Severe Weather Payments
Mr Michael Meacher (Oldham West)
I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 10, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,
the provision of adequate heating payments to pensioners and other claimants in need in view of the exceptionally severe weather now being experienced throughout the country.
The matter is important, because not only is this one of the
coldest Februarys on record—it is estimated that this may be the coldest February for more than 300 years—but the system of exceptionally severe weather payments devised by the Government to meet those circumstances is in complete disarray and is unworkable. Only one quarter of DHSS offices have officially declared the weather "severe", even though the exceptional cold has been registered throughout almost all the country with temperatures of minus 10 to minus 17 deg C being widely experienced. Designation of exceptionally severe weather conditions has been left to arbitrary local discretion. Even in the coldest areas, no advertising of the payments has been undertaken, so nobody knows that they are available and nobody who is entitled receives them.
The matter is specific, because people are dying of hypothermia. Every year, the number of deaths is increasing. In 1978 it was 42, and according to Government figures it was 329 in 1984 and no fewer than 415 in the first half of 1985 —the latest figures. This February will undoubtedly produce the worst mortalities for 50 years or more. Even so, the figures understate the numbers at risk. The latest thorough survey discovered that one in every 200 elderly people—more than 50,000 pensioners—had a deep body temperature below 95 deg F, which is the threshold for hypothermia. Those people are now at risk.
The matter is urgent, because whilst we are now three weeks into a severe cold spell, the weather today with a severe easterly wind is markedly colder still. According to the Metereological Office, which I have checked, almost all areas are today almost 5 deg C colder than during a normal February, the coldest areas of all being in East Anglia, the Midlands, South-West England and South Wales.
The Government's exceptionally severe weather payments system has broken down and 50,000 elderly people and young babies in cold households are at risk of dying. The death rate from hypothermia is already remorselessly rising. I submit that the matter should be debated by the House as a matter of urgency to ensure immediate extra aid for heating where it is most needed —in the coldest households.
Mr Bernard Weatherill (Croydon North East)
The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No.10, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,
the provision of adequate heating payments to pensioners and other claimants in need in view of the exceptionally severe weather now being experienced throughout the country".
I have listened with care to the hon. Member's submission and I listened to questions on the statement yesterday and at Question Time today, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, my sole duty when considering an application under Standing Order No.10 is to decide whether the matter should be given priority over the business set down for today or tomorrow. I regret that the matter that he has raised does not meet all the criteria laid down in the Standing Order, so I cannot submit his application to the House.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North)
I do not question your decision, Mr. Speaker. I recognise that you do not like continual applications under Standing Order No.10 on successive days. Regardless of the indifference of Conservative Members to the suffering of the elderly, will you, Mr. Speaker, accept that so long as the present cold weather continues, there are bound to be further applications under Standing Order No.10, because this is an issue that deeply concerns us, although obviously it does not concern Conservative Members? There may well be another application tomorrow or Thursday, and I hope that you will not say that this is an abuse of House of Commons time.
Mr Bernard Weatherill (Croydon North East)
The hon. Gentleman is putting a hypothetical question. I shall have to wait to see what happens. I also take into account other opportunities, such as Opposition time, to raise such matters.