Fuel Cost Credits

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:11 pm on 25th November 1992.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon , Halifax 4:11 pm, 25th November 1992

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to allow fuel cost credits to be paid from the National Insurance Fund in order to assist those who are on low incomes, or who are otherwise vulnerable, with fuel costs; and for connected purposes. My Bill would mean that all householders on benefit would receive a weekly fuel credit towards heating costs from 1 December to 31 March. The value of the credit would be graded into four zones according to climatic conditions. The Bill is identical to the Cold Weather Credits Bill introduced last year by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall). I agree with him and with the Campaign for Cold Weather Credits that such a system, linked to the urgently needed expansion of the home energy efficiency scheme, would begin to tackle fuel poverty. It would be a massive improvement on the present miserable scheme which can help only 200,000 people, not the millions who need help.

Later today, there will be much talk about pay freezes. Many Tory Members who earn three times their salaries by moonlighting will pontificate at length on the need to freeze the pay of low-paid employees. However, the freeze that I am talking about is of far more concern to my constituents—it is the cold this winter which many people, mainly the elderly, dread.

As I seek leave to bring in my Bill, it is warm and comfortable in the Chamber. When hon. Members leave the House tonight, they will go home to warm, comfortable flats and houses. That is not the case for the 7 million households in Britain where people live in fuel poverty, unable to keep themselves at the minimum standard for healthy living recommended by the World Health Organisation. The £50 million which the Government found so easily at the beginning of this week for the restoration of Windsor castle would have insulated about 250,000 of those households.

I ask hon. Members to consider how many death certificates in England and Wales mention hypothermia as a main or contributory cause of death. In 1991, there were 534—almost a 50 per cent. increase on the previous year. That is a shameful statistic. However, shocking as it is, it does not tell the full story. We should be asking how many people died for cold-related reasons, because often that does not appear on death certificates. However, it is clear from Government statistics that, between April 1990 and 31 March 1991, almost 500,000 people aged over 60 died. Of those, 230,000 died in the summer months from April to September and 270,000 died in the winter months from October to March. It is clear that there is a much higher death rate among that age group in the winter.

The Department of Social Security has created what it calls an "excess winter deaths" measure. In a comparative survey of winter deaths in 10 countries with similar cold climates, it was established that the number of deaths in January is generally 10 per cent. higher than average. In Scotland, it is 16 per cent. higher and in England and Wales it is a staggering 19 per cent. higher. By comparison, in Germany the increase in the number of deaths in January is only 4 per cent. In Sweden and Norway, countries that are known for their cold climates, the number of deaths in January is only 7 per cent. above average.

From the Government's evidence, I conclude that elderly people in Britain are at greater risk of dying in winter than elderly people living in other EC countries. I wonder how the Prime Minister will explain that to Ministers when they meet in Edinburgh in December. People who long for a white Christmas should reflect on the fact that, with Britain's current fuel poverty, for every degree celsius a winter is colder than average, there are another 8,000 "excess" deaths of old people.

Cold not only kills; it also causes disease and illness. The national health service spent £800 million on treatment for avoidable conditions—bronchitis, respiratory diseases, pneumonia and illnesses associated with, and created by, people living in cold damp conditions.

The causes of those avoidable deaths and diseases are simple: low incomes and poor quality housing. It is a disgrace that, on the day when I have the opportunity to introduce my Bill, the Minister for Housing and Planning has refused to visit a group of people living in system-built houses, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) and I visited and who are suffering particularly from inadequate housing, which causes so many problems.

There is a huge problem, but what do the Government do about it? They offer a totally inadequate cold weather payments scheme. If one is lucky, that scheme will provide a couple of £7 payments. The scheme costs 50p to administer for every £1 paid in benefit. It comes into operation once it has been triggered by a very complex system, which actually cheated 7,000 claimants in Calderdale last year because the weather station was situated 15 miles away.

The payments go only to some people on income support—not to all. In 1990–91, only 1·4 million households shared just £8·6 million of benefits. That should be compared to the £800 million spent by the national health service on cold-related diseases, and we should ask ourselves whether the Government spend our money wisely.

The Government have tried to sell what is, in fact, the Prime Minister's scheme, as it was introduced when he was at the Department of Health and Social Security. That scheme is a failure. It is simply a glossy public relations exercise. The Government overrule the trigger and make payments automatic only when it is cold on the Embankment and they are ashamed and embarrassed and forced to act. They then believe that the problem has gone away, but it has not if one is old and cold and relies on the benefits that the Government believe are adequate for people to live on.

My Bill is an opportunity to do something now rather than do too little, too late, as happens so often with the Government. Why was not reducing winter deaths and the number of people dying from hypothermia a target area in the "Health of the Nation" White Paper? It is appropriate that I should call for that matter to be included with special targets. For example, let us try to achieve the EC average by the year 2000. That is not too much to ask. We should also call for an interdepartmental committee of Social Security, Health, Energy and Housing Ministers —that is, if the Minister for Housing and Planning deems it appropriate to turn up—so that a concerted and co-ordinated effort can be made to tackle the problems of being old and cold.

I should also ask the question that thousands, if not millions, of people are asking at present. With the current dispute in the coal industry, how can anybody justify one cold-related death when we have so much coal in the ground? We should aim to keep miners in work and let them dig the coal to stop the tragic and unnecessary cull of the elderly.

If the Department of Health, with its "Keep Warm This Winter" telephone helpline, which last year received more than 21,000 calls—mainly from elderly people asking for help with fuel bills and insulation costs—is serious, it will add its considerable weight to supporting the Bill. For all its public relations, the Department knows that not one person who called could obtain help with a fuel bill or with insulation costs, which is what the majority of them asked for.

We want real help for elderly people. We do not want what the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) offered when she was at the Department of Health —advice that pensioners should knit woolly hats. We want real help. I call upon the Government to accept my Bill and to stop those outrageously unnecessary deaths.