HC Deb 15 January 1985 vol 71 cc170-3
4. Mr. Winnick

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what representations he has recently received about financial assistance for pensioners for heating purposes.

15. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services how many representations he has had about problems of lack of heating for elderly people and for families with children as a result of the changes in the heating regulation for supplementary benefit.

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

In November there were changes to the rules for paying supplementary benefit weekly additions for special needs, including heating additions, to pensioners and others receiving the higher long-term rate of benefit. At the same time we extended age-related heating additions to supplementary pensioner householders aged between 65 and 69 and introduced an enhanced heating addition for those aged 85 or over. Heating additions in respect of children were not affected. Since 18 June, when my right hon. Friend announced the changes, we have received about 1,070 letters, including some 680 from hon. and right hon. Members, about the changes.

Mr. Winnick

Is the Minister aware of the misery that is faced by so many pensioners during this very cold spell who simply do not have enough money to keep their homes adequately heated? They turn off the heating, wrap themselves in blankets and go to bed very early. Instead of cutting £1 from the heating addition given to those elderly pensioners who need that amount to help them more, why do not the Government recognise the problem involved and give the necessary assistance?

Mr. Newton

It is precisely because of our conern over this problem that we have massively increased heating additions by comparison with the piffling scheme that the last Labour Government left behind. When the hon. Gentleman refers to those elderly pensioners who are most in need, may I remind him that part of the package was an increased heating addition for those aged over 85 which has given to them an extra £2.10 a week.

Mr. Bennett

Will the Minister remind the House of how much last June's change in the regulations saved the Government?

Mr. Newton

The net saving of the change in the regulations in this respect last June, which covered not only heating additions but all additional requirement payments, was of the order of £60 million.

Mrs. Jill Knight

Is my hon. Friend not aware that the answer he has given means that there are people aged between 70 and 85 who are disadvantaged by the new arrangements, and that it is wholly unacceptable to any side of the House that elderly people in this age group should have suffered cuts in their heating benefits, as Department of Health and Social Security officials have confirmed?

Mr. Newton

I understand what my hon. Friend says, but I must ask her to bear in mind that the original rationale of this deduction was the full difference between the short and the long term rates of supplementary benefit. That is how it was introduced by the Labour Government. On that basis, the deduction would now be not £1 but £11 for a married couple.

Mr. Speed

Is my hon. Friend aware that the special supplement that he announced yesterday apparently will not apply to Kent, yet Kent has been hit worst by the weather in the past fortnight? That is met with incredulity by many many people in Kent, because there are many elderly pensioners in my constituency. Is my hon. Friend satisfied with that situation?

Mr. Newton

Frankly, the exceptionally severe weather payments regulation is a pretty weird and wonderful construction. It is operated as best it can be operated on the basis of objective advice from the met office by the chief adjudication officer and I cannot go beyond that.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Following yesterday's announcement that East Anglia and some parts of southern England are to get special payments, and that the hon. Gentleman's Department is to publicise those payments and invite claims, is he not aware that many other parts of the country are facing serious weather conditions? What steps is his Department taking to draw to the attention of local offices the need for such payments? Would it not be outrageous if claimants throughout Britain were not treated on an equitable basis? Will the hon. Gentleman agree to meet a delegation of Labour Members, especially from Scotland, to discuss the matter?

Mr. Newton

It cannot be said to be inequitable to operate a regulation on the basis of objective advice from the met office weather stations assessed by the chief adjudication officer. If the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends wish to meet me or my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney), or both of us, of course we shall do that.

Sir Anthony Meyer

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government's excellent record in caring for the elderly is being disproportionately damaged by the withholding of fuel allowance from some categories of the elderly? Will he urge his colleagues to think again on that issue?

Mr. Newton

I must make it clear that that applies to all additional requirements. Therefore, the effect varies according to what range of additional requirements exist. Some pensioners' heating allowances will have been affected only to the extent of 50p. I must repeat the underlying rationale and emphasis that part of the package was to enable us to extend heating additions automatically to all supplementary pensions to those over 65 and not least to give extra help to those most likely to be most in need, the over-85s.

Mr. Wilson

Is it not a perversion of social justice that a minor cold snap in the south of England can trigger off exceptional payments, when it can cost up to 30 per cent. more to heat a similar type of house in Aberdeen as a matter of general conditions? Should there not be a complete review of the heating additions so that claimants receive the benefits to which they are entitled according to climatic requirements so that, wherever one lives in the United Kingdom, one's house is heated to a reasonable standard?

Mr. Newton

I understand that the hon. Gentleman had a long talk with my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) about those matters last year. The very fact that, as measured under the regulation, the weather now is more severe in the south than in the north illustrates the difficulty of some blanket assumption that it is always more serious in the north. If the hon. Gentleman were to ask me to have a further look at the working of the regulation, that would be very much the kind of point my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has in mind in the social security review.

Mr. Roger King

Will my hon. Friend give some consideration to concentrating heating allowances during the winter months when they are desperately needed perhaps at the expense of not offering any additional heating benefit during the summer months?

Mr. Newton

I shall certainly consider that point.

Mr. Meacher

Since the Government have now spent nearly £5 billion on the coal strike, do they still believe that that is a good investment for Britain, when the alternative could be the use of surplus coal stocks by providing every pensioner in Britain with a Christmas fuel allowance bonus of £100 for each of the next five years? Is not the eradication of hypothermia a much better investment for Britain than the present destructive use of our scarce fuel resources?

Mr. Newton

There have been few things more depressing this year than the Opposition's persistent support for policies which were bound to result in more expensive coal, to the disadvantage of pensioners.