HL Deb 23 October 2001 vol 627 cc911-4

2.50 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reconsider their refusal to extend the winter fuel payment for pensioners to severely disabled people under 60 years of age.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, winter fuel payments were created to ensure that the elderly need not worry about turning up their heating during the cold weather. There are no plans to extend the payments to any groups below the age of 60.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I am grateful for that inadequate reply. I warmly welcome the fact that all old age pensioners receive the winter fuel payment. They certainly deserve it. However, is it not bizarre that the Government refuse to give the payment to severely disabled people, when such people are just as vulnerable to the cold, or even more so, than some old age pensioners? To refuse them the payment is both unjust and unfair.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I understand that my noble friend, who has a deservedly high reputation for fighting the corner for disabled people, would want to press for an extension to the payments. However, 50 per cent of those who are fuel poor are pensioners; four per cent of those who are fuel poor are severely disabled. On the figures for extra winter deaths, the number of pensioners who die additionally during the winter months is something like 10 times greater than the number of people aged 0 to 65 who die, including disabled people. So disabled people do not suffer the fuel poverty that pensioners suffer, in part because they have a targeted benefit—the disability living allowance—which is designed precisely to help them to meet heating costs, food costs, laundry costs and the cost of care. I am sorry, but I do not actually believe that my noble friend has the evidence behind him to support his argument.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, as the citizens in question are under 60 years of age and therefore not pensioners, will the Government consider introducing a winter fuel benefit, strictly limited to severely disabled people, as heating is normally an essential requirement for that category?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, forgive me, but I have given a fairly full supplementary answer to my noble friend. I had hoped that I had addressed the point that those under 60 are entitled, particularly if they are severely disabled, to DLA care and DLA mobility allowances, which together come to nearly £90 a week and we hope that disabled people will meet their heating costs out of that.

Lord Rix

My Lords, in spite of the response of the Minister, is she aware that people with a learning disability, particularly those with Down's syndrome, often have circulatory problems and suffer extremely badly from the cold? Does she agree that they would gain enormously if there were some form of 'winter fuel benefit?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I accept that a large number of people, not only those who are severely disabled or those with a learning difficulty, but also, for example, families with young children who are on benefit, would gain if there were an additional winter fuel benefit. The point is that pensioners experience fuel poverty and as a result 45,000 of the 49,000 people who died additionally last year during the winter months through winter cold were pensioners. That is why we target the money on those who experience cold the most, on those who have low incomes and on those who have poorly repaired and under-insulated houses.

Lord Addington

My Lords, although the number of severely disabled people who experience cold in the winter is relatively small, does the Minister accept that some form of allowance appears to be necessary to protect and to help that small section of our society?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, forgive me, because I do not want to sound curt, but I have three times said that there is an additional benefit called disability living allowance. It is worth £90 a week and is designed to meet the extra costs for someone who is disabled. They include heating, diet, laundry and personal care. In addition, perhaps I may add that people under the age of 60 on benefit are also entitled to a £1,000 home insulation grant, which I hope they will take up if they are eligible, and they remain eligible for cold weather payments if the temperatures fall to zero or below.

Lord Renton

My Lords, perhaps I may declare an interest as I have a daughter aged 47 who has been severely disabled since birth, cannot walk and suffers terribly from the cold, whereas here am I, who was 60 years old 33 years ago. So far I have not had to claim the fuel allowance but why cannot I obtain it for my daughter?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, it would be impertinent of me to say that the noble Lord might claim it for himself and give it to his daughter. The basic situation is that if his daughter—and I understand it to be the case but perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me if I am wrong—is in residential care, she is not eligible for winter fuel payment whatever her age. Therefore, were she 70 and in residential care on benefit she would still not qualify because of the double funding rule: that is, if you are being supported and your heat is being provided for you by the public purse you do not in addition receive the winter fuel payment.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that an important element in home heating is the effectiveness of insulation? Can she give the House an assurance that under the Government's Home Energy Efficiency Scheme (HEES) special attention will be paid to those who are severely disabled?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Yes, my Lords, and the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, is absolutely right. We are extending the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme so that there is a £2,000 grant to those over 60 and a £1,000 grant to those under 60, and we are also investing £2.5 billion with local authorities to improve the repairs of our housing stock. One of our difficulties, as your Lordships will understand, is that this country, compared with much of Europe, has a higher proportion of older housing stock. As the noble Lord will know, it is often in poor repair, poorly insulated and, as regards pensioners, often under-occupied.

Baroness Noakes

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that the Government have paid only 1 million out of a potential 1.9 million claims for retrospective winter fuel payments? Will she say what additional steps the Government will take to ensure that those amounts are paid to the people who are entitled to them?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Yes, my Lords. As of last year, there were 50 people only who were entitled to receive it in the current year's payment and did not. That was because we did not know their national insurance numbers. Of the rest, the reason is that because for the most part they are men between the ages of 60 and 65, often in work and not necessarily known to the former Department of Social Security, now the DWP, we have to institute a claims process for them. However, they can claim at any time. That process is working well I think and there is no problem about back-dating it.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, have the Government undertaken any research into the effects of very cold weather on people with severe disabilities? If not, do they have any plans to do so?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, we know that disabled people, along with children, pensioners and many people in our society, experience the cold badly. Our question is: who are those who most need our help? They are people who are in fuel poverty; that is, more than 10 per cent of their income is going to meet their fuel needs. My information is that 50 per cent of those in fuel poverty are pensioners and only 4 per cent of severely disabled people—primarily because they have disability living allowance—are also in fuel poverty. That shows to me that the benefit at the moment is well targeted.