HL Deb 27 April 1981 vol 419 cc1028-9

2.41 p.m.

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will summarise the financial help they give in genuine cases of hardship when there is difficulty in meeting fuel bills; how many people are expected to benefit in 1981–82, and how successful they have been in making known what help is available.

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, the Government will be spending, from next November, over £250 million a year to help some 2¼ million poor fuel consumers. Most of this aid is given in the form of heating additions to supplementary benefit claimants. Working families on low incomes also benefit from the increase given to family income supplement to assist with heating costs. This is the most generous fuel assistance programme ever. Supplementary benefit heating additions became, from last November, a matter of legal entitlement rather than discretion and many heating additions are now made automatically without the claimants having to ask for them. These changes will go a long way towards ensuring that those entitled to help will get it. There are two leaflets available on heating costs: Help With Heating Costs on the supplementary benefit position and Winter Heating Costs published by the Department of Energy.

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for that informative reply. Naturally one would like to feel that this very large sum is sufficient and well spent. May I ask my noble friend two brief questions? First, can he say whether these hardship payments have in fact been more than sufficient to keep pace with the very steep increases in fuel prices which have taken place over the past few years, and the expected increases between now and the end of the year? Secondly, the noble Lord will be aware that the Policy Studies Institute have suggested in their interim report that among those who have had their fuel supplies cut off could be found a considerable number of disabled people, including the blind and the seriously ill. If that is indeed the case and the Government accept it, would my noble friend say what has been done to meet this problem?

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, on the first of my noble friend's supplementaries, the heating additions were boosted substantially, more than the rise in fuel prices in November 1979, when the basic rate heating addition was put up 47 per cent. and when the RPI fuel component rose by 28 per cent. The next up-rating will actually maintain this position as the rise will take into account the forecast rise in fuel prices.

With the regard to the second supplementary, the Policy Studies Institute is currently reviewing the operation of the code of practice by the fuel industries and they are expected to report finally by the end of this year. The interim report emphasised the need for greater availability of pre-payment meters and to include the blind, the severely sick and disabled in the group given 14 days' grace before disconnection. Your Lordships will be aware that certain groups have 14 days' grace to get in touch with their local DHSS office for assistance. These are being implemented and the industries also promise to ensure that their staff fully observe these provisions.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Minister whether I am right in saying that the yardstick by which financial help in this matter is given depends upon individuals being able to satisfy the Supplementary Benefits Commission that they are entitled, by virtue of their income, to supplementary benefit? If that is so, then they are all genuine cases and there are not, as the Question implies, people receiving this financial help who are not genuine.

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

Then, my Lords, they are all genuine cases, and in the case of people receiving supplementary benefit they automatically get the increase.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he is aware that in the 10 months up to January 1981 British Gas referred 3,600 potential cases to the various social services, and that out of that number 600 received financial help?

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, I was not aware of those figures, but I am grateful to my noble friend for having made them available.