HL Deb 20 January 1987 vol 483 cc862-5

6.12 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which has been made by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Social Security in another place.

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about supplementary benefit payments for exceptionally cold weather.

"Last Tuesday, I informed the House that for that week payments of £5 would be made available to everyone in the qualifying groups to help them heat their homes during the current extremely cold spell. This announcement was made in the expectation that the trigger point of minus 1.5 degrees celsius in the regulations would be reached. In the event that judgment has proved to be correct and the trigger point has been reached widely throughout the country. In many areas it was dramatically exceeded with average temperatures as low as minus 5 degrees celsius. In two thirds of the weather stations average temperatures for last week of minus 2 degrees celsius and below were recorded. In these extremely rare circumstances I believe the decision we took to announce the payment early last week has been amply vindicated.

"The Government have considered carefully the position both for this week and future weeks. As I told the House last week, our primary concern is to ensure that vulnerable groups should not be discouraged from heating their homes. It is clear that many people are still experiencing difficulties and are looking for assurance that they will get extra help to keep warm this winter.

"In these circumstances I wish to make it clear therefore that a further payment of £5 will be available for this week only to those in the qualifying groups. This entitlement will be widely advertised and existing claimants who have already made a claim will be paid automatically if eligible. Others eligible may claim immediately. The Government believe that our initiative in introducing a statutory entitlement to extra help in very cold weather was right. The rules are clear and can be operated speedily, fairly and effectively. But we recognise the anxieties felt by vulnerable groups that the temperature trigger-point may not be reached even in prolonged periods of cold weather.

"Since the whole purpose of this cold weather payment is to give people the confidence to keep warm we have decided to amend the trigger point from minus 1.5 degrees celsius to 0 degrees celsius—freezing point. I have laid amending regulations before the House to this effect today. Our intention, Mr. Speaker, is that they will come into operation from next Monday, 26th January. In all other respects, the scheme will continue to operate as presently designed.

"The amending regulations also provide for the further payment of £5 in respect of this week. The additional cost is within the normal margin of adjustment to the social security programme and will be met from the reserve.

"Mr. Speaker, I believe the Government have acknowledged anxieties that have been expressed. Today, we have responded to them quickly, flexibly and with great concern. I hope the House will welcome this Statement."

That, my Lords, concludes the Statement.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The fact that the Government have had so soon to come forward with amendments to their original plan would seem to vindicate those of us inside this House and many outside that the Government's original plan was some distance from perfection, to put it mildly. I shall briefly ask the Minister one or two questions which are of great concern to many people.

In the third paragraph of the Statement the Minister says: The Government have considered carefully the position both for this week and future weeks". However, in the fourth paragraph, the Statement reads: A further payment of £5 will be available for this week only". Perhaps I may ask what the reference to future weeks in the third paragraph refers to because it is very unsatisfactory not only for us but for many of the vulnerable groups concerned not to know from week to week what is to happen in this connection.

Of course we rejoice that freezing point is now to be the acceptable trigger; that everyone will be helped as long as the temperature drops to freezing point. Let us hope that we shall have another amendment which accepts that most people would like the temperature to be at a little more than freezing point before it is accepted that they are cold.

Will the Minister—who is very generous herself—try to influence some of her right honourable friends to be as helpful as they can without being fixed on the actual temperature levels? I say this because I have had several calls already today from old people who are not only suffering from the cold but the water pipes in their homes have burst. They are flooded with water. They say, "I have to keep the heating on not because I am so cold, but to dry out my flat. My bed is damp and my carpet is dripping". I believe we ought to give the most generous consideration possible to the effects of the cold weather as well as to the cold itself.

Lastly, can the Minister say what reports she is receiving from the local offices about how the scheme is working so far? I am especially worried about whether it has been found possible to give any help to people who use pre-payment meters or who have to buy coal or bottled gas for which they need the money in advance to buy these means of keeping warm? That point has been raised before, but we have not had an answer to enable us to help many of the poorest people who depend on slot meters for their heat.

Lord Banks

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, for repeating the Statement made in another place. We on these Benches welcome the Statement both as regards the payment of £5 for this week and also in relation to raising the trigger point to 0 degrees celsius.

I am glad that those who have already claimed will automatically get the further £5. Can the noble Baroness tell us how many have claimed so far? Have the Government any idea at all how many of those who qualify are claiming? I must echo what the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, said. Does not the fact that it has been necessary to set aside the laid down procedure for two weeks running provide such striking vindication so far as concerns low temperatures? Does that not indicate that the scheme is basically unsatisfactory? Must not a retrospective scheme always defeat the object? Will not the vulnerable groups, as the Statement calls them, always be discouraged from heating their homes? Raising the trigger point to freezing point will help in this respect, but surely it cannot eliminate the danger. Will the Government in due course review the whole scheme in the light of current experience?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I think that all credit should go to the Government for listening and for adopting a flexible approach to an everchanging and difficult situation. However, no amount of explanation seems to enable some people to understand that the main help with heating is in the scale rates and regular weekly additions. The Statement refers to an extra amount now likely to be paid more frequently than under any other previous system.

We already had a system that would have made payments in most of the major centres of the population last week under the minus 1.5 degree criterion. We have all along made clear our determination to run a system that would give people extra assurance at times of very bad weather. We have a system on the right lines, and we have now made it even more generous.

People with prepayment meters will get the payments quickly under the scheme. Local offices have been told to give claims priority. It was previous schemes that caused most difficulty for those with prepayment meters. The whole idea of the quick £5 is cash payments.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, and the noble Lord, Lord Banks, asked how the schemes were working so far. It is a little early, but we know that claims have been dealt with in local offices and that £5 payments have already been issued. This prompt payment helps those with slot meters. It is a little soon to get the total take-up figures from offices because claims are coming in all the time.

From next week the 0 celsius trigger criterion will work in the normal way. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, suggested some form of regular payments, I think. As I have said, the main help is already given throughout the year. Perhaps he would indicate a "yes" or a "no" if I have misunderstood.

Lord Banks

My Lords, I did not in fact refer to a regular payment today, although I went into it last Thursday. No doubt the noble Baroness will want to look that up to see precisely what I said.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and to the Government for the announcement that has been made today. I should like to ask the noble Baroness one question. Will she keep in mind the fact that in many parts of Scotland the temperature is normally 0 degrees centigrade or below on most nights from October to April whereas the weather stations in many cases are in warmer parts of the country? I think particularly of Braemar and other inland and upland places where the temperature is judged by the weather station at Dyce, near Aberdeen, which is near the sea and therefore very much warmer. Will she ask the Secretary of State to consider in future taking the temperature readings from such places as well as from the present weather stations?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lady, in England, only three areas—Sunderland, Berwick and Whitehaven—would not have qualified under the December rules. I might as well put in Wales where there was only one, Caernarvon. All the remaining areas in Great Britain that would not have qualified are in Scotland. This simply reflects the fact that most recently, conditions have been milder in Scotland. On Sunday, the mean temperature in Glasgow was 1 degree above freezing; in Birmingham it was 5 degrees below freezing.

Under the new rules of 0 rating, everywhere in England and Wales would have qualified last week. Indeed, only two areas in mainland Great Britain—Wick and Campbeltown—would not have qualified. The remaining three areas that would not have qualified are the Western Isles, the Orkneys and Shetland where the weather has been milder.

The weather stations are located according to the directions given by the Meteorological Office at places where it is most easy to collect information speedily. They are spaced out so that they cover the widest area within their bands. We have done all this according to the advice helpfully given us by the Meteorological Office, which SSAC has endorsed.