Is the Minister aware that, notwithstanding the paltry increase in the heating allowance, which does not even keep up with the cost of living, the chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, speaking in Glasgow yesterday, said that it was inevitable that many thousands of pensioners would suffer great hardship this winter because of an inability to pay their heating bills? In the light of this, will not the Minister reconsider the heartless decision to end the fuel cost assistance scheme?
I do not think that Government expenditure of £120 million this year on helping with heating costs should be described as paltry. I draw the hon. Member's attention to the comments of the chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission about first ensuring that the poorest people are adequately protected. That is what we intend to do with the scheme this year.
Is the Minister aware that the Government's decision to discontinue the electricity discount scheme, plus the apparent confusion already existing at local level about the mechanics of implementing the 95p mandatory award, will create great hardship for many thousands of people, including pensioners, who are in the trap of having all-electric homes? Will not she and her hon. Friends reconsider what appears to be an extremely callous approach to a serious human problem?
The House was very much aware last year that the electricity discount scheme was extremely wasteful to administer. The hon. Gentleman mentioned misunderstandings at local level. All local offices have been instructed exactly what to do. The 95p addition to supplementary beneficiaries of age 75, or those in supplementary benefit households with someone over the age of 75, commenced from this week. If there are individual difficulties, I shall be grateful if the hon. Gentleman will bring them to my attention.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend in that 110,000 elderly pensioners who did not previously get help will now receive help? Will she, with her right hon. Friend, consider whether in some way those over 75 who are in receipt of rent and rate rebates could be included? Is she aware that many hon. Members will have advised pensioners in their constituencies to take rent and rate rebates because they would be better off than if they were getting supplementary benefit? The opposite may now be the case.
I believe that many people may now, as my hon. Friend says, be better off on supplementary benefit. We have been told that by this announcement we have clarified the question whether people should be on rent and rate rebates or on supplementary benefit.
My hon. Friend asked whether we would look at the position of those who gained on average £7·50 last year through the rent and rate rebates being entitled to the electricity discount scheme. I repeat what my right hon. Friend said on 22 October. We shall keep under review the range of help available for fuel costs as the months go by.
That is not good enough. The hon. Lady knows it and so do her colleagues. Are they not prepared to state in this House and elsewhere that there are millions of people who were benefiting previously, however inadequate the discount scheme may have been, but who will now no longer benefit? Will the Government accept, as I would expect anyone on either side of the House to accept, that there is a growing problem for fuel poverty in this country which will not go away?
Will the hon. Lady or her right hon. Friend take the lead, with colleagues in other Departments, to establish a clear policy on fuel poverty, involving the operation of the Homes Insulation Act, involving changes in the tariff structure, involving changes in the—[Interruption.] This is a serious matter concerning millions of people in the country. Does the Minister agree that there should be increased financial help, in line with rent and rate rebate allowance schemes? There should also be a major review. Will the hon. Lady accept that?
The House is already well aware that the last Government left absolutely no money in their forward estimates for the heating scheme this winter. The right hon. Gentleman is very well aware that we are concentrating the available help on the most needy people. We are spending £120 million this year, in comparison with £125 million spent last year. The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned growing problems. Discussions will, of course, continue with other Government Departments which are already involved in other aspects of fuel costs.