HC Deb 29 January 1997 vol 289 cc291-314

11 am

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross)

I am grateful for the opportunity to express my concerns and the concerns of the Scottish National party about the operation of the cold weather payments scheme and the problem of fuel poverty in Scotland. The scheme was intended to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens had enough money to finance extra fuel requirements over winter. I aim to highlight the fact that it has failed on several fronts to achieve its aim.

To be eligible for a cold weather payment, an individual must be entitled to income support or income-related jobseeker's allowance and either be in receipt of a pension or disability premium or have a dependent child aged under five years. Payments of £8.50 a week are triggered only if the average mean daily temperature is 0 deg C or below for seven consecutive days or if such temperatures are forecast for the next seven days. The Meteorological Office monitors temperatures on behalf of the Benefits Agency at 70 weather stations in the United Kingdom, 18 of which are in Scotland.

It is widely recognised that anomalies in the existing system mean that it is failing to meet the requirements of those in need. The cold weather payments scheme was intended to prevent our most vulnerable citizens from getting into the dreadful position of being unable affordably to heat their homes during the cold winter. Its success or failure must be measured against that aim. The prevalence of fuel poverty among Scotland's poor therefore reveals the inadequacy of the current system.

Fuel poverty is defined as the inability to afford adequate warmth in the home because of low incomes and energy-inefficient dwellings. Energy Action Scotland estimates that about 800,000 households in Scotland still experience fuel poverty. That represents a staggering one in three Scottish homes. Poorer households tend to live in the least insulated and hardest to heat homes.

The 1991 Scottish house condition survey found that single parents, large families, the unemployed and retired people were far more likely to live in properties affected by condensation and damp, in both the public and private sectors. To achieve adequate warmth, such housing requires more fuel, so the poor have to designate a greater proportion of their disposable income to fuel costs.

An accepted definition of affordable warmth in purely monetary terms seems to be that no more than 10 per cent. of disposable income should be spent on fuel, yet Energy Action Scotland estimates that poorer families and individuals generally spend as much as 20 per cent. of their weekly income on fuel, compared with the UK average of only 5 per cent.

Research conducted by the Scottish Consumer Council has confirmed that low-income families tend to have electrical heating systems, which usually consume more fuel and are more expensive to run. The imposition of value added tax on fuel therefore has a proportionally greater impact on those who can ill afford to pay it. Once again, the Government have revealed their twisted priorities, adding to the misery of the poor instead of alleviating it.

Fuel debt is also a major problem in Scotland, representing the second largest form of debt after rent arrears in the social rented sector. In May 1995, 44,805 income support claimants—8 per cent.—had fuel costs deducted at source from their weekly benefits, to assist debt recovery.

Although the number of electricity disconnections has decreased, there has been a significant increase in the installation of prepayment meters, which are often offered as a last-resort alternative to disconnection. A study conducted by Scottish Power in 1993 found that each year about 7,500 households repeatedly go without electricity for more than 24 hours. That is effectively a system of self-disconnection. Almost half the respondents to the survey explained that they could not afford to buy power cards, which is a cause for great concern.

All those factors have a devastating impact on the health of the nation. The number of deaths from hypothermia significantly increases during the winter months. It is widely recognised that official records grossly under-record such deaths and gravely underestimate the problem.

During the debate on the Cold Weather Payments (Wind Chill Factor) Bill, the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron), said: Wearing my medical hat, let me say that hypothermia … affects many people who die of chronic heart failure or chronic obstructive airways disease. I have no doubt that for thousands of people death is hastened by hypothermia even though it does not appear on their death certificates."—[Official Report, 17 January 1997; Vol. 288, c. 586.] A more accurate measure of winter mortality rates is to assess the number of excess winter deaths by comparing the number of deaths from December to March with the number in the four months on either side.

I asked the Library to provide me with those figures, and I was told that the number of deaths in December 1994 to March 1995 was more than 600 per month higher than in the adjacent months, giving a total excess of 2,500 deaths for the December-March period. A survey of preceding years shows similar figures. Research has confirmed that most of the excess winter deaths are accounted for by elderly people, most of whom die of respiratory or cardiovascular disease. I am certain that those deaths are cold-related, and the fact that many of them could be avoided enhances the horror of the Government's tolerance of fuel poverty.

The present Prime Minister acknowledged the fact that there was a problem as long ago as 1986, when he was a junior Minister in the Department of Health and Social Security. He said that the excess winter deaths had perplexed successive Governments for years… The real problem, then as now… is not hypothermia, but the additional deaths from all causes, particularly heart disease, strokes and chest infections, which tend to occur in winter. It is a long-standing problem that our excess winter mortality rate is higher than that in other countries with severe winters, such as Sweden."—[Official Report, 2 December 1986; Vol. 106, c. 834–35.] Nothing has changed. If the Prime Minister and his Government have not learnt the lessons in the intervening 10 years, I hope that he will take the time to read the debate and to listen to the voices of the numerous voluntary and professional organisations campaigning to eradicate the obscenity of fuel poverty.

During the winter of 1993–94, a group of Scottish doctors undertook a study of urban hypothermia in the west of Scotland. The results were published in the British Medical Journal in September 1995. The group studied patients coming to hospitals in Glasgow, Paisley, Coatbridge and Airdrie. It estimated that, because of the difficulty of determining the cause of deaths in the home, there could be an under-recording of deaths from hypothermia of more than 300 per cent.

The report confirmed my fear that excess winter mortality in Britain is greatest among socially deprived people with the worst heating. The majority of the patients—53 out of the 93 studied—were found inside the home, and most lived alone. All but two of the patients had heating, but two thirds of them had it switched off when they were found. The report noted that one of the explanations for the reluctance of elderly people to use heating in winter was the cost or perceived cost of fuel.

The prevalence of fuel poverty and cold-related deaths clearly demonstrates the extent to which the cold weather payments scheme fails to meet immediate need. One major problem is that there is no guarantee that payments will be made when the freeze comes. Without that predictability, people will simply not take the risk of running up fuel bills that they know they cannot afford to pay.

It is conceivable that we could experience five or six days of freezing temperatures, followed by a thaw that significantly increases the temperature for only a short time, bringing the average temperature for the seven-day period to above 0 deg C. In this lottery, is it any wonder that the elderly are too frightened to turn up the heat when they are left with the worry that they may not be able to meet the payments?

The scheme's eligibility criteria are far too restrictive. If we take the number of households on means-tested benefits as a measure of poverty, it includes 35 per cent. of households in Scotland, compared with 28 per cent. in England. I have already noted that fuel poverty is compounded by low income, yet the Government's scheme falls far short of providing assistance to Scotland's poor. In addition, the Department of Social Security estimates that between 34 and 41 per cent. of pensioner households eligible for income support fail to take it up, so they are denied access to cold weather payments.

Thus, the amounts paid out, even in the exceptionally cold winter of 1995–96, understate the need for extra help. It is not enough for the Government to make excuses and do nothing about it. If the Minister's conscience does not bother him and he does not share our sense of moral responsibility, perhaps he prefers to view the problem in financial terms. Scottish hospitals spent an estimated £20 million last year alone on treatment of respiratory illnesses.

A fundamental flaw in the existing scheme is its failure to take account of climatic variations in different parts of the United Kingdom. The payment, when it is triggered, is a flat rate of £8.50, regardless of whether the temperature is 0 or minus 15 deg C. That failure arises in spite of the Department of the Environment's admission in response to a parliamentary question in 1994 that it took more fuel to heat a house in Scotland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. To heat a typical semi-detached house with gas central heating takes 23 per cent. more fuel in Glasgow than in Bristol; 28 per cent. more in Edinburgh; 32 per cent. more in Dundee—I see the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) here this morning; he may be interested in that figure—41 per cent. more in Aberdeen; 52 per cent. more in Lerwick and 66 per cent. more in Braemar. Those figures may underestimate the real costs.

Using the climatic severity index, independent experts found that 69 per cent. more fuel was needed in Lerwick in the Shetland isles than to heat a house of the same standard in London. It is worth considering that it is roughly the same distance from Lerwick to Southampton as it is from Southampton to Madrid. No one would deny that the latter was significantly warmer.

The location of the designated weather station is a key issue. People who live in upland villages and towns are sometimes linked with weather stations in lowland areas many miles away, where the temperature is warmer. It is too early to judge whether the recent increase in the number of weather stations, following a recommendation by the Meteorological Office, has adequately dealt with the geographical anomalies. It is interesting that the Met Office review included a proposal to provide post code-specific weather reports at no extra cost, which could allow a far more localised trigger. I wonder why the Government chose not to introduce such a system.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

I am sure that the hon. Lady will develop her and her party's argument for a fundamental change to the system, but does she agree that she, the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and I have seen some interim improvements, and that more sensitivity has been displayed in terms of location of weather station, although glaring anomalies are still very much to the fore? I could cite several from my area, such as the Isle of Skye, mid-west Ross and Inverness. Does she agree that, at least as an interim measure, the Minister should consider a review short of a fundamental, wholesale review of the system?

Ms Cunningham

Absolutely. That is a fair point. My party would like to see a complete change, but there is no doubt that even the present system could be made far more responsive.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

Although on 18 December we discussed the new stations and, for example, Salsburgh in the uplands of Lanarkshire was supposed to be substituted for Turnhouse, I checked with the research department of the Library this morning and found that Turnhouse was still used for the calculation of the January payments. Does the hon. Lady realise that my constituents and others in central Scotland may have been denied payments as a result of that?

Ms Cunningham

That is clearly a matter of concern. I am grateful for the information. I hope that the Minister will respond to the points that we are making.

Wind chill is a measure frequently used in weather forecasts on the broadcast media as a means of expressing how cold the wind will make us feel. As the British Medical Association noted in a press statement on 17 January this year, even a moderately windy day, with a wind speed of 9 mph and an air temperature of 5.5 deg C, produces an effect on the body equal to freezing point.

In its review, the Met Office confirmed that, if it were taken into account, the wind chill factor would have a significant impact particularly in the Scottish isles and the far north of Scotland. I understand that it proposes to pilot a study of six weather stations in Scotland, which will cost only £600, to assess the appropriateness of including wind chill in the assessment of cold weather payments. The Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for North Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), noted in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) that the Government were consulting the Met Office on the issue. Will the Minister say today whether the proposed pilot scheme is to go ahead?

I understand that last Friday, Conservative Members behaved appallingly when they deliberately made long and unnecessary speeches to prolong the debate and to deny a Second Reading to the uncontroversial Cold Weather Payments (Wind Chill Factor) Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise). That hardly leaves us with confidence that the Government will proceed with even moderate reforms.

Within the constraints of the existing scheme, the right to warmth campaign group recommended that the Government should consider using the climatic severity index to determine cold weather payments. The index measures the energy stress on a house rather than a body and, for that reason, may be a more effective measure than merely the wind chill factor and air temperature combined. It takes into account not only air temperature, wind and degree of sunshine but the standard of the house, the size and orientation of its windows, the degree of draught-proofing and so on. The weather factors can be obtained at the touch of a button, and the house factors can be found in any energy rating of a house such as the national home energy efficiency rating system, which local authorities now widely use to audit their stock. Those measures would improve the scheme. I should welcome the Minister's comments.

Unless, however—this is a crucial point—the inherent uncertainty is removed from the system, it will remain fundamentally flawed and will continue to act as a disincentive to turn up the heat. To alleviate the problems inherent in the existing scheme, the Scottish National party has long advocated an additional cold climate allowance. We are committed to introducing such an allowance paid from December to March—the coldest winter months. We recognise that, even within Scotland, there is significant climate variation. The payment would be £7°40 a week in central and southern Scotland and £11°15 in the colder north and the island communities. The payments would be made automatically to all those on a retirement pension, income support, family credit or housing benefit. By that means, our elderly and vulnerable citizens will be guaranteed the help that they need.

The policy that we advocate builds on the good practice of SNP-controlled local authorities such as the former Tayside regional council, which included my constituency. It successfully operated a "warm up for winter" campaign in the winter of 1994–95, with a comprehensive package of assistance worth £503,000 to provide extra help for the elderly and others in need. Even now, faced with a Scottish local government financial crisis on an unprecedented scale, Angus council has recently launched a cold weather initiative to provide free home care and lunch clubs for two months.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

My hon. Friend has made a powerful case and has shown the inadequacy of the Government's provision for winter warmth. Will she, by contrast, point out what SNP-controlled Angus council has done in providing a two-month free home help and care package, and the fact that, during February and March, free lunch clubs will be provided for all pensioners and groups at risk in Angus. Those are practical measures that show what can be done to give warmth and sustenance to pensioners and other groups and how inadequate the Government's scheme is. We need a national cold weather payments scheme for the whole of Scotland. The sooner it is created, the better.

Ms Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving further details of the Angus scheme. It will obviously result in great savings for individuals within that period. It is worth a great deal of money to those in receipt of the benefits which accrue to them from living in Angus.

In Scotland, a cold climate allowance scheme along the lines that I have described would cost £170 million a year. That may sound like a lot of money, but it is not much when one considers that Treasury accounts show a £27 billion surplus paid from Scotland to the Exchequer since 1979. Although we are committed to introducing the allowance in the first year of an independent Scottish National party Government, we have also campaigned for such an allowance to be available UK-wide. Since 1984, the Scottish National party has introduced cold climate allowance Bills in Parliament on no fewer than six occasions, and I commend the relentless efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) in her campaign over the years.

Such a scheme is not without precedent. Our closest European neighbour—the Republic of Ireland—operates a national fuel scheme, which provides an automatic payment of £5 per week to those in receipt of any one of 15 qualifying benefits, including the state pension. In comparison to Scotland, Ireland has next to no resources, yet its Government manage to provide guaranteed cold weather assistance to those in need. It is not a lack of resources that prevents a similar scheme operating in Scotland or the United Kingdom but a lack of political will on the part of the Government. I am sorry to say that such will is also noticeably absent among Labour Front Benchers.

Although we strongly believe in the necessity of such a scheme in the medium term, we recognise that any cold weather assistance scheme can be viewed only as a short-term solution to ease the existing situation, and must be accompanied by long-term solutions to address the root of the problem. For the most part, the root problem in Scotland is the standard of housing and it is that factor which most clearly explains why winter mortality rates in Scotland are about 16 per cent. higher than in the colder Scandinavian countries. One in 20 houses in Scotland are below the tolerable standard; one in eight suffer dampness; and one in five suffer the effects of condensation and, in some cases, mould growth. Those factors contribute to the fact that, on a scale of one to 10, the average energy rating of a Scottish home is only 3. 3.

Despite those staggering statistics, the Department of the Environment imposed a 31 per cent. reduction in funding for the home energy efficiency scheme last year, with the result that 20,000 fewer Scottish homes will receive basic insulation or draught-proofing measures. In addition, this year the Secretary of State for Scotland imposed the most devastating cut to date in the housing budget, forcing local authorities to use 75 per cent. of their capital receipts for debt repayment and effectively cutting the budget by 30 per cent. in real terms. Those cuts leave little scope for the improvement of deteriorating housing conditions, which are widely recognised as being a major cause of fuel poverty.

Considered alongside the limitations of the cold weather payments scheme, those cuts reveal the Government's complete lack of a strategy to address both the causes and the effects of fuel poverty. Many of the problems of fuel poverty are associated with poor insulation and housing standards. It stands to reason that a commitment to upgrade and expand the housing stock and a determined effort to tackle dampness and disrepair would go some way towards eradicating fuel poverty and could reduce the number of elderly people who needlessly die every winter. Eradicating the misery caused by fuel poverty is not only a moral obligation for elected politicians, but makes sound economic and environmental sense. The connection between fuel poverty, bad housing and ill health is obvious.

The Scottish National party considers that the right to a warm, dry and affordable home is a fundamental human right. Eradicating the misery of fuel poverty requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the root causes while alleviating the effects. At the bare minimum, it is for those responsible for the social security of our citizens to ensure that assistance is available to all those who need it. That is clearly not achieved by the existing system, which leaves too many needy people without assistance and discourages people from adequately heating their homes.

In conclusion, I quote the observation made recently by Energy Action Scotland: The next millennium is only lour years away and yet Scotland still has an estimated 800,000 households experiencing fuel poverty while the country is rich in fossil fuels and sources of renewable energy. Scotland has more than enough fuel to meet the need. The Chancellor will rake in £3.5 billion in North sea oil and gas revenues in the current year. What we in Scotland lack is the power to ensure that our vast resources are used to eradicate poverty in Scotland. The prevalence of fuel poverty in energy-rich Scotland is testament to the fact that the cold weather payments scheme is utterly failing to meet essential need. The Government are failing the Scottish people.

11.24 am
Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham). All hon. Members would agree with her objectives: we all want Scotland's elderly and vulnerable residents and others who are infirm and require additional heat to be looked after in the best possible way that the country can afford.

The hon. Lady was less than gracious about cold weather payments. Between 1964 and 1970, there were no cold weather payments under the then socialist Government; and between 1974 and 1979 there were no cold weather payments under a socialist Government. The Scottish National party and even the Liberal Democrats are fairly closely allied to socialism today. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I thought we had a new Lib-Lab pact to hound the Government, albeit without success.

Mr. Charles Kennedy

Because the right hon. Gentleman has such a reputation in the House for decency, the record should show that even he could not keep a straight face when making that last comment.

Sir Hector Monro

I am simply thinking of the practical results of what is going on among Opposition Members—they seem to be hounding away together, trying to defeat the Government.

The hon. Member for Perth and Kinross gave scant details of the cost of what she had in mind or, indeed, of the cost of the present system. In fact, in 1995–96 there were 7.2 million payments at a cost of £62 million, which shows that the Government provided a substantial amount of money for cold weather payments—and rightly so. I am strongly in favour of cold weather payments, but those figures show that, if the scheme was extended to a global system, such as the hon. Lady mentioned, without first calculating the cost, it could run to many hundreds of millions of pounds. She did not indicate from where that money would come and what might be dispensed with in exchange.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for displaying his characteristic courtesy in giving way to me. The statistics he quoted plainly show the extent of poverty among elderly people.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham

The right hon. Gentleman is remarking on my speech and I wish to point out that I clearly put a cost on our proposed scheme—£170 million per year.

Sir Hector Monro

It seems to me that it would cost considerably more than £170 million to run the cold weather scheme continuously from the end of November through to March, given that it cost £62 million last year for a comparatively short winter, albeit one in which conditions were extremely severe around Christmas.

I want to concentrate on the importance of removing anomalies, and I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister and the Meteorological Office carried out a comprehensive review of the number of weather stations that resulted in an increase in their number from 55 to 70 and thus improved local sensitivity. I was involved in these matters when I was a Minister and when my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Sir N. Scott) was responsible for cold weather payments.

We all know that Eskdalemuir is the premier meteorological station in Scotland. It is located in the highest part of my constituency, yet the triggering station for my constituency was not, as one might expect, at Eskdalemuir, but at Cargenbridge near the ICI factory to the west of Dumfries, which is not in my constituency and is on very low ground. That meant that payments to my constituents were triggered by temperature measurements at a site about 100 ft above sea level. Many of my constituents live at a much higher level and therefore missed out on payments. They found it equally provocative that payments to people living in the area of southern Scotland stretching from the Borders to the east coast were triggered by Eskdalemuir in my constituency, yet they were not allowed to use measurements at that station.

I am glad that that problem has been sorted out. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea changed the triggering station so that payments for the high ground in my constituency are now triggered by Eskdalemuir. We are rightly fine-tuning the system to ensure that payments for the higher ground in Scotland are triggered by the nearest possible meteorological station.

As the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross said, the £8.50 addition is triggered by the seven consecutive days forecast as well as by recorded temperatures. That is done automatically and there is no need to claim. Once a householder is on the benefits list for cold weather payments, payments are made automatically and no further action is needed. That is an important step in the right direction.

I am very glad that we have started to fine-tune the system and I believe that we should continue to do so for as long as possible, so that we make the most accurate possible meteorological map of the country relative to height above sea level.

Usually, the higher one is the colder it is, but that does not always apply. Some years ago, I learned that the coldest part of the United Kingdom is not, as one might expect, in Scotland, but on the north-east coast of England between Newcastle and Norfolk, where there is a fiendishly cold chill from the north-east wind whipping across the North sea. We must take local conditions into account, and aim to make our map as accurate as possible.

I am sure that Opposition Members will call for cold weather payments to be much enhanced. One would love that to happen if it were financially prudent and if the Government could do it. If Opposition Members call for that, the House has every right to hear from whence that money will come, bearing in mind that the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer has made it clear that there will be no additional expenditure. It would be wrong of Opposition Members to say, "We want another £100 million on cold weather payments," without saying how they would provide it.

No doubt the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) will give us an idea, but I very much doubt it, because I heard him make some astonishing erroneous statements on the radio this week, which made me wince, even at 7 o'clock in the morning. I hope that he will not say things like, "The Conservative Government will put VAT on food," when they most certainly will not do so. That is the sort of thing that he is saying, now that he is becoming a professional operator in the Labour party policy making that attacks alleged Government policies that are not in place.

Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman two things? First, perhaps the windfall tax will pay for the wind-chill factor to be taken into account in the new formula. That is a possibility, certainly for the first year of a Labour Government, and we would all welcome it. Secondly, he talks about VAT on coal. In 1995, the House voted against the Government's proposal to impose the second tranche of the increase in VAT on domestic fuel. Scotland was immediately penalised for that, because the shortfall went on the cost of whisky.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. Before the debate continues, may I say that I hope that there will not be a wide-ranging debate on taxation, which I would not regard as being in order?

Sir Hector Monro

I would love to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, but in view of your comments, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will not do so.

The Government deserve a great deal of credit for introducing cold weather payments, which were not available under Labour Governments, and for doing their best to fine-tune the system to bring it up to date with the latest thinking of the Meteorological Office. Although we want cold weather payments to be extended and old and vulnerable people to be helped as much as possible, we should not denigrate what has been achieved.

11.34 am
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) on being conscious at 7 o'clock in the morning. That is a notable achievement for a man of his age, and wincing at my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) is even better.

Sir Hector Monro

Any farmer listens to the farming programme at 6.10 every morning.

Mr. McAllion

That is a very good put-down; I accept it entirely. The right hon. Gentleman normally speaks very well.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) on initiating this important and serious debate which, even if it is not gathering much attention in the House at the moment, will receive a lot of attention in Scotland. People who live in Scotland and suffer from the cold weather there will be interested to hear what Parliament says about it this morning.

I am astounded that, with the honourable exception of the right hon. Member for Dumfries, not one Conservative Member of Parliament from Scotland has bothered to attend the debate. There is no Scottish Office Minister on the Treasury Bench—Scottish Office Ministers have sent one of their English colleagues along to deal with the Scots, much in the way that Edward I tried to deal with us a long time ago. Scottish people will notice that, on the eve of a general election, Scottish Conservative Members of Parliament show a complete lack of interest in a very important subject such as this; that is to be deplored.

I thank the right hon. Member for Dumfries for talking about socialist Governments. It brought a nostalgic tear to many an eye on the Opposition Back Benches.

Mr. Charles Kennedy

The hon. Gentleman is an historian.

Mr. McAllion

I am not an historian; I am an optimist. We may again see a socialist Government like the one that was in power from 1945 to 1951, although I suspect that that may be some way off.

I shall discuss some of the key characteristics of the current cold weather scheme organised by the Government, and start by discussing who qualifies for payments.

When the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross introduced the debate, she gave us a list of the people who qualify under the present scheme, describing them as perhaps the most vulnerable people in society—those in receipt of income support and income-related jobseeker's allowance, people who receive a pensioner's premium or a disability premium and people with children under five. Those are important groups, but they are not the only vulnerable groups in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Many vulnerable groups are currently excluded from cold weather payments.

The right hon. Member for Dumfries referred to the figures for last year. I have looked up the figures. If we study those for 1990–91 to the present day, including those given by the Under-Secretary of State yesterday during Question Time, we find that about 20 million cold weather payments have been made in the past six and a half years—an average of about 3 million a year. Some of those will have been repeat payments so, each winter, fewer than 3 million people in Scotland receive cold weather payments—but every poverty group will tell us that more than 10 million people are living in poverty. The vast majority never qualify under the cold weather payments scheme devised by the present Government.

Statistics published by Ministers tell the same story. Every year, they publish a document called "Households Below Average Income," which examines the income of all groups in society. It says that, between 1979—the year, unfortunately, the Conservatives came to power—and 1993–94, the last year for which figures are available, those in full-time work or self-employment declined as a percentage of the population. They decreased from 71 per cent. of the population in 1979 to only 59 per cent. in 1993–94. The figure is probably lower today.

Meanwhile, the unemployed—or, as the Government describe them, "others not in work"—increased from 8 per cent. of the population in 1979 to 17 per cent. in 1993–94. The unemployed are now the fastest-growing section of the population. Some of them, of course, receive a disability premium, and some have children under five, but many do not have such qualifications and are not eligible for the Government's cold weather payments.

The unemployed are the only group in society whose incomes, after taking housing costs into consideration, were lower in 1993–94 than they were in 1979. The poorest and most vulnerable section of the population is excluded from the cold weather payments scheme. The Minister should reflect on that. The scheme is not comprehensive, does not cover enough poor people and leaves far too many of them at risk of having their power supply cut off.

The right hon. Member for Dumfries claimed that the scheme was generous. He mentioned the year 1995–96, when £62 million was paid out under it. He did not mention the previous year, when only £77,000 was paid out, or the year before that, when the figure was £12.4 million. The scheme is nowhere near as generous as Ministers pretend. They tend to pick the year when most payments were made and give the impression that every year the Government dole out £62 million under the cold weather payments scheme, when nothing of the kind happens.

About £164 million has been paid out by the Government over a period of six and a half years, which works out at £20 million a year on average. I know that the sum of £20 million cannot be dismissed—it is a great deal of public money—but we should compare it with some of the public spending priorities that the Government have announced recently.

The Government spend just under £70 million on cadet forces. We understand that that sum is about to be doubled—another £70 million a year is to be allocated to make kids go to school and learn how to shoot rifles. That has suddenly become a bigger priority than looking after people who are vulnerable to the cold. A sum of £60 million is to be spent on a royal yacht. A luxury yacht for the monarchy is a greater priority for the Government than looking after the poor, the old and the frail who are suffering all round the country.

The Child Poverty Action Group has pointed out that, since 1979, £31.8 billion has been given away in tax cuts to the better-off, and almost one third of that sum—more than £10 billion—has been handed across to the top 1 per cent. of earners in the United Kingdom. I cannot believe that any Government can justify handing £10 billion over to the richest in society while claiming that they cannot afford to keep the poor warm in their own homes. That makes no sense.

The Government's own family expenditure survey has shown that the fuel bills of the rich are falling, while the fuel bills of the poorest are rising faster than those of any other section of the population. The bottom 10 per cent. in terms of national income spend 10 per cent. of their total income on trying to keep their homes warm. It is very different for the rich.

The point about the state of the housing stock in Scotland was well made by the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross. That is why it is a tragedy that the Minister responsible for housing in Scotland could not be bothered to be present and take part in the debate. Housing is central to whether people can keep warm in winter.

We know from the national house condition survey, which the Government commissioned and published, that the state of Scotland's housing stock is a disgrace. There is dampness and mould growth in more than half a million homes. As a result, asthma among children is on the increase, and there are excess winter deaths every year. What a terrible phrase that is. There were 7,000 excess winter deaths in Scotland, according to Shelter: 7,000 people who died not from natural causes, but because it was cold and they could not afford to keep themselves warm.

I remember attending one of the Scottish Grand Committees—the one in Hamilton, I think—where groups were lobbying hon. Members as they came in. Leaflets were handed out by the Edinburgh Tenants Federation, which stated: Our world has cold, damp homes which need new windows and new healing systems … Our world has health problems caused by cold damp homes … In our world we need public investment in public sector homes to improve health, to reduce benefit dependancy by putting people back to work, to raise educational standards. Our world has politicians too stupid to see the need—are you one of them? I hope that I am not one of them, but I suspect that there are a number of stupid politicians on the Conservative Benches, who cannot see the simple logic of the Edinburgh tenants' case.

Since that meeting, the Government have announced a 28 per cent. cut in housing investment in Scotland. There is a 75 per cent. rule which states that, of the receipts gathered by the local authorities across Scotland—about £227 million in the past year—75 per cent. must be diverted to reducing local authority debt, and taken away from investment in housing.

In other words, £170 million has been withdrawn from investment in new heating systems and double glazing to keep people warm in their homes. Shelter reckons that, if spent through the public sector, £170 million would make more than 72,000 homes in Scotland warm, dry places where people could survive, rather than places where they are likely to die.

I realise that there are other options. The hon. Member for Perth and Kinross put forward on behalf of her party an alternative that should be debated seriously by all parties. I accept the comment of the right hon. Member for Dumfries that, if we speak about improving the scheme, we must specify where the money is to come from.

Britain is a wealthy country. My hon. Friends are fond of saying that, through the public sector, we spend £300 billion every year. We have a £700 billion economy. There is far more in the private sector than in the public sector. At some point, the House will have to make up its mind where its priorities lie. Do they lie in stopping the poor dying from cold in the winter, or in giving the rich more to spend on luxury yachts and luxury life styles? That is what the debate is about and, like the right hon. Member for Dumfries, I look forward to the return of a socialist Government who will do something about it.

11.46 am
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) on securing this debate, and on the excellence of her speech and the arguments that she deployed.

I shall intrude on the time of the House for only a minute to amplify a point that the hon. Lady was kind enough to allow me to touch on in an intervention.

The Minister was kind enough to meet the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) and me in advance of last year's review. Subsequently, there have been some greatly appreciated—let me put that clearly on the record—improvements as a result of more sensitive monitoring locations for the highlands and islands. There are, however, other anomalies, which arise from those changes which I bring formally to the Minister's attention for further consideration in due course. If he could indicate at the appropriate time that that will happen, it would be appreciated.

A written parliamentary question from me last year elicited the response that, in the history of the scheme, the island of Tiree had never triggered payments. As a result, a substantial chunk of my constituency was linked to different monitoring stations at Loch Glascarnoch and at Aultbea. Hansard will love me for my map references this morning.

The island of Tiree continues to be used as a monitoring station for the Isle of Skye. Although someone looking at a map might think that an island such as Tiree bears some resemblance to the Isle of Skye, anyone who has looked at them from ground level knows that there is a vast climatic difference between an island that boasts, for example, the Cuillin hills and a rather severe climate, and Tiree, which is firmly located in the gulf stream. Will the Minister look into that? It would make more sense for Skye to be linked to a mainland monitoring point, or to the monitoring point that is available at Waterstein on the Isle of Skye itself.

My next concern is the town of Inverness. Parts of Inverness have been securing cold weather payments over the recent difficult period of weather, but others have not. Because of the postal code structure, they are linked to different monitoring stations. That causes fury in Inverness, because people who may live only one mile apart, and who experience essentially identical climatic conditions, find that some are eligible and receive payments, while others are ineligible and receive none. Would it not make more sense to use a common monitoring point?

Finally, it would be more sensible to link mid-Ross and places such as Achnasheen—that will add to my popularity with Hansard—which are presently linked with Aultbea on the west coast, with Loch Glascarnoch as that is geographically closer. If we remain tied to postal codes, anomalies will be inescapable. That is why I echo the plea of the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross for a more imaginative system of allocating cold weather payments. Despite the efforts to improve or tinker with the present system, people will always be on the wrong side of a line or will be linked to the wrong weather station given any set of climactic conditions. I would appreciate a positive response from the Minister.

11.50 am
Mr. Henry McLeish (Fife, Central)

I am glad of the opportunity to speak this morning, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) on securing a debate on cold weather payments. This is our third opportunity in recent weeks to discuss the issue—we discussed it in a Delegated Legislation Committee and, a few weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) introduced the Cold Weather Payments (Wind Chill Factor) Bill, which the Government deliberately talked out.

The hon. Member for Perth and Kinross highlighted two issues: first, the fact that we must consider cold weather payments in the context of poverty and, secondly, the question of political will. The Government lack the political will not only to address the problem, but to take it seriously. The problem of poverty in Scotland is obvious. In a so-called civilised society, in 1997, people must choose between heating and eating from November to February or March every year. More than half a million Scottish people claim income support. If we add dependants to that figure, we are talking about 1 million people—20 per cent. of the Scottish population—who depend solely on income support. That is a scandal; anyone can see that.

According to Government figures, 35 per cent. of Scottish households rely on one or more means-tested benefit. One in five of all non-pensioner households in Scotland have no one in work. It is scandalous—and it is clear from those statistics, supplied by Government sources, that poverty is an immensely important issue for every political party in Britain. Cold weather payments should be viewed in that context.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

I have followed the hon. Gentleman's argument carefully. Is he saying that it is wrong to provide more public money, means-tested or otherwise, and that the Government should change their policy?

Mr. McLeish

I am conscious of the feet that the hon. Gentleman has just entered the Chamber, and I regret allowing him to intervene. He misses the point completely. The Government's economic failure has resulted in the largest increase in poverty in a generation. There has been an explosion in the number of people who depend on the state, and the Government have sought to use taxpayers' money to support them. We object to that morally, socially, politically and economically. That view is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and we are trying to address the problem.

I have highlighted the extent of poverty in Scotland, but another factor is even worse. Some 100,000 pensioners in Scotland who are eligible for income support do not claim it. The Government do not pursue that issue; they have not introduced a take up benefits campaign. Despite the fact that nearly 10 per cent. of Scottish pensioners are below the breadline, as defined by the Government, they cannot claim cold weather payments.

I shall explain why cold weather payments are necessary. As the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross said, income poverty is linked to fuel poverty and poor housing. Government must institute a practical programme. Fortunately, within weeks—certainly within months—a Labour Government will start to address the issue seriously. The Government use data matching to intensify their attack on fraud; we must ensure that that technology is used to try to link pensioners who do not receive income support with resources. That would allow more Scottish pensioners to access not only income support, but cold weather payments. That must be a priority for any Government with a sense of justice—even a Government as mean and miserable as this one.

We must remember that the Government imposed value added tax on fuel. They told people that they would have to pay more for fuel not because their incomes had increased, but because they wanted to raise revenue. The Labour party in government has pledged to reduce VAT from 8 per cent. to 5 per cent.—the lowest possible rate under European law.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Not a cynical ploy any more, then?

Mr. McLeish

I shall ignore the hon. Lady's sedentary intervention.

Another key issue is home insulation. The hon. Member for Perth and Kinross and my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) referred to poorly insulated and damp housing. Low-income households may spend up to 10 per cent. of their incomes on fuel, compared with middle income households who spend 4 per cent. Home insulation would prove a significant practical benefit for everyone. Labour intends to use the environmental task force, funded by the windfall levy on privatised utilities, to ensure that people are employed to insulate pensioners' homes.

Our strategy will include a review of the cold weather payments scheme. It is instructive that hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have referred to injustices, anomalies and inconsistencies caused by the current system. It must be reviewed. The right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) referred to the weather stations that are used to trigger payments in different localities. The Government have improved the situation slightly by increasing the number of weather stations from 52 to nearly 70, but some fine tuning must be done, and there is consensus in the House about the Department not dragging its feet.

Linked to the review is the issue of wind chill factor, which was raised in the recent Meteorological Office report to the Government about cold weather payments. The Government are always keen to draw attention to the negative parts of that report. There are clear problems with the wind chill factor. As the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross said, the Meteorological Office offered the Government a trial in Scotland comprising six weather stations at a cost of £600—that is not a large sum when compared with a social security budget of nearly £100 billion. When given an opportunity to take the matter seriously, why is the Minister dragging his feet?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans)

It is utterly baffling that the hon. Gentleman should make that comment. Before Christmas, I made it clear to the Standing Committee of which we are both members that the Government will continue the annual review, investigate the wind chill factor and conduct the trials mentioned in the report. The cost is rather more than the mere £600 for the data, but the Government have promised to examine the matter this summer as part of the ordinary annual review. That has been our position for some time.

Mr. McLeish

It is slightly warmer in the summer. If the people of Britain were to elect this Government again—that is highly improbable—they would consider the matter during the summer, the tests would not be run in Scotland until the winter, and a report would not be published until next year.

Mr. Evans


Mr. McLeish

I want to finish my point.

I want to know from the Minister whether the Government will now accept the Meteorological Office's offer and whether the trials will start immediately. Will the Government then urgently consider the implications for cold weather payments of the results of the trials?

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman is blathering. We have said yes. He should be aware of the fact that the annual review will lead to statutory instruments being laid by the time the autumn scheme comes into effect. The process of examining this problem will be complete by the time it is necessary to lay the statutory instruments for next winter. If it is practical and sensible to introduce a wind chill factor, we will consider it.

Mr. McLeish

I am grateful for the Minister's intervention. If I understand him correctly, the trials are now under way in six stations in Scotland.

Mr. Evans

It is a matter of modelling existing data: it is not a question of opening six weather stations to perform an experiment.

Mr. McLeish

I am grateful to the Minister for intervening again. The Meteorological Office's report suggested that a trial would take place involving six weather stations in Scotland—Scotland was the key target—at a cost of £600. Are those trials—in whatever form; either practical or theoretical and based on modelling—under way today: yes or no?

Mr. Evans

They will be under way to the extent that they will be complete by the time it is necessary to make a decision next summer.

Mr. McLeish

The answer to my questions was no, the trials are not going on—so the Government are dragging their feet.

In this debate, insult has been added to injury. The hon. Member for Perth and Kinross laid out her case. We have put cold weather payments in the context of poverty, and we have put the wind chill issue in the context of cold weather payments. Even the small concession that we hoped the Government had made does not exist.

The Government are not interested in poverty or in giving cold weather payments priority, and now we learn from the Minister's interventions that no trial is taking place on the wind chill factor. As they would say in the other place: I rest my case. We argue that the trials should be carried out urgently. However small their impact may be, that would send a positive message to pensioners' organisations and to families living in poverty that the Government are anxious to improve cold weather payments. I suspect that the Government will not act. A Labour Government will soon be in office, and we will review the cold weather payments scheme as quickly as possible.

12.4 pm

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I am aware that the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) wants to speak, so I shall try to be brief.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) on securing a debate on this important subject, and I thank hon. Members who have participated in it.

The Scottish National party has pursued this issue for many years. I should like to point out to the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) that the six Bills that were introduced by Dr. Gordon Wilson or me had the full support of the House and the whole country. Every part of the country and every party was represented. We have always argued that this matter must be considered in an overall context. This debate is about cold weather payments in Scotland, but I am as worried about a pensioner in Elgin as I am about a pensioner in Ealing, Perth or Preston. We are genuinely concerned about the implications of how we deal with fuel poverty throughout the United Kingdom. None the less, this issue has a particular importance for Scotland.

The hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise), whose Bill on the wind-chill factor I sponsored, had hoped to attend the debate, but I spoke to her yesterday evening and she has caught the dreaded lurgy that many of us have suffered. She gave her apologies, because she had wanted to be here.

I endorse the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross. This is a matter of conscience and morality. Every legislator must search his or her conscience and decide how funding should be allocated.

I go back many years on this subject: when I first raised it in the House in the 1970s, there was a Government with a different perspective. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) laughs wryly at the memory of that socialist Government. In the 1970s, I was accused of scaremongering: people said that I should not raise this subject because it would frighten people who lived on low incomes, especially pensioners. I was then a much younger Member of Parliament—like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker: indeed, we came into the House at the same time—and I was new to the procedures of the House. It took a long time for this issue to come on to the political agenda in the House of Commons and in the other place—Lord Gray of Contin works hard on behalf of Energy Action Scotland and has raised the issues in the other place.

The problem was not taken seriously until much later, when people began to realise that excess winter deaths were related to cold weather and to the poor quality of our housing stock. We have made massive strides forward and the problem is now recognised. I do not deride the cold weather payments scheme, although it could be much improved.

I refer the Minister to the 1991 United Nations demographic book. Excess winter deaths were earlier called an obscenity. The study examined various aspects of life styles, and the book shows that Sweden had a 14 per cent. excess winter death rate, Norway had a rate of 10 per cent., Germany 12 per cent. and Great Britain 31 per cent. That is a massive figure of excess winter deaths. Yesterday, I referred to the comparison between Scotland and Finland: Scotland has a 16 per cent. excess winter death rate, whereas Finland has a rate of 9 per cent.

Those statistics are frightening. They involve our elderly people, our disabled people, unemployed people and people who live in poor quality housing, all of whom are the most vulnerable members of our society. In cold snaps we probably turn our heating up or put it on for a bit longer, but we often forget that many of those families cannot do that. For many people, winter means living, eating and sleeping in one room, because they can afford to heat only that one room. The Government claim to value family life. What kind of family life can people have if they are forced to live, eat and sleep in one room?

The situation was exacerbated by the imposition of value added tax on domestic fuel. I noticed that the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) did not like my sedentary intervention, but, when the Scottish National party tabled an amendment to reduce VAT to 5 per cent., we were told by the shadow Financial Secretary—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling)—that it was a cynical ploy. We have also argued that standing charges should be removed from those on the lowest incomes, particularly pensioners. I am sure that all our mailbags are full of letters making such points.

Let me repeat that we want to hear from the Minister how the Government are dealing with the offer from the Meteorological Office, which my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross raised in her competent, wide-ranging and definitive speech. The Meteorological Office has offered to carry out a pilot study of the wind chill factor in Scotland, and I was not sure what the Minister's response was. One of my hon. Friends said, "I do not think that I would buy a second-hand car from this gentleman."

What the Minister said was confusing. He said that the cost would be considerably more than £600, but how much will it be? When will the pilot study be conducted? I can assure the Minister—living, as I do, in Lossiemouth, where we have a substantial wind chill factor—that there would be no point in conducting it in June, July and August; it should be carried out during the cold winter months. What is happening to that experiment? The offer seemed very logical to me, and I do not understand why the Government have not taken it up. The Met Office has also proposed the use of postcodes as local triggers. Every speaker this morning has mentioned the anomalies in the present system.

This has been a long-running issue, and, while I do not deny that improvements have been made, we need a long-term strategy. We need to improve our housing stock, for instance. The poorest people usually live in the poorest housing, and are the least well insulated. Energy efficiency should also be improved; the home energy efficiency scheme has been cut substantially Furthermore, we should keep these matters in mind not just during the winter months but throughout the year. In July, members of the all-party warm homes group—of which I am convener—went along to the Department of the Environment, complete with a polar bear which nearly melted in the July heat, to point out that the issue should be considered all the year round rather than just between December and March, and that we needed to find ways in which to improve the lot of our people.

Our resources should be used properly. Scotland is an energy-rich nation; why should so many people die of cold there? People in my area look out on to the Moray Firth and the oil and gas platforms that bring so much money to the Exchequer. What a contrast they must see!

The SNP also has policies relating to the redistribution of wealth—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order The debate is about cold weather payments, not the redistribution of wealth.

Mrs. Ewing

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not mean to be out of order. I was trying to put the matter in a general context, because I do not think it can be viewed in isolation. I was merely going to say that my party is not afraid to consider the redistribution of wealth through, for instance, tax policies.

The Government must deal with the points raised by my hon. Friend in her excellent speech. We are prepared to discuss our own views and recommendations with them, and I hope that we shall hear a positive response today. The entire debate has been underpinned by the argument in favour of an egalitarian society and valuing people's lives.

12.14 pm
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) on securing this debate on an important subject that must be discussed. It is not just a party matter; it is not the domain of just one Opposition party. It concerns everyone, and the Government are not doing enough. There have been too many partisan comments today.

Local government has introduced many innovations in an attempt to prevent the tragedy of death and impoverishment. My local council, when I was its leader—having taken the seat that had belonged to the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh)—introduced double glazing and central heating in every council house, which is now being provided in much of Scotland. In my council area there is heat leasing, because the Government will not give the council enough money to introduce other schemes to deal with bad housing fabric and inadequate insulation. Everyone is trying to innovate, and we should not become involved in a Dutch auction to keep rents down in order to challenge the opposition when that means that homes cannot be properly heated.

The real problem is the system that the Government have introduced. People are becoming more aware of the fall in temperatures, and the cost of trying to maintain decent heating. The seven-day system is entirely inadequate. In my area—as I have told the Minister, I checked this with the House of Commons research department this morning—Turnhouse was still being used rather than Salsburgh, which was specified in the regulations that we discussed on 18 December. It was claimed that, over a seven-day period in January, the average temperature was 1.2 deg C, so no payment was triggered in my area.

In November, there were high winds—so high that they tore five windows out of the summerhouse in my garden—and temperatures dropped sharply, but the average did not fall below zero in a seven-day period. In Turnhouse, it was 0.5 deg, so again no one received a payment. That is nonsensical: if the wind-chill factor had been taken into account, as we were told in the debate on 17 January, 1.5 deg would have become minus 6.5 deg in Yeovilton, and it would have been similar in my part of central Scotland. As I have said, this is not a party matter; nor is it merely a Scottish matter. I am as concerned about Yeovilton residents as I am about people in my area.

According to Age Concern, if the wind chill factor had been taken into account, only £20 million would have been added to the bill for cold weather payments. That does not seem much to me.

I was shocked by the estimate given by the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross, who said that between 34 and 41 per cent. of elderly people who could receive income support do not claim it. According to research that I have consulted, the percentage is much lower, but it is at least 10 per cent., which means that as many as 1,000 to 1,200 people in every constituency in the United Kingdom are not claiming. More than 1,000 are not claiming in my area. Age Concern also estimates that 50,000 elderly people in the UK have died because of cold-related factors. If we accept the 10 per cent. estimate, that means that 5,000 have died in Scotland—far too many.

We must get together at local and national level to work out a cold climate allowance. I hope that the next Government—a Labour Government—will find a way of obviating the problem of deaths in cold weather.

12.18 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans)

I have only a short time in which to reply to this full and detailed debate. During the three minutes in which I was able to speak on Friday, I did not have time to deal with the Cold Weather Payments (Wind Chill Factor) Bill, which has featured in today's discussion.

I am grateful for the recognition that practical improvements have been made. I know that some people want much more money to be spent, and others want a different type of scheme; but we have attempted each year to "fine-tune"—the expression that has been used—the modern version of the scheme, which has operated since 1991, and to improve the links with particular postcodes and weather stations.

The hon. Members for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) and for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) came to see me last spring to make representations about their constituencies. As a result of that discussion, we introduced two new weather stations in Ross, Cromarty and Skye. I stress that any hon. Member is most welcome to see me if he or she has detailed points. Of course, any representations made in writing or otherwise will be most carefully considered as part of the annual review.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) made some important points. He said that the scheme was an achievement of the Conservative Government and that, if we moved to some other scheme, the costs would be considerable. He welcomed the fact that we were sorting out the anomalies, and mentioned one involving Eskdale.

Mrs. Ewing


Mr. Evans

I am obliged.

My right hon. Friend mentioned an anomaly in Eskdalemuir, which arose before I was in my present position, but which has been happily resolved. He also made a forceful point—in relation to which I was a little puzzled by the comment of the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham)—on the importance of forecasting. That is one of the crucial elements of the present scheme. People do not have to wait for seven days when the temperature is below the limit. When the Meteorological Office in their region forecasts that the temperature will be below the limit for seven days, they know that the payment will come, normally shortly thereafter, probably before their fuel bill.

As that is done automatically, without a claim, by computers, which use postcodes as a convenient way of dividing the country by local area, it is possible to run an automatic system that gives comfort, because people know that, if it is advertised locally that the temperature will be low for seven days, and if they are in one of the qualifying groups, they will receive their payment. That is an important feature, which I stress.

Some criticisms were made of the scheme. Figures were quoted in respect of quality housing, for example. I appreciate that there is a long-running argument about the quality of Scottish and British housing. Through the home energy efficiency payment scheme, however, the Government have spent £350 million in Great Britain since 1991 and have improved the insulation of about 10 per cent. of total housing stock. That is a dramatic improvement, because insulation is the other side of paying for heating bills. I think that everyone agrees that, the better insulated the home, the more likely it is that people will be both more comfortable and have a more economical system.

Various hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Perth and Kinross and for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), mentioned excess winter mortality. The figures are shocking and a matter of concern, but there is no simple, easy scientific explanation for the link. The hon. Member for Moray did not mention the fact, if it is a question of cold weather, that the figures are even higher in Portugal and Israel. In the past five years, they have been higher in England than in Scotland, so, although that important scientific matter should be investigated, it is a little unfortunate and overstates the case to put the figures quite as high as certain hon. Members did.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Is the Minister seriously saying that, in his opinion, the excess mortality, a well-observed scientific fact through the winter months, bears no relation to the coldness of the climate and ability of certain people to afford heating?

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman was not listening. I said that it is not possible to correlate this in the simplistic fashion in which that has been done by certain hon. Members. For example, there is no doubt that cold climate has an impact on winter mortality—no one challenges that for a moment—but waiting at a bus stop on an icy day is likely to have more effect than many other factors, and obviously there also is the incidence of disease and such matters. It is a matter of concern, but it is being studied and there is no consensus on it.

Mr. Connarty

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Evans

No. I am going to move on, because I have noted well over two dozen points, which I want to answer quickly in the time left to me.

The basic problem of eligibility was raised by various Opposition Members, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries put his finger directly on the difficulty: if we increase the groups, we will have to pay much more money. Let me make that clear. If, during a winter of last winter's severity, we extended the present system to all recipients of income support, the additional cost would be £100 million; if we extended it to all pensioners, the cost would be £150 million to £200 million. Therefore, there would be a £300 million to £350 million extra cost on a winter of last winter's severity, which, it is fair to say, was one of the more severe.

It is all very well for the Scottish National party to make pledges in Scotland. It is not likely to have responsibility for the United Kingdom Government. It pledged £170 million of expenditure, apparently in Scotland, but, again, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries said, there will be anguish in parts of England, particularly on the east coast, which sometimes has colder weather than Scotland.

Mr. Bill Walker

When we discuss these matters, it is important that we study all the facts. My hon. Friend will know that the Royal Air Force built bases at Dalcross, Lossiemouth and Kinloss because of the weather factor—the best in the United Kingdom—and because of the fact that, on the east coast, for instance at Binbrook in Lincolnshire, the wind chill factor is bound to be much higher. The RAF would not be able to fly there at given times of the year.

Mr. Evans

My hon. Friend makes important points, with which I respectfully agree.

Mrs. Ewing

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Evans

May I make a little progress before giving way? Let me pursue the matter.

I have discussed the problem of fine-tuning the present scheme, but I have not yet come to the wind chill factor, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) has mentioned. I notice that the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross referred to last Friday's debate and said that the Cold Weather Payments (Wind Chill Factor) Bill was uncontroversial. I point out to her that the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) spoke for 47 minutes. I had three minutes to reply. The hon. Member for Perth and Kinross says that the Bill is uncontroversial, but it appears to be controversial with the Labour Front-Bench team.

The Bill—I will explain what is wrong with it at the moment, because that will illustrate the difficulties with bringing the wind chill factor into account—is too vague to cost with any particular accuracy.

Mrs. Ewing


Mr. Evans

Let me continue, please.

The difficulty with the Bill is that the cost, again on a winter of last winter's severity, would be several hundreds of millions of pounds. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) explain what the Labour party would do. He did not promise to support the Bill. It is easy for Back Benchers to raise expectations, but the difficulty is that those who pretend to government have to make some pretence that they have some ability to add up.

The difficulty over the Bill is simple. It sounds a good idea—we are all used to the graphics that appear on televised weather forecasts—to bring the wind chill factor into account. The Government are aware of that argument. That is why last summer we commissioned the Meteorological Office to report to us specifically on the issue and to review the state of the arguments. We not only obtained that advice, but published it and placed it in the House of Commons Library. Paragraph 9.7 of the advice summarises as follows: for much of the country the additional domestic heating requirements generated as a result of the effects of exposure of houses to wind are too small and too highly variable to be incorporated into the scheme. The difficulty is that that is the basis of the advice.

The difficulty with the Cold Weather Payments (Wind Chill Factor) Bill is that it instructs the independent adjudicating officers, first, to take wind chill into account in respect of assessing the necessary temperature. It does not tell them how to do it. If that had come to pass in the middle of this winter, the only result would have been chaos, because the Bill did not explain how such an assessment was to be done, and there is no consensus on how it should be done.

Secondly, and more seriously, the Bill instructs the independent adjudicating service to take into account forecasts of seven days. That cannot be done to the requisite standard with the present state of technology. That is why the Government are commissioning further research on the matter—to find out whether this is practical and sensible.

The Bill is wholly unnecessary, because, under section 138 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992, we have the statutory power—the power that we use to make the regulations each year—to fine-tune the scheme. We are able, if we wish and if we are persuaded that it is right and proper, to take that into account. The difficulty is whether it is right and appropriate to do that. [Interruption.] I have tried to introduce an element of clarity to show the absurdity of the proposal. I shall now explain the matter, because it is obvious that the hon. Member for Moray is impatient.

Mr. Salmond

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister is making the speech that he did not make on Friday. Is it in order to reply to this debate with such a speech?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman knows quite well that that is not a point of order.

Mr. Evans

Hon. Members have repeatedly mentioned wind chill and it is important to explain that we are studying that matter. Officials will ensure that the necessary inquiries are made in time for the matter to be properly assessed by next autumn, when the orders have to be laid.

There has been a misunderstanding. The Meteorological Office data form only a small part of the analysis. The difficult questions relate to what scientists recommend on the way in which wind chill affects buildings and whether that can be measured in a way that will enable it to be sensibly incorporated in a practical—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We now move to the debate on elective ventilation for kidney transplants.