In no way do I wish to lecture or underestimate the intelligence of old people, many of whom are more intelligent than many of us. But the importance of heating is not always easily recognised by some elderly people. They are reluctant to heat their houses as they should. During my youth, many people were prepared to keep their homes at a temperature that we would today condemn as being far too low. We were used to having no central heating. We were used to bedrooms that were so cold that the bedclothes felt damp. That was reality for many people, not just for those who were very poor. This resulted in a high incidence of respiratory and bronchial problems, especially for children, which could have been relieved had people understood what was needed. Many people accepted the fact that they lived in a warm room during the day and went to bed in cold conditions. Some elderly people are still reluctant to change. The future of insulation work should be considered. Some houses built since the last war have poor insulation. Flimsy wooden structures and lack of insulation are problems.
I have some doubts about another matter. Although the exceptionally severe weather payments can work well and are given where they are needed, there is a problem with the strict weekly basis on which the system operates. I have not costed the effect of a change in this system, but I believe that the DHSS should take account of any period of seven days during which the temperature drops to a certain level rather than use the present system. I should have thought that any seven-day period of exceptionally cold weather should qualify for exceptionally severe weather payments.
I congratulate the Department on introducing a much simpler system, which will make payments automatically available. I welcome also the underwriting of some of the extra costs incurred by voluntary bodies during this period. It is important that elderly people and others should be able to benefit from Government support of voluntary organisations.
Labour Members condemn the Government for what they have not done, but they have done a lot. They introduced new schemes such as these exceptionally severe weather payments. They extended the conditions under which supplementary benefit heating additions were paid to all people over 65 years, whereas before they were limited to those over 80 years. All pensioners who are on supplementary benefit are entitled to heating additions. That covers many more people. The payment is automatic.
The Government have recognised the needs of the elderly and of those on supplementary benefit. They have kept supplementary benefit rates and pensions ahead of inflation. Labour Members have tried to give the impression that theirs is the caring party, but when it had the opportunity, it failed to look after the people as well as we are today.