Details of the revised scheme to help recipients of supplementary benefit and family income supplement with their electricity bills this winter were announced on 18th October. They include a payment of £5 to be made to recipients of these benefits in the week commencing 16th January 1978. This is intended to help with electricity costs but may be used in whole or in part towards other fuel costs. Beneficiaries may also claim 25 per cent. of the amount of electricity board bills which exceed £20. To extend the scheme as a whole to other fuels would be administratively very difficult.
Will my hon. Friend accept that, whilst the continuation of the electricity scheme and the improvements that he has made are extremely welcome, many of our poorest families and poorest pensioners are dependent upon solid fuel heating rather than upon electricity? They get very little out of this scheme. Will my hon. Friend, therefore, look at it again and try to overcome these administrative problems so that we may make sure that such people can afford heating this winter?
Clearly we cannot change the provisions of the scheme for this winter. However, to deal with my hon. Friend's point, if the people to whom he refers are in receipt of supplementary benefit or family income supplement they will get a payment of £5, which they can use in whatever way they decide.
Does the Minister realise that his response to a great human problem will be regarded as a very timid and bureaucratic one, ignoring, as it does, the needs of a vast section of the community, namely, deprived people? Will he have discussions with the Health Education Council, which is deeply concerned about the health, welfare and even the lives of old people during the coming winter?
The hon. Lady must not confuse the admittedly limited role and scope of this scheme with the much wider role and responsibilities of the Department of Health and Social Security.
Can my hon. Friend give us some information about the take-up of the old scheme, and can he tell us why there is a £20 limit on the new scheme, because that seems to prevent those who depend on other fuels from getting the full benefit?
To deal with the second part of the question first, there is no limit. For bills up to £20, people will receive automatically £5 in cash. For bills in excess of £20, people can claim additional benefit. For example, if the bill is £40, the entitlement is £10, £5 of which will be paid automatically. They will be entitled to the other £5 as well, and they will receive it. Therefore, the discount is still 25 per cent. of the bill, whatever it may be, provided that the people claiming the discount are in those categories.
Last year—[Interruption.] If Conservative Members want to mouth objections about getting on with it, perhaps it means that they do not really want to hear what the Government are doing to help people to pay their bills. We think that final figures for the scheme for last year will amount to 70 per cent. of those eligible.
The Department of the Environment, rather than ourselves, is looking at this problem in some detail. Clearly we are concerned about it too. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a specific date when the Department of the Environment expects to reach any conclusions, but perhaps I may write to him about it.