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Elderly Persons (Nottingham)

– in the House of Commons at 2:08 pm on 25th March 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr.Dorrell.]

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North 2:11 pm, 25th March 1988

It is a great stroke of fortune for any Back Bench Member to succeed in the ballot for Adjournment debates. I aim to add to that fortune the great privilege of speaking up on behalf of pensioners, and not only those in Nottingham, for much of what I say will, I hope, be relevant to pensioners throughout the country.

A civilised society should ensure that its elderly live an independent and secure life, enjoy the love of the community and receive whatever care they require, as a right rather than a privilege. By that standard, Britain is no longer a civilised society. Under the present Conservative Government, the elderly in Nottingham and throughout the country are not so much a respected and valued part of our community as a persecuted minority.

In a society that exalts greed and admires ruthlessness, the elderly are at best cast aside, and at worst treated as a captive market to be exploited by the new generation of Arthur Daleys created in the competitive climate of Thatcherite Britain. The treatment of our pensioners is a savage indictment of this Government. Let us examine their record on various issues in turn.

In 1980, the Government broke the link between pensions and earnings. If that link were restored today, the pension of a married couple would rise by £14·65 a week, and the single pension by £9·20 a week. Week in, week out, married pensioners are robbed of £14·65 through the callous, repetitive, inescapable mugging of the elderly by a Government who, in last week's Budget, gave their richest friends over £2 billion in tax handouts. In Nottingham, it has been received less as a Budget from Robin Hood than as one typical of King John at his worst.

Whatever else we do by way of concessions and additions whenever there is a change of Government, a decent pension will remain the cornerstone for older people, enabling them to choose for themselves how they wish to meet their needs. It is important to stress that fact, because this year is the 80th anniversary of the old-age pension — not the Lloyd George pension, but the pension created as a result of great pressure from charities, the trade union movement and the Labour movement. That mantle is being carried now by bodies such as Age Concern. I pay tribute to the work of Jack Jones in fighting for pensioners' rights. I hope that we will all be able to contribute to that work.

In my constituency, one third of pensioners live below the official poverty line. People who gave their lives to local pits, local textile, chemical, tobacco and cycle industries in Nottingham have been thrown on a scrap heap and draw a pension equal to only 17 per cent. of gross average earnings. That pension is one of the lowest in Europe. We frequently receive some of the garbage from Europe. It would be fitting if we now adopted a similar pension level to that in France where the level is set at half the average wage.

I also want to consider what the Government intend to do to pensioners on 1 April 1988 when the great counterrevolution of the welfare state takes place. Ten days ago the Government presented the Budget for the rich. On 1 April we will see the budget for the poor. Next week's budget for those on pensions and benefits will hit the elderly in particular. In common with many other hon. Members, I have already had a procession of desperate, anxious pensioners at my surgery, worried sick about their income after 1 April. I want to use two examples from my postbag and my surgery this week.

Mr. T of Strelley in Nottingham has discovered that his industrial disablement pension will henceforth be taken into account when his housing benefit is calculated. Previously it was disregarded. Mr. T worked for most of his life down the pit and he was injured in an accident in a pit in Nottingham. He receives industrial disablement pension which is currently discounted in calculating his £54·14 housing benefit. After I April without any change in Mr. T's means or circumstances he will discover that his housing benefit is reduced to £15·95 a fortnight. In other words, he will lose £38·19 a fortnight or £19 a week without receiving any additional income. He has committed no offence. He has not carried out a robbery or any outrage in society. On the contrary, he has contributed sweat and blood to this country for many years. On 1 April he will be fined £19 every single week that he remains alive.

My other example concerns a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. P who live in Cinderhill in my constituency. Mr. P suffered an industrial accident and completely lost his hearing. As a result, he was awarded the maximum industrial disablement pension of £67·70. Hitherto that was disregarded when calculating housing benefit. After 1 April it will be roped in with any other income that that pensioner couple has. They will totally lose their housing benefit. Every fortnight £32·59 —£16 a week—will be taken from that couple, despite no apparent change in their way of life. They will suffer a week-in, week-out fine of £16 a week for the rest of their lives. Just a few days before this decision, billions upon billions of pounds were given away in tax handouts to those who could well afford to do without that additional income. In addition, those people whom I have mentioned will have to pay, perhaps for the first time, at least 20 per cent. of their rates. They are just two examples of how the changes on 1 April will affect many of my constituents.

Those on housing benefit will have benefit reduced by £1 for every £250 over £3,000 that they have in the bank and no housing benefit will be payable if they have more than £6,000 put aside. We exhort people to make proper provision for their old age, yet those who can afford to put a little money aside will find that they have done so just to save the Government money. The Government through the local authorities, which they are subtly using as agents, will recoup a large amount of that money. One Conservative Member has proposed, as perhaps some sort of tax dodge, that these people should pay in advance for their funerals as a way of getting some of that money out of the bank. That sort of callous, hard-hearted attitude typifies the way in which the elderly are viewed.

Overall, the changes on 1 April will leave the average pensioners, aged 60 to 79, £1 a week worse off. In my constituency, notably in Bilborough, many pensioners are the unsung, unheard of victims of the right-to-buy policy introduced by the Conservative Government. They live in British Iron and Steel Federation houses which were owned by the city council and they are now stuck with those properties, unable to sell them because building societies will not lend money to prospective buyers, but the Government will not declare those properties defective.

Some people cannot get a mortgage to buy these properties and there are no grants available to bring them up to mortgageable standard.

The city council— a Conservative council—will not buy back the properties. On the contrary, it is continuing to sell properties that it well knows people will not be able to sell on. It may sound strange to some hon. Members, but many of these people are first-time buyers at the age of 60, 65 or older. They do not know the way in which the system works. Many are buying a pig in a poke which they are not able to sell. They could be the very people hit by the changes in the social fund on 1 April.

Social fund help for large one-off expenses such as roof repair — some roofs in Bilborough are thought to contain asbestos—will be given in the form of a loan or grant, and pensioners in particular will be worried about their ability to repay the loans. Equally, for people in that position, as a result of the Budget no tax relief will be available for home improvement grants. To add insult to injury, at the end of the equation, the Tory poll tax will mean that even pensioners on the lowest incomes will have to pay at least 20 per cent. of the full poll tax charges instead of getting the current rate rebates.

One of the most obvious, and most easily avoidable tragedies that could beset the elderly is death or discomfort through lack of proper heating. More pensioners die of cold in Britain than in Canada or the Nordic countries where winters are far more severe, yet the insulation programme, which could play such a vital part in easing that problem and saving old people's fuel bills as well as saving their lives, has been cut to one seventh of what it was in 1979, during its first full year after implementation by the Labour Government in 1978.

Standing charges for gas and electricity still bite a disproportionately large chunk out of the fuel bills of the elderly. The most contentious part of the old and the cold story is the confusing severe weather payments which miss many of the most vulnerable people. Last year, only one in 10 pensioners received any payment at all, and I understand that the average payment was just £10. That must be wrong. It must be replaced by a flat-rate winter heating allowance which is paid automatically when it is needed and not long afterwards when old people have decided not to switch on the heating because there are too many forms to fill and too much bureaucracy and they take the risk of dying of hypothermia, or at best suffering terrible unnecessary discomfort in the cold.

Another issue that has been raised with me on a local basis concerns television licences. This morning 1 had the privilege of presenting a petition to the House from Mrs. Hunt and 400 local pensioners who ask that the House consider bringing in concessionary television licences. The Labour party's position is clear and simple. We consider that all pensioners should be given free TV licences. We fought the last general election on that promise and I hope that we shall do so again until we can deliver.

The television is a friend and a comfort and a source of pleasure and entertainment to many elderly people, yet at £62·50 for a colour licence the price is prohibitive to most pensioners. However, when I raised this matter with the Minister of State, Home Office, he said that any scheme of concessionary licences would be expensive in terms of lost revenue. Indeed, it may, but when the Government hand out billions of pounds to their friends and to people who are not in need, surely some concession can be made to help the elderly when they get so much pleasure from such a small amount as would be provided to them through such concessionary licences. However, the Minister of State ruled out any changes.

I ask the Minister to consider the matter again and make representations to his colleagues at least to extend the system of 5p licences which currently applies to sheltered housing for all other pensioners in Britain.

In addition to the difficulties that pensioners experience because of Government policies, the elderly in Nottingham suffer the burden of an extremely dogmatic Tory council which tries to mimic, outdo, and impress its national mistress as if it were some sort of brainless lap dog. The clearest evidence of that ruthless approach has been the selling of the council's purpose-built houses for the elderly and disabled. As more homes are flogged off, there are fewer to go round because the council has stopped building such homes. A lengthening queue of people in pain and need—people who have the medical criteria necessary to be selected automatically for a purpose-built bungalow — cannot obtain such accommodation because the homes have been sold. That Tory local authority should be held in contempt by all right-minded Members on both sides of the House.

In the past week, Nottingham has been selected for the experimental selling-off—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dorrell.]

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North

Nottingham has been selected for the first trials of a new scheme that will result in the sale of council estates. The research programme being undertaken by a market research company on behalf of the Department of the Environment involves interviewing groups of eight to 10 people on estates in Nottingham—in Bestwood Park, Top Valley Bestwood and Broxtowe in my constituency—for one and a half hours trying to find the best gloss to put on the sale of council estates to private landlords.

Needless to say, the elderly in Nottingham remember well the era of the private landlord. My family came from an area that was dominated by private landlords. It was an area of high rents, lack of repairs, no modernisation programme and, above all, fear because of no security of tenure. Elderly people who have been council tenants for 30 or 40 years fear for their future, because a small minority of tenants could, with the inducements offered and the attractive way in which a scheme may be promoted, sell their birthright in council estates. There will be no going back. Once those estates are sold, the asset-strippers will ensure that they never return to public ownership.

All that is taking place despite the fact that the Housing Bill has not yet completed all its stages through Parliament. Groups of people are scouring the country conducting interviews so that they can sell estates when the legislation is passed. Not only is that unconstitutional, but I fear the drastic consequences if people are lured into accepting apparent bargains and are then trapped by private landlords—perhaps even slum landlords—who may not take their responsibilities seriously.

Nor can a shortfall in assistance for the elderly be made good by the county council. It has to make resources for social services stretch further than ever before. The county council has one of the best records in the country for inspection of residential homes. It is rightly proud of that record, but is is now restricted from carrying out that important function.

For those who depend on residential care, and for those who may do so in the future, the picture becomes bleaker. Private homes for the elderly have expanded massively as support from the Government — subsidy by the Government—has increased from £10 million in 1979 to £485 million last year. The Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, has considered the matter and will report on it soon. The Thatcherite entrepreneurs have seen a killing to be made from the slogan "care in the community". In many cases, the elderly have become like livestock, pulling in up to £220 a head each week from DHSS payments to private nursing homes. At the same time, local authority provision is static or running down and our long-stay hospitals are asset-stripped by hard-faced private sector managers and the cosseted consultants who now direct the NHS.

The Griffiths committee was set up to look at the issue and it suggested that one of the answers was to give more control and direction to local authorities. That in itself was enough to condemn it, within days, to the Government's shredder. I ask the Minister to make clear when the Griffiths report will go out to the widest possible consultation, and when the Firth and Wagner reports will also go out for consultation. Is there any time scale for action on those three reports? Many of us fear that all three reports will be consigned to the back shelf to gather dust, because they are unpopular with certain sections of the Government.

The elderly, more than most, depend on the Health Service, and yet the Government have stopped the supply of NHS spectacles and soon will impose charges for eye tests, deterring early detection of glaucoma, diabetes and cataracts which are common among the elderly. Pensioners were particularly hard-hit when the Government's limited list stopped doctors prescribing free many of the drugs that pensioners were used to.

Now, the junior health Minister talks of giving low priority to the elderly who need treatment. So often, the elderly are at the end of the queue. It is not glamorous to be involved in his replacement and it is far easier to spend money on services other than those that are vital for elderly people, such as chiropody. In Nottingham, to balance the books, the geriatric ward at the City hospital has been closed over the past three months, with the prospect of at least a further six months' closure.

Today's old people are no ordinary generation. They survived the war and defeated Hitler's Nazi tyranny. They went on to found the welfare state and the National Health Service. They deserve to be treated better. "Honour thy father and thy mother" is a reasonable command when they have done so much for us.

The recent Gallup poll in The Daily Telegraph showed that the Labour party had a 30-point lead over the Government on pensioners' issues. Some 52 per cent. of those polled said that Labour would be the most likely party to look after Britain's pensioners, compared with 22 per cent. opting for the Conservatives and 12 per cent. for what was then the alliance. That trust is hard-won and richly deserved. It will be reinforced when this disrespectful, hard-hearted, mean-spiritied, cheeseparing Government have been thrown out. For many pensioners, that day cannot come too soon.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate 2:37 pm, 25th March 1988

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on obtaining this Adjournment debate. I happened last night to be in a Birmingham television studio, at Central TV, where a little feature on the hon. Gentleman was put together. I am not sure whether he is aware of it. A computer print-out of all the occasions when he has spoken in the House was produced, and it was a long document. I think I am right in saying that this is the first occasion on which he has had an Adjournment debate.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

The second occasion. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on it and on his many other interventions.

In, the previous debate, the hon. Gentleman referred to the glamour of debates in the Chamber. I am not sure whether he and I together constitute a glamorous debate, but we shall do our best.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on a number of points. I begin by addressing myself to one that was foremost in what he said — the living standard of pensioners. He will recall that in our last manifesto we pledged ourselves to continue to maintain the value of the retirement pension. We also said: retired people value their independence. They do not want to rely on the state alone for their income. nor, increasingly, are they doing so. We share Beveridge's original goal of a good basic pension from the state, together with a second income from occupational and personal pensions and savings. Over the past nine years we have worked steadily along the lines of that pledge. We have protected the value of the basic state pension, and it will rise again in a few days' time by £2·65 for a couple and £1·65 for a single person.

More important, through our economic policies we have provided a climate of growth for the non-state portion of pensioner's incomes. Unlike the Opposition, we have always sought to recognise that only half of pensioners' incomes comes from state provision. The pensioners can be done no good by increasing the state pension and ignoring savings and occupational pensions that are now such an important part of their income. That was tried by the Labour Administration, and I remind the House of its results.

Between 1974 and 1979 pensioners' total incomes rose by a miserable 3 per cent. in real terms. In this Government's first six years pensioners' total incomes rose by 18 per cent.—almost as much every year as during the entire period of the Labour Government. Pensioners have improved their position relative to the working population as well, whereas under the Labour Government their relative incomes fell. Those contrasting figures help to put the hon. Gentleman's remarks into context.

The growth that we have prompted in pensioners' incomes applies fairly evenly to all groups of pensioners, younger, older, less well off and better off. We have every expectation that the trend will continue as more and more pensioners retire with second pensions. Seven out of 10 newly retired married couples have occupational pensions now, as do half of all pensioners. The steps that we have taken to stimulate the development of occupational pension schemes will, we hope, further increase the proportion with this form of additional income. Already more than 85 per cent. of pensioners have pensions from work, or savings income, or both. We look forward to a society in which every elderly person has income in retirement over and above the state pension.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman's European comparisons were misplaced. Spending on the elderly in the United Kingdom is now the third highest in the European Community as a proportion of gross domestic product, at 9·6 per cent. that is based on 1983 figures, which are the latest definitive ones that we have. However, the partial figures for 1984 show that spending in the United Kingdom was rising as a proportion and falling in other countries. The comparisons on that basis of GDP are the only measure of pensioner support that the European Statistical Bureau can confirm as accurate.

It is in the light of some of those figures, and the reduction in inflation that has enabled pensioners to benefit so much from their savings, that we must view the reforms in social security to which the hon. Gentleman alluded. He called them a counter-revolution. In the coming year we shall be spending almost £1 billion a week on social security, which is not a counter-revolution in the sense that he meant. It may go further than Beveridge had in mind, but it is not a counter-revolution.

We shall be spending rather more, in effect, on income support—the benefit that replaces supplementary benefit — than on supplementary benefit, which is a complicated benefit with more than 20 extra weekly additions that depend on detailed questions about individual personal circumstances. It is a confusing, outmoded benefit and it does not have many friends left among the public or staff who try to administer it. Income support is a simpler system that gives better service to the public. It directs resources more effectively to the groups of claimants who face the greatest pressure—the people whom we have identified as being families with children, and the sick and disabled.

We have put another £220 million into income support to help us achieve some of our objectives. We put a similar extra sum into the new benefit of family credit to help working families with children. However, that is by the way, because this debate is about the elderly.

Between 1979 and 1985 pensioners' total net incomes increased, and it is only by remembering that that we can begin to address the question of the reforms. We must recognise that the base line is very much higher than it used to be and that it is fully protected in our reforms. The rate for a single pensioner between the ages of 60 and 79 is £10·65 more than the support for an unemployed man of 55. That is within the new income support system and reflects the priority that we give to the elderly in that system. That new premium covers the old standard heating addition in supplementary benefit, the long-term rate under supplementary benefit, average water charges and 20 per cent. of average rates.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North

Will the Minister tell the House why the Government broke the link between pensions and the rise in earnings?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

I think that I have explained that to the hon. Gentleman, because I said that what matters is what the pensioner ends up with. Under this Government the pensioner has ended up with a 3 per cent. increase over the years. The Government formed by the hon, Gentleman's party tried to sustain the link between the pension and earnings but could not quite do it because one year they had to change the method of calculation and some money got lost on the way through. Under that Government the income of pensioners improved hardly at all, despite valiant efforts to keep it up. I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that what matters is the outcome. There is no point in enormous pension rises if there are also enormous rises in inflation. One may be able to keep pensions in line with inflation, but nothing can be done about savings that are losing their value behind the scenes. That is the point that we have addressed.

We have doubled the maximum amount of savings that a claimant may have while still qualifying for some benefit under income support as compared to supplementary benefit. We estimate that this change alone will mean that a further 10,000 pensioners will be able to qualify for income support. We are also told sometimes that although we have established this pensioner premium, it does not cover people who receive payments for a large number of additional requirements. That might be so in particular cases, but the effect should not be exaggerated. The receipt of these additional requirements under supplementary benefit is frequently overstated.

Three quarters of those eligible for pensioner premium under the new system received no more than one additional requirement under the old system, and only 5 per cent. received three or more. The majority of these additional requirements are more than covered by the pensioner premium. The reform will result in 61 per cent. of pensioners getting more or being unaffected by the changes. The remaining 39 per cent., who would otherwise have received less, will under the new system, receive transitional protection and about £200 million will be spent on maintaining that benefit income. That means that no one transferring from supplementary benefit to income support will lose as a result of the introduction of the new income support scheme.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about housing benefit. That is also being restructured in the same way to give the greatest help to people who are in the greatest need. About 620,000 pensioners on housing benefit will gain, and most pensioners remaining on the benefit will see a cash increase in April. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the capital rule and I know that he is interested in equity. It is difficult to justify to taxpayers on the 25 per cent. rate who are perhaps paying 9 per cent. in national insurance, and who may have no savings whatever in the bank, why they should pay taxes in order to provide benefit to people who have more than £6,000 in the bank. The hon. Gentleman needs to address that problem.

I recognise that there has been some uncertainty among claimants about the effects of the April changes. The campaign mounted by some people in the hon. Gentleman's party has not always been very accurate and must have added to the anxiety and the difficulties that people have in understanding the system. When all the reforms are taken together, nearly nine out of 10 people will be no worse off the day after the reforms than they were on the day before them, and many will be better off.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North

I should like to make just two brief points. The first relates to the £6,000 rule. I made the point that the Government are now discouraging people from saving and putting money aside because they will be penalised. Surely that goes against any sensible economic policy.

Secondly, I must pick the Minister up for implying that the anger in the community especially among the elderly, has been generated by a campaign either by Opposition Members or by people outside. People come to surgeries in droves. They do not need to be inspired or incited to do so, because they are people who will suffer. I gave the Minister two examples. The first was of a couple who will lose £16 per week, and another was of a gentleman who will lose £18. Those people do not come to surgeries because of a great campaign; they come because the Government's policies are hitting and hurting them.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

I do not dispute that a small minority will lose, but I advise the hon. Gentleman that the vast majority will either remain the same or gain. Many of those people have been stirred up to anxiety or worry, and even though those anxieties will prove groundless, I am concerned that they are being put through such distress at the moment.

As for capital, apart from housing benefit, there has always been a capital rule for other income-related benefits. What discourages thrift in the first place is having a benefit system. One must recognise that as soon as there is a benefit system there is less reason to provide for one's future than there was before. That is a problem in itself. If one is to direct benefits to the people who need them most, there must be some sort of rule about the level of income at which they cease to qualify and at what amount of capital they cease to qualify. We think that we have got that about right with the important advantage that now, in all three income-related benefits, the same rule on capital will apply. That will be less confusing and lead to fewer perverse results than we have sometimes had in the past.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North

I am anxious not to intervene too often, because I am sure that the Minister will say "no" on one occasion. If, on average, half an elderly person's income conies from sources other than the state pension, there are clearly a large number of people, the majority of whose income does not come from the state pension, but, equally, there must be a large number of people who are almost entirely dependent on the state pension. I urge the Minister to address his remarks to those people and not to a mythical average. I urge him to address the people who are at the sharp end of the cuts, the counter-revolution, or the reforms—whatever one wishes to call the changes of 1 April—because, by and large, those people are working-class pensioners who are dependent on the state pension, and it is they who will suffer the most, especially in relation to housing.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

I am content to address myself to that, because the pensioners who are most in need are those who currently receive supplementary pension on top of the state pension. There are about 1·8 million such pensioners. They will receive full housing benefit, which is 100 per cent. of rent and 80 per cent. of rates because they receive supplementary benefit at the moment, which means that they have capital of less than £3,000. More pensioners will qualify for income support because the capital rule for income support is more generous than that for supplementary benefit. That is why I said earlier that about 10,000 more pensioners will qualify for income support. This means that 10,000 more people coming on to income support will qualify for full housing benefit, whether or not they qualify at the moment for partial housing benefit.

The hon. Gentleman made some remarks about residential care. I shall not spend long replying to that. I have watched with interest the line of questioning that he has been pursuing in the Public Accounts Committee. He was extremely unfair in his remarks about the private sector. I ask him to recognise that there are many excellent private homes, doing a very good job, although there are some homes in which the standards are poor, and which have caused a great deal of concern, but those homes are in both the private and local authority sectors. We have had some bad instances in the local authority sector.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me about the Griffiths report, which is now out for consultation. The Wagner report is also out for consultation, and the Firth report has been out for quite some time. We look forward to comments on those. Obviously I cannot in any way prejudge what the Government will say about that. We will bring forward our proposals in the light of the Griffiths, Wagner and Firth reports, and the reactions that we receive to them, in due course. I am afraid that I cannot yet give the hon. Gentleman any sort of timescale on that.

The hon. Gentleman referred to health care in Nottingham. I shall not pursue him far down that road, not least because it is not my area. Nottingham has the City hospital, which is all new except for one ward, the University hospital, which is new and the General and Highbury hospitals, both of which have recently been refurbished. Only the Basford is an old hospital, and I understand that it is satisfactory.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North

May I briefly correct the Minister? It is proposed that the General hospital should be closed, so the picture may not be as rosy as he paints it.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

I give the hon. Gentleman the last word on that.

If the television licence fee is reduced for some, it suggests that it should increase for others. That would mean that other people, many of whom may be poor, would pay a much higher fee. The elderly as a group are not all poor, which is why it would be ill-directed to give people a concessionary television licence simply because they are elderly. The hon. Gentleman understands the Government's position on that.

The hon. Gentleman referred to winter warmth. He will know that under the supplementary benefits scheme about £400 million was spent on heating additions. That was intended to provide people with money all the year round, not just in winter, to help them with their heating needs. In the income support system we are directing the premiums towards groups, such as the disabled and the pensioners, and those premiums more than cover the heating additions and some other aspects of the supplementary benefit system. So there continues to be that particular help all year round.

I could not establish the accuracy of what the hon. Gentleman was saying about the draught-proofing programme. Although the supplementary benefit arrangements cease in April, the Government have kept their pledge to continue to give help with draught-proofing From April this will be channelled through the Department of Energy's grants towards community insulation projects by Neighbourhood Energy Action. Government support for community insulation projects is £45 million this year and will rise to between £55 million and £60 million in 1988–89.

The hon. Gentleman will know of our efforts last winter to set up a "Keep Warm Keep Well" campaign, which has been a considerable success, although this has not been a cold winter. Nevertheless, the campaign has involved the co-operation of Age Concern, Help the Aged and several other organisations. The freeline phone service has received 4,000 calls. The Government have produced publicity material for television and radio broadcasts and have extended the programme of press advertising.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North

Will the Minister explain why proportionately more people die of hypothermia in Britain than in Canada and the Nordic countries where winters are so much more severe?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

The pattern of hypothermia from year to year is confusing. It is not clear why the figures vary. Speaking from memory, it has been decided that the chief medical officer should prepare a report so that we can consider it. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that the excess winter mortality figures, which are another measurement, are falling steadily from decade to decade. The latest figures for 1987 are encouraging. Although one should not place too much emphasis on any single year, the trend is downwards.

Finally, we must get away from the notion that elderly people are simply the passive recipients of services. Many have a good deal to offer society and there is a challenge for all of us to help and encourage them to do so. Britain has a proud and long-standing tradition of charitable voluntary action. For many old people voluntary action provides an opportunity to give and to be involved, arid for many others help comes from those activities.

Voluntary organisations also have a vital role to play in helping the elderly, but to play that part to the full, they need the co-operation of the statutory services and to share their ideas and plans. That is the real challenge for all of us, because that is the way to keep the elderly involved in society. That, as well as their financial well-being, is important to the elderly.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to 3 o'clock.