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Representations are received from time to time that pensioners should not be required to pay standing charges for gas, electricity or telephones. These are matters for the industries concerned. The social system contributes significantly towards heating costs, including standing charges, through the indices used to set benefit levels.
Do I take it from that answer that this Government, with the new caring image that they tried to portray at the Tory party conference, are not going ,to do anything about standing charges? Is the Minister aware that it would cost only about £300 million to abolish these charges for pensioners?
British Telecom allowed the City institutions to make a financial killing out of its privatisation and it is likely to be the same with British Gas. If there is enough money in the country to line the pockets of those crooks in the City, why do the Government not abolish standing charges for pensioners?
On a point of information, the cost would be not £300 million but £600 million. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind, on the question of caring, that supplementary benefit heating additions have risen by one and a half times the rise in fuel prices since this Government came to power.
If standing charges for social security recipients were abolished, would that not put up the unit costs of telephones, electricity and gas? How much benefit would that be to pensioners and others on benefits? If those costs were passed on to the population, would that not bring in many people on low incomes?
My hon. Friend is right. He explains precisely why statutory industry consumer councils do not favour the abolition of standing charges. Abolition would increase unit costs dramatically, particularly for pensioners who use large amounts of fuel.
Does the Minister accept that a Bill before the House would remove standing charges for pensioners without increasing the unit costs of gas and electricity? Does he further accept that this winter many pensioners will die from hypothermia because they are afraid to turn on their gas heaters and will not be able to pay their gas and electricity bills? Will the Minister abolish standing charges for pensioners so that they do not have to experience another freezing winter because they cannot pay their bills?
I have made clear the Government's position on standing charges. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that heating assistance comes in a variety of ways. In addition to supplementary benefit and heating additions, I shall shortly be bringing before the House proposals to replace the previous exceptionally severe weather payments.
I have made clear twice that abolishing standing charges is not necessarily the way to deal with the problem. I share the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about hypothermia. That is why we have made significant increases in heating additions over the last few years. The Minister for Health is studying the figures for hypothermia for last winter to find out precisely why there was an increase in deaths from hypothermia.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the deep feeling among many pensioners about the unfairness of standing charges? Is he further aware that the telephone can mean the difference between life and death for many elderly people living alone? Will my hon. Friend at least look at the problem in relation to telephones and the social security system?
I understand what my hon. Friend says and I know of his long-standing concern about the problem, but the abolition of standing charges does not seem to be well targeted, and it is not necessarily the best way of dealing with the problem.