HC Deb 17 February 1986 vol 92 cc28-34 3.53 pm
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if in the light of the recent decision of the Social Security Commissioners he will make a statement about fuel payments in periods of exceptionally severe weather like the recent cold snap.

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

The main help for claimants in meeting their heating costs is the scale rates which cover normal living expenses. In addition, there is an extensive range of heating additions which give further help, for example, for all householders over 65 and families with a child under five. Expenditure on those additions totalled some £400 million in 1984–85—£140 million more in real terms than in 1978–79.

The regulations also provide for single payments to claimants who have extra fuel costs arising from exceptionally severe weather. Last winter decisions were handled using trigger points based on meteorological office information. The system was widely criticised and was ruled invalid by the Social Security Commissioners last autumn. In the light of this the chief adjudication officer issued further guidance on the handling of claims.

It is for the independent adjudication officers in each locality to decide whether there has been a period of exceptionally severe weather and to determine subsequent claims. I understand that some designations have been made and that others are under consideration.

Mr. Meacher

Now that the Social Security Commissioners have ruled that the Government's system of exceptionally severe weather payments of last winter was invalid, is it not an abdication of Government responsibility that the buck has been passed to local officers to decide for themselves whether there has been a period of exceptionally severe weather and, if so, how much extra claimants should have to spend on fuel? Are the Government not washing their hands of this matter in issuing a circular that does not define "period", "exceptionally severe weather" and "trigger points"? Which local offices have so far started making payments according to the circular of 6 December, as the temperature has now fallen as low as minus 11 deg in Scotland and the north-east and minus 17 deg in the Cambridge area? Why are local officers apparently not advertising the availability of these payments, bearing in mind that it has now been freezing for some weeks?

As the previous standardised system notoriously led to unequal treatment of different places with the same low temperature, is it not clear that the present wholly random alternative will lead to far greater inequities and unfairnesses? Are we not seeing the first example of that abandonment of claimants' rights in favour of local discretion and uncertainty which will soon become the order of the day under the Government's proposed social fund?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman has not acknowledged that the position last winter was, in one important respect, the same as this winter. The decision has always been a matter for the local adjudication officers. The difference is that, last winter, local adjudication officers were given guidance by the Chief Adjudication Officer setting out generalised national standards for the application of the scheme. It was that guidance, purporting to guide local adjudication officers, that was found invalid by the Social Security Commissioners. Their finding was that the regulation could be operated only on the basis of individual local decisions by the local adjudication officers. The Chief Adjudication Officer has simply responded to the finding of the appropriate legal authority—in this case, the Social Security Commissioners. I think I need not tell the House what the hon. Gentleman would have said if the finding of the Social Security Commissioners had been ignored. The finding has simply been implemented by the Chief Adjudication Officer.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I could say in which areas a period of exceptionally severe weather had been declared for the purposes of this regulation. We are aware of designations in Northampton, Peterborough, Hertford, Cambridge — to which the hon. Gentleman referred — the Greater London area as a whole, Mansfield and Sutton in Ashfield. I understand that designations are under consideration in a number of other areas.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, since 1979, not only has the scale payment been increased in real terms but its spread has been increased?

Mr. Newton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We are spending substantially more on regular weekly additional payments than when the Conservative party came to office—£400 million, which is £140 million more in real terms than in 1978–79. Those regular weekly additions which now go to all supplementary pensioner householders over 65 and to a number of other groups are a much more important source of support for heating payments than the system of single payments which last year resulted in the payment of only about £1.7 million in benefit at an administration cost of £1 million. That is plainly not a satisfactory system.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

I am amazed at the audacity of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) in raising the matter when, as a Minister 10 years ago, he suppressed information on hypothermia. Does the Minister not think it a scandal that for the second year running the Scots have been refused payment of the severe weather allowance whereas it has been made available in the south and midlands of England? Is he not aware that one quarter of all the deaths from hypothermia occur in Scotland? How much do the Scots have to take from this Government before we are given adequate heating allowances based on climatic differences.

Mr. Newton

I know that the hon. Gentleman had, what I hope, was a fruitful meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), the Under-Secretary. We shall continue to give consideration to the points he made. He also knows that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney), the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, is examining the information available about hypothermia and death, which requires a good deal of careful examination. I can only say that the dissatisfaction expressed in Scotland last year was no doubt one of the things taken into account by the social security commissioners when they looked at the operation of the regulation. We have faithfully adhered to the guidance of the proper legal authorities about how that regulation should be administered this winter.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

Does my hon. Friend accept that a system of payment which does not provide for a prompt indication as to whether payments are to be made and does not give a clear idea as to how much will be paid is not a particularly helpful system? Will my hon. Friend accept that the present system is deficient in both respects?

Mr. Newton

I accept that. I think that last winter I used the phrase "weird and wonderful" to describe to the House the system then. We have considered what would be the appropriate action. In the light of the social security commissioners' finding last autumn we felt that it would be appropriate to implement the commissioners' recommendation for the proper way to implement the existing regulation and to continue to keep the matter under review in the light of what happens this winter.

Mr. Norman Hogg (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

On last Tuesday and Wednesday it was minus 11 deg C in central Scotland, plus a high wind bringing a hill chill factor. How cold does it have to be before my constituents qualify for the allowance?

Mr. Newton

It is inherent in the nature of the system that the only person who can answer that is the local adjudication officer in the hon. Gentleman's area. I suggest that he makes his points direct to him.

Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West)

Will my hon. Friend consider increasing a little further the spread of the general heating allowance in order that in some circumstances we may be able to include those who are not already on supplementary benefit?

Mr. Newton

I will consider my hon. Friend's suggestion, but we have always felt that the appropriate course was to focus help most clearly on those who are identified as the least well off in the community. which is those on supplementary benefit. To that end we have made the very substantial increase in the amount and the spread of heating additions which I have already described.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

As hundreds and thousands of our constituents are suffering misery from the cold to the extent that some will die, will the Minister give an undertaking that he will seek radio and television time to tell constituents what help is available and how to claim?

Mr. Newton

I shall undertake that in areas where a period of exceptionally severe weather is declared we shall take steps to bring that to the attention of claimants. Indeed, as a result of the arrangements made last winter, local officers have stocks of leaflets which describe the help available and we have given them further advice on local publicity arrangements to draw the matters to claimants' attention.

Mr. Peter Rost (Erewash)

Does my hon. Friend accept that there would be much less hardship today and savings in public funds if the Government had taken the advice of the Select Committee on Energy. The Committee said that there should be more insulation of low-income family homes and that it should be speeded up now because it will be more cost-effective than wasting huge sums of taxpayers' money paying people's heating bills.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will know that that is a matter for my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Energy and one which they take very seriously. I can also tell the House that we are anxious to work closely with the Department of Energy to promote insulation.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Why should so many pensioners throughout the country have to endure such intense misery during the present cold spell while there are red-tape regulations about triggering off the special payments? Is the Minister aware that, although he tells the House that that is a matter for local DHSS officers, that is not the position? I have made inquiries and it seems that the responsibility in practice is being taken by regional offices. Is the Minister aware that there are other groups of people, certainly pensioners on very small incomes, who do not receive a penny of supplementary benefit and are therefore not eligible for the payment which can be made during the winter or for any other form of payment to help pay their heating bills? Is that not disgraceful and will it not become even worse when the Social Security Bill becomes law?

Mr. Newton

The legal position is, and always has been, that it is a matter for the local adjudication officer to decide on local conditions. It is equally open to adjudication officers, on these or any other matters, to seek guidance from adjudication officers further up the system. On the other matter, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that this regulation is effectively simply a translation into a regulated form of the discretionary power previously exercised by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. To that extent, the policy of focusing help on those on supplementary benefit has been common to both Administrations.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Does my hon. Friend accept that it seems to many of us that the Government's entirely honourable and good intentions are being frustrated by the arbitrary and often insensitive behaviour of the local adjudication officers? May we not have a temperature guideline so that we do not have the ridiculous problem whereby when it is minus 11 deg. people are getting no form of benefit?

Mr. Newton

The problem, as my hon. Friend may perhaps understand, is that the attempts to lay down clear national guidelines last winter by the Chief Adjudication Officer were precisely what was attacked in the House at that time and subsequently found by the social security commissioners to be invalid.

Mr. Gordon Brown (Dunfermline, East)

When experts estimate that at least 1,000 lives are being lost every month as a result of the cold and 900,000 pensioners are at risk, how does the Minister justify refusing benefit when temperatures are as low as minus 11 deg. in Scotland and the north-east? Why, if there is local discretion, do the new rules which he has sent out state that benefit will be cut if there is sickness in the family or if a pensioner has bought a new heater? Why do the Government put saving money before saving lives?

Mr. Newton

I state as a fact to the House that the circular is that of the Chief Adjudication Officer and it is not one which Ministers could or should dictate. The Government's concern for the needs of poorer pensioners is precisely why the coverage of regular substantial weekly heating additions has been greatly extended and increased in value by the present Administration.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

If the Government have set their face against the structural approach based on entitlement, which I very much regret, will they consider two modifications? Will they allow claimants to make claims on the basis of unpaid, not receipted, bills? Secondly, will the Minister look at the possibility of getting the fuel boards to provide statistics on which claims can be made? Is he aware that the commissioner's decision in paragraph 24 suggests that fuel boards are asking for fees to provide claimants with information on which to base claims?

Mr. Newton

I shall certainly look at the hon. Gentleman's second point. On the first matter, I am afraid that once again I have to say to the House that not only is it a matter for the local adjudication officer to determine whether the regulation applies in a particular area at a particular time, it is for the local adjudication officer to decide the basis on which the calculation of any payment shall be made.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is mystifying as to why the Government are not receiving credit from the Opposition for the substantial increases in real terms in heating additions which have been given by the Government? Will he confirm that nearly all pensioners and disabled people are now benefiting very much more than they ever did under Labour?

Mr. Newton

It is certainly the case that the importance of this particular regulation needs to be placed in the context of the figures—£400 million a year is being spent in regular weekly additions to those who can be thought to have the greatest need. The regulation has been used on only two occasions in the past five years. On the first occasion about £3.6 million was paid out and on the second occasion, last year, about £1.7 million was paid out. Those figures compare with £400 million of regular weekly help which we have given to those in need.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

As the Minister has assured us that there are severe weather conditions—he is not sure where they are—will he take full responsibility for, and instruct local officers, such as those in Sheffield to mount an effective publicity campaign to reassure the 50,000 claimants in Sheffield that they can keep their heating on and will get financial help as soon as possible?

Mr. Newton

I have already said that we have taken steps to try to make sure that local publicity is effective in getting help to claimants, where a period of exceptionally severe weather is declared.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Does my hon. Friend accept that the Treasury Bench does not have a good record on locating Cleveland, and once again it will be difficult to explain why Greater London, instead of the north-east of England, is getting the excess money? While my hon. Friend is answering my question, perhaps he can prompt somebody on the Treasury Bench to reply to the letter that I wrote drawing attention to the case of one of my constituents. He has lost his heating allowance because he went away and did two weeks in the Territorial Army. Since the change in the regulations on 5 August 1985, such people who were previously on supplementary benefit have lost their benefit simply because they went away to do TA duty.

Mr. Newton

I shall look into my hon. Friend's second point. On his first point, I cannot add to what I said about it being, legally, a matter for local decision.

Mr. Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Govan)

Is the Minister aware that, whatever new guidance has been issued, the effect is absolutely the same as last winter. As I have confirmed from inquiries that I made in Glasgow today, the colder it is normally, the colder it has to become before the payment can be made. Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate the sense of outrage and injustice in Scotland and elsewhere about this ridiculous regulation?

Mr. Newton

I understand the sense of objection that was expressed in Scotland last year and is being reflected in what is being said today. That is precisely why we shall continue to look at the matter in the light of the new method of administration that has been adopted for this winter.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Does the Minister appreciate that when I rang the Chesterfield office, the officers there said that the weather was not exceptionally severe for this time of the year? Thus they were saying that because it is always cold in February, when it gets exceptionally cold, pensioners and others in the area cannot get the payments that they need. For the Minister to shield behind the local adjudication officers and others is to try to abandon the responsibility that he has to see that people do not die of cold in the winter when, with much trumpeting, we were told that the emergency weather payments would be made. That is the issue. Will the hon. Gentleman address his mind to it and not take us through the bureaucratic maze to confuse people who dare not spend money on heating until they know that they will get the allowance, because they do not want to find that they are in debt later in the winter?

Mr. Newton

The core of the Government's position is that the proper way to help pensioners and others on supplementary benefit who have additional fuel needs is to make sure that they get significant extra help every week. That is what we have sought to do.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Is the Minister aware that his Pontius Pilate attitude this afternoon contrasts sharply with the written answer that his Department gave me on 22 January, showing that nearly 40,000 more pensionsers died in the winter months of January to March last year compared, with the summer months of July to September the previous year? The only difference is temperature. When will this annual cull of pensioners stop? Is the only hope that the Minister is holding out to pensioners today—the 450 who die every day because of cold—that they will get the payment posthumously?

Mr. Newton

The effect of what the Government have already done for pensioners is to give them help that is signficantly greater than any that they received from the previous Labour Government. In the case of supplementary benefit—[Interruption.] The increase in heating additions under the present Government, as I have said on several occasions, is to £400 million. That is an increase of £140 million in real terms since Labour Members were on Government Benches, and, if I remember rightly, it was the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) who invented what was widely regarded as the farcical electricity discount scheme.


Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I never question your choice of speakers to ask questions. Nor am I questioning your not calling Members to ask questions. However, I should like to place on record the fact that it is a matter of great regret that you chose to end questions when only two Opposition Members still wished to speak—my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) and myself.

Mr. Speaker

There were rather more than two hon. Members wishing to ask questions, as the hon. Gentlman would have realised had he looked behind him. We had nearly 25 minutes on this matter, and it was an extension of Question Time. Normally, I would not allow more than 15 minutes in such cases.