HC Deb 07 December 1993 vol 234 cc130-2
6. Mr. Jim Cunningham

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what assessment she has made of the number of excess winter deaths for England and Wales in 1992.

Mr. Bowis

The figure is 34,845.

Mr. Cunningham

Given the inadequate 50p compensation package on fuel bills, and given that the imposition of VAT will mean that the fuel bill of the average household, particularly those of pensioners, will rise by 89p, does the Minister agree that many more people, including old-age pensioners and those below pensionable age, will find themselves pushing up the figures for winter deaths?

Mr. Bowis

The hon. Gentleman should put the figure of 34,000 in its proper context, because it is out of a total of 558,000 deaths. All the research shows that there is no link between excess winter deaths and poverty, age or anything else. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was trying, in an oblique way, to thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor for his package, which will provide £1.5 billion for supportive fuel measures.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would also like to reiterate his thanks, which i am sure he meant to give, for the achievements gained under the "keep warm, keep well" campaign, cold weather payments—I do not recall that the Labour party introduced such payments when it was in power—and home insulation grants. All that proves that it is possible to keep warmer under this Government than it was under the Labour Government.

Sir Donald Thompson

Is that estimate of winter deaths more or less than the number of those who were frightened to death by the propaganda of the Opposition?

Mr. Bowis

My hon. Friend is quite right to point that out. It is also worth noting that, of those winter deaths, hypothermia accounted for just 362. That information should be judged alongside the fact that, in the next 20 years, it is expected that 50 per cent. more people will live past the age of 85, and that, in the past 10 years, there has been a 20 per cent. fall in under-65 deaths. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that, given those facts, life is not just better under the Conservatives—it is longer.

Ms Lynne

Is the Minister aware that there has been a considerable increase in winter deaths due to influenza over the past two to three months compared with the same time last year? The figures come from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. What action will the Government take to make up for the shortfall of influenza vaccine, to prevent any more deaths from influenza?

Mr. Bowis

I can confirm the hon. Lady's point that influenza has been a factor in the excess deaths this year. That is always the case when there are bouts of influenza, as one might expect, in the winter months. I can also confirm that there is no shortage of influenza vaccine. As of today, the supplies are completely up to date, and the expectation is that all future demand this winter can be met.

Mr. Elletson

Is my hon. Friend aware that one of my constituents, a pensioner, died last week from hypothermia? Does he agree that, although his death was tragic and avoidable, it was nothing whatever to do with the extension of VAT to fuel? [Interruption.] It has nothing whatever to do with the extension of VAT to fuel, because it has not yet been extended to fuel. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to congratulate the Chancellor on the many measures in his Budget that will help to keep pensioners warm next winter?

Mr. Bowis

I will pass on my hon. Friend's thanks. He is quite right. Nobody could conceivably have died as a result of VAT on fuel when it has not yet been imposed on fuel. When it is, individuals will be protected by the package of measures to which my hon. Friend and I have referred.

It is also true that we have seen a steady falling in the level of people dying from hypothermia to the very small figures that we have today. That is in no small part a tribute to the Government and all those involved in the voluntary sector in the "keep warm, keep well" campaign, which has now been running for seven years, and which this year has a commitment of £500,000 towards giving that message, and that support and comfort, to the elderly.

Ms Primarolo

Is the Minister aware of the research by Professor Khaw at Cambridge university, which has established a clear link between the increase in winter deaths, in winter, obviously, and fuel poverty? [Laughter.] Well, we are told that 34,845 additional deaths in the winter months are linked to fuel poverty. Is he further aware that Dr. Boardman at Oxford university has calculated that, even after the inadequate compensation of VAT on fuel, at least a further 2,500 people will die?

Does the Minister not feel a responsibility for those deaths? What will he do to ensure that the necessary health prevention is undertaken, and proper compensation given for VAT on fuel to prevent those premature deaths?

Mr. Bowis

The compensation has been given. "The Health of the Nation" and the health strategy of the Government are ensuring that old people are regularly checked by their GPs. If the hon. Lady wants to trade research, I suggest that she reads all of it, because the research that I have seen shows that there is no connection between the points that she has made.

There are all sorts of reasons for the excess winter rate of deaths. Some of them are to do with the fact that we have reduced the specific summer reasons for deaths. There are many other elements, such as the natural conditions of a particular country, including humidity, day and night temperatures, even wind speeds. If the hon. Lady wants to help the elderly best, she can join me in advising them to avoid having one room much hotter than another, because a change of temperature can affect circulation, and that is an avoidable factor.