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I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to ensure the supply of gas and electricity for pensioner households; to abolish standing charges for pensioner consumers for gas, electricity and water; and to abolish telephone rentals for pensioners.
This is the fourth time that I have introduced a Bill such as this, and a number of Bills on similar subjects have been introduced to the House by other hon. Members. On each occasion they have been opposed at a later stage or blocked by Conservative Members who do not have the guts to vote against such Bills at the first opportunity and who have been in correspondence with local pensioner organisations saying either that they agree with the Bill but cannot do anything about it, or that they profoundly disagree with the Bill but were not here when it was first proposed.
It is important to put the Bill in context. During the cold weather of the past few weeks the Government have given themselves enormous publicity by handing out £10 payments over two weeks to pensioner households to attempt to alleviate the severe hardship caused by the cold weather. However, every year every pensioner household has to pay four quarters of a gas standing charge of £8·90, and four quarters of an electricity standing charge of £8 Therefore, the £10 that has been paid to pensioner households is rather less than one sixth of standing charges taken over a year.
There is a great deal of evidence to show that, particularly since 1980, there has been a deliberate and steep increase in the price of gas, deliberately encouraged by the Government, partly to gain from the Gas Corporation levy, but also to make the Gas Corporation ready for privatisation — ready for the theft of that organisation from the public purse. That is one reason for those increases.
Anyone who thinks that those matters are trifling should note that since 1982 the Gas Corporation levy has been well over £2 billion. In 1982–83 it was £471 million in 1983–84, £522 million; in 1984–85, £500 million, and the latest figure is £520 million. That levy is, in effect, a tax on everyone's gas bill. The same applies to electricity and water. We are seeing the pauperisation of so many people in order to make those industries ready for privatisation.
In the past, there have been rebate schemes for standing charges. It is estimated that 21 per cent. of gas consumers and 11 per cent. of electricity consumers received some benefit , under those rebate schemes. However, the Government abolished those rebate schemes which meant that no one had to pay more than half his total bill as a standing charge. I have before me the bill of one of my constituents whose standing charge is about 95 per cent. of her bill for the summer quarter. We are witnessing taxation by poll tax methods of the lowest paid and smallest consumers in Britain. This is a prelude of what the Government intend to do in the future rates Bill for England and Wales. That is one reason why I strongly oppose a standing charge system.
The most serious matter is the treatment of Britain's elderly and their ability to warm their homes, cook their meals and live in some degree of decency. During the cold weather we saw the undoubted concern of millions of people in Britain for the plight of the elderly. The problem is that their plight remains the same throughout the year when they have to try to meet their bills, not just during times of extreme cold weather.
Many doctors are reluctant to ascribe death to hypothermia on a death certificate. They will often put down many other causes, but seldom hypothermia. Yet during the first half of 1985, of all deaths in England and Wales, 363 were directly due to hypothermia and 655 were due to related causes. During the first half of 1986 the figures were 355 and 673 respectively. If a clear direction were given by the DHSS to medical officers of health that when they believe hypothermia to be the cause of death they should say so, those figures would be far higher.
Other countries treat their elderly far better than we do and do not go through our annual hypothermia epidemics. The Bill would not solve all the problems of death through hypothermia, and it would not solve all the problems of those who are unable to pay for their gas, electricity and water bills, or indeed their telephone rental, but it would go some small way towards recognising the plight of the elderly by ensuring the supply of those vital commodities.
Secondly, the Bill would abolish standing charges for gas, electricity and water. Thirdly, it would abolish telephone rentals for the elderly, for whom communication is a necessity, not a luxury. More important, it would prevent the Secretary of State from allowing a unit cost rise to pay for those items and make him pay for them out of the taxation on the gas and electricity bills of everybody else.
In the past, Opposition Members have drawn attention to the likely profits of the corporations involved. In its first full year of privatisation British Gas is expecting to make a profit of £1 billion, much of it from pensioners British Telecom's profit is expected to be over £2 billion.
The Bill is very important and merits a great deal of support. In the past, Conservative Members have not had the guts to vote against such Bills, although they have done everything possible to block them at a later stage. I hope that today those who oppose the Bill will have the courage to get up and say in public that they do not believe that pensioners should be better treated than the rest or the community as a way of combating the misery of death from hypothermia.