HC Deb 11 May 1999 vol 331 cc100-2
3. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

What steps he has taken to end fuel poverty among pensioners. [82782]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that, although Britain does not have one of the coldest climates in Europe, it suffers the highest rate of deaths caused by the effects of cold and hypothermia. There were 30,000 last year. That is unacceptable. That is why we cut the VAT on fuel that the previous Government imposed. We have increased the winter fuel payment by 500 per cent. from £20 a year to £100. Today, we have published our consultation proposals for the new home energy efficiency scheme, which will provide warmer homes for pensioners on low incomes. We believe that that will make a real difference.

Mr. Rendel

We welcome the increase in the home energy efficiency scheme, for which we have been pressing for a long time, but should not the Government consider two further measures? First, they should reduce VAT on energy insulation materials to 5 per cent. across the board. Secondly, to integrate properly across Departments, they should accept the Health Care and Energy Efficiency Bill, which is coming back to the House on Friday and which they have previously opposed. It will ensure that the health services are involved in the issue and made to play their part in avoiding pensioner fuel poverty.

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman makes two sound points. We are involved in consultation with the Department of Health on how we can help in the production of the Bill and improve it. We have made a considerable contribution to reducing fuel bills. Under the old scheme, they would have been reduced by approximately £45 a year. Our measures will lead to a reduction of £1,000 a year, which is a considerable advance.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there are hundreds of thousands of pensioners whose homes are still very poorly insulated? Their heating raises the temperature of their neighbourhood far more than it raises the temperature of their homes. Will he confirm that the regulations relating to this morning's announcement will ensure that all such people will be eligible for proper grants for complete home insulation, even if they have had a partial grant in the past? It has been a ridiculous anomaly for a long time that people who have had small draught-proofing schemes are not eligible for cavity wall insulation and proper loft insulation.

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend's point is sound. Those who were receiving partial grants were about only 2 per cent. of the total, and we are wiping the slate clean and making the grants available to all. We estimate that about 3.6 million households will be eligible for them, and our proposals for the first two years will directly affect about 500,000 of them.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Opposition welcome his announcement this morning? However, given the overall scale of fuel poverty in this country, why will not he support the all-party warm homes campaign, which he and his hon. Friends fully supported in opposition?

Why are the Government seeking to redefine fuel poverty by excluding 5.5 million homes from a strategy to eradicate it? Does not the exclusion of those homes give a whole new meaning to the term social exclusion?

Mr. Prescott

It is a bit much for the hon. Gentleman to be concerned about the campaign for warmer homes when the Conservatives doubled VAT on fuel. I am pleased that he welcomes the 500 per cent. increase in cold weather payments, from £20 to £100, which was made by this Government, not the previous Administration. The changes that we now propose will immediately benefit 500,000 people and will be targeted to help individuals in private homes rather than people in social housing, who will be helped by the £3.6 billion of capital receipts.

I am sad to hear that the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) will be standing down from the Opposition Front Bench, but looking around her and hearing the latest contributions from those who are jockeying for her position, it is hard to find anyone with a face that is younger or fresher than hers who is able to match her ability.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his comments about the Government's action to end fuel poverty for many people throughout the country.

I suggest that social exclusion, to which the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) referred, was caused by the previous Government denying local authorities the chance to build old people's homes and bungalows. That means that there is now greater demand for old people's accommodation. In my constituency, old people living in a three-bedroomed house are paying £16 a week for fuel because their home is too large, and there is a shortage of bungalows and old people's accommodation.

Will my right hon. Friend take action to encourage local authorities to build more such accommodation, and to encourage the lettings programme, thus ensuring that old people in large houses will be transferred to more suitable accommodation, allowing them to escape from the fuel poverty in which they are now trapped?

Mr. Prescott

I agree with my hon. Friend. We have a couple of pilot schemes that are dealing with those particular problems and seeking solutions. However, when I hear Opposition Members talking about the sale of council houses, I am bound to say that the greatest indictment of the Conservatives is that they accumulated between £4 billion and £5 billion in housing receipts and did not allow local authorities to use them to deal with the problems to which my hon. Friend referred.