The cold weather payments scheme has been considerably improved for the coming winter. Payments of £6 for every period of cold weather will be paid automatically to eligible people as soon as a seven-day period of exceptionally cold weather is forecast by the Met Office or actually occurs. The capital rule has also been abolished, making approximately 400,000 more people eligible for payments. In addition, some improvements have been made to weather station linkages.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He knows that I have often thought that the exceptional needs payment scheme was complex, slow and did not often reach those most in need. Is the new system speedy? Will it reach those who are entitled to it and is it far less complex than the old system?
I would put particular emphasis on two factors. The first is the ability of the Met Office to forecast cold weather in advance with some accuracy so that payments can be made in advance rather than in arrears. Secondly, people will be paid automatically without having to fill in a claim form or other kind of document.
I am not going to whinge that the weather in Scotland is always colder than in England. However, I plead with the Minister to examine the local system on the Clyde. The weather station at Glasgow airport is too far from the homes of many of my constituents and their homes are also several hundred feet above sea level. Will he re-examine the system and the way in which it affects people on the lower Clyde?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, in Scotland we made a number of changes to the linkages of weather stations with local areas. If he wants me to reconsider the changes, I shall, of course, do so. However, he will understand that in such matters I rely heavily upon the professionals at the Meteorological Office for advice.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has already been snow in the north, the midlands, and even on Exmoor in my constituency? is my right hon. Friend also aware that there is concern about the efficiency of the cold weather payments system? Will he confirm, therefore, that the present system is greatly superior to what existed under the previous Labour Government, whose supporters make such hypocritical remarks about their concern for old people?
The cold weather payment scheme is still wholly inadequate, with thousands of pensioners whose incomes are just above the income support level receiving no extra help with their fuel charges. As fuel costs are racing ahead of inflation, will the Minister enter into immediate discussions with the Secretary of State for Energy and the fuel industry to examine the standing charge, which is iniquitous and which adversely affects low-income families, and pensioners in particular?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box and to his newly appointed position. I look forward to doing battle with him in the coming weeks and months. I trust that, after the next election, he will remain a Front-Bench spokesman for the Opposition.
The present scheme has, in recent years, been made substantially more generous than the previous one. The actions of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when he was responsible for such matters, together with our recent announcement, have made arrangements for the coming winter much more generous. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue his last point, he should do so with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy.