HC Deb 22 April 1993 vol 223 cc503-5
8. Mr. Wicks

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what steps his Department intends to take to offer those already receiving social security benefit extra payments fully to offset the increases in fuel bills after the levy of VAT at 8 and 17.5 per cent.; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Hanley

In his recent Budget speech, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made it clear that from April 1994 poorer pensioners and other poor families will get extra help. Details of the precise way in which the extra help will be provided will be announced in the autumn. Other social security beneficiaries will be assisted through the normal uprating mechanism.

Mr. Wicks

Given the very high fuel costs in Northern Ireland, and the fact that already cold-related deaths each winter kill more people than even the terrorists, will the hon. Gentleman take action not only to protect social security payments but to provide a home energy efficiency programme so that the old and the cold may have some reassurance about the terrible proposal to put VAT on fuel?

Mr. Hanley

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman, who takes a keen interest in the matter, may welcome the fact that over the last five years there has been a reduction in real terms of between 6 and 7 per cent. in electricity costs in Northern Ireland, while I admit that costs are high. In addition, since February 1988, there has been a reduction in real terms of between 13 and 15 per cent. in the cost of solid fuel, including coal.

The hon. Gentleman referred to deaths which result from severe weather. The Government, as he knows, have introduced changes so that cold weather payments are made automatically without a claim. As to energy efficiency, although my noble Friend Lord Arran is now the Minister responsible for that issue, when I was Minister I was pleased to visit at least three energy efficiency schemes. They are popular and welcome.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is just as important to ensure that energy is used efficiently as to ensure that benefits are updated? Therefore, may I congratulate him and his Department on the steps taken to place a duty on the electricity industry in Northern Ireland to seek energy efficiency saving measures? The Environment Select Committee is about to embark on an inquiry into this and I hope that the Northern Ireland experience will be of help to my colleagues and me on that Committee.

Mr. Hanley

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that my colleagues on the Front Bench will welcome what he says. It is worth pointing out that the introduction of VAT on domestic fuel is designed for environmental protection. It is strange that the Labour party does not welcome that quite as much as it should when one considers that it said in its manifesto that it would consider increased use of the fiscal system to promote environmental protection.

Mr. Molyneaux

Although I welcome the limited assurances about persons in receipt of various income benefits, will the Minister pay particular regard to the plight of the frugal poor who will be extremely hard hit by the application of VAT to domestic fuel?

Mr. Hanley

The right hon. Gentleman speaks for many hon. Members when he expresses concern for that category of person, above income support levels, whom we should consider sympathetically. We will always try to increase benefit levels in line with need. I am sure that he would not want me to announce in advance any changes that might be considered to the upratings in November or April.