HC Deb 20 January 1987 vol 108 cc747-54 4.17 pm
The Minister for Social Security and the Disabled (Mr. John Major)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about supplementary benefit payments for exceptionally cold weather.

Last Tuesday, I informed the House that for that week payments of £5 would be made available to everyone in the qualifying groups to help them heat their homes during the current extremely cold spell. This announcement was made in the expectation that the trigger point of minus 1.5 deg C in the regulations would be reached. In the event, that judgment has proved to be correct and the trigger point has been reached widely throughout the country. In many areas it was dramatically exceeded with average temperatures as low as minus 5 deg C. In two thirds of the weather stations, average temperatures for last week of minus 2 deg C and below were recorded. In these extremely rare circumstances, I believe the decision that we took to announce the payment early last week has been amply vindicated.

The Government have considered carefully the position both for this week and future weeks. As I told the House last week, our primary concern is to ensure that vulnerable groups should not be discouraged from heating their homes. It is clear that many people are still experiencing difficulties and are looking for assurance that they will get extra help to keep warm this winter.

In these circumstances, I wish to make it clear, therefore, that a further payment of £5 will be available, for this week only, to all those in the qualifying groups. This entitlement will be widely advertised and existing claimants who have already made a claim will be paid automatically if eligible. Others eligible may claim immediately.

The Government believe that our initiative in introducing a statutory entitlement to extra help in very cold weather was right. The rules are clear and can be operated speedily, fairly and effectively. But we recognise the anxieties felt by vulnerable groups that the temperature trigger point may not be reached even in prolonged periods of cold weather. Since the whole purpose of this cold weather payment is to give people the confidence to keep warm, we have decided to amend the trigger point from minus 1.5 deg C, to 0 deg C—freezing point. I have today laid amending regulations before the House to this effect. Our intention is that they will come into operation from next Monday, 26 January. In all other respects, the scheme will continue to operate as presently designed.

The amending regulations also provide for the further payment of £5 in respect of this week. The additional cost is within the normal margin of adjustment to the social security programme and will be met from the reserve.

I believe that the Government have acknowledged anxieties that have been expressed. Today, we have responded to them quickly, flexibly and with great concern. I hope that the House will welcome this statement.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

Is the Minister aware that the further £5 payment for this week is certainly welcome? It is the frankest possible admission of the utter inadequacy of this scheme. Even last week, under the scheme, 15 areas throughout the country did not trigger payment. Does he accept that the Government's climbdown in establishing the slightly higher trigger temperature is more because of their concern to avoid a weekly political row than an attempt to establish a principle of guaranteed warmth for the elderly—something that the scheme will still not achieve?

Why does not the Minister announce that not only were the Government wrong, but that he will put matters right and pay all pensioners on supplementary benefit and low-income families with babies a regular £5 for every week throughout this winter? That is what the Labour party has repeatedly proposed.

Is the Minister aware that, while the Government have spent three weeks dithering about how to save their political face, at least 50 pensioners have been dying each week of hypothermia? They will continue to die in those numbers despite the introduction of the latest proposals.

Is the Minister further aware that clinging to the extremely low temperature threshold as a condition for claiming payment remains arbitrary and uncertain, which is still a major stumbling block to the old and cold struggling to keep their homes warm? As the Prime Minister denounced this scheme as "strict bureaucratic procedures", why are the Government hell-bent on reverting to it at the first opportunity?

I want to ask the Minister a number of specific questions about the delivery of this payment. When will all pensioners get it, considering the huge backlog at social security offices? How will the housebound elderly be paid? Will the DHSS accept bulk claims on behalf of sick and disabled pensioners from voluntary or charitable organisations? Under what powers is the Minister proposing, for the second week running, retrospectively to validate claims that fall outside the regulations passed in December?

Will the Minister, in co-operation with the Secretary of State for Energy, write to the electricity and gas boards instructing them immediately to cease disconnections of supplies to pensioners and low-income families with babies as long as the bitter cold lasts? Should not the boards review all existing disconnections of supplies when pensioners or families with babies are at risk?

As the Minister has now acknowledged—I am glad to say—his mistake in not adopting a somewhat higher temperature threshold in the first place, will he also undertake to make retrospective payments, where appropriate, at the new trigger point?

Lastly, is the Minister aware that his reference to "only" 643 deaths from hypothermia has been received with dismay and disgust? Will he now retract that innuendo and apologise and acknowledge that pensioners are not just dismissable statistics—[Interruption.]—but people who deserve and have the right to the same care as anyone else? Would not the best demonstration of his good intent be an undertaking to adopt our scheme for a special fuel premium to be paid throughout the winter? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Major

The hon. Gentleman's remarks, particularly the latter, are more than usually distasteful, and with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall respond to them in detail.

The remark attributed to me, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, is not in context and is set against the figure of 16,000 hypothermia deaths that has been claimed by some people. My reference was to the fact that only 643 medical certificates included mention of the word "hypothermia". The advice of the vast majority of medical experts is that hypothermia is the cause of death only when there is a substantive prior cause, to which hypothermia is then added. I was seeking not to disregard the importance of a single death from hypothermia, but to place the matter in a proper context. The report from which the hon. Gentleman quoted was sloppy, un-professional and, in my judgment, out of context.

I am not surprised—although I am saddened—that the hon. Gentleman should be so typically churlish in relation to the Government measures.

The claims we receive in our local offices will be dealt with as a priority, and instructions to that effect were given last week. Payments will be made by giro, as is the normal fashion, to avoid people having to leave home. Claims should be submitted in the fashion that I outlined last week, which was shown in newspaper advertisements and other media.

I dealt with validation in my original statement. With regard to disconnections, we have a long-standing arrangement for people in vulnerable groups that disconnections do not arbitrarily take place. It is odd that the hon. Gentleman raised his point on retrospection, in view of his remarks about validation. I think that he might care to reflect and withdraw his earlier remarks and the distasteful and inaccurate references that he made last night on the subject of winter deaths.

Mr. Ray Whitney (Wycombe)

Does not my hon. Friend agree that the reaction to the succession of Government measures, including those announced this afternoon, to alleviate the problems of the elderly, which are in stark and striking contrast with the appalling record of both the Labour Government and of those members of the SDP when they were formerly in government, suggests that the real answer to the long-standing national problem of deaths from hypothermia in this country requires a careful and dispassionate national approach, free of political hysteria whipped up by the Opposition parties and by certain political pressure groups?

Mr. Major

I entirely agree with the observations of my hon. Friend. There is no doubt that the primary problem is not so much that of hypothermia deaths as the larger problem of excess winter deaths, and that is a matter of considerable complexity.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross Cromarty and Skye)

I welcome the Minister's statement, so far as it goes. It is a sensible change—[Interruption.] Yes, so far as it goes—[AN HON. MEMBER: "What more do you want?"] If hon. Members will allow me, I shall continue. We want further improvements to the scheme—for example, on the eligibility of claimants. Not all people are within the net of eligibility. For instance, women on supplementary pension aged over 60 but under 65 do not fall within its remit.

Secondly, the monitoring stations that the Minister selected—which, to take the Scottish example, are coastal—do not give accurate readings of the general temperature. Thirdly, on the criterion that the average temperature must, as now amended, reach 0 deg, or must fall to 0 deg over a period between Monday and the following Sunday, will he consider altering that to an average temperature of 0 deg over any given period of seven days? Will the Minister look at these three specific areas, where he could make further improvements?

Mr. Major

I shall study carefully what the hon. Gentleman said, but it is most unlikely that I shall be able to undertake to make the changes that he proposes.

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Is my hon. Friend aware that there will be very great appreciation outside the House that the Minister has proved so flexible in an area where flexibility is very definitely needed? Has he noted that the words of the Opposition would positively encourage people not to pay their fuel bills? Furthermore, in the case of severe weather payments, will he always pay out on the smallest of incomes rather than on calendar age and also on freezing temperatures rather than on calendar dates? Such rules, I believe, would be helpful.

Mr. Major

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Our underlying concern throughout the passage of these regulations has been to ensure that vulnerable groups have the confidence to keep warm. My concern, in view of the last few days, is that that confidence, rather than the regulations, might have been in danger. That is the primary reason why I have sought to bring forward the change that I have announced today.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Was the Government's inflexibility really worth all the embarrassment?

Mr. Major

It is a curiosity that the Government are being accused by the Opposition Front Bench of changing the scheme almost daily and by Opposition Back Benchers of being inflexible. They cannot both be right.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the new measures that he has announced, which will be in addition to those that already exist, will be widely welcomed? None the less, will he accept that many old people in particular have very real concern over the payment of their heating bills and are often tempted to turn down the heating at critical times when they should be keeping it up? In order to allay these fears about when the money will come, and how, will my hon. Friend consider the possibility of the Government issuing vouchers at the outset of each winter that could be encashed on Government order, thereby making older people and those on low incomes more certain that the money will come immediately?

Mr. Major

I am afraid that I cannot promise my hon. Friend that we shall follow that route. It is precisely to ensure that vulnerable groups had the confidence to keep warm that we have made the change that I have announced this afternoon. It is, I believe, well understood on our side of the House, and I hope that it is understood throughout the country, that in the three tiers of assistance with heating—supplementary benefit, heating additions and the exceptionally cold weather payments—we now have the most generous system of assistance with heating that we have ever had in this country. I deeply regret that the Opposition are more concerned with making political points than with acknowledging that reality.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Although I welcome today's announcement and the other announcement— two announcements within eight days seem to say more about the inadequacy of the Government's regulations than any benefits that they are providing—will the Minister consider reintroducing the electricity discount scheme that was introduced by the last Labour Government? It helped to cover the cost of the electricity used by 4.5 million people in Britain, not the 1.5 million people whom these regulations will cover.

Mr. Major

I have no intention of reintroducing one of the most shambolic schemes of recent years.

Mr. Roy Galley (Halifax)

My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on acting promptly and flexibly for the second week running. He has shown by action that this Government care. That is preferable to the whirlwind of meaningless words from the Opposition Benches. However, does my hon. Friend accept that many people still do not understand that a standard heating addition is paid to those on supplementary benefit, amounting to £2.20 for those over 65 and £5.50 for those over 85? Therefore, will he continue to emphasise that fact?

Mr. Major

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He shares my concern that it is important to keep people warm during the winter months. He is absolutely right that the level of heating addition now paid weekly, with benefit, and extended substantially during the period of this Government, now amounts to about £400 million a year. That amount is substantially larger than anything that was envisaged under any previous Government.

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

May I welcome the rate of progress that the Minister is making? I hope very much that from minus 1.5 degC, and now 0 deg, by this time next week he will have gone as far as plus 1.5 degC. If he continues at that rate, I am sure that all Opposition Members will be delighted. However, will not all these good things come to an end when, from April 1988, the Government introduce the social fund? All grants will be ended and recoverable loans will be introduced instead. This is a plain charade and electioneering.

Mr. Major

I offer the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he can anticipate no more weekly statements. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] As for the situation that will apply after 1 April 1988, we have repeatedly made it clear throughout the last few months that we shall monitor carefully the working of the scheme. No decision has yet been taken about precisely what the situation will be after 1 April 1988, but a statement will be made in very good time.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his sensitive, sensible and compassionate approach to this very difficult problem? Many elderly and vulnerable people will be grateful to him today. He will have lifted a great burden from their shoulders. However, they are not being helped by the Opposition's cynical exploitation of other people's tragedies.

Mr. Major

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Nor were those people helped last week by those who claimed that the trigger point had been rigged and would not be reached. For that reason, many people may not have had the confidence to turn up their heating.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Will the Minister confirm that, as well as being restricted to the artificial Monday to Sunday week, the scheme is also restricted to supplementary pensioners and that anyone who may have saved over £500 for a funeral, for example, is excluded from the scheme? Will he therefore tell us precisely how many of Britain's 10,000,000 pensioners have applied, how many have already received the £5 in their hands and when he expects the rest of them to get the £5?

Mr. Major

The eligibility is wider than the hon. Gentleman has in mind. It extends also to supplementary benefit families with chronically sick or disabled members, or those with very young children. As for the claims, they are still coming in.

Mr. Foulkes

How many have been paid?

Mr. Major

They are still coming in.

Mr. Foulkes

But how many have been paid?

Mr. Major

I reiterate that they are still coming in. Those who have already claimed may expect that we shall deal with this week's claim with last week's claim and that we shall pay it speedily. We will deal with the claims as a matter of priority. No one who is eligible has been turned down.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

Will my hon. Friend stick to the sensible system of having a week-long assessment period for these heating supplements and then, on occasion, anticipating that a certain week will qualify and making an early announcement? Will he rest assured that old people would much rather have £5 from him, whenever he announces it, than a lot of empty promises from the Opposition, who did nothing when they were in a position to do so?

Mr. Major

My hon. Friend's last point is sharply and very well made. I can certainly confirm that we propose to stick to the assessment on a weekly basis, although I cannot promise that, other than in the most extreme weather circumstances, we shall be in a position to make an early announcement of a payment.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I will allow three more questions from either side. Then we must move on, for the reasons I have already stated.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

May I congratulate the Minister on changing the regulations, even at this late time, in the sure expectation of many more cold weeks this winter in the run-up to the general election?

The hon. Gentleman has, wittingly or unwittingly, stumbled on a benefit that could be made available to pensioners and others in the future; that is that the money should be promised in advance of the cold weather, as he did last week and is doing now. Is it not time that he found a proper, fair system of heating allowances, rather than stumble from expedient to expedient as he has done over the past two or three weeks?

Mr. Major

The Government have such a system; that is what I have announced.

Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)

Will my hon. Friend recognise—and emphasise again in the face of the humbug and cant from the Opposition—that this is the most generous scheme that there has ever been? Will he also confirm that, during the debate that we had on this matter, we were unable to extract from the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) that within the Opposition's poverty programme any money is allocated for severe weather payments, because the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) has forbidden it?

Mr. Major

My hon. Friend is right both in his reference to the generosity of the three tiers of assistance, and also to the fact that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) is keen to make promises about benefits but rather slower to determine how they will be paid for.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Now that the Minister has changed the formula from minus 1.5 deg C to 0 deg C in order to qualify for the £5 payment—in other words, introduced a sliding scale—would it not make sense that when the temperature falls to minus 5 deg C pensioners should receive about £15 a week? Will he also take into account the fact that almost every constituent to whom I spoke over the weekend on this issue said that the £500 barrier for supplementary benefit recipients should be removed? Most of them argued that they had saved that money to pay for their burial. If the Minister is to be flexible, he should take that point into account, and we should like him to tell us next week that that is exactly what he will do.

Mr. Major

First, we have not introduced a sliding scale, but a fixed point—freezing point—which will be generally understood by people in the House and beyond. Regarding the £500 disqualification for single payments, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the figure under the previous Labour Government—whom he supported from time to time—was £200 and only latterly in that Government £300.

Mr. Richard Hickmet (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

My hon. Friend's announcement will be widely welcomed in my constituency where many hundreds, if not thousands, of people will benefit from his announcement today. Is this not a much more sensible use of Government resources than introducing indiscriminate benefits such as free television licences for all old age pensioners? Heating additions and exceptional cold weather payments will be more appreciated by those in need than the sort of indiscriminate benefits promised by the Opposition.

Mr. Major

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. We have made it a statutory entitlement so that people may be certain that it is there in the prescribed circumstances. I believe that it will be widely welcomed throughout the country.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Since the issue has been canvassed over many winters, why has the Minister now decided that the figure of minus 1.5 deg C should be changed to 0 deg C? What fresh evidence has he had? The Minister claims that his main concern is to make sure that people have the confidence to keep their heating on. Would not the best confidence of all be to pay that money automatically to those who qualify, rather than rely on them having to reply?

Mr. Major

The money is paid automatically. The automatic heating additions are paid weekly for 52 weeks a year. Apparently, that has escaped the hon. Gentleman. Those payments amount to £400 million a year. What has changed my mind is my concern that pensioners might feel that the minus 1.5 deg C trigger point would not be reached. Raising that trigger point will enable them to accept that it will be reached in very cold weather, and they will then turn their heating on and keep warm, which is our prime concern, as we have repeatedly stated from the outset.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)

I accept my hon. Friend's announcement today, but will he please accept that a number of elderly people are extremely concerned about the £500 limit? Will he also accept that no hon. Member would want to encourage people to keep their savings in their homes with all the dangers that that would have? I accept the great increase that has taken place under the Government, but will he please reconsider that qualifying figure?

Mr. Major

I fully appreciate my hon. Friend's concern. I cannot offer him an undertaking that I will be able to change that figure in the near future. We have substantially increased the figure and it is not an innovation for single payments.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that there will be a debate on this matter.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I will take the Standing Order No. 20 application first.