HL Deb 04 February 1987 vol 484 cc193-6

2.47 p.m.

Lord Molloy

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what new policies are planned, and when they will be introduced, to replace the current formula which enables old-age pensioners to claim additional payments to meet extra heating costs in extreme cold weather.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the exceptionally cold weather payment scheme was amended from 26th January to provide that this extra help will be available to supplementary benefit claimants in the qualifying groups when the average temperature for an area falls to 0 degrees celsius or less over a fixed seven-day period. This replaces the previous temperature threshold of minus 1.5 degrees celsius. This change means that help is now likely to be given more often than under any previous scheme of exceptionally severe cold weather payments.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Is he aware that the recent bitter cold weather created misery and constituted a threat to the aged and the frail, and that the trigger temperature everywhere failed lamentably to do what Parliament probably intended? It was indeed a very dangerous failure. Is the noble Lord also aware that the policy was not only barren of compassion but created difficult problems for administrators?

Finally, is the noble Lord aware that the researchers who have gone into this matter in some detail, including Age Concern, are still of the opinion that the amount of money made available to save lives and to prevent the aged and the frail from suffering gravely is still not enough?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the Social Security Advisory Committee comments that the proposals put to it represent a significant improvement on previous schemes. The system has never been intended to give help in most winters; only when it is exceptionally cold. We believe that the new threshold of 0 degrees celsius will help give assurance to vulnerable groups that this extra help will be available during very cold periods.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, would it not be more sensible to have an entirely different formula to cover the winter months for those most at risk, instead of a formula based on temperatures which everybody concerned with the care of the elderly now believes not to be adequate?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I doubt whether any scheme will ever be seen as fully satisfactory. We have devised a system which provides a reasonable solution judged over the years. Severe winters are not themselves alike. We cannot keep trying to devise a system based on one year's experience.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Baroness, I must press my noble friend on this point. Would it not be far simpler to have an across-the-board heating allowance for old-age pensioners and such people regardless of the winter temperature? Surely, that must be administratively simpler, and it would allow people to know where they stand.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for his question. However, it is thought, particularly by the Social Security Advisory Committee, that the current arrangements are a great improvement on previous arrangements where, for instance, there had to be a comparison of bills which meant that people often did not receive money until long after they had been charged by the electricity or gas board.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, can the Minister say how many people have so far received the statutory £5 allowance? Bearing in mind the two questions just put to him, will he not accept that it would be simpler and fairer to have an allowance that would automatically be available to certain limited categories during the two or three coldest months of winter?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. We do not have the figures for the most recent cold spell. We have the majority of the figures for last year, which show some 500,000 claims. We have compared those figures with 1982 when there were just 170,000 payments. We believe that the number will rise because of the simplification of the system.

Lord Banks

My Lords, if the Government are determined to retain the unsatisfactory retrospective triggering system, are they prepared to consider having a seven-day rolling triggering average period instead of a Monday to Sunday period, so that the first seven days averaging below the limit would trigger benefit?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, there will always be objections to whatever system is chosen. The Social Security Advisory Committee understood the objections. However, it supported the fixed period because of its advantages of simplicity, ease of understanding and straightforward operation. It is a complicated matter and, while I accept that a fixed period means that not every seven-day period will qualify because we are working on average temperatures, a severe spell straddling a part of two weeks could bring the average temperature in both weeks below the qualifying threshold.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that experts say there is no average temperature? Temperature can vary within a mile or two. If the Government intend to stick to this appalling formula, it is cold comfort for those who happened to survive last winter but who may not survive next winter. Is the noble Lord further aware that the medical profession says that what the Government need to do is to make sure that all old-age pensioners and very frail people have enough warmth to keep them above the hypothermia line? That consideration ought to be the basis of policy rather than the weather forecast.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, it is most important to remember that we are talking about an exceptional cold weather payment. There is already the basis below that which provides for, and accepts, the protection of the old and those least able to care for themselves in society.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, can the noble Lord comment on the place where temperature is measured under the present scheme? I understand that the Tyneside temperature is measured at Leeming near Catterick which is 50 miles to the south. In view of the great variations in temperature from north to south, is this not grossly unfair?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am as aware as are other noble Lords in the House that this matter has been a source of contention. However, the Government have gone to considerable effort to improve the situation. In 1984–85, just 17 weather stations were used, compared with 63 weather stations which were used this year. There will always be arguments. However, I do believe that this represents a substantial improvement.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the Minister whether he is completely satisfied that all those who might be entitled to these payments know that they are so entitled? Will he agree that many old people are in their homes, that they do not go out and that they may not hear that they can benefit from the entitlement that the Government are able to give to them?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her question. It is most important not only that the money is available but that it is actually claimed. Revised instructions have been issued to local offices on publicity when the conditions for payment are met. This includes local press advertisements and wide distribution of a special leaflet, both containing a claim form for help.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, will the Minister agree that one simple way of dealing with this matter would be to give a general increase to all pensioners of 88 years and over?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am most interested in that question. I should like to point out that all pensioners over the age of 85 actually receive a further £200 a year heating allowance.