HL Deb 17 February 1986 vol 471 cc430-6

4.18 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to repeat in the form of a Statement the reply to a Private Notice Question on severe weather payments being given in another place by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Social Security. The Answer is as follows:

"The main help for claimants in meeting their heating costs are the scale rates which cover normal living expenses. In addition, there is an extensive range of heating additions which give further help; for example, for all householders over 65 and families with a child under five. Expenditure on these additions totalled some £400 million in 1984–85—£140 million more in real terms than in 1978–79.

"The regulations also provide for single payments to claimants who have extra fuel costs arising from exceptionally severe weather. Last winter, decisions were handled using trigger points based on meteorological office information. The system was widely criticised and was ruled invalid by the social security commissioners last autumn. In the light of this, the chief adjudication officer issued further guidance on the handling of claims.

"It is for the independent adjudication officers in each locality to decide whether there has been a period of exceptionally severe weather and to determine subsequent claims. I understand that some designations have been made and that others are under consideration".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, may I ask the Minister how the Government are working out the standards of coldness and severity? What is happening in various areas of the country where there are different weather conditions? How are people—for example, old ladies in a top back room—able to get some conditional help? I have been reading all the reports and I cannot understand how the Ministry is working out what is "cold" and what is "hot". It is very important that people should know how the Government are working out the whole situation.

I appreciate the difficulties of the noble Lord the Minister, but what is to happen about people who do not receive electricity bills which they can send to the department and who are buying coal or putting money into meters? How can they get all the help they need? How are the Government making absolutely sure that they are reducing the number of people who die from hypothermia? Is the position as reported in one newspaper that an officer puts his head out of his window and says, "It feels cold", and that means someone will receive payment? Or is there some other way in which the Government are trying to reduce the number of deaths from hypothermia?

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, we on these Benches thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Private Notice Question. It is of course true that severe weather payments made under the old scheme received considerable criticism because the trigger could work at, say, minus 3 degrees in Plymouth but it would have to be minus 12 degrees in Scotland. However, what we have now appears to be worse. According to yesterday's Sunday Times, the adjudicators have complete discretion. Those people who pay in advance through slot meters or who buy solid fuels cannot claim. People with minimal savings cannot claim and people who have set aside an insufficient amount may be accused of improvidence.

Therefore, not simply relying on the press, I looked al the circular and found some extraordinary facts. The onus of proof lies on the claimant. In referring to a period of exceptionally severe weather the period is not defined. "Exceptionally severe" is not defined. The judgment is entirely subjective by the adjudicating officer. Claimants who pay for fuel in advance, as the noble Baroness said, will usually have already met the cost of additional fuel when their claims are made, so they do not qualify. But what is the position if the money they would normally spend on food, clothing or other basic requirements is used to buy that fuel in advance? That has not been considered.

Surely it is wrong that people who may die from cold that same night can be sent away to dig up old bills to convince the adjudicating officer of the justice of their claim. Surely no one is going cap in hand for extra fuel money unless they are in desperate circumstances. Would it not be better to save lives first and look at the bureaucratic mechanism when the crisis is over?

Finally, can the noble Lord answer three questions? What is the evidence to date of deaths from hypothermia during the present cold spell? What measures are the Government taking in the present emergency, which is expected to last, I understand, for another 10 days? Do the Government intend to revise the rules for the future, and if so, how? For example, will the Government bring amendments forward in this House when the Social Security Bill currently in Parliament comes before your Lordships?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to answer both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. Nobody disagrees that the present provision has some difficulties and that is why it has already been announced that the whole matter is being looked at, not only in the light of the difficulties which were earlier apprehended but in the light of the commissioners' decision referred to in the Answer. We propose to reassess the situation further during the current winter, following the operation of the scheme that we now have.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, referred to the shortcomings of the present system. The commissioners made clear that decisions were a matter for judgment by local adjudication authorities in the light of their local knowledge. The chief adjudication officer has therefore issued further guidance on the handling of these claims. This covers such matters as the designation of a period of exceptionally severe weather, assessment of extra costs incurred and reviews of decisions made last winter.

On the question of hypothermia, which was raised by both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, even though deaths where hypothermia is recorded as an underlying cause represent only a tiny fraction of all deaths among elderly people, this is a matter of considerable concern. We fully recognise the miseries that cold can inflict on older people and the general effect of it on their health. For this reason we have greatly increased the amount of help given with heating costs; and I mentioned some of the figures in the original Answer. The money which goes into them at present will be included in the income support scheme proposed in the social security review.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, we have not of course read the circular or seen the notes on guidance, but certainly we welcome the recognition by the department of the problems raised originally by Child Poverty Action, the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, Age Concern, Care of the Aged, and others. To that extent we should pay tribute to those voluntary organisations who waged that campaign because there were gaps in the old system. We fear, as do the organisations involved, that there are still going to be gaps and we need assurances on some of the questions already raised by the noble Lord and my noble friend who have already spoken.

First, it seems to me that the HEO—the higher executive officer—acting as an adjudication officer seems to have complete discretion and we are not sure as to how he exercises it. For example, does he take the wind factor into consideration when considering the coldness of a particular area? I heard this morning on the weather forecast that this wind can reduce today's temperature of minus 3 degrees to minus 12 degrees. That is a great difference to someone who is living in a draughty, dilapidated old house or in a high-rise block of flats. Are such factors taken into consideration or does the officer ignore them? I should like to know, because it is relevant to many people living in such circumstances.

We need another assurance, as the noble Baroness said in her remarks. Will the Government consider mounting a campaign—on the lines of selling British Telecom shares with full-scale advertisements in national newspapers—to inform pensioners that before they pay for fuel in advance, either in slot meters or for solid fuel, they should check whether they are entitled to some kind of assistance from the DHSS? At the moment, if they have paid in advance it is deemed that they could therefore afford it, even if they could not and certainly cannot in the new circumstances. They do not then receive payment.

That is not so complicated to those of us who know about it, but there are many pensioners and other people who ought to be receiving this payment who do not understand that they may be forfeiting assistance if they have paid in advance either through a slot meter or by purchasing solid fuel. I should like the Minister to give a reply on that.

We know that only people who are on supplementary benefit will receive assistance; others will not. There are many thousands of pensioners who, for a number of reasons which we in this House all know about, are entitled to claim supplementary benefit but do not. I believe it is a third of all pensioners. There are others, living on the limit, in owner-occupied houses which are in a bad state but which they cannot afford to repair, who ought to be assisted in this cold weather. I should like to know if that situation will be reviewed? Could we extend it beyond people who are immediately on supplementary benefit to cover the others?

Finally, can we have an assurance that in fact no one in any of those categories—pensioners, sick people, disabled people or people with young families—will be worse off as a result of these new notes of guidance than they were previously?

4.30 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I certainly hope that nobody will be worse off, as the noble Lord puts it. Indeed, under the new arrangements, which I emphasise are a matter for local adjudication officers and not for the Government, I hope that the system will work better than it did last year when it came under such criticism, particularly from the Social Security Commission.

On the question of publicity, which the noble Lord also raised, it will be a matter for local officers to publicise it as they think fit, depending upon the particular problems in their local areas; but certain steps are being taken to do that, notably with a supply of leaflets which will be available.

I should also like to deal with a couple of points which were raised earlier about the question of savings. Anybody with less than £500 can claim payment, that is, of course, if the local adjudication officer has decided that a period of exceptionally severe weather has occurred. On the question of people who buy solid fuel or paraffin or who pay by slot meter, it is not true to say that they cannot avail themselves of this benefit. Any claimant can claim. Those who pay in advance can go to their local social security office during the period of exceptionally severe weather if they need to do so; other claimants should wait for their quarterly bills.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I really must ask the noble Lord whether he knows what life is really like? He says that people who have put money in the slot meter can find out something about this benefit and get some money back. This is not what life is like. I must tell the Minister that some people who will be sitting tonight in a top back room will be absolutely freezing and much colder than he is, but they are afraid to put any money in the meter. He will say, "Oh well, they can claim it back some other time", but this is not what life is like. In this period of very cold weather does the noble Lord think it is possible for the poorest people to deal with it by putting money in the meter when it means that they cannot spend it on anything else? I am not being unfair to the noble Lord. I just think that he does not know what life is really like for the poorest and coldest people.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I should perhaps make it clear that the poorest and coldest people, as the noble Baroness refers to them, are of course those who are already receiving supplementary benefit and a heating addition, which will range from £2.20 up to £5 or so, depending on the particular circumstances and the kind of house in which they live. When the particularly severe weather comes, they will now be entitled, where the local adjudication officer so decides, to the additional payment. If they are living in a house which is fitted with a slot meter for example, they can go immediately to their social security office and get the additional payments to which they are entitled.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many people with experience of social security administration regard this problem of the very poor during extremely cold conditions as being almost the most difficult practical problem facing the administration of social security because of its changing incidence and, as has already been pointed out, because of the fact that the exact level of the thermometer is by no means conclusive as to whether or not hardship is being caused? In the light of that situation, will my noble friend, in the consideration which he and his right honourable friend are giving to this matter, study the practice and procedure of the old National Assistance Board some 25 years ago which worked extremely well through the very cold winters of 1958–59 and 1962–63?

Under this procedure a designated local officer of experience had a very wide measure of flexibility and discretion, and I think that on the whole those who were poor in those days will confirm that they dealt with the situation really extremely well. In this respect I ask my noble friend if he will consider reverting, so far as possible, not to the quite different constitutional position but to the actual practice of the old National Assistance Board?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I suspect that my noble friend was responsible for the arrangements to which he referred and I can assure him that the new flexibility to which I have referred in the original Answer is of course moving in the direction to which he has pointed. But I think that everybody agrees that the present arrangements, and particularly the arrangements that applied last year, are less than satisfactory. That is why this additional study is taking place and why I hope that by this time next year a better system will exist.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, I apologise for intervening again, but since the noble Lord assured me that those who make payments in advance by slot meter or by buying solid fuel are not necessarily excluded, I should like to read a few lines from Circular No. S.48/85: Claimants who pay for fuel in advance (e.g. by slot meter or the purchase of oil, coal, logs etc.) will usually have already met the cost of additional fuel when their claims are made. The provisions of regulation 3(2)(a) will not be satisfied as there will not be a need at the date of claim. There will not be an entitlement to a single payment under regulation 26". I am sure that the noble Lord inadvertently gave me the assurance that he did, which is not in fact quite in line with that statement. I wonder whether he or his colleagues in the DHSS are prepared to take a look at it?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as I understand it the eligibility for these special payment arrangements to which I have referred occurs when the claimant goes to replace his fuel stocks after a period of exceptionally severe weather; but if I have misunderstood the arrangements, and I confess I might have done, I shall hasten to reply to the noble Lord.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, at the present moment the local authorities are publicising the need for elderly people to keep up their heating and make quite sure that they make all possible contact with the social security department. It worries me that perhaps in the future with the Local Government Bill local authorities will not be able to do that and neither will the Government be bothered to tell people. That is something which is of serious concern and I hope that the noble Lord the Minister will himself take that on hoard when local authorities cannot undertake this task and publicise the need to get in touch with the social security.

What worries me particularly is the mention of £500. Perhaps noble Lords in this House will not appreciate it fully, but there are a lot of elderly people who are saving to pay for their own funerals and £500 is just about the amount of money that they think is necessary to see that they go out of this world with what they would call dignity. I feel sure that when the Government chose the figure of £500 it was something which went deep to the heart of many elderly people, because they have to dig into money which they knew very well they would not replace.

When I hear the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, speaking about how it will be done in different areas and how it will be for local decision, it worries me very much indeed because we shall then return to the same controversy: "Why should we have it in that area regardless of the temperature?" Therefore I ask the noble Lord if he will put the notes of guidance in the Library so that we ourselves are able to make sure that we have understood them and can pass on the information to those people who come and ask us about it.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I understand that the notes of guidance are already in the Library.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his co-operation, but I find it very difficult to follow what he has said in view of the number of complaints that I am receiving. I am told that in the Library we have some statement but I am not sure whether that goes round all the local offices.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, if I may interrupt, what are in the Library are the notes of guidance issued to local offices.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. I am not totally ignorant about what is going on in the big wide world. I find that there is a problem about the heating allowances. I am not unaware of the work of local officers. Some of them are told that they have to put their heads out of the window to feel how cold it is. I meet old ladies living in top flat rooms who never go out and who have no means of knowing how cold it is except that they feel cold. I mean this in no partisan way, but I do not honestly believe that either side of the House has worked out how to deal with the cold climate. The only solution is that everyone should have sufficient social security to enable them to pay for their fuel. We should not need to have this separatism of somebody paying for their gas and somebody paying for their electricity. We should be giving an income to people so that they can attend to their own needs and to keeping warm.

I leave these matters with the noble Lord. I know that he is sympathetic. It is absolutely impossible to go on with the present situation. I hope that he is able to say that the Government intend to look at this matter again. We cannot continue with a situation in which some poor people do not know how to apply for help or can only apply for help according to where their house is or the area in which they live. This is absolutely ridiculous. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to help us.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I can only say again that we are continuing to consider the provision very carefully in the light of the commissioners' decision and will re-assess the situation in the light of its operation this winter.