§ 38. Mr. Mike Thomas
asked the Secretary of State for Social Services whether she will make a statement on the recent changes in procedure of the Supplementary Benefits Commission and social security offices in the field of help with increased energy prices and with insulation for the old, the infirm and the poor.
§ Mrs. Castle
The changes relate to help with fuel bills and were the subject of a Press statement issued by the Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission on 13th February. I have sent my hon. Friend a copy and have placed a copy in the Library.
§ 56. Mrs. Wise
asked the Secretary of State for Social Services whether she will ensure that staff in the Department of Health and Social Services offices are instructed to discuss heating problems with every new applicant for supplementary pensions, in order to ascertain whether they qualify for heating allowance.
§ Mr. Meacher
Yes. Supplementary benefit officers are under instructions to establish whether any special needs exist, including the need for extra heating, when dealing with all new claims to benefit.168W
§ Mr. Meacher
Yes. The reply I have sent is as follows:
Richard Ward, Esq.,
Lothian Region Department of Social Work,
126 Mountcastle Crescent,
23rd February 1976.
Dear Mr. Ward,
You wrote on 4th February enclosing a letter signed by social workers from the Lothian Regional Social Work Department addressed to Barbara Castle and Tony Benn concerning fuel costs.
Let me assure you that we are very conscious of the difficulties faced: by the elderly and other low income groups at a time of rising prices and it is for this reason that we have increased pensions and other benefits three times in a period of less than two years. The Supplementary Benefits Commission's discretionary extra heating additions have also gone up during this period by an overall 83 per cent. and I know that these additions are kept under continuing review by the Commission.
You raised three specific points of action in your letter, two of which are matters for the Department of Energy on which I have no doubt Tony Benn will comment in his reply to you. In your second point you suggest a review of the policy of the Supplementary Benefits Commission in connection with fuel debts. As you may know from the press statement issued on 13th February—a copy of which I enclose—the Commission, in conjunction with the Fuel Authorities, have already carried out such a review and have issued specific instructions to their local offices for dealing with the avoidance of disconnection of supply to recipients of supplementary benefit. When a person entitled to Supplementary Benefit is in difficulty, the Commission will help by way of lump-sum payments where there are exceptional circumstances. Where there are no exceptional circumstances justifying a lump-sum payment, and hardship would be, created if the fuel supply were to be disconnected, the Commission will deduct a weekly sum from the supplementary benefit and pay this direct to the fuel authority who will not then disconnect the supply.
This is an important step forward in the liaison arrangements between the Commission and the Fuel Authorities and I hope you and your colleagues will find it reassuring one.
If despite these new liaison arrangements you still find individual cases where in your view or those of your colleagues hardship still persists 169W over fuel payments, I would like to receive details.
§ 83. Mr. Bowden
asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if she is satisfied that the present rates of heating allowances are adequate.
§ Mr. Meacher
I assume the hon. Member is referring to the discretionary extra heating additions payable under the supplementary benefits scheme. This is a matter for the Supplementary Benefits Commission, which assures me that they are kept under continuing review. They were increased in 1974 and in 1975 by an overall 83 per cent., which more than matched the increase in the fuel component of the retail prices index during the same period.
§ 89. Mr. Spriggs
asked the Secretary of State for Social Services how the increase in the price of food, fuel and light, transport, clothing and footwear in November and December 1975 has affected retirement pensioners during the coldest weather; and if she will make a statement.
§ Mr. O'Malley
According to the General Index of Retail Prices, in November and December 1975 the increases in the prices of the items referred to ranged from 1.4 per cent. for clothing and footwear to 4.5 per cent. for fuel and light. My hon. Friend will be aware that pensions were increased by nearly 15 per cent. in November 1975 and that, between October 1973 and January 1976, pensions rose by 70 per cent. whilst prices as a whole rose by 53 per cent.