HC Deb 12 February 1985 vol 73 cc156-7
7. Mr. Hardy

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what steps he is taking to ensure that old and needy people are able to keep warm during the current severe weather conditions.

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

We have both increased benefit rates in real terms for the least well-off—those on supplementary benefit — and extended entitlement to regular weekly additional help with heating costs, which now goes automatically to all supplementary pensioner householders over 65. In recent weeks we have also publicised the arrangements whereby one-off payments may be available to some supplementary beneficiaries in areas where the weather has been judged to be exceptionally severe.

Mr. Hardy

Is it not regrettable that at this time of very bitter weather Ministers are reported to be more concerned with preparations to reduce the cost of heating allowances than with meeting need? How many old people have died of cold this winter, and how many does the Minister think are currently at high risk?

Mr. Newton

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that Ministers are making a serious effort to improve the working of the supplementary benefit system as a whole, not least the effectiveness of the help that is given to all those who need our help. As to the rest of the hon. Gentleman's question, the concern that he feels about the effects of this severe weather is shared by all of us. We have been working closely with the Health Education Council and with Age Concern to make sure that all possible steps are taken to help old people.

Mr. Andrew Bowden

Does my hon. Friend recall that quite recently he described the extra heating allowance scheme as "weird"? Is not the scheme a farce? Does my hon. Friend also agree that, because of the appalling weather conditions from which we are now suffering, particularly in the south in areas like Brighton, many pensioners need heating to be on for 24 hours a day on account of the old buildings in which they live? Will he please look sympathetically at how this group can be helped when the bills start to arrive in March?

Mr. Newton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support of my view that there is something strange about this regulation and that we need to look further at it in the context of the review. As to his wider point, I must emphasise that one of our aims has been greatly to extend heating additions to include all pensioners who are in receipt of supplementary benefit. There are now far more pensioners in receipt of regular help of this kind than there were when this Government came to office.

Mr. Fatchett

Is not the reality of the matter that, despite the bad weather of this winter, old people suffer every winter from having to make the choice between heating and other provisions in terms of their budget? Is it not about time that instead of shedding crocodile tears the Government came forward with a real system? Will the Minister go to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and say, "If the Government have money to give away in tax cuts to the rich, would it not be more sensible to make that money available to old-age pensioners so that they can look forward to other winters without this hardship and without these difficult conditions?"

Mr. Newton

Both I and my predecessors have already been to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to such effect that the amount spent on heating additions has risen from little over £100 million in 1979 to around £400 million. This represents a real increase of £140 million and has been directed at exactly the problem that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Mr. McCrindle

Whatever the charitable reasons that may have led to the introduction of the severe weather payments, will my hon. Friend accept it from me that there are many old people who simply do not understand why they are not entitled to these payments when the weather appears to be just as severe for them as it is for their friends who live perhaps a few miles away and who are receiving these payments? Would not the best course be to scrap this well-intentioned idea and to merge any additional assistance during severe weather into heating allowances generally?

Mr. Newton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. Obviously we shall take it into account when looking at this provision.

Mr. Meacher

Is the Minister aware that the exceptionally severe weather payments that he has been making are a farce because the benefits are too paltry, the trigger points are too low and the system is far too slow to operate? Is he also aware that each week this winter during the miners' strike the Central Electricity Generating Board has been paying out £40 million on expensive oil in place of coal and that the expenditure of that sum for one week, if it had been devoted to pensioners, would have fully protected them from extra fuel costs in this bitter weather?

Mr. Newton

I really think that it is time the hon. Gentleman stopped harping on about the miners' strike in this context. The purpose of the CEGB has been to make sure that old people can have some heat when the miners have been seeking to deny it to them.