HC Deb 10 January 1989 vol 144 cc792-814

Motion made and question proposed, That the Social Fund Cold Weather Payments (General) Amendment Regulations 1988 (S.I. 1988, No. 1908), dated 2nd November 1988, a copy of which was laid before this House on 3rd November in the last Session of Parliament, be revoked.—[Mrs. Beckett.]

10.15 pm
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

With our customary generosity and magnanimity, it is a pleasure to congratulate the Government on adopting two of the improvements that we suggested to the severe weather payment scheme that we suggested, and on removing some of the—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Right hon. and hon. Members beyond the Bar should either enter the Chamber or leave quietly.

Mr. Flynn

With this measure, the Government have removed one of the scheme's more demented features, whereby the seven-day qualifying period had to start on a Monday. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) said last year that, unfortunately, in the past the frost had proved incapable of grasping the administrative convenience of starting any cold snap at the beginning of a working week. Are we perhaps experiencing a few flakes of Government generosity? Alas, no. The Government are propelled more by baser motives—particularly the crucial embarrassment factor.

In our last debate on social services, the House was treated to the announcement of the LEB money, or the Lawson embarrassment bonus. Money that was not available three weeks earlier, at the time of the Autumn Statement, or of the uprating statement, was suddenly found. All the arguments on the side of compassion, justice and fairness failed—but the purse strings snapped open to save the face of a vain and crumbling Chancellor. That was a valuable lesson for us all. Tonight, perhaps we will hear again about the winter premiums, because they were rejected by a previous Minister on the ground that he would be embarrassed if he had to increase the payments to pensioners in the autumn and then reduce them later, in the spring.

Many deserving groups throughout the country are praying that the Chancellor will devote another unattributable briefing to their cause, witnessed only by 10 journalists and a silent tape recorder. Many past decisions have been affected by the embarrassment factor. Perhaps one day there will be a scientific treatise on what happens as soon as the embarrassment quotient reaches a certain level and triggers Government action.

When the cold weather payment scheme was put to the test in 1986–87, it collapsed under the weight of its own complexity and absurdity. It is claimed that last winter it worked well—but it was not put to a severe test then. Tonight, the House is considering a scheme that remains wretched and ineffective. The miserly payment is still stuck at £5, despite soaring fuel costs and before electricity privatisation and the dreaded nuclear tax.

The average amount paid for heat and light by pensioners on the basic pension is £8 a week throughout the year and more than £16 a week throughout the winter months. There is no compensation for losses suffered by the elderly, the disabled and young families—losses which have been caused by the Government, principally by abolishing heating additions that the elderly and people with children automatically receive under supplementary benefits. The Government will have taken £11.05 a week from all pensioners and £17.50 a week from couples by next April by severing the link between earnings and pensions. Instead of paying out automatically, they have chosen again to persist in forcing everyone to claim, thereby wasting money and reducing take-up. Last time there were claims on a significant scale, in the winter of 1986–87, 500,000 people out of a total of 1,400,000 who were entitled to claim did not. The cost of advertising the scheme in 1987 was the same as the severe weather payments to 82,800 people.

Why not change the system to an automatic pay-out? I was told in an answer from the Minister about the social security settlement that all the necessary details were available, except the information about whether the recipients possessed sums of £500. That problem could be eliminated by raising the limit above the rather disagreeable level of £500, the sum that many elderly people possess as funeral money. It should be raised to £3,000—that is the simple answer. Many people would then be given the extra money automatically and simply.

We could do with another examination of the local temperature figures which have been the subject of so much ridicule. The pay-out should be national or regional. In this context, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are treated as nations. That was what happened in 1987, when the Secretary of State decided to ignore his scheme and to declare a national trigger. A national system would mean a slight increase in the numbers receiving the benefit, but the administrative costs would plummet and take-up would rise to 100 per cent. Such a system would be simpler and cheaper and would reach those in greatest peril.

For peril it is. Each British winter, 40,000 people die because they are cold as well as old. The message from the Government to vulnerable people should be: turn up the heating when the bitter weather starts—your extra payment is guaranteed. In Britain, the death rate among the over-60s rises by 20 per cent. in the winter, as compared with the summer, and the death rate for children under one year old is 40 per cent. higher. These differences do not occur in Canada, Sweden or Norway, although those countries have far more severe winters.

We know that there is no scientifically accepted causal link between winter deaths and the cold, and that the matter is now under investigation, but we should not be guilty of avoiding the obvious explanation, which is that we, like New Zealand, which has a pattern of winter deaths similar to ours, have exceptionally unpredictable weather. To these unpredictable changes we need a response that is entirely reliable and predictable.

The recent report by the King's Fund Research Institute, based on World Health Organisation figures, found that men over 65 can now expect to live longer in 20 other countries, including Sri Lanka and Uruguay, than in Britain; and that women of the same age have a higher life expectancy in 16 other countries, including Greece and Spain. The poor showing in Britain is blamed on severe poverty and disadvantage among a large minority.

Our task is to convince those who are at risk that they have nothing to worry about when severe weather hits them. Fuel poverty is, sadly, just one symptom of general poverty. Many families and individuals are being cruelly hit by the cumulative effects of the neglected basic pension, of the losses of housing benefit, which has been cut by £600 million, and of the problems of repaying budget or crisis loans. People are now finding that their additional bills are not covered because their benefits are frozen by transitional payments.

The "keep well, keep warm" campaign message, which could have been useful, was eclipsed, or rather obliterated, when a junior Minister patronisingly told the old to dress up like Mother Hubbard. The Government's message should have been that they would guarantee extra payments, but that unfortunate statement by the Minister showed that the Government do not understand or care, and that people are on their own. Of course, the Government proved in the Budget that they care for some people. There was a tax handout to Sir Ralph Halpern of £4,728 a week, which over a year is the price of severe weather payments for 49,171 people. The Government do care for the old and the cold, but they care 49,000 times as much for the super-rich.

We have frequently quoted the figure that, under the Labour Government, basic pensions increased in real terms by 20 per cent., whereas under this Government, basic pensions have increased by a mere 2 per cent. From a new look at the figures, we have discovered that the pensioners who are worse off have had no increase in income at all in real terms. A pensioner on income support now receives, in real terms, £1 less than in 1979. If we make comparisons between pensioners who are over 80 and the disabled now and then—even those who enjoy the higher pensioner premium—we find that the same difference exists. Those pensioners in greatest need have suffered a loss in income in real terms of £1 a week.

That scheme is crude and does not take into account fuel costs, which vary widely. Not all homes are adequately efficient thermally and not all people enjoy the same health. The elderly, the disabled and those young families will feel the cold coming in the next few weeks and are wondering what their reaction will be. Will the Government make another attempt to hold down the cost of benefit by discouraging people, or will we hear from the Government tonight suggestions for really improving the scheme? If we do not, fuel poverty will intensify in depth and extent.

I have had letters from constituents about the matter, as I am sure many other hon. Members have. One letter says: Yes, I have central heating"— many elderly people enjoy central heating now— but I took a drop in income in April and with inflation, which doubled the drop, I cannot afford to put the heating on. Unless the Government have a serious policy—rather than one that is mainly ornamental—to tackle the great winter cull caused by fuel poverty, there will be even more deaths in the future. We look forward to hearing about the Government's new policies.

10.27 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), who has had a busy evening, on his skilful speech. He wisely said little about the amendment regulations against which the Opposition are praying, except to take credit for them, rather eccentrically. However, his approval is welcome. No one would have known from his speech, which inveighed against the Government for parsimony, that the last Labour Government had no effective scheme for giving extra help to the least well-off in times of severe weather.

The regulations extend to more people the provisions contained in the regulations laid before the House on 7 October. As the hon. Gentleman has said so little about them, the House may find it helpful if I spend a few minutes describing what they do. The amendment regulations, coupled with the earlier regulations, make extra cash available to vulnerable people receiving income support, who have less than £500 capital, to help them to pay their heating bills during any very cold spells this winter.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Why do the Government insist on continuing with the £500 limit?

Mr. Lloyd

Because we wish to direct the help to those with the most limited means. That is the fairest way of doing it. Those with more capital have a cushion with which to meet any extra payments. Does the hon. Lady deny that that helps to direct the scheme to those who need it most?

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

The Minister must know, as do all hon. Members who hold constituency surgeries, that old people keep £500 against their funeral costs, and hold it sacrosanct. That £500 disqualifies them from receiving the severe weather payments that he is trying—as we are all trying—to enable them to receive.

Mr. Lloyd

It does not disqualify them. They may disqualify themselves if they hold that view, but most do not. They have the resources; we are directing the scheme towards those who do not. We are continuing that additional help—which the Government have provided in one form or another for the last few years, but which their Labour predecessor did not match—for those members of society most likely to worry about using extra heating during any spell of unusually cold winter weather.

The help, of course, is over and above the provision made via income support for normal heating expenses. Indeed, all the money paid out in previous years as heating additions—£417 million in the year ending last March—has been included in the income support allowances and premiums. That £417 million, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Newport, West knows, is some 55 per cent. more in real terms than his party was paying out in heating additions in 1978–79.

What is more, the heating additions that the Labour Government did pay failed to reach some 30 per cent. of pensioners on supplementary benefit. Whether that was because they did not qualify or because they could not find their way through the byzantine regulations the hon. Member for Newport, West may like to tell us when he winds up for the Opposition. What I think that he cannot tell us is that that 30 per cent. did not include many who need extra assistance in exceptionally cold weather. Nor can he deny that since last April that £417 million is being redirected automatically through the premiums to all in the vulnerable groups on income support.

The new regulations bring forward and significantly extend the scheme that was operated successfully—

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston)

Will the Minister confirm that the paragraph that he has just read to the House itself confirms—albeit in the subtext—that what the Government did to heating additions last April was abolish them in their entirety?

Mr. Lloyd

No. What they did was include them in another form in the premiums that went automatically to the vulnerable groups. The hon. Gentleman knows, as do all his hon. Friends who have truly studied the matter, that the various additions did not always reach those whom they were intended to reach and who would have benefited from them, because they were complex and because they operated under various rules. Those who received them would have had them back through the various premiums.

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

I am sorry to challenge the Minister again, but he has said twice that no such scheme of payments existed under the previous Labour Government. If he looks back, he will discover that a scheme—a better scheme—did exist under that Government. The only justification for his statement, which I have also heard the Prime Minister make—although I accept that the matter may not have been explained to him in its entirety—is that the present Government redefined the scheme as one that operated only in exceptionally severe weather, to reduce its scope. That is the only justification for saying that the scheme is unique. It is actually a worse scheme than the one operated by his predecessor.

Mr. Lloyd

What the hon. Lady has not told us is what that scheme was. Perhaps she or one of her colleagues will do so. As far as I know—I look forward to hearing from Opposition Members—in times of particularly severe weather the scheme gave insubstantial amounts to those who were most vulnerable.

Mrs. Beckett

Yes. Payments were made under the single payment regulations when there was prolonged severe weather.

Mr. Lloyd

That scheme did exist. That is why I said that there was no effective scheme, not that there was no scheme at all. As the hon. Lady knows, payments for exceptionally severe weather were negligible. If she can give me figures that demonstrate otherwise, I shall be very interested to hear them. But I chose my words carefully, and I think that they will stand up to close examination, in relation both to what happens under our scheme and what happened when the Opposition were in power.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

As my hon. Friend will know, I have not always agreed with the Government's policy on pensioners. But, in fairness to my hon. Friend—and I wish to congratulate the Government on these measures—is it not a fact that 10 years ago we were spending approximately £100 million a year on all forms of heating additions, whereas in the last financial year we spent well in excess of £400 million? That must be a positive step forward, although there is still a great deal more to be done.

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend is right in the first three quarters of his statement and he can make a good case for the last quarter, which no doubt he will do when he makes his speech.

The new regulations link entitlement to the income support pensioner premiums, thereby allowing men and women aged 60 to 64 to qualify for the first time. They also provide for people receiving a disability premium, or families which include a child entitled to a child disability premium to qualify, affording continued provision for those most vulnerable because of ill health.

We have deliberately kept the arrangements as simple as possible by linking entitlement to these straightforward criteria. This has the advantage of making the rules easy for people to understand and for our local offices to operate. It also has an added advantage, as income support makes no distinction—unlike supplementary benefit—between householders and non-householders. Consequently, under the new regulations non-householders on income support will qualify for help for the first time.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I appreciate what the Minister said about simplicity, because it is on the grounds of alleged lack of simplicity that he has never been sympathetic to the question I have put many times about the wind chill factor. If the Minister has difficulty in trying to cope with meteorological data, would it not be simpler to designate various areas of the country that have a record of more severe weather and allow higher increments for the payments in those areas?

Mr. Lloyd

I do not think so. The shape of the scheme is such that in areas of the country with more severe weather the trigger will be activated more often. Therefore, there will be more payments. The scheme is sensitive to the areas of the country with, on average, colder weather than elsewhere.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

My constituency rests in the Pennines, and our weather station is in Leeds. Many of the communities that house elderly people and families are well above the snow line and the Leeds weather centre does not reflect that cold weather. Wind chill is relevant when one is on a housing estate on the top of a hill in the Pennines, and Leeds is lower down.

Mr. Lloyd

I cannot confess to knowing the hon. Lady's constituency well enough—

Mrs. Mahon

The Minister should know.

Mr. Lloyd

I do not think that I should. There are 63 weather stations throughout the country and they were chosen to give the best representation for the area they serve. I heard what the hon. Lady said, and I shall take note of her point. I will be in touch with her at a later date. I cannot rebut her point at the Disptach Box now.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Minister reflect on the fact that it is possible to assess the wind chill factor for any point in the country? It is done in other countries, including the United States and many eastern European countries where winters are very cold. Can he not simply instruct his officials in the Department that henceforth the wind chill factor as well as the ordinary temperature should be the deciding factors in whether the trigger is activated? Simply using the temperature clearly understates the cold weather in which many elderly people suffer.

Mr. Lloyd

The best guide to temperature and the need for extra fuel use is the air temperature, not the wind chill. That is an added complication which could make it much more difficult to determine how payments should be made, without being any fairer. In many respects it would be less fair, because wind chill affects differently the top and bottom of a building and varies according to the direction in which a building faces. If one were to operate that system fairly, as I am sure the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) would, it would have to be far more complicated than he suggested and, ultimately, it would be less fair. I am certain that the air temperature is the best guide.

The hon. Member for Newport, West wants to put in place of this simple but responsive and fair scheme a much more wide-ranging winter premium which, if I understood him aright, should be paid regardless of whether the winter is cold or mild and regardless of whether the individual lives in an area that is experiencing the worst of the winter or an area that is faring comparatively well.

I fear that such a proposal would not be seen to be meeting the particular cold weather need, because such a premium would quickly come to be regarded as part of normal benefit. Inevitably, those people suffering the worst of any winter weather would claim—on grounds of common equity, wind chill or some other factor—some additional benefit in recognition of their special need for extra heating.

Such calls would be entirely logical. They are met now by the provision that we are debating but which the hon. Member for Newport, West wants to change and which, technically, he is praying against. Moreover, the introduction of a winter premium would, as he rightly remarked, cause considerable administrative difficulty, because provision for only part of the year would oblige large numbers of claimants to float on and then float off benefit—hardly the sort of simplification of the system that we have tried to achieve through the social security reforms.

There is no doubt that the hon. Gentleman would have great difficulty in explaining to claimants why their benefit was being reduced each April, just when benefit rates for others were being increased, especially to those on solid fuel who stock up for winter during the summer and pay the bills then.

Mr. Flynn

I mentioned a winter premium only to illustrate the embarrassing problems that the Government face. I regret that the Minister is not treating this matter with the seriousness it deserves. There are 40,000 extra deaths in the winter. We have made a number of suggestions to the Minister. This matter is of great importance and it deserves a better response from him, rather than the political point-scoring in which he is now engaging.

Mr. Lloyd

The point-scoring has come from Opposition Members. The bills come in after the payments have been made. The hon. Gentleman said he mentioned the winter premium in passing, as it were. Perhaps I am taking the issue too seriously by replying to it. Certainly I am taking it seriously because I appreciate that, as an idea, it has superficial attraction to people other than those who think carefully about what it would imply.

The changes that we are making are all beneficial and practical. They double the potential number of payments that might be made under the scheme this year as compared with that which operated last year. As a result, we would expect to pay out a potential maximum of £10 million in a single week this winter should the whole country experience very cold weather, as opposed to a cost of £4.7 million under the same regulations last year.

Those changes also ensure that arrangements for making claims this winter will continue to be straightforward. I believe that if there are many more claims, they can be met administratively most efficiently, contrary to the suspicions that the hon. Member for Newport, West has voiced. Notices will be placed in local newspapers telling people whenever a weather station records temperatures that trigger payments. The notices will include a simple application form which may be completed and sent to the local office. The simplicity of that is illustrated by the fact that, once a payment has been made as a result of such a claim, no further claim is necessary for the rest of the winter and payments will automatically be made for any subsequent spells of cold weather.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The Minister did not seem to appreciate in his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) the point that we are making, which is that, even in the sort of weather we have been having this winter—not freezing—large numbers of pensioners and others are finding it almost impossible adequately to heat their accommodation because they do not have sufficient money. That certainly applies to those on income support and those living at the poverty or near-poverty level.

Mr. Lloyd

We debated those points in the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate just before Christmas. I do not want to debate them again, but I stress that income support levels are set so that they are sufficient to meet normal heating costs. We are now discussing extra costs in exceptional weather. That is what the scheme is designed for; it does it well and efficiently.

As well as making those substantial improvements, we are promoting the scheme widely in co-operation with a number of voluntary bodies. The hon. Member for Newport, West mentioned the "keep warm, keep well" campaign which we are organising with Help the Aged, Neighbourhood Energy Action and Age Concern. The campaign is to increase public awareness about the need for people to take the proper precautions to keep warm during very cold weather. It is a mark of the success of the initiative—however attention was drawn to it—that the subject has already generated such public debate so early in the winter.

We have taken the opportunity to tell people about the social fund cold weather payments in the publicity which has been given to the "keep warm, keep well" campaign in England and Wales and the "keep warm this winter" campaign in Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the very worrying problem of excess winter mortality. Excess winter mortality has shown a welcome decline during the past 30 years. If he draws political lessons from those statistics, perhaps he would like to comment on the fact that there was an upward movement during the last Labour Government, but the downward trend has been resumed and is continuing. However, the number of excess deaths—some 35,000 each year—is still far too high. We are very pleased that the Medical Research Council is undertaking a study to report to the Government where it would be worth while for additional research to be carried out so that the problem can be understood and effectively tackled.

Clearly, it is not just a matter of money, although that might be the case if one compared the amount spent on heating and conditions under the last Labour Government with what is spent now. Some of the research shows that if one compares the mortality rates among elderly people in accommodation where there is full central heating and there is no penalty if the heating is on all the time with those who have to watch their fuel costs more carefully and sharply, there is no difference in mortality. It is perfectly clear that some problems arise when elderly people go out not dressed warmly enough for the winter.

I make no apology for saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) was right to suggest that one thing that elderly people could do in their own interests was to dress up warmly for the winter. It is a great pity that Opposition Members jeered and scoffed at that, helping to lose the important message that she was conveying.

Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

Does the Minister agree that dressing up warmly is also a question of money, and that a really good warm winter coat is very expensive? Is is not ironic that councils are trying hard to install central heating, but some pensioners with central heating are still huddled over their gas ovens in the kitchen because they are afraid of the bills? Would it not make more sense for the Government's campaign if pensioners knew that when the temperature and the wind chill factor —which should also be taken into account—triggers off a very cold spell, they should automatically get payment for every day?

If a bank can calculate interest on a daily basis, surely the Government can calculate payment for cold weather on a daily basis. If a pensioner lays out money for a cold spell that lasts six days and gets nothing back, he or she runs into debt. That is what they are afraid of. They should not have to be pauperised by savings of as little as £500. Any Government who are really serious about pensioners' health and mortality rates should take that into account.

Mr. Lloyd

The hon. Lady has made several points and will no doubt make them again if she joins in the debate. In answer to her first point, many elderly people can dress much more warmly than they think with the clothes that they already have. Although I agree that a new coat can be quite expensive, not everybody necessarily needs to wear new clothes to keep warm.

Mrs. Mahon

Must the elderly use jumble sales, then?

Mr. Lloyd

Well, many people do. I am a great attender of second-hand clothes sales for charities in my constituency. One can get very good bargains at them.

Mr. Winnick

For Tory Members of Parliament.

Mr. Lloyd

Yes, and for anybody else who cares to go.

Mr. Wallace


Mr. Lloyd

Before I conclude, I shall give way again, because I have given way to other hon. Members.

Mr. Wallace

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I know that time is getting on. However, I have been puzzling for some time about in what possible way the inclusion of the wind chill factor could make the system less fair. Surely the Minister is not suggesting that it could produce a situation where people who qualify under the existing scheme would not qualify if the wind chill factor were taken into account. For many people the wind chill factor has a real effect—making their homes and lives colder. It is real and measurable, so at the very least, will the Minister say that he will look into the matter? That would be one small concession, but we would appreciate it far more if he were willing to take that factor fully into account.

Mr. Lloyd

I did look into that and can only repeat that the most significant factor in all this is air temperature, not wind chill. That is why we have not included the wind chill factor—although the administrative problems are very real as well.

The regulations are generous, and make the payments more widely available. They are more sensitive to sudden changes in temperature than were last year's arrangements, and they offer real help to those most at risk. I therefore commend them to the House.

10.52 pm
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Many of us who had hoped that we would see a change of attitude from the Minister must be extremely disappointed by his remarks. Although we recommended the changes that come about in this statutory instrument, some of his remarks were appalling and insulting to the elderly and the handicapped in our community. The idea that our elderly population —people who have worked all their lives, earning a decent living and trying to save for their old age—should somehow be condemned to the second-hand shops for their winter woolies is despicable from a Government Department, and I am extremely distressed by it.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

I am sure that the hon. Lady will readily concede that many elderly people have to shop in second-hand shops and, because they have lived through the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, have a history of shopping in such shops to find warm clothes. The hon. Lady, myself and many other hon. Members, have visited elderly people who sit huddled around one-bar fires dressed in such clothes. Is that what the Minister seeks to perpetuate?

Mrs. Ewing

I am in total agreement with my hon. Friend. As one who has canvassed over the years in various inner cities as well as rural areas, I have come across many such instances and, sadly, I do not find that the numbers are declining. It is a terrible condemnation of our society that, in the latter part of the 20th century, people should still live in such circumstances.

The Government are tinkering around the edges of a very real problem and are not taking full cognizance of the effects of their own legislation. Trying to score political points in this issue is a false move on their part. It would be much better if we saw a radical approach to trying to safeguard our elderly, weak and handicapped.

We welcome the alteration of the seven-day regulation, because it was ludicrous to expect weather conditions to fit into a neat regular pattern. We very much welcome that, and we appreciate, too, the fact that we shall now see families with children up to the age of five included in the regulations, because that will take account of all the under-school-age children.

Nonetheless, there are major criticisms. One of the reasons for the prayer is to give us a real opportunity to lay before the Government the Opposition's deep concerns — and, I believe, those of some Conservative Members—about how we deal with our climatic conditions. I believe, for example, that the £5 payment takes no account of rising fuel costs. The notional fuel element, which is included in the old housing benefit regulations, indicated a minimum of £8.80 per week to take account of fuel costs to keep a house warm and to ensure that there were adequate supplies of hot water and cooking facilities. The £5 payment obviously comes nowhere near meeting those needs.

Likewise, the £500 capital limit, about which I intervened during the Under-Secretary's earlier comments, is seen by many people as an insult to the independence and the dignity of many pensioners who have saved that sum of money as a way of meeting their funeral costs. It is not good enough for the Government to say that they are trying to target, because they are missing the target. If they were to move the £500 limit up substantially, we might then accept that they were trying to target effectively. However, the limit of £500 savings is a minimum sum. It is a sum which nowadays means nothing to most people, but to the pensioners £500 often represents their life savings from their poor wages.

I am from a family where my mother took out the penny-a-week Prudential insurance policy to save for her funeral, so that she would not feel that in death she would be a burden to her family. That may seem to us strange, but it is the reality in which many elderly people find themselves. To set the limit at £500 is to deny the efforts that those people have made to save over the years to ensure that they give their family—in death as well as in life—the kind of opportunities they did not have. They do not want to be a burden in death, and the £500 limit is a gross insult.

I reject, too, the idea that there should be a regressive claim for severe weather payments. What we need is a progressive attitude, which ensures that the payments are there before the cold weather arrives. When the first frosts come or the first snow falls, we must ensure that people can turn on their fires, or put extra coal on their fires, or switch on their gas heating, or use whatever their source of fuel may be, and not have to worry about whether they will be able to meet the bill at the end of the day. We would especially like to see the regressive aspect of the claim removed.

The Under-Secretary spoke about 63 places of measurement of temperature for severe weather payments. I represent a constituency which contains Tomintoul, the highest village in Scotland, and the whole area of the Braes of Glenlivet, which are perhaps better known to many people as a source of the golden liquid of Scotland. [HON. MEMBERS: "Inner warmth."] These are very cold areas. While hon. Members joke about the inner warmth, I assure them that the outer cold in those areas is especially severe.

I point out to the House that the measurement of the temperatures in those areas are not taken at Aviemore, which would be the logical place, but on the coastline, where the temperatures are, naturally, much warmer. We must look at the 63 places of measurement—a point made, too, by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon)—if we are to take account of the real climatic conditions in which many people find themselves.

These regulations also do not take account of the realities of the climatic conditions. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) mentioned the wind chill factor. The Under-Secretary has said that we only need to worry about exceptional as opposed to normal conditions. Normal conditions must be taken into account, because the prevailing climatic conditions are significant to people's health during the winter months.

Scotland accounts for 9 per cent. of the United Kingdom population, but 25 per cent. of deaths from hypothermia are recorded in Scotland. That reflects the effects of Scotland's prevailing weather conditions, the wind chill factor, the dampness and so on. People's health is affected by such weather and it is unnecessary for them to suffer the severe weather conditions that are the subject of this debate, and thus become ill. The Government have failed to take account of those prevailing weather conditions.

We in the SNP have suggested that there should be an overall cold climate allowance that would take account of the climatic conditions from the north of the United Kingdom to the south. Tapering payments should be made during the winter months to all those who receive income support, to pensioners and to the handicapped. We believe that that is the best way forward.

In Glasgow it is 20 per cent. more expensive to heat a house than in Bristol; in Aberdeen it is 30 per cent. more expensive. Sometimes such figures underestimate the problems. Recently the Department of Energy published "Degree Days" figures which suggested that a house in Aberdeen would need 50 per cent. more heat to achieve the same average internal heat as a house in Bristol.

A cold climate allowance that took into account the varying climatic conditions from north to south would ensure that people need not worry about heating their homes and would ensure that they were not left in a ridiculous situation.

I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak and my final plea is that the Government consider the standing charges imposed by the gas and electricity boards. I met an elderly widower at a recent surgery—I shall not give his name—and his basic charge for electricity in a quarter was 83p. One wonders how on earth a pensioner had such a basic charge. His standing charge, however, was £8.44. I asked him what he did with his days to try to keep warm. He told me that he walked around a supermarket, he went into a cafe for a cup of tea and stayed there for many hours. That was his alternative to sitting at home and having to put on an electric fire, which he might not be able to afford. The Government should take up the removal of the standing charges directly with the boards, and they should do so forthwith, because it is important.

If an automatic allowance was given to all pensioners and those with handicapped relatives within their families, the Government could achieve major savings. I noted that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was here earlier. I hope that he was not here to carry out a penny-pinching exercise. We impose burdens on our Health Service by allowing people to develop illnesses such as bronchitis and other chest diseases that are associated with winter cold. Often, such diseases result in death. Major savings to the Health Service could be achieved if people were not placed in circumstances where they are prey to such diseases.

I believe that we have a moral obligation to speak out, given that, compared with the rest of Europe, we have the highest number of deaths as a result of cold-related illnesses during the winter months. That is a terrible condemnation of our present system, and all sides of the House should sincerely fight against it.

11.4 pm

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Three things, I think, are in juxtaposition. First, I have the opportunity yet again to explain to hon. Members and others where Langbaurgh is. Secondly, it is actually two months after this affair should have first been debated, and one has to thank God that during the two months we have not had cold weather. Thirdly, it actually identifies and epitomises the way in which bureaucracy runs Governments, whichever party is in power, because the research notes provided by the Library tell me that there are no data available on the frequency and amounts paid during the period of the last Labour Government. They have not even kept the records, so whether they paid any or not is a matter which the Library certainly does not know about.

I wanted to catch your eye this evening, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would have sought to catch the eye of Mr. Speaker two months ago, although the debate finished in the early hours of the morning, and one would not have been very popular getting up and speaking at 3 am on the cold weather payments and keeping colleagues here. Langbaurgh is a marvellous place. Few people know where it is. Few people besides those from this House who ventured there are aware that Langbaurgh is in the north-east of England.

One lot of people who apparently do know where it is are those responsible for drawing up the lists of the areas which will be conditioned by the cold weather should it come about, but it is not straightforward for the whole of Langbaurgh; it is split. I cannot understand how one can justify the fact that, in an area as small as one's constituency, people on one side of the road can have additional payments because it is jolly cold and people on the other side of the road cannot because it is not quite so jolly cold.

The Government have got themselves hooked—one might say something a little ruder about something twisted —on RAF cold weather points for choosing weather stations. Why choose Leeming for Langbaurgh? Why choose Whitby for Langbaurgh? Both are considerably further south than Langbaurgh. Would it not have been better to choose somewhere further north? We might have had the natural benefit of the fact that it is normally colder in the north than in the south, but it did not fit the bureaucratic mind; bureaucracy has to be satisfied.

I had a look to see how this expressed itself in the north of England generally. I find that an area way up into Northumberland is covered by the RAF station at Leeming. Let anyone try to tell the good people of Northumberland that the temperatures and weather up there are exactly the same as the temperatures and weather down in RAF Leeming.

Of course, if one reads the regulations very carefully, one sees that the Government pride themselves on having moved away from the Monday-to-Sunday scenario to a seven-day rolling scenario; but there is that little sting in the tail—that if any one day in the average period under review counts as exceptionally cold, and then becomes slightly warmer, it then does not count. There might be five very cold days, then two days which happen to take the average temperature up a little bit, followed by another five days of very cold weather. Over 12 days, my constituents will have had extremely cold weather. RAF Leeming may have had two days when it was not quite so cold, but no one gains any benefit.

I wonder what kudos the Government expect to gain from this, because they are gradually, slowly, inexorably being dragged through the bureaucratic mess to a common-sense solution. And what is that common-sense solution? I will tell my hon. Friend. Last year, it was darn cold in this country, cold almost everywhere, to the point that even in this place it was freezing cold. Every Member on every side said to the Minister, "You cannot live with these regulations. You have got to give the cold weather payment." What happened? The Minister gave it. Despite all the rules and regulations, the pressure from hon. Members on all sides of the House made him change his mind. The regulations came into force in 1985. They were amended in 1986 and 1987. They should have been amended in 1988; they are about to be amended in 1989. Eventually, however, the Government will recognise the reality of the world outside this place and say to themselves, "We intend to live no longer according to what the bureaucrats say; we shall live in the real world, where Members of Parliament are to be found."

We realise that 90 per cent. of civil servants are to be found throughout the country—Customs and Excise officers, those who work in Department of Social Security offices and all the others—but all the policy advisers and policy makers live in the south of England. They never go to the north of England; they do not understand about the north of England. Consequently, they devise regulations that will never affect them.

The regulations are an improvement: seven days, on a rolling basis, instead of being based on Monday to Sunday, is better; children under five instead of children under two is better, and zero deg instead of minus 1.5 deg is better. So why not face up to the responsibilities of office and say that, when it is cold in this country, it is cold all over the country, instead of seeking to say, as these pettifogging, bureaucratically led regulations say, that lists of parishes shall be identified—sometimes two houses and a pub?

Somebody has taken thousands of hours of bureaucratic time drawing up these lists. When I asked whether I could be provided with a map, the official reply was that no map was available but that the Department had a map that was not in a form that could be photocopied. If the map is not in such a form, I have to ask: what the hell form is it in? Why cannot hon. Members have a look at it and show it to their constituents?

My hon. Friend the Minister, who read his civil servants' brief so beautifully, said that our constituents will know when the cold weather trigger applies to them. Poppycock. They will not know when the trigger applies to them. Does the Minister expect each of my constituents in one half of my constituency who fall into this category to phone RAF Leeming or, if they live in the other half of my constituency, to phone RAF Whitby and say, "I think I have a right to put in a claim"? That is bureaucratic nonsense. It is time that the Government faced up to this responsibility and recognised that, when exceptionally cold weather occurs, we do not have to be told by a junior ex-Minister to put on an extra vest; we do it for ourselves. We know when exceptionally severe weather occurs.

Why, therefore, are we even debating the regulations this evening? They are an improvement, but would it not have been far better if the Government had adopted a more generous attitude, although not in terms of money? It will depend on the weather. Even the Treasury cannot control the weather.

The amount of money that has been spent on cold weather payments each year has been increased from £2 million to £5 million and then to £11 million. If we tried to find that amount in the small print of the annual outturn figures, I bet that we should spend hours in the Library trying to find it.

One wonders how much money the Government have set aside for the cold weather payment. Is it £10 million, is it £20 million, or is it £200 million? Who knows? I can guarantee two things: the Treasury will have it lower than it should be and the Minister responsible will not have a clue what it should be.

Why do the Government not face up to reality and say to themselves, "Cold weather is an exceptional thing; we do not want the elderly, the sick and children to die because of an inconvenience"? I must make a personal plea for my constituency. I notice that, among the categories so far excluded, are the long-term unemployed, of whom I have too many, with children who are over five years of age. One of the worst categories in which one can find oneself in this country is that of people who are trapped as long-term unemployed and have growing children who are over five. No provision is made for them.

That is an aside from the thrust of my main argument —that the scheme should be simpler and more generous in that there should be no pettifogging regulations tied to parishes. We should look at Scotland and perhaps divide it east-west and north-south. I do not know too much about Scotland, but I can tell my hon. Friend the Minister that, if it is cold in Newcastle, it is cold in Hartlepool and Langbaurgh. The elderly do not feel any difference if it is 0.9 deg cold or 1.1 deg cold; in either case, it is cold. We should take a broader brush. I promise the House that the Government will reconsider the regulations before many moons have passed. They will be forced to do so by power from the Back Benches.

Few Back Benchers are present at this time of night, and few will read my speech in Hansard; I would not ask them to do that, even as a punishment. I may have put the case in a slightly light-hearted way because I have often found that that is the best way to get one's point across, but these regulations are tight, bureaucratic and nonsense. I urge my hon. Friend to take the plaudits for what the Government have done. This provision is more generous and better than any previous Government have done. We have not received enough praise for what we have done in this context, but, if there had been a small move further forward, we would not have had this debate this evening. We could all have gone home half an hour ago, thankful that the Government's generosity has been recognised.

11.17 pm
Mr. Jimmy Wray (Glasgow, Provan)

Surely the Minister cannot convince us that this scheme has been a success. It is sad and disappointing that a Minister of his calibre should tell us to advise our constituents to go to jumble sales. I shall advise my constituents to go to jumble sales when I know to which jumble sales the Prime Minister sends her clothes.

The days of the army and navy stores are all well past. I was embarrassed going to school as a Japanese general; we do not want to go back to those days. It is nonsense to impose this £500 limit. We all know that it takes £1,000 and more to bury a pensioner. Pensioners live in this world without dignity and they do not want to die without it, but that is what will happen as a result of this crude scheme.

How can the Minister say that the scheme is a success when 40,000 people die from cold and hypothermia? The scheme cannot be a success when half a million people do not file a claim. There is considerable concern at the moment because, since the change in the social security system, people have become more vulnerable. The system of transitional payments has not been taken up. Some people who applied months ago have received no payments. If people do not claim, they do not get paid. In deprived areas, such as my constituency of Provan, surely they should not have to sit down on a winter's day and fill in a form to get a miserable £5 a week. The £5 payment should be doubled at least.

The people who receive the benefit are the most vulnerable in society. They are on the margins of supplementary benefit. Why, then, is the Minister not compassionate and why does he not include pensioners who are receiving housing benefit and are on the margins for supplementary benefit? The Government may say that they do not know the numbers involved, but in the early 1980s one of the biggest authorities in Scotland, Strathclyde, made them well aware of that. A fuel poverty committee was set up and during one of our coldest winters it ran around distributing barometers to pensioners so that they did not die of hypothermia.

Mr. Holt


Mr. Wray

I could not afford a barometer, but obviously the hon. Gentleman may know about them.

We should set up a special committee to look into cold weather payments and, instead of asking people to fill in forms, we should say that if it is cold enough, they qualify, and give them the payments.

11.21 pm
Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

To feel cold and to be cold is always unpleasant, and that must be true for the elderly. A significant number of pensioners find it difficult to keep their homes warm. There are many reasons for that and they are not all related to money or to what is available through the present system. But every estimate and survey consistently reveals that about 50 per cent. of our pensioners are living in under-heated homes, so we must accept, as I know my hon. Friend the Minister does, that there is a real problem.

It is a pity that during this debate there has not been a more generous response from the Opposition about what has been achieved in the past 10 years because we have taken a substantial step forward compared with the 1970s. To that extent I warmly congratulate the Government on the major improvements in the heating cost provisions, but there is still a great deal to be done. With full computerisation now in the process of coming into operation for identifying the financial position of our 10 million pensioners, we should be able to bring into place systems which will act much more efficiently and ensure that those who need additional resources but who are not claiming them, receive them.

Tonight nobody has commented on the 1 million or so pensioners who are not claiming income support when they could do so. Because of that those people lose out on heating additions. Can the Minister tell the House that, when the system is fully in place, his Department will be able to identify all those who receive only the basic pension and should be claiming income support—[HoN. MEMBERS: "It has."]—more clearly and specifically than now?

If that is the case—and I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments—we are obligated to ensure that people receive not just heating additions but income support, and to find out why 1 million of them have not been claiming it. In that way, we shall ensure that those at the very lowest end of the scale, who currently receive only a basic pension, will also be given income support and heating additions, and will benefit under the new measure before the House.

The time is coming when we must think in terms of automatic payments. I give full credit to the Government for the progress that has been made. In past years, one had to claim for every specific period for which one might be entitled to heating benefit. Now, one claims only once. which ensures that payments will automatically be made for the rest of the year, as and when the appropriate terms are met. But automatic payments should continue not just for one year but for the year after also, so that those entitled to payments will continue receiving them, even if they forget to claim again. That will steadily eliminate the number not in receipt of their full entitlements.

I strongly support the appeals made by a number of hon. Members in respect of the existing £500 limit. I say to my hon. Friend that it is not good enough. The wartime generation of pensioners in particular have saved and put aside a sum of money for their funerals—and they will go without food, heating and clothing rather than touch those savings. Many of them incorrectly believe that, if they cannot pay for their funeral, they will have a pauper's burial.

Only a few months ago, an elderly constituent well into her eighties told me that she will never touch her £500 savings because she believes if she dies in Brighton without that money to ensure that she will be properly buried—"to give me the right send off," she said—she will be put in a cardboard box. I eventually managed to convince her that that is not true, but for every case that we hear about, there are 100 more who believe the same. Those pensioners insist on keeping £500 aside, but they are placed in an unfair situation as a result, in respect of their entitlement to cold weather payments.

I beg the Minister to reconsider that aspect as soon as possible and to twist the arm of my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend is no longer in the Chamber, but we understand the pressures on all Ministers. Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister will twist my right hon. Friend's arm severely, to see whether he can at least raise the savings limit from £500 to £1,000, which will be a good start to increasing the sum still higher in the future.

We must never be satisfied until there is 100 per cent. take-up of social security entitlements, and until every pensioner has a warm and comfortable home.

11.28 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I am always grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden), because his record of speaking up in the House for pensioners' rights is well known. I also have the pleasure of serving under him on the all-party pensions committee. I respond to his opening remarks by acknowledging that these are welcome changes, as other right hon. and hon. Members will also recognise. However, as the hon. Member for Kemptown said later, much more can be done.

The additional resources that the changes make available are not very significant. I was interested to hear the Under-Secretary say that the amount devoted to severe weather payments, if calculated on a national basis, is increased from £4.7 million to £10 million. What rate of take-up does the Department presume in arriving at that figure?

At any rate, much more can and should be done. The Government have the power by regulation—not a difficult thing in this place—to increase the size of the groups who qualify, and the range of climatic conditions that allow cold weather payments to be made. They should use that power more generously than they have in the past. Present income support levels are not adequate to cope with extended severe weather. That has been agreed on both sides of the House.

Statistics have been passed to and fro across the Chamber about the impact of severe weather, particularly on pensioners. Hon. Members have spoken about the unacceptable numbers of deaths from hypothermia. I agree, but many of our pensioners, especially those of the war generation, also find their life-styles restricted by the severe weather in a way that leads to a loss of dignity and many other problems. Those in the lowest 20 per cent. income group had to increase the proportion of disposable income that they devote to heating from 11 to 14 per cent. between 1979 and 1985—a significant increase.

Finally, I come to one or two improvements that could be made. The Government could easily reduce the seven-day qualifying period to three days. That would double the size of the eligible group. The Minister should bear that in mind as a possible future improvement to the scheme. I endorse the arguments that have been made for automatic payments. There should be better temperature monitoring, too. It is possible for ordinary mortals to measure temperature; we do not need meteorological experts to do it. Local offices of the DHSS should be able to do it independently, and to make the scheme more sophisticated by including, for example, wind chill factors. The Department should give that careful consideration.

As the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) reminded the House, the Minister has a residual power, which he used last year, which he should exercise more liberally to declare severe weather payment periods. He should be prepared to use it, and to tell the House of his intention to do so.

As has been said, £5 is inadequate. When will it be uprated? The payment has stayed at that amount for a number of years and its value has been eroded by increases in the retail prices index. I agree, too, that the level of capital disregard is too low, at £500. The hon. Member for Kemptown was right to make an eloquent plea that it should be raised immediately to £1,000. That is the only fair way in which to deal with people who suffer real hardship and to provide for heating costs without eating into their nest eggs for funeral bills. The Government should do more, which is not to say that I do not welcome the fine print in the regulations.

11.33 pm
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

The debate has rightly focused on the pressures on the elderly during the winter. The Government's record of helping vulnerable groups such as the elderly with heating their homes is lamentable. Not one Conservative Back Bencher was able to commend the Government's record unreservedly.

The regulations help few of the 14,700 senior citizens in my constituency. One of those pensioners, Mr. Ian Christie, who died last weekend, sad to say, was a tireless worker for the elderly, and he would have been the first to remind the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary that £5 is a miserly sum. Just to keep pace with the 15 per cent. increase in the price of electricity that the Government have forced on consumers in the 13-month period that the debate covers, the £5 payment would have had to be increased to £5.75 a week. It has not been increased at all. The average fuel bills in my constituency are at least £16 a week and they often rise to as much as £30 a week. The £5 payment is quite inadequate to provide even minimal levels of heat for elderly people and it is an insult to suggest that it could. It is even less than the £5.55 weekly payments to hundreds of thousands of pensioners and others that the Government abolished last April.

The Opposition will not vote against the measure, because it incorporates two valuable Labour party amendments. However, the Under-Secretary has severely provoked us with his reference to elderly people being encouraged to go shopping for second-hand clothes. The plain truth is that the Government have abolished any help with payments to such elderly people with clothing and grants.

Mr. Holt

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Griffiths

No. The hon. Gentleman has had plenty of time for himself. I can say to him and his colleagues that I am proud of what the last Labour Government did for the elderly. I am proud of the electricity discount scheme which, in one week beginning 22 January 1979, paid £5 not only to a select group of claimants, but to all claimants. If that £5 were uprated for inflation, it would be worth almost double that amount. The matter did not rest there. Claimants whose bill exceeded £20 received for the quarter 25 per cent. of the extra payment made under the electricity discount scheme. That is the record of the Labour Government, which I am proud to defend.

It is time that the Government recognised the problem of hypothermia. It is time they introduced a proper scheme that would allow people to heat their homes, and it is time that they stopped freezing allowances for the poor to bolster the incomes of the rich.

11.38 pm
Mr. Flynn

By leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to dwell too much on the political battle that has been joined. However, it seems extraordinary that the Library does not possess details of the electricity discount scheme, under which £45 million a year was spent in 1979. It is entirely wrong to say that there were no cold weather payments under Labour, although that has often been repeated by the Government. It is simply untrue. The Supplementary Benefits Commission guidance for 1977 makes it clear that a lump sum payment can be made to help with the debt where there has been serious illness or prolonged severe weather leading to fuel consumption greater than normal. So there were schemes.

However, the Government have ignored the main thrust of our argument, that fuel poverty is only one small part of general poverty. Tonight, we are talking only about a minuscule payment of £5—or perhaps £10—a year. There was boasting about the Government spending £400 million in additional payments at a time when, by severing the link between earnings and pensions, they had robbed the pensioners not of £400 million, but of the enormous sum of £3 billion. That sum will run at £6.3 billion by next April. For the tiny amount of £10, we must take into account the £11 that is lost every week of the year by single pensioners and the £17.40 that is lost by pensioner couples.

The points made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) are well understood. The system in the past was automatic. We have asked the Minister in a series of questions why that should not apply again. It makes so much sense. Why waste payments of £87,000 on advertising alone when all the information except one piece is already held on the computers in the Department? There is no need to go through a pile of files. The details can be flagged up on the computer, and the payment then sent out. The only information that the computers do not have is on those who have a capital sum of £500. They have information on those with a capital sum of £3,000, however, and the difference between the two is not very great.

As the hon. Member for Kemptown rightly pointed out, the nest egg that many pensioners have is very precious and important. It is wasteful and cruel that their allowances should be deducted because of that. The whole scheme of fivers and tenners is pathetic, paltry and ineffectual. As the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) and many Opposition Members have said, the scheme is basically unworkable: it is far too complicated, and when put to a real test it collapsed under the weight of public ridicule of its complexity and all the contradictions within it.

As has been said, the wind chill factor is crucial. A public inauguration ceremony for an American president was cancelled, not because of the temperature but because of a combination of temperature and wind chill factor.

Sadly, the Minister's response tonight has been atrocious, but there have been constructive suggestions. Every hon. Member has emphasised the seriousness of the problem. We have listened in despair to a defence of the ill-judged comment of a junior Minister. It is still not understood that she told people to wear woolly bonnets when they went to bed to make them look fools while everyone else had comfortable central heating in their houses. The point about that statement is that it was patronising, sending pensioners in need the message: "We don't understand you and we don't really care. You are on your own." Tonight we have heard a repetition of that statement from this Minister, who answers that, although the scheme is paltry, wasteful and indefensible, what the old must do is go out and get clothing from jumble sales.

11.41 pm
Mr. Peter Lloyd

By leave of the House, I will reply to the debate. I was interested in the way that the hon Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) finished his speech. He started by claiming credit for changes that he said he welcomed, but during the evening he began an archaeological exercise to try to dig up a scheme that could be said to have operated under the last Labour Government, which brought special payments to vulnerable groups in times of really cold weather. In so far as he managed to disinter one, it seemed to me much more complicated and more difficult to follow and claim than the present one. Perhaps it was automatic, but only to some; not all fell into the correct category. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do a little more work on that, because Conservative Members do not understand what the scheme is for which he is trying to take credit. It seems that he discovered it himself only this evening.

Several Opposition Members made much of the fact that they do not consider a payment of £5 per week sufficient to meet fuel costs during spells of very cold weather. But the £5 is not meant to cover the entire cost of fuel. The help provided by the regulations is over and above the provision made via income support for normal heating expenses. The best estimates suggest that the average household spends about £11 a week throughout the year on fuel, light and power, of which about half represents heating costs. The extra £5 therefore provides very real help to vulnerable people with extra costs during cold spells.

My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) was in some confusion about what happened when the scheme was changed before. It is not just that the Minister changed his mind and decided to declare a general payment. The regulations were changed. They were changed so that the trigger would be activated when the temperature fell to 0 deg whereas previously it had been activated at minus 1.5 deg. Contrary to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), the Minister has no power to alter the regulations at will. The regulations are as they appear on the Order Paper and I hope that the House will not pray against them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh also seemed to be suggesting that there should be the same payment—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 ( Exempted business).

Question put and negatived.