Severe Weather Payments

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 7:40 pm on 14th January 1987.

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Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron , Rother Valley 7:40 pm, 14th January 1987

I should like to carry on from where the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens) left off in relation to what the Labour Government did. We have heard in today's debate and yesterday at Question Time about the Labour Government's attitude to fuel poverty. In the winter of 1976–77 the Labour Government improved the supplementary benefits scheme by the introduction of an electricity discount scheme. It was to cost £25 million and to assist about 3 million people on supplementary benefit. How the hon. Gentleman can say that such action in 1976 was non-action is beyond me.

The scheme applied to people on supplementary benefit and on family income supplement. There was a single payment of £5 to each family and a 25 per cent. discount on all electricity bills which were more than £20 for the winter quarter. That scheme took into account the standing charge that this Government have refused to consider. It also took account of the fuel cost adjustment which was part of the cost that had to be paid for the oil crisis of the early 1970s.

Under the 1978–79 scheme, which was extended to cover those receiving rent rebates, people were allowed to claim discount on one winter electricity bill. It was estimated that that scheme would cover approximately 4·5 million people. Although we cannot make a direct comparison with the exceptionally severe weather payments, only about 500,000 people are eligible to claim. Last year. fewer than 500,000 claimed the payments. It is fraudulent for Conservative Members to say that the Labour Government did not attempt to do anything about people's problems in severe weather. I think that the opposite could be said.

The Prime Minister told the House that the Labour Government spent only about £90 million in 1978–79, their last year of office, and that this Government were spending about £400 million per annum. Given the number of people who are eligible to claim the severe weather payment, and given the increase in energy costs since 1979, it is likely that the Labour Government did more to help people in 1978–79 than this Government have done over the last 12 months or are prepared to do under the new scheme.

This morning I spoke to people in Rotherham citizens advice bureau about problems in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies in south Yorkshire. There has been a lot in the press about severe weather payments. Many people who were contacting the citizens advice bureau this morning were saying that they had children of over two years of age but, according to what they had read in the newspapers, they were not eligible to claim the severe weather payment. Other people in receipt of different social security benefits, such as invalidity benefit, were also complaining that they could not claim. Indeed, many people in my constituency are trapped in their homes, and the severe weather payment will not satisfy their immediate needs.

The only leaflets that the citizens advice bureau had to distribute were leaflets which were given to it by Age Concern and which it has had for some time. I understand that, even when the debate started this afternoon, the DHSS still had not issued leaflets about the new statutory scheme. There are none in the citizens advice bureau or the libraries in my area, and presumably there are none in the offices of the DHSS. It is a disgrace, considering the weather conditions, that no one can contact local DHSS offices to find out who is eligible for the severe weather payment. We have to rely on the press—not always a good source of information—to try to glean the information about the help that is supposedly coming from the Department.