HC Deb 11 December 1989 vol 163 cc820-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dorrell.]

1.47 am
Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the problems of British pensioners this winter. Their problems have not been eased by the spread of 'flu. The reality for many is that to be old is also to be cold. The epidemic unfortunately means that the elderly are particularly vulnerable. The virus is exceptionally virulent, a point that ought to be borne in mind in the debate.

Pensioners' problems are not helped by the Government's mean-minded decision not to link pensions to earnings. The Labour Government's policy led to a 20 per cent. increase in real terms for pensioners, as against the 2 per cent. increase that they have experienced under the Tories since 1979. Pensioners face grave problems, particularly that of fuel poverty. That is a national scandal, on top of their private grief.

There is a constant and real worry about hypothermia, which leads to a substantial increase in the number of deaths during the winter months. High fuel prices lead to debt and disconnection, including self-disconnection, which has increased greatly since privatisation. There are still worries about standing charges which should have been phased out long ago and which do not help to solve the problems faced by pensioners in Britain today any more than the notorious social fund with its emphasis on loans rather than grants.

Severe weather payments have been debated each winter, certainly since I arrived in the House seven years ago. The provisions for triggering the system which existed a few years ago have been abolished, but the new system is not much better. It calls for 0 deg C for seven consecutive days. In reality that offers very little help to pensioners suffering from bad weather conditions. I understand that only two weather stations have been activated under present procedures. In Scotland, only stations in Dumfries and Glasgow have been triggered, although the Minister may be able to give the House other information about the rest of the United Kingdom. That means that in many parts of Scotland and the United Kingdom the system has not been triggered and elderly people have suffered in extremely cold conditions. If old people live on the east coast of Scotland or in Edinburgh where it is very cold in the morning and evening, simply because it may be mild in the afternoon they would not qualify under the rigid requirement of a seven-day consecutive period of 0 deg C. or less, and therefore would suffer hardship. Even if people qualified far more extensively it would have to be said that the system is restricted.

Last year the Department of Social Security in Scotland and in the United Kingdom paid out a paltry figure, although Scotland has more cold-related deaths than anywhere else in western Europe. The cold weather payments are completely inadequate to meet the problems that thousands of our pensioners are facing. Many pensioners who qualify for cold weather payments under the existing system are simply not claiming them. Many of them are confused and that is not at all surprising given the complex nature of the system.

The figure of £5, despite inflation, increased fuel costs and the consequences of electricity privatisation, is already three years out of date. We know that the average price of heating is £8 a week during the non-winter months and £16 a week during winter. Therefore, £5 hardly reflects the real cost of heating for elderly people today.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way as I recognise the importance that he attaches to this short debate. Does he accept the need for zoning as people in the north of Scotland are in very different circumstances from those in the south? Perhaps we should consider automatic payments to pensioners and to the handicapped to ensure that, wherever they live in the United Kingdom, they receive payments that recognise heating requirements.

Mr. Clarke

I accept that means testing is entirely inappropriate. Automatic payments should be made nationally.

The payments, inadequate though they are, have not been given to pensioners whose incomes are just above income support level. The Government's mean-minded attitude is that nobody should be in receipt of the miserable £5 if they have savings of £500 or more, which most elderly people would regard as the cost of a funeral. That is entirely unacceptable in modern times.

In 1986–87, only 500,000 of the 1,500 million pensioners who are entitled to claim did so. It is obvious that the Government's scheme is not working, and its administration is expensive. The money spent on publicity over the years could have made life much easier for many pensioners.

Throughout the United Kingdom, the plight of pensioners has been compounded by the 1988 change from supplementary benefit to income support, which led to the abolition of heating additions for the elderly, disabled and those with young children. Previously, payments of £5.65p a week were paid throughout the year regardless of the weather.

There is another great problem that all of us have constantly in mind. We know that in 1987 600 people of all ages died of hypothermia in Britain. The figure for 1988 was about 400. In Scotland, 138 people died of hypothermia last year, and many more were admitted to hospital with cold-related conditions. Everyone knows that the figures for hypothermia underestimate the extent of the problem that pensioners face. Most of the voluntary organisations with which I have had discussions over recent days suggest that some doctors believe that to place the word "hypothermia" on a death certificate is like stamping it with "neglect," and that doctors are therefore reluctant to do so.

Even more revealing than the figures for hypothermia are those for cold-related deaths, which I draw to the attention of the House and the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security. We are told by such organisations as Winter Action on Cold Homes, Age Concern and many others that a marked feature of British trends, even in mild winters such as that in 1987–88, is that the number of extra winter deaths is substantial—an annual average of 30,740 deaths each year over the past five years. Excess winter mortality among persons aged 60 and over has ranged from over 48,000 for the 12 months up to 31 March 1985 to just over 21,000 up to 31 March 1987.

International comparisons are important when we consider these serious matters. The difference between the number of deaths reported in the winter months compared with the spring and summer months is significant. In February this year, we saw an increase of 24 per cent. in England and Wales, of 19 per cent. in Scotland, of 6 per cent. in France, of 6 per cent. in Sweden, which experiences much colder weather than the United Kingdom, and of 8 per cent. in the United States. I accept that the precise reasons for those differences need further analysis, but the evidence seems to suggest that other countries, which often have colder temperatures than Britain, manage to safeguard the lives of frail citizens in a way that does not happen in Britain. That invites serious examination.

Room temperatures clearly matter. The World Health Organisation recommends a minimum indoor temperature of 18 deg C, and 2 to 3 deg C warmer for rooms occupied by elderly or handicapped people or young children. For millions of people, this is clearly not happening. Forty-two per cent. of pensioners living alone have no central heating. More than most, and particularly in Scotland, they experience the great problems of dampness and condensation, which call for a more urgent response than the Government have given so far. We have not had a survey of these conditions since 1972, when we discovered that 54 per cent. of people aged over 65 lived at or below the minimum temperature specified for employees under the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963.

The tragedy is that many pensioners have to choose between proper heating and proper eating. That is unreasonable in modern times. Pensioners face the problems of debts and disconnections. The South of Scotland electricity board has introduced "Power cards". In many ways, this has added to the problem. We are seeing the new dimension of self-disconnection. Pensioners, having used up the £15, which is the cost of the cards, feel that their money has been spent and simply discontinue heating. I make a plea to the Minister to encourage social work departments in Scotland and social service departments elsewhere in the United Kingdom to monitor this closely. The Government seem to have no major strategy to match the public worry about these matters and to co-ordinate activities, even between Government Departments.

On 22 November, the Government launched their "Winter Warmth" line. It was set on its journey by Ministers, with the help of Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards. That is a refreshing change from the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) telling pensioners to wear woolly hats and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department—the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd)—encouraging pensioners to go to jumble sales. Like Eddie, the Government's policy on these matters is all high hopes and poor performance. Of course, we can all laugh at Eddie, but most of us regard the Government's policy as pitiful. The most eloquent comment on the Government's scheme came from Mr. Malcolm Wicks, the chairperson of Winter Action on Cold Homes, who said: Beneath the glitter and gloss, there was a hole where there should be action". Of course, nobody would discourage the use of the freephone "Winter Warmth" line, but it is no substitute for practical services, such as draught proofing and insulation projects. Those services have been hit hard by Government policies which often represent neglect. Changes to the employment training scheme have meant fewer projects, less practical work and parts of the country not being covered by it.

Fuel poverty among pensioners should be a priority in the Government's approach. However, apart from public relations exercises, there is little evidence that the Government see the matter in that way. According to Neighbourhood Energy Action in "Energy Efficiency and Employment Training One Year On", the number of jobs that were carried out by projects from October to December 1988 fell by 15,500 in draught proofing and by over 3,000 in loft insulation, compared with the same quarter in 1987. The period from September to December saw a huge drop in the number of operating energy projects, from 450 to 196. Between August 1988 and August 1989, there was a 54 per cent. drop in the number of projects giving energy advice and a drop of 74 per cent. in the number of clients who were advised. Moreover, under the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, low income groups will find it harder to obtain loft insulation grants from April 1990. From that date, there will no longer be a specific allocation of funds, which currently stand at £11.5 million, for this purpose. If they were honest, the Government would announce a closing down sale for those grants.

The House is right to be concerned about several policy questions that affect pensioners deeply, including social security, housing, insulation, energy efficiency and the impact of poverty, and to be concerned that our pensioners—our people—are facing year after year the cold facts of the misery of winter conditions. We cannot continue to accept a cold crisis which continues to blight Britain's pensioners' standard of living more than those in any other developed nation and which offers so drastically the prospect of a diminished quality of life for many elderly people and others on low incomes each winter.

The problem of fuel poverty for our pensioners is one of the most important issues that the House addresses this winter. The Government should respond and the British people should encourage them to do so. Surely pensioners deserve more than the cold approach of a Government who seem to have a cold attitude about the cold climate. Pensioners deserve far more than that and I hope that the Minister and the Government will seize the opportunity in response to this debate to give a positive reply to the drastic problems that British pensioners are facing.

2.7 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) on bringing this important matter before the House. As is customary for the hon. Gentleman, he has spoken with conviction and sincerity, and has demonstrated concern for the welfare of pensioners in winter which is, I am sure, shared on both sides of this House.

I shall begin by making some general points about pensioners' incomes because I was sorry that the hon. Gentleman's contribution ignored the broader context of Government achievements in improving those incomes. I want to remind the House of several points. Between 1979 and 1986, the average total net income of pensioners increased by 23 per cent. in real terms. Of those retiring now, 80 per cent. have incomes from other sources in addition to their state pensions.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the achievements of his party in government and said that pensions increased by 20 per cent. He failed to mention that the actual increase was 3 per cent. because of the inflationary policies that were pursued by his party. However, he is right to raise the question of those who, because they retired before the state earnings-related retirement pension opportunities and the change after SERPS, missed the opportunity to opt out. I must remind him that income support is available for all those who satisfy the income and capital rules. At May 1988, some 1.7 million claimants aged 60 years or more received income support. Where appropriate, those people would have also qualified for maximum help with housing costs of 100 per cent. for rent and 80 per cent. of general rates or, in Scotland, community charge. Even people whose income is above income support levels, and whose savings are less than £8,000, can claim housing benefit.

In addition to this normal help, the hon. Gentleman will recall that with effect from October this year help has been made available for poorer and older and disabled pensioners. This will help over 2.5 million pensioners on income support and housing benefit, with £2.50 a week extra for single people and £3.50 a week for couples.

We mounted a successful campaign to bring these new benefits to the attention of pensioners. Although it is too soon to judge the full effects of the campaign, over the four months from the start of the publicity in July until the end of October nearly 200,000 pensioners were newly awarded income support. That helps with the problem that the hon. Gentleman described.

Turning to help with heating costs through the social security system, I would remind the hon. Gentleman of the social security reforms introduced in 1988. He will know better than many hon. Members the unsatisfactory complexities of the old system. Although the Government made many improvements in the system to cater for the needs of individual groups, the system remained very difficult to understand. The new arrangements have provided a modern system of income maintenance through allowances with premiums for vulnerable groups such as the elderly. All the £417 million that was spent on heating additions in 1987–88, the final year of the old scheme, was incorporated in the income support premium support structure which, of course, is uprated each year. And, as I said, we have already used the new structure to direct extra help to those most in need.

In addition, when the weather is very cold, as the hon. Gentleman said, payments can be made under the social fund cold weather payments scheme. I note what the hon. Gentleman said about the capital limits on the social fund, and we are monitoring the position carefully.

The hon. Gentleman said that £5 was inadequate, but I remind him that income support already covers everyday needs. We believe that £5 is a reasonable amount to pay towards the extra expenses incurred for heating in cold weather.

We have kept the arrangements for claiming cold weather payments as simple as we can, for both claimants and the staff who operate the scheme. Each of the Department's local offices is linked to one of more than 60 national weather stations run by the Meteorological Office. The hon. Gentleman said that weather stations in Scotland are not always reliable. That claim is often made by hon. Members representing many different parts of the country. I am sure that my constituents would claim that they enjoy especially cold winds from Siberia. We feel, however, that the system is as fair as it can be. It is triggered automatically by the temperature reaching 0 deg Celsius, so if it is colder in Scotland and the temperature is 0 deg, the cold weather payment system will be triggered more frequently—

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

Is there any system of monitoring the difference between places in Scotland and the stations where temperatures are monitored? The highest village in Scotland is Tomintoul in my constituency, and the weather temperatures are measured in Kinloss. There is a vast difference between the climates of the two places. The Government have a responsibility to monitor those differences with regard to the triggering system.

Does the Minister agree that the notional fuel element in the state benefits to which she has referred takes us well beyond the £5 that she mentioned? The realistic figure must be nearer £8.80.

Mrs. Shephard

I assure the hon. Lady that the Department continually monitors the effectiveness of the triggering of the cold weather payment system. We consider the present £5 arrangement, plus the element within income support, adequate.

I must move on briskly because the hon. Gentleman raised several other matters. He referred to standing charges, which have fallen over the past five years. In the five-year period to October 1989, domestic gas prices fell in real terms by 16 per cent. Gas now costs less than in 1970. Similarly the price of domestic electricity has also fallen—by 8 per cent.—in the five-year period to October 1989.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned hypothermia. Any deaths from cold or from illnesses in winter naturally concern the Government. While the Government would never be complacent about those matters, it is encouraging to consider the fall in the excess winter mortality rate over the past 30 years. However, we would never be complacent about that and that is why we are continuing the "Keep warm, keep well" and "Keep warm this winter" campaigns. The hon. Gentleman criticised those campaigns, but it is worth running campaigns that will increase awareness of the dangers of cold weather among those at risk, their friends, relatives, and neighbours and so assist those agencies that care for them in multi-disciplinary statutory and voluntary co-operation in running campaigns.

It is worth reminding people that simple measures such as draughtproofing, sensible clothing, diet and exercise can help reduce the risks associated with cold weather. The hon. Gentleman referred to insulation and the problems caused by poor housing. I remind him that in 1988–89 local authorities spent £2 billion on renovating housing and on energy efficiency work. In Scotland this year £16 million is being spent to combat dampness and £62 million to combat condensation. I fully acknowledge that there were problems with the community insulation project network last year. However, I understand from Energy Action Scotland that there are now projects in every Scottish district council area. For the future, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy announced recently, it is intended to include powers in forthcoming social security legislation to introduce a new scheme of grants towards the costs of basic insulation measures in low-income households in England, Scotland and Wales.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important matter so that I could have the opportunity to explain three prongs of Government policy—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock on Monday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at seventeen minutes past Two o'clock.