HL Deb 08 March 2001 vol 623 cc304-8

3.4 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will extend the winter fuel payment to severely disabled people under 60 years of age.

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

My Lords, winter fuel payments are paid to older households as they are most at risk of fuel poverty. For younger disabled people, disability benefits are available in recognition of their extra costs.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the needs of severely disabled people under pensionable age are just as great as those of old age pensioners, because severely disabled people also suffer from cold and immobility? Every time I raise that matter with Ministers, they say that disabled people get the disability living allowance. So they do, but the fact is that pensioners who qualify also receive an allowance whose tenets are similar to those of the disability living allowance; that is, attendance allowance. The Government's justification for discriminating against younger disabled people in that way is totally without foundation. Is it not time that my noble friend changed the tune a little?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, we are concerned with a targeted payment for older people who are at risk of fuel poverty. By "fuel poverty", we mean people who spend more than 10 per cent of their income on heating. Of those fuel poor, 50 per cent are pensioners. Despite what my noble friend said, only 4 per cent of them are severely disabled people.

Lord Addington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that people who are so severely disabled that they are unable to move around their home to generate heat through exercise should be considered in this context? She will be aware that my party fully supports that idea.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, yes. However, the noble Lord will know that severely disabled people are likely to enjoy both the higher rate disability living allowance for care and the mobility component, which from April represents almost a further £94 a week, from which they can meet their heating costs. That is one reason for the existence of the DLA.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, will the Minister clarify the amounts concerned? I am not clear whether the winter fuel payment is simply the £20 that everyone gets or whether we are talking about a much larger payment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the winter fuel payment, as reinforced by the Chancellor in the Budget, is £200 for a household or £100 for individuals in a household; for example, a single pensioner would get £200 and a couple would get £200. A couple and an elderly brother or sister in a household would get a lump sum of £300.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, while naturally I welcome the Budget's new help for many disabled people, has my noble friend seen the very disturbing findings of a recent survey by the newspaper Disability Now, showing that severely disabled people under 60 in fuel-poor households have had to sleep downstairs, to skimp on food and to stuff windows with newspapers to keep warm during the winter months? How do we answer the 48 year-old polio survivor, who is painfully affected by poor circulation in her affected limbs, when she asks why payments cannot be based on need and not on age?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, fuel poverty relates to the cost of heating, income and the size of property. We targeted it at pensioners because we know that 25 per cent of pensioners are in the bottom 20 per cent of income, whereas only 6 per cent of severely disabled people are in that category. So pensioners are much poorer than disabled people and, compared with disabled people, are much more likely to be living in older, poorly insulated and under-repaired housing. I hope that the person in the examples that my noble friend gave would be claming the maximum disability living allowance and taking advantage of the New Home Energy Efficiency Scheme, and the grant of up to £1,000 for insulation. I also hope that that person will be taking advantage of the help available from local authorities, which have been allocated £2.5 billion to renovate homes. No severely disabled person should live in a home in which he or she has to put paper in the windows.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that she is mistaken in believing that the Chancellor confirmed yesterday the position regarding winter fuel payments? The Pre-Budget Report suggests that the figure may go down from £200 to something less. Paragraph 541 in the Red Book suggests that the level of future payments will be set by the Secretary of State for Social Security later in the year. When the Chancellor makes promises of largesse that extend to 2003, why cannot we be told what the current position is?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, all of the statements that the Chancellor made in yesterday's Budget are confirmed in terms of the small print and the additional statements that are made by the relevant Secretaries of State. It is no different in this case.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I observe that the Minister did not challenge the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, who said that vulnerability to cold can result from limited mobility, which may be a consequence of age or disability. If she is to dispute the proposal in the Question, does she agree that she must either challenge that assertion or concede that the spending figure for people with disability to which she referred is the result of unmet need? That was discussed by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, we are talking about fuel poverty. I have tried to suggest to the House that pensioners are poorer than severely disabled people. The degree to which they are in fuel poverty is significantly higher. Half of those who are fuel poor are pensioners. Only 4 per cent of severely disabled people are fuel poor. Pensioners are more likely to be living in houses which are hard to heat.

Perhaps I may respond to the noble Earl by giving him information on which he has pressed me on previous occasions. The extreme consequence of fuel poverty is demonstrated by hypothermia; that is, the number of people who die additionally between the months of December and April compared with the months of August to November. He will know that, unfortunately, the national figure for last year was something like 50,000. That is roughly three times higher than the figure for Scandinavia, France and Germany. Of those 50,000, 45,000 were people over 60. Only 4,000 of those excess deaths were in the age range of nought to 60, which includes, of course, small babies. That suggests that severely disabled people do not suffer at the acute end of winter cold, as the noble Earl suggested.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I declare a family interest as I have a very severely disabled daughter who cannot walk. She is in her 40s. She suffers from cold far more than most people over 60; indeed, far more than some people over 90.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord's daughter is taking full advantage of all the disability living allowances to which she is entitled. Equally, if the noble Lord's daughter were in permanent residential care, she would be in the same position as elderly folk over the age of 60 in permanent residential care who are not eligible for the winter fuel payment in any event because that is already being met through their supported accommodation.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the noble Baroness has demonstrated that the bulk of people in fuel poverty are aged over 60; nevertheless, there are quite a number below that age and who are severely disabled. As that number can be identified, is it possible for her department to make absolutely sure that those people are specially assisted to receive such benefits as are available?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, yes. We have taken active steps to ensure that people know of their entitlement to the full range of disability benefits. As I am sure the noble Lord will know, the Chancellor has again announced the new figures for the disability income guarantee which will ensure that disabled people will have, in my view, an adequate and decent income on which to live their lives. It is important that those severely disabled people who live in houses which are draughty, cold and poorly insulated know about and take up the grants which are available because fuel poverty results not only from how much healing is needed and how low your income is but also from the state of your housing. The noble Lord's point is relevant and I shall make sure that disabled people are fully aware of those grants and opportunities.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, will the Minister give the House the total extra cost to the Exchequer of the extension of the winter fuel payment to severely disabled people under the age of 60 as requested by her noble friend Lord Ashley? How much money are we talking about?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, it is between £200 million and £250 million per year.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, in the narrow gap between us winning the general election and the Chancellor bringing forward a new Budget, and if the noble Baroness is promoted because of her many talents, will she come with me to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and ask him to provide winter fuel payments for the severely disabled, which request is supported on all sides of this House?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Um, my Lords! I am always willing to go anywhere with my noble friend.