HL Deb 02 November 1999 vol 606 cc713-6

2.48 p.m.

Lord Palmer

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to increase the £100 cold weather payment to pensioners living in Scotland.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of, Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, there are two fuel-related payments for pensioners to provide help with fuel costs during winter. The first is the winter fuel payment, which provides a contribution of £100 to eligible pensioner households each winter regardless of the weather conditions.

The second is the cold weather payment, which provides an £8.50 payment to pensioners and others receiving income support when the average temperature is recorded as, or is forecast to be, 0 degrees centigrade or below over seven consecutive days in the local area. That payment, unlike the first, reflects regional weather conditions.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her full and comprehensive reply. I believe that what the Government are doing is wonderful. However, should not the principle of the winter fuel payment be means tested?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the winter fuel payment goes to all pensioners: £50 for pensioner couples and those on income-related benefit and £100 for pensioner households. This is a recognition that, compared with others, pensioners spend a large part of their time at home and will have higher fuel costs. The cold weather payment does what the noble Lord suggests. The payment is targeted on those in receipt of income support, JSA, state pensions and related income benefits and, therefore, ameliorates the problems of the poor. Therefore, there are two payments: one to all pensioners and the other to the vulnerable and poor.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, I declare an interest as an old age pensioner living in Scotland— although appearances are misleading. Is my noble friend aware that my very good friend the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, who—before the polls open tomorrow—is one of the best attendees, is an expert on the cost of heating houses in Scotland? Is my noble friend also aware that, for example, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, has 109 rooms in his wee cottage in the Borders of Scotland? The bottom line is that pensioners in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom will be very grateful for this help in meeting their winter fuel bills. Does my noble friend agree that it is the biggest contribution by a million miles by any government in the history of Parliament?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend draws attention to the fact that this year the Government are spending £800 million extra to help pensioners meet their fuel bills. Like my noble friend, I very much value the contributions to this House of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer. However, whether the noble Lord would qualify for winter fuel payments on grounds of either poverty or age is not entirely clear to me.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to the problems of trying to determine temperatures within a local area. Can the Minister describe what is a local area? Will she also bear in mind that the local geography in Scotland militates towards temperature variations within a very small area? What account is taken of that?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the word that I used was "regional". I can provide the noble Lord with charts if he wishes to have them. The figures are based on information from the Meteorological Office. For example, Kinloss, Loch Glascarnoch and so on will produce a 24-hour forecast, on the basis of which there will be an automatic delivery of cold weather payments through the Social Fund to those affected.

Earl Russell

My Lords, if the Government have no such plans as are asked for in the Question, have they any alternative plans to lower the level of deaths from hypothermia in Scotland to that which is prevalent in Scandinavia?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, to some extent we meet the additional costs of heating in Scotland through the Social Fund payment. I believe that in 1997–98 the Social Fund cold weather payment was triggered eight times in Scotland, once in Wales and not at all in England. Last year the payment was triggered 11 times in Scotland, not at all in Wales and twice in England. I believe that that illustrates the different temperatures in Scotland. The noble Earl is right that hypothermia is a problem for all pensioners. It is estimated that throughout the winter months perhaps another 30,000 people die over and above the number that might otherwise have been predicted. We believe that a large number of those deaths are attributable to weather conditions that affect pensioners. That is exactly why the Government are spending £800 million to try to help pensioners protect themselves against hypothermia and related illnesses.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, in the light of this generosity in Scotland, does my noble friend accept that there is a case for changing the Barnett formula?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the formula for cold weather payments, as with winter fuel payments, applies to the whole country evenhandedly. However, as for cold weather Social Fund payments to those who are poor, that is triggered by weather conditions. Unless my noble friend argues that temperatures in Scotland are no different from those in England, I do not believe that he would have any desire to change the formula.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, in view of the situation last year when taxpayers' money was wasted on the television advertising of winter fuel payments which gave the impression that people would receive them in the post, whereas many had to collect them, cheques were out of date by the time they were collected, some people received double the amount that the Government intended, and others did not receive any payment until the weather became warmer, can the Minister give an assurance that this year the payments will be made on time?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, yes.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, following on the question about hypothermia posed by my noble friend Lord Russell, does the Minister agree that, however desirable may be these winter fuel payments, the longterm solution to the problem, particularly for the elderly on low incomes, is to make sure that their homes are efficiently insulated and that they have effective heating arrangements?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, that is entirely right. These winter fuel payments will be paid by Christmas time to all pensioners. But it is correct that we need to invest particularly in older houses where insulation is poor and there are problems of dampness. That is why the Government's energy insulation scheme is to be extended. I believe that the Scottish Executive is making its scheme even more extensive that the English and Wales schemes precisely to meet the point raised by the noble Lord.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, the Office for National Statistics tells us that the average Scottish household pays £14 per week for heating as opposed to the UK average of £13. On that basis, in order to be effective, does the Minister agree that the winter payment to Scottish pensioners should be £152 as opposed to £100?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I should like to see the basis of the noble Earl's statistics. I am not sure whether they relate to all households or just pensioner households. My statistics are related to pensioner households and are rather different from the ones that he quoted. None the less, if people spend on average £500 to £550 a year on heating and lighting costs, which is the UK average, the £100 payment across the board to all pensioners will be a welcome addition, as my noble friend Lord Ewing said, and something that has not been addressed by previous administrations.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, is not the winter fuel payment for Scottish pensioners peculiarly a matter for Scotland? Is it not part of the functions of the devolved Scottish Parliament; and if not, why not?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, confuses what I sought to separate in my Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer. There are two basic cash payments. One is the winter fuel payment to all pensioners which for the most part is £100 per household but in some cases is just £50. The other is the cold weather payment that is triggered by cold weather conditions. Over the past two years that has disproportionately benefited Scotland, as one would expect. In addition, there are proposals by both the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Scottish Executive for home insulation grants, which in Scotland would be up to £500 per household. That, too, is a matter for Scotland. However, basically social security is a UK matter and is not delegated. Therefore, winter fuel and cold weather payments are properly a matter for the UK Government.