I am sure that all hon. Members are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts) for raising this important subject. The theme of the speeches has been consistent. The dramatic rise in off-peak electricity tariffs, coming on top of the other shocks that consumers are experiencing in these inflationary days, has caused more dismay and alarm among pensioners than among any other section of the population.
What rankles in the minds of the 2 million families who possess night storage heaters is the feeling that they have been misled by the electricity industry. For 10 years a clever and successful selling campaign has persuaded many people to install these systems as a long-term measure. They were represented not just as cheaper than normal electric systems but as being competitive with other forms of heating. Now, suddenly, in an across-the-board increase, off-peak electricity jumps nearly 70 per cent. in cost.
The full impact of such a sharp rise will not be felt until the autumn, but already many hon. Members are showing their concern by their Questions and by their statements to Ministers. They have been pointing out the unfairness of the new charges and their doubts about the sales promotion schemes used until recently by appliance manufacturers and retailers. Electricity boards claim to have ceased Press advertising 18 months ago, but television advertising continued until recently, with several stores offering advantageous terms.
Is the Minister satisfied that no misleading advertising has taken place since the decision was made to increase charges? I should also like him to ensure that the public are now made fully aware of the new tariffs. Does he know the number of night storage heaters held in stock? There could now be a cut-price selling campaign based on outdated costs.
I am sure we are all concerned about the impact of these charges on the elderly and disabled, who have often installed those heaters under special free installation schemes. Such a couple wrote to me:
My wife and I, aged 76 and 77 years, were advised by our doctor to install some form of heating. I suffer from bronchitis and my wife is arthritic, so two years ago we bought 3 night storage heaters, which were installed free under some scheme for the elderly.
We have enjoyed two comfortable winters, but with the anticipated 70 per cent. increase in the cost of running these, I am afraid we shall be unable to use them even with the extra pension. Can something be done in this case for the elderly? I am sure there are many others in this position or worse.
I am sure that that letter is indicative of the many letters that hon. Members on both sides of the House have received.
It has been argued that the oil crisis and its effect on electricity generating costs means that an across-the-board increase of 0.3p a unit has to be made. That is an over-simplification. It is probably easier to administer but it is rough justice to the off-peak consumer, who has been led up the garden path by subtle and effective advertising.
Of course we knew that electricity tariffs would have to rise, but does not the Minister agree that, even assuming a doubling of generating fuel costs, it is still a rough and ready method to apportion the overall increase in unit costs equally on the cheaper marginal night electricity and the expensive peak-hour generation? In any case, during this vital battle against rising prices would it not have been more sensible and conducive to public unity to avoid such a sharp and dramatic jump in this one area of heating?
How can people be expected to understand the problems of Government when on the one hand, we see massive subsidies and stifling price controls yet in the one area where the Government have direct control—in the nationalised industries—there are violent surges in prices? During the last three and a half years, when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was Prime Minister, he was taunted with a familiar slogan, misquoted of course, about a pledge to cut prices at a stroke. During his efforts to combat rising prices he took action to restrain prices in the public sector. With the rises in price of coal petrol and electricity, the present Government have, at a series of strokes, given a massive impetus to the prices spiral. The cost-of-living index figures to be released later today will. I am sure, cause grave concern.
I hope that the Minister will be able to look again at these charges and take steps to spread the load a little more fairly.