§ 7. Mr. Madden
asked the Secretary of State for Social Services whether he will reconsider the trigger temperature of—1.5°C for severe weather payments.
§ The Minister for Social Security and the Disabled (Mr. Major)
It is our firm expectation that the trigger point for severe weather payments will be reached throughout the country this week. In view of this and of the unprecedented cold weather, I wish to make it clear today that the extra payment of £5 will be made to everyone in the qualifying groups for this week. These groups are householders on supplementary benefit with someone in their family who is 65 or over, chronically sick or disabled or under two. The Government are determined that vulnerable groups should know without delay where they stand, so that they will not be discouraged from heating their homes during this very cold spell. In the unlikely event that not all the areas reach the trigger point, action will be taken to validate the payments made.
§ Mr. Madden
Will the Minister accept that there are pensioners who are literally scared to death that they will be unable to pay the bills for the fuel required to heat their homes properly? Does he not also recognise—I believe that he has in his answer—that what is required is for all pensioners to be confident that they will have sufficient money throughout the winter months to pay their bills and heat their homes properly? That is what lies behind our suggestion that all pensioners on supplementary benefit should receive £5 a week from mid-December to March to enable them to pay their bills in the winter months.
Will the Minister observe some modesty in his claims about his Government's efforts on behalf of pensioners, 133 bearing in mind that single pensioners, because of the break of the link between pensions, earnings and prices, have to date lost £8 a week and married pensioners £12.75?
§ Mr. Major
We are absolutely determined that vulnerable groups should keep warm, which is why I have made the statement that I have just made. That is why we have increased each of the three tiers of special help for heating: supplementary benefits; the heating additions, which we have extended and widened and made statutory; and, for the first time, the introduction of a statutory entitlement to a cold weather payment. Each of the three tiers of help has been increased by the Government because we are absolutely determined that the vulnerable groups shall have the confidence to keep warm in this weather. That is also why, in these special circumstances of unprecedented cold weather, I have made the announcement today, before the trigger point has been reached, so that people may have the confidence to keep warm.
§ Mr. Hirst
Is my hon. Friend aware that his announcement will be warmly welcomed by many of my constituents, not least those who live in outlying rural areas who frequently experience much lower temperatures than the trigger or monitoring point for Strathclyde region? While I very much welcome what he has done, can he give any hope that we can, without cumbersome buraucracy, find ways of accommodating people in outlying rural areas, who frequently experience lower temperatures?
§ Mr. Major
I think I demonstrated a flexibility in the last few moments that my hon. Friend might not have anticipated. We share the concern. That is why I made the statement. Since my hon. Friend's constituents will be paticularly concerned about this, I should add that it will be widely advertised over the next few days, not least, I trust, by the media, who have shown some interest in the matter.
§ Mr. Winnick
Is the Minister aware that although what he has announced is some small relief, there are still many pensioners who are not eligible to claim it? Moreover, does not the scheme as it operates at the moment help only those with less than £500 capital and those on certain categories of supplementary benefit? Does the Minister not recognise that there are many elderly people on small incomes, not claiming supplementary benefit, but perhaps just a bit above the limit, who will not get any help? Is it not also disgraceful that from next year all heating additions are to be abolished, including even this scheme which has been triggered?
§ Mr. Major
The hon. Gentleman is being typically mealy-mouthed. I invite him to recollect that heating additions, which amount to over £400 million a year, have been widened and extended and made a statutory entitlement under this Government, and that during the period of Labour Governments there was no statutory entitlement to exceptionally severe cold weather payments. The winters in those days were equally cold and the hon. Gentleman's conscience is a very late arrival.
§ Mr. Michael Marshall
Does my hon. Friend accept that his news today will be welcomed, but that some of us are still concerned that the formula which is part of the system at present may cause him difficulty? Will he keep an open mind in considering the system itself in future?
§ Mr. Wallace
of course, the Minister is right when he says that vulnerable groups should know where they stand. Is it not the case that during the last 72 hours of bitterly cold weather, until he made his announcement a few moments ago these vulnerable groups did not know where they stood? Could this not go on for several weeks throughout the winter? Are we to have the Minister coming to the Dispatch Box perhaps once a week to indicate whether in that week people will get the £5 addition? Is that not a mean amount, considering the cold that people have suffered, particularly in the remote areas where transport costs mean that the additional expenditure of this week will be far more than £5 will cover?
§ Mr. Major
The hon. Gentleman clearly does not understand the basic method of assisting vulnerable groups with heating costs. The essential assistance comes, first, in the supplementary benefit rates and, secondly, in the specific heating additions which we have extended, widened and made a regular weekly entitlement for 52 weeks of the year for vulnerable groups. That is what is expected to meet their heating bills. When the weather is unexpectedly severe, this Government, for the first time, have made available special extra help to underpin and help pay the bills that will subsequently come in. The hon. Gentleman should welcome that.
§ Mr. Cockeram
Is it not the case that the Conservative party first introduced this payment and that therefore by their bleatings the Labour party is shedding mere crocodile tears, otherwise it would have taken steps when it had the power to do so?
§ Mr. Major
I think that the main concern of my hon. Friend and of everyone on the Conservative Benches is to ensure that the elderly and the vulnerable are protected by having adequate heating. My hon. Friend has made a perfectly fair and valid political point. We have acted to help with heating costs. When the Labour party was in power, it did not do so.
§ Mr. James Lamond
Now that the Minister has been forced by the sheer logic of events to jettison one of the main regulations with regard to the heating allowance, is it not sensible that he should look at the other petty regulations that were outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) in relation to the amount of capital a recipient can have in the bank, money probably set aside for the recipient's funeral?
Can the Minister not find a better location for the taking of temperatures than those that have been allocated? For example, in my constituency people have been suffering as a result of snowfalls for a considerable time, while the temperature at Manchester airport is the figure that is taken to trigger the extra allowance.
§ Mr. Major
I have not jettisoned the regulations. I have told the House that I expect that the regulations will be triggered and, to avoid uncertainty about vulnerable groups, I have made the statement at a very early stage. In relation to the hon. Gentleman's point about the £500 qualifying capital limit, that is not novel to this benefit. I remind him that during the period of the Labour Government the figure was £200, and that only at the very end of their term in office was it £300.
The measure announced by my hon. Friend is to be welcomed. In addition, will he give attention to home improvement, and in particular home insulation? On the face of it, he is subsiding heat loss through uninsulated roofs and pipes. In a quieter moment, will he get together with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and work out a scheme to replace the revenue lost with longer-term capital improvements?
§ Mr. Major
Such discussions are already in hand. My hon. Friend gives me an adequate and welcome opportunity to mention and praise the work of the neighbourhood energy action groups, which have provided 360 local home insulation projects, 6,000 voluntary workers and a substantial amount of insulation for the homes of people who are especially needy. People who may perhaps need information about that may call the free telephone number 0800 234 8000.
§ Mr. Meacher
Does not the Minister's statement show that the trigger of minus 1.5 deg C was wrongly set at an absurdly low figure? Why is he not withdrawing the scheme altogether? Is he aware that payment of £5 for one week only in no way comes near to meeting need after the worst January weather on record? Is he further aware that if pensions had been increased in line with earnings, as they were under the previous Labour Government, the single pension today would be £8 a week higher and the married pension £12 a week higher, and there would be no need for bureaucratic and cumbersome schemes such as this, which are first on and then off, because of their sheer inhumanity? Will he say that he will pay £5 a week automatically, as of right, for every week during this winter, as the Labour party proposes?
§ Mr. Major
My statement reveals precisely what I have said, that I expect that a trigger point will be reached this week and people may now plan in that confident expectation. I will review the position again at the beginning of next week. With regard to the hon. Gentleman's other remarks, he may say what he likes about previous pension provision. He should bear in mind that if he continues to promote programmes to spend something like £28 billion a year while raising £3.6 billion through taxation. he will not meet those programmes.
§ Mr. Kennedy
I welcome the Minister's sensible announcement, which is the right announcement to make. However, as this entire scheme has become something of an annual shambles, will he consider two factors? First, will he consider changing the trigger degree to zero rather than minus 1.5 deg C? Secondly, instead of having to make special statements such as the one he has made today, will he make automatic payment to all those in the qualifying categories so that people do not have to make special application?
§ Mr. Major
There is already automatic payment for assistance with heating. It is the heating additions to which I have made frequent reference in the past. I make no secret of the fact that there have been difficulties with the discretionary scheme. It was precisely for that reason that we made it a statutory entitlement.