HC Deb 13 February 1985 vol 73 cc454-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lang.]

11.43 pm
Mr. Gordon Brown (Dunfermline, East)

The purpose of the Adjournment debate is to secure guarantees from the Minister about the future of heating additions for the 2.5 million households who depend on them and to ask the Minister now as a matter of urgency to make exceptionally severe weather payments available to thousands of the poorest pensioners and low-income households throughout the whole of Britain who are being denied urgently needed help because of his Department's system for administering Single Payments Regulation No. 26 on exceptionally severe weather allowances. It is a system that has never been debated or discussed in the House until tonight. It is a system that has no statutory authority whatsoever. It is a system that has so redefined our view of what is exceptionally severe weather that in some cases old people would have to freeze to death before any payments would be offered.

When respectable medical evidence shows that up to 900,000 old people in this country could be at risk from hypothermia, when deaths from cold and cold-induced diseases could have risen by as much as 40 per cent. during this winter period of bad weather, when many pensioners tell me and my hon. Friends that they have to choose in this cold spell between heating and eating, no one can deny that the cold weather and the Government's pitifully inadequate response to it has brought suffering and hardship on a national scale and is a national disgrace.

Single Payments Regulation No. 26 provides that cash help will be made available to the poorest of supplementary benefit claimants where there has been a period of exceptionally severe weather and where fuel bills are higher than normal as a result. Under that regulation, in 1982 the Department made payments amounting to nearly £4 million to 280,000 supplementary benefit claimants, including many thousands of pensioners. But since 1982 not a penny has been paid out. Until a month ago, not a penny had been offered to any claimants, simply because of the invention by the Department in 1982 of a new formula for administering the scheme. That formula has no legal standing; that formula has been described as legally irrelevant by the only social security tribunal that has scrutinised it; that formula, I have been advised, would not stand up in any court of law — at least in Scotland — because of the Court of Session Act 1868 that obliges public bodies to fulfil their statutory obligations.

Quite simply, what the Government have done is to redefine what exceptionally severe weather is. According to the Government, exceptionally severe weather does not exist in most of the country, even if the temperature is consistently below freezing point every day for a week, or even for a month. According to the Government, exceptionally severe weather does not exist in northern parts of the country—and Scotland in particular—even if the temperature hovers between zero and minus 4 deg.C or minus 5 deg.C each day for weeks on end. According to the Government, exceptionally severe weather does not exist even if temperatures fall as low as minus 23 deg.C — as they did on one day last month in the north of Scotland — or if, in some areas, the temperature has been as low as freezing point for six days and is between zero and minus 30 deg.C on the seventh day.

The Government have decreed that our weather is almost never sufficiently cold to qualify as being exceptionally severe. By underestimating the degree of cold and by underestimating the need for heating, the Department and the Government are conspiring to underpay needy claimants. They have done it by the invention of a cold weather formula consisting of four elements, all of which are of dubious legal and technical standing.

On the Department's own admission, the heating needs of claimants are calculated from standards designed to measure and monitor temperature levels not in people's homes, but in factories. Pensioners with only a one-bar electric heater are assumed to have the same heating needs and requirements as factory workers surrounded by electrical equipment, power-loading equipment, lifts and even central heating. The assumption behind the regulation and formula is that 15.5 deg.C is an adequate temperature for an old person at home, when all respectable evidence shows that at that temperature pensioners are dangerously close to the risk of hypothermia.

The last Conservative Government of 1972 published what they called simple guidance notes for those engaged in helping old people, in which they said that with a temperature at freezing point outside, to keep old people warm in winter the living room temperature should be about 70 deg.F, which is about 21 deg.C.

If in 1972, when the present Secretary of State for Education and Science was Secretary of State for Social Services, the official view was that the safe temperature at freezing point in pensioners' homes was 21 deg.C why, under the present Government, is the safe temperature only 15.5 deg.C, 5.5 deg. less, and for some people the difference between life and death?

Have the heating needs of pensioners changed during the last 12 years? Have pensioners somehow become more resistant to the cold? Or have the Government changed in that they are pursuing policies that are vindictive even beyond monetarism?

The heating formula is even more flawed. Benefit is triggered for pensioners and others, if at all, not by how cold it actually is but by how much colder it has been than the coldest temperatures of the last 20 years. The colder it was in the past, the colder it must become for claimants to benefit. To claim for benefit, temperatures must stand at zero in places such as Aberporth, but at minus 3 deg. in Aberdeen; at 0.5 deg. above freezing point in Plymouth and the south-west, but at 2.5 deg. below freezing in Glasgow and most of Strathclyde.

Does the Minister expect the nation seriously to believe that pensioners in Cowdenbeath in my constituency are somehow less sensitive to cold than are pensioners in Kent; that families in Braemar in the north have lower fuel bills than families in Bournemouth; that the very old are less at risk from hypothermia in the Shetlands than in Surbiton?

This absurd system has already been declared irrelevant by the only social security tribunal seriously to have scrutinised it. When, in addition to all these matters, temperatures to calculate the qualification for benefit are gathered at only 19 weather stations in the country, some more than 100 miles away from where pensioners and others live, and when, for administrative convenience, five or six days of cold weather, however severe, are not enough to justify help, surely that social security tribunal which scrutinised the formula was right to conclude that the formula is arbitrary and that the DHSS has been unable to elucidate, explain and justify the reasons for it.

If heating an entire home with a one-bar fire were comparable with maintaining the temperature in a busy factory; if abrupt changes in temperature were to conform to the Department's idea of a weekly cycle; if it were true that old people in the country's colder areas were somehow less at risk of death by cold; if we were prepared to discount the Department of Energy's view of the whole system as unsatisfactory and not a reliable indicator of fuel needs among pensioners; if the best judges, as the formula implies, of the needs of pensioners for heating was the Factory Inspectorate of the Department of Energy, advised by Meteorological Office weather stations 100 miles away and reporting to statisticians burrowing in the weather records of 20 years ago, we might be able to convince ourselves that nobody died from hypothermia.

I am not accusing Ministers of lying about the weather. But they are, to say the least, guilty of meteorological inexactitudes when, no matter how cold it is, the sun shines out of their statistics—and for one purpose only; to cheat pensioners and other poor families of a few pence by way of allowance. Here are a Government who put saving money before saving lives, even when the sums involved are minuscule and when the lives involved are the most frail and vulnerable in society.

Rather than reassess the level of benefits for old people, the Government are prepared to reassess the level of weather at which benefits are paid, making weather at freezing point too generous, Siberian conditions too warm and Arctic temperatures too kind for a cold weather benefit.

The Minister will say that the new formula is the nearest objective test available for defining exceptionally severe weather. He will say that it was not conjured up with the objective of saving money and will speak in the way that the Prime Minister has constantly tried to assure us of the Government's generosity towards pensioners. If the Government are so generous, may we be told why, before the formula was invented, 250,000 claimants, many of them pensioners, benefited, whereas since then not one claimant has received a penny?

If the Minister is so generous, why is it estimated in my constituency and other constituencies that, under the formula, help would have been given to pensioners and others in only three weeks of all the winter weeks of the last 20 years? Why have statisticians, fuel efficiency inspectors and weather men been engaged in conducting surveys of dubious value at vast cost to the Exchequer, invariably to conclude that no Exchequer costs need to be incurred in helping pensioners and others with their fuel bills?

The fact is that a legal regulation which, if properly implemented, would give help to 250,000 people—the poorest citizens — has been systematically and deliberately undermined by a formula of dubious standing under which almost no one can benefit. Having deliberately forced up gas prices by more than 100 per cent. in four years, having deliberately forced up electricity prices by 74 per cent. in the four years from 1979, but having allowed pensions to increase by only 50 per cent.—half as much as the increase in gas prices—having made many thousands of pensioners £1 a week worse off with the so-called uprating in November last year, the Government can make no claim to have been generous to the elderly. In Scotland — I am surprised that no Scottish Minister is here this evening — the Scottish Office is so generous to the elderly that, because of a cost-cutting exercise, it has withdrawn what it calls "hypothermia thermometers" which were issued last winter to old people and which could be life-saving devices for many people.

Because the formula under which benefits are denied has no legal basis and no statutory authority, the Government should now concede for every low-income household a special payment to help with crippling fuel bills. They should urgently investigate the possibility of introducing a hypothermia warning whereby, in weeks during which the weather is deteriorating, people are warned of the risk of hypothermia and neighbours and relatives are alerted to the need to provide assistance to elderly people. The Government should urge old people to use their heating and offer to pay the additional costs in their gas and electricity bills.

Last Thursday the Prime Minister told the House that the Department of Health and Social Security was reviewing the system of cold weather allowances. She said specifically: there is a review of these provisions, and that is being undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security." — [Official Report, 7 February 1985; Vol. 72, c. 1101.] This week, when I asked about the nature of the review, its terms of reference, the committee members and the evidence that is to be invited, the Minister could only say: the Government are looking at the provision for meeting special expenses of this sort in the context of the supplementary benefit review". — [Official Report, 11 February 1985; Vol. 73, c. 76.] That is not a special review of the provisions for severe weather payments and not a review that is being carried out within DHSS. We all know that the supplementary benefit review has reported to the Minister; the Minister has now reported to the Cabinet; and the review has completed its work. The Cabinet is now discussing the recommendation. Having cynically undermined their own laws since 1972, having underestimated the needs of the community, and having done their best to withhold the most meagre of benefits from the poor, the Government are now retreating under smokescreen of a now completed review from all responsibility in this matter.

Now that these social security reviews have reported to Cabinet, I have to ask the Under-Secretary of State whether these reviews recommend the amendment and improvement of the exceptionally severe weather allowances to ensure proper help during this cold weather. Do they — as most of us fear — recommend their abolition so that the benefit will not be paid, no matter how cold the weather? Can the Under-Secretary of State give us a guarantee that pensioners and others — the 2.5 million householders which depend on heating additions — will not, as most of us fear, lose this vital help altogether under cover of a review which is becoming a cynical and heartless raid on the poorest and weakest in our society?

When the lives of elderly people are at risk, the House has a right to expect answers which are more detailed and frank than the empty rhetoric we have had so far from the Prime Minister and other Ministers. So that the cynical reassurances that the Prime Minister has given us do not become a callous betrayal in the spring, the House has a right to expect some detailed answers from the Under-Secretary of State.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Mr. Ray Whitney.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Ray Whitney)


Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I called the Under-Secretary of State. In an Adjournment debate, hon. Members need the agreement of both the hon. Member whose debate it is and the Minister.

12 midnight

Mr. Whitney

I am delighted to offer the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) some direct answers, in particular having heard such a farrago of misrepresentations. I am more pleased than I thought that I would be to offer corrections to his facts. First, we must put the situation into perspective — and after those flights of fancy, that is particularly necessary. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have been seeking to fill the Scottish media with similar fantasies in the past few weeks.

Payments for exceptional weather conditions represent only a small addition to the great help with heating costs that the Government give to those in need in Scotland and elsewhere. We spend billions of pounds on social security, and we have maintained all the major benefit rates ahead of rises in prices during the lifetime of this Government. We are now spending no less than £400 million a year on extra fuel for consumers on low incomes.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the increase in fuel prices, but he should consider that there were times, under the Labour Government, when he was not in the House, when fuel prices were increasing by 2 per cent. every six weeks. During the period of this Government, while fuel prices have increased by about 108 per cent. between November 1978 and November 1984, the heating additions paid in the supplementary benefit scheme have increased by 147 per cent. over the same period.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of a pitiful and inadequate response, but he should study the record of the Labour Government.

He spoke about hypothermia among pensioners, but he should study the rise in fuel energy costs during the dreadful years of the Labour Government.

All that means that, despite the inescapable constraints on public expenditure, the least well-off in society, be they pensioners or others, are better off than they were when the Conservative Administration took office in 1979.

Dr. M. S. Miller


Mr. Whitney

No, I shall not give way. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, East has left me little time to make the many corrections that I must put to the House.

The least well-off in our society have substantially higher additions to pay for the fuel that they need to keep warm than they did when the Labour Government were in office. Quite apart from ignoring those major facts, the remarks of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East showed that he, like many other people, is mixing up—I suspect sometimes deliberately—two separate issues.

One issue is whether those on supplementary benefit, and who are therefore likely to have their financial affairs on weekly budgets which are very tightly balanced, should be given a little extra help when the weather becomes extremely severe and those budgets come under strain.

The other issue is whether there should be permanent differences in the rate of supplementary benefit paid in various parts of the country to take account of the fact that some parts generally have somewhat lower temperatures than others.

Let me deal, first, with the question of the special payments for exceptionally severe weather conditions. It is important here to make absolutely clear what we are talking about. The essential basis of the "exceptionally severe weather" provision is that it is an emergency arrangement to provide budgeting help, if necessary, in periods of exceptionally—and I stress the word—

Dr. M. S. Miller

Get off the brief!

Mr. Whitney

If the hon. Gentleman would listen, he would learn a great deal to his advantage. He has only just arrived.

Severe weather means conditions so bad that the claimant could not be expected to foresee and budget for the fuel that he used.

Dr. M. S. Miller

The hon. Gentleman should leave his brief for a moment and look at the humanitarian aspects of this matter. People are dying of hypothermia, not only in Scotland but in every part of the country. I know that the hon. Gentleman is humanitarian, and he should not be sticking to a brief that he has been given by his civil servants. Instead he should be seeing what he can do to improve the situation.

Mr. Whitney

We have paid considerably more in heating addition than the Labour Government — £140 million more. Of course we are concerned about the problems suffered by old people because of the cold, but we are showing that concern in a practical manner which the Labour Government did not.

Payments before 1980 were made at the discretion of the local DHSS office or of individual officers. The rules were not made public and no objective test was applied. The regulated scheme was introduced in 1980, but there were still problems in applying the scheme in the winter of 1982. Following that winter, the Chief Adjudication Officer decided to introduce a new system which would be clearer and fairer in its operation. In consultation with the Meteorological Office, he devised an objective means of deciding when payments were due and how much should be paid. Details of those procedures are available in the House. The details are clear, and any hon. Member can study them.

The effect is that what is regarded as "exceptionally severe" weather in Cornwall might not be regarded as such in the north-east of Scotland. However, the differences are not large—the biggest being between the average daily temperature required to reach the trigger point in Aberdeen and that needed in Plymouth, which is less than 3½ deg. C.

There are other differences which many people might find surprising, particularly in view of the hullabaloo to which the public have been treated in recent weeks. For example, it has to be slightly colder in Birmingham or Suffolk than in Glasgow to reach the trigger point. The levels at which the trigger points are set reflect meteorological data collected over many years.

Hon. Members have mentioned exceptionally low temperatures reached at a particular time in a particular locality. We have heard much about Braemar. It is suggested that we use shorter and different periods and act more frequently. There is talk of temperatures reached in one day. The Chief Adjudication Officer will take note of such comments, but I must make two points clear.

First, a fairly brief cold snap—for only a few hours —would not make the difference to individual fuel bills that we are considering. Secondly, our supplementary benefit system is already complex and overburdened. One of the objectives is to simplify it.

Reference has been made to the coverage by weather stations. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, East said that there were 19 such stations, when there are only 17, seven of which cover Scotland. They were chosen on expert advice, and the Chief Adjudication Officer will be examining again which weather stations he should use for this purpose.

Anxiety has been expressed about the complications of the scheme and the need to publish details. We take all reasonable steps to publicise the help available. Posters are put up in local social security offices and elsewhere and claimants can obtain leaflets explaining how and when to claim. The Department also tries to ensure that the local media in the areas affected are fully briefed.

The formula might be complex, but claiming is simple. It is possible to apply a ready reckoner to the fuel bill to work out how much a claimant is entitled to.

Mr. Gordon Brown

Is the Minister defending the present system, or is he, as the Prime Minister appears to be saying, unhappy with the present system? Does he realise that it is possible for the DHSS to discard the formula and to pay the benefit now?

Mr. Whitney

I am seeking to set right the hon. Gentleman's complete misapprehension, which he is seeking to carry throughout Scotland for his own well-known political reasons. When he understands that, we shall go on to discuss what we propose to do in the future.

Let me now deal with the issue with which the concept of payments for exceptionally severe weather conditions is frequently confused — the idea that there should be some sort of "cold climate allowance" for particular parts of the country. Like Ministers in previous Governments, we have consistently taken the view that there are strong arguments against any deviation from the principle of national benefit levels. Apart from heating, there are many regional variations in prices which affect the amounts which people spend on different items. It would be possible to make a case, for example, based on the variation in transport costs in different parts of the country, and others would seek to point to other variations in living costs. If we do that, the task of setting and changing all the benefit rates each year would become impossibly complicated, at a time when one of our objectives is to make the system simpler and therefore better understood by claimants. Besides that, there is evidence that there is little variation between the amounts spent, on average, on fuel by people in different parts of Great Britain, and that that remains true at all levels of income.

In conclusion, let me return to the issue of payments for exceptionally severe weather conditions. I should stress that this winter is the first time that this new objective method has been triggered, and I know that the Chief Adjudication Officer will be looking carefully at the guidance he has issued in the light of experience gained this winter—

Dr. M. S. Miller

People are dying.

Mr. Whitney

The hon. Gentleman says that people are dying. Many more people would be likely to die if we were to make payments for heating of the kind that the Labour Government made. The Chief Adjudication Officer will no doubt be considering whether any changes are called for.

More generally, I would remind the House, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has done, that we are looking carefully at all the provisions for meeting special expenses of that sort in the context of the review of the supplementary benefit system. It must be right to await the outcome of this fundamental exaination of the whole scheme which we have been conducting before taking further decisions on the future of this particular regulation.

I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight about the deliberate confusion that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East and many of his hon. Friends and members of the Scottish National party have sought to sow in the minds of many people in Scotland. It is not a cold climate allowance; it is help with exceptional budget circumstances occasioned by changes in climate. The allowance is available to people north and south of the border on published, known and objective criteria.

I understand that this approach gives Opposition Members problems, but I am sure, now the matter has been explained, that at least fair-minded people—I must exclude Opposition Members who have listened to the debate—will understand the objective.

The main help with heating, as with all other assistance on supplementary benefit, relies on social security payments which have increased in real terms since the Government came into office by no less than 27 per cent.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.

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