricity discount scheme. It was a small beginning and was not a bold scheme. Nevertheless, it accepted the principle that those on low incomes deserve more assistance with their fuel bills in winter. Like my hon. Friends, I am disappointed that the Government have ended that scheme. The Government's scheme is far more inadequate than the electricity discount scheme that the Labour Government introduced.

We must all accept that the price of gas and electricity has substantially increased during the past eight to 10 years. However, there is a strong case for limiting the increases in the price of domestic fuel. Under this Government the price of gas is being increased by 30 per cent. above the rate of inflation over a three-year period. I should have thought that gas and particularly electricity prices are sufficiently high for subsidies to be re-introduced. Whatever the position, if the Government of the day say that gas and electricity prices are right, I, like my hon. Friends, will argue that they are obliged to ensure that those who cannot afford to pay them are assisted. I refer to the elderly, those on supplementary benefit, those who receive not supplementary benefit but rebates, and all those on low incomes. Such people are being penalised.

Above all, the Government should recognise that such people are not in a position to pay the present price of fuel. The Labour Party recognises that there is an acute problem. The Government must act to solve it. Until such action is taken, hundreds and thousands of people will be unable to heat their homes adequately and will put themselves and their families at risk. It is those people we should help, and about whom the Government should be concerned.

4.35 pm
Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)

I declare an interest, because during the recess I was appointed a consultant to a company in the private sector of the coal industry.

I am grateful to the Opposition for having raised this subject for debate. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) spoke about the disadvantaged. One of the greatest problems is that they lack information. If nothing else, I hope that the debate will provide information to those who are most seriously affected by the high price of fuel during such a severe winter. Except when the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) spoke about some of the political issues that my hon. Friend the Minister has dealt with, I felt grateful to him for the sincerity and compassion with which he—a fellow Fifer—opened the debate.

All sections of society and of industry are concerned about the cost of fuel, particularly during severe cold weather. Of all forms of energy consumption, heating is perhaps the most expensive. There is particularly deep concern for the elderly, who are faced by rapid and bewildering changes in the cost of energy. The Government have made it clear that they are committed to maintaining the real value of pensions by ensuring that they increase in line with the cost of living. I understand that the cost of living will be measured against the retail price index. I should be grateful if the Minister would assure the House that the fuel cost element of family expenditure will be fully reflected in the retail price index. There have been substantial changes in costs and if old age pensions are to keep pace with the rise in the cost of living, that important element should be fully reflected in the retail price index.

Information and education are of prime importance and that is particularly true in relation to conservation, the best appliance on the market for heating the home, and—perhaps equally important—the best use of facilities in the home. Like the hon. Member for Walsall, North I am deeply concerned that the elderly may turn off the central heating and use some other form of heating. All too often the heating that they have turned on to save energy costs is more costly and much less cost effective than central heating.

Much more could be done. Much of our conservation policy has been left in the hands of our nationalised gas and electricity industries. In some ways it is unfair that so much responsibility for education and conservation should be placed on them. After all, there is a conflict of interest. Such industries are in business to sell fuel. They will not make money by encouraging people not to use such fuel. Alhough we must give great credit to those industries for helping to conserve energy and although those who seek guidance are generally given good advice, more must be done to ensure that there are more employees whose sole purpose is to advise about conservation and the best use of such an expensive commodity. Perhaps more could be done to achieve better liaison between those authorities responsible for consumer protection and those responsible for adult education. There seems to be considerable scope for night classes dealing with the organisation of heating bills and how to deal with them, especially when we think of some of the other subjects that are available at evening and adult education classes.

I wonder whether we have done all that we can to seize the opportunities available through senior citizens' clubs such as Age Concern or Probus. There are many senior citizens' clubs. I wonder whether they are given sufficient information so that their members are aware of the facts in a rapidly changing situation and of how they might be helped in these difficult circumstances.

I was interested in what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) said about the South of Scotland Electricity Board and the limit. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. If she gives a less than satisfactory answer, which would be unusual, I shall happily join the hon. Gentleman in a "sort-out" with the SSEB.

I am sure that all hon. Members are aware of the anger felt by many people with small gas bills when they see that a high proportion of the bill is made up of the standing charge. One case drawn to my attention puts this into perspective. In September—not the worst part of the year—an old age pensioner received a gas bill totalling £8.79, of which £7 was for the standing charge. In other words, only £1.79 was for gas consumption. That highlights the problem that is giving concern to many of our constituents. It occurred to me that people faced with such a bill might be advised to buy an electric cooker for less than the cost of the standing charge, thereby acquiring an asset and at the same time having to pay an electricity bill that would be less than the combined gas and electricity bills that such consumers are currently facing.

My arithmetic is not that good, so I decided to seek the advice of someone who understood these matters better than me. I wrote to the chairman of the SSEB, asking him whether there might be scope for a marketing initiative by the SSEB where, as is so often the case, the only gas appliance is a stove. I explained the kind of thing I had in mind, and said that, apart from the consumer, the SSEB could benefit from increased sales. In his reply, on 11 December, he said: The saving in the gas standing charge would be insufficient for the credit purchase of the larger electric cookers. It would, however, be about enough to buy a cooker like the Baby Belling, which has a retail price of £113 and which many old and single people find perfectly adequate. He asked the gas board who these small consumers were in order to offer them this kind of deal. It will not surprise the House to learn that the gas board did not take kindly to his suggestion. To be fair, the gas board pointed out that some people like an alternative form of heating and that there were some worthwhile reasons for having a high standing charge.

The choice should lie with the consumer more than it does at present. I hope that my hon. Friends in the Department, to whom I have written on this matter, will encourage these boards, wherever practicable, to get together on such schemes so that they are positively beneficial and give as much free choice to the consumer as possible.

I am sure that all hon. Members are concerned about electricity and gas charges, but there is also concern in Scotland about domestic coal supplies. The National Coal Board's allocation policy is the last remaining evidence of a rationing system that was familiar at the end of the war. I am told that there is a shortage of domestic coal in Scotland, and that this was especially so during the severe winter weather. One of the alleged reasons is that coal is brought from the South while stocked coal is being crushed for use in power stations that already have substantial supplies. Apparently, the arrangements between the Government, the NCB and the electricity boards make that a better revenue earner for the NCB.

On the other hand, the private sector, which supplies substantial amounts of domestic coal in Scotland, is limited by licensing and affected in its pricing by virtue of the fact that the royalty it pays to the NCB can be up to half the cost of the coal, for which the domestic user must pay. I welcomed what my hon. Friend said about the NCB's current pricing policy, but I believe that a freer regime in coal, as in many other industries, could be of great benefit to the consumer and the industry.

Our ability to help the elderly and the disadvantaged, who are at the root of our concern, inevitably lies in the ability of the British economy and British industry to achieve success at home and abroad. Even when we are concerned about our constituents, we must bear in mind that industry is complaining about the cost that it must pay for energy and its effect on competitiveness. We should remember that the strength of our economy determines whether we can be generous to those whom we wish to help.

4.48 pm
Mr. Geraint Howells (Cardigan)

We like to think that we are a caring society, but in our rush for progress we often overlook the interests of those in need. That fact has been highlighted by recent reports of old-age pensioners and the sick suffering from inadequate heating during the severe winter weather that we have just experienced.

It is well known that my constituency of Cardigan was the worst hit during the severe winter conditions that we experienced a few weeks ago. I have survived three storms on the hills on Plynlimon—one in 1947, another in 1963 and the third in 1982—but I still hold the view that the winter of 1947 was severe for everyone concerned, because it lasted more than 10 or 12 weeks.

My area was severely hit by the weather, and I should like to pay tribute to the staff of Dyfed county council, the Ceredigion district council, the police and the RAF pilots—who in severe weather conditions did their utmost to fly patients to the hospitals in my constituency—as well as to the doctors, nurses and social workers who were involved in providing help.

I wish also to give due praise to the media. They did a wonderful job. We could not receive newspapers, but we were in contact with radio and television. On behalf of my constituents I wish to say "Thank you" to the representatives of the media. I also wish to pay tribute to the engineers who worked so diligently and hard for the South Wales electricity board and the North Wales and Merseyside electricity board. They did their utmost day and night, in severe weather conditions, to try to restore electricity supplies.

Today's report of a survey conducted by the Electricity Consumers Council says that up to 10 per cent. of old-age pensioners try to spend less than £1 per week on heating. That figure is difficult to accept, but it is true. There is no need for me or anyone else to say that it is incorrect. They are also, apparently, resistant to prepayment meters and savings stamps. Elderly people are terrified of the high cost of fuel and would rather suffer the cold than have enormous bills to pay.

We have some disturbing information from Dr. Geoffrey Taylor, who is a leading authority on the subject of the aged and the effects of cold weather on them. He has been saying for some years that even in comparatively mild winters the number of deaths rises by about 300 a day. This winter, he believes that figure to be nearer 600 a day, which is a 100 per cent. increase.

According to the official statistics published and quoted in last Friday's Hansard, in only 596 cases was hypothermia even mentioned as a cause of death. However, Dr. Taylor is talking about 60, 000 to 90, 000 cold-related deaths this year, probably recorded as coronary attacks, strokes and chest infections. Unfortunately, successive Ministers, both Labour and Conservative, have sheltered for years behind a narrow definition of hypothermia to excuse their failure to face the massive increase in deaths during winter months.

We have all been conditioned to accept the traditional view that the higher death rate is an inevitable effect of winter, but we must consider Sweden, where the death rate is almost stable throughout the year, to realise that we fall far short of the ideal in our care and concern for those in need.

Our first priority should be to ensure that elderly people are aware that help is available, that they need not be terrified of keeping themselves warm and that any assistance given is their due and not charity. We are talking about a generation that grew up before the Welfare State. For many, the spectre of the workhouse is a real memory. Their fears must be overcome and the methods of relief explained to them and made easier to obtain.

The Government's present arrangements do not provide for those who are thriftily saving for their own funeral or whose low income is increased by rent and rate rebates rather than supplementary benefit. Those old people should not be penalised, but should be granted automatic assistance with their bills without having to go through the complex procedures at present used.

There should also be a more flexible approach, as recommended today by the Electricity Consumers Council, to the insulation of homes. I approve of its other recommendations—a reduction in electricity tariffs for pensioners with small bills and provision to sell electricity savings stamps in post offices for the convenience of old-age pensioners.

The Government amendment shows a complacency that does them no credit. Despite their claims, the death rate this winter has risen and more and more old people have been put at risk because of the high cost of fuel and their reluctance or inability to seek help. The Opposition motion is inadequate, despite its good intentions. The first two clauses are much too indiscriminate in their application.

The Liberal Party is anxious to see immediate action to help those in need, but it would prefer a greater awareness of the problem by the Government—a realisation that every winter is dangerous for the old and sick and that there is a need for legislation to cater for the future instead of annual panic measures. We must reassure old people that we have not forgotten their special requirements, so that they need never again fear the onset of winter.

Can the Under-Secretary of State, when she replies to the debate, assure the House that legislation will be introduced sooner rather than later to help the elderly and those in need?

4.57 pm
Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)

I, too, am glad that this debate is taking place. It is obviously topical, following the arctic weather conditions that we have had and following the individual cases of difficulty that have been faced by the most vulnerable in the community. I wish to ask, as a number of hon. Members have already asked in the debate, whether we are doing enough and especially whether we are covering a sufficient number of people in our present fuel arrangements.

There is little doubt that the most vulnerable sections of the community are the old, the young and the disabled. The old, especially the very old, are more vulnerable because in many cases they live on their own. To those people especially, the fuel bill is probably the largest single worry in their existence. That is so for a number of reasons. We are dealing with a generation that has been brought up with, and has practised, thrift. Those people do not like the idea of going into debt. They do not accept the hire purchase arrangements that younger sections of the community regard as automatic. They would much prefer to be cold and uncomfortable—indeed to put their health at risk—than run into debt.

It is also the generation that was probably brought up on the premise of "cold stable, healthy horse". That is all very well when one is young, but if the habit persists into advanced years, as is so often the case, it can do considerable damage. That sort of case leads to the sad deaths caused by hypothermia. They are particularly vulnerable sections of the community.

Perhaps we need not be so concerned if the phenomenon were a passing one, but expensive fuel is here to stay. The day of minimal fuel costs is past. It is no longer adequate to take fuel bills into account only in the annual review of pensions and other benefits. The Government recognise that fact, and the Labour Government began to recognise it, too. The Government have substantially improved the available fuel schemes. The automatic addition for fuel costs for people on supplementary benefit over the age of 70 or where there is a child in the household under the age of 5 is to be welcomed, as are the arrangements for the severely disabled. The Government have also recently publicised the fact that single payments can be made in the event of severe weather, such as we have had recently. Those are all steps in the right direction, but they do not go far enough.

Even the improved arrangements cover only a small number of people on supplementary benefit. The total of £250 million a year involved is substantial, but it covers only 2¼ million people. I am increasingly concerned about the growing number of people who are just above the supplementary benefit level or just in the tax net. They may have been thrifty and saved and in many cases may own their homes. They, too, find it difficult to make ends meet. They may become disillusioned and bitter when they compare their lot with people on supplementary benefit or with younger people, whom they believe find it all too easy to get State help. All too often the thrift that they exercised during their working lives seems to attract penalties and not rewards. We must pay more attention to the people just above the margin.

It would be bad for the country's moral fibre if it appeared that thrift, saving and hard work brought no reward while automatic supplementary benefits made life easier for others. I do not deny that people in receipt of supplementary benefit have the greatest need, but we are reaching the stage where the distinction between people in receipt of the assistance and those who are not is becoming far wider than the difference in their circumstances warrants.

Mr. Winnick

Is not one injustice the fact that a person who has savings of £2, 000 cannot claim supplementary benefit, whereas if that person did not have such savings and was in receipt of supplementary benefit, he would also get assistance in the winter months?

Mr. Dean

That is one problem. A line has to be drawn somewhere for receipt of supplementary benefit, but we need more flexibility when dealing with the special supplement for fuel costs.

The problem is not only with fuel costs. The people to whom I am referring feel that they are missing out all along the line. People just within the tax bracket have suffered more than perhaps any other sector of the community beause my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer could not increase personal allowances last year. Everyone is affected by that. Pensioners may find that, as a result of the additional tax liability, the increase in their State or occupational pension has all too often been substantially reduced if not cancelled out entirely. The sections of the community about whom I am speaking always lose when personal allowances are not increased.

Perhaps the classic example is rates. The widow living in the family home, but just above the margin to get assistance, finds that a substantial and ever-growing proportion of her income is spent on rates. People in local authority homes also pay only 5p for their television licences. The people about whom I am speaking must ponder that. Those are only some examples of how they feel that they lose. In addition, with the recent severe weather conditions they will have higher fuel bills but no increase in their income.

I hope that the Government will seriously consider a wider spread of the available help, although that may mean that it will be spread more thinly, as resources are limited. Let me mention four possible ways to give additional help, some of which have already been referred to. I welcome the fact that improvements are being considered—and are likely to be introduced soon—to the code of practice on gas and electricity disconnections. It could be of considerable help to people in a vulnerable position. Improvements in the regular payment arrangements through budget accounts, the fuel direct scheme, prepayment meters and so on, could also assist some of the people about whom I am speaking.

Many people just above the margin also often live in the old family home. The insulation arrangements of recent years are welcome, but I hope that the Government will consider extending them to cover wider categories of people.

Referring back to my point about the old old, a previous Government introduced an additional pension of 25p when people reach the age of 80. I regret that the differential has not been built on, as it could be a way to give more assistance to particular categories of people. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) mentioned people on rent or rate rebates, and we might try to introduce some help for that category.

In conclusion, I welcome the Government's improvements in recent years in difficult economic circumstances, but the experience of this winter has shown that the present arrangements are not adequate; they do not cover a sufficiently wide section of the community and they should be improved and widened as soon as resources become available.

5.10 pm
Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

The hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Paul Dean) was right when he referred to the group of people, particularly pensioners, just above supplementary benefit level. Those who have paid into pension schemes all their lives—railwaymen are a good example; they have paid £7 or £8 a week—receive pensions on top of the national pension, taking them out of national benefits. They suffer particularly when temperatures fall below zero, as they have recently. However, those people suffer that problem all year round because, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, they fall out of schemes throughout the year.

I accept that attention has been drawn to the plight of elderly people during the severe cold weather, but there is a continuing problem which hon. Members often fail to recognise. Indeed, many authorities also fail to recognise the severe hardship suffered by people because of the fuel problem.

I am sure that many hon. Members, when visiting their constituents over Christmas and the new year, were horrified to find the abject poverty that they suffer, at a time when we are supposed to have an abundance of energy supplies. Britain is now the world's wealthiest nation, bar none, in terms of energy.

Engineers and physicists have given us the possibility of North Sea oil. However, the energy consumed by the average household has gone down over the years and not up. It is not a question of how much money is being paid. The number of therms consumed by the average household is being reduced because of the allowances now made.

When one looks around a constituency, one sees the pathetically low standards that people are suffering in the so-called "modern age". In 1978 my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), then Secretary of State for Energy, argued—indeed, the case was published in Green Papers and various other Government documents—that every household should have adequate lighting and heating. When the 1978 projections are reflected on and brought up to date, one can see that we are further than ever from that objective, despite the potential to which I have referred.

What can we do about the present situation and what do we demand from the Government? It is not generally understood just how little heating is purchased for every £1 paid. The realisation of what households can afford seems to be missing.

I recently read reports written by experts. They lay down what they call "minimum standards"—not luxury standards. For example, in a very small home, with 600 sq ft of floor space, and the average insulation of a council house, an ambient temperature of 40 degrees would require 4kw per hour for 15 hours a day. That would just lift conditions in a household to a reasonable standard. As I said, it would be nothing luxurious.

The domestic rate for electricity in London, is 5.02p per kilowatt. Therefore, for the recommended 4 kw—being the minimum--the cost is about 20p per hour or £3 a day. Households of the sort that we are talking about are a long way from that. They do not get such an income. They are asked to find £3 a day for fuel to exist at a reasonable level. That is how poverty-stricken we are.

We are divorced from reality when talking about fuel conditions. The experts say that the average household wants another 5kw for some cooking and lighting. That amounts to 25p a day at the London electricity board rates and means a weekly winter cost of £22.75—double the average rent payment. The key is the relationship between winter fuel bills, average rents and the amount paid in rates.

When the Supplementary Benefits Commission and others put their heads together to see how they can assist those on minimum income levels, they start talking about figures very different from those that I have given. Indeed, they have already said that a couple living on £50 a week total income and paying £10 a week rent, excluding rates and other items, are entitled to a rebate of £6.42 because they cannot afford to pay that sort of rent out of the £50.

If a family cannot afford to pay that sort of rent and need the £10 a week rent rebated by £6.42, it is utter nonsense to talk about minimum heating standards, some lighting and a bit of cooking costing a family £22.75 a week. That is out of the question. Yet, if they are not in receipt of some supplementary assistance, they can turn to no one for help. They have to shuffle up into a corner, wrap themselves in newspaper or blankets and exist in darkness except, perhaps, for the glimmer from a television set. They cannot afford to have the television and a light or some heating at the same time. They wrap themselves in anything, simply to exist. My God, what sort of state are we in?

What sort of modern world is this? The standards I refer to are no more than abject poverty and it is an utter condemnation of every politician who claims to do something for his constituents when the contradictions are so extraordinary and when we talk about rent levels against the average fuel bills, or what the experts say must be the minimum standards. Too many hon. Members wish to speak for me to quote from the experts' other reports.

It was suggested earlier that some elderly people are frightened of getting into debt. The truth is that they are frightened of having their electricity supply disconnected. The LEB appears to threaten to disconnect a supply when the debt reaches about £100. That will buy only 2, 000 units of electricity, which will not keep anyone warm for long, according to the standards set out in the experts' reports. Elderly people are frightened, not of getting into debt, but of having their electricity supply cut off. They have no one to turn to and they cannot be helped.

About 3, 100, 000 people receive rate rebates and we need to devise a method of helping them. It is not beyond the wit of Governments to recognise their needs and to help through a system of rebates. I understand the problems involved in across-the-board reductions in fuel costs, but we must do something for those in the most urgent need.

I have already suggested to the Secretary of State that something could be done by way of a national rebate scheme for energy. We help people with rent and rate rebates, and we could issue tables, similar to those used for rent and rate rebates, setting out the rebates of energy bills, according to a person's income. That would help those in most need. The numbers receiving rent rebates is lower, because about 1.4 million owner-occupiers are not included.

In October 1980, the latest date for which figures are available, the average rent rebate was £4.55 a week. That £200 a year would go a long way to help people to increase their energy consumption to something like a reasonable level. We could help those who are just above the supplementary benefit level. It would cost about £250 million a year to do something for fuel consumers, and that would make a world of difference to those who depend upon additional allowances.

Mr. Albert Roberts (Normanton)

There would be many anomalies if we allowed rebates. The Government, like their predecessors, believe in conserving energy by making the price prohibitive. That is at the base of the problems of industry and domestic consumers. Our energy policy is wrong. We have an abundance of energy and we should not be made to conserve through price control.

Mr. Atkinson

I agree that we should break from rationing by price, which has always affected those whom Labour Members represent. That has always hit the poorest sections of the community, and the principle is wrong.

We do not say that the 3 million to whom I have referred should be denied minimum standards. We must devise a way to allow them to lift their standards to the minimum level recommended in the experts' reports. They are entitled to our support and the motion is directed towards them.

I hope that every hon. Member will give a clear message to the Government that we want assistance to be given to those most in need so that they can have minimum standards of heating. We should reject the amendment and get on with devising a scheme to bring help quickly lo those in the greatest need.

5.25 pm
Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) did the House a service in the earlier part of his speech when he emphasised that it is incumbent upon us to find a method of allowing the sections of the community to which he referred to live a reasonable life in normal conditions, let alone in the sort of severe winter that we have experienced this year.

Every hon. Member probably recognises the problem, but we have to recognise that it must be put in the context of what is happening to fuel costs generally. One of the peculiar characteristics of this country is that until recently costs to industry were higher than those to domestic consumers. That has not happened anywhere else in the world, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has taken some correct decisions in that area. Logically, industrial users should pay less than domestic consumers. That should not be forgotten in the debate.

I welcome the debate, and the important question to be answered is whether the Government's policies are attuned to the needs of those in most difficulty. I suggest that the present scheme, which is 30 per cent. better than when we came into office, goes a fair way towards meeting the needs of the over-70s on supplementary benefit and the families on supplementary benefit who have a child under five.

However, the scheme does not suffice in all areas. I have the privilege of representing a new town, and in new towns there are many younger married couples and, alas, too many single-parent families. The problem there is not so much the surge of costs in the winter as the cash flow difficulties of some families and the old policy of electricity and gas boards to rush in to disconnect supplies.

Until about six months ago, an individual seeking help in phasing energy payments had to go on bended knee to get a prepayment meter from the electricity or gas board. I welcome the steps taken by my right hon. Friend to improve the code of practice. I understand that its implementation is to be brought forward and that there will be a much more flexible approach to disconnection and the provision of prepayment meters. There is the problem of the 3 million who are on rent or rate rebate, which cannot simply be landed in the laps of Ministers. We must consider the tariff policies of both the electricity and the gas boards. Although it may be unfortunate to refer to it this afternoon, British Rail, within its tariff structure, has devised schemes for the elderly which are extensively used. Credit should go to British Rail and the way in which it has implemented its special schemes for pensioners, families with children and others.

It should not be beyond the wit of the electricity and gas boards to have a long hard look at their tariff structures. They have not yet done that. There was the report when the Monopolies and Mergers Commission examined the CEGB, but there has been no investigation of any of the area electricity boards. I do not speak with any authority on the East Midlands electricity board, but I know from my conversations with the management of the board that it would welcome greater flexibility.

I do not represent a London constituency, but when I read that the London electricity board lost £5 million last year on running its electrical appliance shops I have to ask what that board is doing. Where are its priorities? The message that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs can take from this debate is that the Government should have some hard discussions with both the electricity and gas industries, to ensure that some real work is done on tariff restructuring. That may mean that those of us who are able-bodied and in work must accept a marginal increase in the price per therm that we pay. There should be more flexibility. That may involve the Government giving some extra help to put the scheme on its way, such as a reduced requirement on the financial return from the industries.

When one electricity board loses £5 million, one wonders how many other boards have lost money in the previous year. I do not know whether any other hon. Member knows the answer. On reading the annual reports from British Gas, the CEGB and the area boards, one is pushed to find the true cost of some of the exercises they are carrying out. I know that I make this plea almost ad nauseam, but I hope that the Public Accounts Committee—where I should now be—will be used as the means whereby the House can and should investigate what is done in our nationalised industries.

5.33 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

All my constituents will be disappointed by the Minister's reply, because they were hoping that the Government would give some positive help with their fuel bill problems. The Minister offered little, except to say that fairly soon the Government would produce an improved code of practice.

The mark of a civilised society is the amount of freedom that it allows to its citizens. Freedom from fear must be one of the most important. Sadly, all those on low incomes, whether in work, on State pensions, unemployed or on sickness, supplementary or disabled benefit, always live with the fear that some disaster or problem will occur for which they cannot afford to pay. Such a disaster was the very cold spell just before and just after Christmas. It is worth remembering that the winter of 1947, to which people often refer, started only in the last week of January, so it is possible that we have more cold weather to come.

Our most important priority is to ensure that we raise the income of those on low pay, the pensioners, the sick, the disabled and the unemployed, to a decent level. This would mean that they would not always have to live with the fear of poverty and the problems that result from it. They would not have to fear turning up the heat, putting on the gas or the electricity, and that they could afford adequate heating even in the coldest of weather. That is a question of raising their income to a decent level. It is all very well to talk of discounts, for example, but the basic problem is that those people do not have enough money. That is what we must consider.

Of necessity, the motion puts forward what are little more than palliatives. What the Labour Party want is a direct income for those who are now on low incomes. However, in addition to the palliatives we must send a firm message to the gas and electricity boards to stop penalising the poor. Standing charges, for example, are one of the meanest policies of the gas and electricity boards. It is a penalty imposed by the gas board on those who use electricity, and by the electricity board on those who use gas. Standing charges hit small consumers very hard. The boards claim that they have costs which they have to recoup from those using little fuel, such as reading the meters and connections. However, standing charges do not reflect any real cost that the boards can detail. It is a subsidy from the poor to the rich.

I can give the example of one of my constituents who wrote to me last week. He lives in a purpose-built old people's flat. The flat comes, more or less, down to the road, so that the length of cables and pipes used by the gas and electricity boards is probably less than a yard. My constituent has the new types of meter by the front door. They have glass panels so that the gas and electricity meter readers can read them without knocking on the door. Therefore, the connections and the ability to read the meters mean that the boards incur few costs in supplying this consumer. What is more, he pays his bill as soon as the demand comes, because he prides himself that he has the money to pay, so there is no second demand.

My constituent's son lives in a fairly nice, prosperous house with a long drive. The meter man has a long walk and there are long lengths of pipe and cable. Very often, when the meter man comes the son and his family are out, and even when they are in, the meter man has to go in through the front door, down the hall, down the cellar steps and into the far dark corner of the basement to read the meter. Also, the son makes it a principle never to pay until the red bill comes. He thinks that the electricity board can wait because it is more worth while for him to have the money in his bank. Despite that, the two households pay exactly the same standing charges. How can the gas and electricity boards justify that? One of my examples maximises the costs, the other minimises them, but the boards make the same standing charges.

The boards should either work out the real costs of the fixed expenses for each consumer and charge on that basis, or standing charges should be abolished. The boards will say that it is far too expensive to work out actual charges, and of course it is. Therefore, we should get rid of standing charges and put a minor increase on charges to stop that penalty.

The boards tell us how much prepayment stamps help the low-paid, and pensioners, but it is the boards that benefit most from them, because they get the money in early. Some pensioners in my constituency were buying stamps in the summer to meet their winter bills. Everyone who uses stamps has, of course, bought them before receiving his bill and has provided the boards with money well in advance. It is no wonder that the boards are keen to push the sale of stamps. If the boards want to help the low-paid, they should sell the stamps at a slight discount. That would encourage consumers to use them and it would be fair to those on low incomes.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, when we had low fuel costs, the boards ripped out prepayment meters with great enthusiasm. That was a tragedy. They have shown a great reluctance to replace them. When they were threatened that if they did not respond they might lose the right to disconnect, they began gradually to replace prepayment meters. They were reluctant to do so until that stage was reached.

In the North-West there are about 200 meters that take plastic tokens that destruct as they pass through the meters. There is no chance that the meters will be robbed. The boards can overcome the problem. The risk of robbery was always one of the boards' excuses for not replacing prepayment meters.

The Minister should insist that anyone who asks a gas or electricity board for a prepayment meter has the right to have one installed immediately. Those who make that request should not have to show that they have problems in meeting their bills.

I am disgusted by the number of occasions when the boards, especially the gas board in the North-West, demand deposits before they will reconnect. Sometimes consumers have struggled for months to pay off debts with a view to being reconnected. They clear the debt and then the boards say "We want a reconnection charge and a deposit." That seems to be grossly unfair. If I or social workers complain to the gas boards, they immediately remove that charge. The charges are not essential, but they are one of the penalties imposed on low-income families, which have the most problems.

I have been told repeatedly by the boards that if they did not have powers to disconnect they would find their fuel debts ever increasing. As a result of parliamentary pressure, including pressure from both Labour and Conservative Ministers, the boards have gradually reduced the number of disconnections. That has not resulted in a mushrooming of fuel debts. When all the factors are taken into account it seems that problem has not worsened very much. The fact that people do not use the fuel that they need is probably a worse problem. Surely, we could make much more progress in stopping disconnections by making it a much more complicated process for the boards. When they are told that they have to stop, they manage to find other ways in which to get their money.

The sad feature for my constituents, especially for those who are unemployed, is that when they cannot afford adequate heating at home they find it increasingly difficult to find warm public buildings to which they can go. There are local authority cuts, and as a result the opportunities to visit local libraries or to use sports and recreational facilities are cut. Those on low incomes cannot escape the coldness of their own homes by visiting warmer public places. In Stockport the parks department has complained about the amount of fencing that it is losing, because people are taking it to burn on their fires to keep themselves warm.

The Government must provide extra money. They must give the amount that they did not provide in increased pensions and supplementary benefit in the autumn. I refer to the one week of benefit that they have denied to all those who are eligible to receive it. The Government must give them that as quickly as possible. They must give something to those who are out of work, and especially to those on rent and rate rebates. We must have no standing charges imposed by the gas and electricity boards. We must establish a clear policy of installing prepayment meters. There must be no reconnection deposits. There must be much more vigour from local authorities in securing sufficient money for home insulation grants. Half way through last year many authorities ran out of funds for making such grants. I hope that the Government will ensure that no authorities run out of funds this year.

If we want to call ourselves a free and democratic society, we must take away from people the fear of poverty and the fear of going cold because they cannot afford to keep warm.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I remind the House that six hon. Members are trying to catch my eye and that the first of the Front Bench spokesmen hopes to catch my eye at about half-past six. The time at which the Front Bench speeches begin is a matter for the House to decide.

5.46 pm
Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

This sort of debate is extremely useful, as it allows hon. Members to advance many ideas to meet a problem that is acknowledged by everyone. Ministers have the opportunity to consider hon. Members' ideas and to examine them with a view to taking them up at some stage.

The hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) talked about standing charges. Meter reading must contribute a substantial amount to the standing costs of gas and electricity boards. It seems crazy that separate meter readers are still toddling up drives to carry out a simple operation that should be rationalised sufficiently so that one reader for each area is able to do it. We talk about the issue year after year, but nothing seems to be done. That is a matter that should be pursued.

Some claim that there is an abundant supply of energy and that rationing is taking place through pricing. It is wrong to suggest that we have a vast surplus of gas. In fact, we have been short of gas and industry has been deprived of it. The reason for that lies largely in the imbalance in the pricing of gas for the domestic consumer and the industrial consumer and the consequent imbalance of consumer demand. The Government are right to try to get a pricing balance.

I can speak with deep feeling about the effects of this winter's weather. On 13 December a freezing blizzard swept through Devon and Cornwall and struck the area where I live, wiping out electricity supplies for five or six days and causing my oil-fired boiler not to switch on when it should have done, the time switch having been duly set in my absence. That resulted in five burst pipes in the roof and thousands of pounds worth of damage throughout the house.

There is a lesson to be learnt from that, which should be made public. However hard we try to plan for absences from home, and although we may arrange for time switches or frost-stats to switch on our boilers, if electricity supplies are cut off through storm and tempest, and if cables are knocked down, no heating will come on unless it is supplied by gas. Therefore, we cannot rely on an emergency system that we think has been carefully worked out.

If it is necessary to leave our properties—it is necessary for hon. Members to travel to Westminster and families may, for example, decide to go away at Christmas—we must ensure that water supplies are turned off if we are to avoid the sort of damage that was inflicted upon my house.

We have been advising everyone to lay levels of insulation material throughout roofs and directly above ceilings, and we have dutifully carried that out. Many people have received grants so to do. We have duly lowered the temperature in the roof space by about 10 degrees, thereby causing pipes to freeze when hitherto houses had a flow of warm air passing into the roof spaces, which prevented bursts from taking place.

I have spoken to a number of builders who have been involved in emergency operations in recent weeks. They have all stated that insulation has been the major cause of burst pipes and damage in houses. We are rightly encouraging the public to conserve energy by laying insulation material in their roofs, and we are even advising them to instal frost-stats for example, but a leaking pipe that is caused by a burst is not discovered quickly—hitherto the water would have dripped through the plaster and on to the bed of the person below—because the water soaks into the insulation material for hours, which leads to the accumulation of a considerable weight of water, which brings down the ceiling.

We must advise people to ensure that the roof eaves are insulated in some way or that there is protection for the pipes under the roof. Older houses that are properly built contain eaves insulation, but many others, including my house, do not. It is more sensible to put lightweight thermal boarding along the eaves in the roof space as insulation rather than lay 4 in. to 6 in. of fibreglass material. I speak from experience. My house has been damaged on two occasions. If a 70-mile-an-hour freezing wind blows through the roof tiles and through an unheated roof space, the insulated, lagged pipes freeze up, as mine did. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take that important point on board, because it has come home to me and many others during the severe weather.

The Opposition motion calls for a three-month moratorium on disconnections and substantial financial help for all those receiving State benefits and rebates. That would represent a vast expenditure and could only result in higher fuel charges. I do not agree with those remedies although I believe that some of the suggestions for dealing with those on rebates should be carefully examined. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) suggested that that should be considered.

In this exceptional winter, there is no doubt that some extra help is required for the disadvantaged in our society. I am pleased that we have seen a willingness on the part of the Government to provide that extra help through the measures that have been introduced. There is the automatic protection for families with people who are over 70 or under 5 by the basic heating addition and the supplementary benefit heating addition in November. Those add up to and appreciation of the difficulties faced by poorer families.

The voluntary code of practice has been discussed. In the last 12 months the relationship between local electricity and gas offices dealing with non-payment and disconnection and the DHSS has improved considerably. The only major problem about which I have heard concerned the cutting off of water supplies. It appears that there is no provision, through the DHSS, for paying towards the payment of water charges through supplementary benefit. However, that is another matter.

Although I support the Government's action in helping with heating problems, I draw attention to the problems faced by the disabled consumer. We all know that, in general, disabled families have lower than average incomes and require above average heating levels, because of their handicaps and disabilities. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to learn from a recent Disablement Income Group study by Richard Stowell that 45 per cent. of disabled people on supplementary benefit regard heating costs as a major problem.

There are a number of reasons for disabled people's extra fuel costs. First, some disabilities, especially those that limit mobility, predispose people to feel the cold more than others, so that a higher level of heating is required. In many cases heating is required in the summer months as well as in the winter.

Secondly, people with disabilities may have to heat more rooms for longer periods. For example, they are more likely to be at home all day, and they may need more heating in the bathroom and the bedroom because routine tasks such as washing and dressing take longer.

Thirdly, disabled people may be more dependent on electrical appliances, with a consequent increase in fuel use. For example, incontinence will increase considerably the use of water heaters, washing machines and driers.

Fourthly, with a lower than average income, few disabled people can afford the installation costs of the most cost effective forms of heating, nor can they easily afford adequate insulation, which would enable them to use their heating more efficiently. Low income inhibits saving, which means that people with disabilities often have no resources with which to meet the crisis that an unexpectedly high fuel bill represents, as in recent months.

In 1979 the average spending on fuel by households with income from disability benefits was significantly higher, at £5.23 per week, than the average of £4.76 a week for all households. Higher fuel expenditure is found for all types and sizes of accommodation for disabled people. In 1979 the average fuel expenditure was 7.5 per cent. of total income for households with some income from disability benefits, compared with 6.9 per cent. of total income for general households. The Disablement Income Group survey showed that a quarter of the sample of disabled people on supplementary benefit spent more than a third of their income on fuel. About 15 per cent. of that sample said that they were often without heating. We must agree that that is a high and disconcerting figure, given the need for heat for those suffering from many disabilities.

Since December 1980 the fuel industries' code of practice has offered extra help to people with disabilities, but the recent review of the working of the code shows that it has not offered adequate protection against disconnection. One third of those in the Policy Studies Institute survey who had their electricity disconnected said that a member of their family had a long-term sickness or disability or had had a serious accident or illness recently. About 7 per cent. were registered disabled. Those with some sickness or disability did not obtain reconnection quicker or slower than other customers.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give as much help as possible to disabled consumers because of their problems with extra heating costs in their homes. They also need extra equipment so that they can pursue a normal life. That shows conclusively that they face particular difficulties during extreme weather conditions, such as in the last month or two. I hope that my hon. Friend will take those factors into consideration when working out what extra help can be given for the costs that those people have to bear during such crisis periods. The Government have done a great deal already. They have helped the handicapped and the disabled with their heating costs, but a great deal more help would be appreciated.

5.58 pm
Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I should like to make a small point about the remarks made by the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam). In Scotland it is standard practice that roofs are lined with some sort of insulation, yet my pipes froze in my attic. Therefore, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had the answer to the problem.

I welcome what the Minister said about abolishing the concept of a limit on fuel debts, a level above which the fuel boards will not allow direct payment from the Department of Health and Social Security. The South of Scotland Electricity Board has been operating a policy of allowing a debt of £150 in the last two years. If the debt was above that, the customer was refused direct payment and disconnection followed. That is the lowest debt allowed by any board in the country.

It is worth pointing out that the board said last summer that it was prepared to abolish that limit if the Government were prepared to allow large numbers of households to be all-electric. That is so in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown). The DHSS regulations state that sums of £1.10 can be deducted and paid direct to the electricity and gas boards. What there cannot be with all-electric housing is a deduction of £2.20 for the electricity payment. The SSEB has said that if the Government are prepared to allow that, it will raise its limitation considerably. Indeed, in view of what the Government have said, I am sure that it will be prepared to abolish its upper limitation completely.

Although the SSEB bears some responsibility for setting such a low limit, the imposition followed directly from Government action in changing the regulations on supplementary payments so that fuel debts could not receive a special needs payment except in the most exceptional circumstances. The SSEB decided to impose that limitation following that change. Until then, it did not impose such a limit on its customers' debts because it knew that in a large number of cases the DHSS would make a supplementary payment, a special needs payment and then a direct payment, which would mean that the SSEB would get its money. I hope that the Minister will explain more fully what has been going on in relation to the SSEB.

I wish that Ministers with responsibilities in Scotland would recognise that Scotland is colder for longer than the rest of the United Kingdom. Although the West of Scotland did not suffer the heavy snowfalls that were suffered in Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom, the lowest temperatures recorded during the cold spell were in Scotland. To some extent, therefore, we have a harsher problem than many other areas and we suffer it more often and for longer. One can generally say that in Glasgow we turn our heating on earlier in the winter and turn it off later and therefore tend to have higher fuel bills. Unfortunately, the DHSS and to some extent the Scottish Office do not recognise this fact and fail to take it into account in making rules and regulations concernng the payment of electricity bills.

Mr. Norman Atkinson

You are getting soft.

Mr. Maxton

My hon. Friend says that we are getting soft. That is not so, but I have many constituents who are old and who have suffered considerably during the past few months as a result of the extreme climatic conditions. They have suffered more than they might otherwise have suffered because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) said, the problem is not merely about high electricity bills. It is not just the fact that many old people are afraid to turn their electric heaters up and to keep them on for long periods. Government cuts and other measures have made the position worse.

The hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson) described the problem in terms of increasing pension and supplementary benefits and asked whether fuel costs were sufficiently taken into account in the price index. I would say that, in the sense in which he means it, they are not. It is the price index that is wrong. We need a separate price index against which to set pensions and supplementary benefits, which takes into account the rises in the cost of living related to the needs of those who are poorest. That would be a totally different index from that which applies to the rest of us who are better off. Fuel, rents and rates have all increased much faster than the cost of living. Those are three basic elements of poorer people's budgets, so the cost of living is much higher and has risen more quickly for them than for the rest of us. That is one element that should be taken into account, but there are others A small example is the cuts in the money available to local authorities to spend on housing repairs. In Glasgow, we have faced enormous problems in the numbers of burst pipes and the damage that has been caused to council property as a result. It will take some time for all those pipes to be repaired. Presumably the local authority has to pay compensation for damaged furniture, carpets, curtains, and so one. If local authorities do that will the Government ensure that they receive all the necessary money? If the Government do not do that, the tenants will find themselves even harder hit because the money for normal repairs will not be available.

Everyone talks about the higher fuel bills that result from the cold weather, and that is true, but if one has had a burst pipe extra fuel costs will be incurred as heating will have to be put on to ensure that the house is dried out as much as possible.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Aberdeenshire, East)

The hon. Gentleman refers to burst pipes in council houses. Can he tell us whether Glasgow corporation insures itself against these things? Does it take out a policy with an insurance company, as any private individual would, so that the damage can be reclaimed from the insurance company?

Mr. Maxton

Unlike many hon. Members, I shall simply confess ignorance. I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's question, but I am certainly prepared to find out and to discuss the matter with him at a later date.

There is a continuing dampness problem in Glasgow, in that many people in council housing are trapped in a situation for which there seems to be no solution. To reduce the dampness they must increase the heating, which leads to higher bills that they cannot afford to pay, so they then have to reduce the heating, which means that the dampness increases.

The Government must ensure that money is made available to pay poorer people's heating bills and ensure that for the rest of the period no more people suffer as a result of further cold spells because, despite what the Minister has said, the winter is not yet over.

6.8 pm

Mr. Mike Thomas (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

I shall not follow the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), save to say that we in the bleak North-East of England envy the climate of the balmy West of Scotland.

Today's debate will do nothing for those who are seriously affected by the issues before us if we discuss the problem as part of the old "kettle calling the pot black" form of politics, although I am glad to acquit Back Bench contributors of that charge. This is a complicated problem which is not susceptible either to the opportunist Labour Supply day motion, which calls for measures that Labour Members would never have implemented if they were in office, nor to the complacent Government amendment. A number of interrelated problems arise. The sum total of successive Governments' actions in this area shows that neither the Labour Government nor the Conservative Government have been all good or all bad, and it is stupid and disrespectful to those suffering from these problems to pretend that either is the case.

There is no doubt that the very large increase in energy prices has caused and will continue to cause substantial hardship. The Select Committee on Nationalised Industries considered the problem in 1975–76 before it had its current sex appeal and made recommendations on the major problems before us. As a then member of the Select Committee and a then supporter of the Labour Government, I must say that the Labour Government's response was less than comprehensively good, even though the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) was then Secretary of State for Energy.

On disconnections, the Select Committee made it clear that unless steps could be taken to ensure that electricity and gas boards behaved in a more socially responsible fashion other measures would have to be taken to restrain them.

Indeed, the Labour Government issued the code of practice, which I believe was improved a year later. There is now an excellent and full report from Richard Berthoud of the PSI. It is no use Labour Members feeling indignant about it—the scheme did not work perfectly under Labour. I was among those who raised the problems involved. The scheme does not work perfectly now. That might say more about the electricity and gas boards than about either of the old political parties.

The PSI recommendations should be implemented by the Government. However, from the report we can see how complicated the problem is. I believe that a three-month moratorium on disconnections is a gimmick which is unworthy of the official Opposition. One solution posed by the PSI is the greater use and, in some cases, the compulsory installation of pre-payment meters. The Select Committee examined that and made a similar recommendation. Neither Government have done much about it. The administrative convenience of the boards has prevailed.

I accept that the installation of pre-payment meters is up by 50 per cent., as the Minister said, but the absolute figures are still low. I believe that the figures have risen from about five pre-payment meters per thousand to six or seven per thousand in the years since the proposal was made. It is about time that the Government—and they happen to be a Conservative Government—started to lean on the electricity and gas boards to do the job and to do it properly. They should not approach the problem in the faint-hearted way that Governments have in the past.

The Select Committee anticipated developments in social security and made four recommendations. Two of them—the development of the "fuel direct" schemes and special consideration for tenants in "no-choice" electrically-heated accommodation—have been the subject of considerable progress. Two others—incorporating the lowest rate of heating addition into the scale rates and dealing with people who did not qualify for heating payments, in particular the low-paid—have a less satisfactory outcome.

It took us 12 months to persuade the Labour Government to include rate and rent rebate recipients in the electricity discount scheme. It is depressing that the present Government have taken us back to square one. In that respect I agree with the spirit of the Labour motion. The refusal by the Government to deal with that group, which all sides agree to be poor and in need, and which is not dealt with by the present scheme, substantially undermines the credit that the Government might claim for improving their own scheme—by reducing the qualifying age, for example—since they came to office.

Because of the Government's record in being so mean in their instructions and practice in relation to the exceptional needs payments I have grave doubts whether the Secretary of State's 14 January circular will receive the response that it deserves. How much do the Government expect to spend on such payments? We should like to know exactly what the payments will be worth in real terms. May we have an assurance that we shall be informed about the take-up figures following the announcement and the measures that are being taken to publicise the announcement?

The Government should tell us what progress has been made since the Secretary of State, on 27 March 1980, said that Ministers are…launching an urgent study into ways of helping the old and disabled to save fuel, by insulating their homes, by draft proofing and by making better use of heating appliances. Such a scheme could involve the voluntary bodies and could use younger unemployed people under existing Manpower Services Commission powers."—[Official Report, 27 March 1980; Vol. 981, c. 1662.] We have had bits and pieces. There has been the extension of the 90 per cent. rate of grant for home insulation for the severely disabled. There has been an extension of supplementary benefit single payments to cover hot water cylinder jackets and the Department of Energy and Manpower Services Commission grant towards neighbourhood programmes run in association with voluntary bodies, to which the Minister referred as an afterthought.

When we are experiencing unemployment problems and heating and health problems on their present scale, for the Government to say that two years on only 400 young people are assisting in schemes of this kind is proof that little has been done. I cannot understand why. It is not only a question of the needs of those involved, but of energy conservation and unemployment. The Government should proceed more speedily and determinedly.

The trading of who did what in office expressed in the two Front-Bench speeches solves none of the problems caused by the energy price escalation and the current winter to many families. A straightforward commitment by the Government to implement the recommendations in the PSI report—and I am glad that the consultation is not to be dragged out too long—coupled with a real effort to make progress on the broad front on the part of the electricity and gas boards is the way to proceed. Party political debating points from either Front Bench will achieve nothing.

In the light of the Front Bench speeches today I shall find it hard to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends that either the Labour motion or the Government amendment deserve their support tonight.

6.15 pm
Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends who had the foresight to table the motion. I do not intend to follow the Minister's lead by parading a list of statistics about who did what. Pensioners and others in my constituency who are in trouble do not care two hoots about who did what in 1940, 1950 or 1960. They are bothered about what is happening now. I have made no calculations on the basis of who has performed better. My calculations are based on the problem.

The debate takes place against the backcloth of the worst winter for many decades, of gas prices that have increased threefold since 1974, of coal prices that have gone up fourfold since 1974 and of electricity prices that have risen four and a half times. There has also been a massive increase in the number of people who have been disconnected for more than one month. The increase is not only in the number of disconnections but in the length of the disconnections. Statistics prove that many people have been disconnected for more than one month. Between 1979 and 1981 the retail price index increased by 27.8 per cent. whereas, the fuel and light index increased by 49.3 per cent.

The statistics do not lay the blame anywhere but they state facts. I shall try to rush my speech so that others can take part. The Secretary of State recently announced further help for people on supplementary benefit. Any such help is to be welcomed. It has been possible to claim a single payment before. The scheme is not new for people on supplementary benefit, but the Government are ignoring the 2 million or more people who do not receive supplementary benefit. Over 2 million pensioners receive rent and rate rebates. They are sometimes worse off than people on supplementary benefit. They receive no help from the scheme.

A recent article by Ruth Lister, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, puts the point more succinctly than I can in the time available. The article states: On the income side, much has been made of the 'special package' of measures to help with fuel costs, now worth £250m, to replace the electricity discount scheme. However, closer examination suggests that only about £60m is actually new money; the rest would have been spent anyway on existing SB claimants. Furthermore, the proportion of SB recipients who get a heating addition has remained constant since 1979 at ⅔rds, whilst the number of single payments for fuel have been cut back from 48, 000 in 1979 (value £1m+) to about 9, 500 in 1980 (value £639, 000). There is no help at all for low income groups not in receipt of SB. With increasing numbers of unemployed and decreasing value of benefits, given a £1.5 billion cut in the overall social security budget, more people are experiencing fuel poverty for the first time. That puts the matter excellently into context.

If I had time, I could quote from an excellent document from Age Concern which pointed to the same type of predicament and the same statistics in relation to pensioners and their problems with heating allowances. There are many surveys and reports that hon. Members who are involved with the problem of pensioners and social security benefits have received in the last few weeks.

Mention should be made of the national Right to Fuel campaign, which has been campaigning strongly for a comprehensive fuel policy ever since the early 1970s, and certainly during the period of the Labour Government. It states that 13 out of the 14 electricity boards in Great Britain are still disconnecting power from families in debt. Every day over 500 households are cut off because money is owed. Its figures show that a quarter of those are disconnected for more than a month. On any one day, 30, 000 households are without electricity because bills are unpaid. Those are massive figures. A report commissioned by the fuel industries shows similar statistics.

While the measures announced by the Secretary of State will help some people, they will not be of much help to those who are already cut off or who are threatened with a cut-off.

Representatives of the Right to Fuel campaign have written a fairly long letter to the Secretary of State asking for an immediate end to the disconnection of gas and electicity from domestic premises for fuel debts and an urgent programme of reconnection for those already cut off. The objective should be to ensure that no home is without power because of a debt during this lethal cold. The letter goes on to quote a precedent for such action. People have been searching for precedents. The letter continues: During the firemen's strike five winters ago, more electricity boards suspended disconnections for its duration, to avoid adding to the risk of fire. There is no reason why a similar exercise could not be carried out again.

If I had enough time, I would quote from the Electricity Consumer Council's report, which hon. Members have received today. I am truncating my speech; perhaps it will be massacred. I hope that we shall be able to return to this excellent report. I shall probably request a debate on it. One hon. Member has said that he was unaware that areas had been investigated. The Greater London citizens advice bureau service carried out such a survey throughout the London area. The House has missed an excellent resumé of that report because of the lack of time.

On the matter of standing charges, I have made the case before in the Chamber and I shall continue to make it because I still consider that £3.25 a week for pensioners for standing charges is far too excessive and must be examined. I am sure that most hon. Members will agree with that.

I support the entire motion. It is about time that the Government took the initiative away from the voluntary organisations and those of us who have campaigned, with very few resources, for a comprehensive fuel policy that would be easily understood and that would cover all fuels. Voluntary organisations cannot afford the type of surveys that need to be done. The Government should initiate urgently such a survey aimed at producing a comprehensive fuel policy that will prevent the horror stories that we shall hear during the next month or two, as conditions worsen and as bills get larger.

6.24 pm
Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I regret that I shall not be able to stay for the final speeches from the Front Benches because I have a meeting, not unrelated to this subject matter, in my constituency. However, I shall read the speeches carefully. I have three points to make.

First, standing charges have been referred to by at least two hon. Members. They do not seem to realise that the problem, on standing charges on gas bills in particular, is as serious as it actually is. A decision of policy has been taken—not by the local gas boards but by the Gas Council, because this is a national matter—that the standing charge will be progressively raised until it covers all the fixed charges relating to the system, as against those charges which relate to the amount of gas used. When the Gas Council refers to the system, it does not mean the cost of reading the meter or the cost of bringing gas from the road to the house. It means the entire network. Therefore, it is the council's intention massively to increase progressively the standing charge.

In the light of what has been said so far in the debate, I hope that a number of hon. Members will get together and see what can be done even at this late stage to try to halt that development. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

Secondly, last June or July I had a debate in the House about the extremely high charges levied by local authorities for space heating and water heating. On the whole, council tenants pay about double or more for the same amount of space and hot water heating as other people who have individual control of their systems. During that debate, I begged the Minister representing the Department of the Environment who was replying to the debate to collect sample statistics from local authorities all over the country on the amounts charged to show how excessive the charges were in relation to the heat actually obtained for them.

I am sorry to say that the Department of the Environment has not yet agreed to do that. Given the fact that we are all interested in energy conservation and that these excessive charges arise from wastage and inefficiency and not from making mistakes in the figures, I hope that the two Ministers from other Departments at present on the Front Bench will take this point on board and try to ensure that the Department of the Environment, which has a renewed request from me to this effect, will collect those sample statistics.

Thirdly, last November, the rise in personal scale rates for supplementary benefit amounted to 9 per cent., but the rise in the amounts above which an additional payment of supplementary benefit is made, in the case of a fixed heating charge, were raised by about 18 per cent. The Minister knows that. The effect is that there are some people who should have expected to receive about £2.50 more in supplementary benefit, who receive that extra on their personal scale rates, but who receive less assistance on their heating allowance than they did before last November.

I am surprised to see that the Minister appears puzzled when I say that. I believe it is a perfectly well-known point. It is an indefensible point, because if that element within the personal scale rates which is deemed to be available for heating within the scale rates is raised by more than 9 per cent., the other elements within the personal scale rates are clearly being raised by less than 9 per cent. The result is that a number of people are receiving less assistance with heating now than they were receiving before November. I hope that the Minister will look into that matter and refer to it during her reply. I shall read what she says with care.

6.28 pm
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I apologise for not being here for the whole of the debate. I was meeting workers from Capenhurst who face redundancy. I found it ironic that they should lobby the House of Commons today, because they produce fuel, which gives us power, and we are making them unemployed while at the same time there are many people in my area who are without the necessary fuel to keep warm.

We do not need to check on party records. Rather, we need to look at what the Government are offering and to see how that matches the needs of many families and old people in our community. Merseyside has suffered the coldest winter since 1740. Against that background, we must see the Government's new measures to deal with the problem of fuel poverty.

The only new move is the issuing of instructions over single payments for supplementary benefit recipients. I wish to pose a number of questions to the Under-Secretary—questions that have already been put by one or two hon. Members. How many claimants will receive help under the scheme? What will be the cost? What will be required in terms of staff time to run the scheme? I have calculated quickly that if staff were to carry out their instructions properly in the areas represented by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) and myself and check whether there was a £300 savings disregard and the amounts of last year's and this year's fuel bills, an additional 100 full-time staff would be required in the two offices alone. This is what will be needed to give claimants a proper service.

Given that the Government will not come up with that sort of staff increase, I should like to propose a programme for which the House should be pushing. I do not believe that any scheme that checks last year's bills and then examines this year's will work, because it will be hopelessly bureaucratic. The scheme will be extremely intensive in terms of office hours. A simpler method of helping claimants would be a flat rate grant, either through an additional pension increase or, as I would prefer, a £50 one-off grant.

Help needs to be extended not only to those receiving supplementary benefit, but to those receiving rent and rate rebates and those on FIS. There is also a need for a policy covering disconnections. I have never urged abolition of disconnections as a unilateral policy. My request is that no disconnections should be made without a court order. The fuel boards must present their case to an independent body.

Large numbers of our constituents are without work. I should like to know when the Government intend to create some work by offering people work in a nationwide insulation programme. I should also like the Government to consider abolishing standing charges on electricity and gas. The charges hit hardest those on the lowest incomes.

The Government's answer is that my five-point crash programme will cost money. They will ask where the money is to come from. I shall suggest where it should come from. In their first Budget, in 1979, the Government managed to find the resources to give what were the old surtax payers a tax cut of £1.6 billion. This is the third year of those tax cuts. Under this Government the richest in our community have so far picked up a cool £4.8 billion. When the Government ask where the money is to come from, I suggest that a suitable target is those who have benefited most from tax cuts. If the Government say that the money is not available, hon. Members will know the Government's priorities. It will be seen that the needs of high income groups are more important to them than the needs of those who may be, or who are, suffering from hypothermia during this winter.

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

I believe the Opposition motion to be modest. It would have been interesting to see an amendment from the Liberals or the SDP stating what they wished to put forward. It ill behoves those Opposition parties to pour scorn on the motion and the amendment without putting forward a single constructive proposal themselves when there was more than adequate opportunity for them to do so.

It must have concerned the Government and the Prime Minister to see headlines over the last few weeks claiming that several hundred people a week are dying of hypothermia. After all, the Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet are only human. They are, therefore, concerned. It must also he remembered, however, that they are also Conservative Party politicians who have been responsible this year, 1982–83, for cutting £1.4 billion from the social security budget. Those are the Government's figures. They are not mine. Appendix 1 of the Social Services Select Committee report published in July last year contained a special memorandum from the Secretary of State. I shall not detail the contents of the £1.4 billion. Suffice it to say that £500 million came from: Keeping pensions and long-term benefits in line with prices rather than the higher of prices and earnings. A further £200 million came from clawing back a penny in the pound of all social security benefits this year because they were allegedly overprovided for.

The Government are therefore responsible for the £1.4 billion cut, by their own admission. It is also known, as I have already remarked, that they are concerned about what they have seen happening in the country over the past few weeks. They recognise that they are responsible for the cuts. The question that arises is what should be done. In my submission, the Government decided to make an announcement about what is already available within the social security system to help with fuel bills in such a way that it has been presented by gullible media—they do not generally ask too many pertinent questions—as Government action to meet an emergency caused by extreme weather conditions.

There has been mention of 1947. No one can dispute that although the winter is only half over, the snow lasted longer in 1947 but it was not as cold as this year. I submit that the Government pushed out an announcement stating what was available in the guise of new action. The DHSS press release dated 14 January, although it must have been available to the press the day before, talks of extra help with high fuel bills for supplementary benefit claimants. It states: Norman Fowler, Secretary of State for Social Services, announced today that a memo is being issued this week to all local offices…This action follows reports from the DHSS Regions which established that in certain areas some claimants were already running into trouble…The normal rules for the award of single payments apply. It is interesting what the press release did not say. There was simply attached to it the memorandum, not issued by Ministers or the Department, but issued by the chief supplementary benefits officer as part of his normal issue of memoranda to local offices explaining the various regulations that have been made since November 1980 when the supplementary benefit system changed. The Government issued the memorandum but did not issue the covering letter from the chief supplementary benefits officer which was, therefore, not received by the press. I refer to the letter issued by Mr. Alan Palmer.

The responsibility, I understand, for interpreting the regulations and issuing the memoranda does not belong to Ministers. If Ministers sought to try to interpret regulations passed by the House they would be breaching section 1 of the Social Security Act 1980. The responsibility for issuing the memorandum and giving guidance on regulations does not belong to Ministers. They should not seek to claim credit, as they did, through the issue of the press notice. To discover whether the Government were successful, one only needs to take note of a couple of headlines. The Daily Mirror said "Cash for frozen families". The article stated: The money will be paid out of a special fund set up last year to cover emergencies. In The Times, which should know better, the headline was "More fuel bill aid for the poor". The article refers to "extra help" and says that it is available under a new supplementary benefit regulation. While this regulation might be described as coming under the Supplementary Benefit (Single Payments) Regulations, 1981 it is, in fact, a consolidation of the regulation issued in 1980. That regulation has continued in force. It has not been changed. In The Guardian, under the heading "Cold victims to get cash aid", it was stated: After pressure from MPs worried about the effect of the hard weather on the needy, the Government has approved emergency fuel payments. Those payments were approved by the House in November 1980. The quotations are legion. A gullible press fell for the suggestion that the Government were offering new money to meet the conditions of this winter. It does not stop there. The hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells), who spoke for the Liberal Party, made a more moderate, reasonable and constructive speech than did the other members of the Alliance, but the Liberal Party fell for the five-card trick that was played by the Government. I have here a copy of the Liberal pamphlet "Focus"—I have no intention of giving the local constituency any publicity by naming it—that was published last week, and which said, under the heading "Frosty facts": Other new extra grants to help people on low incomes to meet higher electricity bills, as a result of the freeze-up, have just been announced. That is not true. It is not new money. Those grants have been available since 1980.

Nowhere, as far as I can tell, did the Government give credit to the chief supplementary benefits officer. I want to put a question to the Minister which follows the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). This regulation was in force in the winter of 1980–81. There is no dispute about that. Some parts of the country must have been more badly affected by bad weather than other parts, and it is highly likely that some local offices operated this allegedly new regulation a winter ago. What efforts has the Department made to find out which local offices made payments under regulation 26 of the supplementay benefit regulations?

Is the confusion that clearly exists in the media born out of genuine concern? I do not think so. The Government's reaction to the problem, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), has been one of "monumental indifference". It is my opinion that they set out to cause confusion by misfortune. Those press headlines would not have followed the press release of the Department of Health and Social Security if there had been no evidence of confusion.

I come now to fuel costs. I shall not give too many staistics. However, the country should be reminded that gas prices will rise by 12 per cent. in April 1982, and that they will rise by a further 10 per cent. under this Government's edict concerning a tax on gas later in 1982. It is true, of course, that there will be a 7 per cent rebate on the first quarter's electricity bills this year, but electricity charges will rise by 12 per cent. in April. The Under-Secretary of State for Energy shakes his head. Let me say that that figure came from yesterday's edition of The Sunday Times. If it is not true, no doubt we shall be told.

I want to say a word about the retail price index in so far as it affects pensioners. The latest figure that is available is the measurement for the third quarter of 1980–81, where the special RPI for pensioners went up 10.4 per cent. The fuel and light element in that index over the same period went up 20.2 per cent. That is as near double as one can get.

I shall say a word about the modesty of the Opposition motion. Item (b) of the Opposition motion talks of extending Government help by paying to all recipients of State benefits a double payment in one week in the month of February. This refers to money that belongs to those people. One week's benefit is exactly 2 per cent. of a year's total benefit payment. As everyone knows, and as the Government have admitted, there was a 2 per cent. shortfall on payments last November, which is due to be made good for pensioners this November. It is those people's money that is to assist them at the time of the year when they need it, instead of staying in the Government's coffers until November. In any event, as I understand it, pensioners are not disconnected during winter months. We do not need to argue about that. To listen to some hon. Members, one would think that that was a novel proposal.

Moreover, we are not arguing that there should be a moratorium on disconnections with no further action. No one is saying that. Clearly, steps will have to be taken, either to put in prepayment meters or to reform the system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead said, there should be an independent element involved before anyone is disconnected. Back in 1975, when I moved a Ten-Minute Bill on this matter, I drew attention to the fact that the power to disconnect electricity falls under the 1882 Electric Lighting Act. In that year there were only a score of homes in this country with a supply of electric lighting. The powers to disconnect were not relevant, and there is evidence for that in the Royal Commission report that was published in 1884 on the housing of the working classes in this country. That made no mention at all of an electricity supply in any of those homes. It was not a problem because those homes did not have an electricity supply.

There is one test of the concern that has been expressed. I do not criticise any of the Conservative Members who have spoken today on this problem. In a way, their speeches were all constructive. However, it is instructive that last week—the week when the House returned from the Christmas Recess—my researches and those of the Library show that not one Conservative Member tabled a question about the problems of the elderly, the disabled, the sick, and the problems of winter fuel bills and the inclement and extreme weather. Not one Conservative Member for Parliament sought to table even a written parliamentary question. I should add that the same is true of the Social Democratic and Liberal Alliance. The only people who emerged with any credit in terms of showing any concern last week were the Welsh Nationalists and Labour Members, who sought to challenge the Government and seek assistance. The Social Democratic Party has admitted that it has no policy to put to the House today, no amendment, and no questions for Ministers on the issues.

Item (c) in the Opposition motion, asks for benefit in some form or another—we deliberately did not spell it out, because it is impossible to do so—for people receiving rent and rate rebates, who number over 3 million. I know that those people were included in only the final year of the Labour Government's three-year winter fuel discount scheme. The scheme was inadequate and inefficient, although I may say that the so-called paltry sum of £7.50 paid to those on rent and rate rebate would not go amiss to the 3 million people who will not receive that sum this year. I remind the Minister that that is exactly what she asked for when she was in Opposition. On 28 July 1977, in a debate on the consolidated fund, she complained bitterly about the defects in the Labour Government's scheme. She said: 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".—[Official Report, 28 July 1977; Vol. 936, c. 1104.] All that we are asking for is what the Labour Government left when this Government came into office, and what the present Minister asked for when in Opposition. There is therefore some modesty in the Oppositions's motion. The motion is positive and constructive, and we have no reason to be ashamed of it or of the Labour Government's actions.

The test of progress in our society is the impact on the individual. It will be a pretty rum winter when the fuel bills start rolling in for millions of people who will get no help whatever under the schemes that have been put forward by the Government—people who were getting help under the Labour Government. I have no hesitation whatever in asking my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote for the motion tonight.

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

I cannot possibly reply to the whole of the three-and-a-half-hour debate and all the detailed points that have been raised. However, I shall read them all carefully, and if I have anything to add to what I shall say today I shall write to hon. Members.

I have listened with care to a thoughtful debate in which contributions have been made from all parts of the House, some more constructive than others. Let me leave the House in no doubt that the Government fully accept that there is a major problem for people on low incomes facing severe winter weather. There is a danger that the removal of standing charges will increase prices to consumers. It would not necessarily benefit poor consumers, because they are not all small consumers—and those are the people who would benefit. However, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and I will look at the issue again.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) for pointing out, as other hon. Members have done, that the Government have given substantial aid to those most severely affected by the difficulties in their plans for help with winter heating. The Government have sought to concentrate help on those in greatest need. That is why we felt it right to ensure that heating additions were payable automatically to householders on supplementary benefit who are severely disabled, elderly or who have young children.

More than 2 million families automatically receive such extra help. In 1980 the heating additions were increased well ahead of fuel price rises and are at their highest real value—47 per cent., compared with a 28 per cent. increase in fuel prices. The increase in November 1981 has fully maintained that advance and the homes insulation scheme has been extended to provide enhanced grants for the elderly and severely disabled on low incomes. That is how we are spending over £250 million this year to help poor consumers. That figure does not include the special measures under regulation 26 of the Supplementary Benefit Regulations, which are to be operated nationwide because of the severe winter weather. I shall comment later on the press release mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker).

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) accused the Government of not introducing new money in their £250 million package. However, we did introduce new money since all extra heating additions received that extra boost over the increase dictated by fuel prices and £65 million was added to the benefits available. Help is given not simply to claimants on supplementary benefit but also to those on family income supplement. It is better to concentrate over £85 per annum on those in greatest need—as the present scheme does—than to make an average payment of £7.50 per annum to those who use only electricity. Hon. Members from all parties criticised that scheme at the time, because those using gas or other heating fuels did not receive any help under the electricity discount scheme. It is right to consider those who use other forms of heating.

I turn to the single payments for fuel, operated under regulation 26. I am pleased that on 14 January we were able to re-emphasise that, under powers that we took in 1980, all those entitled to or receiving supplementary benefit—including retirement pensioners—could apply for a special payment towards the extra cost of this winter's fuel bills. We promptly alerted local social security offices to deal with the expected claims. If hon. Members come across constituents who they believe are entitled to supplementary benefit, I hope that they will encourage them to investigate further because of the accompanying parcel of benefits.

The Bill being considered in Committee will go a long way towards improving the situation by sorting out the housing benefits and ensuring that those who should claim supplementary benefit do so.

Mr. Field


Mrs. Chalker

I shall not give way as I have precisely 15 minutes in which to speak.

Mr. Field

How many will qualify?

Mrs. Chalker

I shall write to the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and to the other hon. Members who have raised that question, as I do not have the figures to hand.

I was also asked about the £300 capital rule under regulation 5. Opposition Members told me that it forbids single payments to be made. That is not so. Its application means that savings over £300 are deemed to be available towards the payment of fuel debts. However, I am particularly concerned about the elderly and I am considering the situation carefully.

We have had problems with various electricity boards about "fuel direct". The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) was right—I am sorry that I had to miss a small part of his speech—to ask about the possibility of regulations, following my meetings with the chairman of the South of Scotland Electricity Board. Arrangements and discussions are proceeding quite quickly and I shall shortly meet the chairman of the London Electricity Board to ensure that the suggestions made to Ministers are further investigated. In that way, we shall be able to respond to the House as quickly as possible. I hope that that will suffice. I am grateful for the work being done on the problems in city centres, particularly in London. We are constantly considering the question of putting the recipients of supplementary benefit on to "fuel direct".

Our Department feels that it is important to pay great attention to the insulation of homes. As the House knows, we have given additions for the insulation of hot water tanks and simple draught-proofing under the supplementary benefit scheme. In his opening remarks, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy explained his wish to extend the type of neighbourhood scheme that we both visited last week in Fulham. For as little as £4, someone could have his loft insulated and could thus save an enormous amount of fuel. We want people to use the fuel that they buy to the maximum effect. I hope that hon. Members will advise their constituents to take up the 90 per cent. grants available to the elderly and disabled, and I hope that they will do so with all speed.

An excellent leaflet on the code of practice is available, and individual fuel boards give excellent advice. However, the leaflet "How to pay for the electricity and gas bills", which is widely available, should be part of the kit in the hands of all those who advise their constituents and others about the problem of paying electricity and gas bills. It has been said that prepayment stamps are not such a good idea because they give fuel boards the money ahead of time. That is an unbelievable way of describing a method that has helped many to pay for their heating. I hope that we shall be successful in extending the availability of prepayment stamps through other outlets, apart from the fuel boards.

The problem of disconnecting consumers worries all hon. Members, whatever party they may represent. Under the code of practice, area boards will treat consumers' problems sympathetically as long as arrangements are made to pay the account within a reasonable period. That is the most that we can ask. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy discussed the issue with the chairman of the Electricity Council, who assured him and the House that area boards will follow not only the wording of the code but its spirit. They will not disconnect heartlessly during periods of severe weather. As set out in pages 5 and 6 of the code, area boards will have regard to what consumers tell them about their circumstances and incomes. The chairman has every reason to suppose that area boards will act similarly in future periods of severe cold weather.

The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) cited some figures for disconnections. However, they were exaggerated, because the number of disconnections in December 1981 was equivalent to 284 per working day and not 500 per working day. Indeed, that was a reduction on the figures in November.

Several hon. Members referred to publicity. Leaflet No. SB 17 has been available for some time and refers to help during severe weather conditions. The leaflet must be made widely available and brought to the notice of all those likely to be in difficulty as a result of higher energy costs. We also have leaflets on winter heating costs. The Health Education Council has published a leaflet entitled "Help keeping warm in winter." Let us hope that if the debate does nothing else it will draw the general public's attention to the need for and availability of advice on their heating bills.

We are now investigating the availability of posters to be displayed in post offices drawing attention to all the existing help, and are also looking at the availability of leaflets through various outlets to help people as far as we possibly can. Local radio tapes will also be available, and our regional information offices are taking every opportunity to ensure that every locality is fully briefed about the measures that we have taken.

Every area board contains consumer representatives. It appeared from some of the comments made in the debate that the community was not represented at all. It is, and we urge consumers to take up that representation through the area fuel boards.

I come back to the comments of the hon. Member for Perry Barr. He made a mountain out of a molehill, but I shall not draw attention to why that might have been. The press release issued by my right hon. Friend on 14 January last simply emphasised and drew attention to the memorandum of the chief supplementary benefits officer. The note to editors on the second page of the press release said: A copy of the memo outlining the procedures…is attached". There was thus a definite mention, and paragraph 2 of the attachment stated: Current conditions are so severe as to satisfy this condition nationally", which was otherwise subject to the discretion to which the hon. Member for Perry Barr referred. Above all, my right hon. Friend was seeking to draw the attention of the public and the press to the fact that the availability was national and not a matter of regional discretion.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy dealt with the question of disconnections, and I have already repeated the words of the chairman of the Electricity Council. The sweeping and expensive proposals outlined in item (b) of the Opposition motion would cost between £500 million and £600 million a year. A double payment of benefit in one week in the month of February would give the greatest amount of benefit to those already receiving the largest benefit. It would operate unfairly both within groups—for instance, pensioners—and between groups—for example, pensioners and others receiving a high value benefit such as attendance allowance.

The best course is that adopted by the Government. That would concentrate help with heating costs on those in greatest need in addition to the extra help that will go to the supplementary benefit recipient because of this year's exceptionally severe weather.

A fuel bonus that would give a worthwhile sum to housing beneficiaries, whether or not item (b) in the Opposition motion were adopted, would cost more than £200 million a year. That money is simply not available at present, because it would be given out on a wide passport basis quite irrespective of the need that some may have in addition to other people's needs.

I urge my hon. Friends and all hon. Members to support the Government amendment and to reject the costly and ill-thought-out Opposition motion.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 202, Noes 277.

Division No. 45] [7.4 pm
Abse, Leo Haynes, Frank
Adams, Allen Heffer, Eric S.
Allaun, Frank Hogg, N. (EDunb't'nshire)
Anderson, Donald Holland, S.(L'b'th, Vauxh'll)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Homewood, William
Ashton, Joe Hooley, Frank
Atkinson, N.(H'gey) Hoyle, Douglas
Bagier, Gordon AT. Huckfield, Les
Barnett, Guy ('Greenwich) Hughes, Mark (Durham)
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (H'wd) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Hughes, Roy (Newport)
Bennett, Andrew (St'kp'tN) Janner, Hon Greville
Bidwell, Sydney Jay, Rt Hon Douglas
Booth, Rt Hon Albert John, Brynmor
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Johnson, James (Hull West)
Bottomley, Rt HonA. (M'b'ro) Johnson, Walter (Derby S)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rh'dda)
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Jones, Barry (East Flint)
Brown, R. C. (N'castle W) Jones, Dan (Burnley)
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith) Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Callaghan, Jim (Midd't'n & P) Kerr, Russell
Campbell, lan Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Campbell-Savours, Dale Lambie, David
Canavan, Dennis Lamborn, Harry
Cant, R. B. Lamond, James
Carmichael, Neil Leadbitter, Ted
Carter-Jones, Lewis Leighton, Ronald
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Lestor, Miss Joan
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S) Lewis, Arthur (N'ham N W)
Cohen, Stanley Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Coleman, Donald Litherland, Robert
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Cook, Robin F. Lyon, Alexander (York)
Cowans, Harry Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson
Craigen, J. M. (G'gow, M'hill) McCartney, Hugh
Crowther, Stan McDonald, DrOonagh
Cryer, Bob McElhone, Frank
Cunningham, DrJ. (W'h'n) McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Dalyell, Tam McKelvey, William
Davidson, Arthur MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) McNamara, Kevin
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) McTaggart, Robert
Davis, Terry (B 'ham, Stechf'd) McWilliam, John
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Marks, Kenneth
Dewar, Donald Marshall, D (G'gowS'ton)
Dixon, Donald Marshall, DrEdmund (Goole)
Dobson, Frank Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Dormand, Jack Martin, M(G'gowS'burn)
Douglas, Dick Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Dubs, Alfred Maxton, John
Dunnett, Jack Maynard, Miss Joan
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Meacher, Michael
Eadie, Alex Mellish, Rt Hon Robert
Ellis, R. (NE D'bysh're) Mikardo, lan
English, Michael Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Ennals, Rt Hon David Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby)
Evans, loan (Aberdare) Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Evans, John (Newton) Moyle, Rt Hon Roland
Faulds, Andrew Newens, Stanley
Field, Frank Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Fitch, Alan Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Flannery, Martin Palmer, Arthur
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Park, George
Ford, Ben Parker, John
Forrester, John Parry, Robert
Foster, Derek Pendry, Tom
Foulkes, George Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Fraser, J. (Lamb'th, N'w'd) Prescott, John
Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Race, Reg
Garrett, John (Norwich S) Rees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S)
George, Bruce Richardson, Jo
Golding, John Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Graham, Ted Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Grant, George (Morpeth) Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Hamilton, W. W. (C'tral Fife) Rooker, J. W.
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Ross, Ernest (Dundee West)
Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith Rowlands, Ted
Ryman, John Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Sheerman, Barry Wainwright, E. (Dearne V)
Sheldon, Rt Hon R. Walker, Rt Hon H. (D'caster)
Shore, Rt Hon Peter Watkins, David
Short, Mrs Renée Weetch, Ken
Silkin, Rt Hon J. (Deptford) Welsh, Michael
Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich) White, Frank R.
Silverman, Julius White, J. (G'gow Pollok)
Skinner, Dennis Whitehead, Phillip
Smith, Rt Hon J. (N Lanark) Whitlock, William
Snape, Peter Wigley, Dafydd
Soley, Clive Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Spearing, Nigel Williams, Rt Hon A. (S'sea W)
Spriggs, Leslie Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Stallard, A. W. Wilson, Rt Hon Sir H. (H'ton)
Stoddart, David Wilson, William (C'try SE)
Stott, Roger Winnick, David
Straw, Jack Woodall, Alec
Summerskill, Hon DrShirley Woolmer, Kenneth
Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W) Wright, Sheila
Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth) Young, David (Bolton E)
Thomas, DrR. (Carmarthen)
Thorne, Stan (Preston South) Tellers for the Ayes:
Tinn, James Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe and
Torney, Tom Mr. George Morton.
Adley, Robert Clegg, Sir Walter
Aitken, Jonathan Cockeram, Eric
Alexander, Richard Cope, John
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Cormack, Patrick
Amery, Rt Hon Julian Corrie, John
Ancram, Michael Costain, Sir Albert
Arnold, Tom Cranborne, Viscount
Aspinwall, Jack Critchley, Julian
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (S'thorne) Crouch, David
Atkins, Robert (PrestonN) Dean, Paul (North Somerset)
Baker, Kenneth (St.M'bone) Dickens, Geoffrey
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Dorrell, Stephen
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Bell, Sir Ronald Dover, Denshore
Bendall, Vivian du Cann, Rt Hon Edward
Benyon, Thomas (A'don) Dunn, Robert (Dartford)
Benyon, W. (Buckingham) Dykes, Hugh
Best, Keith Eden, Rt Hon Sir John
Bevan, David Gilroy Eggar, Tim
Biffen, Rt Hon John Elliott, SirWilliam
Biggs-Davison, SirJohn Eyre, Reginald
Blackburn, John Fairbairn, Nicholas
Blaker, Peter Fairgrieve, SirRussell
Body, Richard Faith, Mrs Sheila
Bonsor, SirNicholas Farr, John
Bottomley, Peter (W'wich W) Fell, SirAnthony
Bowden, Andrew Fenner, Mrs Peggy
Boyson, DrRhodes Finsberg, Geoffrey
Braine, SirBernard Fisher, SirNigel
Bright, Graham Fletcher, A. (Ed'nb'ghN)
Brinton, Tim Fletcher-Cooke, SirCharles
Brittan, Rt. Hon. Leon Fookes, Miss Janet
Brooke, Hon Peter Forman, Nigel
Brotherton, Michael Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Brown, Michael (Brigg&Sc'n) Fox, Marcus
Browne, John (Winchester) Fraser, Peter (South Angus)
Bruce-Gardyne, John Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Bryan, Sir Paul Gardner, Edward (S Fylde)
Buck, Antony Garel-Jones, Tristan
Budgen, Nick Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir lan
Bulmer, Esmond Glyn, Dr Alan
Burden, SirFrederick Goodhew, SirVictor
Butcher, John Goodlad, Alastair
Cadbury, Jocelyn Gorst, John
Carlisle, John (Luton West) Gow, lan
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Gray, Hamish
Chalker, Mrs. Lynda Greenway, Harry
Channon, Rt. Hon. Paul Griffiths, E. (B'ySt.Edm'ds)
Chapman, Sydney Griffiths, Peter Portsm'thN)
Churchill, W.S. Grist, lan
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n) Grylls, Michael
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Gummer, John Selwyn
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Hamilton, Hon A.
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Nelson, Anthony
Hampson, DrKeith Neubert, Michael
Hannam, John Newton, Tony
Haselhurst, Alan Normanton, Tom
Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael Nott, Rt Hon John
Hawksley, Warren Onslow, Cranley
Hayhoe, Barney Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.
Heath, Rt Hon Edward Page, Richard (SW Herts)
Henderson, Barry Parris, Matthew
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Hicks, Robert Pattie, Geoffrey
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Pawsey, James
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Percival, Sir lan
Holland, Philip (Carlton) Pink, R.Bonner
Hooson, Tom Pollock, Alexander
Hordern, Peter Porter, Barry
Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldf'd) Proctor, K. Harvey
Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk) Pym, Rt Hon Francis
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Raison, Timothy
Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick Rathbone, Tim
JohnsonSmith, Geoffrey Rees-Davies, W. R.
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Renton, Tim
Kaberry, Sir Donald Rhodes James, Robert
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Kershaw, Sir Anthony Ridsdale, SirJulian
King, Rt Hon Tom Rifkind, Malcolm
Knox, David Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW)
Lamont, Norman Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Lang, lan Rossi, Hugh
Langford-Holt, SirJohn Rost, Peter
Latham, Michael Royle, Sir Anthony
Lawrence, lvan Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.
Lee, John Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
LeMarchant, Spencer Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Shelton, William (Streatham)
Lester, Jim (Beeston) Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Shepherd, Richard
Lloyd, lan (Havant & W'loo) Shersby, Michael
Loveridge, John Silvester, Fred
Luce, Richard Sims, Roger
Lyell, Nicholas Skeet, T. H. H.
McCrindle, Robert Speed, Keith
Macfarlane, Neil Speller, Tony
MacGregor, John Spence, John
MacKay, John (Argyll) Spicer, Jim (West Dorset)
Macmillan, Rt Hon M. Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury) Squire, Robin
McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st) Stanbrook, lvor
McQuarrie, Albert Stanley, John
Madel, David Stevens, Martin
Major, John Stewart, A. (E Renfrewshire)
Marland, Paul Stewart, lan (Hitchin)
Marlow, Antony Stokes, John
Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Stradling Thomas, J.
Marten, Rt Hon Neil Tapsell, Peter
Mates, Michael Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Maude, Rt Hon Sir Angus Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Mawby, Ray Temple-Morris, Peter
Mawhinney, DrBrian Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Thompson, Donald
Mayhew, Patrick Thorne, Neil (llford South)
Mellor, David Thornton, Malcolm
Meyer, Sir Anthony Townend, John (Bridlington)
Miller, Hal (B'grove) Townsend, Cyril D, (B'heath)
Mills, lain (Meriden) Trippier, David
Mills, Peter (West Devon) Trotter, Neville
Miscampbell, Norman van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Monro, SirHector Vaughan, DrGerard
Montgomery, Fergus Viggers, Peter
Moore, John Waldegrave, Hon William
Morris, M. (N'hamptonS) Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)
Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes) Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir D.
Morrison, Hon P. (Chester) Waller, Gary
Mudd, David Walters, Dennis
Murphy, Christopher Ward, John
Myles, David Watson, John
Neale, Gerrard Wells, Bowen
Needham, Richard Wells, John (Maidstone)
Wheeler, John Wolfson, Mark
Whitelaw, Rt Hon William Young, SirGeorge (Acton)
Whitney, Raymond Younger, Rt Hon George
Wickenden, Keith
Wiggin, Jerry Tellers for the Noes:
Wilkinson, John Mr. Anthony Berry and
Williams, D.(Montgomery) Mr. Robert Boscawen.
Winterton, Nicholas

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 32 (Questions on amendments):

The House divided: Ayes 271, Noes 201.

Division No. 46] [7.16 pm
Adley, Robert Dunn, Robert (Dartford)
Aitken, Jonathan Dykes, Hugh
Alexander, Richard Eden, Rt Hon Sir John
Amery, Rt Hon Julian Eggar, Tim
Ancram, Michael Elliott, SirWilliam
Arnold, Tom Eyre, Reginald
Aspinwall, Jack Fairbairn, Nicholas
Atkins, Rt Hon H.(S'thorne) Fairgrieve, Sir Russell
Atkins, Robert (PrestonN) Faith, Mrs Sheila
Baker, Kenneth (St.M'bone) Fell, Sir Anthony
Baker, Nicholas (NDorset) Fenner, Mrs Peggy
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Finsberg, Geoffrey
Bendall, Vivian Fisher, Sir Nigel
Benyon, Thomas (A'don) Fletcher, A. (Ed'nb'gh N)
Benyon, W. (Buckingham) Fletcher-Cooke, SirCharles
Best, Keith Fookes, Miss Janet
Bevan, David Gilroy Forman, Nigel
Biffen, Rt Hon John Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Biggs-Davison, SirJohn Fox, Marcus
Blackburn, John Fraser, Peter (South Angus)
Blaker, Peter Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Body, Richard Gardner, Edward (S Fylde)
Bonsor, SirNicholas Garel-Jones, Tristan
Bottomley, Peter (W'wich W) Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir lan
Bowden, Andrew Glyn, Dr Alan
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Goodhew, SirVictor
Braine, SirBernard Goodlad, Alastair
Bright, Graham Gorst, John
Brinton, Tim Gow, lan
Brittan, Rt. Hon. Leon Gray, Hamish
Brooke, Hon Peter Greenway, Harry
Brotherton, Michael Griffiths, E. (B'y St. Edm'ds)
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'n) Griffiths, Peter Portsm'th N)
Browne, John (Winchester) Grist, Ian
Bruce-Gardyne, John Grylls, Michael
Bryan, Sir Paul Gummer, John Selwyn
Buck, Antony Hamilton, Hon A.
Budgen, Nick Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)
Bulmer, Esmond Hampson, DrKeith
Burden, SirFrederick Hannam, John
Butcher, John Haselhurst, Alan
Cadbury, Jocelyn Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael
Carlisle, John (Luton West) Hawksley, Warren
Chalker, Mrs. Lynda Hayhoe, Barney
Channon, Rt. Hon. Paul Heath, Rt Hon Edward
Churchill, W.S. Henderson, Barry
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n) Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Hicks, Robert
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Clegg, Sir Walter Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Cockeram, Eric Holland, Philip (Carlton)
Cope, John Hooson, Tom
Cormack, Patrick Hordern, Peter
Costain, Sir Albert Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Cranborne, Viscount Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldf'd)
Crouch, David Howell, Ralph (NNorfolk)
Dean, Paul (North Somerset) Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Dickens, Geoffrey Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick
Dorrell, Stephen Johnson Smith, Geoffrey
Douglas-Hamilton, LordJ. Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Dover, Denshore Kaberry, Sir Donald
du Cann, Rt Hon Edward Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Kershaw, Sir Anthony Raison, Timothy
King, Rt Hon Tom Rathbone, Tim
Knox, David Rees-Davies, W. R.
Lamont, Norman Renton, Tim
Lang, lan Rhodes James, Robert
Langford-Holt, SirJohn Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Latham, Michael Ridsdale, SirJulian
Lawrence, lvan Rifkind, Malcolm
Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW)
Lee, John Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
LeMarchant, Spencer Rossi, Hugh
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Rost, Peter
Lester, Jim (Beeston) Royle, Sir Anthony
Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Lloyd, lan (Havant & W'loo) St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.
Loveridge, John Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Luce, Richard Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Lyell, Nicholas Shelton, William (Streatham)
McCrindle, Robert Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Macfarlane, Neil Shepherd, Richard
MacGregor, John Shersby, Michael
MacKay, John (Argyll) Silvester, Fred
Macmillan, Rt Hon M. Sims, Roger
McNair-Wilson, M.(N'bury) Skeet, T. H. H.
McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st) Speed, Keith
McQuarrie, Albert Speller, Tony
Madel, David Spence, John
Major, John Spicer, Jim (West Dorset)
Marland, Paul Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Marlow, Antony Squire, Robin
Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Stanbrook, lvor
Marten, Rt Hon Neil Stanley John
Mates, Michael Stevens, Martin
Maude, Rt Hon Sir Angus Stewart, A. (ERenfrewshire)
Mawby, Ray Stewart, lan (Hitchin)
Mawhinney, DrBrian Stokes, John
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Stradling Thomas, J.
Mayhew, Patrick Tapsell, Peter
Mellor, David Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Meyer, Sir Anthony Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Miller, Hal (B'grove) Temple-Morris, Peter
Mills, lain (Meriden) Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Mills, Peter (West Devon) Thompson, Donald
Miscampbell, Norman Thome, Neil (llford South)
Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Thornton, Malcolm
Monro, SirHector Townend, John (Bridlington)
Montgomery, Fergus Townsend, Cyril D, (B'heath)
Moore, John Trippier, David
Morris, M. (N'hamptonS) Trotter, Neville
Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes) van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Morrison, Hon P. (Chester) Vaughan, DrGerard
Mudd, David Viggers, Peter
Murphy, Christopher Waldegrave, Hon William
Myles, David Walker, Rt Hon P.(W'cester)
Neale, Gerrard Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir D.
Needham, Richard Waller, Gary
Nelson, Anthony Walters, Dennis
Neubert, Michael Ward, John
Newton, Tony Watson, John
Normanton, Tom Wells, Bowen
Nott, Rt Hon John Wells, John (Maidstone)
Onslow, Cranley Wheeler, John
Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S. Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Page, Richard (SW Herts) Whitney, Raymond
Parris, Matthew Wickenden, Keith
Patten, Christopher (Bath) Wiggin, Jerry
Pattie, Geoffrey Williams, D. (Montgomery)
Pawsey, James Winterton, Nicholas
Percival, Sir lan Wolfson, Mark
Pink, R. Bonner Young, SirGeorge (Acton)
Pollock, Alexander Younger, Rt Hon George
Porter, Barry
Prentice, Rt Hon Reg Tellers for the Ayes:
Proctor, K. Harvey Mr. Anthony Berry and
Pym, Rt Hon Francis Mr. Robert Boscawen.
Abse, Leo Anderson, Donald
Adams, Allen Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Allaun, Frank Ashton, Joe
Atkinson, N. (H'gey) Hughes, Mark (Durham)
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Hughes, Roy (Newport)
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (H'wd) Janner, Hon Greville
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Jay, Rt Hon Douglas
Bennett, Andrew (St'kp'tN) John, Brynmor
Bidwell, Sydney Johnson, James (Hull West)
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Johnson, Walter (Denby S)
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rh'dda)
Bottomley, Rt Hon A. (M'b'ro) Jones, Barry (East Flint)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Jones, Dan (Burnley)
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Brown, R. C. (N'castle W) Kerr, Russell
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith) Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Callaghan, Jim (Midd't'n & P) Lambie, David
Campbell, lan Lamborn, Harry
Campbell-Savours, Dale Lamond, James
Canavan, Dennis Leadbitter, Ted
Cant, R. B. Leighton, Ronald
Carmichael, Neil Lestor, Miss Joan
Carter-Jones, Lewis Lewis, Arthur (N'ham NW)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S) Litherland, Robert
Cohen, Stanley Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Coleman, Donald Lyon, Alexander (York)
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson
Cook, Robin F. McCartney, Hugh
Cowans, Harry McDonald, DrOonagh
Craigen, J. M. (G'gow, M'hill) McElhone, Frank
Crowther, Stan McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Cryer, Bob McKelvey, William
Cunningham, DrJ. (W'h'n) MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Dalyell, Tam McNamara, Kevin
Davidson, Arthur McTaggart, Robert
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) McWilliam, John
Davis, Clinton (HackneyC) Marks, Kenneth
Davis, Terry (B'ham, Stechf'd) Marshall, D (G'gowS'ton)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Marshall, DrEdmund (Goole)
Dewar, Donald Marshall, Jim (LeicesterS)
Dixon, Donald Martin, M (G'gowS'burn)
Dobson, Frank Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Dormand, Jack Maxton, John
Douglas, Dick Maynard, Miss Joan
Dubs, Alfred Meacher, Michael
Dunnett, Jack Mellish, Rt Hon Robert
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Mikardo, lan
Eadie, Alex Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Ellis, R. (NE D'bysh're) Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
English, Michael Morton, George
Ennals, Rt Hon David Moyle, Rt Hon Roland
Evans, loan (Aberdare) Newens, Stanley
Evans, John (Newton) Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Faulds, Andrew Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Field, Frank Palmer, Arthur
Fitch, Alan Park, George
Flannery, Martin Parker, John
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Parry, Robert
Ford, Ben Pendry, Tom
Forrester, John Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Foster, Derek Prescott, John
Foulkes, George Race, Reg
Fraser, J. (Lamb'th, N'w'd) Rees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S)
Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Richardson, Jo
Garrett, John (Norwich S) Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
George, Bruce Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Golding, John Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Graham, Ted Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Grant, George (Morpeth) Rooker, J.W.
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Ross, Ernest (Dundee West)
Hamilton, W.W. (C'tral Fife) Rowlands, Ted
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Ryman, John
Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith Sheerman, Barry
Haynes, Frank Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Heffer, Eric S. Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Hogg, N. (E Dunb't'nshire) Short, Mrs Renée
Holland, S. (L'b'th, Vauxh'll) Silkin, Rt Hon J. (Deptford)
Homewood, William Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
Hooley, Frank Silverman, Julius
Hoyle, Douglas Skinner, Dennis
Huckfield, Les Smith, Rt Hon J. (N Lanark)
Snape, Peter White, Frank R.
Soley, Clive White, J. (G'gowPollok)
Spearing, Nigel Whitehead, Phillip
Spriggs, Leslie Whitlock, William
Stallard, A. W. Wigley, Dafydd
Stoddart, David Willey, RtHon Frederick
Stott, Roger Williams, Rt Hon A. (S'sea W)
Straw, Jack Wilson, Gordon (DundeeE)
Summerskill, HonDrShirley Wilson, Rt Hon SirH. (H'ton)
Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W) Wilson, William (C'trySE)
Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth) Winnick, David
Thorne, Stan (PrestonSouth) Woodall, Alec
Tinn, James Woolmer, Kenneth
Torney, Tom Wright, Sheila
Varley, Rt Hon Eric G. Young, David (BoltonE)
Wainwright, E. (DearneV)
Walker, Rt Hon H. (D'caster) Tellers for the Noes:
Watkins, David Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe and
Weetch, Ken Mr. Austin Mitchell.
Welsh, Michael

Question accordingly agreed to.

MR. SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House welcomes the steps taken by Her Majesty's Government to protect those most at risk from severe weather in having (a) at the beginning of this winter fully maintained value of last year's already substantial help with fuel costs, (b) maintained in the new supplementary benefit scheme provision for payments to meet the extra cost of additional fuel consumption during exceptionally severe weather and (c) continued co-operation with the fuel industries to ensure that the industries' code of practice on payment of bills is operated effectively; and further welcomes the consideration and initiative shown by electricity boards in recently suspending disconnections for seven days.

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