§ Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)
I beg to move,That this House, recognising that the Government deliberately chose such a low threshold as—1.5° Centigrade for the Exceptionally Severe Weather Payments Scheme so as to ensure that help is difficult to obtain and insecure in provision, and noting that as a result of the break in the uprating with earnings, single pensioners are today £8 per week worse off and married couple £12 per week worse off than under Labour's formula, calls upon the Government to pay £5 per week automatically as of right to all the poorest and most needy pensioners and families with small children as the only way to guarantee that they receive the necessary heating when they need it without fear of debt.
§ Mr. Meacher
A month ago the Opposition launched a debate demonstrating that the Government's proposals for exceptionally severe weather payments were a cruel farce because the scheme had been rigged in such a way that hardly a pensioner would get a penny. We pressed the Government to improve the scheme before it was introduced on 12 December, but the Government took no notice. We then held another debate a week before Christmas to urge the Government to reconsider. Again the Government took no notice.
Last week was bitterly cold and culminated in the coldest night for a quarter of a century. If there was ever a need for exceptionally severe weather payments it was demonstrated last week. Precisely one area in the entire country, one area out of the 64 weather station areas into which Britain is divided, triggered the minus 1.5 deg. C threshold. That area, Eskdalemuir, is a sparsely populated area in south-west Scotland where there are probably more sheep than people. It was obvious that the scheme had fallen at the first hurdle yet two days ago faced with irrefutable evidence of the scheme's pathetic inadequacy, the Minister blithely insisted that the new system had to be given a try.
Precisely one day later, yesterday, the Prime Minister denounced the scheme as a bureaucratic procedure as though her Government had not introduced it in the first place. The Minister made a statement confessing that it did not matter about the temperature readings and that he would pay all the pensioners in the qualifying categories.Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth".We want to know whether the Government are genuinely repenting or whether this is a convenient one-off concession brought about, not by the temperature outside, but by the political temperature inside. This change of mind on the part of the Government was taken at the last possible moment yesterday and was clearly prompted by an anxiety to save the Government's face in the debate today. Perhaps we ought to have a debate on this subject every week in order to jog the Government's conscience.
We want to know whether the Government are discarding this miserable little scheme altogether and replacing it with a payment as of right throughout the winter to all the poorest and most needy pensioners. That is what we have proposed all along. The Minister had 282 better understand at the outset that there is little rhyme or reason in a one-week concession. Why not last week, and what about next week?
§ Mr. Meacher
No, I will not give way now. I shall give way in a moment. What is the point of disregarding a bureaucratic procedure one week if one immediately returns to it the next week?
§ Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)
Does the £3.6 billion poverty programme that the Labour party is supposed to have agreed at its recent Bishops Stortford meeting include provision for £5 a week for the duration of the winter? That adds up to about £180 million. If it does not include that amount, where will the money come from?
§ Mr. Meacher
I can tell the hon. Gentleman one place that it could come from. I do not know whether he has had notice of some of the contents of the public expenditure White Paper, but I see that the Government are proposing to spend an extra £230 million in the next two years on the cost of stocking Common Market food mountains. I suggest that that money would be much better spent on elderly people in the cold. [Interruption.]
A single one-off £5 payment is not exactly generous in present conditions. It is about enough to heat one room for two days using a two-bar electric fire. What about the other five days of the week? I can tell the Minister that running a two-bar fire for 24 hours a day costs about £18 a week at current prices. I suspect that many pensioners need to spend an extra £10 to £15 a week to keep warm in the current freeze. That is why the cumulative effect of successive £5 payments every week which we recommend is so important. A one-off payment, like the one that the Government have just announced, does not lift any of the anxiety of elderly people who turn off the heating for fear of running into debt because of the uncertainty of future payments.
§ Mr. Maples
Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House how much the last Labour Government spent on exceptionally severe weather payments?
§ Mr. Meacher
I certainly will, and I give advance notice of a later section of my speech. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that on the electricity discount scheme we spent nine times more than this Government are spending on the exceptionally severe weather payments scheme.
§ The Minister for Social Security and the Disabled (Mr. John Major)
Since the hon. Gentleman has made that interesting and freshly discovered observation, would he care to put it into its proper context by reminding the House of the level of inflation in electricity prices at that time?
§ Mr. Meacher
Perhaps the Minister—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I am answering. What matters to elderly people is the increase in the value of their pension, in real terms, after inflation is taken into account. On that basis, under the last Labour Government the value of the pension increased by 20 per cent. in real terms. Under this Government, it has increased by 3 per cent. in seven years.
§ Mr. Meacher
No, I do not intend to give way again. I want to get on with my speech.
Nor are the qualifying categories for this single one-off payment anywhere near wide enough. They are confined to pensioners on supplementary benefit. There are a million or so pensioners with incomes that are only slightly above the supplementary benefit line who are just as much in need because they are struggling to pay their fuel bills. We would include them in the regular weekly payment of a £5 special winter fuel premium.
§ Mr. Meacher
The Government have not included them even in the single one-off payment that they have conceded for one week. That is the difference.
§ Mr. Hayes
The hon. Gentleman speaks loftily of the earnings-related formula, which is an integral part of the Opposition's motion. However, does he remember that his Government abandoned that formula in 1976, 1977 and 1978 and that in 1979 the then Secretary of State for Social Services—now Lord Ennals—in Pensioners Voice, said that he did not have to take it into account, anyway?
§ Mr. Meacher
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will convince any pensioners by producing statistical distortions of that kind. What matters to pensioners is the value of the money in their pockets and its purchasing power. Under a Labour Government, it rose by a fifth, but under this Government it has been virtually stationary for seven years. However, that is not the real issue. The real issue is that this scheme is hopelessly inadequate. It must be replaced as a matter of urgency if thousands of preventable deaths are not to occur this winter.
The scheme has three fundamental defects. The trigger threshold at minus 1.5 deg C is absurdly low. Even when that temperature is reached, nearly always it does not trigger payment because of the absurd seven-day averaging requirement from Monday to Sunday, which is so bureaucratically cumbersome. Pensioners cannot receive the payment, anyway, if they have more than £500 in the bank. The Minister knows, I hope, that most pensioners save for their funerals. Today a funeral costs more than £500. Under this scheme, money reserved for one's funeral makes it more likely that one will not get help to stay alive. That is hardly a sensible way to run a scheme.
If the scheme had been in operation last winter—which was the bitterest for 40 years—more than half the country would still not have triggered payment for one week throughout the entire winter. What is so cynical about this exercise is that the Government chose the minus 1.5 deg C threshold not on the grounds of health or need but as a temperature level that would ensure that about only one in eight pensioners qualified for a single £5 payment once every five years. That is why the scheme is virtually useless, and it was intended to be useless.
I invite hon. Members to look at the evidence. Last week temperatures reached minus 17 deg C at Aviemore, minus 12 deg Cat Shrewsbury, minus 16 deg C around the Pennines and minus 7 deg C in London, yet in not one of those areas did pensioners get a penny. After the worst January weather on record and the coldest night for 26 years, 99.9 per cent. of pensioners were still excluded from payment. At Aberdeen, Arbroath, Dumfries and Dundee 284 the temperature fell below minus 1.5 deg C for three of the seven days last week, Monday to Sunday, yet pensioners and families with babies got nothing. At Colchester, Clacton, Ipswich and King's Lynn in East Anglia and at Glasgow, Coatbridge, Paisley, Dumbarton and Inverness in Scotland the temperature fell below minus 1.5 deg C for four of the seven days last week, yet pensioners and families with babies got nothing. In Edinburgh, the temperature fell below minus 1.5 deg C for five of the seven days last week, yet pensioners and families with babies got nothing.
§ Mr. Meacher
No. Fourteen weather stations registered an average weekly temperature below freezing. Last week the highest weekly temperature in the whole of Britain was only 3.6 deg C. That was in the west country. Almost everywhere the temperature was virtully at freezing point, yet throughout the country only a handful of pensioners received the payment. That is not fine tuning. That is callous neglect.
§ Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)
If the Government's purpose in fashioning this scheme were to avoid making any payments to those who the hon. Gentleman says are in need, they have not been very successful, have they? Why is it that in the first year after the introduction of this scheme we find that we are paying out under it?
§ Mr. Meacher
The hon. Gentleman has missed the point. The point is that it was needed last week, but virtually nobody got it. The Government are so utterly embarrassed and ashamed of the fact that in the worst cold weather for 30 or 40 years nobody received the payment that they have decided to scrap the scheme, but only for one week, so that they will have something to say in this debate. Their action is as callous as that.
§ Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)
When the Labour Government were in office is it not a fact that when the weather was nowhere as cold as this we gave a 25 per cent. discount on winter electricity bills to all pensioners and that we sold gas at cost price, which was a very much cheaper price than it is now, because of the profit margin that has been added to it?
§ Mr. Meacher
That is right, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) also ended disconnections in the winter of 1977 and, I believe, in 1978 for all pensioners. That was extremely important because it removed fear and did not lead people to turn off their heating when they most needed it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point.
It is also very disturbing that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) and I have had the greatest difficulty in obtaining information about temperatures. I put down a parliamentary question for answer yesterday, asking for the average weekly temperatures last week in all 64 areas of the country. I was not given the answer yesterday but was told in the evening, by the press office I might say, that the answer said that the information could not be given. I have now found out why. The Meteorological Office would not give the information on temperatures because it is run by, of all organisations, the Ministry of Defence. I have also since discovered that a circular has been issued forbidding 285 officials from giving any information that might be contentious, and apparently day and night temperatures come into that category.
We seem to have reached a point where the Soviet Union is more open about riots in Kazakhstan and about nuclear explosions at Chernobyl than are the British Government about temperatures in Britain. I would have thought that even a Government that abused the whole concept of national security over the Peter Wright memoirs could scarcely pretend that revealing daily temperatures endangered the safety of the realm. So I put the Minister on notice that the House expects and has a right to have weekly temperature readings in each of the 64 areas of the country, and the Ministry of Defence had better be told that now.
Not only have the Government suppressed relevant information, they have also been active in an orgy of misinformation. The Prime Minister rested her case yesterday on the claim that £400 million more was being spent on heating allowances and that at least severe weather payments are being made, which was not the case under the Labour Government. What she did not say was that Labour did not need to do that because increases in the pension were so much higher under Labour. If the Tory Government had not broken Labour's uprating link with earnings—and this is of crucial importance—the pension for a single person would now be £7.20 a week higher, every week of this year, and that for a married couple would be £11.40 a week higher, every week of this year. If we had pensions at that level today, we could simply dispense with this piffling farce of a scheme, and guarantee that pensioners had the necessary income to keep warm.
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has just stated that the Labour Government implemented pensions in a particular way. The hon. Gentleman is aware that that simply is not correct.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. I hope that hon. Members will leave it to the Chair to rule on points of order. That is not a point of order.
§ Mr. Meacher
Another thing that the Prime Minister did not say was that while her Government have increased heating allowances by £400 million—about £140 million in real terms—which I welcome, they have also, by breaking the uprating link with earnings, cut over £3,000 million from pensioners' incomes. For every £1 which pensioners have gained from higher heating allowances and exceptionally severe weather payments, they have lost £8 from the cut in the pension under this Government.
There is another thing, too, that the Prime Minister somehow did not quite manage to remember yesterday. Two years ago her Government knocked £1 a week—that is £50 a year—off the supplementary benefit of pensioners with heating allowances—not exactly the kind of policy that we would expect from someone who really cared about pensioners in the cold.
§ Mr. Meacher
The Prime Minister also said yesterday, in what I must say was the most selective misquotation of the political record that I have heard for a long time in the House, that Labour did not have a cold weather payments 286 scheme. Quite apart from the much higher pensions that we paid, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) has already made clear—
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
Pensions have increased under this Government, mathematical illiterate. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that he cannot intervene in that fashion and must not seek to do so.
§ Mr. Meacher
I suggest that the hon. Member for the "Hollering Tendency" listens for a bit. He might learn something about the true situation.
The Labour Government did provide a top-up scheme, and it was a much more generous one than this miserly exceptionally severe weather payments scheme. Under the electricity discount scheme, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield, £5 was paid automatically to all persons on supplementary benefit and family income supplement, plus 25 per cent. of the cost of the winter electricity bill in excess of £20. The Labour Government devoted £45 million to that scheme. The Tory Government are spending about £5 million.
§ Mr. Meacher
Under our scheme 4.5 million people were eligible; under this Tory scheme fewer than 2 million people are eligible, so let us have no more of the lies and claptrap about Labour, which are specifically designed to divert attention from the central fact that, according to Age Concern, 100 old people are dying in this country at this time every week.
§ Mr. Meacher
No, I will not give way.
Unless the Government go a lot further than the tiny concession forced out of them yesterday, I fear that we are on the brink of an even bigger disaster than last year Last year 1,060 elderly people died of hypothermia and another 40,000 died of bronchial pneumonia, heart attacks and strokes brought on by the extreme cold. There is nothing inevitable about this roll-call of tragic deaths. They are preventable. In Canada, in Sweden, in France, the winters are much colder than they are here normally, yet hardly any old people die of hypothermia. That is because in those countries the houses are much better insulated and pension levels are much higher, perhaps almost unbelievably to many hon. Members—and even more unbelievably to many pensioners in Britain—three times higher in Germany and France, in relation to average earnings, so pensioners can afford the fuel to keep them warm. That is why we now press the Govermment as a matter of urgency—
§ The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. Norman Fowler)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he at this stage in his argument concede that the worst year in the last decade for deaths from hypothermia was the winter of 1978–79? He will concede that fact, I hope.
§ Mr. Meacher
It is perfectly true that the number of deaths from hypothermia has been in the region of 50 and has stayed at much the same level throughout the past 10 or 20-year period, but I will say this to the Secretary of 287 State. If this scheme is not changed by the Government tonight or in the very near future, more people will die of hypothermia this year than in 1978–79.
I want to press the Government to adopt a three-point programme. First, they should announce today that they are dropping the exceptionally severe weather payments scheme, in acknowledgement of the fraud that it is, and replacing it not just for one week but for every week this winter with a £5 payment, not only to all the 1.75 million pensioners on supplementary benefit but to the I million or so on the margins of poverty, just above the supplementary benefit line. That is the only way for pensioners to be certain that they will receive payment and not be frightened into turning off or turning down the heat for fear that they will not have the money to pay for it.
The Government should do something else to provide immediate relief in these exceptionally severe conditions. There are estimated to be between 25,000 and 40,000 people homeless and sleeping rough in London at this time. The London Labour boroughs have been opening night shelters as best they can. Young people are also being turned out of lodgings into the snow because of the Government's iniquitous board and lodging regulations. The Government should today instruct London Transport to open the tube stations at the Bank, Monument and Charing Cross to provide night shelter and protection from the bitter cold for the homeless. I am advised that those stations are best equipped for such an emergency, because they cover the worst areas, have the most space and facilities and using them would cause the least disruption. Will the Secretary of State, as a matter of priority, in conjunction with the London Labour boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark, Islington and Camden, make available the facilities of the civil defence bunkers at Clapham Common, Clapham North, Clapham South and Stockwell underground stations for the immediate shelter of the homeless in inner city London? We regard immediate action as a litmus test of the Government's commitment at this time.
§ Mr. Meacher
No, I want to conclude.
I wish to refer to one other urgent matter. At present, the London borough of Greenwich is absolutely snowbound. At 9 am this morning, 100 soliders from the Royal Artillery, Woolwich, started to assist. They are using their four-wheel drive vehicles to deliver meals on wheels to the elderly and doing such vital work as getting home helps to elderly people and digging out elderly people from snowbound homes to take them to day centres to warm them up. At lunchtime today, the Ministry of Defence instructed the Army to cease all such help at 12 midnight. The borough needs to re-apply for assistance. If this is general Government policy, it is placing a bureaucratic block in the way of commonsense help which is urgently needed in this crisis. I hope very much that the Minister will give a commitment that this will not happen again. [Interruption.] This is not just about London. What happens in—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) must not persist in that fashion. It is clear that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) is not giving way.
§ Mr. Meacher
May I say to the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) that what happens in London can happen elsewhere if the Government so wish. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be more concerned about what we are proposing in London because there are many Scottish young people homeless and in need of assistance in the Metropolis.
Secondly, there is a desperate need to improve insulation and draught-proofing, starting with the homes of the most vulnerable elderly people. Research has shown that a badly insulated home costs 12 times as much to heat for every 1 deg. C drop in temperature as a well-insulated home. Britain has probably the worst insulated homes in western Europe, and the biggest sufferers are probably the elderly. At present, the insulation programme is, to say the least, fragmentary. Worse still, for the elderly, it will come to an absolute halt in a year's time when the Fowler Social Security Act halts the single payments for this purpose in April 1988.
As for the immediate crisis, the Child Poverty Action Group, Help the Aged, and four other major groups wrote to the Minister in October, I understand, pointing out the huge problems if there was a sudden drop in temperature and offering their help and experience. They received an acknowledgement and have heard nothing else since.
For several years, the Opposition have been pressing for a national insulation scheme. It would provide jobs—since, of course, it is highly labour-intensive—save energy and protect old people from the extreme cold. We believe that some priority insulation work could still be done this winter, but at least the Government should now give a commitment that throughout this next year, this programme will command funding and support to ensure that elderly people, families on low incomes with babies and sick and disabled people never again have to face the rigours of exceptionally cold weather as unprotected as they are this winter.
The third component of a programme—
§ Mr. Meacher
I am winding up.
The third component of a programme to meet this crisis is an adequate pension, and perhaps it is the most important component of all. There is no way around that. That is why Labour is committed to an immediate increase of £5 a week for single pensioners and £8 a week for married couples and committed to preserving and consolidating the state earnings-related pension scheme, which the Government want to erode and destroy, to restoring the link with earnings that the Government broke so that pensioners share in rising living standards with the rest of the community and to providing the £5 a week special winter fuel premium. Labour believes in providing decent pensions, good health and welfare services and, above all, adequate heating for pensioners who have given their working lives for this country. I submit that those policies and the Labour Government who would implement them have never been needed more than at this time.
§ 5.6 pm
§ The Minister for Social Security and the Disabled (Mr. John Major)
I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:'recognises the substantial improvement in the levels of supplementary benefit payments together with the containment of inflation, the extension and improvement of heating additions and the introduction of a statutory entitlement to cold weather payments to assest vulnerable groups; notes that these provisions are all running at record levels; and welcomes the Government's continuing commitment to provide good health and social services to the pensioners of this country'.The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) began his speech by misquoting my comments, misunderstanding the scheme and misinterpreting—deliberately, I suspect—the announcement that I made yesterday. He did not respond—it was easily noticeable to the House that he did not—to the specific question by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) about whether his winter premium scheme is or is not contained within the £3.6 billion by which the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) threatens to raise taxes. I offer the hon. Member for Oldham, West, an opportunity: is it, or is it not, contained within that £3.6 billion, which is the maximum, we are told, by which taxes will be raised? [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] The hon. Gentleman is silent.
§ Mr. Meacher
I shall gladly answer. The Government propose, as the Chancellor did in the autumn statement a month or two ago, to increase public expenditure this year by £4.5 billion. That would easily provide an extra £150 for the elderly. The Government should put the money there, not into electoral tax bribes for the better-off.
§ Mr. Major
I shall not give way. [Interruption.] I shall get on with my speech.
This morning the hon. Member for Oldham, West seemed to extend even his previous promises about the winter premium scheme. In composite 14 at the Labour party conference, it was to be for 13 weeks or so. This morning, when the hon. Gentleman conducted an interview on the "Today" programme, he seemed to commit himself for a far longer period. We shall carefully cost that extension. The fact is that the hon. Gentleman is adept at making promises which he knows he cannot keep and does not intend to keep.
The hon. Gentleman claims that he was in contact with our press office and sought certain information. I understand that he particularly sought night temperatures separately, which we have said we shall speedily provide and pass on to him. If the hon. Gentleman wishes, I shall either pass them on to him directly or via the CIA, whichever option he prefers.
§ Mr. Randall
The hon. Gentleman is not concerned about the people who are freezing, only about the money. The Government should and can find the money for these people.
§ Mr. Major
I shall come specifically to other points when I have dealt with the dross of the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West. This is a debate, and I shall talk about the problems and our practical propositions when I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
The hon. Gentleman talks of an electricity discount scheme and criticises bureaucracy at the same time. I seem to recall that that needed a vast amount of documentation to support it, with 40 to 50 specific questions, most of which included the magic words:write to the Department of Energy for information.We will come specifically to fuel prices. The hon. Gentleman may not like this, but it is a fact that since the last election domestic gas and electricity prices have fallen in real terms, gas by 7 per cent. and electricity by 10 per cent. In real terms domestic gas now costs less than it did in 1970. The hon. Gentleman may care also to bear in mind that the increase for electricity has been about 2 per cent. a year. It rose 11 times as fast when the Labour party was in power as it does today. That is something that he might usefully bear in mind.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Hon. Members should not rise when I am on my feet. Is the hon. Gentleman seeking to raise a point of order?
§ Mr. Ashton
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister is deliberately misleading the House, as the Prime Minister did yesterday. The figure since the last election—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Mr. Speaker has ruled that allegations that a Minister or any hon. Member is deliberately misleading the House are out of order. The hon. Gentleman must not say that.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman was rising to withdraw the use of the phrase "deliberately misleading". I very much hope that he will do so.
§ Mr. Ashton
I rise to seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If you ask me to withdraw those words, I shall do so, but I seek your guidance. When the Prime Minister deliberately makes a statement, as she did yesterday, and the Minister makes a statement today about what has happened since the last election, since 1979, what phrase can we use for this deliberate mis—whatever it is?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The hon. Gentleman might have made a more generous and less grudging withdrawal. I advise him to do so.
§ Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that this will clarify the matter. In a written answer—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Neither the contents of speeches nor answers to questions are matters for the Chair. If there are matters which hon. Members think should be rebutted, I hope that they will seek to do so in the course of the debate.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman must contain himself. The whole House is anxious to hear the Minister's speech. If there are matters with which hon. Members disagree, they will have the opportunity in the course of the debate to catch my eye. I hope that the Minister will be given the right to make his speech, which is the right of every hon. Member.
§ Mr. Major
It becomes noticeable, does it not, that members of Her Majesty's Opposition seem disinclined to proceed with the debate and to determine what realistically may be done to solve the special problems that exist? There are specific matters that I wish to deal with later which even the most boneheaded Member of the Opposition might conceivably find of some interest. [HON. MEMBERS: "Name him."] If hon. Members who shout "Name him" think the hon. Member may come well out of it were I to do so, I fear that I must disabuse them.
We are having this debate today because yesterday the Leader of the Opposition changed his mind and changed the business of the House for today. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of the issue. Because of its importance, it was decided that we would have the debate today. It is interesting to note that the debate which he previously had in mind was to be on the economic crisis which the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook keeps inventing, but that has been postponed. The crisis is off for today. It can apparently wait to be reinvented at a later date. Like Bunter's postal order, the crisis never comes, however much Bunter promises.
§ Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe that when the Minister referred to a boneheaded Member he must have meant me, as I am surely the boniest-headed Member in the Chamber. If that is the case, he ought to give way. He should answer the point that I make, which is that he has got his statistics wrong.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Hon. Members must not use bogus points of order to make the intervention that is otherwise denied them.
§ Mr. Major
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on becoming spokesman for the arts, an appointment which the whole House 292 welcomes. I accept that the hon. Gentleman has much more inside his head than on top of it. For that reason, if for none other, I shall give way to him.
§ Mr. Fisher
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am sure he is aware of his Government's statistics. In answer to a written question by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald), the Under-Secretary of State for Energy explained clearly to the House that gas prices had risen in current terms by 124 per cent. since 1979. Will the Minister explain that?
§ Mr. Major
The hon. Lady has a delightful dulcet tone. I think that it would be more to the general agreement of the House if she were to rise in her place later and utter then rather than now. If, upon reflection, when I have studied the record in Hansard, I find that I inadvertently misled the House, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and willingly acknowledge that fact.
In changing the business, the Leader of the Opposition was doubtless anxious to demonstrate the concern of the Labour party over the difficulties that the elderly face during this extreme weather. They do face problems. I propose to address those problems directly in a moment.
I would have been more impressed with the right hon. Gentleman's concern had his record in this issue not been so clear. We know that he supported the year-long miners' strike and a series of other industrial disputes without one peep on behalf of those who were suffering, whether the elderly, the sick, the disabled or whoever else. I might have accepted his concern even more if during those disputes he had bombarded the House, including the Order Paper, with questions that reflected his concern for the vulnerable. The fact remains, however, that he supported the miners' strike. He showed no public concern for the elderly whatsoever during a winter of savage industrial disruption. We know now the depths of his concern. The elderly come first after his support for militancy, his self-interest and the Labour party. That is the position of the elderly. They are to be the shock troops in the right hon. Gentleman's campaign on behalf of the Labour party and second to every interest of his own.
I turn specifically to the matter which, for the Government at least, is of prime concern.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
The Minister has spoken for 14 minutes before reaching the main topic.
§ Mr. Major
The hon. Gentleman may have lunched well if not wisely. If he wishes me speedily to proceed to the issues, perhaps he will permit me to do so. Perhaps the most vulnerable of all members of society are the elderly who live on their own. I shall address myself specifically to the social security benefits that are available to them, but there is—[Interruption.] The silence of the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and others might be appreciated by many more hon. Members than myself.
Whatever social service and social security help is available—and it is substantial—many vulnerable people are often proud, independent and determined to manage on their own. They are disinclined to bother others even though they may often need help, whomsoever may be involved. I hope that in these unprecedented weather 293 conditions others who are fit and healthy will unobtrusively keep an eye on their vulnerable neighbours and offer help, or call for statutory help if that is needed.
§ Mr. Major
I shall come to that. Such action will be increasingly valuable and may avoid unnecessary hardship or tragedy, and would be utterly in keeping with the longstanding tradition of community care in Britain.
This morning one national newspaper—Today—printed a poster bill for the housebound to place in their windows should it be necessary to do so. I believe that the newspaper will continue to do that, and I welcome the initiative. It is a simple and excellent illustration of what can be done and I hope that everyone, even those Opposition Members who seem to have nothing more on their minds than to scream mindless abuse at me, will be alert to the needs of their neighbours during this severe winter weather.
§ Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)
I endorse entirely what the Minister has said about the admirable act which Today and some other newspapers have performed in printing a poster for the housebound. If old people take the notice and stick it in their windows, if neighbours respond, as I hope that they will, and if the old people say, "It is all very well for you to come here, but I am afraid to turn on my heating because I cannot afford the bill that will ensure", what will the Government's response be to the bills that appear in old people's windows?
§ Mr. Major
It is clear that the right hon. Gentleman did not hear what I said yesterday and on other occasions. We are determined that the elderly should keep warm during this extremely cold spell. That is why all the three tiers of help for heating, whether supplementary benefit, heating additions, or the new statutory entitlement to cold weather payments, have been improved in real terms during the Government's lifetime. The right hon. Gentleman cannot duck that.
§ Mr. Major
I make no apologies for drawing the importance of neighbourhood help in these extreme weather conditions to the attention of the House. Whatever social security and social service assistance there is—and it is substantial—there are those who are left alone and who, through their own pride and independence, may miss the help that is available. I have suggested that their neighbours should ensure that where necessary help is directed to them.
The main focus of concern—
§ Mr. Major
Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), are anxious that I should make progress, and that is what I propose to do for a moment or two.
It is clear that the main focus of concern is the system of special payments at times of exceptionally cold weather. I make no apologies for reminding the House—not for the first time—that they have always been only one part, and a small part, of a substantial overall network of financial support. The primary help for those on supplementary benefit for heating is through the regular supplementary benefit weekly payments. These payments are made to cover normal living expenses, including heating costs.
Further, there is a substantial system of heating additions. Extra money is paid each week throughout the year to those with special heating needs.
§ Mr. Wareing
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister referred in a derogatory way to an Opposition Member. The hon. Gentleman pointed in my direction and I have a feeling that he was pointing at me. I wished to ask him whether he would restore the heating additions, or whether he would take them away from the available scale margin under which he introduced them just a couple of years ago.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I have already made it clear to the House that I deprecate bogus points of order being used as masks for interventions which hon. Members desire to make but have been denied the opportunity to do so.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman must not persist in this fashion. He knows that if the Minister or any other hon. Member chooses not to give way, he should not persist in seeking to intervene. I hope that he will bear that in mind.
§ Mr. Major
The House will be surprised that the specific increases in heating additions did not form a material part of the remarks of the hon. Member for Oldham, West. Apparently he overlooked them. Nor did he mention that the latest figures show that nine tenths of pensioners on supplementary benefit receive a heating addition, compared with only about 70 per cent. during the period of the Labour Government. He did not mention also that there had been a significant increase in the value of the payments after taking account of inflation, an increase well above anything that was provided by any previous Government. We are bound to wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is misinformed, or is seeking to misinform, when he lays charges before the House of the sort that we have heard today.
Regular help with heating costs is now over £400 a year for the average pensioner aged 65, and over £600 for the very elderly who are over 85 and for the severely disabled. The scale of that help is in sharp contrast to the impression given by the hon. Member for Oldham, West, and is notably more comprehensive than anything provided when the hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the Department.
That is not all. The help that I have already outlined will enable people to meet their fuel bills and to keep warm. The help is there throughout the year and is paid weekly, winter and summer. However, we recognise that people look for extra help when the weather is particularly savage.
§ Mr. Major
That is why we placed the severe weather payments on a clear statutory basis, with a known entitlement. I must make it clear to the House that such arrangements have always been intended to deal with exceptional weather conditions to provide extra reassurance to people so that they turn their heating up at times of maximum cold.
§ Mr. Rees
As we are dealing with realities, I advise the Minister that an old-age pensioner, from the part of Leeds that I represent, gave advice to other pensioners on the radio today. Feelings are running high and he said, "I do not intend to die because of the cold. I am going to have my heating on and, if needs be, I will go to gaol." That was heard throughout the country.
Although not strictly relevant to that point, I should like to ask the Minister whether, before the debate ends, he will arrange for an official from the Department of Energy to come to the House. Whatever the scheme, some old-age pensioners will have on only one bar and they will not have the heating on overnight because they are afraid of the bill that will come later. Despite the £5 allowance that was announced, we must do something more. Officials from the Department of Energy must talk to the gas people, the electricity people and others. The bad weather may last for only a fortnight, but old people are cold in my area and in others, and we must do something to help them.
§ Mr. Major
We have heard the right hon. Gentleman mention the comments of those who are worried about their personal position. I reiterate the assurance that I sought to give in the past. In these savage and unprecedented weather conditions, we wish to ensure that people keep their heating on and that they keep warm. I hope that there is no doubt about that.
§ Mr. Major
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish. Most people pay their heating bills at the end of a quarter. The sum total of the quarter's bill is presented to them at the end of the 13-week period. Many people may not have borne in mind the fact that December 1986 was almost the mildest December since records have been kept. They may well find that they used less fuel that month than they previously would have budgeted for.
In any event, the Leader of the Opposition, who is more the leader of the yobbo tendency today than of anything else, might do well to set a better example to this Back Benchers if he does not want the true spirit of the Labour party to be too well known outside the House.
§ Mr. Kinnock
The Minister has been speaking for 27 minutes. There are people dying in this country, and people who are cold and poor, but all that the hon. Gentleman has done is to make inferior debating society points. He plainly does not give a damn. He should either get down to the issue, or sit down and let people speak who know about the issue.
§ Mr. Major
As it happens, I have spent most of the 27 minutes listening to inane fifth-form interventions such as that one. While the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues try to spread fear and despondency, we are trying to reassure people that they should keep their heating on, and that is what we shall continue to do. I made that absolutely clear yesterday. Even the right hon. Gentleman should have understood, because I told him often enough, that people should keep their heating on and keep warm. I made it equally clear yesterday that in these circumstances the trigger point will overwhelmingly be reached this week, but even if it is not reached in some areas, payment will be made.
We have taken immediate action to alert local and regional offices to that statement and to our intention to make that payment. We are placing advertisements in the national press tomorrow, if space can be found, or on Friday if it cannot. All 45 local radio stations in Britain and Northern Ireland will carry commercials advertising those payments, seven times a day from tomorrow. Local offices have been asked to advertise through the local press as quickly as possible and to make the new leaflets, now being distributed, available in their areas. Both the advertisements and the leaflets contain simple claim forms so that people can obtain the payment.
§ Mr. Major
We have been especially concerned with the immediate plight of those who find themselves without any shelter at all during these appalling weather conditions. In addition to what I shall say about that, I give an undertaking to the hon. Member for Oldham, West that we shall look carefully and speedily at the specific suggestions that he made to deal with that problem.
§ Mr. Major
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will wait a moment. We have already been in touch with the major voluntary organisations and are actively helping to coordinate the practical aid. I applaud their efforts, and I am glad to say that we have also been able to offer additional funds to enable them to expand their range of activities and to act more rapidly. We have, in effect, agreed to underwrite their additional expenses for the "crisis intervention" work that they are doing during this period of extremely savage weather.
§ Mr. Major
Their efforts, and ours, are being coordinated by Crisis at Christmas. By today, several new night shelters will have been opened in London, offering sleep, shelter and food to people who need it. Some people may choose not to go into shelters or hostels even in the present conditions, because that, alas, is their culture. The voluntary organisations are continuing their excellent work in going out to those people and offering what help they can. We are prepared to back those efforts, and we are actively exploring other ways in which we might help. There is space in several resettlement units and in Salvation Army units. I am delighted that the Bishop of London has asked many parish priests to open their church halls while the savage weather continues. Those are helpful and useful initiatives and I hope that homeless people will take advantage of them.
§ Mr. Dobson
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I welcome the measures that he has announced. I welcome also the efforts which the churches, borough councils and charities are making. However, the Minister should remember that the 6,000 homeless people who live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in London, and the 20,000 people who are sleeping rough, did not come down with the snow and that they will not go away when it melts. We need to stop the unemployment that has made them homeless. We need money to build houses so that those people have somewhere decent to live, and we need decent levels of benefit so that they can be looked after in the interim. That crisis continues and does not exist only in periods of bad weather.
§ Mr. Major
If the right hon. Gentleman introduced a scheme, I am sure that he will catch Mr. Speaker's eye and be able to elaborate on that.
Earlier today the hon. Member for Oldham, West apparently advocated a nationwide insulation scheme. He did not say whether he had costed his plan or what it would be. He did not say whether it was agreed with his right hon. Friend the Shadow Chancellor, or whether it 298 was genuine or another gimmick. However, whatever it may be, I must say that we have been promoting voluntary insulating projects for years. In 1980 the total number of such projects was under half a dozen. Expansion since then has been dramatic. There were 200 in 1984, there are some 360 now and many more are at the planning stage. As a result of the project, the home conditions of over 200,000 on low incomes have been made more comfortable and the total cost to public funds for the voluntary work is often funded through the public sector, in spite of what the Leader of the Opposition may have muttered. The total cost to public funds now amounts to over £30 million a year.
Even earlier today, at breakfast time, we heard yet again about the plan of the hon. Member for Oldham, West for a £5 winter premium. However, despite repeated challenges as to where the money will come from, there has been no answer.
There is one further critical factor in ensuring that people are kept warm—the price of fuel. Whatever reflection I may subsequently make upon the statistics challenged by the hon. Member for Oldham, West, it is undoubtedly true that the level of inflation in fuel prices during the period of the previous Labour Government was infinitely higher than anything that has occurred subsequently. The Opposition's effrontery in tabling the motion before us today is absolutely breathtaking.
There are three tiers of support for heating. First, there is supplementary benefit, where the levels have been increased. Secondly, there are heating additions, where the levels have also been increased, the number of people entitled has been extended and it has been made a statutory weekly payment. Thirdly, of course, there is the exceptionally severe weather payment, which has also been put on a statutory basis.
We have substantially eliminated fuel inflation and we have expanded the insulation project. The value of pensions, despite the hon. Member for Oldham, West's extremely perverse statistics, has been increased and inflation has been contained. I am content to let our substantial record of practical help stand against the repeated uncosted promises of the Opposition. Their fine words and promises will keep no one warm. Our record of practical assistance throughout the benefits system and in the other policies that I have outlined will keep people warm. I invite the House to endorse all that and to reject the Opposition's motion.
§ Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)
I do not think that many of the pensioners and those on low incomes and supplementary benefit who are in the qualifying categories for exceptionally severe weather payments can take much comfort from the supposed assault launched by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) or, more to the point—as he is the individual in the position to take the decisions—from the Minister's apparently complacent attitude. Given the scale of the problem we read about in our newpapers, see each night on our television screens and hear about daily from our constituents, how any Minister can say he is content defies belief.
I welcome one aspect of the Minister's speech. During the latter part of his remarks, he announced the efforts that he is making on homelessness. Such efforts are essential. I should like to make an additional suggestion. 299 There has been considerable debate, especially within London since the abolition of the Greater London council, as to how the voluntary organisations will fare. It might be worth the Department's time to make available a civil servant, or several civil servants, to look at how co-operation operates between the Department and the voluntary sector in a major crisis such as this. There may be useful lessons to be learnt, not just for the Government and the voluntary sector, but for all those who are interested or have expressed concern about how the pattern of care might emerge after the disappearance of the GLC. It may be that some practical and academic information will come from such an exercise.
§ The Minister for Health (Mr. Tony Newton)
As my hon. Friend the Minister said, our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State had a meeting this morning with some voluntary organisations. That meeting led to some of the remarks that my hon. Friend the Minister has just made. One of the conclusions reached was that we wish to carry forward this work after the immediate problem is solved to see how we can ensure proper co-ordination in the future.
§ Mr. Kennedy
I am glad to hear that. However, with a slip of the tongue, the Minister may have given part of the game away. Now that there is an emergency we realise that it is worth ensuring a proper system in the future. Surely that suggests that the system is not adequate at present. To be fair, that has to be set in the context of many of the assurances given especially by the Minister's noble Friend who was a Home Office Minister in the other place, as to the future of the voluntary sector in the post-GLC age. I welcome what the Minister is saying but I think that it highlights a deficiency in many of the assurances that Ministers were willing to give to those who inquired about this matter some time ago.
Heating is not a luxury, and, sadly, each winter elderly people die simply because they cannot afford to heat their homes. This debate is an opportunity for the House to contribute its thoughts on how such unnecessary and cruel deaths can be prevented. I believe that there is much that the Government can and should do to help, beyond what they are offering already.
I would argue, as do my right hon. and hon. Friends in our amendment, that the categories entitled to severe weather payments should be extended. The present categories are too restrictive. What about the old people whose income is just above supplementary benefit level or families on supplementary benefit with young children over two years old? Clearly, those are two obvious areas to which the Government should be looking, even under the constraints of the present system. I reiterate that we consider it an unsatisfactory system. Even within those constraints the Government could do more to widen the net of eligibility for some of the poorest in our community. How are such people to pay for their extra heating? I do not think that the Minister suggests that they can do without it.
The problem of eligibility is closely related to the position of the DHSS staff and offices in administering the scheme. We all know that one of the trenchant and fair criticisms of the previous system was the complexity and what was seen as the manifest injustice that went with that 300 complexity. The Government have now opted for a flat rate or standard measure so that payment becomes automatic to all those who meet the qualifying criteria.
The basic problem is that the trigger temperature of minus 1.5 deg C, which is an unsatisfactory measure in itself, is inadequate. Many of the elderly, as we know, live in houses that are poorly insulated and cold and the temperature in that sort of home begins to plummet well before an average of minus 1.5 deg C is reached and certainly before such a temperature, by the grace of God beginning on Sunday and ending on the following Monday, is reached.
We have suggested in our amendment that it would be more sensible, if perhaps not ideal, for the Government to take zero deg C as the trigger. More important than that, instead of using the average temperature measured over the seven days from a Monday to the following Sunday, which is too inflexible—a fairer system based on zero deg C would be to use an average of the trigger point on any consecutive seven days. If bad weather sets in on a Wednesday and begins to lift the following Wednesday, because that bad weather came on the wrong days of the week no claim could be made. Under our proposal a claim would be eligible.
Thirdly, a further criticism of the system is the fact that many in Britain, I would estimate tens of thousands, who are eligible to receive the £5 benefit that the Minister announced yesterday, must be labouring under the misapprehension that such payment will be automatic. It will not be automatic. It is worth underlining in this debate that although, by ministerial discretion, they are now eligible, they still have to make their claim to the local office. It will still take time for the money to come through and there will still be, for many, a great deal of indecision about exactly what they should do.
In my part of the country, which is rural with a widely scattered population, it is not easy, particularly for the housebound elderly, to contact the local DHSS office. It is not easy for them to make a specific claim. That is one reason, among many, why we suggest that this scheme would be a lot more efficient and effective if it were made clear when payment was to be made so that those who should receive it know that payment will come automatically without a special claim to the DHSS.
I refuse to believe that it is beyond the bureaucratic wit of man to devise a system that gives effect to that practical policy. I hope that the Government—I repeat again, within the constraints of the present system—will look at the suggestions and try to take them on board.
A fourth point about the present system concerns the selection of the monitoring stations to decide when an average temperature of minus 1.5 deg C over the allotted days is reached.
I speak in particular about the north of Scotland, being geographically the part of the country that I know best. The Government have selected, for example, in the north of Scotland area, monitoring stations at Dyce, Kinloss and at Leuchars. Braemar, for example, comes within the remit of the area of the Dyce monitoring station. Last week, the temperature at Braemar reached minus 18 deg C. Aviemore comes within the monitoring station covered by Kinloss measuring point. Last week, the temperature at Aviemore reached minus 16 deg C. The Earn valley comes within the area covered by the Leuchars monitoring station. Last week the temperature in the Earn valley reached minus 11 deg C.
301 Those are horrendously cold temperatures. Not one payment was made in any of those areas, because on each and every occasion, despite the severity of the temperature in the communities mentioned—plenty of other examples could be cited—the stations being sited on the coast, or nearer the coast than other available monitoring stations in that part of Scotland, do not give such an accurate reading of the temperature further inland.
It is significant—I direct the Minister's attention to this—that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) mentioned that Eskdalemuir had been the only part of the country where the special payment was triggered under the scheme as originally constituted, leaving aside the Minister's special intervention yesterday. That is because, of the monitoring stations in Scotland, Eskdalemuir is the most inland and therefore gives the most accurate information on the severity of the temperature, the other stations in Scotland are coastal and do not give such an accurate reading.
The Minister should be aware that monitoring stations that would be sufficient for his Department's purposes are available in two of the three examples that I gave where severe temperature was experienced. Braemar and Aviemore have adequate measuring facilities for temperature, but strangely those have not been selected. I am sure that that was purely a bureaucratic decision. They would have triggered payments this week or last week but they were not selected.
In the north of Scotland we are not getting an accurate picture, because the stations are in the wrong place for measuring accurately the severity of the temperature throughout that part of the land mass. It would not take a great deal for the Government to redesignate those stations to try to obtain a better picture if they want the system to operate more efficiently, as the Minister tells us is his desire.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
This arises in many areas. Anglesey, island in the sun, is the triggering point for the whole of Snowdonia. Even worse, the point in Trawsfynydd is near to a nuclear power station and is regarded as being 4 deg. warmer than the surrounding country. That looks after the other half of Snowdonia.
§ Mr. Kennedy
I hope that not just the Celtic representatives in this House are being abused by the system, but I understand from television that there are as many anomalies in other parts and regions of England. The fact that the English are having to share our misery is, whilst I do not welcome it, a source of further pressure to bear on the Minister and I hope that he will take practical steps to improve the situation.
§ Mr. Alexander Pollock (Moray)
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the temperature for Aviemore and the reading required from Kinloss. I think that the figure he gave for Aviemore was minus 16 deg. C. Can he give us the relevant figure at Kinloss at that time?
§ Mr. Kennedy
I do not have the specific figure, but, according to the North of Scotland Electricity Consultative Council, the average temperature for the seven-day monitoring period at Kinloss was more than minus 1.5 deg C. I seem to recall that it was slightly above zero.
§ Mr. Kennedy
I did not mean to get into a debate about RAF Kinloss, but I shall give way. I think that that does show the degree of discrepancy.
§ Mr. Kennedy
I am afraid that this morning's Glasgow Herald has not made its way to my office.
I spoke to the North of Scotland Electricity Consultative Council earlier today and I was interested by a point that was made about the Secretary of State's failure to answer correspondence. I was told that on 16 October 1986, Christine Davies, who is the chairman of the council, wrote to the Secretary of State drawing his attention to the anomalies that she and the council expected to arise from the proposed new system that the Government were to introduce because coastal points were to be used as the measuring criteria. She has not had a reply to that letter, although I think that it is fairly clear that more careful attention to her predictions should have been paid within the Department.
It is also fair for people in the north of Scotland to feel a growing sense of outrage since 3,000 units of electricity per year is the average consumption for a family in England and Wales, and in excess of 6,000 units per year is the average consumption for a family in the north of Scotland. There is a considerable interest in the matter. It is highly relevant to people and I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind.
I have already said that people must claim payments, even the special payment which the Minister announced yesterday. That will put pressure on DHSS staff and resources. Before the Christmas recess the Minister gave me a set of written answers which showed the alarming percentage increase in claimants, for example in my part of the country, and that was set against a far smaller increase in the staff available to deal with them. If I recall rightly, it was of the order of 10:1.
There will be a repeat performance of what has happened in recent years under the scheme, even under its previous organisation. Delay, frustration and resentment will build up among DHSS staff and clients. I appreciate that the Minister wanted fairness and so went for a nationally uniform system. But that has been seen to be defective and it sits oddly alongside the entire thrust of the social security proposals, which is to go for local discretion. If there is one area of the social security system where an element of local discretion would make sense, it is in deciding what level of special heating support should be given to people when the local officer can make judgments based on the realities of the local climate which will differ from one area to another. The Government seem to spend all their time putting through the social security reviews saying that local discretion is essential. Then in the one area where it might make sense to have an additional top-up formula so that people can be rewarded disproportionately well, in the most severely affected areas they say that there should be no such thing as local discretion. That is not being true to their rhetoric or to the reality of what they have been doing in the bulk of social security legislation. I cannot understand the apparent lack of common sense in this area.
As we say in our amendment, in the longer term more must be done to obtain a national insulation programme. Many imaginative efforts are already being made in 303 Britain involving co-operation between the DHSS, local charities and, sometimes, the housing sector in providing draught-proofing and insulation, particularly targeted at those on the lowest incomes who, in many cases, are pensioners. More could be done to assist given that that has such beneficial effects in terms of saving fuel and such worthwhile effects in terms of keeping people's homes warmer and leaving them more of their disposable income to do with as they please. At the same time, it puts people back to work. As the hon. Member for Oldham, West fairly pointed out, the work is labour intensive and, my goodness, we need a few socially desirable and labour intensive schemes in Britain at the moment. We should make strenous efforts in that direction.
In the longer term, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have argued on other occasions, we want to see the integration of the tax and benefit system which would provide the opportunity for the introduction of a basic benefit with additional top-up credits, be they on housing, heating or whatever, which will be simple to adminster and which will meet need much more effectively, fairly and efficiently than the present labyrinthine social security system.
What we have seen in Britain in recent weeks, and what, if the severe weather persists we shall continue to experience, has been a disgrace. It has been a disgrace, perhaps more than anything else, because for the past two years there has been an annual parliamentary shambles. It has been an annual suffereance for those who are cold and who do not have sufficient money to heat their homes. Yet again, we have failed to get it right. We are debating the issue now and it is right that we should, yet steps should have been taken to correct it.
Those are some positive suggestions, and it is not too late for the Government to respond more positively at the end of the debate and with a good deal less complacency than the Minister displayed when he opened the debate. If they can do that, they will be doing a good service to some of the most vulnerable in society whom the House, as much as the Government, should protect.
§ 6.4 pm
§ Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
The Opposition, who live in a fantasy world most of the time, have been trying to tread the Westminster stage this afternoon arrayed as a composite mixture of Oliver Twist, Tiny Tim and little Nell's grandfather. Their lines, with much ranting, raving and noises off, have sought to portray my hon. Friend the Minister as Scrooge, or worse. I have to tell them that the play will not run. Neither the facts nor the costumes fit and their acting is terrible.
It is not so much that the Opposition forget their lines as that they forget what they did when they had the chance to act. There is not the remotest resemblance between what they have asked our Government to do this afternoon and what they did when in office.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) gave the debate what I believe is called in the trade a puff on the "Today" programme on Radio 4 this morning. One would marvel at the height of his flights of fancy except that one always knows that he will indulge in them. He can explode to numbers; he rants to order. Because of that, he is one of the most predictable Members of the House.
304 This morning the hon. Gentleman told the nation that the Government had asked the weather centre to give them a trigger temperature at which the least number of people possible would be paid severe weather payments. One sees what I mean about living in a fantasy world. There is not one word of truth in that allegation.
§ Dame Jill Knight
Of course it is fantasy. I have said that there is not a word of truth in the allegation that the Government asked the weather centre to tell them the trigger temperature which would enable them to pay the least possible amount of money to people in need.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West said—he said it again this afternoon, although I notice that he did not dare to repeat his other allegation—that there should be a £5 a week allowance for everyone on supplementary benefit throughout the winter to cope with severe weather. I am not sure what "throughout the winter" means. Is it from November to March? But the fact that we sometimes experience quite balmy winters has apparently not registered with the hon. Gentleman. The fact that we often have two or three bad days a winter means nothing. He would still go on pushing out millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, whether or not the need existed.
If ever, Lord help us, the hon. Gentleman were to be the Minister instead of the shadow Minister, the newspapers would have a field day. I must warn him about that. There would be pictures of pensioners basking in deck chairs on a Cornish beach having used their severe weather payment to buy their railway ticket down on a mild and sunny day.
One of the differences between the Conservative party and the Labour party is that we believe that special generous help should be made available for those who need it when especially serious conditions exist. The Labour party believes that money should be doled out with no need established, whether it is bad weather or not or whether people need it or not.
Any Government with such principles cannot possibly give enough real help to those in real need, because they are too busy spending public money in the areas where real need does not exist. Such a Government would face economic disaster. It may be time to say that no Government, however big their heart and however oppulent their spending, will ever be able to shield every citizen from every adversity from the womb to the tomb.
If I may return to the remarks made on radio this morning by the hon. Member for Oldham, West—hon. Members should not draw the conclusion that I enjoyed his comments—he said that the Conservative Government were unwilling to spend any money on social security, preferring instead to give it away to the rich in tax cuts. This year the Conservative Government are spending £43 billion on social security—30 per cent. of public expenditure. If that is considered to be unwilling, Lord help us if we ever get a Government as willing as Barkis. The Government are spending £43 billion, yet the hon. Gentleman is saying that that shows that the Government are unwilling to spend money. The hon. Gentleman should 305 understand that there is all the difference in the world between deciding how to allocate all the billions of pounds that the Inland Revenue collects in taxes from everyone and taking further money away from those who have already paid large sums to the Inland Revenue.
The Government give absolutely nothing to the rich, and that is right. Despite what Opposition Members may keep on saying, the Government do not use the collected revenue to give to the rich. That is absolute nonsense. Not one brass farthing of Government money goes to the rich. The Government take from them. The Opposition are rather like a burglar who claims that he has given his victims everything that he has not stolen. Allowing people to keep a little more of the money that they have earned is not giving them a single thing. The hon. Member for Oldham, West is not so much economical with the truth as incompatible with it.
The Government have shown great concern about these payments, both yesterday and today, and rightly so. Many of us, from both sides of the House, were pushing for that and indeed the Government have shown their concern to help the old and the cold. The new arrangements, which were announced yesterday, were clearly and swiftly made to meet the sudden severe situation that has cropped up in the past few days. No one wants elderly people to be cold. No one wants them to be afraid to turn up the heat because they are worried about the high cost of fuel. That would be disastrous, and there has been a unanimity of concern about that in the House.
The Government have seen to it that needy people should get automatic help with ordinary heating costs. Those on the basic rate for heating addition get over £8 a week regularly and the more needy still—in line with what I have said—get over £11 a week. The announcement yesterday was for a new increase for everyone, as of right, in need.
§ Dame Jill Knight
Yes; it is on top of those arrangements to which I have already alluded, and it will cover the three tiers of benefits.
When the exceptionally cold weather occurred, it was the Government and not the Opposition who introduced special extra payments. It was a new conception of benefit, but it was not surprising that we did not get it right the first time as there are tremendous variations. The hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) has already referred to the difficulties in measuring different temperatures. There are enormous variations with regard to benefit payments for the needy; we are aware that it is one of the most complicated areas of Government finance.
The calculation of benefit for help in especially severe weather conditions is a complicated part of the complicated benefit payments. There are variations in different parts of the country—freak weather in one area that brings with it serious conditions while someone a few miles down the road does not experience the same weather. The different ages of people represent different threats. The different conditions within people's homes will also further complicate things. Some people may suffer problems that do not affect their next-door neighbour.
Yesterday there was a swift response to a special situation and an acknowledgement that changes were 306 needed. I am especially pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has understood the need to reassure old people frightened about their ability to pay for the heat upon which their lives may depend. I was interested in what my right hon. Friend said about neighbours. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to recognise that it is not only a question of demanding or suggesting that a neighbour may be a very good friend at this time of special need? Perhaps there should be some recognition of the fact that so many neighbours have already helped, and that is very important. The Government are always willing to help, but they cannot replace a kind neighbour who may bring a hot drink or an extra blanket, make a thoughtful visit or offer to do the shopping. A lot of such neighbourliness is already going on, and we should recognise that.
I wonder at the decision of the Opposition to choose to mount a debate on this subject when their own record is so incredibly vulnerable. Our record has demonstrated our concern and our determination to help those in need. I am sure that nobody on the Conservative Benches would suggest that we have got it absolutely right.
§ Mr. Maclean
My hon. Friend asked why the Opposition mounted this debate. It was a mistake. They intended to create a lot of synthetic froth about the fact that probably we would not make the extra payment, but when we did it was too late for them to cancel the debate.
§ Dame Jill Knight
That may well be right. It is a further illustration of the Labour party's inability to judge anything right.
I support the suggestion about insulation. I know that a lot is being done to achieve that, and it is important to press on.
Later in the programme in which the hon. Member for Oldham, West spoke there was an appalling item about a couple in a terrible state whose boiler had burst. The old man had had a cancer operation and his wife was desperately worried about the burst and they sought help by telephoning the council. The answer they got from the council—I bet it was a Labour-controlled one—was that the office was shut and that nothing could be done. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will consider that salutary message.
I do not wish my right hon. Friend to dictate to local councils, but, in these exceptional weather conditions, official help should be available at once when a boiler has burst, and especially when elderly or sick people are involved. It is appalling for a council to say that the office is shut and that therefore it cannot help. Let us not have that lack of help and care. The Government have amply shown this afternoon that they care.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
I shall not follow the hon. Lady the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) down some of the byways that she has entered. I believe that the people who are affected by the cold weather want to know whether the House is able to secure an improvement in their position.
I shall not be discussing the important points about what should be the exact temperature, over how many days that temperature should be measured, and exactly how that information should be handled. I want to put 307 before the House a proposition that I first put to the House 10 years ago when I was the Secretary of State for Energy. It was the objective of our energy policy thateveryone can afford adequate heat and light at home.That was in the energy policy Green Paper which was published in 1977.
§ Mr. Benn
No, I shall not give way. I have listened to the interventions of Conservative Members and I am not persuaded that they are concerned about those who are cold. Let me develop my argument.
I shall put before the House an idea that is so simple that it may surprise some: that it is a human right to be warm and not to be driven by poverty into dying of cold. That is the issue that we should have in our minds when discussing this question. We are talking about real people. I am sure that other hon. Members try to be as conscientious about their constituents as I try to be. In the past few days in particular I have had continual contact with people who are desperately worried that they will die of cold. Pensioners more than anyone else do not want to run into debt, and until they know where they are they will not even turn on the heat.
The figure for death from hypothermia varies by 50 to 100 every year, but we know that it is about 800 or 900. However, that total depends on the doctor putting hypothermia on the death certificate. The surveys done by Age Concern, however, show that 44,000 more pensioners die in the winter months than in the summer months. Moreover, 13,000 of them die in the weeks when the weather is coldest. Others have estimated that one in 10 pensioners, or almost I million people, are at risk, perhaps not of dying from hypothermia but of suffering from it. They have to go through the winter cold and are unable to live any sort of life, huddled in bed under a blanket or whatever.
I do not want the debate to revolve simply around how many pensioners should be catered for. No one should be driven into cold and poverty in the winter. Many other people are also involved. The homeless have already been mentioned and I heard discussion of that on the radio. There are poor people in housing that is so badly maintained that the draughts mean that the temperature in them is probably much lower than that at the local weather station. Yesterday I came across the case of some young unemployed people who had been turned out of their lodgings because of the harsh DHSS board and lodging allowance scheme, and who had been driven into the snow as a result of the regulations introduced by the Minister.
Unless we are prepared to discuss the objectives that should be adopted, we shall be in serious difficulties. I do not want to engage in any tit for tat, as pensioners do not want to listen to that. I believe that this crisis is not just the result of this week's very cold weather but is the culmination of a series of policies pursued by the Government since coming to office.
For example, there was the decision to force up fuel prices. There is a lot of talk about statistics, but I do not want to go into them. Nevertheless, it is manifest that gas prices have increased by 134.7 per cent. as against 90 per cent. for all items since the Prime Minister took office. That is partly due to the Treasury's policy of limiting the 308 external financing limit, or what used to be called the required rate of return, in order to boost the profits of British Gas before selling it off. Without being crude about it, I must say that those who have made a capital gain during the past few weeks by buying British Gas shares have thereby made it harder for poor pensioners to turn on the gas. That connection between the privatisation of British Gas and death from hypothermia must be made. I do not follow these matters in detail, but I believe that the cost of privatisation in terms of City charges was about £150 million to £160 million.
My next point is obvious. During the past two years the big pit closure programme has laid off miners who wanted to dig coal that could have been given free to pensioners in the form of electricity. We would not then have had unemployed miners side by side with people dying of hypothermia. Without doubt the miners' case was absolutely right.
§ Mr. Benn
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I am trying to draw the attention of the House and, I hope, the attention of those who read Hansard to some of the contributory factors to fuel poverty.
Reference has already been made to the change in pension arrangements and to the abandonment of the 25 per cent. winter discount scheme. It is of no interest to anyone if an ex-Minister wants to defend his record years later. However, I cut 25 per cent. off the winter electricity bills of all those—not just pensioners—on supplementary benefit and family income supplement, regardless of the weather, and it gave people the certainty that they would not freeze to death in the winter. I was not satisfied with that electricity discount scheme and would have liked to do more, but it was the best scheme ever. The Government stopped it and they should restart it.
§ Mr. Benn
I shall complete my speech, as I am not persuaded that Conservative Members are addressing themselves to the problems that their policies have contributed to.
My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) was my Under-Secretary of State when we negotiated hard with the public corporations to stop all supply disconnections of pensioners during the winter and to refer them to the DHSS, where discretionary payments were possible. It should be unthinkable that people can be cut off in the winter for failing to pay their fuel bills.
I tried to intervene and to get a clear answer from the Minister on that important point. He said that he thought that no one should put his health at risk during the cold weather. Perhaps the Minister will answer my point later tonight, as I want to know whether people who fear for their lives and their health and who use fuel in their homes will be disconnected if they cannot pay their bills. I want an absolutely clear assurance that they will not be disconnected if they cannot pay their bills, or prosecuted if they can establish that they could not afford the fuel that they needed to maintain their lives.
§ Mr. Winnick
Is not that point very important for those who are just above the supplementary benefit level and who live in great poverty? They cannot claim supplementary benefit and do not receive a penny of extra assistance because of the winter weather. What will happen to them? When the Minister made his totally irrelevant speech, he made no mention of that problem.
§ Mr. Benn
That is one of the difficulties of having such a rigid system. The Government may talk about giving £5 a week automatically. But they could set the temperature at minus 20 deg and offer people £100,000 a week while saying that it was the best scheme ever. The Government have set the temperature at a low level and made the conditions tough. Friends of mine who work in the DHSS have told me that they think that if this scheme had operated last winter no money would have been paid. The DHSS is under a lot of pressure because of manpower cuts, yet it is asked to make assessments. Moreover, applications have to be sent in every week. Thus a pensioner aged over 65 on supplementary benefit must write once a week, having first studied the weather conditions in the local station, if he wants to get the money. On the other hand, until he obtains the money, he will not know whether it is wise to turn on his electricity.
Without being party political, I must tell the House that this is a brutal way to treat old and poor people when the country has 1,000 years of coal as well as oil and is one of the richest energy countries in the world. I believe that we should adopt, as a matter of policy, the objective that everyone should be able to afford adequate heat and light at home. If hon. Members think that that sounds radical, they should imagine us tackling health problems with the same sort of measures as have been announced today. They should imagine the Secretary of State for Social Services saying that, in view of the problems of ill health in our society, pensioners on supplementary benefit would receive a little bit of money to go to a private doctor, provided that they applied to the DHSS. What made the Health Service so important was not nationalising the bricks and mortar but changing the basis on which people have the right to medical treatment from wealth to need.
That is what we should do about the energy policy: to ensure that no one, at least not deliberately, although it may occur accidentally, is allowed to die or, if possible, suffer from cold. To do that we must increase the allowances and pay them automatically instead of by application. We must extend the categories covered by the allowances, as my electricity discount scheme did. That scheme covered 1.6 million people compared with the 100,000 or more who may get the heating allowances.
We should stop the disconnections, because the greatest crime of all is to cut off the supply of someone who is in debt because he is too poor to keep warm and to sustain his or her life. We should cut or end the standing charges. I confess that I could not carry the Government of whom I was a member on the issue of standing charges. They tax the small consumer, whereas the big business consumer gets a discount from bulk supply. That means that the poor pay more for their fuel than those who use more of it.
§ Mr. Nicholls
Will the right hon. Gentleman say how that squares with the foreword that he wrote to a report in 1977? That report considered, among other things, the abolition of standing charges and stated: 310After considering the group's report, the Government have concluded that none of the possibilities—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
Order. The hon. Gentleman should not be reading m an intervention.
§ Mr. Nicholls
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but as this is the only intervention that we Conservative Members have been allowed to make I thought that it might be all right. The right hon. Gentleman wrote that he was not in favour of abolishing standing charges. What has changed now?
§ Mr. Benn
If the hon. Gentleman considers that that is the best way to conduct the debate, that is entirely up to him. I quoted from the foreword which I have in my hand. It states:Our objectives should be to ensure that everyone can afford adequate heat and light at home.I just said, if the hon. Gentleman was listening, that I could not carry the matter of standing charges. Now pensioners' organisations are demanding the cutting or abolition of standing charges. We should reintroduce the winter discount scheme. Some people have made a substantial profit out of the privatisation of gas. An incoming Labour Government should freeze gas prices until the benefit of that unearned increment goes back, and has gone back completely. To the gas consumers. It is an outrage, made more so by the Secretary of State and Sir Denis Rooke marching through the streets of London with blue ribbons to celebrate something which could now be seen more accurately as a funeral service for those who will die because they dare not switch on the gas this winter.
If we cannot persuade the Government tonight to increase the heating allowances—although public pressure probably shifted them yesterday and it may shift them today—it will not be long before the pensioners, the poor, the homeless and the young unemployed will have the power though their vote to decide how they wish the matter to be handled. I hope that they will use their power to raise the quality of life for themselves and for everyone else.
§ Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)
The House has come to expect my hon. Friend the Minister of State to handle his difficult and emotive brief with care and competence. Neither yesterday nor today did he let us down. The House is rightly entitled to compliment him on his recognition of the public will on this matter. When faced with an unprecedented burst of cold weather, he acted promptly, firmly and correctly, just as we would have wished.
That was matched by hysteria from the Leader of the Opposition and the now inevitable rantings from the shadow social services spokesman, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). That may well have impressed those members of the public outside with short memories, but Labour's actions when in government give them no right whatever to chastise this Administration for their conduct. The mess resulting from their economic policies meant no Christmas bonus for the elderly. That happened twice during their Administration, and when they changed the procedures for normal pensions—my hon. Friends will correct me if I exaggerate—it cost the pensioners £1 billion.
Yes, of course we would like to do more. I said in earlier debates on this and related issues that I personally would 311 like to see more done, but I am conscious that it must be paid for. I hope that, as our economy strengthens, we will do just that.
It is easy when a party is in opposition and is not required to pay for or deliver promises to sneer at any reference to the cost of welfare services, but an article in The Daily Telegraph this morning by Mr. Julian Isherwood could not have been better timed. He wrote about the realities that now face Denmark's health service. He said:Free medical treatment for everything from a cut finger to a new heart has been a right for every Dane… Like may idealistic dreams it has now collided with financial reality…the country's economy has run into deficit and the ingenuity of the Minister for Taxation can no longer match the bottomless pit of all embracing social security demands.That last phrase rings true for us in the United Kingdom, but it has not yet reached the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). It has indeed come as a shock to the Danes, who are rightly proud of their past achievements. But, as has been said, for them too, the party is over. That may be unpallatable, but it does not make it any less true. So when the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday, in effect, that the economy could take second place to this matter he was not being caring. He simply has not yet learnt what our friends the Danes are now having to take on board—that every additional promise of more and yet more bounty in welfare provision makes the credibility of the Labour party less and less.
I, too, listened to Radio 4 this morning when the hon. Member for Oldham, West gave a knowingly false picture. He said that the Government expected the elderly to heat their homes for £5 a week. He knew that to be untrue. He knew that heating costs are part of supplementary benefit throughout the year. He knew of the heating additions to vulnerable groups apart from the elderly that are already added to supplementary benefit. He knew of the £2.20 that is paid as of right to the pensioner over 65 on supplementary benefit and of the £5.50 that is paid to the severely disabled and to the very old, but he chose to peddle the untruth that the Conservative party expects a home to be heated on just £5. That is humbug and deceit that is unworthy of a shadow spokesman—even that shadow spokesman.
But judge the Opposition not on their words; judge them on their deeds. It is true that they are not in control in this place, but they control many, indeed perhaps the majority, of local authorities. When the Labour party is in control at local level, its actions certainly do not match the promise of the new Jerusalem painted by the hon. Member for Oldham, West.
It is true that the housing authority in Nottingham has a Programme of upgrading the heating provision of its properties, and that recently it has encouraged council tenants to have central heating installed on a rent-added basis to pay for it. To be fair, that is good and I acknowledge it. But it is Labour's choice of priorities that I challenge. I suspect from what we have seen and read about some of the more lunatic Labour authorities that the choice is often made with the old and cold a low priority compared, for example, with their avowed intent to have all the trappings, such as race advisers, equal opportunity watchdogs, et al, rather than devote those large sums to home improvement, particularly for the elderly.
312 I understand that it has been estimated that central heating can be provided for perhaps £1,000 to £1,200 per home. On that basis, about 20 homes for the elderly could be properly heated for the cost of just one of the planned snoopers. It is not only the Labour authorities' overbearing obsession with bureaucracy, but their slavish devotion to public sector new-build before all else that militates against the ability to upgrade more council homes than they are tackling at present. They claim that they could do more if only the Government would let them spend all their capital receipts. It is much more to the point to ask whether they are getting value from what they spend now.
It is the positive discouragement by Labour authorities of private sector development and the positive lack of encouragement to use all other agencies of provision other than themselves as landlords that diverts resources which can and should be used to improve the quality of existing housing stock, particularly the homes of the elderly. Whatever we spend on gas, electricity or coal, if a house is badly insulated or the elderly are physically unable to do the routine precautionary things that we younger adults take for granted, the old will remain cold.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
If the hon. Gentleman feels so strongly, as I am sure he does, about insulation, why has he not said anything against his Government, who stopped the insulation programme under the new social security legislation?
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
No doubt the hon. Gentleman will elaborate on that point, but there are other ways—[Interruption.] I have not ducked this matter. If hon. Members refer to my earlier remarks as reported in Hansard, they will find that I said that I hoped that my Government would do more. I take the matter no further than that.
This issue is not for the Government alone, nor is it for the Government and local authorities alone. In common humanity, we all can and should make a contribution. I pay a sincere tribute to the initiative and on-going support for the old and cold given by our local newspaper, the Nottingham Evening Post. In December 1985 that news paper sought to harness the basic good will of Nottingham's people and raised nearly £12,000 to help 250 special cases of need. This year, it is running a similar fund to assist not only the special hardship cases brought to its attention but, when necessary, to provide support for those who clearly are in need of such help and, for whatever reason, fall outside the qualifying categories.
No matter how clever we think we are here in Parliament, there will always be such marginally excluded persons. It is splendid that this is still a society which cares enough voluntarily to seek to fill that gap. The staff of that newspaper have done more than just offer their good offices as a point of collection. They have put together a team of advisers from the DHSS and the county social services department, and have put the Lord Mayor of the city in the chair to deal with cases put before them. The sums needed may not be large. They have set an upper limit of £100. That appears to be satisfactory and is based upon the helpful advice of senior DHSS advisers.
The paper was swift to react to the Minister of State's announcement yesterday. A coupon will appear in today's edition of the Nottingham Evening Post, dealing with the Government's special payment initiative, and, obviously, 313 the newspaper's own care-line service for the old and cold. I hope that that action will be repeated throughout the country by similar newspapers.
I also pay tribute to one of our local industrial giants which has a social conscience. The Boots company has joined the newspaper's initiative and provided 500 special hypothermia warning thermometers carrying details of emergency telephone numbers as well as easily followed advice if the room temperature falls to an unacceptable level. I am not a religious person, but a certain phrase readily comes to mind:Blessed are they that give.
§ Mr. Frank Cook
Will the hon. Gentleman contemplate that, for the purpose of the regulations, the critical temperature is not that of the room in which an old person is situated, but the temperature read at the National Climatological Message Centre?
§ Mr. Brandon-Bravo
The hon. Gentleman may be trying to get his remarks on the record. It is unbecoming of him to denigrate the efforts of Boots to direct some help and advice into the room in which an elderly person is trying to keep warm. That seems to me to be sensible advice.
The line for benefit has to be drawn somewhere. Wherever it is drawn, the knee-jerk reaction of the Opposition will be the same. I am concerned that, although I can defend the line in normal circumstances, the present arctic conditions must be a nightmare to those who fall marginally outside our safety net. I acknowledge that an old-age pensioner with a few pounds less than the heating allowance from an occupational pension scheme might find himself outside that safety net for help. I wonder, too, whether elderly people who have just a little over that £500 savings limit should not be advised, perhaps, to pay in advance some of those heating bills to avoid exclusion under our present scheme.
As the Prime Minister rightly said yesterday, a savings limit has always existed. The Labour party has no right whatever to carp at the present £500 limit. I hope that the Government will use their best endeavours to the limit of the legal restraints upon them to ensure that elderly people do not lose out through ignorance of the provisions that we seek to make. On those grounds, I reject the Opposition's motion and welcome the Government's reasoned amendment.
§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)
It is regrettable that the House must debate this matter. It should have been settled many years ago. The yah-booing that sometimes occurs in the Chamber on issues such as this fills me with despair. In particular, those well-heeled people, company directors, those who have good jobs and those who have never experienced the difficulties of the kind that we are talking about, who shout abuse at hon. Members who sensitively raise these matters, fill me with despair. That has happened often this afternoon.
Although past Labour Governments did a reasonable job up to a point, they did not do enough. No Government have done enough. Our Labour people began the process, but they were not able to complete it. Ordinary working men and women who have spent their entire lives helping to create the wealth of this country face death because they 314 cannot keep warm. Obviously, we all die sooner or later, but we do not need to hasten the process through people not being able to keep warm in their little homes.
It is a scandal and a disgrace that, in this day and age, we must discuss this matter again because, outside, people are faced with death through hypothermia. It is a scandal that, once again, the House faces this sort of debate.
Each and every one of us has a responsibility. None of us has done enough, not only for the elderly, but for young people who every night are getting under cardboard boxes, mainly in London. They have come here seeking employment from areas such as Liverpool, Glasgow, Wales and the north-east. They have found neither a job nor anywhere to sleep.
During the last spell of severe weather I said in the House that emergency measures should be taken. Once again the voluntary bodies began to help. We owe a debt of gratitude to those people. What would we do without the Salvation Army and rectors opening church halls? Tory Members, especially the Prime Minister, love the concept of voluntary bodies. I, too, like voluntary bodies, but we should not need voluntary bodies for this. It is the responsibility of each and every hon. Member to ensure that legislation is passed so that such debates are not necessary.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) referred to the White Paper which he introduced when he was Secretary of State for Energy. What did it say? One line at the beginning gives the first priority for energy policy. It states that our objective shold be to ensure thateveryone can afford adequate heat and light at home.They do not have that, although some do. Those of us with elderly relatives must help them, and rightly so, because we are more fortunate. But all elderly people do not have relatives. Many are wholly alone and have nothing except state assistance.
I heard the Prime Minister say—[Interruption.] I am coming to that. There is an old saying among my class that the poor always help the poor, and my God they do. At this moment poor people on the streets of Liverpool are still looking after other poor people. When there is a funeral in the road and the old person is without any assistance, everybody rallies around and does his best to help. Those people also give assistance in all sorts of other directions. Yes, the poor help the poor, but I thought that we were trying to create a society and a world—I say this as a Christian—where those at the bottom of the ladder should not have to live in desperate circumstances. I thought that we believed in compassion. The Prime Minister is supposed to believe in compassion.
I shall never forget, to the day I die, the Prime Minister outside No. 10 having the audacity to read the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. He said:Where there is despair let me sow hope;Where there is darkness let me sow light;Where there is sadness let me sow joy…To understand rather than to be understood.To love rather than to be loved.My goodness, when I think about it, this is an occasion when the right hon. Lady's compassion should be so overriding that she and all other hon. Members should say, "Never mind what previous Governments did or did not do. We will ensure that from now on there will be no question of people dying from cold, poverty or misery." That is what she should say if she believes in the prayer of St. Francis.
§ Mr. Frank Cook
Will my hon. Friend call to mind the first line of St. Francis's prayer, which states:Lord make me an instrument of thy peaceand speculate briefly on how well the Prime Minister has not been that?
§ Mr. Heffer
I did not want to quote all of the prayer, but I agree with my hon. Friend that, since the Government came to power, instead of peace we have had confrontation.
Last night I saw a brief television programme which reported on district heating in Sweden. Various local authorities have urged us to persuade the Government to accept the principle of district heating. We have done nothing about it. The only district heating that ever existed was from a power station into Dolphin square, and when the power station closed, even that closed. It was a marvellous system, and if it can be done for one area, it can be done in all our main cities. Incidentally, we can put our people to work introducing such a system. That would create employment and at the same time ensure that people have proper heating in their homes.
We should ensure that no block of flats sinks below a certain heating level. That is done even in New York, where there is a much more vicious system than we have, although we are moving rapidly in that direction.
Then there is the £500 rule. Some hon. Members probably spend more than £500 a month on meals.
§ Mr. Heffer
It does not matter which hon. Members they are, but I know that when they leave here for their restaurants they spend a great deal of money. They spend more money on one meal than some of our people have to live on for a month. That is the greedy, selfish society in which we live. Old people save for their funeral and if they go on a little holiday, for example a tour, at least half of that £500 will be spent. It is a scandal.
I shall not make a long speech, because I have made all the important points. The position is terrible and we must do something about it. I appeal to all hon. Members on both sides to say, "The £5 is a beginning, but it should be paid automatically over a period of time, not merely for one week. That should be changed." From now on we should say that it is not good enough, that we will introduce an entirely new system and end the old system once and for all so that never again will we have to hold a debate like this. It is shameful that the House is forced to debate in such a way.
§ 7 pm
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
If I cannot agree with every conclusion drawn by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), I can certainly say that nobody who heard him on this occasion, and who has heard him on previous occasions, perhaps long before he came into the House, can doubt for one moment the sincerity of the way in which he puts forward his arguments. There is at least one other area of common ground. It is that the hon. Gentleman at least said that he 316 was not trying to pretend, as others have pretended in this debate, that when his Government were in office everything that they did about pensions was absolutely right and as good as it could have been. That remark has perhaps more significance than the hon. Gentleman might allow, because there is nothing wrong or unnecessarily adversarial in pointing out what previous Governments have done.
Those pensioners who will avidly queue up to buy copies of Hansard to read our deliberations today may do so to find out what they can expect from the Government, but also to find out what they can expect from the Labour party if it is returned to office. To that extent they are entitled to ask, "What was the record; what was the history?" Therefore, there is some significance in saying that we have to look not just to the future, as the hon. Gentleman would have us do, but that we are entitled to look to the past.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who opened the debate, started it in the way that we have heard before. Without being uncharitable, I expect that we will hear it again. He gave us a foretaste of it yesterday. He did not concentrate on this extremely severe weather and the severe weather payment. He went straight into the attack and talked about the whole of the retirement pension without any persiflage. He said, as he has said on many occasions, that the record of his Government when they were last in office was greatly preferable to the record of this Conservative Administration.
The hon. Gentleman said that yesterday quite succinctly when he told the House: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".—[Official Report, 13 January 1986: Vol. 108, c. 135.]He said that quite straightforwardly and quite deliberately. I was not in the slightest bit surprised that the hon. Gentleman was not prepared to let me intervene at that stage, because as he well knows that is simply not the truth. Although the last Labour Government passed legislation to ensure that pensions would be linked to the rise in earnings rather than to prices, they did not implement their own legislation in three of the four years that it should have applied.
The Labour Government did not fail to do that because they lacked compassion or were heartless about the plight of the elderly or the poor, but simply because they could not find the money. I raised a point of order and I apologise for that because I now realise it was somewhat bogus, but when the hon. Member for Oldham, West was obliged to face the fact that they could not find the money, he accused me of having indulged in various sorts of manoeuvres and bogus statistics. He may see it that way, but that was not the way that it was seen by the then Secretary of State for Social Services at a time when the hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the Department of Health and Social Services.
When Pensioners Voice chided the then Secretary of State because the pension issue had been avoided and the Labour Government's legislation was put to one side, the response by the Secretary of State was:'There is a statutory obligation to take these figures (i.e., earnings) into account, which was done, but no statutory obligation to get it right.'That statement was made by the Minister under whom the hon. Gentleman was doubtless proud to serve. There was 317 no mention by the hon. Gentleman that his party's record was anything other than sweetness and light. That is what the Secretary of State said and did when he found that his own sincere best wishes were incapable of being implemented. No wonder the hon. Gentleman was not prepared to let me intervene to put the record straight.
It must be said that that was not the first fiddle on a grand scale which the last Labour Government perpetrated. An even bigger fiddle was the one when the method of calculating pension increases was switched from the historic method to the forecasting method. When that was done it was a real blow to pensioners, but we did not hear too much from the hon. Gentleman about that. If he had wanted to turn his mind to it, I have no doubt that he would have been able to tell us that in Barbara Castle's diaries she admitted that the reason why that method of calculating benefit was changed was simply to save money. She went on to say that she regarded that as not an honourable thing to do. She said that it was done to save money pure and simple. That was the reason, and pensioners suffered because of it.
§ Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)
Whatever the details of the matters about which the hon. Gentleman speaks, he may be aware that one reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) might be reasonably content with the last Labour Government's actions on pensions was that, as the hon. Gentleman has been told over and over again, at the end of the lifetime of that Government pensions had increased in real terms by 20 per cent. Given that under this Government pensions have increased in real terms by 3 per cent., perhaps the hon. Gentleman could tell us how happy he is with his Government's record.
§ Mr. Nicholls
I shall certainly address that point. The hon. Lady simply cannot avoid the fact that pensioners' expectations were raised to an extremely high level, because they were told that their pensions would be kept in line with earnings. In a nutshell, they were not, and to that extent pensioners were deprived of the money that they had expected to receive. That was the reality. The hon. Member for Walton at least impliedly admitted that the last Labour Government had done something that was, shall we say, less than perfect. If there was any validity in the point that the hon. Lady tries to make against a background of inflation at the time that was wrecking pensioners' savings, presumably the hon. Member for Oldham, West would have admitted that. However, he did not because he knew how ignoble his record on pensions was.
The other point that the hon. Lady will obviously want to bear in mind is the consequence for the Labour party once the change in the method of calculation has been made. To hear the hon. Lady, one would think that pensioners would have said, "We may have been diddled, and the Government may have avoided their own legislation, but is it not marvellous, because look at all the money that we have?"
At the time that the discussions were taking place in Cabinet, as recorded by Mrs. Castle, in December 1975, only a few weeks before, the hon. Member for Oldham, West was not promising free television licences or free television sets. A matter of weeks before those Cabinet discussions he had to come to the House for the second year running and announced that there would be no 318 Christmas bonus. That was £10 a year, at a time when inflation was almost in the realms of hyper-inflation. The Labour Government were so stuck for cash that they could not even pay the Christmas bonus. If the hon. Gentleman was in any doubt about how pensioners felt about what he had done, he certainly knew fairly soon afterwards, because in the following year, in March 1976, the hon. Gentleman was addressing a meeting of pensioners—
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that it is in order to refer from time to time to the past in order to illustrate the current situation and compare it to the past, but is it in order to go on and on for a complete speech without referring to the issue before the House?
§ Mr. Nicholls
I can well understand the hon. Gentleman's embarrassment and it is nice that he has decided to join our deliberations at a relatively late stage.
§ Mr. Foulkes
I was here earlier on two occasions, sitting in another part of the House just to confuse Conservative Members.
§ Mr. Nicholls
By getting indignant about his own record, the hon. Gentleman shows that he is far more confused than any of my hon. Friends are likely to be. We have the background of two major fiddles in the way in which pension was calculated, and even the Christmas bonus was removed. That was at a time when the hon. Member for Oldham, West was not in his public school, languishing around the towers of academia, but was a member of the Government, because he was a Social Security Minister. At least it has to be said that there are other Opposition Members who have a rather better grasp of the figures in their own brief than has the hon. Member for Oldham, West. They know the reality.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West would do well to consider the speeches of his hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I remember that in one debate the hon. Member for Birkenhead intervened during a speech that I was making and asked:Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many Opposition Members would not seek to defend all the actions of the Labour Government, especially the manoeuvrings on pensions?"—[Official Report, 22 April 1985; Vol. 96, c. 666.]That was not a distorted use of figures, of which I was accused by the hon. Member for Oldham, West. The most knowledgeable Opposition speaker on social security matters is not here today, but when he has felt able to take part in debates of this sort the hon. Member for Birkenhead has admitted, straightforwardly and frankly, that the manoeuvrings of the present Opposition on pensions—
§ Mr. Frank Cook
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understood that we were discussing the exceptionally severe weather payments scheme. Is it necessary for the House to have to listen at such nauseous length—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Brief and relevant interventions are a definite and essential part of our proceedings. A number of hon. Members are anxious to 319 catch my eye. If there are many more interventions, their chances will be put back, particularly if the interventions are from those who are hoping to catch my eye. As for the hon. Member's point of order, nothing has been said that is out of order. It is better to leave the Chair to decide whether or not something is out of order.
§ Mr. Nicholls
It probably does not need saying, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but for the benefit of the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) I will say it, and I will say it slowly, too. The case put forward by the hon. Member for Oldham, West is that policies that have completely failed in the past to provide pensioners with a proper rate of pension, out of which they can meet their commitments, including their fuel bills, should be adopted again. As they have failed, Conservative Members should point out, not that Opposition Members do not care about the fate of the unemployed or pensioners, but that a scheme and a system for the future is being put forward which in the past completely failed to deliver the goods.
Another matter that we might have expected to hear something about today is how to finance a policy that would provide more money for fuel bills in the summer and in the winter, irrespective of whether the temperature justifies it. We do not know how it will be funded. There were a number of interventions during the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West to try to find out whether the commitments that he told us about today are part of the £24.5 billion or whether they are part of the deal that was done at Bishops Stortford. We did not manage to find out. However, that money would have to be found from somewhere.
What bedevilled the last Labour Government and worked to the signal disadvantage of pensioners was that Labour's plan, as then implemented, had not been properly costed. There is no reason to think that Labour's plan today has been properly costed.
During the few moments that I have for light relief I like to read Tribune. In many ways it is an excellent journal. Often one finds in it items of great interest. On 16 July 1982 it contained one particularly interesting article. I am sure Opposition Members know what it is, but I want to share it with other hon. Members. I appreciate the Opposition's embarrassment about what I am about to read out. The article said:A major concern…must be the failure to cost adequately or to make a priority of the social programme.The hon. Member for Oldham, West may think that those words have a familiar ring. I can save him the embarrassment of suggesting that he wrote those words, because he did not. They were written by his wife. At a time when Labour wives are capable of completely rewriting the defence policy of the party, it seems to be not unfair that Labour wives should make a significant contribution here. When the hon. Member for Oldham, West returns home tonight, he will know that his wife will be able to tell him that there has been a signal failure and a complete inability to cost the programme. We have seen all this before. We do not need to look into the future when we can look into the recent past and see what has been done.
There is one point to which I should return. On both this and previous occasions—and unless the hon. Member for Oldham, West undergoes a damascene 320 conversion today there will be future occasions—I have criticised the hon. Gentleman for making extravagant promises. However, despite the fact that the hon. Gentleman has a use of language and hyperbole that would make the late Savonarola look like a master of the understatement, there is one thing today that the hon. Gentleman did not come to the House to do. That was left to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn).
The hon. Member for Oldham, West did not promise to abolish standing charges. The Labour party ought at least to be given the credit for that. When all else fails, they will churn that out as well. On this occasion the hon. Member for Oldham, West did not do so, but the right hon. Member for Chesterfield did. He has a reputation among his colleagues for looking back into history at those bits of the Labour party's programme that were successful and taking the credit for them, but if there were things that the last Labour Government did of which he disapproved, he tries to dissociate himself from them. The right hon. Gentleman was against the abolition of standing charges. However, he tried to say that he had been in favour of abolition, but that he was unable to convince his colleagues in the Government. Sometimes it is necessary to put the record straight.
The report of the special group that was set up to look at ways to help the poor with their fuel costs considered a number of alternatives and in due course produced a report. The foreword to that report was penned by none other than the right hon. Member for Chesterfield. In that foreword, though not in the report, commenting on matters like the abolition of standing charges, the right hon. Gentleman said:After considering the Group's Report, the Government have concluded that none of these possibilities…by way of alternatives…offers a satisfactory way of helping poor consumers with their fuel bills."—[Official Report, 25 July 1983; Vol. 46, c. 843.]It is not without significance that when a party takes office even Messiahs like the right hon. Member for Chesterfield sometimes find that they have to take reality into account.
§ Mr. Barron
During the winter of 1976–77 my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) gave a 25 per cent. discount on electricity bills of over £20 and took standing charges into consideration. Does the hon. Gentleman think that this Administration ought to do likewise in this severe weather?
§ Mr. Nicholls
It would have been a good idea if the hon. Gentleman had put that question to his right hon. Friend. It would have been even more impressive if that line had been adopted by his right hon. Friend when he was in office. However, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield considered the abolition of standing charges and decided that he was unable to do that.
If the Opposition were to acknowledge the link with the wealth that provides money to do all that is needed for the elderly, they would take a leaf out of the book of the hon. Member for Birkenhead and look at the answer that he received from the Treasury in April of last year, which shows that the way to get money out of the rich is to reduce their taxes so that more money for the elderly can be generated—[Interruption.] If the Opposition were really concerned about producing the necessary money, that is what they would take into account, but the difficulty is that despite the strictures of the hon. Member for Walton the truth hurts so much that the yobbo tendency on the Opposition Benches has to start howling me down.
§ Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)
I shall not take up what was said by the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls). However, in all my years in this House I have rarely come across a speech that was so arrogant and superficial at one and the same time.
This opportune debate arises from the United Kingdom wide weather emergency. Observers in Scotland are not too cynical if they believe that the Government's decision yesterday and the holding of this debate today arise from the fact that the south of England is affected by the severe weather. Many people in Scotland have formed the view that it is only when England sneezes that some attention is directed towards the pneumonia from which people in Scotland suffer in so many ways, whether it be in terms of industry, unemployment or heating allowances. Hypothermia and distress, we must remind ourselves, existed before this present cold snap. We will continue to have exceptional weather conditions from time to time. So I stigmatise right at the start the action which has been taken by the Government today as utterly inadequate.
Four years ago I started my compaign for a cold climate allowance which would take cognisance of the fact that the United Kingdom has different climatic zones and yet people have to live on the same pensions and social security beneifts, regardless of the outlay which they have to make. When I did so, I must confess that I did not expect that three or four years later the whole question of heating allowances would have secured such a high position in parliamentary debate. Last year it was the temperature inversion that brought the colder weather to the south of England which first directed the attention of many hon. Members to the problem of heating allowances.
Heating allowances and hypothermia have been with us for a long time. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) was a Minister in the last Labour Government and in 1979 he was penitent enough to confess, in an article in The Observer, that on superior instructions he had participated in a cover-up in terms of the effects that hypothermia might have. I am glad to see that he has now been converted to the cause.
There is no doubt that people die of hypothermia, but for every one person who dies tens or hundreds of thousands live in extreme discomfort, where they may question whether life is worth living. Death by hypothermia might be a release for many who live in houses where the temperature has dropped to such a level that they are miserable. It is at this time too that hospitals begin to fill with elderly people who are affected by the cold and who consequently suffer other illnesses, such as bronchitis, which remain with them throughout the winter.
I suggested in my cold climate Bill two years ago that the United Kingdom ought to be divided into four climatic zones and that a regular payment be made throughout the year to take account of these climatic differences. The Bill had considerable support on both sides of the House but was unfortunately resisted by the Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Security, who now find themselves, for the third successive year, in a mess of their own making because they are unwilling to find the resources or to use their intelligence to devise a scheme which would address the reality of the problem.
In Scotland heating is of great importance. Professor Markus of Strathclyde university in 1979 made the point that the Scottish climate is significantly more severe than 322 the English climate. He said that in terms of air temperature, wind exposure, rain and available sunshine the Scottish climate was different from the climate of the United Kingdom as a whole. Expressing the difference in terms of the cost of heating a house, he said that it would cost 20 per cent. more to heat a house in Glasgow than to heat a comparable house in Bristol, and that it would cost 30 per cent. more in Aberdeen. Those are the facts. It has not been denied that it is more expensive to heat a house in Scotland. So fuel consumption goes up. Scots consume about 21 per cent. more electricity than people in the south, 18.2 per cent. more gas and 15.5 per cent. more solid fuel.
The problem that we face in most parts of the United Kingdom is that, because, in the 1940s and especially in the 1950s and 1960s, energy costs were so low, houses were not designed to be properly insulated against the cold, so many of our modern houses are concrete shells which exude heat that is bought expensively by the people within to the atmosphere outside.
Although the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) mentioned the nuclear power plant which was sufficient to raise the temperature in its vicinity by four degrees, many people living in council housing schemes, in particular, find that it takes a lot of heat, which they must pay for, to raise the ambient temperature to a comfortable level. House designs therefore are at fault. It must be remembered that 50 per cent. of Scottish houses were built to 1919 standards and 93 per cent. to 1975 standards. This is one reason why Scotland is in its present position in terms of illness statistics and why hypothermia frequently figures on death certificates.
The average winter in Scotland probably last two months longer than the winter in the south, so we must take account of this. This is why I find the Labour party's proposal for an extra £5 over the winter period unfair. It does not take account of the climatic differences in Scotland. Someone in Torquay will get exactly the same amount as someone in Shetland. It is also unfair that the period should extend only from December to March. Our winters last from November to April and these days sometimes we are lucky to get a decent spell of weather in May.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
As Member For a constituency which, for the second year running, is, I suspect, colder than Scotland, I should like to know what the hon. Gentleman would do under his scheme if it were found that for quite long periods parts of the south of England were colder than parts of Scotland.
§ Mr. Wilson
Under my scheme it would be possible to change the climatic zones. They were drawn up on an easy, simple and scientifically estimated basis from meteorological information available, but if it could be proved that one area was considerably colder than another there is no reason why it should not be upgraded appropriately. If one was to go for the perfect solution, each house should be assessed in terms of insulation and that would be the fairest way; but the Department of Health and Social Security would probably resist that on the basis of cost. So one must try to find a system which is reasonably fair to all concerned.
A point has also been made about the help that the Government have been giving. I find the Government's scheme penny-pinching and deceitful because it gives the 323 impression that help will be available, help which for many people, even with the announcement made yesterday, will not emerge because of the restrictive way in which the scheme has been drawn up.
At the urging of a Scottish nationalist councillor, the Badenoch and Strathspey district council has an additional local authority top-up scheme by which £3 a week is made available in periods when the temperature is minus 2.5 deg C., but more interestingly, Guernsey, between October and May, already gives a standard heating allowance of £6 a week and has just increased this by an extra £12 a week while the bad weather remains. So the authorities in Guernsey have been far more generous than the United Kingdom Government.
The plain fact—the hon. Member for Oldham, West fairly made this point—is that in the United Kingdom pensions are exceptionally low compared with those in France, Belgium, West Germany and many other European countries in relation to earnings. In France the pension is equivalent to 60 per cent. of average earnings, in Belgium 60 per cent., in West Germany 50 per cent. and in the United Kingdom 26.5 per cent. This shows that those on pensions and supplementary benefit will suffer most. Perhaps that is why the death rate in winter rises by some 20 per cent. among old people and the very young.
What we require is a system which is much fairer and more coherent, such as the one that I have outlined, but one also where automatic payments are made without people having to claim and without all this confusing jiggery-pokery about assessment of criteria and need and all the consequent bureaucracy. The Government said that they were cutting the red tape. Who was it who first produced that red tape? We were informed in two previous debates in the House that this would be so.
As an editorial has said, under the existing scheme the Government are playing roulette with the lives of the old and the poor.
§ Mr. Lewis Stevens (Nuneaton)
I agree with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson). It is important to retain a separate payment that varies according to weather conditions. Without it, some areas, such as those in Scotland, could not receive what is essentially a payment for that which is different. Such a payment is important to pensioners and other people on low incomes and supplementary benefit. If we introduced a scheme paying £5 a week throughout the winter, as the Opposition would like, many people would still have greater needs in a sudden cold spell, such as this, which result in a vicious rise in heating costs. People become used to a certain amount of money coming in. If an extra payment were made throughout the winter, there would still be a demand for more money. The amount of fuel used in badly insulated houses rapidly accelerates as the temperature drops and this is shown as an exponential on a graph. The Opposition have made detrimental remarks, but that fact must be understood.
The House should consider the problems of the elderly and others on supplementary benefit. The publicity machine which has operated, largely because of political antagonism, has brought home in its peculiar fashion the problems of cold and what old people should do. In recent years, the DHSS and voluntary bodies have done much to 324 advertise what should be done. We should push advice and instructions to old people on how to get warm as hard as we can.
This sudden cold spell followed an extremely mild December, when most of us strolled around wondering whether winter would ever come. But we have been hit dramatically in the past few days. It is hard to understand that some people ignore the fact that heating payments are part of general expenditure. The Opposition say, "We shall give extra pensions. We shall pay £5 automatically across the board." Yet they know that they must cost those measures and include them among general expenditure. What Labour Members want to do and what they will be able to do, should they ever unfortunately have the opportunity, are very different. People remember that many of the expectations for the 1974–79 period were not fulfilled.
Inevitably, if a Labour Government ever give away such amounts of money, it will catch up with them. The odds are that, if Labour went ahead with the social service and general expenditure programmes proposed, it would not be able to meet the costs, inflation would be fuelled and there would be cuts. Almost certainly this would store up tremendous repayment problems in future years, which would hit the lowest paid and those on supplementary benefit. It is important that the DHSS, voluntary services and other organisations carry on their education programme, for the elderly in particular.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
Elderly people know how to keep warm. They are not less intelligent than we are, but they lack the means to keep warm. There were 84,000 severe weather payments to applicants in Scotland during the exceptionally cold weather in February last year. I suspect that perhaps three times that number wanted that payment but did not receive it. The hon. Member should not lecture elderly people. They are as intelligent as any hon. Member.
§ Mr. Stevens
In no way do I wish to lecture or underestimate the intelligence of old people, many of whom are more intelligent than many of us. But the importance of heating is not always easily recognised by some elderly people. They are reluctant to heat their houses as they should. During my youth, many people were prepared to keep their homes at a temperature that we would today condemn as being far too low. We were used to having no central heating. We were used to bedrooms that were so cold that the bedclothes felt damp. That was reality for many people, not just for those who were very poor. This resulted in a high incidence of respiratory and bronchial problems, especially for children, which could have been relieved had people understood what was needed. Many people accepted the fact that they lived in a warm room during the day and went to bed in cold conditions. Some elderly people are still reluctant to change. The future of insulation work should be considered. Some houses built since the last war have poor insulation. Flimsy wooden structures and lack of insulation are problems.
I have some doubts about another matter. Although the exceptionally severe weather payments can work well and are given where they are needed, there is a problem with the strict weekly basis on which the system operates. I have not costed the effect of a change in this system, but I believe that the DHSS should take account of any period 325 of seven days during which the temperature drops to a certain level rather than use the present system. I should have thought that any seven-day period of exceptionally cold weather should qualify for exceptionally severe weather payments.
I congratulate the Department on introducing a much simpler system, which will make payments automatically available. I welcome also the underwriting of some of the extra costs incurred by voluntary bodies during this period. It is important that elderly people and others should be able to benefit from Government support of voluntary organisations.
Labour Members condemn the Government for what they have not done, but they have done a lot. They introduced new schemes such as these exceptionally severe weather payments. They extended the conditions under which supplementary benefit heating additions were paid to all people over 65 years, whereas before they were limited to those over 80 years. All pensioners who are on supplementary benefit are entitled to heating additions. That covers many more people. The payment is automatic.
The Government have recognised the needs of the elderly and of those on supplementary benefit. They have kept supplementary benefit rates and pensions ahead of inflation. Labour Members have tried to give the impression that theirs is the caring party, but when it had the opportunity, it failed to look after the people as well as we are today.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
I should like to carry on from where the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens) left off in relation to what the Labour Government did. We have heard in today's debate and yesterday at Question Time about the Labour Government's attitude to fuel poverty. In the winter of 1976–77 the Labour Government improved the supplementary benefits scheme by the introduction of an electricity discount scheme. It was to cost £25 million and to assist about 3 million people on supplementary benefit. How the hon. Gentleman can say that such action in 1976 was non-action is beyond me.
The scheme applied to people on supplementary benefit and on family income supplement. There was a single payment of £5 to each family and a 25 per cent. discount on all electricity bills which were more than £20 for the winter quarter. That scheme took into account the standing charge that this Government have refused to consider. It also took account of the fuel cost adjustment which was part of the cost that had to be paid for the oil crisis of the early 1970s.
Under the 1978–79 scheme, which was extended to cover those receiving rent rebates, people were allowed to claim discount on one winter electricity bill. It was estimated that that scheme would cover approximately 4.5 million people. Although we cannot make a direct comparison with the exceptionally severe weather payments, only about 500,000 people are eligible to claim. Last year. fewer than 500,000 claimed the payments. It is fraudulent for Conservative Members to say that the Labour Government did not attempt to do anything about people's problems in severe weather. I think that the opposite could be said.
The Prime Minister told the House that the Labour Government spent only about £90 million in 1978–79, their last year of office, and that this Government were 326 spending about £400 million per annum. Given the number of people who are eligible to claim the severe weather payment, and given the increase in energy costs since 1979, it is likely that the Labour Government did more to help people in 1978–79 than this Government have done over the last 12 months or are prepared to do under the new scheme.
This morning I spoke to people in Rotherham citizens advice bureau about problems in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies in south Yorkshire. There has been a lot in the press about severe weather payments. Many people who were contacting the citizens advice bureau this morning were saying that they had children of over two years of age but, according to what they had read in the newspapers, they were not eligible to claim the severe weather payment. Other people in receipt of different social security benefits, such as invalidity benefit, were also complaining that they could not claim. Indeed, many people in my constituency are trapped in their homes, and the severe weather payment will not satisfy their immediate needs.
The only leaflets that the citizens advice bureau had to distribute were leaflets which were given to it by Age Concern and which it has had for some time. I understand that, even when the debate started this afternoon, the DHSS still had not issued leaflets about the new statutory scheme. There are none in the citizens advice bureau or the libraries in my area, and presumably there are none in the offices of the DHSS. It is a disgrace, considering the weather conditions, that no one can contact local DHSS offices to find out who is eligible for the severe weather payment. We have to rely on the press—not always a good source of information—to try to glean the information about the help that is supposedly coming from the Department.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to add to his questions to the Minister a question as to why DHSS offices, as of this afternoon, had not received instructions about how to deal with the matter. It is not surprising, therefore, that other agencies do not know what to do.
§ Mr. Barron
That is right. I have put down a question for Monday to find out when people will get the payment. There is confusion because the Department does not seem to have done its job of informing the public about who is eligible to claim benefit.
The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) spoke about pensions and tried to make the case that the Labour Government did not do what they had promised to do about old-age pensions. As everyone knows, people rely on their pensions as their main source of income, if they are not on supplementary benefit, to pay their bills.
I repeat that, during the five years of the Labour Government, pensions increased in real terms by a massive 20 per cent. The hon. Gentleman was trying to make the case that pensions then were too high. Presumably he now argues that because they have gone up by only 3 per cent. in real terms over the last seven years it would be better to increase supplementary benefit and other means-tested benefits instead of linking pension increases to prices or earnings. If a link had been established with earnings in 1979, when the Labour Government left office, pensions for single people would now be £8 higher, and those for married couples would be about £12 higher. I am sure that 327 that link and the increases that it would have brought would have alleviated the fear of many people about their ability to pay the energy bills that will result from the present arctic conditions.
Pensions have increased by only 3 per cent. in real terms over the past seven years. They have increased by about 98 per cent. in cash terms since the Government came into office. The cost of gas, however, has increased by 134.7 per cent. since November 1978. We should not be too surprised about that because the Government have not followed the lead of the Labour Government in selling gas at cost price to the consumer. The Labour Government's policy meant that there was no need to introduce a discount for gas consumers during the winter despite the discount that was introduced for consumers of electricity. This Government have placed a levy on gas prices so as to bring moneys directly to the Treasury.
Presumably this was one of the ways of funding £3 million per annum to the 20 per cent. in our society who are classed as better off then the rest. The massive income tax cuts that the Government have introduced have had to be funded, and it is immoral that so many people are worried about their ability to pay for their energy bills during the winter, or will be unable to do so in any event. Our gas supplies should have been a gift to the nation, but they are being used instead as a means of securing moneys for the Treasury.
The same comments can be made about the electricity industry. The cost of electricity has increased by 99 per cent. since November 1978, and the Government's use of external financing limits means that about £1.4 billion per annum is finding its way to the Treasury's coffers instead of being directed elsewhere in society. A direct energy tax has been placed on the electricity industry, but at the same time there is talk of a £5 severe weather payment.
The cost of coal has increased by 107 per cent. since November 1978, and the price of all three sources of energy has increased by a greater amount than the old-age pension. The average increase in the cost of energy has been 116.1 per cent. since the Labour Government left office in 1979.
The Government took a welcome step forward yesterday when they said that everyone who is eligible to benefit from the new severe weather payments scheme would receive payment for this week. By taking that action, they are admitting, however, that the new scheme is a failure. Unfortunately, potential recipients are not convinced that they will be able to obtain the moneys that the Government say will be made available.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who opened the debate on behalf of the Opposition, observed that in many areas of Britain there was cold weather last week and that this week saw the coldest night for over 40 years. He explained that many areas will not be eligible for moneys from the new statutory severe weather payment scheme.
It would be better for all concerned if yesterday's announcement had, applied for the next four weeks, for example. That would enable us to say that energy bills could be increased by £20 more than consumers would normally expect to pay for the quarter without them being afraid of being unable to pay. There are many who are frightened to receive their quarterly bills, and we cannot expect them to heat their homes adequately during this 328 period of exceptionally cold weather if we give them no assurance that the Government will make moneys available to enable them to pay their bills. Yesterday's decision probably had more to do with the heat of the political debate and less to do with the low temperatures at Westminster, Scotland and elsewhere. That is no way to protect the many who are living in inadequate homes on inadequate incomes from the present severe winter.
As most hon. Members know, I represent a coal mining constituency, and during the miners' strike there were many who found it difficult to pay their bills because of their lack of income. I received many requests from my constituents to support their request for pre-payment meters to be installed in their homes. Many of those who have pre-payment meters had them installed because they found that they were unable to pay quarterly bills. It is all very well to promise that £5 will be forthcoming for this week's energy bill, but that will not mean very much to those who pay through pre-payment meters. Many of those on supplementary benefit or on low incomes have to put 50p pieces or £1 coins into pre-payment meters. Are social service officers checking to ensure that families at risk—for example, those with young children or old people—are not in jeopardy? Only electricity boards are likely to know of those who have pre-payment meters, and with the present severe weather conditions the position of these families is extremely worrying.
The Minister for Social Security, who opened the debate for the Government, made a speech which is destined to return him to the Government Back Benches in the near future. He referred to the miners' strike, and the Prime Minister spoke about it during Prime Minister's questions yesterday. Conservative Members are obsessed with miners and miners' strikes, and I wish to remind them that during the strikes of 1972 and 1974, when I was a coal miner, the miners ensured that coal was supplied to the homes with young children and old people throughout the country. Coal was supplied to hospitals and schools. The transportation of coal during those strikes was as efficient as at any other time.
During the most recent miners' strike, miners in my constituency were working for £1 a day, sometimes for eight or nine hours a day, to bring coal to pensioners, hospitals and schools. That supply continued for nearly 12 months. When the Under-Secretary of State replies, I challenge him to name one instance in which anyone suffered because of a lack of coal during any of the three miners' strikes in the past 15 years. That challenge extends to individuals' homes, hospitals and schools.
§ Mr. Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)
I recognise that there is no particular virtue in political consistency, but I remind the House, at a time when there is obvious and widespread concern over cold weather and hypothermia, that I am one of the relatively few Conservative Members who has raised this matter consistently. As reference to Hansard will show, I have expressed concern about the adequacy of the system of payments and its operation during the past two winters. I have pressed the Government to improve and to adapt the severe weather payments system. If further evidence is required of my credentials to address the House on this occasion, perhaps I could add that, in June and July last year, when few hon. Members were thinking of this scheme, I was tabling questions about it.
329 I have no hesitation in saying that the system has caused me a good deal of concern. Although I realise entirely what animated the Government to introduce the scheme in the first place, since its introduction I have had a few questions in my mind as to whether it is the right way to proceed and to solve what all hon. Members must accept is an especially difficult problem.
Having said that, during the past few days and also in the debate today, there has been inadequate appreciation of the efforts that the Government have made to improve upon the scheme that existed last winter. There is no question in my mind that, for all the criticism that has been directed against it, the severe weather payments system of 1986–87 is a considerable advance on the scheme that was rightly criticised last year. When this year's scheme is compared with that which operated a year ago, there is no question that the benefits are better targeted and that there is a better chance that those in greatest need will receive assistance this year.
I positively welcome the fact that there is less distinction between one district and another. That caused great concern last winter when it was discovered that payments could be made in one area when, at the same time, they were disallowed in another area not far distant. For all those reasons, I repeat that the Government are to be congratulated on having moved forward from the system that was criticised by many, including myself, last year.
However, I confess that I am still uneasy about the entire approach to the severe weather payments system. The system continues to depend this year, as it did last year, on two essential features. First, it depends on a particular level of cold. That will always be arbitrary, no matter how it is defined. Secondly, there is uncertainty under this scheme, just as there was under its predecessor, until after the need for heating has passed, as to whether the money will be paid. Those two basic defects in the scheme have not been, and cannot be, improved upon until we consider a different way of assisting a very needy section of the community.
I warmly welcome the decision that was taken this week to the effect that the benefit has already been triggered before this especially cold week is over. Some hon. Members have suggested that that is due mainly to the pressure of public opinion and the press. Be that as it may, I hope that the House will not overlook the fact that the Government have shown a sensitivity to public opinion, and that they have not been prepared to stand on a strict bureaucratic interpretation of the severe weather payments system. To that extent, I respectfully suggest that the Government have received fewer plaudits than they might reasonably have expected.
I should like to underline the welcome that I extend to the assistance given by the Government in relation to the improved supplementary benefit rates, and especially to the general heating additions. It is always tempting to concentrate on the specific matter of the moment, and there can be no doubt that, at present, that is the severe weather payments scheme. However, it would be extremely unfair if we failed to recognise that the scheme is, in effect, the icing on the cake.
Since the Government came to office considerable progress has been made in the basic rates of supplementary benefit and on the general heating additions. Any suggestion that elderly people risking hypothermia are entirely dependent on the severe weather payments system is simply a malicious misrepresentation of that system. The 330 general heating additions are additional to supplementary benefit and are paid automatically to certain vulnerable groups in the community. They have increased dramatically in the past few years and, most importantly, although this seems to have been almost entirely overlooked in the debate, they are paid not for the one week in the year when the temperature is low, or for the 13 weeks which may or may not constitute winter as defined by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). They are paid for 52 weeks in the year.
I respectfully suggest that if we concentrate solely on the severe weather payments without noting the very real advances that have been made since 1979, we not only overlook a historical fact, but do a disservice to the very people upon whose behalf we are directing our attention to the operation of the severe weather payments system.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I have considerable respect for his record on such matters. I am sure that he will have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) argue earlier that the Government are cutting back with one hand while giving wih the other.
I refer now to the heating allowances which are paid for 52 weeks in the year. Although none of us would accuse the Government of wasting public money by giving to people who do not need it, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise—some of his hon. Friends may not—that that money is paid to people who, by definition, have or are liable to have extra heating needs and extra heating bills for the entire year. That is why they get it. The allowance is not there to meet their needs in exceptionally severe weather.
§ Mr. McCrindle
I accept that what the hon. Lady says is correct, but I hope that she in turn will accept the point that I was trying to make. To ignore the fact that that assistance is available to the category of people we are discussing throughout the entire year, and to imply hat such people are entirely dependent on the severe weal her payments, would be just as misleading as she rightly suggests I would be if I failed to accept the point that she made in her intervention.
I discount the wild allegations of neglect that the hon. Member for Oldham, West and his hon. Friends in the Opposition have directed against the Government, coming as they do from a party which did not do half as much in office as, in many ways, the present Administration have done. However, thinking for a moment about those who do not participate in our debates but who listen to our deliberations through the columns of the press and the media, I doubt very much whether the Labour party's almost weekly announcement of still more expenditure is calculated either to solve the problem or to impress the respective recipients of the largesse, another instalment of which was announced this week by the hon. Member for Oldham, West.
Showering taxpayers' money like confetti without a recognition of where true need exists is not a service to the elderly. It will not impress people because there is no escaping the fact that the whole tenor of the Opposition's approach to this matter in recent days has shown that they see this as a political weapon rather than feeling the true concern that they would have us believe.
Having made those criticisms of the Opposition's approach, I have to tell the House that I cannot honestly 331 say that I am wholly satisfied that as a Government we have come anywhere close to solving the problem. It is a particularly difficult problem, and one to which, if we are not careful, we will find ourselves returning year after year. At the heart of the problem is a dilemma represented by a generation of people who like to pay their bills, who cannot tolerate debt and who, as a result, risk hardship and even death rather than turn up the heat. They do not seek the indiscriminate help that the Opposition have promised in the past few days. They seek assurances that some assistance will be forthcoming when it is needed and without all the bureaucratic qualifications.
I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that we might do worse than reconsider the whole concept of the special payments system and that we may give some consideration to whether an entirely new approach would be preferable. A system that requires a certain temperature for a certain period can never be wholly satisfactory, fair or consistent. Therefore, I would much prefer to see what I might call a fuel bonus. It is true that about every third winter will be relatively mild and that any payment that is automatic and not dependent on temperature will, arguably be unnecessary in such years. However, the benefit of being able to bring to elderly people the certain knowledge that fixed sum will be paid each winter for extra fuel costs would help to encourage pensioners and others to use their heating knowing before they do that a definite sum will be forthcoming.
Accordingly, I suggest—I do so fully aware that any system, no matter how restrictive, would cost more than the severe weather payments system is likely to cost in this or any other year—that during one week in January and one week in February, perhaps on the basis of a pilot scheme, an additional amount should be added automatically to the supplementary benefit payment of pensioners and others in need of additional heating.
It should be made absolutely clear that such a scheme would be a fuel bonus just as the Christmas bonus for pensioners has now become generally accepted as something that we relate to a particular time of the year. I do not for a moment suggest that it is an ideal solution but I believe that it contains two of the essential elements that are missing from the special payments scheme. Those elements are that it would apply irrespective of the temperature in any particular part of the country and that elderly people would know before they used the energy that a sum of money would be payable at least to help meet additional costs.
My suggestion would be the beginning of a move away from the uncertainty of the special weather payments system towards greater certainty and more ability to use heating apparatus. I sincerely hope that it would also help to end the unseemly scenario of politicians using the hardship of old people as a politial weapon. That, in my judgment, and I suspect in the judgment of millions who may read or listen to our deliberations, is an obscene spectacle and I sincerely hope that the Government will at least explore my suggestion.
§ Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)
The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) mentioned the previous system of heating payments during periods of extremely severe weather. I agree with 332 him that the previous system, which operated up to and including last winter, came in for a great deal of deserved criticism because there were variable trigger points which threw up many unfair anomalies whereby in colder climates, such as in parts of Scotland, the temperature had to drop to a considerably lower level than that in the south of England before people qualified for the payment.
I can remember that last winter there was only one calendar month—February—when my constituents qualified for the severe weather payment. I also remember that while the system was in operation I was a member of a delegation of hon. Members who went to see the Minister to complain about the system. We pointed out the anomalies. The Minister, or his predecessor, said that he would look into the matter. This year we have the revised regulations with a uniform trigger point of minus 1.5 deg C.
I remember when the regulations were proposed. I was a member of a delegation from the Scottish parliamentary Labour group that went to see the Minister. We pointed out to him that the revised regulations were hardly any better than those in operation last winter. We told him in no uncertain terms that he was making a major blunder. He did not listen to us. He thought that the trigger point of minus 1.5 deg C would be a fair and uniform system that would operate throughout the United Kingdom and that it would get rid of many of the anomalies of the old system. We pointed out that the trigger point was far too low. In the light of the experience of the past few weeks, especially this week, even the Government have been forced to admit that they made a mistake in determining that trigger point.
Yesterday's announcement, although welcome, will not solve the problem. There were people suffering arctic conditions before this week in parts of Scotland. I, like many hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies, have been inundated with inquiries and complaints from constituents about this matter. The Minister should have a big shake-up in the bureaucracy of the DHSS. It is strange that an individual Member who bothers to do some private research can obtain information and come to a decision as to whether his area qualifies before the cumbersome bureaucracy of the DHSS eventually announces the decision officially.
Last week in Scotland only one weather station, Eskdalemuir, recorded sufficiently low temperatures during the week. Therefore, only people in the area covered by the Galashiels DHSS office qualified for the severe weather payment last week. On Monday of this week, because I could not get answers from the DHSS, I telephoned RAF Turnhouse, which is the weather station covering my area. I found out that last week the temperature dropped to as low as minus 7.6 deg C, on Thursday night. For five out of the seven days the daily average temperature was sub-zero.
The average of the total week is measured from Monday to Sunday inclusive, but because that average of daily averages was only minus 1.2 deg C, my constituents, and indeed the whole of east central Scotland, were disqualified from receiving the payment by less than half a deg C, by 0.3 of a deg C to be precise. The Minister should look at the anomalies that result from setting a trigger point as low as minus 1.5 deg C. He did not pluck that figure out of mid-air. It was based on historical statistics in order to minimise expenditure, and the events of the past week have proven that.
333 Even if the temperature condition is met, it is important to remind the general public of these facts, because many people are confused about this issue. Many pensioners think that they will be receiving £5 this week, but in fact only a relatively small number of people on supplementary benefit will receive the £5. Earlier in this debate somebody mentioned a total figure of less than 2 million people. Will the Minister confirm that? The recipient of supplementary benefit or supplementary pension has to be of pensionable age, or chronically sick or disabled, or have a dependent child under the age of two years.
Many other categories of needy people would benefit from a severe weather payment. Even if all the conditions are met, the amount cannot be described as over-generous by any stretch of the imagination. A mere pittance of £5 is hardly enough to buy a bag of coal. I submit that the system, although I welcome yesterday's statement, is grossly inadequate.
What is the alternative? Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle), have spoken about alternatives. I have been campaigning on this issue for a number of years. Over the past four or five years I have each year introduced a ten-minute Bill called the People's Right to Fuel Bill. One of the purposes of the Bill was to stop electricity and gas domestic disconnections unless the board had a court order. I also tried to introduce under the terms of my Bill a comprehensive system of fuel allowances, not just for supplementary benefit recipients, but for people on housing benefit. It would be tied to housing benefit to obviate the need for yet another means test, while at the same time targeting the assistance to those who were most in need. The amount that I proposed was a minimum of £5 a week, but the exact amount would be determined in the same way as housing benefit is determined—by a scale rate depending on the income of the person or family, and the actual heating costs incurred.
We accept the principle of subsidy for a roof over someone's head. We ought to extend that principle and accept the logic of a subsidy for heating within that situation. A roof over someone's head in arctic conditions is not much good unless it is accompanied by adequate heating. Such a comprehensive system of fuel allowances would have to be backed up by a massive house insulation programme and the installation of efficient central heating systems. We have the disgraceful anomaly in this country of nearly half a million construction and allied workers on the dole queue when their skills and talents could be used to improve houses, to insulate houses, to put in efficient heating systems and so on.
Urgent action is required to eliminate fuel poverty from this country for ever. Many people must be wondering tonight whether they have almost to freeze to death before they will qualify for this special payment. There is a real risk of hypothermia for millions of people in this country. Age Concern estimates that a hundred old people die every day because of the cold. There are many others who are suffering and running the real risk of hypothermia, and there are many people tonight who are having to make a choice between heating and eating, because they cannot afford both. It is a national scandal. The House has a responsibility to do something about it, and yesterday's announcement, although welcome, is not nearly enough.
§ Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)
The hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) said that this £5 allowance would scarcely buy a bag of coal for some old people. If the £5 allowance was the only help that they had for their heating costs, he would be absolutely right in declaring it scandalous and thoroughly inadequate. Accidentally, he may have given the impression to the House that this is the only payment that we make and I am sure that he would not want that impression to remain. We maintain the normal heating allowance for those people who qualify through the supplementary benefit system in the first tier, and through the additional heating allowances in the second tier. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) has pointed out, this exceptionally cold-weather payment is the additional icing on the cake.
§ Mr. Canavan
Will the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) remind the House that the amount of additional heating benefit for people on supplementary benefit is £2.20 at the lower rate and £5.55 at the higher rate? As I understand it, that will be phased out by April 1988.
§ Mr. Maclean
The Opposition have chosen this subject for debate today because of the current problem with the extreme weather that we face in this country. They say that the heating allowances currently available are inadequate and that this special allowance is not right. There is a range of heating allowances available, through the supplementary benefit system and the additional heating allowances—in some cases up to £11 a week. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar has pointed out, these are paid automatically as of right for 52 weeks a year, and they are being paid at this very moment. The £5 allowance that my hon. Friend the Minister quite rightly said yesterday would be triggered this week and would be paid to those on supplementary benefit is an additional allowance on top of the first and second tiers.
I know that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West will be quite happy for those facts to be made available to the House, although he did not mention them in his speech. I will not give the same benefit of the doubt to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who, on the radio today and in his statements of the past few days, has been quite disgraceful in seeking to create the impression that the only help available for the old and cold in this country is the £5 allowance. Of course there are anomalies in the system. Whenever there is a trigger point there are anomalies, whether the temperature is set at minus 15 deg C, minus 1.5 deg C or plus 15 deg C. Wherever one draws the line there will be people who fall on one side of it or the other.
We must never forget that this system is designed to cope with the extraordinary cases. When it is warmer than 1.5 deg C, cases are already dealt with by the normal heating allowances. The normal heating allowances are paid through the existing two tiers in the supplementary benefit system. We reserve this system for those exceptional cases.
It is interesting that the hon. Member for Oldham, West said that he would cut through the bureacracy. We have 335 rightly cut through the bureacracy of this new system. The hon. Member for Oldham, West will not have bureacracy surrounding it in future because he is promising to give more money to all and sundry. The previous Labour Government had no bureacracy surrounding the system because they did not give any exceptionally cold weather payments to anyone. As they did not have the system, there was no bureaucracy surrounding it.
§ Mr. Maclean
It is inevitable that bureaucracy exists in a trigger system such as this. The hon. Member for Oldham, West made his promises, but he avoided saying whether his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) has approved those promises. Indeed, his right hon. Friend has already warned him to stop making crazy promises that he cannot fulfil. Of course, he will be politically shrewd enough not to give him a ticking off this week, but next week, when the Opposition continue their bogus and synthetic campaign about the state of British industry, no doubt the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook will have a word with his hon. Friend and tell him to stop making vain promises to which the Labour party does not wish to be committed because the electorate can see through them.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is not in the Chamber. He has been present throughout a large part of the debate. I want to comment on something that he said. He asked why we are not providing free coal for pensioners. It is interesting that he should advocate such a policy when a couple of years ago he supported a miners' strike which drastically reduced the amount of coal available in Britain.
No one challenges the charity of individual miners who helped to get coal supplies and solid fuel through to old folks' homes during the strike, but we do challenge the attitude of Labour politicians and union members who attempted to close down the power stations before Christmas. I remember Arthur Scargill saying, "Don't worry, chaps. Stick with us. We will get the power stations closed before Christmas when the bad weather comes." Conservative Members will not take advice from Labour Members who tell us to be more charitable or to have a conscience when they supported that sort of policy.
I should have liked to hear from the right hon. Gentleman, had he allowed me to intervene in his speech, how much electricity would be available at present if his anti-nuclear policy went through. We already know that the Central Electricity Generating Board is stretched to the maximum.
§ Mr. Maclean
If the Labour party's policy of closing nuclear power stations in Britain went ahead, not only would we have a shortage of electricity, but electricity prices would go through the roof, as they have done in the past under Labour Governments.
I conclude as I started. The additional payment for severe weather is paid in exceptional circumstances. The 336 Labour party wants to perpetuate the myth that it will pay it to everybody in all cases and at all times. It wants it to become the norm. We know that when it had the opportunity to do that it failed to do so. We also know that the £28 billion that the Labour party will splash around on public expenditure—begged, borrowed or taken from us in taxation—will mean that it does not have the resources to do that.
In the past two years the Government have brought in the extra payment, which is the third tier on top of the first tier of supplementary benefit, which we have increased, and on top of the second tier of additional heating allowances, which we have also increased. That is a good record of which no Conservative Member is ashamed and which the public appreciates.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
I am the only Member from Wales taking part in the debate, and we have particular problems in Wales. A study published last year showed that the proportion of the household income that went on heating costs was 7.3 per cent. in Wales—higher than in Scotland or in England, or, indeed, in any region in England. That is a reflection of the weather, low incomes, unemployment and poor housing in many parts of Wales. Therefore, we have a severe problem.
Members on both sides of the House have addressed themselves to the problem, but a solution has not yet become apparent. It is clear that the present policy has, before it has been implemented, shown itself to be deficient. It has already been overridden before it has come into effect. It would be appropriate for the Minister, when he replies, to say what will happen to the minus 1.5 deg C system. Clearly, it is not practical. One almost felt sorry for the Minister on "Newsnight" the other night having to defend such an impossible case.
We need a system that is flexible enough to meet people's needs from area to area, but which does not have the problem of discretion, which we saw was such a great difficulty for managers of DHSS offices during the previous winter's hard weather. I am attracted by the suggestion that has just been made by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) of a bonus system. There should be some sort of a bonus payment. A payment made regularly every week, six months of the year, can become psychologically subsumed as normal income. Pensioners expect it to be there to live on.
That is the problem with the existing heating elements allowance in the supplementary benefit and supplementary pensions, to which many hon. Members have referred. It tends to be assumed to be part of the normal income, so it is not available as an extra element when it is really needed. A bonus of perhaps £10 for a limited number of weeks, whether alternate weeks or every week during cold weather, is very attractive because of the certainty that it will be available when it is needed.
It is not just those on supplementary pension and benefit who need such a payment. There are people on ordinary pensions, just below supplementary pension level, who are hit equally hard by the cold weather that we have been having. There are people on low incomes or family income supplement who are in an equally difficult position.
I have been asked to present one set of cases to the House tonight by Mencap. Mencap has been conducting a study in Manchester on profoundly mentally 337 handicapped people which has been going on for some time now. It shows that for mentally handicapped people—usually children or young people—who are living at home with their parents in the community, the single most severe problem for those families, virtually all of which are in receipt of attendance allowance, is heating costs. In the survey, 79 per cent. of those families put heating costs as the most difficult problem that they are facing. Yet only 20 per cent. or so of those families, are in receipt of supplementary benefit. That means that only one out of every four of the families who have identified heating costs as their greatest difficulty will be helped by the provisions that the Government have brought forward. The position of those on attendance allowance but not on supplementary benefit—not only those with mental handicap but disabled people also—needs to be rethought.
There is also the unfairness of the £500 capital rule. In my part of the world old people regard it as a matter of dignity that they should save enough money to pay for their funeral, and if a husband and wife are saving up for their funerals they will be over the £500 mark immediately and it is wrong that such people should be debarred and penalised for their upstanding attitude.
Finally, let me deal with the anomaly in the measurement of temperatures. My constituency falls into two halves, one of which, in Snowdonia, is covered by the RAF Valley base on Anglesey. The temperature in places like Deiniolen, Dinorwig and Llanberis up in the mountains of Snowdonia can be much colder than in RAF Valley on the island. In the southern part, the Trawsfynydd power station warms the lake so much that there is sub-tropical life in it. That is the point where the temperature is being taken for the southern part of my constituency, the Dwyfor area, and, indeed, for Blaenau Ffestiniog, up in the mountains. That is clearly ridiculous.
We need a reliable system so that people know that the money is coming as soon as it gets cold, so that they do not have to hold out in freezing circumstances. There needs to be certainty and regionality and a broad enough net to take in all those in need. That is not the case at the moment and we certainly need to rethink.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
I understand that the first Front-Bench spokesman will seek to catch my eye at about 9.30 pm. Five hon. Members have been sitting here for a long time seeking to catch my eye. If they do their arithmetic, we might get them all in.
§ Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)
I note your remarks, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) will not object if I do not take up his comments. I am well aware that the House regards the hon. Gentleman highly and that what he has said will be carefully noted by my hon. Friend the Minister, not only when he replies but in further deliberations on this sensitive and difficult issue. Instead, I want to devote my comments to three separate points which have arisen during the debate and require further consideration.
I was saddened and surprised that Opposition Members should be so derisory when my hon. Friend the Minister referred to the fact that it is desperately important in this cold winter to ensure that neighbours, friends and relatives look after elderly people. It is all too 338 easy for people, any time a crisis occurs, to ask, "What are the Government going to do?" I believe that charity should start at home.
In most cases elderly people have children and grandchildren who live not very far from them—[Interruption.] I said in most cases. I think that it is important that we should generate greater family responsibility for elderly people.
§ Mr. MacKay
No, I shall not give way, as other hon. Members wish to speak. I believe that we should encourage families to take on a greater responsibility for their relatives.
In my constituency, and I am sure in many others, people in the neighbourhood wish to play a greater part in caring for the elderly. That should be encouraged. At this difficult time relatives and neighbours should keep an eye on old people to ensure that they are adequately looked after.
With hindsight, Labour Members—most of whom I know are very concerned—will realise that their laughter and derisory remarks about the Minister's suggestion of increased community help was unfortunate, insensitive and misguided. Perhaps their remarks were made in the heat of the debate, and in the cold light of day they will regret them.
It is not sufficient to make sure that the elderly are looked after. I suspect that that is what the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) is seeking to say.
§ Mr. MacKay
It is not sufficient for neighbours and families to keep an eye on old people. Many old people worry about paying the bills. The hon. Member for Caernarfon rightly pointed out that there are many who have modest savings to pay for their funerals. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) also pointed out that there are many people who were brought up to pay their bills promptly. They become desperately concerned if they get into debt. They would endure pain, suffering, or worse, to avoid such debt. That is why it was desperately important that the Government should make it clear that it is right that all old people should maintain adequate heating at this cold time.
I believe that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has done a great disservice for cheap political gain by some of his broadcasts, in which he has suggested that old people would be foolish to heat their homes adequately as their bills would then be difficult to meet.
Labour Members behaved in a despicable manner and not in the interests of old people when they laughed at the Minister's remarks concerning the exceptionally mild December that we had. That mild weather means that the heating bills for that period will be relatively small and will go some way to offset the larger heating bills that we will all face for January. That is simple economics. The laughter and dismissive remarks of some Labour Members prove that they are not interested in old people. The Labour party is looking at the opinion polls and it is aware that it will lose at the next general election. It is clutching 339 at straws to try to salvage—[Interruption.] The electorate will not look favourably at a political party and some Opposition Members—thankfully, not all—who have tried to use this exceptionally cold winter and the concern for elderly people to political advantage. That will do the Labour party a great deal of harm when it comes to the next election.
Unfortunately, I fell out with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when I tried to intervene in the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West. I apologise if I caused you any embarrassment. I was trying, as was the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins), to ask the hon. Member for Oldham, West, who is the official shadow Cabinet spokesman on health and social security, how a future Labour Government would pay for the extra heating allowances that he was proposing.
We are aware that there has been a meeting at Bishops Stortford and that the Labour party proposes to spend £3.6 billion on a poverty programme which is to be financed from a total of £28 billion of extra public expenditure. Independent commentators are anxious to know how that money will be found. We want to know whether the extra money for the heating allowance, as proposed by the Labour party, will come out of the £3.6 billion. We have a right to know, and I am sure that the electorate would also like to know. It is irresponsible of the Opposition to promise extra money if they do not know how they will raise that money. The Opposition have an obligation not to make such promises.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Oldham, West would have explained this if I had successfully intervened. The hon. Gentleman would not wish to deceive the House, nor the electorate. The hon. Gentleman would have explained whether the extra money for the heating allowance would eat into the £3.6 billion poverty programme or whether—as I suspect—such expenditure would be additional to that programme. I hope that when the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) sums up for the Opposition, she will explain to us where that money will come from.
There has been considerable hypocrisy in some of the speeches made inside and outside the House. There was a clear impression that in the periods of the Labour Administration—1964–70 and 1974–79—there had been no cold winters and no tragedies when old people had died. It was claimed that the Labour Government had made special provision. That is not true—[Interruption.] I believe that the electorate will judge the Labour party's record, not its promises.
Under the Labour Government, electricity and gas prices went up because of massive inflation. It is very easy to say that discounts were provided, but those discounts were provided on the massively increased prices of electricity and gas. It was all funny money.
At the end of the debate some of the more thoughtful Opposition Members—many of whom are not in the Chamber at the moment—will be thoroughly ashamed of the way in which the Labour Opposition—I stress Labour Opposition, as we have had a more responsible approach from the Alliance and from the hon. Member for Caernarfon—have tried to exploit this difficult situation.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)
It is a great pity that the hon. Member for Berkshire, East, (Mr. MacKay) seemed to want to join in a competition in frivolity among Conservative Members, as that is quite inappropriate to the very serious situation facing many people today. Conservative Members have almost totally failed to respond to the severity of it. They would like us to believe that everything in the garden is lovely—[Interruption.] I did not interrupt the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) even though he made an even more frivolous speech than the hon. Member for Berkshire, East.
The fundamental question to be asked is why people are dying from the cold and what the Government are going to do about it. I have facts that cannot be challenged and that are not being given the necessary consideration because of the frivolity of Conservative Members. In 1986, 1,060 people died of hypothermia, and that does not include deaths related to cold. In March, 1986, 16,000 people died as a result of cold-related illnesses. Are we to pretend that that is not happening, or that because of party political considerations, which mean that some people have their eyes on the next election instead of on the problems facing folks today, we should stay sitting here gagged, saying nothing? Are we being asked not to agree with what the hon. Member for Caenarfon (Mr. Wigley) said in his splendid speech? He understands these matters and the feelings of ordinary people who have to face the day-to-day realities.
Is that number of deaths necessary, given that we live in a rich country that has plenty of resources? The facts available on other countries suggest that the answer is no. In February 1986 in Sweden and France 6 per cent. more elderly people died than the average for the year. The figure for the United States was 8 per cent. and for Scotland, 19 per cent. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South should find that funny, because it is a serious problem that must be addressed. We are debating the fact that the Government's policy does not respond to the problems that exist but reflects, rather, the Treasury's cash limits.
For several years now we have debated the problem of fuel poverty. Every year the Government say that they will deal with it. Ministers appear on television programmes giving all sorts of assurances, yet we are now holding a similar debate to the one held last year. People throughout the country are challenging the Government's policy. Even some of the sychophantic newspapers that support the Government on almost all their decisions challenge their attitude on this issue.
The newspapers challenge the Government's thinking on the trigger point. Where does the minus 1.5 deg C come from? It is a totally arbitrary measurement. Newspapers have challenged, just as we have, the stipulation that that level must be averaged from Monday to Sunday. Indeed, that outrageous stipulation has been manipulated to the disadvantage of those whom we seek to help. Above all, they challenge the Government's intentions about reading stations. For example, Aviemore has registered a teperature of minus 17 deg C, but that is not taken into account in the readings for that region. We are told that it is sometimes colder in Aviemore than at the North pole. How does Government policy take that into account?
§ Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)
My hon. Friend has spoken about Aviemore and the frivolity of Conservative Members, but has there not also been some hypocrisy on the part of Opposition Members? For example, the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) has been a Member of Parliament since 1974, yet it took him until 1982 to discover that there were different climatic zones in Scotland. We were raising the issue much earlier than that.
§ Mr. Clarke
I am sure that the House will have noted that point. My hon. Friend has certainly gone on the record on that issue.
The problem of fuel poverty is reflected in the fact that 6 per cent. of household expenditure in the United Kingdom relates to necessary fuel charges, while the figure for Scotland is 7 per cent. and for all the elderly in the United Kingdom, 9 per cent. There is no way that any DHSS arrangements take that into account. Moreover, there is no way that the problems of the elderly can be recognised if the Government insist that people with capital of £500 or more should be excluded.
It astonishes me that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) has mentioned, only Eskdalemuir should qualify because of the method of taking into account recorded temperatures. I am pleased that Eskdalemuir at least qualified. Last week it exceeded the magic figure for four days out of seven. However, the same was also true of the Glasgow area, including my constituency. In the Edinburgh district the Government's magic figure was exceeded for five days out of seven, but that area was not entitled to claim the allowance. How can the Government regard that as a reasonable approach to such wintry conditions?
Moreover, people in many parts of the country live in great poverty. A few weeks ago I asked the Prime Minister a question and the reply confirmed that the top 10 per cent. of earners had increased their wealth since 1979, while the bottom 10 per cent. had become poorer. Given that, it is not easy to respond to the problems of fuel poverty. Yesterday morning I heard BBC radio giving warnings to motorists and pedestrians. That was only right. However, we should always be prepared to give warnings to the elderly about drops in temperature and wintry conditions, and we should not simply depend on the voluntary organisations.
There are many voluntary organisations, and they all do an excellent job. They would not for a second tell the Government to stand on one side and to pursue their present policies. I have listened carefully to every hon. Member who has spoken and have tried to contrast their speeches with some of the representations made to me and no doubt to other hon. Members recently. Yesterday I had a discussion in my own home with an elderly retired man called Eddie. For 20 years he had been a caretaker, looking after people in a 14-storey block of flats. He sat and wept. He did not make cheap political points but, rather, demonstrated the reality of the situation. I would be failing in my duty if I did not reflect that in the House tonight.
When Ministers and Government supporters say to the House and the country, "Where will we get the money?", I say, on behalf of Eddie and millions of others, that the money is there if the will is there. If the position that exists in my constituency were reflected in the Falklands, the Treasury would be told to find the money, and that is what the House is telling the Government to do tonight.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)
I declare an interest as 30 per cent. of my constituents are over retirement age and, undoubtedly, some of them are old and cold. I have another interest. I represent the Hebridean Isle of Thanet which this week, last year and the year before suffered some extreme weather conditions. On Monday I drove through a blizzard to get here and tomorrow I shall return home. During my absence my office has been manned 24 hours a day by my staff seeking to help those who suffer from the cold. In case that sounds grand, I happen to be married to my staff.
The constituents of Thanet will not be especially impressed by the political opportunism of this debate. They will recognise, as we recognise, that a couple of days ago the Leader of the Opposition said, "Okay, boyos, it is snowing, so let us do snow and cold this week and then we can do economic disaster next week or the week after that." His disgraceful performance this afternoon was manifest of that sentiment.
The alliance can take little comfort from its position. After all, it was those disunited parties that kept the last Labour Government in office and doing nothing. I have checked the records and there are no proud speeches, nor one word from the Liberals or the Members of the Social Democratic party, who were then members of the Labour party, on this subject.
Today we have heard of the three levels of heating assistance that the Government have introduced.
§ Dr. Godman
I said that the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) called the third tier "the icing on the cake". That was an especially unfortunate remark given the fact that in my constituency there are many thousands of elderly people who desperately require help. Under the discredited scheme that has been thrown out, 3,000 payments were made for the exceptionally severe weather of last February. My research showed me that that represented about one in five of those who should have received that payment.
§ Mr. Gale
I am sorry that I gave way. I thought that the hon. Gentleman sought to intervene in my speech. We can probably all agree that the only icing on the cake of England at present is several inches of snow, and it is the effects of that that we are here to discuss. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to make a speech later.
This afternoon and this evening we heard that the Government have introduced three levels of heating assistance. I do not believe, and I do not know any Conservative Member who believes, that that is any cause for complacency, that we have done enough, that there is no more that needs to be done or that there are not at this moment elderly people who are suffering from the cold. Since 1962, year on year, the incidence of death from hypothermia has fallen except in one year. It may be a coincidence that that happens to be the year in which the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) was in office. The fact that the incidence of hypothermia is falling is also no cause for satisfaction, if the level is still too high, as indeed it is.
343 Today the House has not discussed providing help where it is needed. Earlier this afternoon, during the debate on the television licence, we heard a classic case of the Opposition saying that they wanted to give a television licence free to every pensioner, irrespective of need. Clearly many people and many pensioners would welcome that. I do not doubt that those who can afford to pay their licence fee would welcome that, but by no means all those people are in need, and to use valuable resources where they are not most needed is simply a waste.
I said that 30 per cent. of my constituents were over retirement age, and so they are. Many of them are old, cold and living in their own homes in which they have invested a vast quantity of capital. In other circumstances, for example if the money were released, they could well afford to pay their way and to pay for insulation, central heating and the comfort that they deserve. Sadly, they are often widows who have been bereaved earlier than expected, living in under-occupied properties which are too big and expensive to heat and maintain.
Another section of the elderly population in my constituency are extremely comfortable. They are not rich. Some are well off and some have not a bean to their name. They live in sheltered or warden-assisted accommodation which is well heated and lighted and they are well fed and cared for. They have a cord to pull if they find themselves in trouble.
If we are to address ourselves seriously to the problem and the needs of the elderly, and not to make cheap political capital because there happens to be some snow on the ground, we must build more warden-assisted housing to provide for the ever-increasing elderly population. With respect to my hon. Friend the Minister, it is the Secretary of State for the Environment who needs to address himself to that as much as the Department of Health and Social Security.
Some Opposition Members will immediately say, "Yes, if the Government allowed us to use more receipts from housing sales, we could do just that"; but we know that that is borrowed money. We also know that there is under-occupied property, not only in the private sector, but in the public sector. Tonight we have also heard about the needs of the young. It has been suggested that far too many young people are homeless, particularly in London, and I concur with that, but it is also a fact that there is too much under-occupied private and public sector property. That results partly from bad local government and management—the vast number of housing voids is a disgrace—and partly from the Rent Acts which have taken a great deal of property out of the housing market.
If we are to address ourselves to this problem seriously and in the long term, we should look, not at five quid here or there, or say, "We have done a bit more than you," or, "You say you will do a bit more than us." We should consider the housing available and ensure that every room is being used to best advantage. I freely accept that the responsibility for under-occupied property and for the lack of warden-assisted property lies equally with both sides of the House. If we address ourselves to that, irrespective of who is in power next winter and during subsequent winters, we may not have this argument. If not, we know perfectly well that whoever sits on the Opposition benches will say, "There is snow on the ground; the Government should do more."
344 The Government have a good record on assistance, but that does not mean that more does not need to be done. I said that I would be brief, but, coming from Kent, it would be wrong to sit down without paying tribute to the armed services which have given so much help in the past few days and are continuing to do so. In particular, I mention the Gurkha regiment which has brought the Isle of Sheppey back to the mainland, as it were, fighting their way through the snow to deliver supplies.
It would be wrong not to pay tribute to the many people who have been getting food through, not only to the elderly in need but to young families in need and to village shops which are running out of food. It would be wrong not to pay tribute to the county council, especially to its employees who have been driving the snow ploughs and keeping the roads open.
Finally, it would be wrong if we did not recognise, as our constituents will recognise, the considerable contribution made yesterday and today by my hon. Friend the Minister, who has done so much in this crisis.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
Pensioners have an enormous number of problems in severe weather because many of their houses or flats are defective and their roofs leak. They also have problems because they cannot get out and they cannot get food in. The worst problem, and the one that rightly has prompted the debate today, is that severe cold leads to ill health, and for many pensioners that means death.
As the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) intimated in his splendid speech, every winter about 90,000 people die from cold. In the last full year for which figures are available, over 1,000 people, most of them old people, died from hypothermia. Some 86 per cent. of them were over 65, and 70 per cent. were over 75. In the first quarter of last year there were 578 hypothermia-related deaths. That is not surprising if we consider the background figures. They show that 46 per cent. of those over 60 and living alone have no central heating, and, also according to the 1983 general household survey, 41 per cent. of couples over 60 have no central heating.
Additionally, the surveys carried out by the DHSS in the last decade accept that the temperature for the elderly should be 70 deg C, but that the vast majority of elderly people's living rooms have temperatures of about 10 deg C less than that. Against all those problems, the DHSS proposes that, in 14 months time, the extra heating allowance provision be removed for up to 2.5 million people and that insulation grants should be phased out.
The severe weather payments issue has been raised regularly in the House. It is sad that this winter we had to wait until yesterday for another Government U-turn. Clearly, they want to be popular with the electors. The autumn statement, the rate support grant which helps the Tory shires, and now the extra £5 a week given at the last moment demonstrate that fact. We do not mind the Government being nice. We are happy that they are generous, but being generous so late in the day does not smack of a commitment to make sure that people do not suffer when it gets cold. I hope that people will remember that, for years they were frozen out of their entitlements and only given a one-week handout when, suddenly, the pressure was put on.
345 As the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heifer) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) and others have said, there has been a long history of debates like this. They are annual events. It is not appropriate that party political points should childishly be made across the Chamber. A perfectly valid question was put to the Minister by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock), the leader of the Labour party, and the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees): if old people felt that were they to put on their heating they would not have their bills met, could they be guaranteed by the Government that their bills would be met when presented? I regret that the response to that question by the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security was total silence.
On the radio this morning, the chairman of one of the electricity authorities said that the authority would be compassionate with old people when bills were presented. Many old people need not just compassion but the knowledge that they will not be without the resources to pay if they have to keep up the heat to keep themselves warm.
We had a bad winter last year and the old scheme went back to the Government but, sadly, they have not produced a well-laid plan of action this year. Winter comes every year and some winters are worse than others. This may be the worst winter for many years. Last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) said that, unless the Government had a plan that was geared to work when the weather became bad early, we would inevitably have an emergency response to the crisis with additional deaths. The tragedy is that this year the Government have been caught out early in the life of the new scheme by their own innate meanness.
The scheme was contrived to spend as little money as possible and to choose a temperature that was not logical. A logical temperature must be 0 deg C, the temperature at which things freeze. The logical measuring points must reflect geographical diversity. My colleagues from Wales and Scotland have made the self-evident point that measuring stations by the coast clearly do not take into account enormous differences of temperature inland. The worst thing of all is the profoundly unsatisfactory nature of the approach to the system. One should ask what old people need, should try to meet it and then should be determined to meet it.
Although we may be willing to save fuel by telling people in offices and young people in their homes to turn down their heat, we should not be willing to tell old people to turn down their heat. That is because they are the most vulnerable people in our society and cold is clearly often the worst and most obvious cause of death.
I hope that we will hear the immediate announcement of a system where the trigger is 0 deg C and which will run on a basis of at least any seven days rolling together so that people will realise that if there is a run of a few cold days it is likely that they will be entitled to benefit. The categories need to be expanded to more than the few penny-pinching categories that we have at the moment. I should like to know why we cannot have an automatic triggering of the system. Why do people have to put in forms to get the benefit? It could be given to them automatically. The DHSS keeps records, so such a system is not impossible.
346 Why cannot we have the adoption of the scheme that my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire suggested last year? The winter months from December to March are the months when people should have a bonus. If we examine the ideas from Members in all part of the House, we see that those are the 13 weeks of the year when people should have a bonus. If we had the unusual circumstance of winter extending beyond the end of March, we could look at it again. Under such a scheme, at least people would have certainty—old people need the certainty—of knowing that they will have money to pay the bills.
We ask the Government to think again about their plan to phase out insulation grants and, next year, to phase out heating payments. Home insulation is the long-term sensible solution, and must be an intermediate step before we change the whole tax and social security system to be fairer to those at the bottom of the heap. As some hon. Members have said, it is quite disgraceful that in a civilised and rich country in 1987 we should condemn more of our fellow citizens to die of the cold than die in any neighbouring country in Europe.
The Minister of State said that he would use the media to advertise tomorrow or on Friday in newspapers and on the radio information and advice. I hope that we can have additional advice telling people how to keep warm and avoid illness or accident. Help the Aged and other agencies are as concerned about those who do not telephone as about those who do. We must start a health education exercise, but there is no point in starting it on 7 January or 1 March. We should have it in advance so that people can have a system into which they can plug their right to benefits.
If the Government spent one tenth of what they spent on advertising British Gas shares advertising to meet the needs of the elderly, we might be making some progress towards a civilised society. Repeatedly, we are not prepared and pressure has to be exerted. My right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal party had to write to the Minister of State on Monday morning to ask him to introduce the additional bonus which arrived a day later.
I ask the Government to consider what I hope are a few helpful and certainly urgent proposals. Why can we not have a national plan, a "cold aid" plan—call it what we will—so that local authorities, Government and voluntary bodies are brought together in advance to act and build on the experience of voluntary agencies?
All local authorities could have a well known "white line" telephone number for emergency help and advice. Advance advertisements everywhere could advise how to "stop the cold from killing". Additional staff could be recruited by the statutory agencies so that people do not have to wait a long time for electricity, gas and water repairs. There should be encouragement of neighbourhood watch schemes especially for pensioners, and people should be encouraged to give extra volunteer help to such organisations as Age Concern.
The Government should appoint somebody in advance to be in charge of Government policy with a statutory duty to co-ordinate ministerial initiatives. Local authorities should be encouraged to have a sort of "white alert" like Adur district council, where there is a scheme initiated by my colleagues which says to people, "If you put in £1 to help give old people a fuel bonus, we in the local authority 347 will match it." My colleagues are to be complimented on that scheme. The week of action suggested by voluntary bodies for cold homes should also be accepted.
As we also suggest, there should be a change in the rules to abolish standing charges for fuel. That charge is a great iniquity and Britain could well afford to do without it. Fundamentally and finally, we must increase the pension.
We may be greatly worried about the young and others who are vulnerable, but tonight we are discussing pensioners. This is a test of public generosity, not just of cash but of spirit. Enormous tax handouts to the rich sound pretty hollow to that much larger group in our community who have to prise £5 out of the Government's hands at the very last moment, and only for one week. Ministers should return to the Elephant and Castle and persuade their colleagues that the age of Dickens, when the old had to come with a begging bowl, asking for more, should have long gone. It is their responsibility to ensure that it never returns.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
I have been an associate member of Teesside Pensioners' Association for the past 14 years and must therefore declare a vested interest in today's debate. Membership of that association means that I am qualified to speak with a little authority and with direct knowledge of the pensioners' outlook on these matters. If all hon. Members had the welfare of senior citizens at heart and a vested interest on a similar scale, today's debate would have been unnecessary. The only speech from the Government Benches that I commend is that of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle).
Ministers will recall that I took part in the debate on the proposed annulment of the regulations on 18 December 1986, when I referred to the omission of the Stockton district DHSS offices from the list of areas and their associated designated national climatological message stations. I explained in painstaking detail how application of section 4(b) of new regulation 26A would result inclose neighbours in the same geophysical location suffering similar socio-economic deprivation being subject to evaluation on statistics that are quite different.I explained that such a practice could give rise to a constituent in the north of my constituency being assessed on the same basis as somebody in Humberside, while his fellow elector on the south side of the same Stockton street would be subject to the data that apply to claimants in Castle Morpeth in Northumberland, 140 miles away. I said that it was sheer madness, and sheer madness it will remain if such stupid regulations remain in force.
On that occasion the junior Minister said:I shall refer later and briefly to the comments made by the hon. Member."—[Official Report, 18 December 1986; Vol. 89, c. 1385–89]Later and briefly it proved to be, right enough. No reference has been made to it from that day to this. I suppose that that is as late and as brief as one can be. I trust that today the Minister will not be guilty of the same oversight. However, we shall see. He has a second chance.
During the same debate I goaded the Minister by referring to the period of seven days beginning on a Monday and ending on the following Sunday. I pointed out that one does not have to be a great mathematician to 348 realise that the definition could refer to an exceptionally cold weather period lasting for 19 days and that effectively it is a way of denying a week's payment to any pensioner who may qualify for it. It could prove to be a mechanism to deprive the elderly of payment for 12 days of suffering in sub-zero temperatures—all for a miserable, penny-pinching £8.57.
The Minister indicated dissent to such an extent on that occasion that I offered him the opportunity to deal with the point. He declined to do so, much to my disappointment and his colleagues' relief. He made no reference to this matter on that occasion. I hope that he will cover the point today. When he does so, perhaps he will bear in mind that the two weather stations covering Cleveland are at the Whitby coastguard and at Leeming. Last week they recorded average temperatures which at Leeming were 0 deg C and at Whitby 0.3 deg C. However, the average for Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Leeming was minus 2.5 deg C and at Whitby minus 2.25 deg C. Thus, if the period runs from Monday to Sunday, it means no help for last week, in spite of the very low temperatures in the last four days of that week.
The announcement yesterday, far from being a gesture of generosity of the Snow Queen, as some of the sycophantic "Torientated" media have described it, was no more than the reinstatement of four days of suffering that would have been filched from our senior citizens by these regulations which the Minister claims, in his own words, were so carefully and skilfully structured. The regulations are a farce. If they were in any way adequate, yesterday's statement would have been unnecessary. In fact, yesterday's announcement, much vaunted by the Prime Minister, was no more than an admission of failure to provide adequately, and the right hon. Lady should admit that.
Notwithstanding facts and figures and well placed guilt, the plain truth is that many people cannot afford to keep themselves sufficiently warm. The sum of £5 a week is clearly insufficient. The Cleveland "elderly at home" team reported to me that some of their clients who have inefficient heating systems have had to use up to four bags of smokeless fuel a week at £7 a bag—this means £28 a week during severe weather. Even with the weekly heating addition which we have heard so much about tonight of £2.20, and the severe weather payment of £5, the single pensioner has to find over £20 a week out of a weekly supplementary pension of £37.90 if he or she is to heat himself or herself adequately. How many Government Members could afford to spend 53 per cent. of their normal weekly income on fuel?
At this point perhaps a comparison with previous circumstances may prove enlightening, for under the old rules anyone receiving supplementary benefit could qualify for a severe weather payment. Under the new rules, only pensioners, children under two and the chronically sick and disabled are entitled to the payment. What about the others? What, for instance, about families with three-year-old to four-year-old children? We have been asked for facts today. Perhaps the House will bear this fact in mind. The highest percentage rise in winter male deaths, as opposed to summer male deaths, occurs in the age range of one to four years. In fact, the 1980 figure indicates that the increase in winter over summer is 151 per cent. So if the children aged nought to five qualify for the age-related 349 weekly heating additions, what justification is there for excluding the two-year-olds to five-year-olds from the severe weather payments?
I shall listen most carefully for the ministerial response to that question. I shall listen as carefully as I did on Monday last when the Minister said that his Department had deliberately taken the usual budget element allocated for the purpose of severe weather payments and devised a structure of regulations that would disperse the same amount of money more fairly to those who needed such help throughout the country. It is clear that the choice of that approach, coupled with the choice of trigger temperature, was designed not to help the pensioners withstand the cold in their shivering misery, but simply to minimise expenditure and maximise the facade of the Government's pretence at compassion, a form of mendacity which was quite malicious and mischievous in its intent.
If the Government had wanted to be as generous as the Prime Minister now protests, they could have taken a leaf from the pensions book of our tiny neighbour, Guernsey, which was quoted by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson)—although he got his facts reversed—where a weekly amount of £12 is paid throughout the winter period in a manner similar to that proposed by Labour Members tonight. In fact, this Channel Island tax haven. this bolt-hole for Brits who seek to avoid or minimise their financial contribution to collective care and concern, has, despite a gulf stream climate measurably more clement than our own, announced yesterday a further weekly payment of £6 for the duration of the present severe weather. Perhaps the Minister will tell us tonight how generous the Snow Queen is now in comparison with our Channel Island neighbour.
Perhaps I may make a point about the comments of the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) on nuclear power, to show how specious his contribution was. The reactor at Dungeness B was down this Monday and the reactors at Sizewell, Heysham and Trawsfynydd are now out of commission. According to the Central Electricity Generating Board today, it is because they are undergoing annual maintenance. This is the first time that, as an engineer associated with power stations, I have known of annual outages in January. Incidentally, the Isle of Grain, Ince and Littlebrook power stations produce between them 4,000 MW of oil-fired power which has not been used since the miners' strike. The hon. Gentleman made a specious point and I hope that the House noted that.
The regulations are nothing more than an elaborate attempt at a pathetically opaque confidence trick. Again the Government have ensnared themselves in a web of their own deception and misinformation. The Minister knows it, we know it, and the electorate know it, and they will record that knowledge appropriately when they get the chance to boot this regime out at the next general election.
§ Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)
I am bound to say, as a relatively new Member, that I have been amazed to hear Conservative Members pour scorn and vitriol on the Labour party, quote the actions of the last Labour Government and, in one case, even quote from Tribune. The Government must face the fact that we have rebutted every accusation with facts, and that they have 350 been in power for seven long years. They cannot continue to evade their responsibilities by throwing vitriol and abuse at the Labour party.
This month, in 1987, some elderly people are living their lives entirely in one room, wrapped up in blankets and several layers of clothing because they cannot afford the cost of heating their whole house. That has been happening not just during this week, but during other weeks too. The Government must accept their responsibility. They have failed to maintain the level of pensions and to provide adequate heating help.
Even before this current spell of cold weather, it was impossible for many families on low incomes to pay for the energy needed to heat their homes. I hope that, once the debate dies down and the Minister thinks about this matter, note will be taken of the points made by Labour Members and, in certain cases, Conservative Back Benchers.
In the short term, during this cold spell, we need more than yesterday's statement, which we all accept. I hope that the measures announced will be extended, irrespective of the precise measurement of the temperature during the next few weeks, until the cold spell ends. I hope that the Government will seriously consider dropping the £500 savings limit. As hon. Members have pointed out, in many places including my constituency, that is the amount saved by old people for their burial. I hope that the Minister will do something about this problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has spelt out a sensible programme for the longer term which we hope the Government will take on board. They must take responsibility for what is happening. I hope that they have listened to our points and will take at least some short-term action to ameliorate the position, or the inevitable consequence of their inaction will be death for many people.
§ Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)
When these debates occur, one is often conscious of the gulf across the Floor of the House—a gulf of experience and understanding.
§ Mrs. Beckett
Every now and again we have a debate like today's, which has not mostly been graced by the presence of the hon. Member for Preston, except when he pops in to make the odd sharp remark.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that correction. I should hate to label any other hon. Member, because of his contribution.
Today's debate is one in which the gulf that is sometimes visible has become a yawning chasm. Opposition Members, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) and others too numerous to name, made sensible, valuable contributions and talked about the problems that people are experiencing. They talked about the actual temperatures that people are facing as opposed to the average temperatures experienced 351 between a Monday and Sunday in a group of weather stations selected so as to ensure that payments are not triggered more than once every five years.
The Government decided, first, that these payments should be made only in a period of severe weather and, secondly, that once every five years was their definition of exceptionally severe. It sometimes seemed that some hon. Members imagined that this was handed down on tablets of stone from Mount Sinai, but that was the definition the Government chose to make.
Some of my hon. Friends have rasied questions about people with prepayment meters who need the money now. They have called on the Government and electricity boards to give clear assurances about disconnections and meeting bills, whether now or in the future. In that context it came ill from the Minister of State to accuse us of scaremongering, particularly when we already know that people are dying under these conditions, but all the more so because, when he was pressed to give assurances about people being given help to meet their bills and about what electricity boards meant by saying that they would deal leniently with people, the best he could come up with was that December was a mild month and perhaps that would help when bills came in at the end of the quarter. That must have done more to strike fear into those concerned about meeting their bills than to give them reassurance.
What we understand it to mean, and what Conservative Members know perfectly well it means, is that the Minister hopes that at the end of the quarter the bills will not be large because of the offset of the mild weather. He has given no assurances about what electricity boards will do regarding disconnections, helping people to meet their bills, or how they will define leniency. If the Minister for Health has a definition of what electricity boards mean by leniency, we will more than welcome hearing it.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), in a remarkable speech, expressed concern for the old and cold, but reminded us all of the severe problems faced by the rich and accused us on this side of the House of living in a fantasy world. The complacency of most of the speeches made by Conservative Members during the debate has been mind-boggling. From the Government side we heard little but congratulation, first, on the Government's record on the matter in general and, secondly, on their flexibility in lifting the conditions which should apply under the severe weather regulations. Lest any hon. Member challenges it, of course we are all pleased that those conditions have been lifted. Inadequate though the scheme may be, we all want the maximum help for the maximum number that can be squeezed out of the Government.
In their relief at the Government having got them off the hook, most Conservative Members seem to have missed the fact that there is a serious flaw at the heart of the Government's case. They have claimed credit for lifting the trigger conditions because, in the Minister of State's own words, this winter is savage and unprecedented or, as the Prime Minister said, the worst for 40 years. If, as the Government claim, the regulations that they insisted on passing before Christmas are sensitive enough to be triggered in conditions which, although exceptionally severe by the Government's definition, are not as bad as today, why are they not sensitive enough for today's even worse conditions?
352 After all, the Government are not giving more help because the winter is worse. They are not giving more money in any week, never mind for one week. They are not lifting the capital limit of £500. They are not prepared, as in the past, to make payments to the unemployed or to the homeless unless they have a child under two. All the Government are doing is saying that they will definitely give the help that the regulations said they would give anyway.
We must conclude that the Government have decided to lift the trigger conditions because they feared that even in the worst weather for 40 years the condition they set of minus 1.5 deg. C average temperature for seven days from Monday to Sunday might not be met in every part of the country. They are saying that the conditions they set only a month ago are so harsh, so bureaucratic and so unworkable that they dare not let them stand. Only last week the Minister of State, defending the regulations, said that it was too early to judge them. Yesterday, he said that even if the trigger conditions cannot be met, the payment will be made to those who are eligible.
§ Mr. Major
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for her typical courtesy in allowing me to intervene.
It is our expectation that the trigger conditions will be met throughout the country. It is precisely because we expected the conditions to be met that we made our announcement yesterday so that the public may be aware of the position in good time. Our concern for people and our expectation that the trigger conditions would be met throughout the country led us to make our announcement yesterday, and I think that that has been welcomed generally.
§ Mrs. Beckett
The Minister seems to have forgotten that yesterday he said that payments would be made even if the trigger conditions were not met throughout the country. He said that would be done retrospectively, I believe, and—I cannot remember his exact words—that he would fiddle the law afterwards. The Minister said that yesterday, and I suggest that those who doubt me should read the record.
Although the Government's supporters seem not until this moment to have realised it, the Government are admitting by their action what they have not had the guts to admit in words. They are acknowledging, in effect, that the criticism made of the scheme was correct. The Government have not made their concession because they were overcome with compassion. They have not made it because they wanted people to be sure and secure in the knowledge that payments were being made. I heard the Minister on the radio the other morning explaining that the Government had not issued leaflets because they felt that that might encourage people to claim at a time when they would not be eligible to do so. So much for ensuring that the public knew well in advance what they could claim and that they could have security in the knowledge that payments would be made.
As I have said, the Government have not been overcome with compassion. Even they have been able to see that the scheme would be rightly discredited if the trigger conditions were not met in the worst winter for 40 years.
It is right that we should consider the criticisms that have been made of the scheme. Although the conditions of the scheme will not apply this week, they might apply 353 next week or the week after, and certainly as soon as the Government think that the public's attention has been diverted. If the Government claim that £5 in one week is enough to meet conditions that might occur every five years, it cannot be enough for the worst conditions that have prevailed for 40 years. There should be more money or payments should be made for more weeks.
Some Conservative Members have tried to argue that a winter premium is not needed because heating allowances are paid all the year round. They may not recall that some of the allowances, such as the central heating addition, have already been abolished. That happened quite recently. Even the allowances that have not been abolished were subjected in 1983–84 to a reduction of £1. That reduction was made to the allowances awarded as of right to meet established need. The heating allowances that are paid automatically throughout the year are paid to those who are known to be likely to have extra heating need throughout the year. They are paid to meet existing bills, not to meet the extra need that arises in the winter, and in any winter, let alone the worst winter for 40 years.
No one with more than £500 in the bank will be able to claim under the scheme. The Prime Minister, who I am glad to see in her place, is always talking about the need to save. Someone who was unwise enough to listen to the Prime Minister and to save just enough to pay what is currently the average cost of a funeral will have to choose under this Government between preserving his or her dignity and paying the heating bill.
The Prime Minister referred most misleadingly to the fact that capital limits are higher now than under the previous Labour Government. In real terms there is little difference between capital limits, but there is a substantial difference between funeral costs now and in the days of the Labour Government. The capital limit under the Labour Government was substantially more than would be needed to meet someone's funeral costs.
Some of my hon. Friends have said that many among the most vulnerable, including many on supplementary benefit and those with young children between the ages of two years and five, whose needs are met automatically under the other allowances for which the Government have been claiming credit, are all excluded from the severe weather payments scheme. Of course, those eligible must make a claim.
The system is harsh and unjust and the Government have tacitly admitted that by suspending the harshest conditions. Will they now have the courage of their convictions and withdraw the regulations? The Government should agree to pay a £5 winter premium to vulnerable groups, as my hon. Friends have suggested.
The Government's record on this issue is one of incompetence and neglect, but, most of all, it is one of complacency. Will the Minister tell the House whether, if only out of fear of the electoral consequences, the Government will now at last do what they would not do before Christmas, out of either common sense or sheer Christian charity?
§ The Minister for Health (Mr. Tony Newton)
I hope that the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) and the House will understand if I observe rather wryly that, following my transfer in September, I had not anticipated 354 finding myself in this position today. However, I am happy to confront once again the old firm on the Opposition Benches.
Although I shall come fairly speedily to some of the important points raised in the debate in relation to social security issues, I hope that the House will recognise that those issues are by no means the only proper focus of concern about the position of many pensioners and others in such harsh weather. Although those issue; are important, I hope that, whatever the House may disagree about, it will accept that it is right for me to say a word or two about our current assessment of some of the problems that have arisen because of the present weather.
Despite the use that has been made of the figures of excess winter deaths and hypothermia by some hon. Members, and especially the use which the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) made of those figures in a similar debate not many months ago, I do not wish to make purely party points about them. However, there have been echoes in the debate of the hypothermia and excess winter death figures which were used last year in a speech by the hon. Member for Oldham, West and also in an intervention by the Leader of the Opposition.
I advise the hon. Member for Oldham, West that his suggestion that those figures have varied by only about 50 over the years is, in relation to winter mentions of hypothermia, straightforwardly wrong. I should like to put the figures that I have on the record. The number of hypothermia mentions on death certificates for those of all ages in the December to April period in 1978–79 was 725. Last winter the figure was down to 634, and in the intervening period it had been between 50 and 100 less than that. Similarly, for those aged 65 and over, the 1978–79 figure was 570. In the milder winters between then and last winter, it was about 350 at the bottom. Last winter the figure was 552, but that was lower than in 1978–79
As I have said, there are difficulties about those figures and I do not want to play games with such a delicate subject. However, any suggestion from Opposition Members that Government policies have contributed to an increase in hypothermia or excess winter deaths is fanciful and far-fetched.
§ Mr. Newton
Since the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) chooses, with his usual gentleness and tact, to intervene in that way, I should like, without further labouring the point, to give the figures that I have for excess winter mortality over five-year periods. In 1971–75 the figure was 28.2 per cent.; in 1976–80, a period that the Opposition will recognise, it was 33.6 per cent.; and in 1980–85, a period which Conservative Members recognise, it was 29.3 per cent. Let us not hear the Opposition make too much of that.—[interruption.] Having made those points, I am glad to have produced a decent silence on the Opposition Front Bench.
We must recognise that the problem of excess winter deaths rightly concerns everyone in the House. All of us wish to see those figures reduced, as they have been reduced historically over a long period since the war. We want to see the figures brought closer to those of other countries. That has been part of the purpose of the policies we have adopted on the subjects that have been debated today and in a variety of other ways, not least the 355 arrangements that are currently being made by health authorities to ensure that some of the inescapable consequences of a period of weather such as this are properly dealt with.
As far as I can judge, the hospital services have been coping very well with the position in which the country finds itself. The majority of hospitals yesterday were still admitting non-urgent cases from their waiting lists. Therefore, the pressure was not such as to warrant the restriction of admissions to emergency cases only. However, that must necessarily be a possibility in some circumstances if the situation continues.
There are some exceptions. I have noted the concern expressed during the debate by some of my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in Kent. Certainly in Kent and Lincolnshire some hospitals have had to stop all but emergency work. There are other areas in which patients who have been booked for elective surgery have been unable to travel to hospital. However, the ambulance services—I want to assure the House of this—are following up the urgent cases such as those requiring radiotherapy.
Staff are having difficulty in getting to work in some places. However, nurses, doctors, catering staff and others are sometimes walking many miles to be able to maintain services and some are sleeping overnight at work in order to be there the following morning. I hope that the House will join me in paying tribute to those health workers for what they are doing to maintain services. In some circumstances, the physical conditions are creating great difficulties for the vital services.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West specifically raised an issue concerning the Army and the question of help at Greenwich. We are anxious that every possible help should be given to maintain services. I am advised that the position is that the Woolwich Training Regiment had a free training day and offered its services to Greenwich for snow clearance and other purposes for that day. We know that in some areas the forces are helping out in a variety of ways. For example, in Southend four-wheel drive vehicles are being used to help with emergency services. On the Isle of Sheppey—this will be of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) who raised the matter in the debate—they are ferrying supplies to hospitals. In Essex they are providing transport and drivers for meals on wheels, and in other places they are providing similar services. They are continuing to receive calls for help and will offer as much help as they can. I am sure that that will apply in Greenwich as elsewhere.
§ Mr. Winnick
We all admire the work being done by hospitals and voluntary services in helping the elderly during this harsh winter. However, does the Minister recognise that the crux of this debate is the fact that so many elderly people will not receive a penny? They may be a few pennies or a pound or two above supplementary benefit level and they will not receive the heating addition or the £5 a week. Why is it that there is always money in Tory Budgets for the rich and prosperous but that when it comes to the poor and needy there are always excuses as to why the money cannot be found?
§ Mr. Newton
Since the hon. Gentleman clearly wishes to return the debate to the subject on which he has what 356 amounts almost to a fixation, I shall be happy to do that. However, he must recognise that the issue of the exceptionally severe weather premium is only one element of the Government's responsibility to pensioners and the rest of the people of this country.
In view of the time, I shall not elaborate further on what my hon. Friend said about the work that we have been doing. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), for her work with the voluntary organisations in connection with the problems of homeless people that has been welcomed in the House and widely by the voluntary organisations and others.
I assure the House that we shall not let up on those efforts, and we shall continue to support the bodies in every way that we can, and, through our own facilities in the resettlement units, to meet the problems of that group.
I will come to what the hon. Gentleman is obviously concerned that I should talk about and re-emphasise—it is a point that he and others persistently fail to recognise, or, at least, pay proper attention to. The fundamental point made by my hon. Friend the Minister at the start of this debate was that the main means of help with fuel bills to those on supplementary benefit are the scale rates, and the second major means of help are the weekly heating additions which we have greatly extended and improved.
It cannot be said too often that, taken together, those two arrangements mean that any supplementary pensioner householder over 65 years of age is receiving about £8 a week for heating costs each and every week, amounting to over £400 a year. For a supplementary pensioner householder over 85 years of age, the comparable figures are over £11 a week and therefore nearly £600 a year. There is nothing mean or half-hearted about that. It is significantly more generous and goes to significantly more people than anything that any previous Government have done.
As the Social Security Advisory Committee recognised, the arrangements that we have made this year for the additional payments that have been the subject of this debate are a significant advance not only on anything that this Government have been able to do before, but also more than anything that a Labour Government ever tried to do.
It is right again to remind the House that that £5, which so many Opposition Members have talked about as if it were the only help that we were giving to pensioners, is not the only help that we are giving. It means that in any week that it is paid, a supplementary pensioner householder over 85 years of age is receiving about £16 a week for help with fuel bills.
What has amazed me in the course of this debate more than anything else—not least from the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)—is the fact that against this background the Opposition's remedy appears to be to go back to the electricity discount scheme of 1977 and 1978, one of the most notorious failures in its field that there has ever been. We hear about bureaucracy and complication. That scheme took a 16-page leaflet, with 48 questions and answers, to explain it. Even then one had to obtain another leaflet to tell the claimant how to claim.
We heard from the right hon. Gentleman some half-explanation about why it was confined to electricity when so many pensioners used other forms of heating. I will tell him the answer from his own leaflet. It says: 357The Government has only limited funds available to help people".Wait. The best is yet to come. It goes on:If other fuels had been included the amount of the discount would have been too small to have been of real help.I shall tell the House what this has really told us. It has told us that, while everything outside is freezing, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) has melted away because he could not bear to listen to the irresponsible speeches of his hon. Friends.
§ Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:
§ The House divided: Ayes 190, Noes 335.360
|Division No. 52]||[10 pm|
|Abse, Leo||Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.|
|Adams, Allen (Paisley N)||Eadie, Alex|
|Alton, David||Eastham, Ken|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Evans, John (St. Helens N)|
|Ashdown, Paddy||Fatchett, Derek|
|Ashton, Joe||Faulds, Andrew|
|Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)||Field, Frank (Birkenhead)|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Fisher, Mark|
|Barron, Kevin||Flannery, Martin|
|Beckett, Mrs Margaret||Forrester, John|
|Beith, A. J.||Foster, Derek|
|Bell, Stuart||Foulkes, George|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Fraser, J. (Norwood)|
|Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)||Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Garrett, W. E.|
|Bidwell, Sydney||George, Bruce|
|Blair, Anthony||Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John|
|Boothroyd, Miss Betty||Godman, Dr Norman|
|Boyes, Roland||Golding, Mrs Llin|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Gould, Bryan|
|Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)||Gourlay, Harry|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Hamilton, James (M'well N)|
|Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)||Hardy, Peter|
|Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter|
|Bruce, Malcolm||Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith|
|Buchan, Norman||Healey, Rt Hon Denis|
|Caborn, Richard||Heffer, Eric S.|
|Callaghan, Rt Hon J.||Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)|
|Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)||Home Robertson, John|
|Campbell, Ian||Howarth, George (Knowsley, N)|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Howells, Geraint|
|Canavan, Dennis||Hoyle, Douglas|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y)||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Hughes, Roy (Newport East)|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)|
|Clarke, Thomas||Hughes, Simon (Southwark)|
|Clay, Robert||Hume, John|
|Clelland, David Gordon||Janner, Hon Greville|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||John, Brynmor|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S)||Johnston, Sir Russell|
|Cohen, Harry||Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)|
|Coleman, Donald||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Conlan, Bernard||Kennedy, Charles|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton North)||Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil|
|Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Lamond, James|
|Craigen, J. M.||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Crowther, Stan||Leighton, Ronald|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Lewis, Terence (Worsley)|
|Cunningham, Dr John||Litherland, Robert|
|Dalyell, Tam||Livsey, Richard|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)||Lofthouse, Geoffrey|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)||Loyden, Edward|
|Dewar, Donald||McCartney, Hugh|
|Dixon, Donald||McDonald, Dr Oonagh|
|Dobson, Frank||McGuire, Michael|
|Dormand, Jack||Maclennan, Robert|
|Douglas, Dick||McNamara, Kevin|
|Dubs, Alfred||McTaggart, Robert|
|McWilliam, John||Sheldon, Rt Hon R.|
|Madden, Max||Shields, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Marek, Dr John||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Marshall, David (Shettleston)||Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)|
|Mason, Rt Hon Roy||Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)|
|Maxton, John||Silkin, Rt Hon J.|
|Maynard, Miss Joan||Skinner, Dennis|
|Meacher, Michael||Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)|
|Meadowcroft, Michael||Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'ds E)|
|Michie, William||Snape, Peter|
|Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)||Soley, Clive|
|Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)||Spearing, Nigel|
|Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)||Steel, Rt Hon David|
|Nellist, David||Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)|
|O'Brien, William||Stott, Roger|
|O'Neill, Martin||Strang, Gavin|
|Orme, Rt Hon Stanley||Straw, Jack|
|Park, George||Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)|
|Parry, Robert||Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)|
|Patchett, Terry||Thorne, Stan (Preston)|
|Pike, Peter||Tinn, James|
|Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Prescott, John||Wareing, Robert|
|Radice, Giles||Weetch, Ken|
|Randall, Stuart||Welsh, Michael|
|Raynsford, Nick||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Redmond, Martin||Williams, Rt Hon A.|
|Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)||Wilson, Gordon|
|Richardson, Ms Jo||Winnick, David|
|Robertson, George||Woodall, Alec|
|Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Rogers, Allan||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)|
|Rowlands, Ted||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Sedgemore, Brian||Mr. Frank Haynes and|
|Sheerman, Barry||Mr. Allen McKay.|
|Adley, Robert||Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A.|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Buck, Sir Antony|
|Alexander, Richard||Budgen, Nick|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Bulmer, Esmond|
|Amess, David||Burt, Alistair|
|Ancram, Michael||Butterfill, John|
|Arnold, Tom||Carlisle, John (Luton N)|
|Ashby, David||Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S)|
|Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)||Carttiss, Michael|
|Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)||Cash, William|
|Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y)||Chalker, Mrs Lynda|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Channon, Rt Hon Paul|
|Baldry, Tony||Chapman, Sydney|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Chope, Christopher|
|Batiste, Spencer||Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n)|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)|
|Bellingham, Henry||Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)|
|Bendall, Vivian||Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)|
|Benyon, William||Cockeram, Eric|
|Best, Keith||Colvin, Michael|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Conway, Derek|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Coombs, Simon|
|Biggs-Davison, Sir John||Cope, John|
|Blackburn, John||Cormack, Patrick|
|Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Corrie, John|
|Body, Sir Richard||Couchman, James|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Critchley, Julian|
|Bottomley, Peter||Currie, Mrs Edwina|
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia||Dickens, Geoffrey|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Dorrell, Stephen|
|Boyson, Dr Rhodes||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.|
|Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard||Dover, Den|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward|
|Bright, Graham||Durant, Tony|
|Brinton, Tim||Dykes, Hugh|
|Brittan, Rt Hon Leon||Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)|
|Brooke, Hon Peter||Eggar, Tim|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)||Emery, Sir Peter|
|Browne, John||Evennett, David|
|Bruinvels, Peter||Eyre, Sir Reginald|
|Bryan, Sir Paul||Fallon, Michael|
|Farr, Sir John||Knight, Greg (Derby N)|
|Favell, Anthony||Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)|
|Fletcher, Sir Alexander||Knowles, Michael|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||Knox, David|
|Forman, Nigel||Lamont, Rt Hon Norman|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Lang, Ian|
|Forth, Eric||Lawler, Geoffrey|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Norman||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Fox, Sir Marcus||Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel|
|Franks, Cecil||Lee, John (Pendle)|
|Fraser, Peter (Angus East)||Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)|
|Freeman, Roger||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Fry, Peter||Lester, Jim|
|Gale, Roger||Lightbown, David|
|Galley, Roy||Lilley, Peter|
|Gardiner, George (Reigate)||Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)|
|Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian||Lord, Michael|
|Glyn, Dr Alan||Lyell, Nicholas|
|Goodhart, Sir Philip||McCrindle, Robert|
|Goodlad, Alastair||McCurley, Mrs Anna|
|Gorst, John||Macfarlane, Neil|
|Gow, Ian||MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)|
|Gower, Sir Raymond||MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)|
|Greenway, Harry||Maclean, David John|
|Gregory, Conal||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Griffiths, Sir Eldon||McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)||McQuarrie, Albert|
|Ground, Patrick||Madel, David|
|Grylls, Michael||Major, John|
|Gummer, Rt Hon John S||Malins, Humfrey|
|Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)||Malone, Gerald|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Maples, John|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Marland, Paul|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Marlow, Antony|
|Hannam, John||Marshall, Michael (Arundel)|
|Hargreaves, Kenneth||Mates, Michael|
|Harris, David||Mather, Sir Carol|
|Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael||Maude, Hon Francis|
|Hawkins, Sir Paul (N'folk SW)||Mawhinney, Dr Brian|
|Hawksley, Warren||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin|
|Hayes, J.||Mayhew, Sir Patrick|
|Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney||Mellor, David|
|Hayward, Robert||Merchant, Piers|
|Heathcoat-Amory, David||Meyer, Sir Anthony|
|Heddle, John||Miller, Hal (B'grove)|
|Henderson, Barry||Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)|
|Hickmet, Richard||Miscampbell, Norman|
|Hicks, Robert||Mitchell, David (Hants NW)|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.||Moate, Roger|
|Hill, James||Monro, Sir Hector|
|Hind, Kenneth||Montgomery, Sir Fergus|
|Hirst, Michael||Moore, Rt Hon John|
|Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)||Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)|
|Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)||Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)|
|Holt, Richard||Moynihan, Hon C.|
|Hordern, Sir Peter||Mudd, David|
|Howard, Michael||Murphy, Christopher|
|Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)||Neale, Gerrard|
|Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)||Needham, Richard|
|Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Nelson, Anthony|
|Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)||Neubert, Michael|
|Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N)||Newton, Tony|
|Hubbard-Miles, Peter||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Hunt, David (Wirral W)||Normanton, Tom|
|Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)||Norris, Steven|
|Hunter, Andrew||Onslow, Cranley|
|Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Irving, Charles||Osborn, Sir John|
|Jackson, Robert||Ottaway, Richard|
|Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick||Page, Sir John (Harrow W)|
|Jessel, Toby||Page, Richard (Herts SW)|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Patten, Christopher (Bath)|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Patten, J. (Oxf W & Abgdn)|
|Jones, Robert (Herts W)||Pawsey, James|
|Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith||Pollock, Alexander|
|Kershaw, Sir Anthony||Porter, Barry|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'field)||Portillo, Michael|
|King, Rt Hon Tom||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Powley, John||Stradling Thomas, Sir John|
|Price, Sir David||Sumberg, David|
|Prior, Rt Hon James||Tapsell, Sir Peter|
|Proctor, K. Harvey||Taylor, John (Solihull)|
|Pym, Rt Hon Francis||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Raffan, Keith||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Raison, Rt Hon Timothy||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Rathbone, Tim||Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.|
|Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)||Thomas, Rt Hon Peter|
|Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon||Thompson, Donald (Calder V)|
|Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas||Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)|
|Ridsdale, Sir Julian||Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)|
|Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm||Thornton, Malcolm|
|Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)||Thurnham, Peter|
|Robinson, Mark (N'port W)||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Roe, Mrs Marion||Tracey, Richard|
|Rossi, Sir Hugh||Trippier, David|
|Rost, Peter||Trotter, Neville|
|Rowe, Andrew||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Ryder, Richard||van Straubenzee, Sir W.|
|Sackville, Hon Thomas||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Sainsbury, Hon Timothy||Viggers, Peter|
|St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.||Waddington, Rt Hon David|
|Sayeed, Jonathan||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Scott, Nicholas||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)||Walker, Bill (T'side N)|
|Shelton, William (Streatham)||Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)|
|Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)||Waller, Gary|
|Shersby, Michael||Walters, Dennis|
|Silvester, Fred||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Skeet, Sir Trevor||Watson, John|
|Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)||Watts, John|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)||Wells, Bowen (Hertford)|
|Soames, Hon Nicholas||Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)|
|Speed, Keith||Wheeler, John|
|Speller, Tony||Whitfield, John|
|Spencer, Derek||Whitney, Raymond|
|Spicer, Jim (Dorset W)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Squire, Robin||Wolfson, Mark|
|Stanbrook, Ivor||Wood, Timothy|
|Stanley, Rt Hon John||Yeo, Tim|
|Steen, Anthony||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)||Mr. Robert Boscawen and|
|Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)||Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones.|
|Stewart, Ian (Hertf'dshire N)|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments):-
§ The House divided: Ayes 332, Noes 185.364
|Division No. 53]||[10.15 pm|
|Adley, Robert||Bevan, David Gilroy|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Biffen, Rt Hon John|
|Alexander, Richard||Biggs-Davison, Sir John|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Blackburn, John|
|Amess, David||Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter|
|Ancram, Michael||Body, Sir Richard|
|Arnold, Tom||Bonsor, Sir Nicholas|
|Ashby, David||Bottomley, Peter|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Bottomley, Mrs Virginia|
|Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)||Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)|
|Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)||Boyson, Dr Rhodes|
|Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y)||Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Brandon-Bravo, Martin|
|Baldry, Tony||Bright, Graham|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Brinton, Tim|
|Batiste, Spencer||Brittan, Rt Hon Leon|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Brooke, Hon Peter|
|Bellingham, Henry||Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)|
|Bendall, Vivian||Browne, John|
|Benyon, William||Bruinvels, Peter|
|Best, Keith||Bryan, Sir Paul|
|Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A.||Hawkins, Sir Paul (N'folk SW)|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Hawksley, Warren|
|Budgen, Nick||Hayes, J.|
|Bulmer, Esmond||Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney|
|Burt, Alistair||Hayward, Robert|
|Butterfill, John||Heathcoat-Amory, David|
|Carlisle, John (Luton N)||Heddle, John|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Henderson, Barry|
|Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S)||Hickmet, Richard|
|Carttiss, Michael||Hicks, Robert|
|Cash, William||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.|
|Chalker, Mrs Lynda||Hill, James|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Hind, Kenneth|
|Chapman, Sydney||Hirst, Michael|
|Chope, Christopher||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)|
|Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n)||Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Holt, Richard|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Hordern, Sir Peter|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)|
|Cockeram, Eric||Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)|
|Colvin, Michael||Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Conway, Derek||Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)|
|Coombs, Simon||Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N)|
|Cope, John||Hubbard-Miles, Peter|
|Cormack, Patrick||Hunt, David (Wirral W)|
|Corrie, John||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)|
|Couchman, James||Hunter, Andrew|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Dickens, Geoffrey||Irving, Charles|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Jackson, Robert|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.||Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick|
|Dover, Den||Jessel, Toby|
|Durant, Tony||Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey|
|Dykes, Hugh||Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)|
|Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)||Jones, Robert (Herts W)|
|Eggar, Tim||Jopling, Rt Hon Michael|
|Emery, Sir Peter||Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith|
|Evennett, David||Kershaw, Sir Anthony|
|Eyre, Sir Reginald||King, Roger (B'ham N'field)|
|Fallon, Michael||King, Rt Hon Tom|
|Farr, Sir John||Knight, Greg (Derby N)|
|Favell, Anthony||Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)|
|Fletcher, Sir Alexander||Knowles, Michael|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||Knox, David|
|Forman, Nigel||Lamont, Rt Hon Norman|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Lang, Ian|
|Forth, Eric||Lawler, Geoffrey|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Norman||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Fox, Sir Marcus||Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel|
|Franks, Cecil||Lee, John (Pendle)|
|Fraser, Peter (Angus East)||Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)|
|Freeman, Roger||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Fry, Peter||Lester, Jim|
|Gale, Roger||Lightbown, David|
|Galley, Roy||Lilley, Peter|
|Gardiner, George (Reigate)||Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)|
|Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Lord, Michael|
|Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian||Lyell, Nicholas|
|Glyn, Dr Alan||McCrindle, Robert|
|Goodhart, Sir Philip||McCurley, Mrs Anna|
|Goodlad, Alastair||Macfarlane, Neil|
|Gorst, John||MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)|
|Gow, Ian||MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)|
|Gower, Sir Raymond||Maclean, David John|
|Greenway, Harry||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Gregory, Conal||McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)|
|Griffiths, Sir Eldon||McQuarrie, Albert|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)||Madel, David|
|Ground, Patrick||Major, John|
|Grylls, Michael||Malins, Humfrey|
|Gummer, Rt Hon John S||Malone, Gerald|
|Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)||Maples, John|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Marland, Paul|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Marlow, Antony|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Marshall, Michael (Arundel)|
|Hannam, John||Mates, Michael|
|Hargreaves, Kenneth||Mather, Sir Carol|
|Harris, David||Maude, Hon Francis|
|Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael||Mawhinney, Dr Brian|
|Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Shersby, Michael|
|Mayhew, Sir Patrick||Silvester, Fred|
|Mellor, David||Skeet, Sir Trevor|
|Merchant, Piers||Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)|
|Meyer, Sir Anthony||Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)|
|Miller, Hal (B'grove)||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)||Speed, Keith|
|Miscampbell, Norman||Speller, Tony|
|Mitchell, David (Hants NW)||Spencer, Derek|
|Moate, Roger||Spicer, Jim (Dorset W)|
|Monro, Sir Hector||Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)|
|Montgomery, Sir Fergus||Squire, Robin|
|Moore, Rt Hon John||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)||Stanley, Rt Hon John|
|Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)||Steen, Anthony|
|Moynihan, Hon C.||Stern, Michael|
|Mudd, David||Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)|
|Murphy, Christopher||Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)|
|Neale, Gerrard||Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)|
|Needham, Richard||Stewart, Ian (Hertf'dshire N)|
|Nelson, Anthony||Stradling Thomas, Sir John|
|Neubert, Michael||Sumberg, David|
|Newton, Tony||Tapsell, Sir Peter|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Taylor, John (Solihull)|
|Normanton, Tom||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Norris, Steven||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Onslow, Cranley||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Oppenheim, Phillip||Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.|
|Osborn, Sir John||Thomas, Rt Hon Peter|
|Ottaway, Richard||Thompson, Donald (Calder V)|
|Page, Sir John (Harrow W)||Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)|
|Page, Richard (Herts SW)||Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)|
|Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil||Thornton, Malcolm|
|Patten, Christopher (Bath)||Thurnham, Peter|
|Patten, J. (Oxf W & Abgdn)||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Pawsey, James||Tracey, Richard|
|Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth||Trippier, David|
|Pollock, Alexander||Trotter, Neville|
|Porter, Barry||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Portillo, Michael||van Straubenzee, Sir W.|
|Powell, William (Corby)||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Powley, John||Viggers, Peter|
|Price, Sir David||Waddington, Rt Hon David|
|Proctor, K. Harvey||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Pym, Rt Hon Francis||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Raffan, Keith||Walker, Bill (T'side N)|
|Raison, Rt Hon Timothy||Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)|
|Rathbone, Tim||Waller, Gary|
|Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)||Walters, Dennis|
|Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas||Watson, John|
|Ridsdale, Sir Julian||Watts, John|
|Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm||Wells, Bowen (Hertford)|
|Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)||Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)|
|Robinson, Mark (N'port W)||Wheeler, John|
|Roe, Mrs Marion||Whitfield, John|
|Rossi, Sir Hugh||Whitney, Raymond|
|Rost, Peter||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Rowe, Andrew||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Ryder, Richard||Wolfson, Mark|
|Sackville, Hon Thomas||Wood, Timothy|
|St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.||Yeo, Tim|
|Sayeed, Jonathan||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Shelton, William (Streatham)||Mr. Robert Boscawen and|
|Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)||Mr. Tim Sainsbury.|
|Abse, Leo||Beith, A. J.|
|Adams, Allen (Paisley N)||Bell, Stuart|
|Alton, David||Benn, Rt Hon Tony|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Bermingham, Gerald|
|Ashdown, Paddy||Bidwell, Sydney|
|Ashton, Joe||Boothroyd, Miss Betty|
|Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)||Boyes, Roland|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Bray, Dr Jeremy|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)|
|Barron, Kevin||Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)|
|Beckett, Mrs Margaret||Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)|
|Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)||Fraser, J. (Norwood)|
|Bruce, Malcolm||Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald|
|Buchan, Norman||Garrett, W. E.|
|Caborn, Richard||George, Bruce|
|Callaghan, Rt Hon J.||Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John|
|Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)||Godman, Dr Norman|
|Campbell, Ian||Golding, Mrs Llin|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Gourlay, Harry|
|Canavan, Dennis||Hamilton, James (M'well N)|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y)||Hardy, Peter|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith|
|Clarke, Thomas||Healey, Rt Hon Denis|
|Clay, Robert||Heffer, Eric S.|
|Clelland, David Gordon||Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Home Robertson, John|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S)||Howarth, George (Knowsley, N)|
|Cohen, Harry||Howells, Geraint|
|Coleman, Donald||Hoyle, Douglas|
|Conlan, Bernard||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton North)||Hughes, Roy (Newport East)|
|Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)||Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Hughes, Simon (Southwark)|
|Craigen, J. M.||Hume, John|
|Crowther, Stan||Janner, Hon Greville|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||John, Brynmor|
|Cunningham, Dr John||Johnston, Sir Russell|
|Dalyell, Tam||Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)||Kennedy, Charles|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)||Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil|
|Dewar, Donald||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Dixon, Donald||Lamond, James|
|Dobson, Frank||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Dormand, Jack||Leighton, Ronald|
|Douglas, Dick||Lewis, Terence (Worsley)|
|Dubs, Alfred||Litherland, Robert|
|Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.||Livsey, Richard|
|Eadie, Alex||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Eastham, Ken||Lofthouse, Geoffrey|
|Evans, John (St. Helens N)||Loyden, Edward|
|Fatchett, Derek||McCartney, Hugh|
|Faulds, Andrew||McDonald, Dr Oonagh|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||McGuire, Michael|
|Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)||Maclennan, Robert|
|Fisher, Mark||McNamara, Kevin|
|Flannery, Martin||McWilliam, John|
|Forrester, John||Madden, Max|
|Foster, Derek||Marek, Dr John|
|Foulkes, George||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Mason, Rt Hon Roy||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Maxton, John||Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)|
|Maynard, Miss Joan||Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)|
|Meacher, Michael||Silkin, Rt Hon J.|
|Meadowcroft, Michael||Skinner, Dennis|
|Michie, William||Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)|
|Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)||Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'ds E)|
|Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)||Snape, Peter|
|Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)||Soley, Clive|
|Nellist, David||Spearing, Nigel|
|O'Brien, William||Steel, Rt Hon David|
|O'Neill, Martin||Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)|
|Orme, Rt Hon Stanley||Stott, Roger|
|Park, George||Strang, Gavin|
|Parry, Robert||Straw, Jack|
|Patchett, Terry||Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)|
|Pike, Peter||Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)|
|Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)||Thorne, Stan (Preston)|
|Prescott, John||Tinn, James|
|Radice, Giles||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Randall, Stuart||Wareing, Robert|
|Raynsford, Nick||Weetch, Ken|
|Redmond, Martin||Welsh, Michael|
|Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Richardson, Ms Jo||Williams, Rt Hon A.|
|Robertson, George||Wilson, Gordon|
|Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)||Winnick, David|
|Rogers, Allan||Woodall, Alec|
|Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Sedgemore, Brian||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Sheerman, Barry||Mr. Frank Haynes and|
|Sheldon, Rt Hon R.||Mr. Allen McKay.|
|Shields, Mrs Elizabeth|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
That this House recognises the substantial improvement in the levels of supplementary benefit payments together with the containment of inflation, the extension and improvement of heating additions and the introduction of a statutory entitlement to cold weather payments to assist vulnerable groups; notes that these provisions are all running at record levels; and welcomes the Government's continuing commitment to provide good health and social services to the pensioners of this country.