HC Deb 26 January 1998 vol 305 cc11-5
10. Mrs. Ellman

If she will make a statement on her plans to help pensioners with their fuel bills. [23061]

14. Mr. Barry Jones

How much extra money will be provided for payments to pensioners for heating in the current financial year; and if she will make a statement. [23065]

16. Mr. Swinney

How many pensioners have received the additional payments for winter fuel bills announced by the Chancellor in the Budget; when he expects that all pensioners eligible will have received this payment; and if he will make a statement. [23067]

Ms Harman

I am making a winter fuel payment of £50 to all the 1.5 million pensioners on income support. I can today announce to the House that payments have already been sent this week to 1,117,000 pensioners on income support. All other pensioners on income support will be sent their £50 payment by the end of the week, and they do not, of course, need to claim it. For pensioner households not on income support, I am making a £20 payment. We are making the payments as swiftly as possible and we expect to make the vast majority of them by the end of March.

Mrs. Ellman

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, which demonstrates what a real difference a Labour Government have made. Is she aware that the legacy of the past 18 years is that the health of my constituents is the sixth worst in the United Kingdom? Does she accept that keeping warm is essential to the health of pensioners, and that the steps that the Government have already taken will improve pensioners' health? Will she work with other Departments, so that pensioners in my constituency and elsewhere can have good, warm housing, a better income and assistance with their fuel bills?

Ms Harman

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Of course poverty and inequality in income are closely linked to inequality in health. She will know that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Health have been working on the matter and will shortly publish a Green Paper on the health of the nation, which will make explicit the relationship between the problems of the poorest in the country and issues of income inequality and health.

Mr. Jones

Can my right hon. Friend say whether constituents on disability living allowance and attendance allowance will have access to that money, how much new money is being pumped in over two years, and what sum is available to pensioners in Wales—perhaps as much as £30 million? Does she accept that pensioners greatly appreciate what the Government are doing for them, bearing in mind the record of the previous Government?

Ms Harman

I can assure my hon. Friend that all pensioners will receive a winter fuel payment—all pensioners, irrespective of whether they are on additional benefits or simply on the basic state pension. A sum of £400 million has been allocated to help pensioners with their winter fuel bills which, as I said, means an extra payment to those on income support. I thank my hon. Friend for the warm welcome that he has given from pensioners in his constituency to the extra help that the Government are giving to pensioners.

Mr. Swinney

Having travelled from Scotland to London today, I can confirm that it is very cold in Scotland. Does not the delay in payments of winter fuel compensation to pensioners prove the case for a properly designed and resourced cold climate allowance which takes account of the wind chill factor, which is a vital issue in many communities throughout the country?

Ms Harman

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there has been no delay in paying out winter fuel payments. We have made the payments to those on income support a priority, which we shall have concluded by the end of this week. We will start the payments to those who are not on income support right away thereafter. We are doing it as fast as we can, within the limits of the machinery that we inherited from the previous Government. I can promise the hon. Gentleman that, next year, we shall have got the system sorted out, so we shall be able to make the payments more promptly.

The hon. Gentleman referred to wind chill. The wind chill factor would have been added to a cold weather payment system, which itself was already complex. It was feared that a complex system would have been made incomprehensible. Therefore, we made a decision that, in the first instance, our way in which to help pensioners with their winter fuel bills would be to make payments differentially to those on income support, but to ensure that all pensioners, irrespective of the temperature or wind chill factor, received their payments this year. We shall, of course, keep the issue of wind chill under review. There has been no delay in making the payments. We are making them as fast as we can because we regard them as a priority.

Mr. Rendel

The Secretary of State has told us that some of the £20 payments will not be made until March. Does she realise that many of the pensioners who will be receive their extra payments as late as that—even if they are not claiming income support now, they could be doing so then—are among the poorest in the country? Many of those people have pre-payment meters. What help will it be to them if they receive their extra money just in time for what, in effect, will be their summer fuel payments?

Ms Harman

We are concerned that all pensioners should receive their payment. We raised the issue when we were in opposition—it continues to be a priority now that we are in government—that 1 million pensioners who were entitled to income support did not claim it. They do not get their income support and so lose out, on average, by £14 a week. In addition, they do not receive cold weather payments and all the other benefits that are passported in.

Make no mistake, we are concerned about the estimated 1 million pensioners who are entitled to income support and who do not claim it. That is why, from April, we are setting up a programme that is designed to try to identify ways in which to bring more automatic help to the poorest pensioners. When we put it to the previous Government that 1 million pensioners did not receive the income support to which they were entitled, they said, "They do not choose to claim. Clearly they do not need the money." We do not take that approach. That is why we are investing to try to find ways in which to get to the poorest pensioners.

In the meantime, these pensioners will at least receive £20, although they should be receiving £50. It is to be hoped that we shall have tracked down many more of them by next year. That having happened, they will receive the uprated payment.

Mr. Beard

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the greatest inequalities in pensions is that between men and women, and that the Government's winter payments, which go disproportionately to women, will do much to overcome that inequality?

Ms Harman

Two thirds of the £50 payments will go to women pensioners. One of the challenges that we have set for the pensions review is to narrow the pension gap between men and women. Women are less likely to make full national insurance contributions because they are likely to be below the lower earnings limit. They are less likely to be in well-paid work and have the opportunity of an occupational pension. They are more likely to be living on their own in retirement with no savings, no state earnings-related pension schemes, no occupational pensions and possibly no basic state pension. We are concerned to narrow the pension gap between men and women, which grew so alarmingly wide under the previous Tory Government.

Mr. Evans

The Secretary of State talks about Green Papers. Personally, I am sick and tired of hearing about Green Papers and reviews, and so are pensioners.

The right hon. Lady and her Government had an opportunity on Friday to help the poorest pensioners in the coldest parts of the country by accepting my Cold Weather Payments (Wind Chill Factor) Bill. What is the major difference between now and 12 months ago, when 176 Members—most of them Labour Members, including the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley)—took the view that it was necessary to take into account the wind chill factor so as to help the poorest and coldest pensioners? Their position now is a betrayal of everything that they talked about before the general election.

Ms Harman

One of the major differences between myself and the hon. Gentleman is that he voted for VAT on gas and electricity in pensioners' fuel bills to be 17.5 per cent., whereas the Government cut it to 5 per cent. and are giving extra payments to help with fuel bills. Perhaps he will spare us his bleeding-heart concern about pensioners, who did so badly under the Conservative Government.

Dr. Lynne Jones

Will my right hon. Friend consider extending this very welcome measure to other groups on state benefits whose health can be adversely affected if they are unable to afford to keep warm, especially families with young children, including lone-parent families?

Ms Harman

All families on low incomes will particularly welcome the fact that we have cut VAT on gas and electricity, and that we will press ahead, through our environmental task force, with help for people to insulate their homes. The most important thing for people of working age on low incomes is to enable them to improve their incomes—by far more than they ever could on any rate of benefit—by helping them into work. That is why we are investing £3 billion in a welfare-to-work programme to ensure that people of working age can have opportunities for high-quality training and worthwhile jobs.

Mr. Burns

Will the right hon. Lady kindly tell the House, first, why the Government are using taxpayers' money on an advertising campaign for a scheme that is being given automatically to every pensioner in the country? Secondly, how much is it costing? Thirdly, why—against the advice of civil servants, who recommended to Ministers that this was a party political advertising campaign and should not have taxpayers' money—are the Government pressing ahead? Will the right hon. Lady be kind enough not to give a spurious answer, to avoid the sound bite and to answer the question for once?

Ms Harman

I shall seek to answer all the hon. Gentleman's questions. For a start, there was no recommendation that we should not go ahead with the advertising campaign because it was political. We have gone ahead with it because this is a wholly new payment which has never been paid before.

Hon. Members have raised the issue of pensioners and giving them their entitlement. Pensioners throughout the country, who will get a £50 giro on their mats, need to know that they are entitled to cash it, that it is not an overpayment, that it is not a mistake and that it is to help with their fuel bills. We also have to ensure—

Mr. Burns

How much?

Ms Harman

I will answer the hon. Gentleman; I promised to answer all his questions. I am explaining why we are going ahead with the advertising campaign, if he will let me finish.

There are many pensioners on income support who might be concerned that this money was an overpayment or mistake and simply leave the giro uncashed. We know that there is a problem of pensioners not claiming benefits. They are entitled to know that this payment is coming, that it is for them and that they can safely cash it and use the money.

On pensioners who are not on income support, hon. Members have raised the issue about our not being able to pay the money as fast as we should like. We want pensioners to know that this money will be coming to them, that they are entitled to it and that they can use £20-worth more fuel than they would otherwise have been able to do. That is why we are proceeding with the advertising campaign. We are spending £400 million over two years on extra winter fuel payments for pensioners. We are spending £1.7 million on information about entitlement. We have to ensure that pensioners know what they are entitled to and what they are getting. That is not only appropriate, but necessary.