HC Deb 06 March 1986 vol 93 cc470-504
Mr. Speaker

As we have started rather late, I appeal for short speeches from the Front and Back Benches. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.49 pm
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

I beg to move,

That this House, bearing in mind the cruel hardship suffered by hundreds of thousands of elderly people in the harshest winter for 40 years resulting in a 10-fold increase in deaths from hypothermia, condemns the Government for its total failure to protect pensioners throughout the second coldest February on record: deplores the Government's inactivity in the face of the manifest breakdown of the exceptionally severe weather payments system; and calls upon the Government to ensure that the most vulnerable elderly and disabled people receive adequate income to keep warm and healthy during the remainder of this and subsequent winters. It is often said that the measure of civilisation in a society lies in how it treats its elderly people, and that is a yardstick which the Tory Government, with their record, must rue. We have just been through a long period of intense and exceptional cold; indeed, the coldest February for 40 years and the second chilliest this century. [Interruption.] There are some very childish Members in the House. I thought that the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) was a headmaster. I should have thought that he would have learnt to behave differently from schoolchildren.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)


Mr. Meacher

No, I shall not give way.

All over Britain easterly winds have kept temperatures far below freezing—down even to minus 15 deg, and to minus 20 deg in many places. Deaths from hypothermia have run into thousands. In last winter's cold snap, which was less cold than the past four weeks have been, there were 46,000 more deaths than in summer—an increase of 16,000 over the previous mild winter. Therefore, it would not be surprising if this winter there were about 60,000 cold-related deaths.

Even the Government's own figures—which grossly understate death due to the cold, because hypothermia-related deaths are classified separately as due to pneumonia, bronchitis or heart attack—tell the same story—that the death rate from hypothermia was 10 times higher last year than in 1978. They also show that in the first half of 1985 hypothermia killed 20 per cent.—

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. Norman Fowler)


Mr. Meacher

I shall give way in a moment.

The figures also show that in the first half of 1985 hypothermia killed 20 per cent. more pensioners than in the whole of 1984. It is all too likely that in the first two months of 1986 hypothermia killed more pensioners than in any comparable period this century. In fact, I have today received figures from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys which confirm those suspicions. They reveal that in the first three weeks of February 1986, 6,011 more people died than in the same period two years ago. They show clearly that the death toll from the severity of this winter has been over 2,000 a week greater than has happened previously, even in winter time. That is a clear measure of the Government's failure to protect pensioners from the ravages of this exceptional cold.

Mr. Fowler

If I heard what the hon. Gentleman said, he alleged that there had been a tenfold increase between 1978 and 1985 in deaths from hypothermia. That is completely without foundation. What is the basis upon which the hon. Gentleman makes that charge?

Mr. Meacher

I make that charge on the basis of the figures which have been widely provided, which show that in 1977–78 just over 40 persons died in those weeks. I agree that Government figures, including the Labour Government's figures, grossly understate the number of deaths from hypothermia, for the reasons that I have given. That is true under all Governments, and it is certainly true under this one, but, on the same statistical basis, 415 people died in the first half of 1985—

Mr. Fowler

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but it is important that the House understands this. The figures that the hon. Gentleman has quoted are on an entirely different statistical basis. In other words, he has compared the position before 1979, which was on one statistical basis, with the position after 1979, which was on another. That was made clear in the parliamentary reply that has been given. If the hon. Gentleman looks at that reply he will see that the worst year was 1979, and the winter months of that year. What the hon. Gentleman has just charged is completely untrue.

Mr. Meacher

What were the figures on the same basis for the period 1970 to 1978? What I am saying is that there has been a considerable increase, and this year the increase will be substantially greater than for any previous year. Does the Secretary of State deny that? Does he deny that in the past three weeks the number of deaths has been substantially higher than we have registered at probably any time since the war for a similar period?

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Gentleman is talking about additional deaths from hypothermia. We clearly have no accurate figures on that. What we have are figures which go back from 1985 to 1975, which make it clear that the worst period was the winter of 1979.

Mr. Meacher

I am sorry that the Secretary of State says that he does not have the figures. Perhaps his office has not given him the up-to-date figures. I have been given the figures for the number of deaths in the first three weeks of February 1986 compared with the number of deaths in the first three weeks of 1984, which was a "more normal winter".

There have been 6,000 more deaths than normal in the past three weeks. That suggests a mortality rate 2,000 every week higher than has previously been experienced in winter. While not all of those will be due to hypothermia, it would be reasonable to suppose that the great majority are deaths which have been precipitated by the extreme cold and the Government's failure to protect pensioners and others from that cold.

Mr. Fowler


Mr. Meacher

No, I shall not give way.

Mr. Fowler


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. This is a short debate. The Secretary of State will be seeking to catch my eye shortly. Perhaps he can deal with these matters when he makes his own speech.

Mr. Meacher

In the face of this national disaster, the Government have been conspicuous by their inactivity. Responsibility for deciding whether exceptionally severe weather payments should be made was hived off to local Department of Health and Social Security officers, but no guidance has been given as to what constitutes severity in exceptionally severe weather.

Up to 10 days ago, during a period when any fool could have said that the weather was exceptionally severe, only a third of Britain's DHSS offices officially acknowledged the fact. That number suddenly rose to 80 per cent. only last week, and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that that had something to do with the Opposition's choice to make it into a central issue for this debate this week.

The Government have still refused to launch any national advertising, so the vast majority of eligible claimants are still unaware of their entitlements and the result has been pathetic. In Barry in south Wales, which I happened to visit last Friday, an area which had been designated on 7 February, only one claim had been processed in the course of the previous three weeks, paying out precisely 47p.

There has been a great deal of talk about exceptionally severe weather. I sometimes think that the real problem is an exceptionally severe Government. The human consequences of this are incalculable. Every day the media have carried stories of elderly people who have frozen to death in their own homes, such as Mrs. Edith Davis aged 83. Her Blackpool home was heated by only a two-bar fire. It was so cold when she was found that thermometers were useless to measure her temperature.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)


Mr. Meacher

No, I shall not give way. I want to make a bit more progress. I have been asked to make a short speech and I intend to do so. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to take part in the debate.

The problem has arisen not just because of the extreme cold. Part of the reason is that by deliberate Government policy the price of fuel has been kept too high for the poor to afford. Gas and electricity prices, and water charges, have all risen too fast because the Government have used them as an easy way of raising extra income. Even if special benefit payments are made, they do not compensate. The end product is overcrowded hospitals and pennywise pensioners freezing in underheated homes. That is not muddling through; it is malign neglect.

A month ago seven American astronauts were lost in an accident and the whole world was distraught. Yet 700 British pensioners die of hypothermia and the Government, Pontius Pilate-like, wash their hands and walk away. There is something sickening about a society where jobs in the City are changing hands among 25-year-olds at fancy six-figure salaries while pensioners have to make a choice between warmth and food and are given only a 1 per cent. pension increase. There is something nauseating about a Chancellor planning £1.5 billion tax cuts in a fortnight's time while pensioners are fobbed off with an insulting 40p, which would not buy more than a couple of lumps of coal. It is shameful that in Britain, the country in western Europe most richly endowed with energy resources, more pensioners die of hypothermia than in any other Western country.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)


Mr. Meacher

There is more than a twinge of rank hypocrisy—

Mrs. Currie


Hon. Members

Sit down.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he is not giving way.

Mr. Meacher

There is more than a twinge of rank hypocrisy about the Prime Minister claiming that the Government are spending £140 million on heating allowances—

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)


Mr. Meacher

—when the same Government have cut pensions by £5,500 million since 1979 by breaking the link with earnings in the uprating of pensions.

Mr. Nicholls


Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) has three more jobs.

Mr. Meacher

If Labour's formula had been carried on by the Government, every single pensioner would now get £4 a week more in pension, and all married pensioners would get £6.50 per week more. It is irrefutable that if such pensions had been paid over the last two or three months thousands of pensioners who have died would be alive today.

Mr. Hind


Mr. Meacher

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will be able to speak later, if he wishes.

We can, and will, go further. Our policy is to maintain the state earnings-related pension scheme and not to emasculate it, as the Government intend. Under a Labour Government, SERPS will within the next 13 years double the pension in real terms. Under Labour policy, pensioners will never again have to make a choice between warmth and food.

We recognise, however, that over the next decade periods of intense cold will continue to require significant extra aid for the most vulnerable. We view exceptionally severe weather payments as a vehicle which will probably never provide adequate aid to those in need at the time they need it. Last year's system depended on Meterological Office readings round the country by arbitrary associations. They have been declared illegal by social security tribunals. This year's system, after the change that the Government made, depends on arbitrary decisions by local officers, without national guidance about when, how, or at what level payment should be made. Far too few people in grave need have received help. The help has come too late and the amounts paid would be a farce, if the situation were not so tragic. Because the payments are limited to those on supplementary benfit, they rule out many other poor pensioners and widows.

The Government may make something of the fact that the weather is now less cold, but the bills have not yet come in. Even now not enough has been done to reassure pensioners who are afraid to turn on the heating because they may get into debt. It is a bad system that encourages people to get into debt. Pensioners who pay their bills do not get help. The present system creates particular hardship for those who have "pay as you go" slot meters, or who use coal or paraffin. They have to prove that the money would otherwise have been spent on, for example, food or clothing. It is diabolical that in order to get help pensioners are subjected to such a system.

For all those reasons, we reject the system as a cruel deceit for those who need urgent help in the bitter cold. Our policy has two aims. First, there is an urgent priority to organise a national programme for better home insulation. One indictment of current policy is that in Sweden and Canada, which suffer much colder winter weather, far fewer of the elderly population die of hypothermia. A campaign for home insulation makes sense on every count. It is a labour intensive operation, which would provide a big increase in jobs, at a time when building workers are suffering one of the highest rates of unemployment of any occupation. Home insulation would be energy saving. Once it was installed the consumer would pay less for heating. Above all, it would play a key role in reducing hypothermia.

Secondly, despite the much bigger pensions that we would pay, significantly increased help must be given to the most vulnerable in the cold winter months. If an extra £5 per week were paid automatically to all pensioners on supplementary benefit, it would cost £8.25 million a week. If we included also, as we believe we should, another 1 million pensioners and widows with resources slightly above the supplementary benefit qualification, but who are still in real need and who are unable to warm themselves adequately, that would cost another £5 million a week. If that aid were given every week from mid-December to the beginning of March, it would cost about £130 million. The investment of that sum each winter is the least that those who have worked for the country in peacetime and who, when the call came, fought for the country in wartime, have a right to expect from a civilised society. That is our pledge.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will my hon. Friend comment on the news that was reported in The Guardian earlier this week, that Liberal and Conservative councillors in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham had decided to sell an old people's home, known as Stewart's Lodge, together with the pensioners within that home, to a private company? They have been stopped from doing that only by the positive action of Mr. Derek Prentice, the leader of the Labour group on that council, who has saved those people from the clutches of private enterprise.

Mr. Meacher

I saw that report in The Guardian yesterday. That proposal to sell off not only the home but the 29 people in it as a single job lot was typical of the privatisation initiatives taken by the Government. I also noticed that the proposal was voted for by Tory and Liberal councillors.

Mr. Nicholls


Mr. Meacher

In a debate on the plight of the elderly that shows the attitude of the Government, who regard old people and their welfare simply as a means of increasing profit.

Mr. Nicholls


Mr. Meacher

I hope that those who will uniquely have an opportunity in the coming weeks to vote on the matter will take account of that.

We have given our pledge. Never again must this country endure a winter when the poor and the elderly freeze to death for want of help with heating bills. That is our objective. We will not only will the end; we will also will the means.

5.9 pm

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. Norman Fowler)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof,

recognises the difficulties faced by elderly people during periods of severe weather; commends the Government's record of paying higher retirement pensions to more pensioners than ever before, of increasing the supplementary benefit scale rates, of providing for the first time automatic heating additions of £2.20 per week for all supplementary pensioner households over 65 years of age, and of introducing a higher rate of £5.45 per week for such pensioners over 85 years of age; notes with approval that payments under the exceptionally severe weather scheme are now available throughout mainland Britain; and observes that the present relative stability in fuel prices demonstrates the value of firm control over inflation and is in stark contrast to the increase of 170 per cent. in electricity prices over the period of the Labour Government between 1974 and 1979. I agree with the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) that this is a profoundly important subject and that policy must match its importance. I entirely reject, however, the type of speech that he made, which, even on his record, is one of the worst that he has ever made. I also entirely reject the charges that he levelled at the Government. The Government are now directing record resources to heating additions. In real terms we are directing £140 million more than the Labour Government. The facts make it crystal clear that the Government have given more help through heating additions, that we have given it more effectively and that we have directed it in such a way as to ensure that it goes to the people who need it most.

As we saw again today, nothing has been more disgraceful than the way in which the human problems of the elderly have been exploited by the Opposition during the past few weeks. No charge has been too extravagant. No care has been taken about the fears that have been aroused or about the information that has been employed. We had a profound example of that today. I should like to give two examples of what I mean.

On Tuesday, the Leader of the Opposition asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister: Why … has our death rate during the winter been three times that of the United States of America and four times that of Sweden?"—[Official Report, 4 March 1986; Vol. 93, c. 149.] We have checked on that statement, and for what period the latest international figures are available. The latest evidence that we have was given in the November issue of Health Trends. It did indeed show that the increase in the death rate in winter in the United Kingdom—not of course the death rate itself—was higher than in the United States or Sweden, but the period taken for the international comparison was the three-year period 1976 to 1979, and for the crucial winter months of those years the Opposition were in power. It seems to me to be an exercise in cynical trivialisation to suggest that the problem of winter deaths is somehow the responsibility of this Government and that the problem has not arisen before.

The second example comes from the speech by the hon. Member for Oldham, West and from the motion, which condemns the Government on the basis of suffering during the winter resulting in a 10-fold increase in deaths from hypothermia There is absolutely no evidence of a tenfold increase. The only basis on which that statement could have been made is a total misreading of figures which compare 1975 with 1985, but those figures were on an entirely different statistical basis.

What is worse is that any comparison of the past 10 years—1975 to 1985—shows that it was during the winter of 1979 when most deaths in England and Wales with mention of hypothermia occurred. In the first three months of 1979, there were 585 deaths with mention of hypothermia in England and Wales. That is more than in any year in the period 1975 to 1985, and in those winter months of 1979 the Labour party was in power.

My fundamental objection to the Opposition's case is that they are devaluing the argument and have no concept of what the real debate is about. It is not just about spending money, and it is not just about hypothermia, serious and tragic though that is. The issues go far wider and are infinitely more difficult and complex than the hon. Gentleman has even hinted at.

It has been a long established trend in Britain that, when the weather is exceptionally cold, there have been increases in the number of deaths from or associated with hypothermia; but there is also the wider problem of the substantial increase in the number of deaths from all causes which are associated with the winter—strokes, coronary heart disease and chest infection.

As it happens, matters have improved. The excess mortality associated with winter has diminished. I take the example of men. In the period 1959 to 1963, the average excess was 27 per cent. In the 1970s, the average excess was 16 per cent., and in the period 1982 to 1984, the average excess was 13 per cent. There has been an improvement, although I am the first to say that we cannot be satisfied until the figures have been brought down even further.

The evidence is that—as the 1976 to 1979 figures show—circumstances in Britain are worse than in some other countries which have severer climates, and the reasons for that are anything but clear. There appears to be no substantial difference between people living in institutions, such as old people's homes, and those living at home. Central heating does not seem to be the crucial factor. No correlation has been found between the percentage of households with central heating in nine different regions of England and the seasonal variation in mortality. Nor is the problem concerned solely with the elderly; it applies to virtually all age groups.

This is self-evidently a serious and complex issue.It is not remotely an issue just of social security. A whole range of other issues are involved, not least the attitudes which society takes towards the problems of elderly people and how it reacts and responds Ito cold weather.

I also accept that proper social security provision is fundamentally important in enabling elderly people to cope with severe weather. This is where I return to the remarks of the hon. Member for Oldham, West. If the debate on social security is to be informed and responsible, it is also important that the true background is well understood.

There are three points on social security that I want to emphasise. The first concerns pensions. In November, pensions went up by £4 a week for a married couple and £2.50 for a single person. That was an increase of 7 per cent. when inflation was 5.5 per cent. In the interim July uprating, the retired couple's pension will rise to £61.95 a week. That compares with £31.20 per week in November 1978. In the autumn, the Government will announce a further increase, to be paid from April 1987. In other words, there will be three upratings in 16 months. That means that this Government have more than honoured their pledge to maintain the value of pensions by protecting them against inflation.

In fact, at November 1985 prices, the pension was worth £3 a week more in real terms than it was in November 1978. During the same period, the number of pensioners has risen from 8.5 million to 9.5 million. That means that we are paying higher pensions and paying them to more pensioners than ever before. Spending on retirement pensions has thus risen from £7.5 billion in 1978–79 to £16.5 billion in 1985–86—a rise of £2.5 billion in real terms.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

In spite of those figures, does the right hon. Gentleman not think it odd that our pensions are below average wages, unlike pensions in Scandinavian countries and among our European partners? Our pensioners have a far smaller cut of national wages.

Mr. Fowler

I understand the point made by the right hon. Gentleman. However, I would say that, despite what has been a difficult economic period throughout western Europe, we have not only increased the real value of pensions but paid those pensions to about 1 million more pensioners than previously. We have also done one more vital thing for pensioners in this country. It is not enough simply to say that we shall increase pensions. Inflation must also be kept under control if the security of pensioners is to be fully assured. That was the crucial failure of the previous Labour Government. During the five years of the Labour Government, inflation rose by 112 per cent. Not only were savings destroyed, but the value of any increase in pensions was eaten away at an alarming rate month by month. Therefore, the control of inflation is crucial, and that is one of the Government's most important achievements for pensioners and all those on fixed incomes.

Secondly, I want to deal with the position of pensioners requiring supplementary benefit. The most important additional help that goes to pensioners on the lowest incomes is the regular guaranteed income that is provided week by week. The supplementary benefit scale rates are aimed at meeting normal living expenses, including heating. The higher, long-term rate of support goes automatically to pensioners in recognition of their extra needs. The real value of the scale rates has risen by 6 per cent. between 1978 and 1985.

Thirdly, in addition to the regular help that is provided through supplementary pensions, there are specific further heating additions. As the House will know, they are received by those who need extra warmth because of age, ill health or disability or whose homes are exceptionally difficult to heat.

The Government have made heating additions automatically payable to supplementary pensioners who are householders and aged 65 or more. The result is that over 90 per cent. of all supplementary pensioners now get a heating addition, compared with only about 70 per cent. in 1978. Between 1978 and 1985 the basic rate of heating addition has gone up by about 20 per cent. in real terms.

The higher rate of heating addition of £5.45 a week goes to the very old—those over 85, who are increasing in numbers—as well as to the severely disabled. That is worth over £230 a year extra to someone on the long-term rate. Taken together with the help in the weekly benefit rate itself, it means about £600 a year to help with heating costs.

The position is that 2.5 million people in this country are now receiving extra help with heating, and predominantly that help is going to the elderly. In terms of the amount of money spent, the Government are devoting £400 million a year to heating additions—an increase in real terms of £140 million since 1978.

The right way to help with heating costs is through a regular weekly income which is related to needs. That is how help has been given by successive Governments. In addition, limited help has been given by successive Governments. In addition, limited help has been available with extra expenditure in times of severe weather. This help, which goes back to the days of the National Assistance Board, has always represented a very small part of help with heating costs. The fact is that arrangements of this sort cannot by their nature be an adequate substitute for a regular weekly income on which people are able to plan ahead.

I should make it clear to the hon. Member for Oldham, West that the Government have already taken steps to ensure that those who need help through the exceptionally severe weather payments system receive it. In an advertising campaign, which begins tomorrow and will go on over the weekend, we shall again seek to ensure that people know how to claim the money. That is exactly what the hon. Member for Oldham, West was asking for.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)


Mr. Fowler

I shall not give way again.

We have made it clear that we are reviewing this scheme for next winter. We are also examining future policy overall. In the reform of social security in the Social Security Bill, which is at present in Committee, we have made it clear that overall at least the same level of resources will be devoted to helping with heating costs. We shall also be considering whether, within the new structure, there are more effective ways of deploying those resources.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)


Mr. Fowler

I think that the hon. Gentleman may find this attractive.

I have it in mind that in the income support scheme there may be a case for winter premiums which would recognise in a more straightforward way the extra winter needs of certain vulnerable groups. I am certainly prepared to examine the case for that.

I shall also be considering the role of the social fund. Even those who are not supporters of the social fund— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) will be able to address the House later if she catches the eye of the Chair. I think that we must recognise that the existing regulatory framework has not served us well on the severe weather payments system. If one wants to relate extra help sensitively and flexibly to individual personal needs, the best basis for achieving that aim is not to try to define that help in every detail in advance in regulations. The general approach of the social fund is a much better starting point.

Mr. Frank Field


Mr. Fowler

This debate goes beyond social security. For example, the Health Service is crucial for elderly people. Over the past six and a half years the actual amount of patient care provided—both in hospital and in the community—has increased. Those advances have been recorded in areas of particular importance to old people. Between 1978 and 1984 in England the number of geriatric in-patient cases increased by 47 per cent., the number of geriatric out-patient cases increased by 35 per cent., the number of regular geriatric day patient attendances rose by almost 20 per cent., and the number of elderly people treated by district nurses rose by about 26 per cent.

At the same time, there has been a steady increase in the numbers of key staff providing geriatric services. Between 1978 and 1984 the number of consultants increased by almost 30 per cent., while the number of other hospital medical staff increased by 22 per cent. The trend is also clear in personal social services. Spending has risen from £1,062 million in 1978–79 to £2,417 million in 1985–86. That is a real increase of over 20 per cent. That expenditure is shown by increased services on the ground. The number of places in day centres is up by over 20 per cent., the number of home helps is up by 14 per cent. and the total number of meals on wheels provided has risen by over 1 million on levels achieved by 1979.

What matters is the message behind the figures. More old people are getting more services under this Government than they got in the period 1974 to 1979. That is a clear message, which reflects credit and achievement on all concerned in the National Health Service, local authorities and personal social services. The number of very elderly people in our population is rising and there will be major challenges in the years ahead.

The central point that I want to make is that the House should address the problems on the basis of the facts, not on the basis of the totally bogus catalogue of charges made by the hon. Member for Oldham, West. The Government stand on the basis of the facts. We are committed to the welfare of elderly people. We have proved that commitment by our record so far, and we will maintain that commitment to the growing numbers of elderly people in this country in the years ahead.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the House of Mr. Speaker's appeal for short speeches.

5.30 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I would like to make a short contribution to the debate. In all these debates about the plight of the elderly we are inclined to become wrapped up solely in the problems that confront the elderly and our perception of the elderly is that they are a problem. That is a wrong-headed approach to the issues and difficulties that face us. The elderly members of our community should be considered as a positive resource. They have experience and they have a real contribution to make.

Ms. Harriet Harman (Peckham)


Mr. Kirkwood

No, I shall not give way. I do not have time to do so.

Of course, the elderly need basic essentials, and they need additional resources. In some specific instances and areas they need more help and assistance generally. As the Secretary of State said, that straddles issues like money—which is of prime importance but not the only factor—health care, housing, transport, social support and energy needs.

Ms. Harman


Mr. Kirkwood

I am sorry but I do not have time to give way to the hon. Lady.

It would be wrong to consider the problems that confront the elderly outwith the broad context that I have set out. I agree with the Secretary of State about that.

In this debate we are seeking to react to a real need and an emergency that has resulted from the exceptionally severe weather we have experienced. It is right and proper that the debate is taking place, but there is a more important need, which is to engage in long-term planning. There must be a good deal more long-term planning so that we are not merely reacting to emergencies.

Mr. Frank Field


Mr. Kirkwood

As I have said to the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman), I do not have time to give way to interventions.

I listened carefully to the Secretary of State. He contended that the statistics that he provided—I have no way of refuting them—suggest that health and community care services are actually improving and are not merely under control. That is not the evidence that comes to me through my eyes and ears. More important, that is not the evidence that is related to me by my colleagues and by those who actually work in health and community care services. Such people are not especially politically motivated and they report to me that there has been a tremendous increase in demands upon them because of an increase in the number of people that they serve and the new and improved quality and standard of service that they are expected to provide. The statistics that the Secretary of State provides are not what really matter. He must measure up to the increasing demands that are being made on our services. If he hides behind statistics all the time, he will never get round to measuring up to that demand. I hope that he will consider that carefully.

Ms. Harman


Mr. Kirkwood

What is the extent of the Secretary of State's co-operation with other Ministers and their cooperation with him, and what consultations take place on issues such as fuel conservation? The Right to Fuel campaign recently drew attention to the immense difficulties that are experienced in the conjunction of the Departments of Health and Social Security, Energy and the Environment, all of which are directly involved when it comes to trying to initiate sensible schemes. Some pilot projects have been extremely successful and could be built upon, but there have been immense bureaucratic difficulties in trying to co-ordinate that activity. I hope that the Secretary of State will consider that carefully.

Basic resources and basic pension rights are related factors and I understand that we are talking about potentially massive sums. However, I ask the Secretary of State to bear in mind that the Social Security Advisory Committee has observed that if he does nothing more than peg benefits and pensions to prices, it is inevitable that the gap between benefits and pensions and earnings will widen as earnings leap ahead year after year. That prospect is not acceptable to us and it would not be acceptable to those outside the House. If the gap is allowed to widen too far it will lead to the disintegration of the fabric of society. That will be inevitable if it is allowed to continue over a long period.

The Government give me the impression that they are complacent.

Mr. Norman Fowler

indicated dissent

Mr. Kirkwood

The Secretary of State shakes his head. I listened to the right hon. Gentleman's statistics with interest but I did not receive the feeling from him that he is pulling out all the stops to deal with the short-term and long-term difficulties. He should give the House a commitment that he will set up an interdepartmental working party to consider some of the problems. He should enter into urgent discussions about the short-term problems with his colleagues outside and within the Department.

The severe weather single payment regulations are subject to three tests. The first test involves the period of severe weather and that is where the real difficulty arises. There is no definition of "period" and there is no definition of "severe" the Secretary of State could abandon the first condition and rely on the remaining two. They provide that fuel costs have to be shown to be greater than the savings that are available to meet the costs and that the amount of additional consumption has been greater year on year. I accept that the scheme has to have some qualifying features but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman could abandon the first test. He could go even further than that next year. It is clear that we shall have to face these problems next year and the right hon. Gentleman could declare the whole period from December to March as a period of severe weather qualifying for benefit. He could put the onus on the Department to show that there has not been severe weather. If these changes were made, we might produce a system that could be seen to be capable of delivering sensible amounts of resources in a way that would meet needs.

The Government have shown complacency recently by withdrawing heating allowance moneys from the elderly poor by changing the supplementary benefit available scale margins and by reducing central heating allowances. These acts have compounded the problem.

Increases in fuel costs in relation to increases in the retail price index have been disproportionately high. The figures that appear in the United Kingdom Energy Digest —they are the most recent that I can find—show that the RPI increased by 67 per cent. from 1979 to 1984 while coal and coke prices increased by 100 per cent., gas charges by 121 per cent. and electricity charges by 79 per cent. Heating oil, including paraffin, feature in the list. The majority of my constituents who have difficulty in meeting fuel bills use this source of heating, which causes condensation problems and leads to housing and environmental difficulties. The figures suggest that the RPI is not a sensible measure for pensioners who face large increases in fuel prices. That is something else that the right hon. Gentleman should consider carefully.

My view is reinforced by the family expenditure survey of 1984, which showed that the average family in 1984 was spending 11 per cent. more of its total budget on fuel than in 1979 and 9 per cent. less on food. These statistics are frightening, and it should be recognised that they refer only to absolute costs. The most recent figures that I can find that relate to the proportions of the budgets of the retired single pensioner and retired couple that are spent on heating appear in the family expenditure survey of 1982. That survey showed that the single pensioner spent 15 per cent. of his total budget on fuel each week. That is a considerable proportion. If the Secretary of State or any of us had to spend 15 per cent. of our income each week on fuel, something would be done quickly to alleviate the burden.

I do not underestimate the difficulties that face the Secretary of State, but he must sort something out for next year. The exceptionally severe weather payments scheme is causing great heartache and distress and I look to the right hon. Gentleman to put matters right before we are hit by the next winter.

5.39 pm
Mr. Richard Ottaway (Nottingham, North)

I will comply, Mr. Deputy Speaker, with your request to be brief.

Everybody grows old—that is a fact of life. There are three groups of elderly people. The first group of people are those who are able to look after themselves, who have made provision and have an occupational pension to supplement their state pension. The second group are those who have nothing but the state pension but are able to look after themselves. They take precautions and read the leaflets such as those published by the Health Education Council and Age Concern. The Age Concern leaflet entitled "Warmth in Winter" contains a number of useful tips and I recommend it to all hon. Members. It discusses money and how to obtain extra supplementary benefit. It discusses home insulation grants. Last year, the city of Nottingham's Labour-controlled council did not take up the full allowance on home insulation grants. The document gives tips on how to save fuel, the right clothes to wear for warmth and tips on safety. It gives sensible, practical advice which the elderly can take on board and states where such advice can be obtained.

The third group of people—with whom the debate is concerned—are those who cannot look after themselves. It is a matter of personal distress that, last week, someone died of hypothermia in Nottingham and that others are suffering and are in hospital. It is reported that two patients went into hospital with their temperatures as low as 26 deg. C—the definition of hypothermia is 35 deg. C. I am pleased to report that both patients survived.

The Opposition blame the Government as though this were a phenomenon which has arisen only since 1979. However, the social services correspondent of The Times said in an article on extra payments: It is an issue with which no Government in the 40 years of the welfare state has come to terms". I care about the elderly and we all must work hard for them but one must not turn the issue into a political football. One cannot play politics with the elderly.

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)


Mr. Ottaway

Recently the Government's statisticians said that for every 1 deg drop in average temperature, winter deaths rose by 8,000. It therefore comes as no surprise when the Opposition spokesman says that the number of deaths will rise when the temperature drops.

The figures which are published are different from the number of deaths. Why is this? It boils down to two reasons. First, families do not report deaths from hypothermia because of the shame it will bring to the family. Secondly, it is reported that almost all the hypothermia cases in Nottingham are related to another illness, which lowers the resistance to cold but which has nothing to do with hypothermia.

What can we do to help people who are in distress? The services in Nottingham are excellent and I am pleased to pay tribute to the local services and the Government services. I know of no case in Nottingham of someone being let down by these services. I was told by a local reporter that, last Friday, when the reporter told the social services department that an old person was suffering, within one hour food and bags of coal were given to that person.

Old people's perception of cold tends to diminish as they grow older and they do not realise the danger that they are in. The problem that faces us is finding those people who are suffering and who need our assistance, especially those aged 80 and over. We need reports on such people. Relatives should phone the services when an old person needs help. The charities must be encouraged to carry on with their work. Recently, I went to a presentation by Help the Aged for the introduction of their emergency bleeper Lifeline. If an old person falls over, the bleeper is triggered and the emergency services will check on that old person. They will get the old person into hospital if necessary. I pay tribute to the work of Age Concern in Nottingham, which gives help to people in distress at all hours of the day. Nottingham's Evening Post runs a column "old and cold". It raises money from the public which it can dish out to those who need a little extra. The role of neighbours is important—we need a nosey neighbour scheme rather than a neighbourhood watch scheme. Such a scheme could look after old people.

It is easy to blame the Government. Anyone can say that we should spend more. The pensioners who came along today to put their case, and who did so eloquently, said the same. However, I believe the Government's record stands up to scrutiny. I believe that by keeping inflation at such low figures the Government are doing more to help the elderly than any other campaign. I have no hesitation in supporting the Government's amendment.

5.45 pm
Mr. Reg Freeson (Brent, East)

At the beginning of the Minister's speech he said that "policy must match the importance of the subject." Nobody would disagree with that. On the contrary, we, and I trust Conservative Members, would advocate that and seek to practise it. However, if we seek to put those words into practice rather than treat them as rehetoric, we must match the objective with the resources. That is where the Government are falling down.

It is acceptable for any Government to take any period in the past 40 years and say that according to the latest available figures more was being done in the various services and areas which the Minister quoted than had been done five years earlier, 10 years earlier or indeed 20 years earlier. All Ministers of successive Governments do the same thing. That is not the test. The test is whether more should and could be done, but is not done. That is the test, and that is where the Government are failing.

I intend to concentrate my remarks on an aspect which was briefly touched on by the Secretary of State and then virtually set aside. He vaguely mentioned the failure to correlate deaths from hypothermia with the levels and extent of central heating systems in Britain, region by region. It was not an effective response to the call by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) for more effective insulation in British homes, especially the homes of the elderly.

I shall pursue the Minister's point about housing. If it is the case that policy should match the importance of the subject and resources need to be applied for that purpose, the Government have continuously failed on housing. They have failed to provide decent homes for the elderly. From figures that I have obtained from the Library it appears that in 1980 about 40,000 additional dwellings were provided for elderly people in the form of sheltered accommodation or single bedroom flats of an appropriate nature. In 1985 that figure dropped to 15,000. These figures are for the public sector, local authorities and housing associations. The figure of 40,000 in 1980 was reduced to 15,000 in 1985 and there is the prospect of a further reduction in 1986. In percentage terms that represents a 60 per cent. drop in the provision of housing for the elderly by housing associations and local authorities.

How, then, can it be said that policy and practice are matching the importance of the subject? I am not interested in arguing whether fewer elderly people live in decent accommodation in 1985 than was the case in 1979 or 1969. Clearly that is the case because housing conditions steadily improve. The test is that of need, and I shall quote some more figures which I hope the House will not find boring, because they represent people in need.

At the same time as that decrease, about 300,000 elderly people are on waiting lists to move. They are prevented from moving into suitable accommodation which would be well heated and insulated during the winter months. The figure of those waiting to move is increasing, while the level of construction and provision of dwellings is decreasing. Moreover, thousands of public sector dwellings are being sold. Fewer public sector dwellings are available today than were available five years ago, not by a few hundreds or thousands, but by hundreds of thousands.

Older people are much more likely to occupy old local authority and private accommodation and less likely to be able to carry out repairs. These public sector properties, which the elderly occupy in disproportionate numbers, need about £19 billion expenditure on repairs and modernisation. How much have the Government provided? I am sorry that the appropriate Minister from the Department of the Environment is not present to listen to the debate. The Government have provided less than £200 million.

According to the Government's condition of property survey, 480,000 dwellings classed as unfit are occupied largely by elderly people. The more unfit they are, the more likely it is that elderly people will live in them. Under this Government, public sector housing starts, whether in new build or buying and modernising old properties, have fallen sharply year after year. That is the reality, not the rhetoric or statement of intent, and something needs to be done about it.

Something must be done to increase the resources available for public sector housing, no matter which party is in government. I do not say that as a party-knocking exercise. Whereas a few years ago local authorities were providing each year 150,000 to 200,000 dwellings by new build or by buying and modernising old properties, today, because of Government restrictions, they are providing about 30,000 dwellings. Who are affected? Large numbers of elderly people, among others, are affected.

In the late 1970s the housing associations were providing 40,000 dwellings a year, the vast bulk of which consisted increasingly of rehabilitated properties. Today the figure is below 20,000 a year, and is likely to fall even further. All the information is available on the record. Again, a disproportionate number of elderly people live in those properties.

The provision of housing is urgent, and it is not merely a matter of making fine speeches. It is not merely a question of the number of dwellings, whatever that number may be, but of their standard. The standard is decreasing, and the first item to be hit is heating and insulation. I challenge any hon. Member to visit the few purchase, conversion and modernisation schemes that are being undertaken by housing associations and local authorities today to see the standards to which they are being compelled to fall. A few years ago, property was being well insulated and central heating systems were being installed, which is important for elderly people and others, no matter what the Secretary of State says. Now, such properties depend for heating on plug-in electric fires because the Department of the Environment prevents authorities from spending money to maintain decent standards. That pushes up costs, reduces heating and insulation standards, and increases the rate of ill health, hypothermia and the expenditure of far too restricted pensions.

The Government have it in their power, as from this afternoon, to do something about two further matters. Besides increasing resources to housing associations, increasing local authority provision for elderly and other people, and improving the standard of provision to ensure decent heating and insulation, the Government should bear in mind the Homes Insulation Act 1978, which enables them to introduce further schemes of insulation grant, well beyond the loft insulation scheme, which was first introduced and is now petering out. The Departments of Health and Social Security, of Energy and of the Environment should get together to improve standards and ensure that resources are available. We are talking not about chucking money away but about investment in decent buildings and homes to help thousands of needy elderly people.

In addition, the Government should enable housing associations to do what the Treasury is stopping them from doing, which is to match public money with private money, which they could borrow from building societies and banks to enlarge their housing programmes. Because of Government instructions, housing associations are not permitted to introduce private capital to match public capital to increase the rate of construction, purchase and modernisation of houses. Unless such action is taken, this year, next year and for years to come, no matter how many people may benefit from improved conditions, many thousands will not.

In Brent, 20,000 dwellings need modernisation or replacement—that is between 20 and 25 per cent. of the total housing stock—and a disproportionate number of them are occupied by elderly people, who are suffering from draughts, bad heating, bad insulation and bad conditions. If the Government would will the necessary resources, instead of indulging in rhetoric, they could improve the conditions of my constituents and thousands of elderly people suffering from the cold in winters such as this. The Government must take action, not merely quote past statistics. Future needs require to be met, and they are not at present being met.

5.58 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I speak as the proud and active president of Age Concern in my constituency. All our members have a proud and brave story to tell of their lives, as do pensioners who are not members. Each must be, and is, valued for himself or herself.

The first point that I should like to make is one on which I have campaigned for a considerable time. It continues to concern me very much, and I hope that it causes concern to all hon. Members. I refer to the resources available for pensioners. I accept the point made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, that pensions are now 6 or 7 per cent. better than they were when the Government came to office. That is a matter for congratulation, not for chiacking.

We must remember that a month's pension is taken up by standing charges. If I could improve one area for pensioners, I would remove standing charges. I hope that all hon. Members would support me in that. We must press British Gas, the electricity boards and all others concerned to remove standing charges. That would make an immediate and important impact on pensioners and their standards of living.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Greenway

No, I will not give way, but I will be brief.

We must examine the need for more resources for pensioners. The terms of the motion and the speech by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) remind me of the demands that are made on the resources of pensioners in my constituency in London and beyond. Happily, with the abolition of the GLC, rates are being reduced by the Conservative-controlled borough of Ealing and by other Conservative-controlled boroughs across London. That will substantially help pensioners. Pensioners were badly hit when the Labour-controlled GLC doubled their rates and fares in 1981. Pensioners are not helped by the GLC in its current legal battle, wanting to spend £96 million of ratepayers' money. Why could that money not be given to pensioners, if the GLC professes to support Londoners? Labour members of the GLC, Labour Members of this House, and Liberal Members for all I know, will go across to the great fireworks parties that the Labour-controlled GLC is setting up to commemorate abolition. That will cost hundreds, thousands, millions of pounds of ratepayers' money. That money will come, in part, from the very elderly who are struggling to pay their rates and heating costs.

Mr. Corbyn


Mr. Greenway

Labour Members should remember that waste of money when they shed crocodile tears about pensioners. They should tell their colleagues across the river to divert that money into pensioners' pockets. They would then be doing something right for pensioners. Opposition Members should boycott those parties; they are a disgraceful insult to pensioners. All pensioners will suffer and have to pay more rates than they need because of the money that the GLC will waste to mark abolition. Pensioners have already suffered as a result of the huge, expensive campaign that the GLC has run to save itself. That campaign included expenditure of between £10 million and £25 million on the promotion of pensioners' travel passes. Those passes were never in doubt. That campaign was conducted long after the passes had been guaranteed in law.

Mr. Corbyn

They knew what was happening.

Mr. Greenway

Opposition Members do not like to hear this, but they will have to listen to it. Pensioners were mendaciously told by the Labour leader of the GLC that they were going to lose their passes. More resources for pensioners would be available if wasteful campaigns were stopped. If Opposition Members had any sincerity, they would back me on that point.

What would it be like if we had another Labour Government? The Labour Opposition have already stated that their projected programme, if they are elected to office, would cost £24 billion. That would immediately raise VAT to 41 per cent. and so affect pensioners. Pensioners' families would not be able to help them, as the wage earners would be paying 20 per cent. more on the standard rate of tax. Pensioners would have a terrible time if a Labour Government were ever elected. The Labour party's crocodile tears had better return to where they came from. Labour Members need to be more honest and sincere about pensioners.

Last Saturday, in my constituency, I had the pleasure of attending a conference for carers of the elderly and carers of others. I congratulate the Government on the tremendous progress that they have made in creating schemes for carers to relieve those people who have a 24-hour-a-day responsibility looking after the elderly. The carers scheme has grown enormously in the past five years at considerable Government expense. It has not been mentioned today. I must say that that scheme is helping to keep elderly people in reasonable dignity and allowing their carers to have a break. That scheme helps enormously as it oftens allows the carers to go to work and earn a little money to help the very elderly for whom they are caring.

I should like to make a regional and somewhat partisan point. We have heard much from Scottish Labour Members about the need for extra heating allowances for pensioners and others in Scotland. A steady study of weather charts over the past few weeks will show them, as it has shown me, that the worst of the cold has been in London and the south-east. I hope that there will not be a big diversion of resources to Scotland. If there is, hon. Members with London constituencies will fight against it.

Pensioners always want and need higher pensions. My grandmother lived to be a very old lady and died in her late nineties. She rightly said that no one ever has enough money, no matter whether one is poor or rich. If hon. Members reflect on that they will see the truth in it. My grandmother meant that everyone can conceive of a need. I hope on that basis that the Government will maintain their excellent record of improving pensions in real terms. I hope that the Government will never, as the Labour Government did in 1975 and 1976, take away the pensioners' Christmas bonus. That was a mean thing to do. Only the Labour party would do that and then have representatives stand at the Dispatch Box and shout their mouths off as if they were the pensioners' friends.

The motion refers to this winter as being the worst for 40 years. In 1947 Mr. Emmanuel Shinwell was Minister of Fuel and Power. I remember then, as a small boy, what a terrible time the pensioners had under the Labour Government. They could not buy coal, the lights were off and there was no heating. Why is tonight's motion so arrogant? The Labour party has no record of which to be proud and much of which to be ashamed. That record goes back to 1947 and beyond.

Labour Members should remember what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about 1979. Old people then, like everybody else, could not bury their dead. Conditions were arctic, and they could get no help for love nor money. Those were the conditions that existed when the Labour party was in government and the country will never forget it.

6.8 pm

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

If pensioners, as a group, are worse off than other sections of the community, Scottish pensioners are even worse off than those in England and Wales because climatic conditions are such that 20 to 30 per cent. more fuel is needed to heat a home in Scotland than is needed in southern England. Hypothermia and cold-related illnesses are common in areas with severe climatic conditions. Deaths from hypothermia in Scotland represent 25 per cent. of the United Kingdom total. Whether the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) likes it or not, Scottish hon. Members will still bring these points to the House and remind him of them.

The difference in climate in Scotland, which the Government have recognised, bears out the demands that Scotland's pensioners had been making unsuccessfully until last week. The pensioners believe that, as they live in an agreed cold climate, that does not mean that they have become acclimatised to the cold. In practical terms, the problem is that Scottish pensioners are facing more severe effects from underheating their homes, given the colder climate, than their counterparts who live in southern England.

Our old people experience many problems with respect to their heating costs. There is concern about those at risk from hypothermia and other illnesses because of excessive economising on fuel. There is concern about those who live in cold conditions but, fortunately, do not die. There is concern about the hardship sufferred by those paying their bills, but with great difficulty. There is concern about those who fail to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. About 150,000 Scottish pensioners claim supplementary benefit, but 75,000 Scottish pensioners entitled to receive supplementary benefit fail to claim it. These are the elderly among us who are losing out, not only on supplementary benefit but on the extra help available for heating.

We all know pensioners who will not claim supplementary benefit because of the stigma attached to means-tested benefits. They have been brought up during the years of the parish, the free books and the free school meals and in their retirement are not prepared to go with the begging bowl asking for more. Throughout their lives, those elderly people have contributed to our wealth as a nation only to witness its sale by the Government for a short-term, highly dubious financial gain from which they will not benefit. That is a massive sale of assets which should have been retained to provide the national income that would have protected our pensioners, giving them the peace of mind to enjoy a retirement not only of dignity but, just as important, of reasonable comfort.

Many pensioners deny themselves the means-tested help available because of their pride. Many others are unable to obtain help through the supplementary benefit system because their modest occupational pension takes them above the needs level set by the Government. As a group, pensioners have a lower than average income. The Government's duty should be to ensure that pensioners are made aware of their entitlements and that the highest priority within the social security system is given to ensuring that those entitlements are taken up.

It is not just whether they can heat and feed themselves that now concerns our elderly in Scotland. Pensioners in Scotland are equally concerned and puzzled about the Government's rate reform intentions set out in the recently announced Green Paper "Paying for Local Government". They are puzzled about where the Government imagine the sudden affluence will come to meet this new demand. The purse is already empty. How many single pensioners are living in the four-bedroomed house in Scotland which is the much-quoted example to show who will benefit from the change in the method of gathering rates?

The reality is much more stark and frightening. For every pensioner in receipt of housing benefit, 400,000 in Scotland will be worse off because they will have to pay 20 per cent. of their rates. Just what do the Government think pensioners should now give up to meet this extra financial burden? Perhaps our pensioners will shortly be reminded that they have a Christmas bonus which could be used. Perhaps they will be told that soap coupons could be saved and exchanged or that the stamps from Brooke Bond tea packets could be collected in a book to pay for the new rate demands. This is a mean-minded decision by a penny-pinching Government who show their disregard for those members of our society who have contributed to its wealth and health and ask only that that contribution should be recognised by allowing them to be equal members of our society now that they have retired.

It is not just a matter of whether pensioners can heat their homes. Some of our pensioners are living in underheated houses because they have money in the bank to bury them when they are dead. On 5 February 1982, I introduced a private Member's Bill to increase the death grant from £30 to £190 in January 1983 and to require the Secretary of State to review the death grant on 1 January in each subsequent year so that it would retain its value in relation to the general level of prices. The Bill aimed to abolish discrimination based on age.

Conservative Members talked the Bill out. They would not wish to be reminded now of the part they played in sabotaging that modest attempt to give security and peace of mind to our pensioners. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), who, unfortunately, is not with us, spoke from the Front Bench on behalf of the Government. He said: I might have preferred to debate the issues before us after the Government had completed the review of death grant arrangements which has been in train since 1980. Unfortunately, that was not possible. Once the review is completed, I or my right hon. Friend will make a statement on the outcome, which I am sure will give us a full opportunity for constructive debate. He concluded: We are more than conscious of the cases that are brought to our attention where hardship is experienced, because of the ever-widening gap between the level of death grant and the basic cost of a funeral. I assure the House that we shall come forward with our proposals as soon as possible."—[Official Report, 5 February 1982; Vol. 17, c. 692–8.] Now we know—the Government's proposals, after four years' deliberations, are straight out of the monetarists' top drawer: "It is so meaningless. We cannot cut it any more, so we will just abolish it." There speaks the caring, sharing Tory Government.

The picture of an elderly person sleeping on a sofa piled high with blankets in the only room with a heater is not an unusual or extreme one. The reality of life in Scotland for pensioners on low incomes is that their activities are severely curtailed. Winter days may be shorter for all of us but, for many of our elderly people, these days are shortened out of necessity. They stay in bed until midday and go back to bed after teatime. They deserve much more from life than enforced periods of bedtime.

I hope that many of our pensioners are around on that real day of accounting when the Government go to the country. They will not forget the way in which the Government have treated them in the past six years. They will repay the Government through the ballot box.

6.16 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The last few weeks of intense cold have been a nightmare for those on the lowest incomes. The poorer pensioners have to endure much suffering because of their inability to keep their homes anywhere near adequately heated. Gas and electricity prices have increased substantially over the years, at well above the rate of inflation.

When listening to the complacent speech of the Secretary of State, it was difficult to understand why there was so much anxiety in the House and outside. At least the Opposition have tried to explain the justified concern about what has been happening. Since the Conservative party has been in office, the retail prices index has increased by just under 76 per cent. However, in the same period, gas prices have increased by 131.6 per cent. and electricity prices by more than 101 per cent.

I am strongly opposed to large increases in fuel prices. As we know, that is a way for Government to raise revenue through indirect taxation. The burden falls most heavily on those with the smallest incomes. That policy is wrong. If fuel is so expensive, where is the sense and justice in the fact that all people pay the same, regardless of income? If it is right to give help with rent and rates, why not introduce a fuel rebate scheme during the winter months for those on the smallest incomes and limit the amount that is rebated in price?

It is wrong that many of our constituents—the poorer pensioners and those on the smallest incomes earning perhaps £50 or £60 a week—should pay precisely the same for gas and electricity as Cabinet Ministers and those who earn more than those Ministers. That is why there has been so much hardship and suffering during the past month. People on small incomes have not been able to keep themselves properly warm.

Pensioners on supplementary benefit face much uncertainty. They must obviously wonder whether the exceptionally severe weather payment will be made in their area when a really cold spell starts. In many parts of Britain that payment has been authorised two or more weeks after the very cold weather spell started. I understand that in most cases the payment will be backdated to 6 February. Until the announcement was made, the elderly on the smallest incomes did not know whether they could use more fuel, because they did not know whether any extra assistance would be given. What is more, until the bill arrives they are not in a position to apply for the extra assistance. They do not know how this year's bill will compare with last year's. Altogether, there is a great deal of uncertainty, which has led to much suffering.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) said, retired people are frightened to keep the heat on anywhere near to the level that it should be. They fear not disconnection but receiving a fuel bill which they simply will not be able to afford. Thousands of retired people living on the smallest incomes leave their homes cold, and heat only one room. They go to bed early, and when they are up they often wrap themselves in blankets, simply because of their justified fear about the fuel bill.

We must not forget the many retired people whose incomes are just above supplementary benefit levels. In some cases it is only a few pence above; in others a few pounds. They receive housing benefit because of their inadequate income. It is important to bear in mind—I hope that the Secretary of State does so—that these pensioners do not receive any assistance with their heating bills. What are they supposed to do? Ministers who have been interviewed on radio and television have not been able to give an adequate reply to that question. The plight of about 2 million pensioners receiving housing benefit but not in receipt of supplementary benefit is acute.

As we know, all heating additions as such are to be abolished, and although the Government argue that at the end of the day people are not likely to be worse off, some will be. The Government have admitted that some will be losers and some will be gainers. I fear that some of the people about whom we are particularly concerned will also lose as a result of the Social Security Bill. We make strong criticisms of the mechanics of the exceptionally severe weather payments, but the Government intend to abolish it.

I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said, but the Social Security Bill now in Committee will mean that somebody in a winter such as this will have to apply to the DHSS local office. Any assistance will come out of discretionary cash or limited social funds. It is likely that any assistance given will be by way of a loan. What good will that be to people who are counting every penny of their small income? I cannot see these pensioners being keen to obtain a loan, and certainly not one that is likely to be paid off out of their weekly benefit. However bad the situation is now, it will be even worse as a result of the changes that the Government have introduced.

Furthermore, by undermining and eroding SERPS the Government are ensuring that future generations of pensioners will be faced with similar problems facing those of today. If SERPS had been allowed to continue, there would have been a reasonable chance that a large number of people now in employment would, once they retired, have an adequate income. However, because the Government are undermining and eroding the scheme, more generations of poverty-stricken pensioners will have to endure the hardship and suffering that so many have endured during January and February this year.

The Government have shown little or no concern for the acute problem of many people on the smallest incomes, particularly pensioners, in the harsh winter months. They have quoted figures, but the Tory Front Bench, and the Tory Back Benches too, have shown little understanding of what is needed. It is a disgrace that people in our society should have to experience such conditions, especially as many of them served in the last war, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) said. Is this their due—that they should have to endure such suffering? What sort of society are we when we cannot organise such matters properly, and when we allow so many people to live out their lives in such misery, when extra help should be given when needed? The Government should be condemned, and I hope that all my hon. Friends will support the motion.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I understand that the first Front Bench speech will begin at a quarter to 7. Five hon. Members still wish to take part in the debate, and if they all speak briefly I hope to be able to call them all.

6.26 pm
Mr. Lewis Stevens (Nuneaton)

We have heard from the Opposition Benches the inevitable cry that nothing is being done and the Government are uninterested. However, that is belied by all the facts about what the Government have done in managing to keep control. Of inflation, which is so vital, and in recognising their commitments to increase pensions and to provide heating additions. The Opposition still claim that the Government have done nothing.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) spoke about fuel prices, but he should recall that it was distortion of fuel prices to the domestic consumer that caused the readjustment of prices, to bring about equality, and forced up the prices. That subsidy was indiscriminate and went across the board. Even the benefits that it produced were not going to the most deserving people.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) because he spoke about the important topic of the insulation of houses. This Government, not the Labour Government, put great emphasis on increasing the take-up of improvement grants on houses. When some improvement grants were increased to 90 per cent., the take-up also increased.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that advertising of the heating allowances for special conditions would be introduced, and that the Government will look into economic support and the social fund to see how we can tackle these problems. That is important in this complex problem. It is not automatic that the people who suffer in the severe weather are those on housing benefit, or in the worst housing conditions. The upturn in the number of deaths in bad weather applies almost irrespective of whether the victims come from inner cities or deprived areas or better accommodation in other parts of the country.

We have to ask ourselves exactly what the problem is and how we can best alleviate it. Sadly, money is a problem but, as my hon,. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Ottaway) said, it is also important to identify those who are in genuine need and do not have the heat, warmth comfort and other facilities that they need. Although the social service and other departments have expanded, and the voluntary services also do a great deal in that identification process, much still needs to be done to make the best use of the existing facilities. Anything that can be done to improve the publicity about benefits generally should be seriously considered.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North referred to those with incomes slightly above the qualifying figure for housing benefit. These people are not used to turning to the Department of Health and Social Security for social security. They will be wary about using their limited incomes to heat their homes. My experience is that many people could obtain rate rebates or housing benefit but that they do not apply. The help that is already available to them is not being fully taken up. Advertising would play a major part in persuading them to take up the help that is already there.

The Opposition scare people by saying that the state earnings-related pension is to be abolished. The Government have given a guarantee that those who retire during this century will not be affected by the changes to the state earnings-related pension scheme. The Opposition, however, say that the SERPS reduction is imminent and that it will create immediate difficulties. The Government have not let down the pensioners.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services will look at all possible ways, through the social services and the voluntary organisations, of making known the help that is already available to those who may need it.

6.31 pm
Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

It is generally accepted that the poorest sections of the community include the elderly. Precisely because they are poor they are much more vulnerable to the effects of winter weather than are other people. Most hon. Members have visited African villages and other undeveloped countries where one finds that the dignity of old people is much more prevalent and obvious than it is in this country. The community collectively regards the poor as its responsibility and looks after them as a family.

Party political points have been scored in this debate. I have no objection to that. I make such points, and I shall probably make one or two before I sit down. However, it is important to remember that the difference between basic pension and average earnings is far greater now than it was a few years ago and that it is getting worse. That is why the Labour Government introduced the state earnings-related pension scheme. The drop from average earnings to basic pension was so great that it meant almost immediate poverty. SERPS was designed specifically to reduce that drop, if not to eliminate it.

The great tragedy is that this Government quickly got their eye upon SERPS. They thought that it would prove too costly. Therefore they sought to abolish it, but public opinion was almost unanimous in attacking the Government's proposals, so they watered them down. Nevertheless, the Social Security Bill exercise is designed drastically to cut public expenditure upon social services.

The Secretary of State for Social Services said that the total provision for social security had been increased from £7.5 billion in 1979 to £16.5 billion in 1985. That is true. However, the implication was that that provision must be cut. I take the opposite view. If the will is there the means are there, whatever Government are in power. They can do exactly what they like with the cash. They can spend it upon defence, agriculture, education, roads or housing.

I come back to the proposition that I have always put forward whenever the House has debated matters such as this: that if the will is there and adequate, basic pension can be provided. That proposition is fundamental to this debate. If there were an adequate, basic pension we should not be talking about heating allowances or subsidies of one kind or another. The basic pension would then be at least double what it is now. Public opinion polls have proved that if people were asked to pay increased national insurance contributions, or more income tax, or a combination of both, to achieve that end they would be prepared to do so.

I hope that the Government will take on board the fact that it is no good fiddling around with heating allowances, giving one kind of dribble and drabble here, there and everywhere, by which I mean the voluntary bodies and the local authorities. Give them a basic pension that is adequate for their needs and all these problems will be solved.

6.35 pm
Mr. Roy Galley (Halifax)

How easy it is to come to this House time after time and cry for more. It would be understandable if the Opposition cried for more only for the pensioners, the disabled and one or two specific categories, but they come to this House and cry for more for every conceivable subject under the sun.

It is clear from the speeches of some Opposition Members that they recognise that there has been some improvement in the position of pensioners. The right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) said that that is not relevant to this debate. I suggest to him that it is relevant and that the position is improving. But that does not mean that there are grounds for complacency and that we should not seek greater improvements. Pensions are higher now than they have ever been before and their purchasing power is higher than it has ever been before. Nevertheless, we should seek to increase them. However, Opposition speeches would lead one to believe that there has not been a considerable improvement during the last few years in pensions or in health services.

If one is not responsible for setting the priorities it is easy to cry for more for everything. This Government have given the highest priority to health and pensions. When the Labour Government gave in to the clamour for more from every single group in the community the result was bankruptcy and massive inflation. The Opposition have to ask themselves how that helped pensioners. Many pensioners have small savings, upon which they place great store. They want to have a few hundred pounds with which to deal with emergencies and to cope with their funeral arrangements. Because the last Labour Government gave in to the demands for more for everything, their savings were eroded by half.

There has also been much weeping about energy costs. However, during the period of the Labour Government the price of electricity rose by over 170 per cent. That is not caring for the elderly. Caring for the elderly means keeping inflation under control and creating a real improvement in their standard of living. That is what this Government have done.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) referred to the social services. In my part of the country those services are absolutely superb. That does not mean that they cannot be improved. There are groups in our society, for example the physically disabled, in particular the young physically disabled, for whom we ought to do more. We ought to look at what can be provided for them. The number of home helps has been increased. Furthermore, the number of day care places has risen and the amount of sheltered accommodation has been increased. The number of main meals that are served has risen, as has the number of luncheon clubs. The voluntary effort that enables a more flexible response to be made to the changing circumstances of the elderly has also improved.

Do Opposition Members put into practice what they preach when the money is available? The answer is no. At present the West Yorkshire metropolitan county council has £15 million in the kitty, money that could go back to the ratepayers or to the district councils to assist in the provision of better social services. Is it going to do that? Not a bit of it. It is going to fritter away that money on all sorts of ludicrous schemes, such as building a theatre for £1 million in Huddersfield. When it comes to the crunch, what we get from the Opposition are words, not deeds. The fact is that the pensioners' position when the Labour party was in power was much worse.

I must make one important point to my right hon. Friend which picks up a comment made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. When we abolish the heating addition and institute a pensioner premium, there will be a psychological and perception problem. It is important for my right hon. Friend to look at the possibility of tailoring that pensioner premium more closely to the costs and overall needs of the elderly and tying it, not necessarily to the RPI, but to a more specific index.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said that in the present weather crisis the Government had shown little concern. That is a travesty of what has happened. There was a ready response in that practically the whole country is now covered by severe weather payments, which will be backdated.

The situation for pensioners has improved, it is improving, and it must improve more. We must continue to give a high priority to pensioners, but one cannot do everything overnight. If we try to do everything overnight, we shall end up with very large cuts in health services and draconian measures in social services such as were taken by the Labour Government in 1977.

6.41 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

In answer to what has been said by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley), if society cannot afford to pay its pensioners, who can it afford to pay, and what are we not paying them?

Pensioners in this country receive almost the lowest pension paid in any country in Europe. They live in the coldest homes with the highest rate of death through hypothermia, and have the worst possible conditions of all pensioners. Is that because the country is so poor that it cannot afford the pension, as Conservative Members seem to be saying, or is it because the Government prefer to spend money on other things, such as Trident submarines and the nuclear missile programme? It is question of choice. If we wish to end the monstrous death rate of pensioners every winter, something else has to go. I suggest that it is the arms programme, and I suggest the nuclear arms programme at that.

There are at present 9 million pensioners in the country, and the number is increasing. Roughly half those pensioners are below the official poverty level which is 140 per cent. above supplementary benefit level. Half are pensioners living in a state of penury and half in a state of extreme fear. We should stop looking upon pensioners as a problem in society, and we should start looking at them as people who have made an enormous contribution throughout their working lives and still have a contribution to make; they do not wish to be patronised, but they do wish to be able to live in some decency.

In areas such as the one I represent, a whole plethora of cuts in various aspects of Government spending is hitting the pensioners' living standard. There is a lack of a decent basic pension. That is the first requirement. Secondly, there are cuts in the health services, which fall disproportionately on pensioners. If Conservative Members think there have been no cuts in the Health Service, they should come to my constituency and see the closed and boarded-up hospitals. The same thing is happening in every other inner urban area.

There is also the loss of the Greater London council and the metropolitan counties arid of the assistance that they have given to pensioners' organisations. They have managed to bring in subsidised or free travel for the elderly which is not available in many Conservative and Liberal-controlled county authorities.

The immediate issue to which the motion addresses itself is hypothermia and the cost of fuel for pensioners. A great deal can be done. The Government choose to use the fuel pricing mechanisms of gas and electricity as a form of taxation on the population of the country. Because of the way that system operates, the smallest consumers pay the most. Because of the system of standing charges pensioners are penalised for being old and for wanting warm homes. Because they cannot afford to pay the bills they do not heat their homes properly, and many of them die each winter. I find it nauseating, to put it mildly, that Conservative Members should be concerned about hypothermia yet do nothing about fuel prices, and that they have not supported the measures to abolish standing charges for the elderly or done anything to alleviate the plight of pensioners.

Unless something is done very quickly, the wringing of hands that has happened in the last hour and a half will happen again next spring and the spring after that when we see again the monstrous death rate for pensioners. We must stop patronising pensioners. We must start by working with those splendid pensioners' action groups and others that are politically organising and seeking decent pensions and living standards for themselves. They are the people whom I believe will decide the outcome of the next election. I very much hope that they will have the opportunity to do so.

6.45 pm
Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

This has been the coldest winter for 40 years. It is therefore as stupid as it is irrelevant for the Secretary of State and many of his hon. Friends to come here and bleat on about what previous Labour Governments have done in other years. We are talking about this year, which is the coldest for 40 years and in which the Government's own medical statistician has said that 200 pensioners are dying every day.

The hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley) said that the Government had made a ready response to the problem. It is a year since we last had these debates, a year since the Minister of State said that the system of paying exceptionally severe weather allowances was "a shambles". What did the Government do about it? Damn all, quite frankly, is what the Government did about it.

It was December 1985 before new guidance was issued, the guidance that is now in place. All that the Government can say about it is that heating costs are met and that they have been doing a good job because they have put up the regular sums that people get through heating additions. But those are payments for normal heating for normal needs, and are not intended to cope with conditions of extreme cold. I understand that the Department used to recommend 21 deg C as a suitable temperature for the elderly and had to abandon it because it found that over 90 per cent. of pensioners could not afford to heat their homes to that temperature. Even on the basis of normal need we know that there is a problem, never mind on the basis of exceptional need. The Secretary of State said that special help cannot be a substitute for the payments. Nobody is asking for this as a substitute; we are demanding the payment in addition to the sums normally paid because people need heating in additional ways over and above what is normal.

The implication of the Government's attitude is that the system is now working all right with the new guidance. Can they really believe that? I spoke to a pensioner from Kent last week who told me that he rang his area office when the temperature was minus 22 deg F, and the office said that it was not making exceptional severe weather payments. He rang the office the week after when the temperature was minus 12 deg F. By then the office had worked out the system, and was prepared to make such payments. Even the Government's own local offices do not understand the system, as the Government well know.

The Government commissioned some research fairly recently to evaluate these schemes. It showed that 90 per cent. of the pensioners who should be entitled to the allowance do not receive it because they do not know about the allowance, because they cannot find out or because they are turned down. The research showed that this is because of the complexity of the system.

I have a copy of the questionnaire which is sent to anybody who applies for the allowance. It has 20 separate questions. It includes, for example, a request to forward the bills for the same period for the last two years, how much savings people normally hold, what they would normally expect to pay for their fuel, whether they have had any recent period of illness and, if so, for how long, whether they have had to use more fuel and how they have managed to buy the extra fuel they have needed. There are 20 such questions which have to be answered satisfactorily when people make the claim. The complexity of the system saves the Government about £25 million a year in supplementary benefit.

The Government say that it is up to the chief adjudication officer to suggest to local offices what action to take. But it was crystal clear that local offices had been waiting for a lead. The day that the chief adjudication officer put out his guidance, Ministers were delighted to tell us that local offices were falling over themselves to declare that theirs was an area in which payment could be made. I think that it was the Under-Secretary who said, "As I speak, fresh news is coming in of more tens of offices which are making this payment."

Does the Secretary of State imagine that the chief adjudication officer was not paying attention to what was going on in the House when, day after day, Labour Members, and occasionally Conservative Members, raised the problems of their constituents and the only answer that they received was that heating allowances had been increased and that the Government thought they were doing a good job? Where were the moving pleas from the Government Front Bench, the expressions of concern and the hope that the chief adjudication officer would be listening to what was said and might take some action? Not a word. Then the Minister says that it was up to the adjudication officer and there was no need for Government action.

We called on the Government to publicise the allowances. Only a week ago they resisted that idea and said that they were sure that the scheme would be all over the papers and that everyone would know. We welcome the Secretary of State's belated decision to go for some Government advertising.

Let me draw the Government's attention to the research that they commissioned, which points out that it is completely unnecessary to go through the farrago of making people fill out a questionnaire with 20 different questions and apply to the local office. The report says: The department knows exactly who needs help and there is no need for this bureaucratic system at all. The Government have been advised that about 3.5 million pensioners could get that help simply by the Government looking through their own records.

Several hon. Members have suggested that we cannot find the money for everything and they talked about throwing money around, and so on. Let me draw to the attention of the hon. Member for Halifax the fact that in 1984–85 the gas levy—the special payment demanded by the Government from the gas industry—was £500 million. The electricity levy was £406 million. That is an example of money being thrown around. It is an example of money put on fuel prices by the Government.

At least the Secretary of State acknowledged that there is a serious problem in this area. Nevertheless, the Government have cut funds for the home insulation scheme, which seems a rather strange way of recognising the problem. He suggested that in future it would be better because people may be able to make claims from the social fund. He did not remind the House that they will be able to apply for loans from the social fund only if they are already drawing income support. He did not point out that if they have as much as £500 saved for their funeral, they will not be able to claim a penny. Nor did he remind the House that, under the Social Security Bill, which establishes a social fund, the Government are cutting people's pension entitlement by half, bringing it down to less than the basic pension will purchase today. Through that proposal and others in the Bill millions of pensioners will be losers in the short and long term.

As the motion says, the plight of pensioners is great, but unless and until we remove the Government they will find no remedy.

6.52 pm
The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

The Opposition have clone a genuine service by bringing the subject to the House for debate and enabling at least some more serious contributions to be made to what is undoubtedly a serious and difficult issue. I pay tribute in that respect to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and to a number of my hon. Friends who have spoken.

But from the Opposition Front Bench we have not only not had a serious contribution to the debate of a serious subject, but we have had the most disgracefully misleading use of statistics that I have heard in the House for some considerable time. I shall give my figures. They are exactly the same as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's figures which are good enough to bear repeating. Indeed, they are important enough to bear repeating.

Let me remind the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) what the Leader of the Opposition asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at Question Time earlier this week. That too is worth repeating. Any team that has the Leader of the Opposition on its side needs a jolly good goalkeeper. He asked the Prime Minister: Why … has our death rate during the winter been three times that of the United States of America and four times that of Sweden?"—[Official Report, 4 March 1986; Vol. 93, c. 149.] That is a very good question, but as soon as we looked into the data on which it must have been based we found that it could only have been based on those for the three years between 1976 and 1979 when the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends were in office.

Then we had the misuse of statistics about hypothermia deaths this winter by the hon. Member for Oldham, West. He referred to a tenfold increase in deaths from hypothermia. Let me repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said: There is absolutely no evidence of a ten-fold increase. The only basis on which that statement could have been made is a total misreading of figures which compare 1975 with 1985. When one looks at the figures properly it is clear that it was the winter of 1979 when most deaths with mention of hypothermia took place during the first three months of the year. I hope that in due course the hon. Gentleman will apologise for the way in which he sought to mislead the House and the country tonight.

Let me move on quickly because I want to be nice to the hon. Gentleman as far as I can. I want to congratulate him—I would be grateful if I could have his attention for a moment.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman did not listen to him.

Mr. Newton

I listened with great care to the hon. Member for Oldham, West, which is why I halve been refuting some of the points that he made. However. I want to congratulate the hon. Gentleman because it is nearly an auspicious anniversary in his life. In March 1976 a report in The Times said: Old age pensioners shouted down Mr. Meacher, Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Services, yesterday as he tried to explain the Government's record on pensioners. That was 10 years ago.

Something else happened roughly 10 years ago and I was put in mind of it by the strictures of the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) on the complexity of the exceptionally severe weather payment regulations and the problems associated with it. I am certainly not going to defend those regulations as a miracle of simplicity, but I have here a booklet published by the Department of Energy in December 1978 on the electricity discount scheme 1979. That was the Labour Government's answer to not dissimilar problems at that time. It is 17 pages long. It contains some 60 questions and I can convey something of its flavour by quoting one or two. One question reads: I am in dispute with my electricity board about my bill. If this is not settled before the scheme ends how can I make sure I claim my discount? The answer was: Write immediately to the electricity division, the Department of Energy. Question: I applied for a Rate/Rent Rebate/Rent allowance but did not hear from my local authority until after 30th June. What should I do? Answer: Write to the Department of Energy Electricity Division". What a farce that was.

It is a pity that we cannot use visual aids in the House. I have here the visual description of the electricity discount scheme sent to the post offices to try to tell them how to operate it. It was a nightmare of complexity which nobody understood, which was ineffective, and which the incoming Conservative Government got rid of in favour of a policy of systematically and substantially increasing the regular weekly payments of heating addition to greatly increased numbers of people.

That is the point that the hon. Members for Oldham, West and for Derby, South have persistently refused to focus on in this argument. Wherever one looks, there has been a substantial increase since 1979 in the regular extra weekly help given to virtually every pensioner in receipt of supplementary benefit—far more than those helped by Labour Members—to the severely sick and disabled and families with young children, to the point at which, on any reasonable reading of the combination of what is in the basic supplementary benefit rate and the heating additions, any supplementary pensioner householder over 85 receives about £600 a year—£150 a quarter—to help with paying the heating bills.

That is the right way to be giving such help. That is the record on which we stand and on which we shall seek to build. We have no need at all to apologise to Her Majesty's Opposition in the light of their miserable record in the self-same subject.

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

The House divided: Ayes 187, Noes 283.

Division No. 94] [7 pm
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Golding, John
Alton, David Gould, Bryan
Anderson, Donald Hamilton, James (M'well N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Hamilton, W. W. (Fife Central)
Ashdown, Paddy Hardy, Peter
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Harman, Ms Harriet
Ashton, Joe Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Heffer, Eric S.
Barnett, Guy Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Barron, Kevin Home Robertson, John
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Hoyle, Douglas
Bell, Stuart Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Bermingham, Gerald Janner, Hon Greville
Bidwell, Sydney John, Brynmor
Blair, Anthony Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Boyes, Roland Kennedy, Charles
Bray, Dr Jeremy Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Kirkwood, Archy
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E) Lamond, James
Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N) Leadbitter, Ted
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith) Leighton, Ronald
Bruce, Malcolm Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Caborn, Richard Litherland, Robert
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M) Livsey, Richard
Campbell-Savours, Dale Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Canavan, Dennis Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Carter-Jones, Lewis Loyden, Edward
Cartwright, John McCartney, Hugh
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Clarke, Thomas McGuire, Michael
Clay, Robert McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Clelland, David Gordon MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Maclennan, Robert
Cohen, Harry McNamara, Kevin
Conlan, Bernard Madden, Max
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) Marek, Dr John
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Corbett, Robin Martin, Michael
Corbyn, Jeremy Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Meacher, Michael
Craigen, J. M. Meadowcroft, Michael
Crowther, Stan Michie, William
Cunliffe, Lawrence Mikardo, Ian
Cunningham, Dr John Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Deakins, Eric Nellist, David
Dixon, Donald Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Dobson, Frank O'Brien, William
Dormand, Jack O'Neill, Martin
Douglas, Dick Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Dubs, Alfred Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Duffy, A. E. P. Park, George
Eadie, Alex Patchett, Terry
Eastham, Ken Pavitt, Laurie
Edwards, Bob (Wh'mpt'n SE) Pendry, Tom
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Penhaligon, David
Ewing, Harry Pike, Peter
Fatchett, Derek Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Faulds, Andrew Prescott, John
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Randall, Stuart
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Redmond, Martin
Fisher, Mark Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)
Flannery, Martin Richardson, Ms Jo
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Forrester, John Robertson, George
Foster, Derek Rogers, Allan
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Rooker, J. W.
Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)
Freud, Clement Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Garrett, W. E. Rowlands, Ted
George, Bruce Ryman, John
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Sedgemore, Brian
Sheerman, Barry Tinn, James
Shore, Rt Hon Peter Torney, Tom
Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood) Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE) Wareing, Robert
Silkin, Rt Hon J. Weetch, Ken
Skinner, Dennis Welsh, Michael
Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'bury) Wigley, Dafydd
Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'ds E) Williams, Rt Hon A.
Snape, Peter Wilson, Gordon
Soley, Clive Winnick, David
Spearing, Nigel Woodall, Alec
Steel, Rt Hon David Wrigglesworth, Ian
Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles) Young, David (Bolton SE)
Stott, Roger
Straw, Jack Tellers for the Ayes:
Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth) Mr. John McWilliam and
Thompson, J. (Wansbeck) Mr. Frank Haynes.
Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Adley, Robert Critchley, Julian
Aitken, Jonathan Crouch, David
Alexander, Richard Currie, Mrs Edwina
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Dickens, Geoffrey
Amess, David Dicks, Terry
Ancram, Michael Dorrell, Stephen
Arnold, Tom Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Ashby, David du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Aspinwall, Jack Dunn, Robert
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Dykes, Hugh
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E) Eggar, Tim
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y) Emery, Sir Peter
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Eyre, Sir Reginald
Baldry, Tony Fallon, Michael
Batiste, Spencer Farr, Sir John
Bellingham, Henry Favell, Anthony
Bendall, Vivian Fletcher, Alexander
Bennett, Rt Hon Sir Frederic Fookes, Miss Janet
Benyon, William Forman, Nigel
Best, Keith Forth, Eric
Bevan, David Gilroy Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Biffen, Rt Hon John Fox, Marcus
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Franks, Cecil
Blackburn, John Fraser, Peter (Angus East)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Freeman, Roger
Bottomley, Peter Fry, Peter
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Gale, Roger
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n) Galley, Roy
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Garel-Jones, Tristan
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Bright, Graham Glyn, Dr Alan
Brinton, Tim Goodhart, Sir Philip
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Goodlad, Alastair
Brooke, Hon Peter Gorst, John
Bruinvels, Peter Gow, Ian
Bryan, Sir Paul Grant, Sir Anthony
Buck, Sir Antony Greenway, Harry
Budgen, Nick Gregory, Conal
Butcher, John Griffiths, Sir Eldon
Butler, Rt Hon Sir Adam Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Butterfill, John Ground, Patrick
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Grylls, Michael
Carttiss, Michael Gummer, Rt Hon John S
Cash, William Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Hampson, Dr Keith
Chapman, Sydney Hanley, Jeremy
Chope, Christopher Hargreaves, Kenneth
Churchill, W. S. Harris, David
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n) Harvey, Robert
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Haselhurst, Alan
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Hawkins, Sir Paul (N'folk SW)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Hawksley, Warren
Cockeram, Eric Hayes, J.
Colvin, Michael Hayhoe, Rt Hon Barney
Cope, John Hayward, Robert
Cormack, Patrick Heathcoat-Amory, David
Corrie, John Henderson, Barry
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Hickmet, Richard Mayhew, Sir Patrick
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Mellor, David
Hill, James Merchant, Piers
Hind, Kenneth Meyer, Sir Anthony
Hirst, Michael Mills, Iain (Meriden)
Holt, Richard Miscampbell, Norman
Hordern, Sir Peter Mitchell, David (Hants NW)
Howard, Michael Monro, Sir Hector
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A) Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock) Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford) Moynihan, Hon C.
Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N) Murphy, Christopher
Hubbard-Miles, Peter Neale, Gerrard
Hunt, David (Wirral W) Newton, Tony
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Norris, Steven
Jackson, Robert Onslow, Cranley
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Oppenheim, Phillip
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Ottaway, Richard
Jones, Robert (Herts W) Page, Sir John (Harrow W)
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil
Kershaw, Sir Anthony Parris, Matthew
Key, Robert Patten, Christopher (Bath)
King, Roger (B'ham N'field) Patten, J. (Oxf W & Abgdn)
King, Rt Hon Tom Portillo, Michael
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Price, Sir David
Knox, David Proctor, K. Harvey
Lamont, Norman Raffan, Keith
Latham, Michael Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Lawler, Geoffrey Rathbone, Tim
Lawrence, Ivan Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)
Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Lee, John (Pendle) Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Roe, Mrs Marion
Lester, Jim Rossi, Sir Hugh
Lightbown, David Rowe, Andrew
Lilley, Peter Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Lloyd, Ian (Havant) Ryder, Richard
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Sackville, Hon Thomas
Lyell, Nicholas Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
McCrindle, Robert St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.
McCurley, Mrs Anna Sayeed, Jonathan
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute) Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Maclean, David John Shelton, William (Streatham)
McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury) Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
McQuarrie, Albert Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Major, John Shersby, Michael
Malins, Humfrey Silvester, Fred
Malone, Gerald Sims, Roger
Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Skeet, Sir Trevor
Mates, Michael Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Mather, Carol Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Maude, Hon Francis Soames, Hon Nicholas
Speed, Keith Waddington, David
Spencer, Derek Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Walden, George
Stanbrook, Ivor Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Stanley, Rt Hon John Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)
Steen, Anthony Wall, Sir Patrick
Stern, Michael Waller, Gary
Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton) Walters, Dennis
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood) Ward, John
Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood) Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Stokes, John Warren, Kenneth
Stradling Thomas, Sir John Watson, John
Sumberg, David Watts, John
Tapsell, Sir Peter Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Taylor, John (Solihull) Wheeler, John
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E) Whitfield, John
Temple-Morris, Peter Whitney, Raymond
Terlezki, Stefan Wiggin, Jerry
Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M. Winterton, Mrs Ann
Thomas, Rt Hon Peter Winterton, Nicholas
Thompson, Donald (Calder V) Wolfson, Mark
Thorne, Neil (Ilford S) Wood, Timothy
Thurnham, Peter Woodcock, Michael
Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath) Yeo, Tim
Tracey, Richard Young, Sir George (Acton)
Trippier, David
Twinn, Dr Ian Tellers for the Noes:
van Straubenzee, Sir W. Mr. Michael Neubert and
Vaughan, Sir Gerard Mr. Mr. Tony Durant.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 33 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.

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

Resolved, That this House recognises the difficulties faced by elderly people during periods of severe weather; commends the Government's record of paying higher retirement pensions to more pensioners than ever before, of increasing the supplementary benefit scale rates, of providing for the first time automatic heating additions of £2.20 per week for all supplementary pensioner households over 65 years of age, and of introducing a higher rate of £5.45 per week for such pensioners over 85 years of age; notes with approval that payments under the exceptionally severe weather scheme are now available throughout mainland Britain; and observes that the present relative stability in fuel prices demonstrates the value of firm control over inflation and is in stark contrast to the increase of 170 per cent. in electricity prices over the period of the Labour Government between 1974 and 1979.