HC Deb 05 March 2001 vol 364 cc11-3
7. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

How many people he expects will benefit from the winter fuel allowance for 2001–02. [150486]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

As I have told the House, we have issued about 11 million payments this winter, about 21,000 of which were made in my hon. Friend's constituency. We will announce our proposals for next winter in due course, in the usual way.

Mr. Marsden

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those figures are a striking testament to the effectiveness of the Government' a policy in pursuing the winter fuel payment? Given that extraordinarily high take-up, does he have any estimates of the cost that would be incurred by civil servants if they had to disaggregate and question every single pensioner in the country about whether to retain the separate winter fuel payment or to incorporate it in pensions?

Mr. Rooker

It would amount to a crass waste of public money, even if the Opposition were to ask the civil service to carry out the assessment, as they are entitled to do in the run-up to an election. Making such a change would collapse the income tax and social security systems. It would be merely a figleaf, as there would be no consistent uprating policy for pensions and the winter fuel payment. A tax-free cash payment that is made to everybody and that has proved extremely popular seems the best way to continue.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

In considering the number of claimants of this year's winter fuel payments, will the Minister of State take into account what the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), told me last July? She said that all backdated claims would be paid by the end of September, but I understand that that has now been put back to March. How many claims will still be outstanding in March in respect of last year's payments?

Mr. Rooker

The only people about whom we are talking are men between the ages of 60 and 65 who, generally speaking, happen to have made no contact with my Department. In other words, they will be at work and will not be receiving any benefits, and the Government do not know where they all are. They have to make a claim and they can do so at almost any time. Claims are continually coming in and some remain to be processed.

Some 140,000 claims are currently in the process of being clerically assessed and 70,000 claims are determined and awaiting payment, which is due to be made in the first two weeks of this month. Some 20,000 claims are currently being processed. Some people aged between 60 and 64, including hon. Members, may choose not to claim, but may then change their mind. It is as simple as that.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

Does the Minister agree that the key merit of the winter fuel allowance is that it is not taxed and that it does not hit benefits? That would not be the case if it were added to the basic state pension; many Conservative Members would like us to do that. Is it not time for the Tory party to admit that the winter fuel allowance works and that it should be here to stay?

Mr. Rooker

My hon. Friend is right. If everything were subsumed in the way Conservative Members advocate, the winter fuel allowance would wither on the vine, and in future people would not be able to tell what had happened to it. Under a Labour Government, people can tell—because we are paying it.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

The Government should be congratulated on the increase in the winter fuel allowance. However, what assessment has the Minister made, in the run-up to the Budget on Wednesday, of a proposed extension of the winter fuel allowance to disabled people? Do the Government realise that approximately 1 million people under the age of 60 would benefit from an extension of the winter fuel allowance to those on the higher rate of disability living allowance? That is not covered by the mobility and care components of DLA.

Mr. Rooker

No, but the cost of fuel is already covered in the benefits, as the hon. Gentleman knows. He is not living in the real world if he believes that he could confine an extension of the winter fuel allowance to selected, targeted groups of disabled people.