HC Deb 11 December 2002 vol 396 cc366-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

10 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield)

During a bitterly cold week such as this, it is appropriate and timely to debate entitlement to winter fuel allowances. I welcome the fact that pensioners are entitled to claim them, although a decent basic state pension might be a better alternative. We might question the eligibility of pensioners who over-winter in places such as Guadeloupe, Martinique, southern Spain or the Canary islands—hardly cold weather areas—for claiming the £200 winter fuel allowance.

The real issue, however, is the denial of winter fuel payments to severely disabled people. Although it was a fully costed Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment in the 2001 general election, this is not a party political issue. The hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) submitted early-day motion 289 on the subject in October 2001 and I submitted early-day motion 209 14 days ago. The two motions were signed by more than 170 Members from every party in the House—Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative, Plaid Cymru, Scottish nationalist, Ulster Unionist, Social Democratic and Labour, and Democratic Unionist.

In the other place, Lord Ashley of Stoke, Lord Rix and Lord Addington have all pressed the Government—to no avail—to reconsider on this issue on a number of occasions.

The all-party Trade and Industry Committee report on fuel poverty, dated September 2002, recommended: An increase in the level of benefits for particularly vulnerable groups is another obvious way of tackling fuel poverty. The Winter Fuel Payment has been of benefit to pensioners. We urge the Government to look at extending this to other vulnerable groups. For example, there is a powerful case for extending the winter fuel payment to disabled people whose condition requires extra spending on heating.

The all-party parliamentary group on disability has challenged Ministers several times on this issue, and many disability organisations are campaigning on the matter. They include Disability Now, the Disability Rights Commission and 21 other groups at the last count. Ann Robinson, chair of Energywatch, gave evidence to the Trade and Industry Committee, saying that she, too, supported payment of the allowance to severely disabled people.

Why does such a wide range of people, parties and expert groups believe that severely disabled people should qualify for the winter fuel allowances? Disability Now launched the campaign in October 2000 with a survey of its readers. More than 4,000 disabled people and their supporters responded. Of those, 1,800 severely disabled people filled in a questionnaire explaining how they manage and why they need the winter fuel payment. Their comments have much in common: they cope as best they can with extra layers of clothes and hot water bottles, by living in just one room in the house, missing out on holidays, skimping on food and by, as some describe it, hibernating. They all say that the £200 would allow them to turn on or turn up their heating. There is a widespread dread of heating bills, and some people are still paying them off over the summer. Those are exactly the arguments that we used to hear on behalf of pensioners before they became entitled to the allowance.

In July 1999, major Government research, "Disability in Great Britain", found that disabled people most frequently put fuel and transport at the top of their costs. The research found that many severely disabled people with impaired walking function and care needs experience severe financial hardship because they are at home most of the time with no job and they need to maintain a constant temperature, including at night. As a discrete group, they are as likely as, if not more likely than, the broad, heterogeneous group of people aged over 60 to experience financial hardship and fuel poverty. Leonard Cheshire, in its research, found that one third of the disabled people in its survey could not afford to meet the extra heating costs arising from their disability, and that they had a lower average income than did the general population.

Severely disabled people often need extra heat and hot water because of their medical or physical condition. Because they are often housebound, they have to keep their heating on all day—unlike those who go out to work—and they often have to keep it on all night because of their disability. It has also been pointed out in the Government's 1999 research and by Leonard Cheshire that such people are often in financial hardship.

Given some previous answers from Ministers, it is likely that we shall hear tonight that the disability living allowance can be used to cover heating costs. The need for extra heating is not, however, one of the eligibility criteria for disability living allowance. The mobility component of the allowance is awarded when someone needs help with mobility outside the home. It has nothing to do with heating requirements. The care component of the disability living allowance is awarded when someone needs substantial help with personal care. It does not even cover the full cost of such care. For example, two hours of care per day at £5 an hour is £70 a week. The disability living allowance care allowance is £37.65 a week. Despite that, disabled people are also told by the Government to put their disability living allowance towards any extra clothing requirements, laundry costs and special food requirements that may arise from their disabilities. Just how far is this one allowance supposed to stretch?

Another Government response has been to refer to the availability of insulation grants, but Tricia Higgins wrote to Disability Now to say: My pain levels are massively increased, and my mobility greatly reduced, during cold weather because I cannot keep the house warm enough. I live in a modern bungalow, with all the insulation, draught proofing, double glazing, etc., but because of my limited mobility and poor circulation I have major problems in keeping warm—like many other people around the country. I would simply like to be able to keep my living room and bedroom warm enough so that I don't suffer so badly during cold weather, without building huge debts—is that too much to ask? Apparently for this government, it is.

The Government have also argued that older people suffer the most from fuel poverty, and that that is why they, and not disabled people, are targeted for the winter fuel allowance. Even if that were true, it would not represent a humane and just approach to severely disabled people. Lord Ashley was given figures from the 1998 follow-up survey to the English house conditions survey that showed that, while 29 per cent. of pensioner households were in fuel poverty in 1998, 22 per cent. of disabled households were also in fuel poverty—a not dissimilar proportion.

The Government have also said that additional payments are available for people on income support—the disability income guarantee, which provides an extra £11.05. The introduction of this payment in 2000 was an admission that the existing support was inadequate, but it is only £11.05, not £200. Furthermore, it is only available to about 130,000 adults and 30,000 children who need 24-hour care. It will not help people with mobility impairment, for example, who need extra heat but have lower care needs, and so do not qualify.

Lord Ashley has argued that the Government's refusal to extend winter fuel payments is "illogical, anomalous and unjust". He has said that severely disabled people suffer from immobility in the cold just as much as pensioners and, in some cases, more. The hon. Member for Kingswood has said that the Government's position on this matter is "incoherent". I hope that the Minister will reconsider this illogical, anomalous, unjust and incoherent position, and end this powerful injustice that discriminates against severely disabled people.

10.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) on securing this debate on an important subject at a very appropriate time. May I say at the outset that the Government do, of course, take the issues concerning people with disabilities very seriously? That is why we have provided extra cash benefits—social security benefits—for this group of at-risk people, as I shall demonstrate later. However, we introduced winter fuel payments during our first winter in office specifically to help older people with their heating bills. Research from the 1996 English housing condition survey showed that about half the households in fuel poverty contained someone aged 60 or over—only 4 per cent. were headed by a person receiving disability living allowance or their partner. We wanted to ensure that no pensioner was afraid to turn up the heating in cold weather, such as the spell that we are experiencing, owing to a worry over cost. Now, more than 11 million older people in about 8 million households are receiving help with their heating costs. We are proud of that.

The winter fuel payment cost some £1.7 billion last year, but as usual, the speech from the Liberal Democrat Benches was a cost-free zone. There comes a time in grown-up politics, however, when people have to discuss the cost of their proposals.

Paul Holmes


Malcolm Wicks

Obviously, I want to respond to the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, but of course this is his debate, so I am happy to give way.

Paul Holmes

As I pointed out, the 2001 manifesto was fully costed and it said where the money would come from and where it would be spent. The argument depends on the number of severely disabled people: if it were about 1 million, the cost would be £200 million while the cost for the maximum suggested—1.7 million people—would be £340 million. That compares with the £1.7 billion paid out to 11.5 million pensioners last year.

Malcolm Wicks

Yes, indeed. We are spending the £1.7 billion and we are, perfectly properly, spending a considerable amount more on benefits for people with disabilities. At some stage, those on the Liberal Democrat Benches must get out their calculator and work out whether all their demands on the public purse add up to a penny on income tax, which seems to be their main funding commitment in the 21st century.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Cheap, cheap.

Malcolm Wicks

It is not cheap. The Liberal Democrats are proposing quite an expensive policy and they need to do their political arithmetic.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield did not allow for the fact that those receiving the winter fuel payment include about 850,000 people who get DLA and all 1.3 million who get attendance allowance, as they are over 60. He talks about people with disabilities as if none are receiving the winter fuel payment—large quantities of them are. In fact, about 60 per cent. of all people with disabilities already get the winter fuel payment, which he does not seem fully to understand.

Of course we are aware that people with disabilities can face extra costs in doing what others take for granted, especially, perhaps, younger people. That is why there are specific benefits available for disabled people in recognition of their extra costs. Let us consider the benefits available. The hon. Gentleman predicted that I would talk about DLA, but why should I not do so? I do not know whether he understands the public expenditure implications, but that allowance alone costs £7.6 billion in the current year. Quite properly, a considerable sum of public money is being spent on one allowance; he referred to it rather pejoratively as just one allowance. Does he have any understanding of the considerable support that that money gives to people with disabilities? He simply did not recognise that.

The care component of DLA ranges from £14.90 to over £56 a week, and the mobility component is up to £39. That means that the maximum DLA is over £95 a week. DLA is a contribution towards extra costs resulting from the effects of disability and the amounts payable are not based on the calculation of specific costs. People are free to spend the money according to their priorities and needs. I repeat that the amount we are spending, well over £7 billion, is considerably more than that involved in what could in a sense be described as the rather modest proposal presented by the hon. Gentleman.

Disability living allowance is a contribution to the extra costs facing people with disabilities. It never constituted a guarantee to cover every extra penny that a person might spend. In the late 1980s, however, the then Government commissioned four surveys from the Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys to provide comprehensive information about people with disabilities. The results showed that the then benefits were well directed towards the most common costly disabilities. In most cases it was found that the amount was more than enough to cover disability-related expenditure. That is why disability living allowance, which is increased each year in line with prices, continues to be paid according to a person's care and mobility needs, and allows that person complete freedom in terms of how the benefit is spent.

We give extra financial support to the poorest people with disabilities. For example, a severely disabled person receiving the highest rate of care component—more than £56—and a higher rate of mobility component—more than £39—of the allowance could be entitled to both the disability premium of £23 and enhanced disability premium of more than £11 in his or her income support. That represents some £6,700 extra benefit per year.In dismissing this as a single allowance, the hon. Gentleman deliberately understated the amount that we are giving people with disabilities.

The new disability income guarantee from April 2001, which includes the enhanced disability premium in the income-related benefits, is helping 125,000 of the poorest severely disabled people under 60, ensuring an overall income of at least £144 a week for a single person over 25 and £189 for a couple. This is detailed arithmetic and comes rather late in the day, but I am forced to present it here because of the rather cursory way in which the hon. Gentleman has dismissed the considerable support that the Government, on behalf of the wider community, are properly giving to people with disabilities.

From April 2002, young people disabled early in life who have not had the opportunity to work can receive up to £28 a week more in incapacity benefit than they would have received under the old disablement allowance. Since October 2000 families with a disabled child have received extra help through the disabled child tax credit, and from April 2001 very severely disabled adults and children can receive the enhanced disability tax credit. Both are part of the working families tax credit and the disabled persons tax credit. Those disability and enhanced disability elements will be carried forward into the new child tax credit and working tax credit, which replace working families tax credit and disabled persons tax credit next April.

People whose income support includes a disability premium are also entitled to cold weather payments. If the average temperature drops below zero degrees centigrade for seven consecutive days, a payment of £8.50 is made automatically. Such extreme circumstances may well be recognised, and the payment triggered, during the current cold period, but it will be up to the Met Office to decide. The amount that needs to be spent is only one element of the problem of fuel poverty, however. Fuel poverty is caused by a combination of factors including poorly constructed and poorly insulated houses, inefficient heating systems, under-occupancy and fuel prices as well as low incomes.

Tackling fuel poverty in the United Kingdom is one of our key priorities. That is why a number of measures have been introduced to ensure that by 2010 no vulnerable household will have to struggle to heat its home. Those measures are detailed in the Government's document "The UK Fuel Poverty Strategy", which we issued on 21 November 2001. Its publication followed a wide-ranging consultation, beginning in February 2000, with some 300 interested parties. The fuel poverty strategy sets out a comprehensive package of initiatives designed to meet specific targets for the reduction of fuel poverty throughout the United Kingdom. The measures deal with factors causing fuel poverty, in particular, energy efficiency and fuel prices. They include a cut in VAT on fuel and radical improvements to the home energy efficiency scheme.

In June 2000, the Government launched the new home energy efficiency scheme to help those households most at risk from cold-related ill health. The scheme is now marketed as warm front, and offers a range of insulation and heating measures to those who receive certain benefits. Both attendance allowance and disability living allowance are benefits that can entitle a person to help from the scheme. The grant maximum for people under 60 has been increased to £1,500 this year.

The warm front team acts as the delivery mechanism for the scheme. It recognises the wide range of organisations that are involved in identifying households in need and in delivering help to them: voluntary organisations, doctors, health professionals, social services, local authorities, as well as the installers and scheme managers. I have been referring to England but, of course, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have similar schemes.

I hope that hon. Members will see from what I have said that people with severe disabilities can, and do, receive considerable help. I hope that hon. Members will encourage their constituents to claim the help that they are entitled to. However, we are still convinced that winter fuel payments should remain targeted at the people they were introduced to help: older people.

Richard Younger-Ross

I fear that the Minister is missing a key element of what my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) was saying. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches would not decry a lot that the present Government have done to help disabled people; we welcome it. However, the Minister is not recognising the essential difference for people who are very poor and struggling. If they are on benefit, by definition, they do not have a lot of money. They would never argue that being on benefit makes them wealthy and gives them a lot of disposable income. Ministers and Members of Parliament do have disposable income. We spend our money throughout the year without regard; it is easy. Winter budget and summer budget differences are key for people who are poor. If they spend more money in winter, it is difficult to cope. The winter fuel allowance picks that up and recognises the difference between summer spending and winter spending.

Malcolm Wicks

In many respects, the essence of the winter fuel payment scheme is its simplicity. It goes to all older people without a means test. It does not have the complexity of income-tested schemes—of course, we need income-tested schemes in certain sectors—and it is geared towards older people, because of our recognition that older people, although in a variety of housing and financial circumstances, are more at risk of the cold physiologically.

Of course, it is always easy—I do not mean that pejoratively—for Back Benchers to suggest ways in which other groups, often with great needs, should be allowed to benefit from different social security entitlements. I can well imagine someone in an Adjournment debate making an eloquent case as to why winter fuel payments might go to poorer families with children under five, for example. One could put together quite a good speech on that issue, but the winter fuel payment is a benefit that works because of its simplicity. I have also argued that considerable resources are expended, properly, in other ways on people with disabilities, some of whom depend on their homes virtually 24 hours a day, while some, because of the disability living allowance and mobility component, can go into the community and work in the mainstream labour market like the rest of us can. To say that it would be a very targeted benefit if we provided it to all people on disability benefits is a little inaccurate. It is easy to come to the House and argue that we should spend public funds in other ways.

One of the reasons why I am pleased to be here is that at least we are discussing a winter fuel payment scheme; if we did not have a scheme we could not discuss it. This reminds me of debates about whether the minimum wage should be higher. I welcome those debates, because we now have a minimum wage and winter fuel payments—thanks to this Government.

I have not come here tonight just to read a speech written by my Department to defend our policies—although I am happy to do that. As long ago as 1972, as a young social scientist, along with consultants in geriatric medicine and other scientists of different kinds, I took part in the first ever survey of environmental conditions and body temperatures affecting elderly people in Britain. We published our work in the British Medical Journal in 1973, and produced the first ever estimate of the extent to which our elderly people are at risk from low body temperature.

Some years later I wrote a book called "Old and cold: hypothermia and social policy". I assure the hon. Member for Chesterfield that whatever our differences, I have a deep commitment to the issue. We can argue about the extent to which other groups should be included in the policy, although I am proud to make a robust defence of our position, and our policies on disability and winter fuel payments.

Although I am proud of the progress that we have made over the 30 years since I did my research with others, I am nevertheless struck by the fact that as we meet tonight in a well heated House of Commons, the cold spell is currently affecting at-risk people. Despite our efforts with home energy efficiency, with winter fuel payments and in other ways, there will be people who take to their bedrooms at 6 or 7 o'clock this evening because that is the only warm place that they have.

I know that the excess winter mortality rate in this country, compared with that in other European countries—not least the cold countries of Scandinavia—is far too considerable. I am not complacent, but I am confident that we have in place fuel policy strategies, insulation strategies—and yes, our winter fuel payment schemes too—allied to our other policies on employment and disability, which one day, although sadly, not tonight and not yet, will consign the problem of fuel poverty and the "old but cold" issue to the place where they belong: the dustbin of British social history.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o'clock.