§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)
I beg to move,That this House, recognising that widespread fuel poverty means many more people on low or fixed incomes have to choose between malnutrition or hypothermia and that excess deaths rise during the winter months, calls on Her Majesty's Government to institute forthwith a cold climate allowance payable to those on basic state benefits; believes this should be an automatic payment during 17 weeks from December to March in addition to severe weather payments and should also take account of prevailing climatic conditions throughout the United Kingdom; believes that energy efficiency is best created by a programme of house-building, house renovation and house improvement which would save lives, save energy and create employment; and rejects current proposed price mechanisms such as value-added tax on domestic fuel which will further penalise the most vulnerable and which are morally and politically unacceptable.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
I have to tell the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
§ Mrs. Ewing
It is with a great sense of anger that yet again I rise in the House to talk about the issue of fuel poverty and the need for a cold climate allowance, and the implications of that for health, for welfare and, most important of all, for people themselves. In the motion, I am, above all, talking about people. This is not a pious or esoteric issue. It is not a philosophical debate; it is about the quality of life. It is a question of where legislators place their moral responsibility, and the value that we place on each individual human life.
My anger relates to the long neglect of the matter. When I was first elected to the House in 1974, when you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I were much younger—as were many other hon. Members—I was accused of scaremongering because I asked a series of parliamentary questions and made statements on the issue of cold-related deaths. Those accusations came from the then Labour Government and also from the official Opposition. Apparently it was not appropriate at that time to ask such questions.
Despite detailed questioning by myself and other hon. Members at that time, there was a refusal to recognise the extent of the problem about which we are still talking in 1993. For example, on 10 January 1978, the then Secretary of State for Social Services said:hypothermia was mentioned on fewer than 600 death certificates in England and Wales."—[Official Report, 10 January 1978; Vol. 941, c. 1422.]Subsequently, in an article in The Observer of 16 December 1979, and in other newspapers, the former junior Minister at the Department of Health and Social Security, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who has received notification of the fact that I will mention his name tonight, admitted to political pressures being exerted on him. Departmental officials ruled that it was important not to issue information in this politically sensitive area which might be misleading and which could certainly be used against the Government. The hon. Gentleman was advised that it was almost certain that any reply suggesting that large numbers of old people were suffering from hypothermia would be used to bring pressure on the Government to improve heating provisions for old people.
That was the attitude that prevailed at that time. It was much easier to say that hypothermia related to deaths caused only as a result of accidents in Scottish, Welsh or 1040 English mountains. However, the reality, as we all know, is that the deaths of many of our old, our sick and our vulnerable are related to the extent of cold from which they suffer.
In an amended reply, the hon. Member for Oldham, West said that he was unable to give an estimate, but evidence from death certificates in England and Wales revealed that only 17 people died from hypothermia in 1974. He admitted subsequently that many people die from hypothermia, but that they are written off on their death certificates as heart attack victims.
It is my sincere hope that matters have moved on since then, both in the House and in our community as a whole. There is widespread interest and concern. I have stacks of files in my office—the equivalent of a mountain, so I have not brought all of them to the House—from various concerned organisations that represent the elderly, the disabled, health services and the Royal College of Nursing. They agree with us, some 20 years on, that there is a need to recognise the significance of cold as it relates to the welfare of our people.
I should also point out that the current Prime Minister, who in the 1970s and early 1980s acted as a junior Minister at the Department of Health and Social Security, recognised that the cost of fuel was relevant to those on low incomes. He said:Fuel is clearly a basic necessity, especially for the elderly and the sick. I recognise the concern that is felt by many on low incomes when it comes to paying for fuel."—[Official Report, 16 December 1985; Vol. 89, c. 134.]He went on to talk about the issue of excess deaths in our winter months. Later, he referred tothe excess number of winter deaths that have perplexed successive Governments for years …The real problem, then as now … is not hypothermia, but the additional deaths from all causes, particularly heart disease, strokes and chest infections, which tend to occur in winter. It is a long-standing problem that our excess winter mortality rate is higher than that in other countries with severe winters, such as the United States of America and Sweden."—[Official Report, 2 December 1986; Vol. 106, c. 834–35.]The reality is that those excess winter deaths are still occurring. Here we are, looking forward to the millennium, another century, yet still the House and society as a whole are talking about people who will die because they are unable to heat their homes effectively and look after the welfare of their families.
According to Strathclyde Elderly Forum, every year between 3,000 and 5,000 Scots die from cold-related illnesses. Not all those people are aged or infirm. Let us take the years 1976 to 1984 and look beyond the boundaries of my country of Scotland at what happened elsewhere. The number of deaths in January in West Germany was 4 per cent. above the monthly average; in Sweden and Norway it was 7 per cent. above the monthly average; but in Scotland it was 16 per cent. above the average monthly rate. That shows quite clearly that we have still not remedied either the causes or the effects of fuel poverty in our nation. I must say to the Government —with sincerity and a great deal of passion because I regard this as a moral issue that is based on fundamental principles about people and their right to life—that unless the issue of fuel poverty is addressed effectively, we shall continue to have a situation whereby we have a Westminster euthanasia system for the most vulnerable in our society.
This is not an issue that pertains solely to Scotland, although I understand the situation there. I care about 1041 deaths and deprivation wherever they occur. This is a United Kingdom issue which affects every constituency represented in the House.
A recent survey from the university of Oxford points out that, according to figures collated by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, for every 1 deg. C the temperature is colder than average over the four months of December to March, there will be an additional 8,000 deaths. That was quoted in a book by Curwen and Devis in 1988, and confirmed subsequently in February 1991 when two weeks of severe weather resulted in an additional 4,000 deaths. That is not a record in which any Government or legislator can have any pride whatever. The problem has received increasing attention recently because of our concern about the likelihood that VAT will be imposed on domestic fuels. The imposition of VAT on domestic energy will have the same effect as a drop in external temperature because it will mean that it will cost more to run a warm healthy home.
I ask hon. Members to accept that we have a moral responsibility not only as constituency Members of Parliament but as sons and daughters. I speak as the daughter of a woman who will be 82 next month and who lives alone and on a state benefit. I know what the real situation is: my mother has a caring family, but I know that when I walk out of her house she automatically turns off the central heating system. My brother has had the same experience. People want to organise their lives independently, but we have a moral responsibility to ensure that none of them suffer.
§ Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)
Will the hon. Lady concede that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor has already pledged that he will protect those on state benefit? Does she agree that the people most likely to suffer from the impositions of VAT on domestic fuel will be those whose income is just above the level at which state benefit is payable—those who have provided for their future to a small extent and who therefore receive no additional help from the state? Will the hon. Lady comment on that?
§ Mrs. Ewing
I certainly do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Given that he has spoken with such vehemence, I hope that he will support us in the Lobby tonight and also vote against the likely Budget provisions, especially as the Chancellor said that he would prefer to move straight to 17.5 per cent., rather than the 8 per cent. that is to be imposed next year. People at the margins of state benefit—people who have saved for their old age, or people who have small occupational pensions, or widows receiving a small additional payment as a result of contributions made by their husband during his lifetime —are too vulnerable. At this stage, however, we have no idea what form of compensation the Government propose to introduce. We argue that we must have a clear automatic payment to ensure that the most vulnerable—those whom we can reach—are assisted in the coming winter months.
You will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that since 1984 Dr. Gordon Wilson and I have introduced no fewer than five cold climate allowance Bills, which have been objected to and disparaged in the House. They have met with no success because they have been opposed by those on the Government Benches. We are supposed to be a democracy. What sort of system is it that so readily rejects 1042 the basic principles of care and humanity? I condemn the House and I condemn successive Governments for their inhumanity to humanity.
The Government amendment refers to improvements in cold weather payments, but in 1986 the Prime Minister—in those days, a junior Minister at what was then the Department of Health and Social Security—admitted:Over the years the various systems for making payments has been contentious and unsuccessful. There is no dispute about that.The then Minister went on:That is why we have tried to introduce a system which makes sense, judged by three criteria.What were those three criteria? The then Minister said:First, there must be clear rules for help",withan objective test of …coldness as the basic qualifying rule.He said that the intention was to avoid a systemwhich relies on local subjective judgments.The severe weather payments scheme still relies on local subjective judgments. Look at what happened in the borders of Scotland last year. Temperatures taken at Eskdalemuir did not relate to other areas of the border because they were measured from Bulmer. Many people who were living in severe climatic conditions had no opportunity to claim severe weather payments.
The second criterion for which the right hon. Gentleman argued was "certainty and speed of response". He said:Claimants must know quickly when a period of exceptionally cold weather has been declared and for how much they will qualify."—[Official Report, 2 December 1986; Vol. 106, c. 837.]It is obvious to my constituents when weather conditions are severe; they do not need to walk outside with a thermometer to find out, and they do not need to rely on readings taken somewhere else. I represent the highest village in the highlands of Scotland, Tomintoul—a name that people recognise from weather forecasts and weather reports. People know when they are living in severe climatic conditions, yet many many of them do not qualify for severe weather payments.
The right hon. Gentleman then said that we must concentrate help on the groups on whom most concern about risks has focused—the elderly, the sick, the disabled and the very young. No one can disagree with that philosophy. But if that is the Government's philosophy, why do hon. Members still constantly receive in their mailbags correspondence from voluntary organisations representing those groups of people that expresses deep concern about the failure of successive Governments to recognise their needs? The elderly, sick and disabled and those who care for the very young are still being deprived of the finance necessary to heat their homes.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
The hon. Lady has referred to her constituents, who live hundreds of feet above sea level. Is she satisfied with the location of the local weather station?
§ Mrs. Ewing
No, indeed. I live in Lossiemouth, which is on the Moray firth. Anyone who lives on the coast knows that the cliamte is substantially warmer there than in the uplands, yet the measurements are taken from the same point. That shows how ludicrous is the system of measurement used to trigger the severe weather payments.
§ Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)
On the subject of ludicrosity, if that is the correct word, can the hon. Lady imagine anything more ridiculous than asking 1043 old people to work out the temperature, then work out whether they are cold, then whether they have been cold for five hours, then whether, because they have been cold for five hours and 10 minutes, they qualify to go to a bureaucratic office and fill in a claim form in the hope that they will eventually be reimbursed? Can the hon. Lady imagine anything more contrary to human nature?
§ Mrs. Ewing
I welcome the fact that the hon. and learned Gentleman has supported the motion in his comments. He and I yesterday attended a meeting about VAT on domestic fuel at which he made a similar point. I will come later in my remarks to the mechanisms for claiming. The hon. and learned Gentleman has emphasised the very fundamental point that there must be automatic payments, which must be readily available and which must not be on the basis of a reclaim involving endless bureaucratic form filling.
Way back in the 1980s the Prime Minister referred to the need for certainty. My argument revolves around precisely that need. I do not argue for the reclaim system to which the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) referred. We know that all people—in particular, people whose family includes a disabled member—look with dismay at the forms, which run to eight, 10 and sometimes 20 pages. They do not know how to fill them in. They do not always have family members who can help them to fill them in. They do not know when they are supposed to fill them in or to whom they are supposed to give them. Our social security system is so complex that many people do not claim that to which they are entitled.
We seek to ensure that there is certainty for everyone who needs assistance. We are proposing an automatic payment for 17 weeks from December to April, which are regarded as the months when climatic conditions are such that people need assistance with their heating. I do not believe that we must rely on the severe cold weather snaps which can exist anywhere within the United Kingdom. We must have an automatic payment system.
Any payment that is given should also take account of the prevailing climatic conditions within the United Kingdom. Since the Government began talking about the possible imposition of VAT on fuel, it has been interesting to see many of the reports which have emerged from organisations which are not politically involved, but which are concerned about the implications of the Budget for the people whom they serve.
In particular, I refer to the Gas Consumers Council which last week published substantial figures in Scotland on Sunday relating to the issue of VAT on domestic fuel. The council compared average heating costs and considered how VAT would affect them. It is perhaps right to look at gas for an example as the figures have come from the Gas Consumers Council. The effect of 17.5 per cent. on VAT in the south would increase average heating costs to £36.57. In Glasgow, average costs would increase to £43.75, while in Aberdeen the figure would increase to £47.42. In Lerwick in Shetland—the area from which the former Chancellor of the Exchequer comes—the figure would be as high as £81.77.
The figures are based on comparing large homes in different areas throughout the United Kingdom. That is why we believe that it is essential that any automatic 1044 payment must take account of the prevailing weather and climatic conditions. It is not just when the snow falls or when there is a sudden drop in temperatures, and we all wake up in the morning and have to chip ice off the windows of our homes and cars. I am talking about the prevailing weather conditions. We must take account of dampness, of wind and of what happens generally in each area.
Other people have come up with different statistics contrasting different areas in the United Kingdom. For example, analysis undertaken by the Department of Energy and by other organisations has suggested that it costs as much as 35 per cent. more to heat a house in Glasgow to the same level as an identical house in Bristol. In places such as Aberdeen, the figures are obviously higher. The statistics have not been denied. Even Professor Marcus, formerly of the department of building and architecture at Strathclyde university, who many years ago drew attention to those aspects, has never had his figures challenged.
It should be evident to all hon. Members that the further north one travels in the United Kingdom, the colder and more severe the weather generally becomes. We should remember that the distance from Shetland to Southampton is roughly the same as it is from Southampton to Madrid. Can anyone deny that Madrid is generally much warmer than Southampton?
I wish to make clear that I do not want the severe weather payments to be replaced; they must and should remain. I am talking about an additional automatic payment which takes account of prevailing weather conditions.
§ Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)
Would the hon. Lady tell the House which areas of the United Kingdom should qualify for the automatic cold weather payment? Will she also say where the cut-off point would be and why?
§ Mrs. Ewing
The hon. Gentleman is fairly new to the House, but I do not mean that in a disparaging way. I would be happy to send him copies of the Bill, which clearly details each area of the United Kingdom and how those would be zoned. I will make a brief reference to that matter later in my speech.
I am not talking solely about my area, where of course I have concerns as the local representative. Those are concerns that all hon. Members share for the vulnerable in society throughout the United Kingdom. Other figures which support the contention for zoning in the United Kingdom come from the Meteorological Office. Those figures show that average temperatures in Scotland between November and December are consistently lower than in England and Wales. In November 1992, the average temperature was 6 deg C in Scotland compared with 7.9 deg C in England and Wales.
The official figures on deaths caused by hypothermia —the Prime Minister has admitted that they represent merely the tip of an iceberg—show that the levels are consistently higher in Scotland than in England and Wales. In 1991, 101 direct deaths from hypothermia were recorded in Scotland, compared with 534 in England and Wales, which means that one in six of the deaths from hypothermia were in Scotland. Strathclyde Elderly Forum recognises that between 3,000 and 5,000 cold-related 1045 deaths occur in Scotland during the winter months. We must concentrate not just on hypothermia but on other cold-related diseases.
When the Minister responds, he will probably make great play of the fact that gas and electricity prices have apparently fallen. The Government choose to ignore the fact that consumption in Scotland is consistently higher because of our climate. For example, I visited Scottish Hydro-Electric last week and it points out that it has the lowest costs, but the highest consumption. It is also the most "green" of all the electricity companies, yet it is on our area that the blow of VAT will fall most heavily. The Government must look seriously at the matter. The northern Scotland electricity consumers committee pointed out in a recent report thatin the north of Scotland area, due to a more severe climate the requirement for heating is higher than elsewhere in Great Britain. This higher demand leads to higher fuel consumption.There is a knock-on effect. People in the north of Scotland receive the same state benefits, but they have an automatic built-in necessity to spend extra to keep their homes warm.
The report from Sutherland Associates—I am sure that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) has also received a copy—compared heating costs for different parts of the United Kingdom and showed that levels of energy consumption were higher for Scotland than for the south-east of England. The report compared an average two-bedroom house in Scotland with an identical house in the south-east. In the south-east it took 9,500 kWh to ensure adequate heating levels, whereas in Scotland it took 11,100 kWh. That shows the additional requirements we have in Scotland, yet no concession whatever is made.
I could go on to give more statistics, but other hon. Members wish to speak in the debate. Our proposals for a cold climate allowance recognise that the elements are no respecters of national boundaries. It is not just people who live in Scotland who suffer the effects of cold weather.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) might listen at this point, as I outline our suggestions. We are proposing that there should be four zones within the United Kingdom, ranging from the north of Scotland to the south of England. Zone 1 would cover southern England, where there would be no additional cold climate allowance because of the prevailing conditions. That does not rule out severe weather payments, because I accept that Devon can have horrendous cold snaps with snow, ice and frost while the sun may be shining in Lossiemouth. We are not proposing that severe weather payments be replaced, but instead are proposing an automatic payment.
Zone 2 would cover central England and an extra cold climate allowance of £3.50 per week would be payable. Zone 3 would cover northern England, Northern Ireland, central and southern Scotland where an additional cold climate allowance of £7 per week would be payable. In zone 4, which covers northern Scotland, an additional cold climate allowance of £10.51 per week would be paid.
§ Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)
As an emigre Scot, I find the hon. Lady's speech interesting. She is known for being precise with her figures. Can she tell the House how much this would all cost?
§ Mrs. Ewing
As I sat down I said, "I bet he is going to ask me the cost." If the hon. Gentleman would care to listen, I am not afraid to argue on the statistics. It is not 1046 merely a matter of Government expenditure. It is about human lives. It is about people. We as legislators must decide our own priorities.
§ Mrs. Ewing
I am coming to that. Just wait. There is such a thing as manners, I hope. This is something about which I feel passionately. I am happy to give the House the statistics, which have been assessed, checked and discussed in great detail with the organisations involved.
I believe that manners are important in debates, especially on serious matters such as this. This is not party-political knockabout stuff. It is about people. It is about elderly people frightened to put on their fires. It is about people with a handicapped child who know that they need additional heating but are uncertain whether they will receive any extra help. I ask for an element of manners from Conservative Members.
The allowance would be paid for 17 weeks between December and April. The estimate of the total cost is £625 million per annum for the whole of the United Kingdom and, for Scotland alone, £155 million per annum Those are our figures from January this year. An element of increase may have to be allowed for as a result of a small increase in inflation, but the figures are serious estimates. I am happy to lay them before the House and to ask Conservative Members, "Is that a price worth paying?". There are many who would prefer to see Trident come to our shores. One estimate of the cost of servicing Trident is £380 million per annum. I should like to see that £380 million diverted into a scheme of cold climate allowances because that is where my political priorities happen to lie.
Other countries manage to run cold climate allowance schemes. Conservative Members are often happy to deride the small Republic of Ireland, but in Eire during the winter months, the Government readily and automatically pay cold climate allowances to a variety of people. The people who are eligible include those on old age pension, retirement pension, widow's pension, blind person's pension, invalidity pension, deserted wife's benefit allowance, lone parent's allowance, pre-retirement allowance, prisoner's wife allowance, social security pension, benefit from another country, long-term unemployment assistance, disabled person's allowance, infectious diseases maintenance allowance, basic supplementary welfare allowance and special department of defence allowance. All those people are entitled to a cold climate allowance in the small Republic of Ireland, but in the United Kingdom no one is entitled to such an automatic payment.
I hope that my hon. Friends will have time to develop other aspects of our motion such as energy efficiency in our homes. It was clear from discussions in Scottish Questions yesterday that the Government have not yet examined the housing conditions survey which was undertaken in Scotland by Scottish Homes. That survey showed that almost a third of our housing stock suffered from dampness, condensation or mould.
It is also important to tell the Government as they plan the Budget that VAT on domestic fuel is not the best way to conserve energy. The best way to conserve energy is to increase the energy efficiency of our housing stock. That 1047 would save lives, save energy and create jobs. If we create jobs, we build up the tax base for the country so that we can assist those who so desperately need our assistance.
I conclude by repeating that I regard this as an issue of morality and principle. I was not elected to the House merely to go along with what was happening. I have argued the case with a great deal of feeling not only for the many hundreds of people in my constituency who have written to me, but for the people whom I know as family members and as friends who suffer great difficulties during our winter months.
When we talk about some form of compensation, we all have a responsibility placed on our shoulders to analyse effectively and caringly what compensation we shall give to our people. I say simply, "What cost is a human life?"
§ The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott)
I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:'commends Her Majesty's Government on its range of policies designed to protect the most vulnerable from the effects of cold weather and to stimulate energy conservation measures in the United Kingdom; and in particular welcomes the improvements in the Cold Weather Payments Scheme, the increased resources devoted to improving insulation for homes, and the extra help amounting to more than £1 billion given to poorer pensioners.'.I listened with keen interest to the points made by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing). She knows the personal respect that I have for her. She argued with her usual clarity and passion a case which I do not believe to be particularly defensible. I hope that I can convince the House that the proposal that she has put before us this evening is likely to be ill targeted, extremely expensive and probably would not achieve the aim that she has set out.
The hon. Lady used words such as "anger" and "neglect" in her speech. In the past two decades, both parties of government have considered the matter. Both turned down the approach which the hon. Lady has again advocated this evening. The Conservative Government have consistently improved the shape and pattern of the exceptional cold weather payments scheme, and I shall return to that point in a moment. We have sought to ensure that those who need help with the cost of fuel during cold weather in their area are properly compensated and protected.
I must make it clear that I do not accept the case that the hon. Member for Moray made for a cold climate allowance. Any help that we give for extra fuel costs resulting from cold weather should be based on precisely that—actual cold weather at the time and in that location. That is precisely what our cold weather payments system does, and does well. It is well-targeted help for the people most likely to need it in those places where the weather is very cold.
Although the hon. Lady made it clear that she was not speaking exclusively for Scotland, understandably she made particular mention of Scotland. The pattern of expenditure on fuel across the United Kingdom as a whole shows that there is little difference between the amount of money spent, particularly by poorer people but also in general, in Scotland and the amount of money spent in the rest of the United Kingdom. The south-east of England obviously has a pattern of temperatures which is distinct 1048 from that in the northern parts of England and Wales, but the overall pattern is not very different in Scotland from that in the rest of the United Kingdom.
In essence, we need to examine the case that the hon. Lady made not on the basis of the position in Scotland but by considering the argument that the allowance should be introduced throughout the United Kingdom. I believe that that would be a move against the whole flow of social security policy in this country and against seeking to ensure that social protection policies are affordable by the taxpayer who, at the end of the day, must pay the bill. Throughout the developed world, we are all having to consider our social protection policies to ensure that they are affordable and that we are not placing burdens on this and future generations which they may find unacceptable.
The kind of policy that the hon. Member for Moray has advocated this evening would be ill targeted in the extreme. It would be a scatter-gun approach to the delivery of help. I believe that the Government's present policy of cold weather payments is well targeted and affordable within the context of our overall social security policy.
§ Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)
The Minister made a very spurious point when he argued that weekly expenditure in the cold areas is not much different from that in other areas. Similarly, he could argue that poor people spend less each week than rich people on their heating bills. The key figures relate to the percentage of weekly expenditure. On that basis, the poor and people in colder areas spend dramatically more than the rich and those in warmer areas as a percentage of their household expenditure. The reason why the absolute figures are different is quite simple: people cannot afford to buy the heating that they need. The Minister is talking about under heating. I hope that he will move on from his totally spurious point.
§ Mr. Scott
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's argument on a regional basis, as I have explained. The statistics are clear. If the hon. Gentleman would like to ask me specific questions, I will answer them.
With regard to people who receive benefits, the difference between the amount of money spent on fuel in Scotland hardly differs from that in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is the figure upon which we must work. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point that that means that people cannot afford those payments. If the weather is cold in Scotland or elsewhere in the United Kingdom during a particular period, people are given extra help with those costs. The idea that we should select a number of months and, whatever the temperature may be in a particular part of the United Kingdom, simply pay an extra benefit is the reverse of what we have been trying to achieve in social security as a whole, which is to ensure that the available resources are targeted on those who really need them at a specific time.
§ Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)
I hope to speak in the debate later, so I will not take up much of the Minister's time now, but does he realise that the housing stock in Scotland is disastrous? More than 250,000 houses suffer from damp and condensation. In the winter months, people cannot afford to heat their houses, so they retreat into one room and try to live there. They pay for that. I will refer to that later in the debate and refer to my personal experiences.
§ Mr. Scott
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. However, I have examined with great care the issue in relation to the different parts of Great Britain and to the United Kingdom as a whole. There is no significant regional difference in the expenditure on fuel costs in the different parts of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. John Marshall
Has my right hon. Friend noted regional differences in electricity tariffs? Is he aware that, due to the nature of hydro-electricity which is the dominant system in the north of Scotland, Scottish electricity tariffs are 10 per cent. lower than in the rest of the country?
§ Mr. Scott
I accept my hon. Friend's point. That difference is manifestly an incontrovertible fact.
I want to return to the main theme of the hon. Member for Moray, which was whether there should be a special allowance, paid irrespective of the temperature in any part of the United Kingdom, simply because we are moving into a certain calendar period. I do not believe that that would be right. It would be ill targeted and random.
The hon. Lady referred to a cost of about £0.5 billion a year to introduce her scheme. However, the scheme that she advanced in previous years also included about £1.5 billion of capital costs up front. The hon. Lady may have removed herself from her previous argument. The cost of £0.5 billion would be very significant and we would have to take that into account.
§ Mr. Scott
Having read what the hon. Lady said before and what those who have campaigned for the cold climate scheme have said, I understood that the capital costs of the first part related to the energy efficiency programme. That involved insulating large numbers of houses in the United Kingdom. The costs of that were established very clearly two or three years ago at about £1.5 billion in capital expenditure up front before the £0.5 billion a year in running costs for the scheme which the hon. Lady has advocated today.
§ Mrs. Ewing
I am interested in what the Minister is saying, but I believe that he has confused different messages. If there was substantial expenditure on energy efficiency which, as I have said, would save lives, save energy and create jobs and thereby increase the tax base, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that ultimately the arguments for a cold climate allowance would probably disappear? If the housing stock was brought up to the necessary level, we would not need to consider this point. However, the insulation standards of the housing stock in Scotland is currently equivalent to the position in Sweden in the 1940s.
§ Mr. Scott
I will return to the question of energy efficiency later. However, the case as presented in earlier years ran the two schemes together and involved the cost of up-front expenditure of £1.5 billion and running expenses of about £0.5 billion.
To return to the theme that I want to present to the House tonight, the factors that influence a person's need for help with heating are many and varied. The weather is certainly a factor which we must obviously take into account and that is reflected in our cold weather payments scheme. However, much also depends on the size of the home, the type of heating system and the standards of insulation.
1050 The picture is complex and I do not believe that it is susceptible to the rather simplistic approach that the hon. Member for Moray has adopted this evening. Over the years, the Government have developed a range of targeted policies designed to address the different factors about which we are concerned when we talk about the undoubted problems that cold weather causes for a significant number of families in the United Kingdom. I recognise those problems and the Government's responsibility to adopt sensible policies to deal with them.
We already provide considerable help with energy efficiency measures for low-income households. As the House will be aware, we continue to put extra resources into the home energy efficiency scheme for which the budget has increased by more than 50 per cent. since 1991. That scheme operates throughout Great Britain and provides grants towards the cost of loft, tank and pipe insulation. It also provides for draught proofing and energy advice for low-income households who receive income-related benefits. It aims to provide for improvements for some 240,000 homes this year, and nearly £38 million will be available for grants in that area.
Private sector households which receive the same benefits are also eligible for minor works assistance. Those grants, which are part of the house renovation system administered by local authorities, frequently cover the provision or improvement of thermal insulation. Further assistance is also available through local authorities' mainstream council housing repair and improvement programmes as well as through programmes such as Estate Action and Green House programmes.
The Government have made the drive to improve—
§ Mr. Scott
One at a time, please. I will give way when I have finished my sentence.
The Government, by their provision of resources for those programmes, have recognised that standards of insulation are below what is necessary, but they are providing resources steadily to improve the standard that is achieved.
§ Mr. Scott
A great deal will depend on the efficiency of local authorities in Scotland in tackling problems with their housing stock. In Scotland, it is generally local authority housing which suffers most from that problem. It will depend on local authorities' willingness and determination, within the resources that they are allowed, to tackle the problem.
Energy efficiency and energy saving are particularly important. The Energy Saving Trust, which was set up in November to propose, develop and manage programmes and to promote the efficient use of electricity in the domestic and small business sector, is developing schemes particularly directed at the needs of low-income families to ensure that affordable warmth can be achieved through the better insulation of their homes.
The Government have been particularly active in running the "Keep warm, keep well" scheme in recent years. I understand the hon. Lady's point about the 1051 vulnerability of many people, in particular the elderly and people living alone, during periods of cold weather. Although the "Keep well, keep warm" campaign in England and Wales and the "Keep warm this winter" equivalent north of the border are concerned with a range of services, one of the points that I have always emphasised as I have played my part in promoting our campaign has been good neighbourliness. If only people who live close to individuals who might be particularly vulnerable to the impact of cold weather would keep an eye on their neighbours and give them advice, help and support and look out for signs that others might be under some threat, we could do much to counter the impact of cold weather, particularly on elderly people who live alone.
The "Keep well, keep warm" scheme, which is run in conjunction with Age Concern, Help the Aged and Neighbourhood Energy Action, has had a significant effect north and south of the border on our approach to coping with the problems of cold weather and how to minimise its effects and provide advice to those who need it.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
The Minister mentioned Age Concern. What representations have the Government received from Age Concern about VAT on fuel?
§ Mr. Scott
The House will no doubt have opportunities in future to discuss VAT on fuel. My right hon. Friends will announce in due course the precise details of the scheme to compensate the most vulnerable people for the impact of VAT on fuel. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Social Security and others have made that clear. I am not in a position today to say what the details of that scheme will be, but it will be an effective scheme and it will be well targeted at people who need help.
§ Mrs. Ewing
Obviously, we do not expect the Minister to give notice, but we assume that the Government are talking about an increase of only £1 in the basic state pension. Does he believe that that will be enough to cope with the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel? According to Hansard, in 1991, he promised to review the system of assistance to the most vulnerable and to examine the operation of the current system. Surely he is building in poverty in such a way that it will be absolutely impossible to eradicate it.
§ Mr. Scott
The hon. Lady is seeking to lure me down a path that I have no intention of treading. Indeed, I am not in a position to do that. More senior colleagues will announce in due course what the package will be. The £1 increase which the hon. Lady mentioned and which has been mentioned in the public prints is simply taking forward the RPI for—
§ Mr. Scott
Perhaps the hon. Lady will let me finish the sentence—the increase in the retirement pension that would flow from taking the 1.8 per cent. figure in September through to the uprating in the new year, totally outwith and ignoring any compensation that we might introduce for the impact of VAT upon fuel costs for those people.
§ Mrs. Ewing
Does the Minister accept that built into state benefits is an element for heating? As account has 1052 been taken of the RPI, there has been a reduced heating element in the state premiums paid to people on invalidity benefit and pensions, for example, in proportion to their income and expenditure.
§ Mr. Scott
That is a different point. The compensation for people responding to the impact of VAT on fuel will be totally distinct from and additional to the ordinary uprating that the Government will be making to the retirement pension and other benefits next April. That is the essence of the argument. I have to ask the hon. Lady and others who are rightly concerned about the matter to await the announcement in due course by my right hon. Friend.
§ Dr. Godman
With regard to the eligibility criteria for the system of financial support, is the Minister satisfied that local Benefits Agency officers are able to help vulnerable individuals who come into the community from long-term institutional care? What guidelines are given to those local officers of his Department in respect of the heating needs and, indeed, other needs of that vulnerable element in the community?
§ Mr. Scott
I acknowledge that the problem that the hon. Gentleman has raised about people leaving institutional care means that it is incumbent upon our local offices to identify those cases and make sure that they are included in the system, but, in general, the automatic system of identifying customers who are eligible for cold weather payments has worked remarkably successfully and accurately since it was introduced. It is now automatic. It is now available to people, not just in retrospect for a period of cold weather but when a cold weather period of seven days is forecast.
Without the need to apply, people can receive cold weather payments simply, automatically and fairly. Those are almost the words that the hon. Member for Moray used when she advocated her scheme. The cold weather scheme might not be exactly what she would like, but simple, automatic and fair are certainly three of the qualities of the cold weather payment scheme as it exists today.
§ Dr. Godman
People coming into the community from long-term care are an important issue. Recently, I had the case of a woman living in the most appalling conditions —no heating at all. Is the Minister satisfied with the development of the relationship vis a vis care in the community between Benefits Agency officials and local social workers? In just about all cases now, those individuals are, in a very real sense, protected by social workers. Is the Minister satisfied with the arrangements that have been established between Benefits Agency officers and social work and, south of the border, social services departments?
§ Mr. Scott
Knowing the hon. Gentleman as I do, I know that he would not raise that as a trivial point; it is a matter that he takes seriously. I have no evidence that the system is not working properly, but I will certainly make inquiries to ensure that the aspect that he raised is examined very carefully. It is obviously a matter between Departments —the Department of Health concerned with social services provision and ourselves who are concerned with benefits payments. I take the hon. Gentleman's point very seriously. As I have said, we have made several important improvements to the scheme and obviously we monitor its effects. A point was made about weather stations, especially Eskdalemuir. We monitor the system year by 1053 year. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Moray has seen Statutory Instrument No. 2450, which includes a number of changes made to the areas covered by the Eskdalemuir weather station.
Every year, I receive a number of representations from hon. Members to the effect that their areas need a more finely tuned system to meet the needs of their constituents. Despite my meteorological training in the Royal Air Force many years ago, I am not able to make such judgments; I rely heavily on the Meteorological Office, which is helpful and considerate. If hon. Members look at the schedule to the order, they will see that we have altered the boundaries of many areas covered by specific meteorological stations to make them more sensitive to the needs of people living in those areas.
§ Mr. Scott
No. We still have about 60 meteorological stations throughout Great Britain to cover those areas. I think that that is right. I rely on the professional advice of the Meteorological Office in these matters. As long as we listen to any local complaints and local experiences, we are doing well.
The Government's record in this respect is a good one. We have improved the cold weather payments scheme. We have ensured that income support, through its premium structure, enables us to give extra help to groups that are recognised as having special needs, such as families, disabled people and the elderly. The total extra help above the normal upratings that we have made available to pensioners on income-related benefits since 1989 is now worth about £1 billion a year. The same is broadly true of families on income-related benefits.
The scheme advanced by the hon. Lady, with her persuasive arguments, would be expensive to introduce and administer, and would not focus help accurately on those who need it most. It is vital that our huge social security budget is used to the best effect. Total social security expenditure in the current year is expected to be in the order of £80 billion. We owe a duty to the taxpayer and to the public at large to ensure that that money is properly targeted and sensibly used. I do not believe that the introduction of the scheme proposed by the hon. Lady would fit that pattern.
§ Mr. Henry McLeish (Fife, Central)
This is an important debate dealing with an issue of genuine and growing importance not only in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom. The debate must be seen against the background of an alarming growth in fuel poverty in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom and the threats now being posed to low-income families as the Government seek to extract themselves from the £50 billion deficit that they created. Sadly, that seems to be based on attacking some of the poorest families, whether they are in Scotland or throughout the United Kingdom.
The key issues that lie at the heart of the debate are certainly the cold weather payments and the motion relating to the cold weather allowance. But we must go much deeper than that and consider some other issues: first, the growing income inequality in British society, manifested especially in Scotland—I shall give some figures on that later—and, secondly, the question of 1054 housing conditions and how they impact on the issue of fuel poverty. Some of my hon. Friends have already raised this matter. It is important that it should not be missed in any series of strategies to tackle the issue.
I shall stress the crazy, corrupt and cynical proposal to impose VAT on fuel because, in any debate about fuel poverty and cold weather allowances, it is vital to consider the wider canvas. Clearly, any Government who impose VAT on fuel on the majority of families in this country have little regard for the genuine issues.
Earlier, I said that the cold weather payments scheme certainly has weaknesses—the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) pointed them out to the House. When one considers that something like £50 million was spent In 2.5 million cases in Great Britain in the last year for which figures are available, it is clear that that is an insignificant amount, relative to the whole social security budget and the whole area of need.
The crucial issue is not to dwell on the payment for exceptional or severe weather but to consider the wider background of fuel poverty generally. Most people agree that in the society in which we live, it is an obscenity that, in 1993, people must make agonising choices every day about whether they eat or heat. That is a trite way—some would say that it is an exaggerated way—of raising the issue. However, it is a reality for my constituents and those of my hon. Friends who feel that people should not have to make such choices.
Another issue is the growing inability of people simply to face their fuel bills. What a situation! To think that families which may have sick people, disabled people and large families must think about the level at which the heating in their homes operates. We have economic problems in Britain, but surely we cannot argue that millions of our fellow citizens must make such decisions day in and day out. Sadly, it can be a life or death situation for some elderly people. When I visit some of my constituents their houses are absolutely frozen. They spend half their days in bed—they simply do not have enough income to spend on fuel. This issue is a political one—it is about the resources of the nation—but it is also a human issue and it underlines the whole question of fuel poverty.
Earlier, I referred to income inequality. By any standard, Scotland produces figures that are absolutely frightening. One of the key hallmarks of the Government is the reinforcement of the dependency culture in Scotland. One quarter of a million Scots are out of work. Two thirds of them are on income support and one third are on benefits. What income do they have to make choices about heating? The Department's figures show that 900,000 Scots—that is one out of every six—live in families where income support is the only source of income. I think that the Government will agree that income support is not a generous allowance—it is a basic allowance. I am sure that the figures are similar in other regions of the United Kingdom.
A much more debatable point is the fact that nearly 600,000 Scots work for less than £4 per hour, which is not a large sum. However, they must make decisions about what they spend and what they do not spend, and that is atrocious.
The Government should recognise that before we talk about cold weather payments and NAT on fuel, we should look at fuel debt as part of income support. The Department's figures show that in Scotland in May 1991, £2 million a month was deducted from income support 1055 payments to pay off fuel debt. So at present we have figures from the Department of Social Security which confirm that people do not have enough money to pay and amounts are being deducted from their income support. That reinforces our case that income support and part of the income inequality issue is crucial to any reasonable understanding of where we are in terms of fuel poverty.
If that is not bad enough, what is startling is that we top the European cold winter deaths league. In a modern society that looks over the developed world and into Europe, we have more old people dying in the winter period in Britain. Many factors may be at work. It would not be wise to single out one cause, but the problem deserves an investigation. It worries Opposition Members and I am sure that it worries the Government.
The key, however, when discussing the Government's fiscal policy, is always to remember that those groups at the bottom of the income ladder are spending roughly four times as much on fuel as a proportion of their income as are those at the top. The point was well made earlier, that that is a crucial ingredient when we consider VAT, as I shall in a minute. Surely the Government are aware of the figures. Why cannot they accept that those people in Scotland on income support, in unemployment or on low pay, have no choice; they have to heat their houses? It is not a luxury item. When we consider how much those people spend on fuel as a proportion of their household income, it should impress upon us that we should be cautious in what we do, especially when raising taxes. Taxes may reduce the deficit, but they may have punitive effects on the people on whom they are imposed.
One would expect the Government to be energetic about energy conservation, and the Minister has highlighted some of the developments that have been made, but they are simply not enough.
Let us consider the Scottish housing condition survey—which has just been published—in terms of energy conservation and modernisation. The survey shows that 28.7 per cent. of the occupied stock in Scotland—584,000 houses—show some evidence of dampness, condensation or mould. One in eight Scottish households live in damp housing and one in five households live in dwellings affected by condensation. Tragically, 70,000 households that are occupied by pensioners are in those categories.
That knowledge must be a substantial contribution to any issue relating to fuel poverty, but it is simply not being tackled on the scale that is required. Any degree of insensitivity in tackling that problem will only mean that five or 10 years down the road the problems will be much worse and will acquire a degree of investment. I challenge the Under-Secretary of State to mention that problem when he sums up. I appreciate that it is not part of his wider remit because it is a housing problem, but I hope that, with his hon. Friends, he will be able to tackle that concern.
Following the privatisation of electricity and gas, there are people in the marketplace who want to provide more and more fuel. The major generators should be concerned about conservation and should be considering energy supplies. Why cannot they be more involved in ensuring proper insulation and helping the Government to tackle, in particular, the public sector housing problem?
1056 Any energetic Government would be considering farsighted policies to tackle those problems, but that is not the case here. Instead there is the draconian proposal to impose a tax on fuel. We have listed the worries of people who are unable to pay their bills at the existing levels. What on earth can the application of a tax of, on average, £2.40 per week do for those people who are already struggling at the bottom of the income ladder? The tax will reinforce the crisis that confronts poorer families in Scotland. It will simply help to kill more elderly people in the winters after the tax has been imposed at the full 17.5 per cent.
The tax is apparently being imposed regardless of its practical consequences. The Treasury may think that the problem is a fiscal one and that the tax will reduce the deficit—my God, the deficit has to be reduced, but at whose expense? Is there no serious solution that the Government could conjure up without causing more problems for those who are already in difficulties?
The issue of VAT is quite remarkable. We know that poorer families spend a disproportionate amount of their income on heating and fuel. The household expenditure of such families will increase proportionately much more dramatically than those earning a great deal more at the top of the income scale. What should be done about that?
The Government say that they will help out the people who have problems, but will they help out the quarter of a million Scots who are on the dole? Will they help out the 900,000 people who are living in families with income support? Will they help out those who are on low pay, earning less than £3 or £4 per hour? Will they help the 1.1 million pensioners in Scotland, some of whom are on income support and some of whom get by on an occupational pension which merely takes them above levels at which benefits are paid? Of course they will not. It would be crazy for the people in the Treasury to conjure up a punitive tax and then have to spend huge sums of money to compensate people for what the Government inflict upon them. I believe that that is morally and politically offensive in relation to the people whom I have described. It is a punishment for most people because everyone will pay that ludicrous tax, but we have to have concern for those who are in greatest need.
The Government should seriously consider all the matters that we have highlighted this evening, including the subject of cold weather payments, but it would not make one iota of difference in a real sense to tinker with proposals against the massive income inequalities that are growing, and against the deplorable housing conditions that generate fuel poverty. Of course the Government would be better served, even at this stage, by abandoning the imposition of VAT on fuel. We think that we have a strong case. It is a moral and a political case. I sincerely hope that when the Minister winds up tonight he wilt tackle some of the deeper, more significant issues that I have raised in my contribution.
§ Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside)
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate on cold weather. I speak as a Member for a constituency which contains perhaps one of the coldest villages in Britain, Braemar, but I shall mention that later.
Having heard the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) open this debate—I am sorry that she is no longer in her 1057 seat to hear the rest of the debate—I have a lot of sympathy with many of the emotions that she expressed. There is no doubt about it; we are very anxious to protect the old, and especially those on low incomes, from the ravages of cold weather. Having listened to the hon. Lady, however, one would imagine that the Government had done nothing to help them. She is wrong. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People has already listed significant improvements to the cold weather payments scheme which were introduced some years ago.
I must also correct the hon. Member for Moray because she will be aware that before I became a Member of the House I used to live in her constituency and I therefore know the area quite well. She will perhaps be aware of the monitoring points for the cold weather payments for her constituency. She spoke about there being one monitoring point for the entire constituency, from the highlands up to Aviemore—although I know that Aviemore is outwith her constituency—down to the coastal belt of the Moray firth. I understand that her constituency has a similar coverage to mine and that the coastal area is covered from a monitoring point at Aberdeen, on the coast, whereas the highlands are covered from Aviemore.
I shall return to that later. First, I must deal with her suggestion of a cold weather payment allowance. She mentioned four zones, with the fourth—northern Scotland —having the highest allowance. As I said, before the election I used to live in Moray and I know what the temperatures there are like. Moray consists of the Spey valley. I have now moved across a set of hills to the Dee valley. My goodness, the temperature there is significantly lower than the temperature in Moray. Yet, under the hon. Lady's proposed cold weather allowance, everyone would be paid the same. Is it right and proper that my constituents, who live in a much colder area, should be given the same as her constituents? I do not think that it is.
If we impose that sort of blanket coverage, there will be inequalities, and that does not apply only to Scotland. I am sure that some of the coldest areas of England can match the temperature in parts of Scotland, although they could not match the coldest area in my constituency. If we introduce blanket coverage, we will open up a hornet's nest. I stand by the Government's cold weather payments scheme, targeted at cold areas and those who need them most.
§ Mr. Salmond
If I were the hon. Gentleman I would start to worry about the political temperature in my constituency. Will he carry his concern about cold in his constituency into the Lobby against the Government when we vote on value added tax on domestic fuel, or will he vote against his constituency interest, as he did on fishing, oil workers and the regiments?
§ Mr. Kynoch
I hear what the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) says, but perhaps I am rather more sensible than him. As I have heard only half of the equation for VAT on fuel, I look forward with great interest to hearing the other half when my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer tells us the balancing factor—the benefits for those in need. To criticise the tax when one knows that we have to raise taxes is totally wrong and misleading, but it is typical of the Scottish National party. The nationalists are trying to stir 1058 up emotions and worry people. They are trying to tell people that they will not get something that has not even been announced yet.
On the details of the cold weather payments scheme, I had some sympathy for the hon. Member for Moray when she mentioned the monitoring points. I have referred to Braemar—a village in my constituency, which nestles in the Dee valley about 60 miles west of Aberdeen. Braemar is a particularly cold part of Scotland. I have here some temperatures for the past three years, which were recorded in Braemar by the local primary school, which is a climatic monitoring station for the Meteorological Office. It might interest my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to know that the minimum daily temperature was less than freezing on 116 days in 1991—that is one third of the year. In 1992, the number of days below freezing dropped slightly to 102, and this year there had already been 38 days below 0 deg C by August. During the past three years the minimum average monthly temperature has risen to above 10 deg C—48 deg F for those of us who deal in older units—only once, in July 1991.
I am worried about the residents of Braemar because the cold weather payments scheme is geared to look after people like them. There are many retired people and people on low incomes in Braemar. It is important that we ensure that the cold weather payments scheme works and applies to those people. I am sure that the Government are concerned about that.
I then looked at the average mean temperature in Braemar during the past three years, to find out how many times the cold weather payments would have been triggered if the monitoring point had been there. I found out from a particularly helpful gentleman at the Meteorological Office this morning—a Mr. Davis—that the cold weather payment would have been triggered by a consecutive period of seven cold days on six occasions in 1991, if the temperature had been recorded at Braemar. In 1992 there would have been one payment and in 1993 there would have been three. As I said, the monitoring station is at Aviemore and the payments for my constituency were triggered less often. In 1991 they were triggered only twice; in 1991–92 there was no payment; and in 1992–93, when the winter must have been somewhat warmer or more uniform, the payment was triggered three times, which is what would have happened if Braemar had been the monitoring point.
I am greatly concerned. We have a scheme that deals with the problems caused by the effects of cold on people on low incomes and the elderly. We must make absolutely sure that it works.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to assure me that he will consider upgrading the monitoring station for the Braemar end of the Dee valley. When I picked up the phone this morning the same Mr. Davis said, "Ah, yes. Braemar would be the ideal spot for monitoring cold weather payments in that area but it puts in its record only monthly". It puts in its record monthly because a primary school is recording temperatures on a daily basis and is asked for the record only monthly. Any difficulty lies in who will pay the telephone calls to submit the daily figures to Bracknell. I may be wrong but, if that is so, I urge my hon. Friend to overcome that problem so that the current system, which I believe is good, works and protects those whom it is designed to protect.
I understand that a cold period lasting seven days, in which the mean temperature is below zero, is needed 1059 before the cold weather payment is triggered. What happens if we have a period of, say, nine days when the mean temperature is below zero? Under the existing rules, I understand that seven days' payment is then made and a fresh period of seven days then begins in which one must requalify. In my constituency and the Dee valley, a significant number of cold days fall between trigger points —between seven and 14 days or between 14 and 21 days—and thus cannot become qualifying periods. We should pay for that intervening period.
The hon. Member for Moray referred to automatic payments. I understand that the payments are made automatically by computer if one is eligible for benefit and that one does not have to claim for them. They can also be paid on days on which the temperature is forecast below zero.
The hon. Lady unintentionally distorted some of the benefits of the cold weather payments scheme. There is a lot of good in the scheme. Although I believe that she is seriously concerned for her constituents and I share her concern, I do not share her solution because it would have to be paid for at the expense of those whom she is trying to protect.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to upgrade the Braemar primary school station to a met station capable of being the monitoring point for that area and to review the seven-day period so that, when a cold spell lasts longer than seven days, parts of that period can also be covered.
§ 9.7 pm
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
It is important to put on record the fact that cold weather is not stopped by Hadrian's wall. I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) on bringing this debate before the House.
On Monday morning, before I came down to Westminster, I went to Carlisle city centre where the excellent pensioners' rights organisation was organising a petition against VAT on fuel. I signed the petition and stayed to talk to some of the pensioners. It was a cold, bright day in Carlisle and a north wind was blowing from the Scottish mountains. But VAT on fuel was sending a shiver down the backs of the pensioners in my constituency. It should also send a shiver down the backs of Conservative Members.
§ Mrs. Ewing
I was not in Scotland over the weekend and did not deliberately send down a cold wind in the direction of the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I have a great deal of love and affection for Carlisle as many members of my family live in that area. I happened to be in Carmarthen in Wales, where people were chipping the ice off their car windows on that morning. We recognise the fact that climatic conditions can affect all parts of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Martlew
There is no doubt that it is a British problem. Shivers should be running down the backs of Conservative Members——
§ Mr. Martlew
I take the hon. Lady's point. Shivers should be going down the spines of Conservative Members 1060 because many of the people that I talked to had voted Conservative in the previous election, but many said that they would not do so again.
An elderly gentleman, who had worked for most of his life, had a small works pension, had put away a bit of money and had fought in the last war. He told me that, although he would have liked to, he did not receive income support because he received a pension. He said that dramatic interest rates cuts may have helped mortgage payers, but had cut the interest on his small amount of savings. He also commented on the fact that German pensioners who had also fought in the last war were treated better by their Government than he was by ours.
We have heard that tale on many occasions, but it is still true. That gentleman knew that he was being badly treated by the Government and that he would have to tighten his belt in order to afford to heat his house after the introduction of VAT on fuel. VAT on fuel is wicked, evil and should never have been considered. Conservative Members agree with that, but they do so because they consider the issue in political terms; we agree because we see it in social terms—VAT on fuel will bring devastation to many people.
People die of cold in the winter. The statistics prove that, in this country, 35,000 people, many of them elderly, die in the winter months. What does the Government do to help? They do nothing to help, but instead decide to put VAT on fuel. That will have only one effect; it will mean that more people will die next winter when VAT comes in at 8 per cent. and even more will die when VAT goes up to 17.5 per cent. in the following winter. However, that is what the Government are contemplating.
The present cold weather payment arrangements do not work well. Reference has been made to Eskdalemuir. It is probably one of the better stations, and better than the one in Northumberland. Eskdalemuir is 400 ft above sea level and last year triggered cold weather payments three or four times. The weather station in my constituency is at sea level. I believe that cold weather payments were triggered on only one occasion. That meant that the people of Gretna received cold weather payments four times, but those who live just over the bridge and across the river in England received only one cold weather payment. There must be something wrong with a system that allows that to happen. Nobody will convince me that temperatures vary from one side of a bridge to another. I know that it has been exciting on the bridge, but that was 300 years ago, and we have calmed down a lot since then.
Recently, the National Lottery Bill went through the House. The cold weather payment system is a lottery—the Government's decisions on where the temperatures are to be taken constitute a lottery. It cannot be seen as a fair system. Unless the Government are prepared to introduce more stations or another system, the cold weather payment arrangements will be seen as unjust by the people who should benefit.
The hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) referred to the fact that seven days in a row of cold weather are required before payments are made. Do not people spend extra money on fuel during six days of cold weather? Do they spend extra money only on the seventh day? What if there are six days of cold weather, the temperature rises 1 deg C above the limit for one day and then there are another six days of cold weather? Will that mean that those in the district do not use extra fuel? It will mean that they receive no extra payment. The system is not 1061 fair and it is seen not to be fair. We have a lottery, but the seven-day system is like the football pools—if one gets seven draws, one gets a dividend, albeit a low one of £6. But if one gets six draws, one gets nothing.
Perhaps the system advocated by the hon. Member for Moray is not the right one, but we must arrive at a just system for the whole country. There should of course be fewer people on income support; that can be achieved only by providing more work for those without it. We need the basic pension to be set at a level that allows people to dispense with income support or special allowances of any kind. The people who receive such allowances do not want special treatment: they just want fair treatment.
I am glad that today's motion was tabled. The people in my constituency are angry about VAT on fuel and distressed because they often miss out on cold weather payments. Conservative Members have said that we know only half the equation. That is not our fault. Why did not the Government announce what they were going to do for the vulnerable when they announced the imposition of VAT on fuel? Actually, they did announce it—they intended to do nothing. It is only because of public pressure and the realisation by some Conservative Members that they are likely to lose their seats—they have been looking over the water to Canada and they have seen how cold it can be there—that the Government have thought again.
We must get rid of VAT on fuel. It is no good the Minister being so urbane at the Dispatch Box and giving way all the time when he gives nothing away to the people whom I represent.
§ Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)
I shall detain the House for only a few minutes as I do not wish to deny Opposition Members the chance to speak.
I have watched the debate with interest and the Minister has already said most of what I wanted to say. At the risk of destroying his political prospects, I hope that the House will allow me to commend the performance by the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish), whom I have not seen before at the Dispatch Box. I have no doubt that we will see him there again, however.
I believe that the proposal by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) is fatally flawed because it advocates the delivery of a benefit that does not meet the problem which she described to the House. The hon. Lady speaks in terms of the deaths of elderly people who are deprived of the ability to heat their homes. There is no doubt that any sort of poverty presents risks of that sort, but to defuse that risk the hon. Lady has presented us with a system that massively increases public spending—by her own admission, by hundreds of millions of pounds. That expenditure will not, however, solve the problem that she has so energetically and passionately defined. That is why I want to take her to task and to put this debate in its correct context.
There are two distinct aspects to the motion. The first is the VAT on fuel announced in the Budget; the second is the hon. Lady's proposal for a cold climate allowance. I fear that too many extraneous issues have been introduced to this debate without a proper presentation of the facts.
Over the past few years the costs of domestic fuel have fallen dramatically, partly as a result of privatisation, and partly as a result of world energy prices. Anyone with a constituency in Scotland will know about the oil price 1062 movements of the past few years. Domestic energy prices have fallen. Gas prices have fallen by 21 per cent. since 1986, the price of oil has fallen, and the price of electricity, strictly controlled by the regulations included in the privatisation legislation, is also beginning to fall.
§ Mrs. Ewing
Irrespective of the cost of domestic fuel —I have already mentioned the implications of the RPI for benefits—does the hon. Gentleman dispute the fact that the 10 per cent. of households with the lowest incomes will be hit seven times harder by VAT on domestic fuel than will the richest 10 per cent.—a statistic produced by the university of Cambridge?
§ Mr. Duncan
I shall shortly deal with that when I examine the percentage of household income that is spent on fuel, because that issue is crucial to the argument. VAT will be levied initially at 8 per cent. and it is planned to raise it to 17.5 per cent. I have discovered from the Library the estimate of how much a household spends on fuel. I have all the figures, but I shall deal with just one category —a retired couple in a household who depend mainly on state benefits. It is said that they spend 7.9 per cent. of their household income on domestic fuel, of which VAT will represent an increase of about 1.5 per cent.
VAT on fuel will be about £1 to £2 a week per household. For most people that is affordable, as it represents the price of a pint of beer or a bit more. However, for many people it will not be affordable and the Government are directing their efforts and targeting money at those people. The cost of the hon. Lady's proposal is excessive, but its benefit to the people that I have described is not particularly effective. The Government can best deliver that benefit to those who are most in need. That is exactly what we on the Select Committee on Social Security are studying and we shall openly recommend to the House what we think is the most effective way to do it.
The hon. Lady and her party have pre-empted the debate by introducing scares and excitement and by examining only one side of the equation by refusing properly to discuss what the Government might be able to introduce. The hon. Lady has done the public a disservice by not presenting the facts equitably.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) said, there is already a cold climate allowance and it is working increasingly effectively. My hon. Friend described how it will be delivered automatically to those on benefit. However, he did say—and it should be said—that, thanks to the amendments that we have tabled, that allowance will be delivered within five to 10 days, probably even before bills are received. Therefore, the Government have directed considerable effort towards making sure that the specific delivery of benefits, payments and compensation is targeted to those who are most in need. That is better than the random, massive arbitrary benefit that has been recommended by the hon. Lady and her colleagues.
The motion is sloppily worded. It does not clearly say how the money is to be raised, although now that the Trident refit has moved to Rosyth, the Scottish Nationalists are happy to say that the money could come from that programme. The hon. Lady failed to say that if independence for Scotland is granted the revenue that she described will no longer be available to it. She is calling for 1063 a massive and inefficient increase in the subsidies for Scotland and perhaps for other parts of the United Kingdom.
We must consider carefully how these benefits are to be delivered and we must take the debate away from massive, universal benefits.
§ Mr. Duncan
No, because I am coming to the end of my speech.
Expenditure must be much more closely directed to those in need. Those are the people that the hon. Lady has well described but by her motion has not helped.
§ Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)
There is not enough time to cover all the issues that I should like to cover, but I shall highlight one or two matters. I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) on her excellent speech. She genuinely believes, as we all do, in the worth of what she says.
The debate is about people, about the elderly and disabled, and especially the latter who incur additional costs for daily heating and hot water and need a constant, warm environment.
The way to end fuel poverty is to invest massively in the housing stock and provide basic insulation. There are particular problems with the home energy efficiency scheme in rural areas.
I do not know whether the Minister is aware that contractors are reluctant to undertake work in more remote areas because the maximum grant is not sufficient to cover costs. The additional cost has to be absorbed by the installer or borne by the customer, so contractors tend to keep people in rural areas waiting until they have several jobs to do in one area. Individual jobs in rural areas can sometimes cost many hundreds of pounds more than the maximum grant. For that reason, the energy action grants agency has never been able to find a contractor for the Western Isles.
Most customers have to pay substantially more than the £16 for loft insulation and draughtproofing specified by the energy action grants agency. Many customers, such as those on income support, have had to give up having the work done because they can see no way of paying for it. Clearly, the grants are not enough to help the very people whom they are intended to benefit.
The Government should understand by now that their extraordinarily unpopular suggestion that they put VAT on power and fuel is frightening many people, particularly the elderly.
Let me draw attention to two letters that I have received from constituents. I have had many more letters on this particular subject than I ever had about the poll tax because so many people are genuinely worried about what is going to happen. I received a letter from a 69-year-old pensioner who wrote:I now dread the winter. I often sit without heating or with only the limited heating of a storage heater, only putting on one bar of my electric fire. The rest of the house stays cold and I know what hypothermia feels like".Another writes:As a … pensioner I feel not welcome in my own country. I don't feel safe or secure over the future. I speak to local elderly 1064 folk who just about manage to pay their fuel bills and who did have pride in their meagre independence. They are shocked and hurt over this tax on fuel.
§ Mrs. Michie
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall not give way as we are short of time. We want to wind up the debate and I am specifically trying to be brief.
The problems that I have outlined are genuinely worrying my constituents and many others. I am aware that there are cold parts throughout the United Kingdom, but it is significant that most Members of Parliament who have spoken tonight represent constituencies in Scotland. It is a very cold place. We have long, cold winters and very short, often also cold, summers. I received a copy of a letter from the Paymaster General to my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) who had written to him making clear his worry about the imposition of VAT on fuel. The Paymaster General wrote back to him, particularly about the highlands and islands, sayingHowever, it should be noted that though the cost of heating in the North may be more expensive this is only one aspect of the overall cost of living. Other day-to-day expenses may be considerably less costly in, for example, Scotland than in the South of England.It sounds as though the Paymaster General has never been to the north of Scotland, where the cost of food, transport and ferry services make the cost of living much higher. I hope that the Minister will take on board all the points made tonight.
§ Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)
This debate has certainly justified the decision of my hon. Friends and myself to centre it on not just the imposition of value added tax on fuel but a whole range of issues connected with fuel poverty. The existing situation is intolerable and VAT on fuel will make it much worse.
My hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) dealt with the social security aspects of our proposals, so I shall concentrate on energy efficiency. The statistics on both are damning and should remove any vestiges of complacency of the kind shown by Government Members this evening.
In the United Kingdom, 7 million homes have heating problems and the figure for Scotland is 750,000. During Scottish Questions yesterday, it emerged almost casually that no fewer than 70,000 homes in Scotland with damp problems are homes where the head of the household is a pensioner. My hon. Friend quoted the latest frightening estimate that 3,000 to 5,000 deaths occur in Scotland each and every year from cold-related medical conditions.
Any Government with a shred of humanity would act to tackle those appalling statistics—not make them worse by imposing VAT on domestic fuel. The complacency on the Tory Benches was epitomised by the remarks of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), who revealed at the start of the debate that he had not even bothered to read any of the cold climate Bills that we have presented to the House over the past few years. He ended his speech by inadvertently revealing that he had no knowledge of the Scottish budget, in which our proposals for a cold climate allowance are part and parcel of the calculations.
Even worse than the hon. Gentleman's ignorance was the Minister's display of complacency this evening. He basically said that the Scots are exaggerating the nature of 1065 the problem—that the poor in general spend less in absolute terms on fuel bills and that the Scots do not spend much more. The Minister betrayed his lack of understanding of the very nature of the problem.
The family expenditure survey figures show that in 1992, 5.4 per cent. of household income in Scotland goes on fuel expenditure, whereas the figure is 4 per cent. for the south of England and the United Kingdom average is 4.8 per cent. The poorest 10 per cent. spend seven times more as a percentage of household income on trying desperately to heat their homes compared with the top 10 per cent. The paradox is that the poor spend less in absolute terms because—as the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) said—they retreat to live in one room and to their beds because they cannot afford adequately to heat their whole houses.
If members of the Government Front Bench claim that we are exaggerating, perhaps they will heed the Northern Scotland Consumers Council (Electricity), which in its submission on VAT on fuel made the same point in respect of absolute expenditure:We suggest that this figure could indicate that, through lack of funds, the proportion of underheated homes is much greater in Scotland.I hope that Government Members who argued this evening that the problem is being tackled through the existing system will feel thoroughly ashamed when they return to face their constituents. Those hon. Members were of course merely echoing the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said that it is a question of proportion and that those who argue against VAT on fuel are getting matters out of proportion. Of course, it is a matter of proportion—in the sense that, as a percentage of income, a pensioner in Scotland will be affected six times as much as the Chancellor of the Exchequer by the imposition of VAT on fuel. That assumes that the Chancellor will pay his own heating bills, rather than their being met at the public expense.
The Chancellor says—and his view has been echoed this evening—that no sensible person would condemn the proposal for VAT on domestic fuel without knowing the nature of the compensation scheme. We are here this evening to say that no sane Chancellor would threaten such a measure without a precise examination of the vulnerable sections of the community that it would put at risk.
As I think we all know, the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer was being disingenuous when he said in his Budget statement that it was all a matter of trying to save the world by cutting carbon dioxide emissions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Moray pointed out, an area in the north of Scotland that is the greenest in the country in terms of electricity generation will be the hardest hit by the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel. In the Hydro area, some 0.28 kg of kwH of carbon emissions are generated. The average for the United Kingdom is 0.83—three times as much. The greenest area will be hardest hit and will suffer most. It is in this area that the Scottish paradox of fuel poverty amid energy plenty is at its worst.
It is possible to sit shivering at home in the north-east of Scotland, while looking out to sea and observing cheap gas supplies being piped round the coast without benefiting those experiencing fuel poverty. In rural areas in the north, people cannot even obtain a gas supply to gain access to a cheaper form of heating, because British Gas has ordered the Scottish area to increase connection charges by adjusting the previous formula. The Government are on a 1066 collision course with the Scottish people: perhaps that is why, according to tonight's latest survey, their support in Scotland stands at 14 per cent. For the benefit of numerate Tories from English constituencies, let me say that that is one-four per cent.
§ Mr. Graham
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) suggested that the amount involved was only the cost of a pint of beer. How insulting that is to elderly people in Scotland. Do Conservative Members think that such people can go out every night and pay £2 for a pint of beer? The hon. Gentleman clearly has not a clue about the price of a bottle of Calorgas, which is £11.75. Let me tell him, if he does not know, that a hundredweight of coal costs between £5.75 and £6.75.
§ Mr. Salmond
As ever, the hon. Gentleman has made his point very well and requires only an endorsement from me.
I spent a happy few years on the Energy Select. Committee, which I considered one of the most successful Back-Bench Select Committees. A measure of its success was the Government's anxiety to abolish it: that must say something for the reports it produced. Two examples brought home to me the shameful position in regard to energy use and energy efficiency in the United Kingdom. The first came from Andrew Warren of the Association for the Conservation of Energy, who said in evidence that, without any question, on the basis of a range of statistics and examinations, the standards of thermal insulation in Scandinavia were higher in the 1930s than they are in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, 60 years later.
We need look no further for the explanation of another frightening statistic, mentioned earlier. In Scandinavia—which has a much colder climate than parts of the United Kingdom—the percentage rise in deaths in the more vulnerable sections of the community is much less during the coldest winter months. What have the Government proposed? What is the Minister so proud of? In his opening speech he listed a whole range of measures. He said that the Government will engage in the local authorities investment programme, but that has been severely cut across the range of initiatives that local authorities are prepared to make. He mentioned the Green House initiative, but that budget is to be cut in the next financial year to a mere £5 million. Then he mentioned the Energy Saving Trust—which is chaired by the former golden boy, John Moore—but its budget is only £5 million. The much-vaunted home energy efficiency scheme has a total budget of £35 million.
Those measures and budgets are paltry when compared with the billions of pounds of profits generated by the energy industry. The Government should introduce two measures to help them finance a significant programme of energy conservation. First—for this programme and a range of others—they should arrange the transfer of local authority housing capital debt from local authorities to central Government, which would release funds over a period and enable the local authorities to put their housing stock in proper order.
Secondly, we need tougher regulation of the massive energy utilities. At the moment those utilities have an incentive to sell energy to inadequately insulated homes. Energy utilities are not allowed to sell appliances which are inefficient and dangerous, so why should the same utilities be allowed to sell energy to homes which are energy inefficient and dangerous to the occupants? As a strict 1067 condition of their licence, the energy utilities should be required to provide an input of investment into the proper insulation of the homes to which they sell their energy.
The semblance of unity that the Government have managed so far on the issue of VAT on domestic fuel is a facade. They have heard enough muted sounds from the Tory Back Benches this evening to know the key concerns that many Tory Members have. Even within the Government there is only a facade of unity, a barely held together position on the question of VAT on domestic fuel.
Not everyone in the House buys a weekly copy of the Turriff Advertiser, so for the edification of those who have not read it, I will read a section from the issue of 8 October this year. Under the headline "MP Sproat in Turriff' it reads:Arts minister lain Sproat expressed concern over government proposals to put VAT on to heating bills, while in Turriff at the weekend.Speaking at Banff and Buchan Conservatives West branch's cheese and wine, the former Aberdeen South MP was applauded when he said he hoped the Chancellor would not tax domestic fuel.'It is unfair to put this added burden on the elderly and retired,' he added.That was said by a Minister in Turriff earlier this month.
I have written to the Prime Minister welcoming the freedom of speech that Ministers are allowed and I am looking forward to the free vote that will be allowed when the issue of VAT on domestic fuel comes to the crunch.
The Minister was dissembling in Turriff because he understands the tidal wave of anger that has been generated by the VAT on domestic fuel issue. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) was right to say that it is a greater issue than the poll tax was in 1989 and 1990. If the Government do not change course on this issue they will be swept aside by that tidal wave of anger. Those on the Treasury Bench may threaten a long cold winter for the elderly and vulnerable in Scotland and elsewhere, but I can promise the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the heartless Secretary of State for Scotland a long hot political winter unless they change course on this particular issue.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt)
It gives me great pleasure to respond to the debate and to support the amendment moved by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People.
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) who gave a typically understated performance. He raised a number of matters which had been mentioned by other hon. Members and I shall comment on them. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues spoke about inhumanity, and such comments are rather galling to me and my colleagues on the Conservative Benches. We are sick and tired of that sort of stuff.
Over the years we have spent substantial amounts of money on social security and on health. In fact, we spend more on those services than has ever been spent. It is rather unbecoming of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to rail constantly on the same sort of lines with such emotional stuff.
All the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan can do is to greet every problem with other people's money, which 1068 would fall through his fingers like water. The hon. Gentleman's colleague, the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), yet again bumped up the cost of the cold weather credit scheme to £645 million, which is larger than even we had anticipated. We are all rather tired of the speeches that are given on this subject by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. I shall comment in detail on the hon. Gentleman's proposals later.
Obviously, I listened with great interest to all the points that were made in the debate. I am afraid that I heard nothing, however, that would convince me that a cold climate allowance would improve conditions for vulnerable people in cold weather. Our current methods of providing help are far better. They deal with the real problems and focus the money on those who need it most. Income support provides for normal heating needs throughout the year and it is supplemented by cold weather payments when there is a sustained period of cold weather in a particular area.
The home energy efficiency scheme addresses the problems of fuel efficiency in homes and the Government combine their effort with other agencies to spread to vulnerable people advice on how to cope with cold weather. The current package of help is well designed and focused.
The hon. Member for Moray, who opened the debate, spoke with her usual passion and concern on this issue. In common with other colleagues, however, I am not convinced that her scheme would do the job that she intends. As we all appreciate, and as was said in the debate, the cost of heating is affected by many factors other than climate, including the size of the home, the type of heating, the standard of insulation and the like. As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, I do not believe that a cold climate heating allowance would be properly targeted. It would introduce new inequities into the scheme. In common with previous Governments, we believe that it would not be right to deviate from the principle of national benefits levels, but that would be the effect of a cold climate allowance.
I must also take issue with the hon. Member for Moray, as other colleagues have done, on the problem of temperature variations between respective parts of the United Kingdom. Matters are not always as clear as they sometimes appear. The mean temperature variation between parts of the United Kingdom does not tend to be that great. Such variation is as much due to higher temperatures experienced during the year in the southern parts of the United Kingdom as opposed to necessarily much lower temperatures in Scotland in the colder months.
I have one example to cite in answer to the argument of the hon. Member for Moray. I studied the average mean temperatures between 1961 and 1990 for the four coldest months of the year—November, December, January and February—and I found out that the temperatures were lower in the English region that spread from Northumberland to Lincolnshire than they were in a Scottish region which included Orkney, Shetland, the northern areas, Ross, Cromarty and Inverness. Under the hon. Lady's proposed system, however, the Scottish area would have received higher payments of the cold climate allowance. I suggest that those figures reveal that it would not be a well-targeted scheme. It would not do the job that the hon. Lady intends.
§ Mrs. Ewing
I am listening to the Minister with great interest because it is obvious that he does not understand that it is colder in the north of Scotland in general than it is elsewhere. Is he challenging figures that have been supplied by the Meteorological Office, the Social Security Advisory Committee and a variety of organisations that are concerned for the welfare of the elderly and the handicapped? Does he disbelieve their statistics? Is he cooking up his own figures to suit his argument?
§ Mr. Burt
The hon. Lady should think twice about querying the figures that were given to me by the Meteorological Office. I have cited the mean average temperatures between 1961 and 1990 to illustrate my point that it is not easy to make generalisations, asunder the cold climate allowance scheme, because temperatures vary in different parts of the country. I am afraid that, in some cases, those variations would not do the job that the hon. Lady intends. I am sorry; I shall reiterate the point that in the four coldest months, in two of the areas that the hon. Lady chose, the area in England, to which she would give less money, was colder than the area in Scotland, to which she would give more money. If she would like to query the figures, I would gladly let her have them.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan raised the issue of how much is spent on fuel. He quoted the 1992 figures from the family expenditure survey. I have the 1993–94 figures before me. The average expenditure on fuel and power for those who claim benefit in Scotland in pounds per week is around £10.60. In Yorkshire and on Humberside it is £11, in the north-west and in the east midlands it is £10.80. Those figures suggest that to claim that fuel and power expenditure in Scotland is so far above that in other parts of the country is simply wrong.
§ Mr. Salmond
If the hon. Gentleman had listened, he would have heard that I quoted the key figures from the expenditure survey—those as a proportion of income. On that basis, they are correct, and I take it that the hon. Gentleman does not disagree. He does not seem to appreciate the central point that has been made throughout the debate, that absolute figures, whether they apply to the poor or to people in colder regions, can of course be lower or marginally higher because people cannot afford to heat their homes. The limitation of those figures is that people switch off their fires because they are frightened of having a fuel debt.
§ Mr. Burt
Let us not change the argument; I shall deal with the cost of fuel in a moment. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that when one considers average expenditure as a percentage of net income for the years 1992 to 1994, in Scotland it is 5.1 per cent., compared with 5.4 per cent. in the north, in Yorkshire and Humberside and in Wales. The Scots do not necessarily come out on top.
I enjoyed, as always, the speech of the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish), who made his points in a clear and straightforward manner which I respect. Fuel poverty is a matter of concern to us all, and trying to come to grips with how the poorest manage their budgets remains a serious issue. I went to Ireland about three weeks ago and looked at some poverty projects in Northern Ireland and in southern Ireland where there is tremendous emphasis at local level on basic budgetary work. We do not do that nearly as well in the United Kingdom and there are lessons to be learned. For the poorest, budgeting for fuel can be extremely difficult and budget control is essential.
1070 The incidence of winter deaths is a sensitive issue and should be handled sensitively by the House, as the hon. Member for Fife, Central did. He was right: a variety of factors cause deaths during winter. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government were interested in doing anything about it. I am glad to tell him that the Department of Health has commissioned the Medical Research Council to undertake research into excess winter mortality and we await the results of the study into that complex issue, which should be handled in a complex manner.
I shall refer later to points made about VAT on fuel, but I would find the concern about fuel costs easier to take from the Labour party if it had not been in office when electricity prices rose by 2 per cent. every six weeks and there was nothing like the comprehensive scheme that we offer to look after people in such situations.
I am grateful for the information from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People, who raised the issue of housing in Scotland and said that that was a problem that any Government would wish to address. It is a problem that we are addressing.
Local authorities have been allocated £393 million for their own stock and £120 million for improvement and repair grants in the private sector. It is for them to allocate the money in the manner we suggest in order to tackle the most difficult conditions highlighted by the Scottish house: conditions survey. In addition, Scottish Homes, with substantial funding, already has about 40 strategic agreements with local authorities to meet housing needs. We accept what the hon. Member for Fife, Central said: housing problems cannot be solved overnight, but the Government are strongly committed to doing everything that they can.
§ Dr. Godman
The Minister mentioned a research project whose findings will, of course, be of considerable interest to us all. What institution is carrying out the research, what funding does the institution receive and when are the findings likely to be published?
§ Mr. Burt
The information from the Department of Health states that the research is being carried out by the Medicial Research Coouncil. I do not have information about funding or dates, but I shall ensure that it is sent to the hon. Gentleman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) made an important contribution to the debate, in which he rightly took the hon. Member for Moray to task over what she said about the scheme. It is clear that Braemar primary school provides an extremely important service for the local community. I was interested in what he said about the problems in his area. I can tell him that the scheme is reviewed regularly, but the issue affecting his constituents has been noted and I shall ensure that it is examined.
The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) spoke about shivers down the spine. He has them because of the Boundary Commission proposals—we have Carlisle marked out as a Tory gain at the next election, so I know that he feels the chill wind pretty keenly. The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about the cold weather payment scheme and moaned about its boundaries and fairness. We all accept that trying to ensure that the 60 stations cover the regions properly will involve an element of selection. However, the hon. Gentleman did not spend 1071 much time telling us about his party's cold weather payment scheme, and the reason is that it does not have one.
§ Mr. Martlew
I shall probably not be facing the Minister across the Dispatch Box after the next election because he will not be here. Why are there only 60 stations? Could the number not be increased?
§ Mr. Burt
I apologise for not giving way to the hon. Gentleman, but I have only a few minutes left.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton made two important points in his extremely helpful contribution. As any oil analyst of worth should, he correctly analysed the defects in the cold weather allowance mentioned by the hon. Member for Moray. He also pointed out that there has been a reduction in real terms in the cost of domestic fuel—it has been reduced by 17.5 per cent. in real terms over the past few years, which is a considerable contrast to the Labour party's record when it controlled fuel costs.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) raised the Liberal head above the parapet. We regard comments by the Liberals on VAT and fuel with considerable scepticism. It is only fair that I remind the House of the words of the Liberal policy paper entitled "Costing the Earth", which was published in August 1991.
It mentioned as a first prioritythe imposition of a tax on energy".It stated:The UK is unusual amongst EC members in not applying even standard rates of VAT on to domestic fuels … If it proved completely impossible to persuade our international partners to adopt energy taxes, we would nevertheless press forward … by ending the anomalous zero rate of VAT on fuel".Is it any wonder that so few of the hon. Lady's colleagues were prepared to grace the Benches tonight, because of their shame over that?
The comprehensive scheme offered by Her Majesty's Government in relation to cold weather payments is simple, fair, fast, responsive, sensitive and improved, and it is generous compared to any scheme offered by previous Governments. I commend it and the amendment to the House.
§ Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 33, Noes 119.1072
|Division No. 375]||[9.59 pm|
|Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy||Cryer, Bob|
|Barnes, Harry||Davidson, Ian|
|Bayley, Hugh||Ewing, Mrs Margaret|
|Beith, Rt Hon A. J.||Foster, Don (Bath)|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Godman, Dr Norman A.|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Graham, Thomas|
|Canavan, Dennis||Gunnell, John|
|Chisholm, Malcolm||Johnston, Sir Russell|
|Connarty, Michael||Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)|
|Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)||Rendel, David|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Salmond, Alex|
|Macdonald, Calum||Skinner, Dennis|
|Maclennan, Robert||Tyler, Paul|
|McWilliam, John||Watson, Mike|
|Maddock, Mrs Diana|
|Mahon, Alice||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)||Mr. Andrew Welsh and|
|Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)||Ms Liz Lynne.|
|Paisley, Rev Ian|
|Alexander, Richard||Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)|
|Amess, David||Hunter, Andrew|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Jenkin, Bernard|
|Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)||Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)|
|Ashby, David||Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Kilfedder, Sir James|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)||Kirkhope, Timothy|
|Bates, Michael||Knapman, Roger|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Kynoch, George (Kincardine)|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Lamont, Rt Hon Norman|
|Booth, Hartley||Legg, Barry|
|Boswell, Tim||Lidington, David|
|Bowis, John||Lightbown, David|
|Brandreth, Gyles||MacKay, Andrew|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)||Malone, Gerald|
|Browning, Mrs. Angela||Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick|
|Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)||Merchant, Piers|
|Burt, Alistair||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Carrington, Matthew||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Carttiss, Michael||Ottaway, Richard|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Chapman, Sydney||Portillo, Rt Hon Michael|
|Clappison, James||Rathbone, Tim|
|Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif)||Richards, Rod|
|Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey||Robathan, Andrew|
|Colvin, Michael||Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)|
|Congdon, David||Robinson, Mark (Somerton)|
|Conway, Derek||Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Ryder, Rt Hon Richard|
|Cope, Rt Hon Sir John||Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas|
|Cran, James||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Deva, Nirj Joseph||Sims, Roger|
|Devlin, Tim||Speed, Sir Keith|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Spencer, Sir Derek|
|Dover, Den||Spink, Dr Robert|
|Duncan, Alan||Steen, Anthony|
|Elletson, Harold||Stephen, Michael|
|Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)||Stern, Michael|
|Evans, Roger (Monmouth)||Streeter, Gary|
|Fabricant, Michael||Sweeney, Walter|
|Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas||Sykes, John|
|Fenner, Dame Peggy||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Forman, Nigel||Taylor, John M. (Solihull)|
|Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)||Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)|
|Freeman, Rt Hon Roger||Thomason, Roy|
|French, Douglas||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Gallie, Phil||Trend, Michael|
|Gardiner, Sir George||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Viggers, Peter|
|Gorst, John||Walker, Bill (N Tayside)|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Waller, Gary|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)||Watts, John|
|Hague, William||Whittingdale, John|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Hannam, Sir John||Willetts, David|
|Harris, David||Wood, Timothy|
|Hayes, Jerry||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Heald, Oliver||Mr. Robert G. Hughes and|
|Hendry, Charles||Mr. James Arbuthnot.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.1073
§ MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House commends Her Majesty's Government on its range of policies designed to protect the most vulnerable from the effects of cold weather and to stimulate energy conservation measures in the United Kingdom; and in particular welcomes the improvements in the Cold Weather Payments Scheme, the increased resources devoted to improving insulation for homes, and the extra help amounting to more than £1 billion given to poorer pensioners.