Under this Government, increases in the level of supplementary benefit heating additions have more than kept pace with rises in fuel prices. As my right hon. Friend announced last week, they are to be increased in November in line with the increase in domestic fuel prices between May 1982 and May 1983 of 8·6 per cent. This should more than maintain that improvement.
I congratulate the Government on making that substantial increase. Can my hon. Friend give an assurance to Age Concern, Stockport—about the staff of which I corresponded with his Department earlier this year —that failure to take up the heating addition is not regarded as a significant problem?
Is the Minister aware that some areas of the country, such as Scotland, are colder than others? Would it not be fair if there were higher heating allowances on that account? Will he look at heating allowances in Scotland to ensure that pensioners and others on benefit are kept on an equal footing regardless of where they live?
It would be difficult to raise the allowance to match every degree of cold. I come from the Pennines, where, it is said, it rains all the time, and certainly where it is cold in winter. I suppose it would have a high allowance. There must be a national scheme which applies generally. However, there are exceptionally severe weather payments. If an area is know to be affected by exceptional weather, while that may deter some people from living there, those payments should help those who do live there.
Will my hon. Friend consider, when this matter is reviewed again, the plight of people over the age of 80, bearing in mind that the problems facing the very elderly are much greater than those affecting, for example, those who have just retired? I am not certain that the present differentiation is adequate to care for the over-80s.
I take the point that my hon. Friend makes, but I remind him and the House that between 1979 and 1983 the Conservative Government made it automatic for people aged over 70 on supplementary benefit and those with children below the age of five to be given heating help. That was done, not by a Labour Government, but by the last Conservative Government.
Is it not the case that the most important aspect of the problem is the insulation of old houses, coupled with the question of standing charges? Will the Minister undertake to consult the Minister for Housing and Construction and the Secretary of State for Energy to see whether standing charges can be abolished or at least greatly diminished for certain categories and that a major campaign is launched, with public expenditure, to insulate old people's dwellings?
I should have said the right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson). I realise that both constituencies are still under Labour and that a people's republic still exists in parts of that area. We in the Conservative party live together in such a friendly way that Ministers meet regularly, and obviously when we all meet — the housing managers, the Secretary of Stale for Energy and the Minister for Housing and Construction —the point that the right hon. Gentleman made will be considered.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many housing problems are the result of the bad construction and design of houses, particularly local authority houses, and that a heating allowance alone cannot solve the problems, particularly in Scotland, of damp and condensation?
I fear that that supplementary question, like the previous one, is for another Department. There are home improvement grants to help with those problems, and I am sure that when matters such as that are raised in the House the representatives of other Departments pay attention to them.
Was the Minister telling the House in his main answer that the price of coal had gone down? Is he aware that gas prices rose by 112 per cent. during the lifetime of the last Parliament, that electricity charges went up by 82 per cent. and that the gas standing charge was increased by 400 per cent.? How does he square those figures with that answer?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman asked that supplementary question—I was hoping that it would be raised by one of my hon. Friends—because it enables me to give the figures. Between November 1978 and November 1982, the basic rate of heating addition increased by 124 per cent., compared with an increase in domestic fuel prices of 96 per cent.