HL Deb 05 November 1986 vol 481 cc1152-70

6.10 p.m.

Lord Ezra rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the standard of heating in British homes, particularly in the cases of elderly people and of people on low incomes.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I submit that the Question that I have put down tonight is relevant in two regards. First, it is relevant because we are once again at the approach of winter and, in spite of long experience of the subject, we seem to suffer from excessive cold in our homes, particularly in the homes of the elderly and of people on low incomes. Secondly, I believe that this is an appropriate subject for us to discuss because it raises a long-term issue. Much has been done in recent years to improve the standards of heating in this country. The initiative taken by the Department of Energy in my opinion is to be commended, but a great deal remains to be done

In the statistics that the department has put out as part of this campaign, it estimated that some £3 billion can be saved by more efficient usage of energy in the homes of Britain. Furthermore, in an analysis of insulation standards, it has been shown that of 14 million homes with cavity walls only 2 million are insulated, and that could make a great deal of difference to heat loss. One in 13 houses have not insulated their hot water cylinders; that is, there are still some hot water cylinders that have not been insulated. A high proportion of houses still do not have adequate loft insulation, and 12 million have no draught stripping. These are all figures that I have taken from documents issued as part of the energy saving campaign.

It is clear, therefore, that there is a long way to go to achieve reasonable standards of energy efficiency in the homes in which we live. How far we can go has been demonstrated by the Energy World Exhibition at Milton Keynes. A number of houses have been built there by different contractors and organisations, including the fuel industries, to demonstrate how, by keeping to reasonably traditional forms of housebuilding, energy costs can be reduced to one half and sometimes even to one third or one quarter of what they are now. Thus not only are we talking about weather stripping and insulating existing houses, but there is a longer term challenge, which is to build new houses that are much more efficient.

I have been in touch with the major fuel industries supplying fuel to the domestic market to find out how they are seeking to deal with the problem. I can say that in all cases they are taking this very seriously. They consider it their job not only to sell their fuel but also to see that those who use it use it efficiently. I think that it is desirable and satisfactory that they take that point of view.

In the case of coal, for example, the industry uses the Solid Fuel Advisory Service as a means of providing free technical advice to those who use its product. It has issued a leaflet entitled "All about keeping warm", which brings people up to date with the facilities offered. In the case of the gas industry, there has been for some years now a project known as "Gas Warm Homes", which seeks to provide the most efficient way of warming houses using gas and Heat Saver schemes. The industry has recently been experimenting with modular heating systems, together with good insulation, to bring heating costs down even further.

In the case of the electricity industry, a scheme has been innovated that is still on trial entitled "The budget warmth system". That is directed particuarly at the elderly on low incomes. The system aims at achieving an adequate level of heating a main room, a living room: it is remotely controlled from the electricity centre, the amount of heating provided varies according to the weather and the cost is spread equally through the year. This has a great deal to commend it. I believe that it is intended to extend the scheme to different parts of the country in due course.

In spite of those efforts—the efforts of the energy efficiency office and of the fuel supply industries—in my opinion there is still more to be done if we are to tackle the problem of achieving better warmth and more economic heating in our homes. Let me raise first the question of heating standards. Until we have a firmly determined and officially recognised standard of heating to go for, we do not know what we are aiming at. It is generally considered in all the literature at which I have looked that a desirable level of heating in a pain room where people sit and are, therefore, not active is 21 degrees C or 70 degrees F. If that is so—it is certainly so in the case of older people—I should have thought we ought to say that that is what we should aim for, and we must provide the facilities for that to be achieved in the case of people with low incomes. There are corresponding levels on which most people agree for other parts of the home.

Secondly, a system of home energy audits was tried out, I believe, some years ago. The intention was to encourage people to have an inquiry made into the total heating operation in their homes; that is, not only the heat source itself, the number of radiators, etc., but to consider the heat losses and to undertake the necessary insulation. These total energy audits, if related to agreed standards of heating, could do a great deal to transform the comfort of British homes and to inform the public exactly what they should be doing.

Next there are building regulations that affect the capability of new structures to be more energy efficient. I understand that these are now being reconsidered in relation to energy efficiency. It would he helpful if the noble Baroness could let us know when these regulations are likely to he published, and reassure us that they will lay down improved heating standards compared with the present regulations.

On the subject of standards, the British Standards Institution is bringing out codes and guides for energy efficiency in buildings. I understand that a housing code is expected early in 1987. This could be very helpful in determining the standards at which we should be aiming.

Finally, I wish to refer to the question of home improvement grants and home insulation grants. There have been a number of changes in the way these grants have operated in recent years. When the home improvement grants were initially introduced in 1982, the) were freely available up to a level of 90 per cent. of the cost where they were relevant. This was reduced in 1984 to 75 per cent. At the same time, however, local authorities were restricted in the amount of capital that they had available and, therefore, the grants are less easily available to carry out the improvements where required in suitable cases

The same is true of home insulation grants. There have been reported to be difficulties in certain areas in getting these grants even where people are entitled to them. All this needs to be looked at. I contend that in the generality of houses if some of the things I have mentioned were done in a determined way—setting down agreed standards and providing the facilities for achieving those standards—we could translate into practice the very good advice being put out under the energy efficiency programme.

I should now like to turn to the specific case of those who are aged and on low incomes. First of all, to deal with the aged, it is always harrowing to read about those who may have died from the cold. That this should happen in our country, a country which is highly developed, which has more than a sufficiency of energy and which has an enormous amount of energy technology at its disposal, is disturbing.

Another of the difficulties in tackling this problem is that we do not know precisely the size of it. The medical certificates where death occurs would indicate that they are relatively few. One is too many, but there are of the order of about 500 in a normal winter. However, there is little doubt that hypothermia contributes to other ailments and can be an important aggravation when people are suffering from other diseases, particularly of respiration.

If one looks at it another way and compares the mortality rates of elderly people as between summer and winter, we find that there is a much larger difference in Britain than in other developed countries. I have taken for comparison countries which have noticeably colder weather than our own, such as Canada and Sweden. Whereas the swing in Britain between summer and winter is of the order of 24 per cent. on the latest figures that have been supplied to me by Age Concern, in those two countries it is of the order of 6 per cent. I am told that in Denmark it is pretty well even. Therefore, it looks as though, while they have a colder climate, we have colder homes. This is a problem we have to try to resolve. It is a serious social problem, and we should not still he suffering from it.

It is estimated that there are 6 million homes occupied by people living on supplementary benefit, and included in that 6 million are 2 million pensioners. Therefore we have the order of magnitude of the problem. We know what we are talking about. We know that it is still very serious. We need now to mobilise the necessary resources and effort in order to deal with it once and for all over a finite period.

There are two ways of dealing with the problem. They are complementary and ought to be taken together as part of a total strategy. The first and the most important way is to make sure that these homes are supplied with an adequate source of heat, well insulated. It is far better to do that, in my opinion, than to apply an ever-increasing second solution, which is to keep on having to give people more and more grants to survive the winter because that does not solve the problem at all. It may save them in the short term, but it does not solve the long-term problem. But the two have to he seen together.

Let us see what is happening under these two headings at the present moment and consider how we can achieve greater and faster progress. In the case of insulation there is an organisation known as the Neighbourhood Energy Agency, with which I happen to be closely concerned and which was started in 1975 by two energetic and resourceful persons, Mr. David Green and Mr. Robert Davies. They started it up in Newcastle as a small venture of a voluntary nature, and now I am glad to say, with government and private support, they are managing to insulate at a rate approaching 200,000 houses a year.

That is a remarkable achievement. All these are the homes of people on supplementary benefit, and a large number of them are the homes of older people. I have been around some of these houses. I have seen what a massive difference it makes to people to have a suitable degree of insulation, which they could never put in themselves or even afford. It can transform the whole situation. But Neighbourhood Energy Action could not undertake to do the whole 6 million homes. At its rate of progress, even if it doubled up, it would still take the best part of 20 or 30 years, and that is far too long. We cannot talk in those terms.

I submit, in view of the proven benefit that can be achieved by a suitable degree of insulation in the homes of people on supplementary benefit, that additional means be devised for promoting this work. I think that we ought to have the aim of making sure that these 6 million homes are suitably insulated within a period of five years as an objective to try once and for all to deal with the problem.

Secondly, as I mentioned, there is the question of payments. There are two sorts of payment for people who cannot afford to pay for their heating. One is the heating addition, which is suitably increased for people over the age of 80, and there is the severe weather payment. These two between them ought to be able to help people to meet their additional heating bills, particularly if they also have better insulation. Unfortunately over recent years particularly the severe weather payments have been subject to a complex system, and it has been difficult for these older people to understand the system, let alone to claim under it. I tried in preparing my remarks for tonight to work through the procedures, and I must admit that I should have found it difficult to know exactly what I had to do.

Fortunately for the coming winter the system has been somewhat simplified, and a weekly sum will be provided once the weather temperature falls below freezing point. I think it is minus 1½ degrees centigrade, so that makes it easier. But I should like to propose that the recommendations made by Age Concern be seriously considered by the Government. They are to simplify the method by which the older, poorer people can be given the necessary financial assistance.

I should like to remind your Lordships that there are other countries which have had to deal with this problem. One of them is the United States of America. I should like to mention briefly how it set about it. It has two financial schemes for which its Department of Energy is responsible, and so they are integrated. The schemes are, first of all, the low income weatherisation programme. I am sorry to mention such a word at this hour. It means insulation, but the Americans call it weatherisation. This is to install energy conservation measures, and they regard that as the more important part of the assistance. Then they have the low income energy assistance programme, which is to help people with their fuel bills. They strongly stimulate the energy providers to top up these arrangements. This has a simplicity which surpasses the methods that we adopt here.

I am very concerned that the various measures to deal with the problem are handled by three separate departments in Britain. They are the Department of Energy, the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health and Social Security. They all aim to do the same thing; namely, to improve heating standards and to make them bearable for people in reduced circumstances, particularly the elderly, but they do it in different ways with an apparent lack of effective co-ordination. I submit that there is a case for the Government to consider bringing them all together so that the whole approach is subject to a unified strategy. One department should handle the matter. Perhaps the Department of Energy is the appropriate one to take on the role of seeing that the physical improvements are carried out and that the necessary payments that have to be made to help people, in spite of the physical improvements, are related to the rest of the strategy. I feel we should gain enormously by doing that and above all by having a simplified system that the elderly and those on low incomes can understand.

I conclude by issuing your Lordships an invitation. Between 21st November and 1st December there will be a week of action on cold homes which is supported by Age Concern, the Child Poverty Action Group, Help the Aged and a large number of other bodies including Neighbourhood Energy Action. During that week it is hoped that 400 Members of Parliament and Members of your Lordships' House will be prepared to draughtproof in their constituencies or home areas the home of somebody aged and on a low income. I am sure you are all skilled in this craft, but in case you are not there would he somebody on hand to assist you. I shall certainly he following up this oral invitation by sending a proper invitation and asking where you would like to perform this worthwhile task. You would know that at the end of that week there would be another 400 people in their homes who would he able to go through the coming winter with a much greater sense of assurance that they will be warmer and more comfortable than they were last winter.

6.33 p.m.

Lord Auckland

My Lords. not for the first time the House will be extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for drawing the attention of your Lordships to a very serious social problem. The pity of it is that there is not a much fuller House and that there are not more speakers because this is a subject of the utmost importance. The House will have been particularly interested in the noble Lord's final invitation. I shall be returning from Australia on 1st December with a parliamentary delegation. No doubt there the temperature will be higher than here, but I hope. even on 1st December, to be of some help to the noble Lord because I believe this is an extremely resourceful and practical step to get Members of both Houses of Parliament involved in what is a very important matter.

I should like to approach this matter from a slightly different angle from the noble Lord, who we all know had a very distinguished period as chairman of the National Coal Board: so he is very much in tune with these problems. I declare my own interest as an honorary vice-president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. At least two distinguished past presidents are members of your Lordships' House and they have been very active in this field. One of the problems has been not so much the standard of the heating but the quality of the heating.

I remember many years ago moving the Bill on oil heating which was sponsored in another place by the late Sir Gerald Nabarro. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister—I gave her notice that I would he raising the question of safety—has any evidence that there are still some of these old and dangerous oil heaters in some residences where old people and people on low incomes live? We still read of accidents to children and of old people being burned to death or suffocated by faulty heating. I do not have the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, in the technicalities of these matters, but it is very much a matter of concern to local authorities, to health authorities and to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to avoid some of these accidents in people's own homes which can be caused through heating which is itself substandard. I wonder whether my noble friend has any information on that.

So far as residences are concerned, in sheltered homes and others, are night storage heaters sufficiently used? Is there a grant for night storage heaters, which are just about the safest form of heating because children cannot turn them over? We have them in our own home. They are much too heavy to overturn, whereas electric fires, even the modern ones with guards, can he overturned. If they fall on to a carpet one can imagine what disasters can take place.

It is the multi-occupied homes, both in London and in the less salubrious areas, where many of these accidents occur. There are often many people living in one or two rooms with heaters which are just not safe. I believe this matter is germane to the question which the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has put.

A word about conservation: the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, mentioned Scandinavia, a part of the world of which I have some knowledge, notably Finland. I have been to Finland several times. It is a fact that most homes there are double if not treble glazed and, far from suffering from hypothermia, people can suffer the other way round. It is a fact too that in Scandinavia it is a much drier cold. It can he minus 40 degrees centigrade and will feel rather less cold than minus 1 on a really cold and damp London winter evening or earlier in the day. I wonder whether the Government, all governments, have borne in mind that we in this country, particularly in the cities, suffer from a damp rather than a dry cold.

The noble Lord mentioned insulation and draught proofing. I wonder whether the Minister can give the House some information as to what grants are available to old people, particularly old age pensioners and people on low incomes, to avail themselves of these amenities, particularly as they not only offset hypothermia and arthritis, which is a very common complaint among old people, but also help to conserve energy.

I hope very much that this subject will be returned to, perhaps in the next Session. because, as the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has said, winter is approaching. Last winter we had a spell of extremely cold weather, a number of old people suffered and a number died from hypothermia. While these tragedies cannot be completely avoided, I believe that any government can save money, because they can save hospital beds, if they can really tackle this subject which the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has so adequately raised.

6.41 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Ezra for raising this Unstarred Question tonight. I had not intended to join in this debate until some informatin reached me this morning with which I shall deal in a few minutes. Since I am speaking, I think it would be right to say that the word "hypothermia". which is now frequently used, I first heard many years ago. I think it was actually coined by Dr. Geoffrey Taylor, who at that time was a candidate for the Yeovil constituency of a political party that I do not need to name. I am not making a narrow political point here but I should not like the opportunity to go by without remembering Geoffrey Taylor, who campaigned on this subject for many years in the days when nobody was taking a great interest. It was he who managed to raise our consciousness of this great problem. It is a serious problem and it continues to be a serious problem. I am grateful to my noble friend for putting such positive solutions in front of your Lordships tonight.

I hope that when the noble Baroness the Minister comes to reply she will give a very clear "No" to the question, whether the Government are satisfied. I cannot believe that anybody can be satisfied with the position as it is at the moment. Rightly, my noble friend stresses the need for insulation and particularly cavity-wall insulation, draught proofing, loft and cistern insulation. It was put to me some time ago that the way in which we deal with heating our homes in this country is like getting into a bath which is full of holes. If we want to keep the bath water hot, we simply turn on the hot tap—when it really would be much more sensible to put the plug in or to block up the holes—which is what we are doing when we are putting more and more calories into our homes and letting them leak out through the walls, the windows and the cracks. Not only is some proper solution sensible from an energy point of view but it is sensible from a jobs point of view. We have said many times that a lot of jobs could be created in the building industry by increasing the amount of insulation in our homes. This is a job which could be done by many people who at the moment are in our dole queues and who could be employed in making a useful investment in the country and at the same time saving the lives of elderly people who are exposed to hypothermia.

My noble friend rightly points to the long-term solution of this problem, but I want to draw to your Lordships attention an initiative which I heard of this morning from the local council of Adur, which is in West Sussex. It is a short-term palliative, admittedly, but nevertheless an important one, and one which one might commend to other local councils. I should be grateful if the noble Baroness would care to comment. What Adur is doing is inviting the local community to back a scheme to help protect the district's elderly from hypothermia this winter. At a policy resources committee last night, the council launched a campaign with the objective of providing a £20 fuel gift voucher to 1,500 elderly residents most at risk during this winters cold weather.

What they are trying to do is to persuade the local community, both individuals and industry, to contribute to this fund which the council will then match pound for pound. Segas and Seeboard, the electricity board and the gas undertaking, have both agreed to accept these vouchers as payments for heating bills, and the Solid Fuel Advisory Service has indicated that local businesses supplying other fuels such as oil, coal and paraffin will also accept these vouchers. I am told that they have made initial contact with Age Concern and with Warm Aid and that both organisations are enthusiastic about the scheme. The local newspaper and the local radio have both agreed to accept donations via their offices and will be working with the council to help with the publicity.

As I say, the objective is to provide 1,500 fuel gift vouchers at £20 each which will be issued in January, to selected elderly residents. The basis on which they will qualify is that people who are in receipt of unified housing benefit and/or supplementary benefit, and who also qualify for the supplementary benefit "single payment" system, will be given priority, the vouchers being issued on a descending age basis. It seems that this is a useful initiative which might well be copied by councils in other parts of the world. We have heard some pretty critical comments of local government in the last few months, particularly from the government side.

I hope that the Minister will look at this scheme and see if it is not worthy of commendation by the Government, because it is a way in which local government, local people and local industry can get together to help to solve, at least for this winter, the problems of a number of people who are at risk. I recognise that it does not offer a long-term solution, and I commend to your Lordships the long-term ideas that my noble friend has put forward. In the meantime, I think that any palliative to get people through the winter without the risk of hypothermia is to he commended.

6.48 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, perhaps I may first compliment and express my appreciation to the noble Lord. Lord Ezra, on introducing this particular subject for debate as we start to move into the winter months. Those of us who are, as it is termed, well shod and well housed and able to provide ourselves with warm homes do not welcome winter but we do not particularly fear it because we have the capacity to cope with it. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, gave some figures which I believe have been revealed before. He spoke of 6 million people who are not in that position. I think he said that some 2 million of them were elderly people. One would assume, therefore, that as to the other 4 million, we are talking in the main about people who are unemployed or who have to be supported by social benefits of various kinds. I would suspect that a high percentage of those particular families include small children who are also at risk.

Anybody who has been a Member of another place and has held regular surgeries, as I have, and any noble Lord who has done the same thing will know that during the winter you get very sad cases, more often than not of young women with young families who are in danger of having their electricity supply turned off simply because they do not have the money to pay their electricity bill. That situation, unfortunately, is still with us. As a nation, I do not think that we ought to be very proud of that. I am not in the main talking about people who waste electricity but about people who try their best but cannot cope and who are badly housed in houses which need a high amount of electricity or gas for heating purposes.

I shall not deal with the technical side that was given by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, but I support everything he said. It makes absolute nonsense, when we are an energy-creative country and have more energy than perhaps most nations in the world at our disposal, that we perpetually waste more than we use. It seems nonsensical. I think there is a tremendous social case which was put by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and there is also a sound economic case for dealing with this as a matter of urgency—not only because it would deal with the problem and stop properties deteriorating but because it would also do something that some of us are very keen on and something which perhaps even the Government are keen on, which is to reduce unemployment. However, I do not wish to talk about that particular side of it. I should prefer to dwell in some respects on what it means to people.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, mentioned Age Concern. I have just been given a report which has been issued by them and, with the leave of your Lordships, I will quote what they say in a passage on "Old and Cold-. It gives as a headline "The Scale of the Problem" and says: In an average year, 40,000 more elderly people will die during the winter months than during the summer, a situation once described by Paul Lewis of the National Right to Fuel Campaign as 'an annual cull of the old'. The colder the winter, the higher the death toll. In the first quarter of 1985 nearly 16,000 more people died than usual, most of them elderly. For the whole of 1985 mortality in most age groups showed little change, yet 22,000 more people aged 75 and over died. Perhaps the most dramatic cause of death from the cold is hypothermia. Hypothermia is the condition that occurs when the body's defence mechanisms against the cold are overwhelmed by extremely low temperatures. As a result the temperature of the deep body (heart, lungs and brain) begins to fall. When it drops below 35.5 degrees Celsius hypothermia sets in. The symptoms of hypothermia make it difficult for the victim to take remedial action and often someone finding an elderly person with hypothermia may not interpret the symptoms correctly. Hypothermia is a killer. In the first four months of 1986, 571 people died from hypothermia. Of these 491 were aged 65 or over. Malcolm Wicks, the Director of the Family Policy Studies Centre, has suggested that the official statistics may not reveal the full extent of the problem. Speaking at the launch of the Health Education Council's campaign, 'Your Right to he Warm'; he suggested that 'There is considerable stigma attached to hypothermia. The mention of hypothermia on a death certificate spells loneliness and neglect. Often, to spare the feelings of the family, a doctor will describe the cause of death in a different way'. Wicks' own research in 1972 found that 10 per cent. of the elderly population had early morning bedroom temperatures that put them at risk from hypothermia". Of course we know that most of these deaths are recorded in what are colloquially known as the "agony columns". I can go back some few years when the agony columns in November and December were absolutely chock-a-block with mainly: elderly people who had died as soon as we had the first severe fog. The nation dealt with that. We now have very little fog. It was a costly exercise but—never mind the politics of it—the nation dealt with the problem and old people who suffered from bronchitis and asthma no longer had to suffer to anything like the degree that they had up to quite a few years after the war. Thank God that the pea-souper and so on are now things of the past—but it was because man decided to deal with them. I believe that this problem ought to be dealt with on a similar basis.

I should like to make some other quotations which give some very interesting statistics from a publication called Still Out in the Cold: Combined Heat and Power in Britain. This small passage is under the heading "Fuel Poverty", and it only goes to 1983, so that the figures now will be even more adverse than those that are mentioned here. It says: Ever since the oil crisis in the early 1970s, the number of people finding it difficult to meet their heating bills has been on the increase. Fuel prices have rocketed even faster than inflation: in 1982 electricity cost about 50 per cent. more in real terms than it did in 1974 and gas prices rose by 10 per cent. in real terms between 1979 and 1982. The problem of fuel poverty, particularly in relation to electricity, has become a nationally recognised phenomenon. Nearly 100,000 electricity consumers a year in England and Wales are disconnected by the electricity boards because they have failed to pay their bills. As I said, obviously those families are at the bottom end of the social scale. Having dealt with some of them personally, 1 can well understand the appalling misery that children are subjected to when the plug is taken out and switched off and when they are living by candlelight and their mother is struggling to provide them with a warm meal. I will continue with the passage from this document: Another measure of the problem is the number of social security claimants who have fuel payments made directly to the gas or electricity boards because of financial difficulties. In December 1983 there were nearly 140.000 claimants in England and Wales on electricity direct arrangements and 92.000 on gas direct. In extreme cases the cold suffered from trying to save on heating bills can lead to death from hypothermia, the incidence of which", as we have recognised. is on the increase. There has been some talk about the system of payments being reviewed but it is not being reviewed to the satisfaction of the people who are in fact dealing with the problem. Only today I was given by my noble colleague on the Front Bench, Lady Jeger, a Written Answer which talks about a 1.5 degree change in temperature below a certain figure, which the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, talked about. It says that the Government are currently considering the committee's response to the proposals—that is the Social Security Advisory Committee. My information is that the Secretary of State has only had the report for seven days and so there has not really been any time to take the necessary action.

I availed myself of a report commissioned by all the local authority associations: the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of County Councils, the Association of District Councils, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the London Boroughs Association. It deals with this particular problem and they make certain recommendations that would at least assist in this matter. They say that each claimant ought to have the right of a quick and urgent review by post. a periodic review after six months or a year on benefit, linking provisions with the DHSS offices and the attendance allowance claims sections to ensure that local offices are informed of an SB claimant's right to receive one of the special benefits—because there always seems to be a lag between the need being established and the money being paid. And of course most of us know that people are reluctant: sensible people who are in need do not want to get into debt because they are proud and they do not do it deliberately. The situation is that they have no idea at all how far they can go with using electricity to look after themselves or their family.

In fact, as late as 25th September there was a news release from the Association of County Councils, which is one of the organisations which I mentioned, which states: Call for new deal on heating bills for the disabled and elderly". The report continues: Higher levels of benfit paid in cold winter months could best help the elderly and disabled cope with their heating bills. The Association of County Councils (ACC), which represents 45 social service authorities in England and Wales, is putting the two level benefit plan to the Department of Health and Social Services. Many county councils, including the Welsh Counties Committee, have expressed their concern to the ACC about fuel problems in cold weather. Although a higher level of winter benefit would mean an increase in payments, it would reduce bureaucratic costs. Chairman of the ACC's Social Services Committee, Martyn Long (Conservative) said: 'This alternative scheme would help reduce anxiety about winter heating needs among elderly people and be a real step forward in securing care in the community policies. Such payments should be automatically available to all those receiving supplementary benefit on reaching the age of 65, families with very young children and disabled people in receipt of supplementary benefit'. That is the report from one particular local authority association. It is supported in spirit by all the others. Make no mistake about it. it does not really fall upon Government to look after elderly people in their own homes in an area. It falls on local authority social service departments. which unfortunately have had to bear the brunt of cuts and the substantial diminution of rate support grant. I believe that those authorities, if they were given a chance and if a more simplified and urgent form of payment was available to claimants, would carry out that job and look after those people for us. I think it is to our eternal shame as a nation if we do not start this winter to treat this as an urgent matter.

I find it totally illogical, as I said at the time, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer decided to put VAT on such things as double glazing and adaptions to buildings which were, I believe, a part of the package that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. was talking about.

I think that now is the time for action. I express my appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for bringing this matter forward. It is a pity that this has been a short debate. There is so much to be said that I am sure we could have filled a day on this subject, but I am delighted to have been able to make a contribution.

7.4 p.m.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for putting down this Question, which highlights an important area of social policy at a time of year when people start thinking about their ability to achieve a standard of heating in their homes which will enable them to keep warm in winter, particularly in the case of the elderly and those on low incomes.

In order to take appropriate action it is necessary to have information. There is a quantity of information now available on the condition of the nation's dwelling stock in respect of its energy requirements and on trends in improving its energy efficiency. For example, information on heating appliances and insulation is available for England from the quinquennial English House Condition Survey carried out by the Department of the Environment, the last survey having been carried out in 1981. This showed that just over half of all households lived in dwellings which had central heating. Not all households keep their homes fully heated, whatever the heat source used. Only one third of households heated all their rooms during the winter months and a further third heated less than a third. A quarter of homes had no loft insulation. Less than half of elderly households had central heating and just over one quarter had loft insulation. Over 40 per cent. of these households experienced problems of condensation and dampness. The 1986 English House Condition Survey, which is currently under way, will increase the scope of data available on heating and insulation. It will provide data on heating standards for people on low income, in particular heating facilities, heating patterns, fuel costs and the temperature of homes in winter.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and indeed other noble Lords, quoted a number of deficiencies which were shown up by the energy efficiency campaign. I must point out that the energy efficiency of the stock is steadily improving. In the first five years of this Government, 6.3 million more homes have well insulated roofs; 2.2 million more have insulated hot water tanks; 1.8 million more have cavity wall insulation; 2.4 million more have double glazing; and 2.6 million more homes have central heating. This process of improvement depends on separate decisions by several million different landlords and individual owner-occupiers. It is vital that they are well informed about the opportunities and benefits. The Energy Efficiency Office provides much advice and information on cost-effective energy efficiency measures which householders can take. These will improve—often dramatically—the comfort levels of homes and reduce energy costs.

In response to the challenge of the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, we are not sitting back in self-satisfaction. We are applying and intend to continue to apply our minds to improving the situation. This year is, as has been mentioned, Energy Efficiency Year but the campaign will continue after this year. The Monergy campaign, which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy launched a year ago, has been strongly supported by all sectors of the heating industry. The Energy Efficiency Office has worked with the industry to inform householders how to reduce their fuel hills or to raise their standards of comfort without increasing their fuel bills. Modern heating systems with proper heating controls—especially thermostats and time-clocks—are much more efficient than those of 10 years or more ago. Of course insulation standards in the home should be improved at the same time and, provided that that is done, modern heating systems can often pay for themselves in lower fuel bills. That is the Monergy message which Energy Efficiency Year is delivering. The advertising campaign on television and in the press will reach its peak this month. We are expecting a big response and we are ready for it with information to help householders to improve the heating in their homes. Noble Lords who live in cold ancestral homes are welcome to benefit from this campaign too. All they need do is ring the Monergy Freephone, and advice will be on its way.

With the benefit of this advice most owner-occupiers are well able to make their own arrangements for whatever improvements they consider to be worth while to the heating and insulation of their homes. But what is being done to help those who may not be able to help themselves, either because they do not own their homes, or because they lack the necessary resources? To examine this we need to look separately at the public and private sectors.

In the case of local authorities, it is for them to determine whether the heating systems installed in their own dwellings are adequate and, within the financial resources available to them, to balance the need for improvements against other competing priorities. The Government expect local authorities to give high priority to the renovation of their own stock, and in many cases this will include improvements to heating. Clearly, where tenants are vulnerable to cold, or where dwellings are exceptionally difficult to heat we would expect authorities to give a high priority to improvements to heating.

One of the practical ways in which the Government are offering help to local authorities is through the Department of the Environment's Urban Housing Renewal Unit, or UHRU, as it is widely known. A common feature in many of the packages of measures which UHRU is promoting is improved heating systems and insulation on run-down estates. In 198–87 UHRU is targeting £50 million Housing Investment Programme (HIP) resources on a wide range of measures for improving run-down estates.

So far 73 individual schemes have been approved for additional resources by UHRU. Of these about one-third involve specific measures to improve heating and insulation, such as the "warm and dry" packages on the Kirkholt estate in Rochdale. As part of the comprehensive improvement packages on estates at Abbey Park, Calderdale; Ocean Estate, Tower Hamlets, and the Huncoat Estate. Hyndburn, new and improved heating systems are planned to he installed. These measures, combined with other physical refurbishment and management initiatives on the estate all form part of the package approach which UHRU is now actively promoting to transform formerly difficult-to-let and difficult-to-heat housing into attractive, comfortable homes where people want to live. I am sure that noble Lords will appreciate the direction in which Government help is going in this way.

Of course, an increasing number of public sector tenants live in housing association, rather than local authority, accommodation. The Housing Corporation provides guidance and criteria on building design for new housing and renovation, to ensure that housing association tenants are warm and comfortable in their homes. The design criteria provide for warmer rooms for the elderly in sheltered accommodation and for people in wheelchairs. The cost criteria system is a flexible one, and in the department's view adequate heating standards can be met at costs at which projects can be approved for Exchequer support through housing association grant. Grant is also available for packages of remedial measures for electrically heated homes, designed to reduce running costs while maintaining heating standards.

The Government also provide practical advice to local authorities and housing associations on improving the heating and insulation of their dwellings, and on related measures to reduce the risk of severe condensation and mould. Much of this is based on research carried out at the Building Research Establishment. For instance, last year the Department of the Environment organised 60 regional seminars for local authorities and housing associations on the results of BRE research on remedial measures for severe condensation. The Department of the Environment has recently published advice on the "Energy Efficient Renovation of Houses". Many defect action sheets, published by the Building Research Establishment, also give advice on how to avoid future technical defects in the heating and insulation of new housing and renovation.

I now turn to the private sector. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, referred to homes insulation grants. Homes insulation grants and home improvement grants are available to owner occupiers, landlords and tenants as well. The homes insulation scheme provides grants for the installation of insulation in roof spaces in dwellings where there is no insulation or where the insulation is inadequate. A higher 90 per cent. rate of grant is available for the elderly or disabled on low incomes and 66 per cent. for general householders. Houses and flats improved or provided with the aid of an improvement grant must have adequate heating facilities under the so-called "Ten point standard". This will continue to be a requirement of any simplified target standard as proposed in last year's Green Paper—Home Improvement—A New.Approach. In addition we have encouraged local authorities to be particularly helpful to the elderly by offering home improvement grants for better heating facilities, and for the provision of central heating in purpose-built old people's dwellings.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, can the noble Baroness, with her usual courtesy, tell the House what has been the response of the Government to the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee on the Government's plans for helping with heating costs in severe weather conditions? I cannot find out what response the Government have made; and as the winter is getting very near, it is very important to this debate tonight.

Baroness Hooper

Yes, my Lords, it is indeed most important. If the noble Baroness will permit me to come to it a little later in my response, I shall certainly do so.

In addition we have encouraged local authorities to be particularly helpful to the elderly by offering home improvement grants for better heating facilities, and for the provision of central heating in purpose-built old people's dwellings. And improvement grants can also be made available for other types of insulation work, such as draughtproofing, if that work forms part of a comprehensive scheme of improvement.

The problem is not only of resources but of making sure they go to those who need them most, particularly the elderly. Government policy is to encourage elderly people to stay in their own homes so far as possible; and to encourage as wide a range of choices as possible for those who need or want to move. Research carried out by the Department of the Environment has shown that elderly people rate heating and insulation among the improvements most likely to enable them to stay put. But many elderly people can no longer cope with the hassle of organising such work even if they can afford it. It is here that agency services, like those which care and repair and others have pioneered, can be of help. The Government have amended the Housing and Planning Bill which recently passed through this House to enable registered housing associations to provide agency services, and we hope that they will respond positively. But the Government are also considering what they can do to encourage agency services by the industry and voluntary sector, and so to speed the process of getting help to those who need it most.

I should like to acknowledge the contribution being made to our efforts to care for the old by the community insulation projects. There are now more than 300 projects operating all over the country, and the number is expected to rise to more than 400 by the end of this winter. So far, more than 200,000 homes of pensioners, the disabled and others on low incomes have been made warmer and more comfortable by the work of these projects. I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, on the contribution that Neighbourhood Energy Action, of which he is chairman, has made to the success achieved, and to assure him of the Government's continuing support for that organisation. There is a lot of Government support for that movement. The Department of Energy is providing £1 million this year in grants to NEA and to launch new projects. The Department of Employment is providing all the labour costs through the community programme. The Department of the Environment and the Department of Health and Social Security are providing through grants or single payments the funds for the insulating and draughtproofing materials used by the projects. It is an excellent example of the way in which different departments can contribute to a national programme.

The question of hypothermia was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and by every noble Lord who contributed to the debate. I emphasise the Government's concern in this area. But it is a complex problem which cannot be solved by the social security system alone. We are currently investigating the causes of excess seasonal mortality and in the meantime we are taking steps to see that elderly people and those caring for them get advice on how to minimise the effects of cold. In particular, the Health Education Council is developing a comprehensive pack of training materials and information on this subject for those in contact with elderly people.

A number of noble Lords have drawn a comparison between England and other countries in this respect. It is true that there is evidence that the seasonal excess mortality is greater in England than in some other countries which have severer climates. The reasons for this are unfortunately not clear. My noble friend Lord Auckland outlined some of the difficulties but the position has improved in recent years. Central heating does not seem to be the crucial factor. It is a complex problem which cannot be solved by the social security system alone. Many other issues are involved, including the attitudes of elderly people and other members of society.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, also asked why we do not specify minimum standards for heat. The maintenance of a minimum standard on heating depends as much on the readiness of the householder to pay for the heat as on the provision of appliances which can provide this heat. In relation to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, on building regulations, I can assure him that building regulations are being reviewed, including those on energy efficiency. The object of the review is to seek an increase in overall standards that combine much more flexibility for builders in ways they can use for reaching the overal standards. The aim is to issue a consideration document before the end of the year; so the matter is underway.

My noble friend Lord Auckland, in his capacity as the honorary Vice-President of RoSPA, also raised a specific question about safety of heating appliances. Generally speaking, there is thought to be more than adequate legislation to ensure that household heating appliances meet an adequate standard of safety: for example, Gas Installation and Use Regulations which are administered by the Health and Safety Executive; the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1975; the Fire Guard Regulations 1973 and the Electric Blanket Regulations 1971. However, many old people rely on old free-standing appliances powered by a variety of fuels, and misuse is common. Many of these appliances can be easily overturned and, sadly, many deaths due to fire and/or asphyxiation have occurred. The only way in which we can combat this problem is by publicity aimed at persuading the elderly to replace old and worn-out equipment and to use the apparatus they have sensibly.

The Government provide substantial help with the heating costs of those on low incomes through the supplementary benefit scheme, to which a number of noble Lords referred. The most important help is the regular weekly help to all claimants through the scale rates which are intended to be used for all day-to-day expenses, including fuel. Scale rates increased by more than 6 per cent. in real terms between November 1978 and November 1985; and there was a further uprating of benefits in July 1986.

Claimants who need to spend extra on heating—for example, because of age or ill-health—receive extra weekly payments known as heating additions. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, referred to that. Expenditure on the heating additions in 198–85 was some £400 million.

The Government have introduced automatic entitlement to a number of heating additions to target help on those most likely to be in need of extra help with heating costs. The lower rate heating addition, worth £2.20 a week (£1.20 after deducting available scale margin) is now payable to householders aged 65 or over and to sick and disabled householders on the long-term scale rate. The higher rate heating addition worth £5.55 a week (£4.55 after deducting AMS) is paid to the severely disabled and to householders aged 85 or more.

Latest data—available at the end of 1984—show that over 60 per cent. of all supplementary benefit claimants are getting a heating addition and nearly 90 per cent. of elderly claimants are getting this extra help.

The noble Baroness. Lady Jeger, referred to severe weather payments. These are covered by single payments of supplementary benefit which are available to help with the cost of extra fuel used in periods of exceptionally severe weather. This year pay ments have been available from DHSS local offices throughout Great Britain with the sole exception of Lerwick, Shetland.

Proposals for a new system of giving extra help with fuel bills during a period of exceptionally severe weather have been referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee. The proposed arrangements would introduce a standard single payment of £5 for each week in any local office area where the average temperature falls to minus 1.5 degrees centigrade, or lower, over the benefit week. These payments, subject to the normal £500 capital rule, will be made available to supplementary benefit households containing anyone who is under 2, over 65 or chronically sick or disabled.

This system will be easier to understand, simpler to operate and will more fairly direct help to those in need. In particular, claimants will know what extra help will be available as soon as a period of exceptionally severe weather has been declared. The fact that help will be triggered by a single temperature level of minus 1.5 degrees centigrade means that help will be directed to the coldest parts of the country rather than those where the weather is simply colder than usual.

As I said, and I hope it will reassure noble Lords, the Government are currently considering the Social Security Advisory Committee's report on these proposals and intend to lay regulations shortly so that the new provision can be in place before the full onset of winter. It would not, therefore, be appropriate for me to comment on any more detailed points at this stage.

Baroness Jeger

My lords, the noble Baroness is being very helpful, but is it a fact that these plans will not come into force before the Social Security Advisory Committee has made its recommendations? What will happen if the committee disagrees with the Government's plans?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, as I understand the position, the Social Security Advisory Committee has already made recommendations in its report. and it is on that report the Government are basing the regulations they plan to lay before the House.

The new income support scheme which will replace supplementary benefit in April 1988 will continue to provide help with day-to-day living expenses including heating, but will avoid the complexities, anomalies and intrusive questioning of the present scheme. Extra help will he directed more effectively through premiums to pensioners, sick and disabled people and lone parents; extra help will also go to families, to which the noble Lord, Lord Dean, drew particular attention. The Government intend that the amount spent on heating additions will be included in the resources for the new scheme.

There were many references to Age Concern. The difficulty faced by elderly people in coping with the severely cold weather is not a problem which can be solved by the social security system alone. It involves everyone in the community and requires a response from us all. The action taken by Age Concern earlier this year is a good example of the way in which the voluntary sector can step in to complement the statutory services. Following the severely cold spell this year, Age Concern issued on 3rd March 1,000 emergency cold weather kits in areas where elderly people were said to be most at risk from the cold. The kits where worth about £20 each and included fuel stamps, soup and drink packets, thermal garments and advice leaflets. The voluntary organisations can play a vital role in this way. To provide maximum assistance, all agencies involved with elderly people need to work closely together, and this is a trend we have all observed and welcomed.

I am aware that there is always considerable concern in winter that those who, for whatever reason, fail to pay their gas or electricity bills in winter may get disconnected. I emphasise that the gas and electricity industries do their utmost to avoid disconnections. They operate a code of practice which is designed to assist people who are having difficulties in paying their hills and which gives specific protection to the most vulnerable groups such as the elderly. Both industries operate schemes to help customers to avoid fuel debts arising in the first place, or to enable debts to be repaid, and they publicise them widely. Their main aim is to help customers avoid the hardships of disconnection; and only in the last resort to disconnect. I would urge all householders facing difficulties to contact their local fuel board or consumer council at the earliest opportunity—and well before problems get to the stage where disconnection is being considered.

Before finally summing up, perhaps I should refer to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, who suggested that in order to give help to low income households with their heating problems one department should be responsible. Inevitably, however, the problem concerns more than one department. Many of the low income householders are in local authority housing which requires investment by those authorities, as well as social security benefits, to enable them to pay their fuel hills. What is needed, I accept, is co-ordination of these responsibilities; but not centralisation in one department.

We feel, without complacency, that the energy efficiency of the housing stock is improving steadily. In the majority of homes the decision to make further improvement lies with individual owner-occupiers. The Government's main responsibility here is to make sure that they have access to good, impartial advice on the opportunities and benefits. I have touched on the role of the Energy Efficiency Office in this respect and on the major promotional campaign now in progress during Energy Efficiency year; but I share the concern of all of your Lordships about those in all tenures who are unable, for whatever reason, to make those improvements themselves.

In the public sector the main responsibility lies with local authority or housing association landlords, although the Government recognise that they also have a role to commission research and provide advice. In the private sector the picture is more diffuse and the responsibilities and opportunities for providing help where it is needed are more difficult to orchestrate effectively. I hope that I have convinced the noble Lord of the Government's concern to continue to play their part in providing this help and where possible to expand it. In closing I should like to thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate for the contributions that they have made on this extremely important subject.