Orders of the Day — Fuel Poverty

– in the House of Commons at 7:14 pm on 2nd December 1986.

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Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 7:14 pm, 2nd December 1986

I beg to move, That this House, noting the huge increase in deaths from hypothermia and cold related conditions that occurred last winter, and noting the extreme restrictiveness and arbitrariness of the Government's proposed cold weather payments scheme which is likely to offer only miniscule aid to only one in eight pensioners only once in five years, calls on the Government to guarantee all poor pensioners a £5 a week winter premium throughout the winter months, while at the same time protecting all households with persons at risk from fuel disconnection and instituting a major programme of home insulation which will both create jobs and conserve energy.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

I inform the House that the amendment standing in the names of the Prime Minister and others has been selected by Mr. Speaker.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

This is the third time in three years that we have had this debate, and it is extremely regrettable that it is necessary yet again. It is necessary because the Government have it within their power at this time of year to prevent the needless deaths of many elderly people from hypothermia and cold-related conditions. Yet in the past two winters the Government have manifestly and tragically failed to exercise that power.

This debate is intended as a warning to the Government that the roll call of preventable deaths must never be allowed to happen again, and that means that the Government's latest cold weather payments scheme must be changed drastically while there is still time.

In the first three months of 1984, nearly 400 people died from hypothermia, according to the official figures. The Government introduced for the next winter exceptionally severe weather payments, which were triggered by temperature readings at a number of weather stations. The scheme was a fiasco. In the first three months of 1985, 630 died from hypothermia. The Government changed the system to allow discretion to adjudication officers locally to determine exceptionally severe weather. That, too, was a fiasco. In the first three months of 1986, 578 died of hypothermia. Three weeks into the bitterly cold spell at the start of this year, fewer than half of the 450 local DHSS offices considered that the weather was exceptionally severe.

Photo of Mr Richard Hickmet Mr Richard Hickmet , Glanford and Scunthorpe

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's concern, but is he aware of the statement by Lord Marshall, the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board, that if we phase out nuclear power the price of electricity will rise between 15 and 20 per cent. and that during the very periods of which the hon. Gentleman is talking Lord Marshall could not guarantee continuity of supply? Does the hon. Gentleman favour phasing out nuclear power? If so, what does he think that that will do for hypothermia among the elderly?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

That was an unwise intervention. First, the Government have not ordered one new power station, either nuclear or coal-fired, in the past seven years. Secondly, anyone who regards Lord Marshall as an independent witness to the relative costs of electricity as between nuclear and coal-fired power stations is risking a great deal of his intellectual reputation.

The figures that I have quoted greatly understate the ravages of a bitterly cold winter. Many extra deaths occur because of cold-related respiratory conditions such as bronchial pneumonia or circulatory conditions, such as heart attacks or strokes, as well as through hypothermia. In Britain there are about 50,000 extra deaths in the autumn and winter compared with the number of deaths in the previous six months.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay , Berkshire East

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of the winter which produced the highest number of excess deaths? That winter was 1978–79, when he was a DHSS Minister. Perhaps he will explain that.

Meacher:

I do not have the figures in front of me, but every year for the past decade—I am not making a party political point, and the hon. Gentleman is unwise to enter into that—there have been between 40,000 and 60,000 excess deaths in the autumn and winter compared with the number in the spring and summer. It makes little difference which Government are in office.

There need be nothing inevitable about more deaths occurring in the autumn and winter. In Canada and Sweden the winters are longer than ours and much more severe, yet there are almost no variations in infant mortality or old-age mortality between the summer and winter months. If that can be achieved in those countries, why can it not be achieved here?

Hundreds of pensioners will die this winter because the steps that the Government are taking to prevent that happening are pathetically inadequate. Indeed, they are almost derisory. Under the Government's new scheme, severe weather payments will be made only when the temperature falls below minus 1·5 deg C over seven days from Monday to Sunday, as if the weather were neatly packaged into convenient batches that nicely coincided with DHSS office hours. If that formula had been in operation last winter, which was the coldest for 40 years, no less than half the country would have been excluded. In February, when an estimated 7,000 elderly people died from the cold, the average temperature was minus 0·9 deg C. Even that bitterly cold month would not have triggered the minus 1·5 deg C threshold. Only three out of 14 weather stations in Scotland would have triggered the benefit.

Large areas of Wales, the south-west and the north-east of England would have got nothing. Pensioners in Greater London, Glasgow, Sheffield and other major cities would have been entitled to the extra payment for only one week, even though in the shambles of last winter's scheme, the severe weather payments were declared for three weeks or more in those areas. In other words, although the payments made last winter were, by all accounts, paltry, inefficient, arbitrary and delayed, it is likely that even fewer households will be eligible to claim them this winter.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

Although the 0·9 per cent. figure quoted by the hon. Gentleman is an interesting one, I fear that he is mistaken. The figure of minus 0·9 deg C has been widely misunderstood, and it is clear that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood it as well. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) will listen, I shall correct his hon. Friend's fault. That figure is an average one and was recorded at several weather stations in central England only. It is not the average for the whole country. As the hon. Member for Oldham, West is well aware, the essence of the exceptionally severe weather payments scheme is to direct special help to special areas at times of special cold.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Given the clarification that the Minister has provided, how many of the 64 areas that are covered by the present scheme would have triggered the benefit? Even bearing his point in mind, is it not the case that fewer than half of those areas would have triggered the benefit?

There are other major drawbacks to the Government's scheme. Severe weather will still be declared regionally and that will still give rise to anomalies and misunderstandings between districts. The categories of persons eligible have been sharply cut. Previously everyone claiming supplementary benefit, who qualified for a single payment, would have been eligible for an exceptionally severe weather payment. Under the present scheme only households with someone under two years of age, or over 65, or with a person who is chronically sick and disabled will qualify for help. Nobody with more than £500 in the bank will be eligible. Therefore, the great majority of poor pensioners on supplementary benefit will not be eligible.

Perhaps the most significant point is that the scheme is still not automatic in any way. It still puts the onus on the claimants to make the claims, and that will undoubtedly reduce even further the low take-up that the Government expect among pensioners.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

Does my hon. Friend agree that the £500 limit is extremely mean-minded and undermines successive Governments' pleas for saving? What does £500 now amount to? We should bear in mind that many elderly people—perfectly understandably—save up for their funeral costs. They find pride and dignity in being able to be buried without having to ask their relatives to help them financially. Why should the Government penalise those people?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My hon. Friend has made an important point. It may surprise Conservative Members to know that the limit might discourage elderly people from saving for their own funerals. I do not know whether that was intended, but it will be the effect. It is extremely mean to make the limit as low as £500, when it is possible for somebody to have £3,000 in the bank and still get supplementary benefit. The limit of £500 is only one sixth of that total.

By any standard, it is a pathetic little scheme, hedged around with so many petty constraints as to make the aid provided minuscule. Even on the Government's own assumptions, only about one in every eight pensioners is likely to be able to claim payment once every five years. If a few do manage to break through the bureaucratic thicket, their reward will be precisely £5, which is about enough to heat one room for a couple of days.

There is a foreign proverb that says "The mountains are in labour and they bring forth a mouse", and that just about sums up the scheme.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

No, I shall not because I wish to make further progress.

The absurd inadequacies of the proposals result from the Government having the wrong objective at the outset. The Government never asked the relevant questions, which are how we can vanquish hypothermia, and what level of extra heating payments, plus home insulation, is necessary to do that.

The Government started from a completely different premise. They made the crucial political decision that the payment will be limited to places of "exceptionally" severe weather. That is their word. The Government continued by making the administrative assumption that exceptionally severe weather should mean that claims are made only about once every five years. In paragraph 23 of their consultative paper, the Government say: The purpose is to set up a system which on the basis of historical data would imply that help over a significant part of the country overall would be expected to be given about once in five years over a longer period of years. In other words, help will not be given according to what is needed, but only to claimants who happen to fit the mean and niggardly political and financial constraints that were laid down centrally.

Paragraph 24 makes clear that: it was in order to secure that claims can only be made once in every five years that the trigger point was fixed at minus 1·5 deg C. That was not an accident; it was done deliberately and it was designed to ensure that only a tiny number of pensioners received payment, that they did so only infrequently, and that if and when they got the payment, it would be minute.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

No, I shall not give way. I have already given way to the hon. Member for Teignbridge.

I am, of course, perfectly well aware of the Government's reply to my case. Exceptionally severe weather payments are not the primary weapon in the battle against hypothermia. The Government say that that role is played by the supplementary benefit scale rates, including a fuel element, plus the weekly heating addition. We have heard that defence many times, and it is deeply flawed on two grounds.

First, whatever claims Ministers make about the scale rates and heating additions, more people, and not fewer, died of hypothermia in the past two winters than for a decade. Therefore, the scale rates and heating additions were inadequate to keep people warm, and there is no way that the piffling little extra of exceptionally severe weather payments could be regarded as compensating for that fundamental inadequacy.

Secondly, the heating additions and other heating payments have been cut by the Government in many cases, and I hope that the Minister will have the grace to admit that. Under the available scale margin rule, pensioners, long-term disabled people and single parents have had their weekly heating addition cut by £52 per year by the Government. Moreover, in August 1985 the Government abolished central heating additions for all new claimants—a benefit worth £228 a year at current rates.

Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls , Teignbridge

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on the specific point of abolition?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

No, I should make progress because I have several points still to make.

There is still worse to come. Under the Fowler Social Security Act, when income support is introduced in 1988 additional help with heating costs will be abolished by the Government. We put down an amendment in Committee which would have introduced heating premiums for accommodation that is difficult to heat and for expensive heating systems on estates. But the Government voted it down. Therefore, it does not lie with the Government, when confronted with the derisory nature of the exceptionally severe weather scheme, to fall back on the heating addition. Their record on that, too, is pretty culpable.

Keeping warm is not only a matter of being able to pay for enough fuel; it is also about retaining heat in well insulated buildings. Again, the Government's record has been—

Photo of Mr Richard Hickmet Mr Richard Hickmet , Glanford and Scunthorpe

What did the hon. Gentleman's party do?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The Government's record on that front, too, has been abysmal as well as short-sighted. Resources being invested in better insulation and in heating measures have declined by 50 per cent. since 1979. In other words, in answer to the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Hickmet), what we provided for those purposes was 50 per cent. higher than it is now. Those on benefit can obtain grants, but they are for draught-proofing only.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

No, I shall not give way because I want to make progress.

Now the Government are proposing to end those grants when the Fowler Social Security Act is implemented in 1986 and the social fund introduced. Any assistance will then be subject to the discretion of the local offices and the state of a cash-limited budget for the social fund.

Such parsimony over insulation and draught-proofing is surely counter-productive, and anyone should be able to see that. It is a false economy if ever there was one. Labour Members believe that increased investment in insulation—that is what we achieved in the 1970s—and energy efficiency, would not only bring greater comfort and reduce fuel poverty, it would also provide for much better management of the taxpayers' resources—something that Conservative Members are often so concerned about.

Therefore, I hope that the Government will reconsider their reprehensible decision to end single payments for draught-proofing materials and hot water tank projects, and not allow the commendable work of neighbourhood energy action, which has draught-proofed the homes of nearly 250,000 pensioners and others, and provided work for over 5,000 people on the community programme, to grind to a halt.

Only a major insulation programme can end the disgrace whereby year after year Government policy condemns elderly people to live at temperatures prohibited by law for younger and fitter workers. The Department of Health and Social Security, in one of its leaflets, which I note was later withdrawn—presumably because of embarrassment—stated that a living room temperature of 70 deg F is necessary to keep people warm in winter. Yet repeated surveys have found that nine out of 10 old people have living room temperatures at or below 68 deg and more than half were below 60·8 deg, which is the minimum temperature specified in the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963. If that is intolerable for young people, it is scandalous that it is permitted with impunity for old people in Britain.

For all those reasons the Labour party believes that a two-part programme is now urgently needed to resolve the problem. First, we believe that the only way to ensure guaranteed help with heating is by providing extra payments on a regular automatic basis each week throughout the winter months. Therefore, we propose a £5 a week extra winter premium throughout the winter for all pensioners on supplementary benefit, plus another million who, while not on supplementary benefit, are little better off.

Photo of Mr Gordon Wilson Mr Gordon Wilson , Dundee East

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The Labour party's proposed scheme of £5 per week does not take into account two main factors. One is that the further north one goes, the longer and harsher the winters are, and the second is that it costs perhaps 20 per cent. more to heat a house in Glasgow than in Bristol. Does the hon. Gentleman not think it unfair that those who live further north should be given the same as those who live in the warmer south?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but an extra £5 a week, payable over 12 or 13 weeks, is a considerable extra sum of money which will meet the problem, even for those in the north, let alone for those in the south. It was not designed for those in the south and to penalise those in the north. It will be adequate right across the country.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field , Birkenhead

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I hope that Conservative Members heard my hon. Friend say that this is the last time that he will give way.

What my hon. Friend has just said is of crucial importance to Labour Members because we hope, after the next election, to be on the Government Benches. Is my hon. Friend's pledge of the £5 increase on a par with the increase that we have given to the rate of national insurance pensions?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Yes. There is no question but that that is a commitment and it stands alongside the £5 and £8 by which we shall increase the pension, together with the change in the upratings to restore the link with earnings which the Government have taken away and thereby deprived single pensioners of approximately £8 a week and married pensioners of £12 a week. All of those are firm commitments. If the Government wish to know where the extra money will come from, I suggest that they could preempt us by using some of the extra £4·5 billion that they will somehow no doubt be able to find this year for pre-electoral tax bribes.

We also believe that payments must be combined with a major programme to improve home insulation and to increase energy efficiency. There are few instances where the social and economic benefits of job creation, energy conservation and pensioners' health and comfort are so readily fully and brought together. It would massively reduce the ill health generated by damp cold conditions and the nation's housing stock could be greatly improved. Therefore, we call upon the Government in our motion to adopt the programme for the battle against hypothermia and the scourge of preventable death in old age. If the Government will not do it, the next Labour Government will.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon 7:38 pm, 2nd December 1986

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: welcomes the considerable improvement under this Government in support with heating costs for vulnerable groups through the supplementary benefit scale rates, the weekly heating additions and the simpler and better targeted arrangements for help during periods of exceptionally cold weather; supports the comprehensive action taken to improve energy efficiency in the home; and applauds the beneficial effect of low inflation on the costs of fuel, which is of immense benefit to all consumers but most especially those on low incomes. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has just demonstrated most graphically that fuel policy is an emotive matter. He has demonstrated equally graphically that he has not lost the knack of making expensive speeches. I shall come to the costings of his latest promises this evening in a few moments.

The hon. Gentleman has also made it clear that this is a particularly important area and that it is difficult for it to be the subject of rational debate. It is, by its nature, the sort of subject that can be misunderstood, misinterpreted and even twisted into a grotesque parody of what the Government have done. It would be easy for the debate to fall into such exchanges, but in a few moments I propose to deal at length with some of the important underlying aspects on which the hon. Gentleman touched in the course of his remarks.

First—and unusually, because this is not my favoured reading—I should like to refer to a statement issued by the hon. Member for Oldham, West on 18 September, in which he trailed his winter premium of £5 a week. He said: We will also establish a winter premium of £5 a week for the months between mid December and March for pensioners on low incomes to help cover winter fuel bills and"—listen to this—prevent any repetition of the 16,000 extra deaths from hypothermia that scarred this country last winter.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

The hon. Gentleman says, "Quite right." He said that there were 16,000 extra deaths from hypothermia, yet just a few minutes ago he said that there were only 400 or 500. The hon. Gentleman is inept with his figures. On 18 September he said that there were 16,000 extra deaths, but he said something quite different a few moments ago.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I did not say anything different. Perhaps the Minister would care to listen to me. I made it perfectly clear that the deaths from cold in winter are not just those where hypothermia is primarily mentioned on the death certificate, but where broncho-pneumonia, heart attacks and strokes, precipitated by the bitterly cold conditions, also led to death. Those deaths add up to 16,000 a year.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

As a matter of fact, they do not. I am very curious about the statement made by the hon. Gentleman on 18 September in which he said that there were 16,000 extra deaths from hypothermia. The hon. Gentleman has now concluded that what he said on 18 September was utterly wrong. I am grateful that he has put that clearly on the record. The 16,000 extra deaths as a result of hypothermia is nonsense, and the hon. Gentleman knows that.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

The hon. Gentleman has asked me to stop playing about. He clearly does not like facts. That is the trouble with the Labour party. It is very fond of hyperbole, but, by golly, it does not like facts, and that shows.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West referred rather more accurately to the true figures of deaths related either primarily or as a secondary condition to hypothermia. He said that the position had become materially worse. In 1984–85 there were 638 deaths in which hypothermia was mentioned by the doctor in some form or other on the death certificate. Last year there were 634—slightly less. The average is 543. As my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) said earlier in his telling intervention, the highest figure in the past 10 years was in 1978–79 when there were 725 deaths. I am not inclined to listen to too many lectures from the hon. Member for Oldham, West.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West spent some time debating not the broad measure of this extraordinarily ill-drafted motion, but the details of the exceptionally cold weather regime. I do not object to that because that is an important point. However, I would like to quote what the hon. Gentleman said on 25 February 1986. Addressing his remarks to my hon. Friend the then Minister for Social Security, he said: Will he…send out a circular to all DHSS offices to ensure that all the very elderly and the severely disabled on supplementary benefit get an immediate extra cash grant of at least £5 a week for heating while the severe cold spell lasts?"—[Official Report, 25 February 1986; Vol. 92, c. 799.] That was the proposition. That is what we have done in the regulations, and now the hon. Gentleman is wriggling and changing his view.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West also spoke about the £500 single payment capital limit, and he called that unreasonable. However, the hon. Gentleman has a very selective memory. It was equally the case, when he was a Minister in the DHSS, that single payments were not paid to people with sufficient capital. In those days, of course, the capital was not £500, but £300, and before that, while the hon. Gentleman was a Minister, it was £200. I am therefore not inclined to accept lectures from the hon. Gentleman about that.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

In just a minute.

The hon. Gentleman also said that we are stopping help with heating costs. He knows, because he sat through all—or nearly all—the proceedings on the Social Security Act 1986, that the income support scheme will sweep up all that money and direct it. He knows that it is not disappearing back to the Treasury, despite all that he said earlier. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, he may now do so.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The Minister has made three false statements. The social fund will not sweep up all the money.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

I did not refer to the social fund.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I thought that the Minister did mention the social fund. That will be cash limited.

With regard to the Labour party's record, I must make a crucial point that influences the issue about heating. Under the Labour Government, the pension increased by 20 per cent. in real terms. That is far more than all the increases in heating addition brought about by this Government.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

I fear that the hon. Gentleman has missed the point upon which he seems especially defensive. He also missed out the pensions fiddle of 1976 and the years in which the Labour Government did not pay the Christmas bonus. The hon. Gentleman's memory appears to be amazingly selective.

Many observers of such debates over the past year or so might well assume—and they would have assumed this, too, from what the hon. Member for Oldham, West has said—that exceptionally severe weather payments represent the most important help available to meet fuel costs. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not so, and I conceded that. An observer may feel that supplementary benefit rates had fallen so much in value as to present beneficiaries with a stark choice between food and heat. However, the hon. Member for Oldham, West also knows that that is not so.

An observer might also feel, after hearing the hon. Gentleman, that the extra help through heating additions had also been reduced. That is not so. The observer might feel that fuel prices were soaring out of control, as they did when the Labour party was in government, yet that is not so now. The truth is that help with fuel and advice on keeping warm economically is running at record levels.

This evening the hon. Member for Oldham, West resurrected from his speech on 18 September his proposals for a winter premium for pensioners. Before I consider that in depth—

Photo of Mr Richard Hickmet Mr Richard Hickmet , Glanford and Scunthorpe

My hon. Friend will have heard the response made by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) to the question of phasing out nuclear power and what that would do to the continuity and cost of supply of electricity. Will my hon. Friend direct his attention to the position if Mr. Arthur Scargill had succeeded in his attempts in 1984 and 1985, and tell us what that would have done to electricity prices? At the same time, will my hon. Friend consider the level and the amount by which electricity prices have risen in the past 18 months or two years under this Government?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

I hesitate to speculate on the subject of Arthur Scargill, not least as he seems substantially to have disappeared from a position of great influence in the public eye—and long may he remain without such influence. I rather suspect that that view is shared more warmly on the Opposition Benches, for understandable reasons, than on the Conservative Benches.

My hon. Friend is correct to make the assertion that fuel prices these days are near stable, whereas they were anything but near stable during the period of the Labour Administration. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy may touch on that point when he replies.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West raised a worrying issue about which I share his concern. He referred to the excess number of winter deaths that have perplexed successive Governments for years. Contained within that issue is the question of hypothermia. In order to define excess winter mortality over five-year periods, I must explain that the percentage increase in the number of deaths in the January to March quarter is set against the number of deaths in the July to September quarter. That figure has fallen from 68·2 per cent. in 1951 to 1955 to 29·3 per cent. over the past five years. That has been a steady decline, with the exception of a slight increase from 28·2 per cent. in 1971 to 1975 to 33·6 per cent. between 1976 to 1980. The hon. Gentleman will recall that well because he was a Minister for part of the period covered by the figures.

The real problem, then as now—I agree with the hon. Gentleman about this—is not hypothermia, but the additional deaths from all causes, particularly heart disease, strokes and chest infections, which tend to occur in winter. It is a long-standing problem that our excess winter mortality rate is higher than that in other countries with severe winters, such as the United States of America and Sweden. Governments of both parties have faced that problem for 30 years, and the position seems to be improving. We all welcome that.

Within that problem lies the vexed, but smaller, problem of hypothermia. It is now generally recognised, certainly by experts, that the number of deaths where hypothermia is recorded on the death certificate, whether as the main cause of death or otherwise—generally it is otherwise—is not in any way an accurate indication of the extent of deaths associated with winter weather. I should point out that in recent years there has been no trend either upwards or downwards in the number of deaths where hypothermia was mentioned on the death certificate. I gave the figures when I intervened a few moments ago.

There are important issues at stake, and this evening I do not intend simply to bandy statistics across the Dispatch Box. I intend to address the underlying public health problem. It is not as easy as the hon. Gentleman implied to find the root cause of the problem and how it can best be tackled. Several matters are self-evident. Obviously, it is important that elderly people should be able to heat their homes properly, and shortly I shall remind the House of the steps that the Government have taken to enable them to do so. But there is certainly a good deal more to it than that.

Some hon. Members may have observed a recent interesting article in the British Medical Journal by Professor Keatinge from the London hospital. He is a distinguished and acknowledged international expert on cold-related diseases. He unearthed a curious conundrum: he found that the mortality rate among a sample of elderly people living in centrally heated warden-controlled accommodation rose in winter by a percentage similar to that among the general population. That is curious and in sharp contrast to the underlying theme of the hon. Gentleman's attack on the Government.

On the basis of what we know at present, no one can be sure—neither the hon. Gentleman, me, nor even Profesor Keatinge—why excess winter mortality is more prevalent in the United Kingdom than in other countries. Nor can we be entirely sure why the position has been improving recently. It seems that a number of factors may be involved. I am absolutely clear that we need to do further work to reach a better understanding of what I acknowledge is a serious and complex issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is actively considering how that can best be carried forward, and we hope to be able to say someting more about that shortly.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field , Birkenhead

The Minister compared the deaths of those in warden-controlled accommodation with those outside. In my constituency one gains access to such accommodation only if one is severely ill. In that case, would one not expect the death rate to be higher there than among the normal population? Does he agree that that may be the balancing factor rather than the fact that one person may have more heat and another less?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

There are a variety of explanations. It is not invariably or necessarily the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes that determine admission to warden-controlled accommodation. In my constituency there are premises where that would not be the case. I sought not to make a specific point, but to illustrate the perplexities sorrounding this difficult problem.

The scale of assistance to vulnerable groups, which is available through the social security system, is central to our debate. There have been significant improvements, but, before I turn to them, I must stress the most important point. The primary help for claimants with their heating costs, now and under the Labour Government, is through their regular weekly benefit and specific heating additions. Since 1978, the value of the scale rates has risen by 6 per cent.

There have also been significant improvements in the value of heating additions. We have consolidated and extended automatic entitlement to heating additions to the most vulnerable groups. Families on supplementary benefit with children under five are guaranteed a heating addition of £2·20 a week. Pensioner householders aged 65 or over are now guaranteed the same addition, as are all sick and disabled householders on the long-term supplementary benefit rate. Pensioners over 85 get a higher rate of £5·55 a week, and that higher rate is also paid automatically to those receiving attendance allowance and mobility allowance.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West will know that the number of recipients of those disability benefits has increased significantly under this Government. As that general rise has occurred, so, as a direct consequence, has support for heating for those on low incomes. None of those improvements rated a proper mention in the hon. Gentleman's catalogue of misery, although every one is important and germane. One is bound to ask whether the hon. Gentleman was misinformed or was seeking to misinform.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

Will the Minister give a guarantee to the House that all those receiving heating addition from the supplementary benefit system will not lose out when supplementary benefit is replaced by the new system of income support?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

The hon. Gentleman knows the pledges that we have given on transitional protection, that we have not yet determined the rate for the income support scheme and that we will not do so until next year's uprating. Therefore, he deliberately asked a question which he knows cannot be answered now. The hon. Gentleman cannot ignore the fact that on the latest available information over 2,750,000 supplementary benefit householders now receive a heating addition of some sort.

More important—the hon. Member for Oldham, West may care to listen to this—some 90 per cent. of all pensioners benefited, compared with 71 per cent. in 1978. That is a significant improvement in recent years. Moreover, the value of those additions in 1984–85 was £400 million—a vast increase on anything available under the Labour Government, even when one discounts inflation. Against that background the hon. Gentleman's charges against the Government are ludicrous. They simply do not stand up to a moment's examination. He spoke at length about new arrangements for single payments in periods of exceptionally cold weather, wholly ignoring that they substantially meet what he specifically asked my right hon. Friend for last year.

I shall start with a proposition that neither the hon. Member for Oldham. West, nor the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), who is poised on springs at this very moment, will dispute for a second. Over the years the various systems for making payments have been contentious and unsuccessful. There is no dispute across the House about that. That is why we have tried to introduce a system which makes sense, judged by three criteria.

First, there must be clear rules for help. For that reason we propose an objective test of absolute coldness as the basic qualifying rule. I agree with the view expressed, particularly by hon. Members who represent Scottish constituencies, that nobody wants to return to a system which relies on local subjective judgments. I hoped to hear the hon. Member for Oldham, West welcome that, but I hoped in vain.

Secondly, there must be certainty and speed of response. Claimants must know quickly when a period of exceptionally cold weather has been declared and for how much they will qualify. This new system should achieve that. In addition, we have provided for flat-rate payments rather than for the production of a fuel bill some time later. That should be speedier and simpler, and I would have been grateful if the hon. Gentleman had welcomed it.

Thirdly, we have concentrated help on the groups of people—the elderly, the sick, the disabled and the very young—on whom most of the concern about risks during periods of bad weather have centred. It is precisely because of our concerns about those vulnerable groups in exceptionally cold weather that we have restricted the broad entitlement and sharpened the availability to those most in need, who are likely to receive more than they would have done under the previous arrangements.

Let me remind the Government's critics of the final conclusion of the Social Security Advisory Committee—my right hon. Friend's independent advisers. The committee gave general support to the main elements of the proposals, and said: The proposals submitted to us represent a significant improvement on the previous schemes for exceptionally severe weather payments, in terms of simplicity, comprehensibility and certainty of payment.

Photo of Mr Gordon Wilson Mr Gordon Wilson , Dundee East

Does the Minister agree that the vulnerable groups about which he has spoken need to buy heat when the temperature declines? Under his new scheme they will not be aware whether they qualify until seven days have elapsed. His proposed scheme is marginally better than the old one, which discriminates against cold areas like Scotland, but does he not agree that the scheme is so fundamentally flawed as to be useless?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

I do not accept that. It is true that one must wait for seven days, but the hon. Gentleman will recall that previously one had to wait until a bill was received. Then it had to be determined whether it was materially higher than in the previous year and documents had to be produced to prove that. The money was paid substantially later. The new scheme is a material improvement.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field , Birkenhead

I am sure that there is widespread support for the view that such a scheme is crucial, that people know when they are eligible and that the money should be paid quickly rather than oblige people to wait months for the bill. People also want to know how many will benefit and by how much. Has the Minister estimated for the Treasury or for any other Government Department the numbers of people who will gain? Will there be more or fewer beneficiaries than under the present scheme, and will those who are eligible gain more or less than they are currently paid?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

If fewer people are eligible, each person will receive more and we expect the cost to be broadly the same at it was last year.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

I shall not give way again. The hon. Member for Oldham, West is fulminating about this being a three-hour debate and I have spent most of my time giving way to his hon. Friends. We released with the documentation a breakdown of what the position would have been last year under this scheme. I think I shall now take the hon. Gentleman's near silent fulminations to heart and move on. We do not yet have final figures, but the amount is about £15 million, which is eight times higher than it was four years ago.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

The hon. Member for Oldham, West is muttering about this being a three-hour debate. I have some sympathy with him about that, and for that reason I will not give way again. If he is dissatisfied, the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East can take the matter up with his hon. Friend.

In the context of these proposals, the hon. Gentleman might bear in mind that the Social Security Advisory Committee supported an absolute standard of coldness, recognised the reasonableness of the Government's approach, supported the principle of a fixed seven-day period, recognised that the system of linking local offices with meteorological office data is a clear improvement on previous methods, and welcomed the introduction of a system of standard payments. It is a shame that the hon. Member for Oldham, West neglected to mention all of those points in his speech. The Social Security Advisory Committee cannot be considered an uncritical supporter of the Government.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West set out proposals for a winter premium—

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

I have told the hon. Gentleman why I will not give way. He can take up the point with his hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. The Minister has said that he will not give way.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

The winter premium scheme outlined by the hon. Member for Oldham, West is expensive. We do not have full details, but it looks as though it would cost about £150 million or more, depending on precise assumptions about how the scheme would work. The hon. Gentleman was somewhat coy about the priority for these proposals. As I understand the matter, it was not part of the Opposition's original list of absolute priorities in their September statements. But things appear to have changed. In statements to Neighbourhood Energy Action and at a recent conference on welfare rights activities, the hon. Gentleman seemed to be making clear that this was an absolute priority. I hope that he will now clarify that. Is it an absolute pledge? If it is, it is another ring on the cash register of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). Perhaps it is a pious hope, in which case it is deeply cynical. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman or his right hon. Friend will make it clear.

It is apparently to be a system purely for pensioners on supplementary benefit and widows and pensioners "living on the margins of poverty". No mention is made of the needs of disabled people or families with children. Are they to be forgotten in the hon. Gentleman's brand new world? Has the hon. Gentleman considered how his scheme would be operated? He is effectively asking for a further uprating each winter for pensioners and a substantial extra burden on hard-pressed local DHSS office staff or an additional cost for extra staff to administer it. Moreover, he does that at the same time as he chairs press conferences of the departmental trade unions complaining about staff pressures. It is curious that he should take both those views at the same time.

Under the present benefit system, which the hon. Gentleman seems to want to retain, the effect would be that large numbers of pensioners would be moved on and off benefit and housing benefit supplement just for winter. That is a certain recipe for total confusion and the hon. Gentleman should know that.

The feature of our reforms which has been most welcomed is the proposal that assessment of housing costs and living expenses should be based on a common test of need. Is the hon. Gentleman abandoning that principle that he previously supported? If not, the logic of his proposal is that each winter local authorities should increase housing benefit or accommodate the value of the winter premium. The hon. Gentleman is in danger of re-creating the problem that led to the creation of housing benefit supplement.

There is a further bizarre aspect that has an odd and unwelcome effect for pensioners. Let me illustrate—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may be wholly wrong about that. The current rate for a single pensioner is £37·90. Let us take a charitable assumption, that inflation under a Labour Government would be only 5 per cent. If benefits were uprated by that amount, the pension would be increased to £39·80 at the April uprating. But if the pensioner had been receiving a winter premium of £5 which was withdrawn at the same time, the effect would be that benefit would actually go down by £3·10 at the time of the uprating. I would not wish to be the Secretary of State who tried to explain to a gathering of pensioners why, when benefits were increased, their girocheques should be less. Fortunately for the hon. Gentleman, he will never be required to do so, although I know that he has some experience of pensioners shouting at him.

There is much else relevant to this debate that deserves more attention than time permits, including perhaps the hon. Member for Dumfermline, East. I utterly reject the Opposition charges against the Government's record, but I do share with them a concern about excess winter mortality and the need to keep elderly people warm.

We have set in hand a range of measures to promote energy efficiency. There has been a major expansion in community insulation projects that has insulated and draught-proofed over 200,000 homes of pensioners, the disabled and others on low incomes. The costs of that have been borne by the Government through the Departments of Energy, Environment, Employment and Social Security.

Above all, there has been a substantial improvement in supplementary benefit rates, in heating additions and in the targeting of cold weather payments. We have an impressive record over recent years, far better than any previous Labour Government achieved, and we need no lectures from the Opposition about how to care for the elderly. When my hon. Friends vote on this amendment, they will clearly show the hon. Member for Oldham, West what they think of his motion.

Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood , Roxburgh and Berwickshire 8:08 pm, 2nd December 1986

The speeches from both Front Benches reinforce my view that it is extremely difficult to conduct debates about excess winter mortality and the perplexing difficulties of the statistics about hypothermia. I accept that there are problems in exactly equating excess winter mortality, about which the Minister spoke, directly with poverty, although there are some important links. There is a public health aspect to the problem related to hypothermia and it requires sober and long-term reflection.

As the basis for my speech, I should like to look not just at the number of deaths which, of course, are important and must be attended to, but at the far more widespread problem of people who do not die because they cannot heat their homes adequately, but nevertheless suffer severe restrictions in their living standards. Some of them have to stay in bed for long periods during the day simply because they cannot heat their homes. That is a much more rational target for the Government, because there are real problems involved in curing the cause of hypothermia.

On the severe weather payments to which the Opposition's motion refers, I understand the Government's reason for introducing the new scheme and the changes that will be involved. I welcomed some of the changes, and I said so at the time. However, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) was right to say that the scheme is too restrictive. The Minister said that the scheme will cost about £15 million.

I may recommend my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the Opposition's motion, but if I do that at the end of the debate it will be not because of the costs that the Opposition's scheme involves but rather because I believe that they have made very pertinent criticisms of the present Government policies, one of which relates directly to the new proposals for severe weather payments. The Government's scheme is too restrictive. I invite the Minister to consider extending the seven-day qualifying period and making it a rolling period so that the scheme is more flexible. That would not break the bank. It would lead to increased cost, but that cost would be manageable. It would not be within the unmanageable realms of the Opposition's proposal for a flat rate payment of £5 to poor pensioners throughout the winter months.

The Minister should also reconsider the absolute temperature limit that has been fixed at minus 1·5 deg C. That is a very low temperature. I am a Scot and I am used to cold temperatures, but that is far too low. The Government should push it up slightly. It may not be too late for the Minister to do so. Perhaps the Minister will be able to assure the House that he will look at the way the scheme operates this year and that, if we are able to satisfy him that it is too restrictive when the results eventually become clear, he will reconsider it.

The Opposition motion also refers to fuel disconnection. I am very concerned about the operation of some of the voluntary codes of practice relating to fuel disconnection. The Government would do themselves no harm at all if they carried out a fundamental review of how these regimes are working. They have been in existence for some time, and in some places I understand that they are working reasonably well. However, there is a legitimate cause for concern about the working of this voluntary scheme in many parts of the country.

The Opposition's motion also refers to the need for home insulation. That is of fundamental importance to the long-term resolution of fuel poverty. Capital expenditure as well as revenue expenditure items must be taken into account when considering what should be done about home insulation. The Department of Energy has to be brought into the equation. The Department of the Environment is also involved. The Government have still not got their collective act together. There are difficulties over persuading departmental groups to work closely together in parallel and in sympathy with one another. New heating systems, new building standards, the fabric of buildings and insulation standards are the responsibility of the Department of the Environment. Fuel price policy and other related matters are the responsibility of the Department of Energy. Benefit levels are dealt with by the Department of Health and Social Security. However, there seems to be no proper co-ordination between the Departments. Co-ordination may be difficult to achieve, but the Government would reap considerable benefit if they applied more effort in that direction.

Some of the pilot projects that have been initiated by the fuel poverty campaign have produced real benefits. They have resulted in increased standards of insulation and in houses being built that can be heated at a cost that can be afforded. I could not afford, even on my relatively vast parliamentary salary, to heat some local authority and private houses in my constituency. These tenants and owners are actually heating fresh air. It goes straight up the lum, as they say north of the Border, and through doors and window frames that are not draught-proofed. Too many houses in my constituency—the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs looked into the matter in some depth—suffer terribly from damp. If I, as a parent, had to send a child of mine to bed in a damp mouldy bedroom, I should feel angry and that I was not doing my duty as a parent if I did not demand action to be taken. In the long term, it must make sense for the Government to increase capital investment in the infrastructure and fabric of our homes.

The Minister is too self-congratulatory. I have accused the Secretary of State on many occasions of beating his chest, and the Minister for Social Security is almost getting into that same league. I hope that his promotion does not go to his head and lead him to emulate the worst habits of his chief.

Supplementary benefit rates have increased by 6 per cent. in real terms. However, I invite the Minister to consider the equivalent increases in energy costs, particularly the cost of types of energy used by those in the low income groups. I refer to hydrocarbon fuels such as paraffin and coal. If he compares those two rates of increase, I do not believe that he will come down on the right side of the cost advantage equation. A far higher proportion of the income of the low income groups is spent on the cost of heating their homes. The Minister did not refer to that fact, but the Government ignore it at their peril.

I understand what the Government have done about heating additions and about better targeting, but the Minister did not refer to the cuts in November 1984 when the available scale margin changes were applied to heating additions. That reduced the lower rate of heating additions from £2·10 to £1·10.

Many of my constituents were hopping mad when these changes were made. Cuts were again made by not increasing the heating additions in July 1986, by as much as they should have been. Furthermore the Minister did not refer in his speech, although the hon. Member for Oldham, West mentioned it, to the cuts in the central heating scheme that have been made recently. The Government do not have a great deal to crow about.

Leaving aside statistics, the anecdotal evidence is that the low wage earning groups and claimants on supplementary benefit are having far more difficulty and are struggling far more to meet their fuel bills than they were two or three years ago.

The Government's case rests heavily on achieving a low rate of inflation. That is obviously to be welcomed and it is extremely helpful, although I wonder whether that is the direct result of the Government's policies or whether the fall in inflation would have occurred to some extent in any case.

I am worried about what will happen after 1988. The Minister aids that all these heating costs would be included in the new income support scheme. I am less confident than he is about that, but it is an academic argument. We shall not have to wait long for the new rates, but I await them with trepidation. I do not see how the Minister, using the Green Paper indicative figures, will be able to set rates of income support necessary to cover those costs. The statement he made was an important statement, and he may find that it is thrown back at him in later years. Apart from the problem of income support, which replaces and includes heating additions and other supplementary benefit rates, the Minister has yet to announce the alternative system that is to replace the draught-proofing grants that are available as single payments at the moment. Some of us are also apprehensive and await with trepidation the details of that scheme.

There are very real worries about fuel poverty, and the Government must not be complacent—I warn the Minister against that. On balance, I am in a difficult position, being between the devil and the deep blue sea. If I recommend my hon. Friends to vote for the official Opposition's motion, it will not be on the basis of the costs that are thereby implied, but simply because the Government have not done enough.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay , Berkshire East 8:20 pm, 2nd December 1986

I do not wish to follow too far the arguments of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) except to say that he made a characteristically woolly speech, presumably concocted on the back of a cigarette packet during the afternoon. It was interesting that he did not reach any conclusions, except vaguely to say that he might be supporting the official Opposition motion. He wants to have his cake and eat it, as always happens with the Liberal party. He wants to support the Opposition motion, but he does not like its financial implications. He cannot have it both ways. He has to make a hard decision. However, as his party is most unlikely ever to be in office, he will never have to make these hard decisions.

It is a sad day for the House when Her Majesty's Opposition, as part of their Supply day, prey on the fear of the elderly, and quite unreasonably have made this issue extremely political, notwithstanding that, when I intervened in his speech, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) said that he did not wish to talk party politics, but then did so. Those of our constituents who will read this debate tomorrow will feel that they have been ill served by the Labour party, which is causing so much concern and discontent when the facts it uses do not add up.

I followed the Minister's speech carefully. I noted that, during the term of the Government, supplementary benefit has risen in real terms by over 6 per cent. I see that heating additions have been extended by 159 per cent. at a time when fuel prices have gone up by only 117 per cent. Our electorate must think that is a good record. I noted that we have introduced and fine-tuned a severe weather allowance, something that never happened under the last Government. Some of us, unlike the hon. Member for Oldham, West, can remember that Government. He seems to have forgotten much of the time that he was a Minister, and has no recollection of the severe winters and the lack of action on this front. It makes his argument all the less powerful that so little happened when his party was last in power.

The number of people who are eligible for supplementary benefit has increased. Over 90 per cent. of pensioners are now eligible, as 70 per cent. in 1978 when the hon. Member for Oldham, West was a Minister. The excess winter mortality rate has fallen every year since 1979, as my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, with one notable exception. This was the point that I made earlier, when the hon. Member for Oldham, West ducked out and said that he could not remember the figures. Let me remind him of them.

The winter of 1978–79 saw a higher level of excess mortality than any winter in recent years. The Labour party was in government and the hon. Member for Oldham, West was a member of that government. I remember sitting on the Opposition Benches during the winter of discontent and I remember full well that in my constituency cancer patients were being sent home to die because of industrial action by the National Union of Public Employees and the Confederation of Health Service Employees, supported, aided, and abetted by the Labour party.

If it is thought that the pensioners or the other sick and needy will have any benefit under any future Labour Government, one has only to refer back to that winter when people died and suffered because of the industrial action by the people who are the paymasters of the Labour Party. The people of this country will be reminded about this in the election campaign, when it comes. They will clearly recall, what happened in that winter, and why the Labour party was kicked out. Memories of what happened will stop the Labour party returning to office.

My hon. Friend the Minister referred to the latest research, and to Professor Keating. I listened with interest to an interview in the "Today" programme yesterday morning when Professor Keating went even further. He said that he found that more people died of cold-related illnesses in centrally heated, warden-controlled accommodation than by themselves. These deaths resulted not just from hypothermia but from other cold-related illnesses such as strokes and heart attacks; here I agree with the hon. Member for Oldham, West.

Initially, I was amazed by Professor Keating's assertion, but he explained that when people are warm and comfortable they are more likely to go out and walk in the cold, and more likely to dress more modestly and suffer more. The problem is more complicated than it at first seems. With due respect to the hon. Member for Oldham, West, I feel more inclined to believe the evidence of an expert such as Professor Keating, from the London hospital, than somebody who is trying to get cheap political capital out of elderly people dying.

The Labour proposals are worth looking at closely. The hon. Member for Oldham, West, as the Opposition official spokesman on health and social security, said on 18 September this year: We will also establish a winter premium of £5 a week for the months between mid-December and March for pensioners on low incomes. When will that be implemented if a Labour Government are returned to power? That is an interesting question. The hon. Member for Oldham, West was mugged after making that statement, just as he was after making his comment about tax relief on mortgages, because other people on the Labour Front Bench have to watch carefully what the hon. Gentleman says and then correct him from time to time. It gives us great pleasure whenever the hon. Member for Oldham, West makes a policy statement. We were delighted when he was re-elected to the shadow Cabinet, because there is plenty of mileage in his comments and policy statements, as they never add up financially.

After being mugged, presumably by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) the hon. Gentleman wrote an article in The Guardian on 24 October. On this occasion he said: All other social programmes, apart from my £3·5 billion package, are therefore implicitly conditional on such a time as and when resources become available. That is called a wriggle. One makes the promise, gains the publicity, hopes to gain the votes and then quietly, in a little-read newspaper such as The Guardian, gets off the hook again. The hon. Member for Oldham, West was told to get off the hook by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook, who was concerned because my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary, in many telling interventions in the House and elsewhere, drove a coach and horses through the financial policies of the Opposition.

They have fallen into the same trap as the late Hugh Gaitskell fell into in the run-up to the 1959 election. They have totally failed to cost their programme. We are going to cost it for them again and again. Between now and the next general election we will draw the attention of our consitituents to just how their programme does not add up financially. Those constituents know about good housekeeping and they know about promises that cannot be kept. It will do the Opposition grave damage.

The cost of the programme will be £150 million. We have no idea where the money is coming from, and I am certain that the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook has no idea how he will raise the money.

There is also the problem of the order books, which have been referred to by my hon. Friend the Minister. Presumably, they will have to be revised upwards in December and then they will have to be revised downwards at the end of March. That seems immensely complicated. It will be costly and will require a lot of extra work by the staff at the Department of Health and Social Security. When I speak to the excellent DHSS staff in my constituency and see the good job they are doing at the Bracknell office and the Slough office, which is just over my constituency border, I know that they will not be pleased by the extra burden. It is putting an unnecessary responsibility on them. It will be costly and, let us be honest, it will be quite unworkable.

We have the problem of pensioners. They will be very confused when their benefit goes up and then goes down again at the time that the annual increase in benefits will be taking place. Any policy that makes benefits more rather than less confusing for the elderly in the community has very little merit. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Oldham, West has bothered to think that out. I suspect that he has not, because this debate is all about emotion and gaining votes. It is not about looking after the people he professes to care about and who he believes are in so much difficulty.

How does one cover the 1 million pensioners who are not on supplementary benefit? As my hon. Friend the Minister said, will the Opposition assist the disabled, who suffer just as much in the cold? Will they assist young families on low incomes? They have not been mentioned. Presumably that would be on top of the £150 million. In my book, young families on low incomes are just as important as the elderly, and so are the disabled.

There is an issue that I think the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) will want to deal with when he winds up the debate as the shadow energy spokesman. I am a little confused because I think that the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen are a little confused. I believe that the Labour Party has a non-nuclear energy policy. If it has, it will dramatically increase fuel costs and increase electricity costs. The people who will suffer the most are the very people being referred to by the motion.

Photo of Mr Keith Best Mr Keith Best , Ynys Môn

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Labour candidate in my constituency has said that he does not believe that there should be a replacement to the Magnox B Wylfa power station—

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. A number of right hon. and hon. Members are waiting to take part in the debate. I hope that hon. Members will stick to the motion on the Order Paper.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay , Berkshire East

I note your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will not pursue that line but, with your permission, I shall refer to the non-nuclear policy of the Labour party, which directly affects heating in old people's accommodation and elsewhere. I ask the right hon. Member for Salford, East, who is not in his place at the moment, to tell us how much extra that will cost and how it is taken into account in the figures that have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Oldham, West.

I would like to know whether the right hon. Member for Salford, East has consulted the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), as he seems to have one policy on nuclear energy while the rest of the Labour party has another policy. Before we reach any final conclusions, we will want to know where the Labour party stands. That is yet another extra cost that has not been properly worked out.

I believe that the conclusion we have to come to must be that the debate was initiated out of political malice and for political gain at the expense of those least able to protect themselves in the community. Nothing positive has been offered. It is doubtful whether the Labour party could produce the goods it is offering. It has not properly costed its programme and I believe that it will rue the day that it made those policy statements and introduced this important subject on a Supply day in such a partisan manner.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton 8:37 pm, 2nd December 1986

I do not intend to follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) because I believe that he spoke about anything but fuel poverty. This debate—an important debate—is about fuel poverty. Even the Minister had little to offer the people who are suffering because of fuel poverty. We have had discussions on nuclear power and the comments of the Minister, but there was little from the Government as to how they will alleviate fuel poverty.

The motion hits at the heart of what is happening in the country. If Conservative Members believe that there is no problem, I suggest that they should start to take note of what is happening throughout the country, especially in constituencies in the north. I shall read from a local newspaper, the Ossett Observer, dated 21 November. It cannot be classed as a Labour party publication. The headline is: Thousands die of cold in winter. The article says: More than 500 people die from hypothermia each year, according to official government figures. As many as 100 times that number die from cold-related diseases such as pneumonia, influenza and chronic bronchitis. Many more elderly people suffer the discomfort and misery of being unable to keep warm. The newspaper quotes the Health Education Council, which says: many of the difficulties arise from a low income". Because of low incomes many older people over-economise on fuel.

The massive increase in fuel prices and general increases in standing charges have hit pensioners most severely. The comment was made that the lower paid have to pay more out of their income for heating than people on higher incomes. Many of the pensioners will be waiting for this coming winter with trepidation. It has been estimated that nearly 750,000 elderly people are at risk from hypothermia. Thousands of elderly people will die from cold this winter if it is as severe as last winter. Thousands more elderly people will die in exceptionally harsh weather, and even greater numbers will suffer unduly from the cold. In the first half of 1985, hypothermia killed nearly 20 per cent. more pensioners than it did in the whole of 1984. Among people over 80 years of age, the death toll rose by 30 per cent. These deaths were tragic and preventable. I fear for old people this winter, and I am sure that many of my hon. Friends do also.

Reduced heating additions and the chaotic system introduced last year for paying heating bills in exceptionally severe weather contributed to enormous hardship for elderly people. The hon. Member for Berkshire, East and the Minister referred to what is happening at present and what they are doing to help people who suffer hardship and need heating allowances. I shall quote from a letter, dated 12 November, that I received from the DHSS in response to a question I asked about a matter facing a constituent in her 80s. The letter states: Whilst living at… Wood Lane, Rothwell, Mrs. F was entitled to a heating addition at the higher rate because of a combination of ill-health and damp accommodation.Following her move to her present address, on 19 April 1986, Mrs. F's heating addition was reduced to the lower rate because, although she still satisfied the health criteria concerning heating conditions, her new accommodation was said not to be damp. This is the sting in the tail: The reduction in Mrs. F's heating addition resulted in her level of supplementary benefit being insufficient to enable the Department to pay her water charges direct to the local authority. In view of this the water charges were added to her supplementary benefit and she was advised that from 14 April 1986 she was responsible for paying these charges…to the local authority. In other words, this person is suffering in more than one way. She is an elderly, ill lady in her late eighties. This is the treatment she is receiving in 1986 under the Tory Government.

I call upon the Government to develop a comprehensive energy strategy aimed at encouraging more extensive insulation and improving fuel efficiency of heating appliances, and, at the same time, dealing with financial assistance to poorer consumers to reflect the real priority of fuel costs in household expenditure. I made the point earlier that people on lower incomes need more protection. More attention should be given to preventing that old lady from living in damp, draughty conditions.

From my constituency work, I am aware of the problems that high fuel prices and the threat of disconnection cause to low income families and pensioners. I want to see the following matters given serious concern, particularly when old people and children are involved. One of the previous speakers referred to the cutting off of services. In cases involving children and elderly people, consideration should be given to the abolition of the gas and electricity boards' rights to disconnect supplies for customers who get into debt. The right to cut off services, without reference to organisations or bodies who have these people's interests at heart, should be abolished. There must be an adequate income for everyone's fuel needs, particularly those who rely on state benefits, as was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). There should be more efficient use of fuel by encouraging better insulation and less wasteful appliances and heating systems. I have outlined the direction that we ought to take in matters of that kind.

Members of the Labour party believe that fuel supply is a major issue, affecting millions of people. The number of people who cannot afford to pay for the heat and light that they need is growing. This is outlined in many of the statements that we receive from Government Departments. Fuel is one of the basic, common commodities, such as food or housing, to which all of us have a right.

In the main, fuel poverty is caused by bad housing, expensive and inefficient heating systems and poor insulation, as well as high fuel prices and inadequate pensions and benefits. We have to take these matters seriously if we are to make any improvement in the conditions and living standards of elderly people in particular and poor families in general. This country urgently needs a policy for warmth, beginning with a massive conservation programme, led by insulation in council housing, the expansion of grants for private sector housing and industry incentives to save energy.

The Government have ignored the links between conservation and fuel poverty, although it is profoundly obvious that the efficient use of fuel in the long run will lead to lower fuel bills. It has been shown that 6 per cent. of fuel can be saved through energy conservation schemes, and slightly more can be saved in newly built properties, yet energy conservation has always had a low priority for the Government. That is why I welcome the establishment of the Energy Efficiency Office. Unfortunately, the publicity distributed by that office has no back-up. Grants for insulation and local authority initiatives have been undermined by the Government's public expenditure cuts.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien , Normanton

It is not nonsense. It has been demonstrated by the problems that local authorities are having in carrying out installations and draught-proofing properties because of the reduction in the HIP programme.

A more serious matter is causing extreme hardship for mineworkers and widows of former mineworkers. Many people in my constituency in particular, and throughout the Yorkshire region in general, are retired members of the mining fraternity and their widows, who are suffering fuel poverty. The application by British Coal of a callous and iniquitous agreement is denying fuel benefits to those widows and retired miners, many of them in their late 70s and 80s, and is putting them into the fuel poverty trap and at the mercy of the DHSS.

With the introduction of the British Coal agreement in 1983, fuel poverty has been caused to people who have given all their working lives to the coal industry. In their early years, those people worked in the pits to ensure that there would be no lack of warmth in their years of retirement. There is now fuel poverty in mining communities because of this immoral and rotten 1983 fuel agreement. Many retired miners are chronically sick and need help. It is poor reward for their hard work.

The Department of Energy has been pushing up the price of gas and electricity to provide more money for the Exchequer. This is nothing more than a form of taxation of those who can least affort it. I am calling for a freeze on, or even a cut in, fuel prices to help those suffering fuel poverty. If there is to be a genuine approach to the problem, there must be a standstill in fuel prices.

Now the Government have embarked on the privatisation of the British Gas Corportion. This holds out no hope that consumers will have the benefit of cheaper fuel. The price formula proposed by the Government will not ensure that prices are kept down. There has been no assurance that standing charges will not increase by more than the rate of inflation. I am prepared to listen to Government Members who say that there will not be an increase in gas charges following privatisation—Sid says that this is the last day to buy shares—above the rate of inflation. I feel sure that no Government Member can give that assurance. The people who suffer fuel poverty have little to which to look forward following gas privatisation.

For the 3 million gas consumers on the lowest incomes, standing charges represent 30 per cent. of their expenditure on gas. There are constant lobbies by people who represent the aged, widows and weaker groups and urges that standing charges be abolished. That would be a step in the right direction to help the people in the poverty trap.

Rather than tax everyone with fuel prices, we need the positive investment of resources in energy efficiency measures for low income households. That is what the Labour party is committed to and what the next Labour Government will implement. I believe that the Labour motion offers extensive hope to the people suffering fuel poverty. It encourages the elderly, widows, the chronically sick and the disabled to believe that there is hope. Those who accept the Government amendment will not alleviate the poverty that people are suffering and fulfill the need for more warmth and help in their homes. I ask the House to support the Labour motion and give hope to the people who are suffering in the poverty trap.

Photo of Mr Lewis Stevens Mr Lewis Stevens , Nuneaton 8:53 pm, 2nd December 1986

The hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) made points that were completely antagonistic to the basis of the Government's approach to elderly people and to those who suffer from the problems caused by fuel prices. He said that the Government had nothing to offer, as though there had been no help with grants and heating additions. He went on to say that the general idea was to keep fuel prices down, and that is true. Fuel prices have increased by about 118 per cent. while heating additions have increased by 159 per cent.

The hon. Member for Normanton mentioned standing charges. British Gas has reduced them by £1 a quarter. He went on about fuel price increases. In the past few years, electricity price increases have been lower than the rate of inflation. Because of the oil price drop, after the announcement of electricity price increases, those prices actually dropped. Prices have not been increasing at a fantastic rate. They have been kept under control. The hon. Gentleman complained about insulation and the progress in making more efficient heaters, as though the Department of Energy had done nothing. In the past few years, the Department introduced the Monergy programmes.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

The hon. Gentleman seemed to say that fuel prices have not gone through the roof but have, more or less, kept pace with inflation. That is not quite the position. In the seven years of the Tory Government, the increase in gas prices has been 135 per cent. and the increase in the retail prices index has been 80 per cent.

Photo of Mr Lewis Stevens Mr Lewis Stevens , Nuneaton

The hon. Gentleman has made that point. This is the third successive year in which gas prices have increased by less than the inflation rate. In real terms, domestic gas costs less than it did in 1970.

Some of the elderly face difficulties in keeping warm. My hon. Friend the Minister explained the difficulties and said that it is not just a correlation between the temperatures in which they live and the higher death rates during winter. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House accept that it is a complex problem. Unfortunately, there are elderly people who do not realise the temperatures at which they should keep their homes, even when they have the facility to do so. Elderly people need to be told through advertising how important it is to keep their rooms at reasonable temperatures. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) referred to people living in temperatures of less than 60·8 deg F. Some old people do not realise the importance of keeping themselves properly warm.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that many old people recognise that they need heat but are frightened to put their heaters on because they cannot afford to do so? They know full well that standing charges are often much higher than the charges for the gas that they have used. Is there not a case for abolishing standing charges?

Photo of Mr Lewis Stevens Mr Lewis Stevens , Nuneaton

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that case has been made often, and early-day motions have been tabled on the subject. I was thinking about a particular group of people who do not recognise the importance of heating.

The important point has been made that some elderly people go out ill-equipped into inclement conditions. Education, especially with the help of social workers, is important. Draught exclusion has been a great help to many people. In my area the DHSS has easily been convinced of the need for it. It has carried out draught exclusion comparatively easily and quickly. Many old people probably do not realise that those on supplementary benefit can receive help in order to get such jobs done. They need to know more about such things. Although television advertises the importance of insulation, many elderly people still do not take advantage of what is available.

It was again said that the Tories do not really bother and that we disagree with the Labour party, but we care. The Government have extended heating additions to age groups and to people who were not eligible under the previous Labour Government. It is remarkable that all 65-year-olds on supplementary benefit are now eligible for heating additions. We have extended the provision to many disabled people and to people on supplementary benefit with children under five. That is a definite improvement and a help to those on low incomes.

The Government have done much. We have pointed the new system of allowances for extreme weather conditions in the right direction. It is targeted on the areas and groups of people most in need. That is where the help should go. It is right that Scotland and the north, which are much colder, should benefit rather than areas in the south where the climate is milder. Even if another Government introduced some other arrangements—we hope that it will be a long time before we have to worry about that—the emphasis should still be put on those areas which have the coldest weather and where the inhabitants need a higher heating addition.

Photo of Mr Ernie Ross Mr Ernie Ross , Dundee West

The hon. Gentleman said that the allowances should be targeted on areas of need. He suggested that if the scheme was introduced, people in Scotland might be helped. Does he realise that if the scheme had been operated last year, only three out of the 14 areas in Scotland would have received any benefit. My area would have received no benefit whatsoever, yet some of my constituents in Dundee have paid for an entire month.

Photo of Mr Lewis Stevens Mr Lewis Stevens , Nuneaton

It is right to go not for the flat rate system which has been advocated, but for one based on differentials. This subject is treated far too emotionally by the Opposition. Within the old social security system there were moves to give help. Help has also been given under the new social security system. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has dismissed, as he did in Committee, the suggestion that the heating allowances would be assimilated into the income support scheme so that it was paid automatically to those on supplementary benefit. Because it was not shown separately, it was assumed that it would not exist, but surely that is a much simpler and more sensible system to introduce than one that has many "ifs" and "buts" and additions about qualifying under certain conditions.

It is to the Government's credit that, during this Parliament and the previous one, they took action on energy efficiency and widened the scope of the heating additions. They introduced a scheme which gave much greater help to the elderly, and consequently the elderly are confident that measures have been taken to improve their lot.

Photo of Mr Robert Litherland Mr Robert Litherland , Manchester Central 9:03 pm, 2nd December 1986

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) informed the House that last year was the severest winter for 40 years. That, combined with the miserly pension increase approved by the Government, against a background of a rising number of deaths from hypothermia among the elderly, led to a demand for an additional heating allowance of £5 a week. We and the pensioners' associations say that that payment should be automatic.

It was said that the Government had sole responsibility for pricing gas and electricity. They price those fuels beyond the means of the most vulnerable people, those on benefits. How can Ministers justify accumulated profits of £635 million from electricity and £651 million from the gas industry? As has been pointed out, those profits are a hidden tax. The White Paper on public expenditure reveals that in the three years to 1987–88 British Gas will pay the Treasury £2·9 billion in gas levy and corporation tax. The financial targets set for the electricity boards require them, in the next year, to pay £386 million net to the Treasury. Therefore, the poorest once again must bear the burden. As I have said, it is a hidden tax.

The cost of heating and lighting a home has increased at an incredible rate. Yet those industries can show huge profits and the Government, with their policies, urge competitiveness and push up the cost of fuel. The money, however, is not used to the benefit of those most in need. In a letter to me, the Prime Minister wrote: We are already giving considerable help to pensioners through the supplementary benefit scheme… You have referred to the elderly using more fuel last winter due to the very cold weather. Help towards these extra costs was in fact available to supplementary benefit claimants during that cold spell, and payments were made throughout Great Britain with the sole exception of Lerwick, Shetland. How can a Prime Minister be so complacent when so many people died of cold-related illnesses last year? In her reply to my question on this subject during Prime Minister's Question Time, when I requested that the £5 should be given automatically, her first word to me was an emphatic no.

Despite the mounting evidence that the poor cannot pay to heat their homes, despite the inescapable evidence of the rise in the number of deaths during the winter, and despite coroners' reports of accidental death due to hypothermia, which I have never accepted because those deaths are the responsibility of the state as they could have been prevented——

Photo of Mr Robert Litherland Mr Robert Litherland , Manchester Central

I hope that no one in the hon. Gentleman's family has to suffer.

Despite all that, the Government will throw only a few miserly crumbs, which will evidently appease the consciences of the Prime Minister, the Government and their cohorts on the Back Benches. They can enjoy Christmas and feel cleansed as they attend religious services, secure in their minds that pensioners are well looked after and that perhaps not so many will die this year, and comforted by the fact that it will not be members of their families that could suffer the indignity of freezing to death like the lady in Blackpool last year. She was so cold when they found her that they could not even take her body temperature. The Conservatives can shout, "Rubbish."

Those Conservative Members are comforted by the knowledge that none of their families will suffer the humiliation of their electricity supplies being disconnected. Indeed, 125,000 households had their electricity supplies disconnected, according to the most recently available figures for a 12-month period. A survey of those who had been disconnected discovered that 90 per cent. of those households fell within the definition of hardship.

I have received correspondence from, among others, the Pensioners and Trade Unions Association, which says that there is nationwide indignation because of the number of deaths among the elderly last winter. The consequent pressures exerted by the churches, by social and political figures and by campaigning pressure groups has forced the Government to move—not a lot, but at least they have moved.

However, the announcement by the DHSS of the proposed heating allowance of £5 per week for those on supplementary benefit is so hedged with conditions that many of those in need will not receive allowances. Pensioner organisations are convinced that, in many cases, by the time benefit is received it is too late to avoid hypothermia. Waiting for the temperature to drop an average 1·5 deg C below freezing before paying out heating allowance is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who is aware of the problems affecting elderly people during the winter period.

There are a great number of elderly people in my constituency. In 1984, figures showed that there were 82,700 pensioners in the city of Manchester—18 per cent. of the population. Not all elderly people are poor—I recognise that—but clearly many are on very low incomes. By December 1984, 23,800 were receiving supplementary benefit and a further 23,400 were receiving standard housing benefit. That represented 57 per cent. of Manchester's pensioner population. When one takes into account the non-take-up, it is likely that over 80 per cent. of the city's pensioners are receiving or are entitled to receive means-tested welfare benefit. That is higher than the national average. National statistics suggest that the most vulnerable group of elderly people is that living alone. A survey in 1983 showed that 54 per cent. of that group were primarily dependent on state benefit.

We recognise that it is not just the elderly who suffer—that is recognised in the debate. I receive many letters from constituents who cannot afford heating costs and who have reverted to other kinds of heating such as paraffin stoves. Such stoves are used to heat accommodation or to dry out washing, and they cause condensation which in turn causes ill health; they also cause the fabric of the accommodation to deteriorate. All that is costly.

For my sins, I sat on Manchester city council and on the fire brigade committee. In that time, I saw photographs of fires in homes which had used paraffin stoves. They showed the charred remains of the bodies of children whose chest cages had been burnt open by fire and intense heat. The only item which remained in the charred rooms, in perfect condition, was the paraffin stove which had caused the disaster. Despite all this, the Prime Minister says no.

Tonight we have bandied statistics about. We have discussed percentages and numbers, but these are not mere figures, these are people. How can we expect understanding from a Prime Minister whose heart is permanently below freezing point? We have appealed to Conservative Members to come into the Lobby with us tonight but, I am afraid, once again like sheep, they will follow the leader.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway , Shrewsbury and Atcham 9:12 pm, 2nd December 1986

I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr Litherland) spoke with compassion and sincerity, but, sadly, the hon. Gentleman pushed himself into a corner which is far from reality. Many of the words addressed to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister could equally have been addressed with the same amount of compassion and sincerity to his right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) when he presided over the last Labour Government. To quote individual cases, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Central did, is unjust to the debate. Although those tragic cases cause great sadness to the families concerned, there is no doubt that such tragedies occur under Governments of all political persuasions. Therefore, to try to use them as a political stick with which to beat the Government is beneath the hon. Gentleman.

In Shrewsbury, elderly constituents who have come to me suffering hardship and fuel poverty have found the local DHSS offices superbly helpful. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of the fact that the offices are extremely helpful—often under difficult conditions—and the vast majority of the general public, despite the occasional headlines in the cheaper papers, believe they do a first-rate job. I agree with that. It is sad that the debate, which could have made a constructive contribution towards helping the elderly and conserving energy, has deteriorated into pork-barrel politics. I suppose that that was inevitable.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway , Shrewsbury and Atcham

If the right hon. Gentleman had been in his place throughout the debate, he would know why. Instead, he has chosen to slip into the Chamber towards the end of the debate and chip in from a sedentary position, which is beneath him.

The debate started on a bad note, and that was the position from the moment that the motion was placed on the Order Paper. Things went from bad to worse because we were faced with an inaccurate motion. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who moved it, was shown to have "facts" which were completely wrong.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security made it clear that the trend in excess winter deaths has been downward. From 1961 to 1965, winter deaths were 52·3 per cent. In 1966, they had been reduced to 39·6 per cent. There was a further reduction between 1971 and 1975 to 28·2 per cent. Between 1976 and 1980 they jumped to 33·6 per cent. As the hon. Member for Oldham, West has been reminded again and again tonight—we shall not let him forget it because he was a DHSS Minister at the time—the highest number of winter deaths occurred in 1978–79. That peak was not reached when a "wicked Tory Government" were in power. That cannot be said by any stretch of the Opposition's imagination. Instead, that happened under a Labour Government.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) has represented the alliance in the Chamber for part of the debate. He has been the only alliance Member present, and often the Chamber has been empty from an alliance point of view, which demonstrates its great concern for the elderly and for fuel poverty. It is a fact that the alliance supported the Labour Government who were responsible for the appalling record to which I have referred. We have heard this evening—this was after he had used a great deal of cotton wool—that he will join the Opposition in voting against the Government when the Division takes place.

It seems that alliance and Labour Members cannot separate themselves. In Shropshire we call supporters of the alliance Laberals. The Labour and Liberal parties are indistinguishable in their actions and the Liberals have a shameful record in supporting Socialism in the Chamber. It is sad that they intend to do so this evening. As I have said, the trend in winter deaths is downwards, and that cannot be denied.

It is a fact that the 1·7 per cent. increase in the price of gas from 1 May was the first increase for 15 months, and it was well below the rate of inflation. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House feel that the standing charge has outlived its time, but it should be remembered that it was reduced by £1. We know that electricity prices have been increased by 4·7 per cent., but that increase followed three years when the total increase of 6 per cent. was well below the general rate of inflation. That has had a serious effect on pensioners, to their betterment.

When we think about standing charges we experience an initial gut reaction. We feel that they are unfair and should be abolished. I think that that is the initial reaction of most of us, but we must consider the knock-on effects. It is so easy to say, as Liberal and Labour Members have said this evening, "Abolish this, do that and do the other," but every now and again, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) is proving to members of the shadow Cabinet, it is necessary to consider the financial effects for the nation.

If we abolish standing charges, unit charges will unquestionably be forced up because the money has to be raised from somewhere, and the estimated cost of abolition is £550 millon a year. Where will that sum come from? Will it come from the magical pocket of the Leader of the Opposition, no doubt to be paid in dollars?

For pensioners, the knock-on effect on unit charges will be an extra £300 million per annum. The pensioners should not be fooled into thinking that the Opposition offer them great glory to come. Behind their easy words in the Chamber tonight lie serious knock-on effects for their unit charge payments.

I hope that we shall hear from my hon. Friend the Minister something about the progress that has been made in energy conservation. A considerable effort has been made to ease the life of pensioners, especially in this regard. The Department of Energy has made available project start-up grants to help voluntary insulation programmes. The record of progress on that score is worth trumpeting in the Chamber and throughout the country.

The Department of Energy is a major source of finance for the neighbourhood energy action programme, which is successful in my constituency, as it is, no doubt, in other constituencies. I hope that we shall hear more from my hon. Friend the Minister about the Department of the Environment's home insulation scheme. I appreciate, of course, that he will not be speaking for that Department this evening. There are home insulation grants of up to 90 per cent. for loft insulation, and these are effective in helping pensioners retain the value of their heat expenditure. The considerable growth in the full cost of draught-proofing materials through the DHSS single payment scheme is important. There has been an 80 per cent. increase this year alone.

There have been many crocodile tears and, sadly, false words tonight about the Government's true record. But the fact remains, as the electorate will have pointed out to them time and time again, that £11 billion more has been spent on benefits by this Administration, not out of their money or the Prime Minister's money, but out of taxpayers' money. There are higher rates now than ever before, and that cannot be and has not been challenged by the Opposition Front Bench. That money is not all going on unemployment, which is the easy claim in the newspapers. Only £4 billion of that £11 billion is directed towards the increase in unemployment, while £1·75 billion goes to pensioners and £1·5 billion to benefits for the long-term sick and disabled. There is a £4 billion—6 per cent—increase across the board.

The Opposition's motion tonight, supported by the Liberal and Social Democratic parties—they have not been in the Chamber, but no doubt they will turn up in the Lobbies—is too easy and glib a promise. The £5 a week benefit referred to in the motion would cost £150 million a year.

Some of my hon. Friends have asked whether the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook has been advised of that. His colleagues in the shadow Cabinet promise more with every hour that passes. As his name is on the Order Paper, no doubt he will be looking forward to accounting for that extra expenditure when my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary challenges him about it.

Apart from the purely financial effects, the proposal will mean pension book chaos. The pension will be going up one month and coming down two or three months later. In addition, there will be the annual increase, which is now due in April. Pensioners will be backwards and forwards with their pension books and will not know where they are. Tremendous chaos will ensue. The pressure on our DHSS offices will be considerable, and that will hinder them even more from looking out for the special cases.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire made a moving speech in support of the Labour party's policy of a payment of £5 per week, and then went on to talk about the problems of young children in a cold environment. However, the Labour party's policy, which he and his colleagues will support tonight, makes no mention of that. It does not say that it will do anything at all for the under-fives who are presently supported by the Government's policy, nor, indeed for the disabled.

What we do know is that, as a result of the Labour party's spendthrift policies, inflation will undoubtedly return and we can look forward to the sort of fuel conservation that is practised by Mr. Arthur Scargill and his cohorts as they stockpile.

Undoubtedly, the Labour party's motion is one of pork barrel politics: think of a figure, double it and hope that the electorate will be stupid enough to accept it. But they will not be, and we know that only to well. They will look at the figures—as all the surveys now show that they are doing—and the promises being made to them with doubting eyes. Instead, they will look to the Government's record, which stands scrutiny. They will look to the record of previous Labour and Liberal Governments which stands for shame. I hope that the amendment will be carried tonight.

Photo of Mr Gordon Wilson Mr Gordon Wilson , Dundee East 9:22 pm, 2nd December 1986

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Conway) and the Government are deceiving themselves if they think that fuel poverty and fuel allowances will be ignored by the electorate. It took last winter, with the strange inversion of temperature that caused the severe weather allowance to be triggered off in the south initially, but not in the north, to direct a lot of attention to the issue of climate and how it impacts upon fuel poverty.

During the debate there has been little reference to the impact which climate can have on people. Earlier, I said that Scotland has a longer winter, a harsher climate and lower temperatures than elsewhere. Therefore, in practical terms, the cost of heating a house will be 30 per cent. more in Aberdeen than in Bristol. It is hardly surprising that 25 per cent. of hypothermia deaths in the United Kingdom are to be found in Scotland. The Government have been criminally complacent in the way in which they have approached the issue.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) was correct to direct attention not just to those who, unfortunately and sadly, die because of the inadequate level of heating allowances, but to the hundreds of thousands of elderly who are affected by discomfort caused by being unable to heat their houses.

I have had experience of discussions with Ministers in which they took the very sophisticated argument that because the family income surveys did not show increased expenditure on heating, there was no need to supply money for heating. The fact is that many elderly people are scared burn fuel during the winter months because they do not believe they can afford to do so. As a result, they live in conditions of extreme discomfort and there are cold related illnesses and, unfortunately, deaths.

There has been much hypocrisy from the Labour party during the debate. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) was a Minister for Social Security and admitted, after leaving office, that he bitterly regretted having suppressed information about the effect of hypothermia. My former colleague Mrs. Margaret Bain was very active on that score then.

In my research on this matter I came across articles that are horribly reminiscent and show just how little improvement has occurred. An article in The Times on 6 February 1976 stated: A state of war in the Government has been declared this week by the voluntary agencies campaigning for a cohesive policy to stop the mounting toll of deaths from hypothermia among elderly people and the prospect of young babies being irreparably damaged by the cold. The Department of Health and Social Security under a Labour Administration decided around 1977 that the minimum recommended room temperature for old people of 70 deg F should be discontinued and thereafter the DHSS would make no recommendation. We have to judge the Labour party's proposals for a £5 a week winter premium against that background. That is better by far than the Government's proposals.

I made the point to the hon. Member for Oldham, West that that form of flat rate payment is discriminatory in its approach. It means that those who live in the south, who require less heating for their homes and who have more money left for food and clothing, will receive the extra premium. I do not object to that. However, no extra sum will go to those who live in the colder parts of the United Kingdom who also have to sustain longer winters. The period from mid-December until March does not cover the Scottish winter which runs from November until the end of April. That must be corrected. Should the Labour party be in power after the next election, the Labour Government will have to revise that scheme as it would cause a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction in Scotland.

The new severe weather allowances introduced by the Government amount to no more than a con trick. It is particularly depressing that an elderly person can be refused any payment even during severe weather, because he as £500 or more in a bank account. The Minister must accept that £500 is very close to the cost these days of an ordinary funeral. The elderly have a great respect in these matters. They do not wish to die and be buried in a pauper's grave. They would therefore prefer to go without heating so that their savings will be available when they die.

There is also a problem in relation to the unemployed who are struggling to keep their families warm. As I understand it, under the new arrangements, children over the age of two pass the cut-off point and the fuel allowances will not be available to a family who would otherwise qualify if the child was under two years of age. That is very harsh.

I cannot accept as a pretext or excuse for delay the much delivered quotation of Professor Keatinge that people in sheltered housing and warm conditions have a similar rate of death to those who live outside that accommodation. Research could take ages. Why is it that Scandinavians, Americans and Canadians who have adequately insulated houses and a high fuel allowance do not die prematurely during the winter months as we do? Why do the Government not make available money now and an adequate programme to insulate houses to a proper degree of warmth?

Both the Government and the Opposition have failed to take account of two factors that arose in the 1970s—the poor quality of housing erected in the 1960s which was inadequately insulated—concrete shells—and the savage increase in fuel costs. The Government's proposals are entirely useless. They may be slightly better in theory than the previous severe weather allowances which gave more comfort to the south than to Scotland, but when the figures are totalled, less money will be available to people living in Scotland for heating allowances this year than last year. That is the acid test and by that standard the Government have failed.

Photo of Mr Stan Orme Mr Stan Orme , Salford East 9:30 pm, 2nd December 1986

The debate is taking place at a most appropriate time as it is the end of Energy Efficiency Year and shortly after the week of action on cold homes. I shall deal with the responsibility of the Department of Energy, which overlaps into that of the Department of the Environment.

The Government have ignored all the evidence from last winter. As has been stated, during the first three months of 1986 there were 578 hypothermia-related deaths in Great Britain. International comparisons show that the British people suffer more in cold weather than people in other countries with similar or colder weather conditions. Both sides of the House should examine that and what can be done about it. Yet the Secretary of State for Energy appears to believe that there is no such thing as fuel poverty. He prefers to believe that it is the same as clothes or food poverty as that would absolve him from taking any initiative to deal with it.

Fuel poverty is more complex and covers a range of issues. Certainly it is about a lack of income, but it is also about poor housing conditions, inappropiate heating systems and a lack of insulation or draught proofing. Evidence shows that the elderly and low-income households live in poor housing conditions, often lacking the basic amenities, and in the coldest homes. Such families are also less likely to have central heating systems and adequate insulation in their lofts or cavity walls.

Photo of Mr John Powley Mr John Powley , Norwich South

I accept entirely the right hon. Gentleman's point about the importance of loft insulation. Is he aware that, despite the Government's allocation of sums to local authorities for home insulation schemes, in each of the past five years local authorities have underspent considerably, sometimes by as much as one third of the sum allocated? Does he agree that they should make greater efforts to use all the resources available? Obviously, we would all like more, but local authorities do not even use 100 per cent. of the resources available.

Photo of Mr Stan Orme Mr Stan Orme , Salford East

I take the hon Gentleman's point and I shall deal with it. The Government are responsible for ensuring that these resouces are available; I shall say something further about that.

I represent an inner city. In part of my constituency the people are extremely poor and there is high unemployment. People who come to see me and who have, for example, underfloor heating or some form of central heating or who have to pay for electricity through a meter, tell me that they do not use heat because they cannot afford to use it. Consequently, they suffer from the cold and tell me about going to bed early during the winter because of the cold. Surely, in an energy-rich nation like ours, resources which are so essential should be available.

On Monday morning there was a doctor on the "Today" programme on BBC Radio 4—if I dare to mention that in this House. He said that perhaps it would be cheaper for the Government to allow some of the people suffering form cold to go to Spain during the winter because that would relieve the problem of hypothermia. He made the point that our housing was deplorable. For instance, there are no figures for hypothermia in Iceland, Norway or Finland or in any part of Scandinavia. People there do not die from cold, because their homes are properly insulated. The Government should turn their attention to that, because it is a priority matter.

The need for improvement to our housing stock is becoming increasingly urgent. The forecast expenditure by local authorities—I am coming to the point made by the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley)—for 1985–86 on heating and insulation improvements was just £193. That is a far cry from the estimated £4 billion that is needed. If a priority programme for home insulation was created and made a national campaign by the Government, not only would it insulate homes but it would create needed jobs. I have seen such schemes in Newcastle upon Tyne. One estimate shows that 50,000 jobs could be created by that type of expenditure. Surely expenditure of that sort would be much better than money spent on tax relief, which is what the Government are considering for the future.

All these problems lead to fuel disconnections. Difficulty in paying for fuel and the accumulation of debt are major problems, especially for low income families with children. A study of families on supplementary benefit concluded that paying for fuel is the greatest problem they face. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Merchant) took a week living on unemployment benefit to accept that this is the case for millions of families. He made a point about the cost of fuel, even with that very short experience.

In the year to 31 March 1986, there were 138,000 disconnections of either gas or electricity. Increasingly, families are unable to afford to have their supplies of heat and light reconnected. Some 23,000 households are without fuel for over three months. In our present society, that is a disgrace.

The Government have made no concerted attempt to tackle these problems. Their policies are marked by a lack of co-ordination. The gas and electricity authorities have made huge profits. Last year, the gas levy was over £600 million, without profits, and very high profits have just been made by the electricity authority. John Edmonds, the general secretary of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union referred the other day to the privatisation of British Gas and said that it would be far better if the price of gas were reduced by 10 per cent. for those who need such a reduction. I underline that comment.

This year, 1986, is Energy Efficiency Year. We have been bombarded with glossy advertisements that exhort us to conserve energy. Those who are most in need of help should have their homes insulated and draught-proofed. They should also have new heating systems. These measures would enable them to have energy-efficient homes. However, they have not benefited from the Government's programme. The Department of Energy exhorts us to insulate our homes, but the Department of the Environment reduces the amount of money in the reserve fund available for this programme. That happened right at the beginning of Energy Efficiency Year. The local authorities in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling, some of the coldest places in Britain, have run out of money for home insulation grants. They are able to claim additional funds, but they have not been told that they can do so. I ask the Minister to answer that point.

Photo of Mr John Powley Mr John Powley , Norwich South

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Stan Orme Mr Stan Orme , Salford East

No. There are only five minutes left to me, and I have some important matters to put before the House.

It is a shame that the Government have not delivered the resources to back up their advertising campaign. Not only the Department of the Environment overlooks the work of the Department of Energy; so does the Department of Health and Social Security. The Department of Energy has produced a breakdown of those areas in Britain that are colder than others. For example, it considers that the Pennines are averagely cold and that the north-east of Scotland is 20 per cent. colder.

The Minister used a most interesting phrase: "absolute coldness". What does that mean? The Department of Health and Social Security does not seem to be aware of it. It has a completely different basis for severe weather payments, which makes it far less likely that it would have to pay out. The solution to these problems is outlined in the Opposition's motion and it has been dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and by other right hon. and hon. Friends.

There should be a statutory code of practice relating to disconnections. The Government know that the Opposition referred to disconnections in Committee on the Gas Bill. We understand that the final decision over disconnections rests with the authority, but before disconnections take place, statutory authority should be obtained. While it is being obtained, other means should be found to assist those who have difficulty in paying their bills.

Photo of Mr Eric Cockeram Mr Eric Cockeram , Ludlow

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Stan Orme Mr Stan Orme , Salford East

No. The Labour party is committed to the introduction of such a code and it will do so at the earliest opportunity.

As for the neighbourhood energy action campaign, I pay tribute to Newcastle upon Tyne, Glasgow and Hull, which have led this campaign. They are all Labour authorities. It should be noted as such. Such a programme, if we were to develop it on a national scale, would create warm homes and many thousands of jobs.

Our motion shows the House and the Government the central issues facing thousands of people this winter. The Government could assist, by implementing our motion, which is modest in its proposals, but if they are not prepared to implement it, they should explain why. We believe that it could be done now, and the Government should be tackling these problems. We shall return to this issue time and again.

Photo of Mr Alastair Goodlad Mr Alastair Goodlad Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Energy) 9:45 pm, 2nd December 1986

I must confess to having read with disbelief the Opposition's motion for the evening's debate. The Government are criticised for the alleged inadequacy of the system of exceptionally severe weather payments, yet the motion completely ignores the Government's excellent record in providing help through the social security system. The motion seeks safeguards to protect pensioners from disconnection, but entirely ignores the code of practice which already provides pensioners with general protection against disconnection and with specific protection from 1 October to 31 March each year. The motion calls for a major programme of home insulation, but overlooks the fact that there is already a major programme that utterly dwarfs anything that existed when the Labour party was in power.

The hon. Members for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland) and the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) mentioned disconnections. These remain steady at just over 0·5 per cent. of average domestic electricity credit consumers and just under 0·25 per cent. for gas consumers.

Both industries operate a code of practice, monitored by their respective consumer councils, to safeguard from disconnection genuine cases of hardship. The industries make the maximum effort to handle constructively any failure to pay bills and its consequences. Both industries operate schemes to enable consumers to pay off debt or to avoid getting into debt, such as budget payments, installation of prepayment meters, which can be calibrated to recover part debt, and saving stamps.

The code of practice has already been reviewed and revised twice by the industries to keep it up to date and to take account of changed circumstances. In addition, its operation is monitored by the gas and electricity consumer councils.

The Policy Studies Institute, When it reviewed the code in 1981, thought that many of those disconnected had been in arrears for some time during which they could and should have obtained help under the code. The review concluded that the statistics show substantial patience displayed by the industries, especially the gas industry, in the face of persistent non-payment by their debtors. The statistics also show that there are very few elderly households among debtors, and even fewer among those who suffer disconnection. Only 1 per cent. of the disconnections studied were in pensioner households.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) mentioned, albeit with an understandable measure of diffidence, the subject of energy efficiency in the home, as did the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) and the right hon. Member for Salford, East. The right hon. Gentleman is not always diffident, I grant him that. I have no hesitation in saying that the Government have done vastly more to promote energy efficiency in the home—in other words, to tackle at source the problems that we are discussing—than the Labour party ever did.

Let me remind the House what we have done, which has made a massive difference to the lives of a large number of people. We have encouraged loft insulation through the homes insulation scheme and improved the help that the scheme gives to low-income households. [Interruption.] There is nothing particularly funny about low-income households. We have supported neighbourhood energy action and the voluntary sector insulation projects.

Photo of Mr Allen McKay Mr Allen McKay , Barnsley West and Penistone

Can the Minister give an assurance that the schemes which are undertaken by community projects for the elderly and people on social security benefits will continue as they are now, even when the Social Security Act 1986 comes into effect?

Photo of Mr Alastair Goodlad Mr Alastair Goodlad Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Energy)

I shall come to those important points in a moment.

The Energy Efficiency Office has developed a comprehensive range of publications to provide the domestic householder with objective advice, much of it relevant to low income households. Energy Efficiency Year, and the associated Monergy campaign, represent the biggest campaign ever aimed at improving the energy efficiency of the domestic sector, including low-income households.

The Government are again reviewing the thermal insulation standards in the building regulations to ensure that new homes are built to better standards. The Government are also working with the British Standards Institution to encourage the voluntary adoption of higher standards.

The Government have provided 2·5 million grants under the homes insulation scheme to encourage householders to carry out two of the measures—loft insulation and hot water cylinder insulation—that are most cost-effective even without a grant. In view of the subject of this evening's debate I should remind the House that it was this Government which, in 1980, extended the homes insulation scheme to provide enhanced grants at the 90 per cent. level for the elderly on low incomes and which, the following year, extended the 90 per cent. grant to the disabled on low incomes.

Both those groups also benefited from the Government's decision in 1984 to extend the scheme to provide "topping up" grants for those with less than 30 mm of existing insulation. In the six years since 90 per cent. grant was introduced, over 420,000 households on low incomes have been helped, either through a grant for initial insulation or through one for topping up their existing insulation. That, I would suggest, is an achievement of which the Government are justifiably proud.

One of the most remarkable success stories of the past few years is the growth of the voluntary sector insulation projects. I know that the whole House will want to congratulate David Green and Robert Davies, who set up the first project in Durham as long ago as 1975. But the sad fact is that, by 1980, the total number of such projects, despite the attention of the Opposition, was less than half a dozen. In 1981 the Department of Energy stepped in with its programme of active support of those projects. The projects provide a low cost or free basic insulation service to low income households, and they are able to do that because they bring together several types of Government finance.

The Department of Energy has provided seedcorn and project grants to enable voluntary organisations to plan projects, and to buy a van, tools and initial stock of materials to start up work. It is also the major source of finance for neighbourhood energy action, the national co-ordinating body.

Photo of Mr Allen McKay Mr Allen McKay , Barnsley West and Penistone

Will the hon. Gentleman answer my question?

Photo of Mr Alastair Goodlad Mr Alastair Goodlad Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Energy)

I shall answer it in a moment.

The labour costs are met through the Manpower Services Commission's community programme for the long-term unemployed. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may not like hearing this, but they are going to hear it.

Materials costs are met through the Department of the Environment's homes insulation scheme, which provides grants of up to 90 per cent. for loft insulation, and through DHSS single payments, which pay the full cost of draught-proofing materials for qualifying claimants on supplementary benefit.

Since 1981 the expansion of those projects has been dramatic. From five then, the number increased to 60 at the end of 1983 when the Energy Efficiency Office was set up. The number of projects then doubled in 1984 from 100 to 200, and in 1986 there has been an 80 per cent. increase to nearly 340. A further 200 projects are at the planning stage. They already employ over 5,500 people, and they have treated over 230,000 homes—about 100,000 in 1986 alone. That means that well over 250,000 people on low incomes—many of them pensioners or disabled—have been made warmer and more comfortable by the work of the projects. That is, I would suggest, an excellent example of the Government and the voluntary sector working together. It is also an excellent example of several Departments working together towards a common objective. The total cost to public funds of the various kinds of Government funding for these projects is, in fact, about £30 million annually.

The Energy Efficiency Office produces and distributes a wealth of material on the basic measures that all householders should take, in their own interests, to reduce their energy bills or to live more comfortably. New publications in Energy Efficiency Year include the Monergy guides on cutting home energy costs, the Monergy fact files on the seven basic measures, and Monergy news for general interest articles. These publications are in addition to the high profile television and press advertising campaign. On the future of the voluntary sector insulation projects, I am glad that hon. Gentlemen value so highly the schemes brought in by the Government which they did not bring in themselves.

Following the social security reforms in 1988, my right hon. Friend the then Minister for Social Security assured the House in February that he would wish to be assured that there were adequate alternative arrangements to enable the work on these projects to continue. Gas prices after privatisation have been mentioned. As the House knows, these will be strictly controlled by a formula which will protect the customer. The formula will discipline the company to achieve savings in the onshore costs under its control and will ensure that customers share in the benefit.

As has already been mentioned, gas standing charges were reduced by £1·00 this year. Following privatisation, British Gas will be required, under the terms of the authorisation, not to increase standing charges by more than the rate of inflation. This is not an assurance; this is a requirement.

Standing charges are the fairest way of recovering those fixed costs to which every consumer gives rise—meter readings, accounting and billing, and emergency services. For these reasons, standing charges are favoured by the industry's consumer councils and have been recommended by the Council of the European Communities for general adoption. To abolish them would cost for each industry £500 million. The lost revenue would have to be recovered through higher unit rates, penalising those who need more warmth, such as the very old, the young, the sick and the disabled.

Successive Governments have concluded that concessionary tariffs, including the abolition of standing charges, would not be a sensible way of helping those in need. In 1976, when announcing the then Government's response to a review of the scope for helping poor consumers by way of concessionary tariffs, fuel allowance, reduction or abolition of standing charges, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), the then Secretary of State for Energy, said: The Government have concluded that none of these possibilities offers a satisfactory way of helping poor consumers with their fuel bills. Opposition Members had what I regard as the effrontery to raise the matter of energy prices. Of course, energy prices are a commercial measure for the nationalised industries. Rates of return in the nationalised industries as a whole are low by private sector standards. The prices are not above levels which can be justified by economic criteria. It is not true, therefore, to regard such prices as a means of indirect taxation.

Domestic gas prices were increased by only 1·7 per cent. overall from last May—the first increase for 15 months. Domestic electricity prices increased last April by around 4·7 per cent., after three years in which the total increase was only 6 per cent. This was followed in July by a reduction of about 3·5 per cent. on the unit rate for those on a typical domestic tariff. Last month, a further reduction of about 1·2 per cent. was introduced.

This means that since the last election domestic gas and electricity prices have fallen in real terms—gas by 7 per cent. and electricity by 10 per cent. In cash terms, since the last election, the price of gas has increased by about 3 per cent. a year. Under the last Labour Government, it increased by about four times as fast. Similarly, the increase in electricity prices has been about 2 per cent. a year. Under Labour, it rose 11 times as fast, or as much in six months as in the last three and a half years.

In the short term, the best way in which to help low-income households with their fuel bills is through the social security system. The Government pay£140 million more in real terms in heating additions to low-income households than our predecessors did in 1978–79—

Photo of Mr Lawrence Cunliffe Mr Lawrence Cunliffe , Leigh

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 189. Noes 258.

Division No. 16][10 pm
AYES
Abse, LeoHarrison, Rt Hon Walter
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Alton, DavidHealey, Rt Hon Denis
Anderson, DonaldHeffer, Eric S.
Ashley, Rt Hon JackHogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Home Robertson, John
Barnett, GuyHowarth, George (Knowsley, N)
Barron, KevinHoyle, Douglas
Beckett, Mrs MargaretHughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Beith, A. J.Hughes, Roy (Newport East)
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Bermingham, GeraldJanner, Hon Greville
Bidwell, SydneyJenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd)
Blair, AnthonyJohn, Brynmor
Boothroyd, Miss BettyJones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Boyes, RolandKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Bray, Dr JeremyKennedy, Charles
Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)Kirkwood, Archy
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)Lambie, David
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)Lamond, James
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)Leighton, Ronald
Bruce, MalcolmLewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Buchan, NormanLewis, Terence (Worsley)
Caborn, RichardLitherland, Robert
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)Livsey, Richard
Campbell, IanLofthouse, Geoffrey
Campbell-Savours, DaleLoyden, Edward
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y)McCartney, Hugh
Carter-Jones, LewisMcDonald, Dr Oonagh
Cartwright, JohnMcKelvey, William
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Clarke, ThomasMaclennan, Robert
Clay, RobertMcNamara, Kevin
Clwyd, Mrs AnnMcTaggart, Robert
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S)Madden, Max
Cohen, HarryMarek, Dr John
Conlan, BernardMarshall, David (Shettleston)
Cook, Frank (Stockton North)Martin, Michael
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)Maxton, John
Corbett, RobinMaynard, Miss Joan
Corbyn, JeremyMeacher, Michael
Craigen, J. M.Meadowcroft, Michael
Crowther, StanMichie, William
Cunliffe, LawrenceMikardo, Ian
Cunningham, Dr JohnMillan, Rt Hon Bruce
Dalyell, TamMitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)Nellist, David
Deakins, EricOakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Dewar, DonaldO'Brien, William
Dixon, DonaldO'Neill, Martin
Dobson, FrankOrme, Rt Hon Stanley
Dormand, JackPark, George
Duffy, A. E. P.Patchett, Terry
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.Pavitt, Laurie
Eadie, AlexPendry, Tom
Eastham, KenPenhaligon, David
Evans, John (St. Helens N)Pike, Peter
Fatchett, DerekPowell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Faulds, AndrewPrescott, John
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)Radice, Giles
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)Randall, Stuart
Fisher, MarkRaynsford, Nick
Flannery, MartinRedmond, Martin
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelRees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)
Forrester, JohnRichardson, Ms Jo
Foster, DerekRoberts, Allan (Bootle)
Foulkes, GeorgeRobertson, George
Fraser, J. (Norwood)Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Freud, ClementRogers, Allan
Godman, Dr NormanRooker, J. W.
Golding, Mrs LlinRoss, Ernest (Dundee W)
Gould, BryanRoss, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Gourlay, HarryRowlands, Ted
Hamilton, James (M'well N)Sedgemore, Brian
Hamilton, W. W. (Fife Central)Sheerman, Barry
Sheldon, Rt Hon R.Tinn, James
Shore, Rt Hon PeterTorney, Tom
Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)Wainwright, R.
Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)Wallace, James
Silkin, Rt Hon J.Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Skinner, DennisWareing, Robert
Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)Weetch, Ken
Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)White, James
Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'ds E)Wigley, Dafydd
Spearing, NigelWilliams, Rt Hon A.
Steel, Rt Hon DavidWilson, Gordon
Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)Winnick, David
Stott, RogerWrigglesworth, Ian
Strang, GavinYoung, David (Bolton SE)
Straw, Jack
Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)Tellers for the Ayes:
Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)Mr. Allen McKay and
Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)Mr. Sean Hughes.
Thorne, Stan (Preston)
NOES
Adley, RobertCouchman, James
Aitken, JonathanCranborne, Viscount
Alexander, RichardCritchley, Julian
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelCrouch, David
Ancram, MichaelCurrie, Mrs Edwina
Arnold, TomDickens, Geoffrey
Ashby, DavidDicks, Terry
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)Dorrell, Stephen
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y)Dover, Den
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Baldry, TonyDunn, Robert
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)Dykes, Hugh
Batiste, SpencerEdwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyEggar, Tim
Bendall, VivianEvennett, David
Benyon, WilliamFarr, Sir John
Best, KeithFavell, Anthony
Bevan, David GilroyFookes, Miss Janet
Biffen, Rt Hon JohnForman, Nigel
Biggs-Davison, Sir JohnForsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir PeterForth, Eric
Body, Sir RichardFowler, Rt Hon Norman
Bonsor, Sir NicholasFox, Sir Marcus
Boscawen, Hon RobertFranks, Cecil
Bottomley, PeterFraser, Peter (Angus East)
Bottomley, Mrs VirginiaGale, Roger
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n)Garel-Jones, Tristan
Boyson, Dr RhodesGilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Brandon-Bravo, MartinGlyn, Dr Alan
Bright, GrahamGoodhart, Sir Philip
Brinton, TimGoodlad, Alastair
Brittan, Rt Hon LeonGow, Ian
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)Gower, Sir Raymond
Bruinvels, PeterGreenway, Harry
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A.Grylls, Michael
Buck, Sir AntonyHamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Budgen, NickHamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Bulmer, EsmondHarris, David
Burt, AlistairHawksley, Warren
Butler, Rt Hon Sir AdamHayhoe, Rt Hon Barney
Butterfill, JohnHayward, Robert
Carlisle, John (Luton N)Heathcoat-Amory, David
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Heddle, John
Carttiss, MichaelHeseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Cash, WilliamHickmet, Richard
Chalker, Mrs LyndaHicks, Robert
Chapman, SydneyHiggins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Chope, ChristopherHind, Kenneth
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n)Hirst, Michael
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)Hordern, Sir Peter
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Cockeram, EricHowell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)
Colvin, MichaelHunt, David (Wirral W)
Conway, DerekJackson, Robert
Coombs, SimonJenkin, Rt Hon Patrick
Cope, JohnJohnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Cormack, PatrickKnight, Greg (Derby N)
Knox, DavidOnslow, Cranley
Lawler, GeoffreyOppenheim, Phillip
Lawrence, IvanOppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.
Lee, John (Pendle)Ottaway, Richard
Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Lightbown, DavidPatten, Christopher (Bath)
Lilley, PeterPatten, J. (Oxf W & Abgdn)
Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)Pawsey, James
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Lord, MichaelPercival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Luce, Rt Hon RichardPorter, Barry
Lyell, NicholasPortillo, Michael
McCrindle, RobertPowell, William (Corby)
McCurley, Mrs AnnaPowley, John
Macfarlane, NeilPrice, Sir David
MacGregor, Rt Hon JohnProctor, K. Harvey
MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)Raffan, Keith
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Maclean, David JohnRathbone, Tim
McLoughlin, PatrickRenton, Tim
McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)Rhodes James, Robert
McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
McQuarrie, AlbertRidsdale, Sir Julian
Major, JohnRippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Malins, HumfreyRoberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Malone, GeraldRoe, Mrs Marion
Maples, JohnRossi, Sir Hugh
Mather, CarolRost, Peter
Maude, Hon FrancisRowe, Andrew
Mawhinney, Dr BrianSackville, Hon Thomas
Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinSainsbury, Hon Timothy
Mayhew, Sir PatrickSt. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.
Meyer, Sir AnthonySayeed, Jonathan
Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Miscampbell, NormanShaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Mitchell, David (Hants NW)Shelton, William (Streatham)
Montgomery, Sir FergusShepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)Shersby, Michael
Moynihan, Hon C.Silvester, Fred
Mudd, DavidSims, Roger
Neale, GerrardSkeet, Sir Trevor
Nelson, AnthonySmith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Neubert, MichaelSoames, Hon Nicholas
Nicholls, PatrickSpeller, Tony
Norris, StevenSpencer, Derek
Spicer, Jim (Dorset W)Waddington, David
Squire, RobinWakeham, Rt Hon John
Stanley, Rt Hon JohnWalden, George
Steen, AnthonyWall, Sir Patrick
Stern, MichaelWaller, Gary
Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)Warren, Kenneth
Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)Watson, John
Stewart, Ian (Hertf'dshire N)Watts, John
Stradling Thomas, Sir JohnWells, Bowen (Hertford)
Sumberg, DavidWells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Taylor, John (Solihull)Wheeler, John
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)Whitfield, John
Tebbit, Rt Hon NormanWhitney, Raymond
Temple-Morris, PeterWiggin, Jerry
Thompson, Donald (Calder V)Winterton, Mrs Ann
Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)Wolfson, Mark
Thornton, MalcolmWood, Timothy
Thurnham, PeterWoodcock, Michael
Townend, John (Bridlington)Yeo, Tim
Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)Young, Sir George (Acton)
Tracey, RichardYounger, Rt Hon George
Trippier, David
Trotter, NevilleTellers for the Noes:
Twinn, Dr IanMr. Tony Durant and
van Straubenzee, Sir W.Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

MR. SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved,That this House welcomes the considerable improvement under this Government in support with heating costs for vulnerable groups through the supplementary benefit scale rates, the weekly heating additions and the simpler and better targeted arrangements for help during periods of exceptionally cold weather; supports the comprehensive action taken to improve energy efficiency in the home; and applauds the beneficial effect of low inflation on the costs of fuel, which is of immense benefit to all consumers but most especially those on low incomes.