HL Deb 10 February 2004 vol 656 cc1038-40

2.53 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the winter fuel payment can be extended to the 1.27 million severely disabled adults and children who receive the middle or higher rate of the disability living allowance care component, or the higher rate of the mobility component.

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

My Lords, winter fuel payments were created to ensure that the elderly can afford heating in cold weather. After all, 95 per cent of all the additional winter deaths are of pensioners. There are no plans to extend the payments to any groups below 60.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that response. Does she recall that on the previous occasion on which I made this request she rejected it and gave the unconvincing excuse that, of those in fuel poverty, only 4 per cent were severely disabled, and that disability living allowance was available to help with fuel costs? Regardless of whether the figure is 1 per cent or 4 per cent, many severely disabled people—there are more than 1 million— cannot afford fuel to heat their homes or water, or to cook. It is irresponsible to leave such people unable to live a normal life. Will my noble friend remember that disability living allowance, which she said can help with fuel costs, is also supposed to help with the costs of food, laundry and care, so there is precious little left to cover fuel costs? Do the Government still say "no" to extending those payments to severely disabled people?

Baroness Mollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am afraid that, again, I shall have to challenge my noble friend's assertions. Disabled people, including severelydisabled people under 60, receiving DLA are not only half as likely to be in fuel poverty as pensioners, they are less likely to be in fuel poverty than the rest of us. That is because disability benefits, including DLA, are doing their job, and I am delighted that they are.

I shall give just one example: a lone parent with a non-disabled child will get £2,500 a year—about £50 a week—in financial support. If that child were severely disabled, the lone parent would get, not £2,500, but £10,000 a year in financial support—four times as much. I am delighted about that, but it means that the non-disabled child, not the disabled child, is more at risk of fuel poverty.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, not for the first time, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, has made the point that the winter fuel payment should be extended to severely disabled people below the age of 60, a number of whom, despite what the noble Baroness has said, could be in fuel poverty. In that connection, does she agree that fuel poverty is closely linked with poor housing? Can she assure us that severely disabled persons, particularly those who are housebound, will be given priority in ensuring that their homes are effectively insulated and provided with good heating?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right that fuel poverty is not only about income; possibly at least as importantly, it is about the state of housing. It is about whether the house is insulated; the fact that one quarter of our stock is pre-First World War; and pensioners, in particular, are likely to be under-occupying. In rural areas, pensioners are often not attached to gas mains so that their heating costs are proportionately higher. That is why pensioners are at most risk.

Whereas in 1997 nearly half of all our housing was below what we regard as a decent standard, primarily because of lack of thermal efficiency, we have brought that down to one third. Around 700,000 families on income-related benefits have received warm-front grants, and local authorities have received nearly £8 billion to bring the housing stock up to decent levels. We have some way to go, as housing stock is what we inherit, and it takes many years to renew it. But I am confident that the Government are well on their way to meeting their targets in that direction.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that, as she has rested heavily in her argument on the estimation of fuel poverty, it is a nonsense that everybody over the age of 60 receives the winter heating allowance, irrespective of need? Is there not a more fundamental case that needs at some time to be tackled: getting proper means-testing of all benefits, and benefits dealt with by a single mechanism rather than this complex multiplicity of mechanisms, which many people do not understand?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, there is a range of views about the efficacy or the right balance between means-tested or income-related benefits on the one hand and universal benefits on the other. The Government, for example, have increased their expenditure on pensioners in real terms since 1997 by £9 billion, half of which has gone to the poorest one-third, as my noble friend would like. But 52 per cent of those in fuel poverty are pensioners. That is why it makes sense to make this a universal benefit to those over 60.

Lord Skehnersdale

My Lords, disability living allowance at its various rates is intended as help from the taxpayer for those with extra costs resulting from their disability. Surely some of those extra costs are heating. Therefore, is there not a heating element in the calculation of DLA?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, DLA is meant to assist disabled people to meet the additional costs of their disability. In some cases, particularly for those with mobility problems, heating may be an issue; for others, it may be about diet; for others, it may be laundry. Around one-third of disabled people on disability benefits have mental health problems that may have no connection to heating needs. The noble Lord is right that it is a general benefit which disabled people and their carers can use as they see fit. But disabled people receiving those benefits are less likely to be in fuel poverty precisely because those benefits are adequate enough to meet their needs.

Lord Ashley of Stoke:

My Lords, I am sorry to come back again. Instead of digressing on those byways and side-paths of other people who may or may not be worse off, perhaps my noble friend would deal with the central issue that I raised. More than 1 million severely disabled people cannot afford to heat their homes and water or to cook. How do the Government intend to deal with that?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am sorry, but I still challenge my noble friend's assertion. There are 1.3 million disabled people in receipt of attendance allowance. As they are more than 60 years old they receive the winter fuel payment. Of those who are in receipt of disablement benefits, whether income support, DLA or whatever, only a tiny proportion— something like 7 per cent, as far as we know—are suffering from some evidence of fuel poverty. It simply is not the case, as my noble friend said, that 1 million severely disabled people are suffering fuel poverty.