HC Deb 27 April 1998 vol 311 cc14-5
12. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

How many people have not received their winter fuel payments. [38490]

20. Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

What steps her Department has taken to help pensioners with their fuel bills since 1 May 1997. [38499]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Denham)

All payments should now have been sent to eligible pensioners' homes or bank accounts, or issued to post offices for collection. An estimated 100,000 girocheques have not been collected from post offices. That may be for a variety of reasons, including death, hospitalisation and holidays, but the Benefits Agency will follow up each case to make every effort to ensure that the proper entitlement is received. We have committed a total of £400 million for last winter and the next to make winter fuel payments to help eligible pensioners with their fuel bills. This is the first time that any Government have provided automatic help to more than 7 million pensioner households with fuel bills to pay.

Mr. Swayne

The £850,000 television advertisement gave pensioners the impression that the cheques would drop through their letter-boxes. When they discovered that that was not the case and that they had to collect them, many people discovered that they could not cash them because they were already out of date. Why were the cheques issued with a four-week time limit on them?

Mr. Denham

For obvious security reasons, girocheques for Benefits Agency payments are normally time-limited. The advertising scheme was necessary to ensure that pensioners had the confidence to keep their heating on, and not be cold in the winter, because help was going to arrive.

Mr. Bradshaw

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the amount spent by the Government on winter fuel payments is larger than we would have spent had we restored the link with wages so scandalously abandoned by the Conservative party, with the added effect that the help has gone to those who need it most? Given that, will my hon. Friend consider extending the scheme beyond next year?

Mr. Denham

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the scale of the support that the Government have given to pensioners. In doing that, we have given priority to the poorest pensioners, as we promised in our manifesto. We made a commitment to the operation of winter fuel payments last winter and next winter. A variety of initiatives is under way across government, examining, for example, utility regulation and energy conservation. We will take stock as the reviews come to conclusions on the best way to ensure that pensioners can heat their homes in winter.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Given that the Under-Secretary mentioned the advertising campaign, will he say why the contract for it was awarded, without going out to competitive tender, to an agency that just happened to have a close link to the Labour party?

Mr. Denham

The reason is that that agency was extensively used by the Conservative party in government. Since 1989, the agency has had a standing contract—I forget the technical term—with the Department, properly agreed under EC procurement regulations. We merely continued to use the same agency that the Conservative party used when it was in government.

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