HC Deb 21 October 2002 vol 391 cc9-10
6. Mr. John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

What plans he has to increase winter fuel payments to over-60s. [73064]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

We have increased the level of winter fuel payments considerably since we introduced them in 1997. Most people aged 60 or over receive a payment of up to £200, which is a significant contribution towards their winter fuel bill. That means that almost 1 million pensioners in Scotland—more than 13,000 in my hon. Friend's constituency—will continue to benefit. We are committed to helping pensioners and we have given an undertaking that that level of payment will continue for the rest of the Parliament.

John Robertson

I wholeheartedly welcome the winter fuel allowance and the increases in it. However, does my hon. Friend realise that although the death rate has decreased, more people die of cold in Britain than in the rest of Europe? That costs the national health service more than £1 billion a year. Does my hon. Friend agree that a winter fuel allowance increase of £50 to £250 would help to reduce fuel poverty in this country and help to alleviate the costs on the NHS? If so, when will the 13,000 households in Anniesland receive it?

Maria Eagle

My hon. Friend is well known for his assiduity in pursuing the interests of his pensioner constituents. However, he seems to believe that I have a little more power than I do.

The winter fuel payment is not the Government's only policy to tackle fuel poverty. Of course, it is an important policy that helps pensioners in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere, but we have other policies. For example, the old home energy efficiency scheme, which is now known as warm front, gives grants of up to £2,500 for over-60s to improve the heating and insulation of their properties.

Between 1997 and 2002, gas prices have decreased by almost 12 per cent. in real terms and electricity prices by more than 21 per cent. So there are other factors that mean that people should find it easier to pay their winter fuel bills.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Will the Minister give us the figures for the decrease in older people's deaths in the winter months? The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) described such deaths as a British phenomenon. Will the hon. Lady further emphasise that it is not only the winter fuel payment but tackling the substandard housing and lack of insulation in many older people's households that makes a difference?

Maria Eagle

I cannot provide the exact figures governing the decrease in deaths because I do not have them with me. Of course, they vary from year to year. The 2000 spending review provided an extra £2.5 billion to renovate social housing. That will do much to improve insulation and heating. I have already referred to warm front, the home energy efficiency scheme, which the Government have greatly extended.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman supported the policy because I was not a Member of Parliament at the time, but the Conservative Government introduced VAT on fuel, which we cut from 8 per cent. to 5 per cent. We have therefore taken several measures to ensure that people who have difficulty paying their fuel bills can do so. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman wants to join us in that aim. I hope that he will dissent from any Conservative party policies that are not excellent on cutting winter fuel prices.

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