I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to raise this issue, which is of enormous importance to many of my constituents who are the most vulnerable members of the local community—the elderly, the disabled, the sick and the young families living on low incomes. The debate is an excellent opportunity for the voices of those constituents to be heard, but at the same time I am horrified that it has proved necessary to call for it. The debate is not about a disagreement between me and the Government on a matter of principle, but about the way in which government works for ordinary people. It is about elderly and vulnerable constituents who have suffered unnecessary hardship because they have become the victims of absurd and bureaucratic rules and regulations.
If the Government had demonstrated one ounce of common sense in the way in which they administered their policies, this debate would not have been necessary. The debate is about practice, not policy—about reality in the real world outside, not debate in the closed world of the Chamber. If the Government had acted with humanity and compassion and shown proper flexibility in the implementation of their policies—flexibility such as they extolled yesterday in the Scott debate when looking after their narrow party interests, but which they reject today when it concerns poor elderly pensioners—today's debate would not have been necessary.
One means by which we can judge whether the Government provide the framework necessary to ensure a compassionate and humane society involves the way in which they treat elderly people. The blunt and crude way in which the cold weather payment system is implemented in my constituency provides overwhelming evidence of the Government's failure to act in that compassionate and humane way. The Government are preoccupied with the greed of the few, not the need of the many—with tax cuts for the rich, not cash benefits for the poor.
I will indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My constituents in Barking and Dagenham are suffering. The Government are fostering division in my constituency, not creating social cohesion. They will be judged on that. For the sake of my constituents, I hope that the day of judgment will come before next winter and before they have to endure yet another winter without the benefits of the emergency cold weather benefits system, when they will not dare to turn their heating on or up in order to stay healthy and keep warm.
Ten years ago, the Government introduced a national system of cold weather payments because the previous system of local office discretion was deemed to be unfair. The aim of the current scheme is to help the most vulnerable groups in society and to ensure that they are not frightened to turn up the heating in cold weather. The
intention is to provide extra money to poor and vulnerable people when the weather is extremely cold. Over the years, the scheme has been amended, but its purpose has remained unchanged. In 1991, when the right hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir N. Scott) was the Minister responsible for the scheme and amended it in response to pressure from Opposition Members, he said:
I propose to assure eligible people that if very cold weather arrives, they can turn up their heating."—[Official Report, 14 June 1991; Vol. 192, c. 697]
If cold weather arrives, and one lives in the wrong part of Barking, that assurance is utterly worthless. If some of my constituents turn up their heating, they will have to fork out for the extra bills—which now include the Government's 8 per cent. value added tax on domestic fuel.
Eligibility for cold weather payments is triggered by the temperatures recorded by the Meteorological Office acting on behalf of the Benefits Agency. The temperature must be 0 deg C or less every day for seven consecutive days. That is a tough criterion, but it reflects the limited help that the Government will give to vulnerable groups. Only pensioners on income support, disabled people, and families on income support with a dependent child under five years of age can claim cold weather payments. We are not talking about a large group of people or about huge sums of money. Figures supplied by the Library show that last year the Government spent just over £76,000 on the scheme and that in the extremely cold winter of 1991–92 they spent £23 million.
Large numbers of vulnerable people do not receive the payments because they do not claim income support even though they may be entitled to it. Age Concern estimates that in 1991 between 22 per cent. and 23 per cent. of pensioners entitled to income support did not claim it. People with incomes even a few pence above the support threshold receive nothing.
If one lives on Lodge avenue—which has one postcode—on the Dagenham side of my constituency, eligibility for cold weather payments is triggered by temperatures taken at Stansted airport. If one lives on the Keir Hardie estate, which is on the other side of Lodge avenue and has a different postcode, eligibility is triggered by temperature readings at Heathrow airport. Quite apart from the fact that neither airport is anywhere near my constituency, there is something rather sickening about the use of airports to assess temperatures when the old, cold and poor in my constituency can only dream about flying off for a sunny break on the Costa del Sol.
This winter, constituents in Barking received cold weather payments for only one week while their neighbours on the other side of the road—who, for administrative convenience, have a different postcode—received four payments. I am talking not about different villages or constituents who live on opposite sides of a dual carriageway or motorway, but about people in neighbouring streets, whose relatives living just up the road receive cold weather payments that they themselves are denied.
The temperature at Heathrow may be slightly above that at Stansted—it is all to do with the east wind, apparently, but that makes no sense if one is old, cold and living in Barking: the weather does not change with the postcode. Even the high and mighty cannot ensure that it snows on just one side of the thin white line.
On 18 January, in response to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond), the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security said:
Our aim for the social fund cold weather payment scheme is to have a simple network of weather stations that covers the whole country and allows automatic payments to be made quickly to those most in need. We achieve this by using weather stations chosen by the Meteorological Office which are considered representative of the postcode areas they cover, and are sophisticated and reliable enough to provide the quality of data required for the scheme.
In reply to another written question, the Minister said:
We are content that the current network of 55 weather stations used for the cold weather payment scheme … provides straightforward and effective national coverage which at the same time takes reasonable and practicable account of local conditions."—[Official Report, 18 January 1996; Vol. 269, c. 724.]
The Government have got it wrong. The Minister may say that the Government can do nothing and respond with the tired, "Yes Minister" riposte that a line must be drawn somewhere. Of course a line must be drawn somewhere, but that somewhere must make common sense. The public must understand and accept it. It must mean something, and no one in Barking accepts the current nonsense.
When the temperature dropped on one side of the road in Barking in the week from 5 December, it also dropped on the other side of the road. That did not help Mrs. Havers, who is 86 years old, hard of hearing and lives on the wrong side of the street. She survives on a paltry £71 a week and has no central heating. Ten years ago, the council took away her old boiler, so she even lost the benefit of the heat that that old-fashioned equipment gave out in her kitchen. She needed the £8.50 cold weather payment to keep warm. When the temperature dropped in the week from 21 January, that did not help Mrs. Oakes, who is Mrs. Havers' next-door neighbour and in her 70s. She lives on £65.10 a week. She has no central heating but two gas fires, yet she cannot afford to use them both. The £8.50 payment would have made all the difference to that lady—the difference between basic comfort and distressing cold.
When the temperature dropped on one side of the road in Barking in the week from 28 January, that did not help Mr. Knight, who is unemployed, desperately looking for work and has a six-month-old baby. His parents on the other side of the line received a cold weather payment but Mr. Knight, his partner and their baby, struggling to live on £75 a week, had no emergency help. They have no central heating. For them, £7 extra a week to pump up the heating from their gas fire represents 10 per cent. of their weekly income. What a way to have to bring up a baby in a modern industrial country. Is that really what the Prime Minister meant when he lectured the country about a classless society?
Another of my constituents, Mr. Bardwell, is living on income support and sickness benefit following a triple heart bypass operation. He receives a pitiful £57 a week. This winter, he has had to fork out an extra £5 to £6 every week for heating. That again is 10 per cent. of his income. It is hard enough for him to make ends meet without having to try to find that extra money, which he would receive in benefit if he lived at the other end of the same parliamentary constituency. What a farce. Is that fair? Can that be described as a commonsense approach? Is that how we want to treat our old folk, our disabled folk and our young children?
Child poverty has trebled under the Government and now those living through that poverty are being denied the meagre assistance of cold weather payments. That cannot be fair or right. The Government must think again.
According to the Government's census, my constituency has a higher percentage of families with children under five than the average for London. So if Barking misses out, more children miss out than elsewhere. In my constituency, a higher proportion of the population are pensioners than elsewhere in London. Barking also has the highest proportion of single-pensioner households. The Minister may sigh, but that is true. So if Barking misses out, more elderly people miss out than elsewhere. My constituency has the highest percentage of the population who are long-term sick and disabled in London. So if Barking misses out, more disabled people miss out than elsewhere. In Barking, we have the lowest proportion of families who enjoy the benefit of central heating. The costs to those families of heating their homes are higher than elsewhere in London. When they miss out, that costs them more.
Research undertaken by Age Concern in 1993 showed the results. It found that single-pensioner households on income support spent as much as 18 per cent. of their gross income on fuel bills, while single non-pensioner households spent a mere 5 per cent. If the elderly heat their homes, they cannot afford to eat. What a choice. Age Concern found that a third of the older people it interviewed lived in temperatures below 16 deg C, preferring food to fuel. Yet medical research suggests that the risk of respiratory infection increases sharply when temperatures drop below 16 deg. This is a typical Tory con and the health service picks up the tab for the Government's penny-pinching approach to social security.
We know that the number of deaths in winter in the United Kingdom is three times greater than those in places such as Sweden and Germany, where the winters are much more severe but the homes much warmer. I am not prepared to stand by and see that unfair and, in the end, life-threatening maltreatment of my constituents just because of a temperature difference between Stansted and Heathrow.
The unfairness is shown by some further facts that I have gleaned from the Library. In the week to 11 December, when the temperature at Stansted averaged 0 deg, at Heathrow it was just 1 deg above the trigger. The same is true for the week ending 27 January. That marginal difference of 1 deg in temperature made all the difference to the old, the disabled and the young living in Barking. They lost out on their entitlement to an essential payment that would help them to keep warm.
The whole point of the emergency payment is to ensure that the very old and the very young keep warm in cold weather. It is the Government's job to make the system work and they have plenty of options. Why cannot the temperature, for instance, be measured at every benefit office or at the local town hall or civic centre? Is it that difficult to get an accurate measurement? Why cannot the boundaries be more sensibly defined, so that at least everyone in the same borough gets treated equally? Why cannot the home energy efficiency scheme be maintained? Why cut that scheme by £31 million, when investment by the Government today would ensure affordable warmth for pensioners tomorrow? If people's homes were effectively insulated, the savings could be immense.
Why cannot the Government make greater use of forecasts of periods of cold weather, rather than the actual temperature recorded? In 1991, the right hon. Member for Chelsea stated:
The Meteorological Office can now supply daily a forecast for each of the weather stations which we use which will indicate, with sufficient accuracy, the likely average temperature over the next seven days."—[Official Report, 14 June 1991; Vol. 192, c. 697.]
The hon. Member tells me—from a sedentary position—that the forecasts are used. They are not. On 24 December—Christmas eve—in the one week in which the whole of Barking qualified, only one weather station, in Dumfries, chose to use the forecast to trigger eligibility for those living in that area. Only in Dumfries could the elderly feel secure over Christmas that they would get their cold weather payment. One of the purposes of the changes to the scheme in 1991 was to provide reassurances to the vulnerable by introducing a fast-track system of eligibility and triggering through the use of forecasts.
Mrs. Havers came to my surgery last Friday. She told me, "I know those people over the avenue have had four payments. How can it be that it is colder over there than it is over here? It is crazy. We are virtually next to them. I have to have my little electric heater on all the time to stay warm." Mrs. Oakes also came to my surgery last Friday. She said, "It is so cold in my house I have to go to bed with a huge scarf wrapped around my head and wearing bed socks. I take a hot water bottle and I wrap myself up in all the blankets I have." That is not what we should be hearing from elderly people in Britain today. We are talking not just about woolly hats, but about intolerably cold homes. That is the human dimension of the bureaucratic nonsense.
Age Concern has estimated that around 8 million households cannot afford to heat their homes to adequate standards. Too many of those people live in my constituency in Barking. I urge Ministers, on behalf of my constituents, to think again. The rules are unfair and wrong. The points I have made may seem trivial to Ministers, but they are vital to the very old and the very young in my constituency who simply want to enjoy the right we all have—to keep warm in winter.
Order. I understand that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) has permission from the hon. Lady and the Minister, but I am not aware that the same is true for the hon. Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) and for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms).
I must also remind hon. Members that the debate is about cold weather payments in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) on initiating the debate. If she succeeds on behalf of Barking and Dagenham, that might have a knock-on effect that would correct the situation in the rest of the country. My hon. Friend might win a minor victory that would affect only her area. For instance, it could be decided that the lowest of the two measurements from Stansted and Heathrow should be taken. The arrangements made under the scheme should be equitable in respect of distribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barking has argued in favour of various methods of measuring temperature. Temperatures should be taken locally, so that the needs of people in local areas can be met within the rules of the system. If my hon. Friend can make any progress on those terms, the effects will be felt further afield than Barking and Dagenham. The new arrangements will have to be applied universally, thereby improving a system that operates in the most dismal fashion across vast areas of this country.
The weather seems to be improving now. It is easy for politicians to forget a problem that is over with; easy to put down some markers for future changes; and easy to be distracted by more immediate concerns. But people have been in desperate straits recently, and it is likely that some could die because of the shortcomings of the scheme in my hon. Friend's constituency. Now is the time to keep up the pressure to correct the faults in the scheme.
My hon. Friend's constituents do not need a new system just for the next time the big freeze arrives. They need retrospective provisions to ensure that they receive the three payments that they appear to have missed. They have been encouraged to put their heating on so as not to die from the cold—on the promise that some money would be forthcoming. That money has not appeared, even though people thought it reasonable to try to keep warm.
The cold weather payments scheme is limited in its scope. It applies to pensioners, disabled people and parents on income support with children under five. Possibly many other groups should be considered for inclusion. In 1994, 300 pensioners in this country died of hypothermia—not counting the deaths to which it was a contributory factor.
The payments that people receive are modest: £8.50 a week. They are made when the temperature reaches freezing point for seven consecutive days, or when it is forecast to do so. If meteorological stations are being used for this purpose, the information that they give out should be much more widely available. The problem is that people need to know where to look for the forecasts for their area. In my hon. Friend's constituency, for instance, some forecasts will apply to one airport and some to another. What are people supposed to do? In some parts of the country people may have to tune in to television stations because their temperatures are being measured miles away from where they live. There must be places nearer their homes that could more sensibly be used to determine temperatures for this purpose.
I know of a person who has spent £10 on telephone calls trying to sort out being missed out for the payments. Supposedly, once a meteorological station has issued temperature details, the payments are triggered and then automatically made. We know, however, that the system does not work that well. Not everyone receives his entitlement. I am sure that my constituent's experience applies also to people in Barking and Dagenham, and that there are people who have never pushed hard for what they are entitled to.
The whole scheme needs looking at. Even under the current rules, the triggering arrangements and the determinations of who should be paid what are in need of serious review. The Government are very good at developing formulae that apply to the whole country but which are not tailored to particular areas. The standard spending assessment is one example; the method used for cold weather payments is another—it is crazy.
Weather stations alert the Department of Social Security, which decides on the basis of postcodes which areas should receive payments. I need not point out that postcode areas were not designed for cold weather payments. They exist for the administrative convenience of the Post Office. Some careful analysis would have to be done to show how such areas are compatible with the areas that deserve cold weather payments.
Some places are higher and more exposed than others. The "heat factor" sometimes operates in town centres, where there are surrounding buildings. It is therefore essential to measure temperatures locally so as to provide correct information.
I should love to use this opportunity to spell out the problems in Derbyshire, where the system is completely nonsensical, but I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are keen that I should relate my remarks to Barking and Dagenham. If the principles outlined in my hon. Friend's speech are adopted, I will be able to go back to Derbyshire and say that something has been achieved. I intend to elaborate at length on the nonsensical system in Derbyshire if I am lucky enough to secure an Adjournment debate on the subject.
As I have said, meteorological stations that are nowhere near the areas affected are being used. Postal districts that bear no relation to areas with differing climates are also being considered. Moreover, some of the meteorological stations are being de-manned, with the result that certain areas are transferred to other stations. Further de-manning can lead to chaos in such circumstances.
I hope that the Minister will indeed take a serious look at the points made in this debate. It is difficult to squeeze retrospective measures out of the Government to cover the problem, but I hope, at the very least, that there will be some reassessment—even under the present rules—of how areas and their temperatures are considered under the scheme. We should then progress to local temperature taking, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) on initiating the debate. Our constituencies share a local authority. Although the bulk of my constituents live in Redbridge, half of one of the wards in Goodmayes was transferred to the borough of Barking and Dagenham in April 1994. Therefore, I have constituents who live in Barking and Dagenham and I am well aware of the problems that they have experienced. I am also well aware that those problems have been experienced by those of my constituents who are neighbours of those living in Barking and Dagenham but who live in the borough of Redbridge.
I tabled early-day motion 499, which referred specifically to the problems faced by my constituents, which are identical to those experienced by the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking.
Three weather stations monitor temperatures for the whole of Greater London: one is far to the south, outside London, in Gatwick airport; the second is far to the west of London, in Heathrow airport; and the third is far to the north-east of London, outside London in Stansted airport. These three airport stations are used to determine which of the London postal districts will have a temperature level assessment on any particular day.
In logic, one might assume that areas to the north-east of London would be assigned to the station north-east of London. Similarly, it might be supposed that those to the west would be assigned to the station which is to the west, and those to the south assigned to the station which is to the south. But when the Government introduced cold weather payments in 1988 they decided to present us with a puzzle.
It is interesting to assess the regulations and to read the listings of postal districts in the respective national climatological message stations for London. It is clear that the criteria are not straightforward. National climatological message station 26, which is at Gatwick airport, includes some of the Croydon CR postal districts, but not all. The station at Heathrow airport includes many postal districts, including the rest of the Croydon ones. The Heathrow station, being in the west of London, is responsible for the postcodes E1 to E18, EC1 to EC4, EN1 to EN11 and various others, including IG1 to IG11, which cover the bulk of my constituency and large parts of Barking. I should explain that my hon. Friend and I share the IG11 postcode.
Some of my constituents live in Mayesbrook road, which is on the borders of Barking and Dagenham and Ilford. Before talking about Mayesbrook road I shall refer to the Stansted weather station, which covers an area with RM postcodes. These are Romford postcodes. The station covers RM1 to RM20 as well as Colchester, Chelmsford, Southend and various other parts of Essex.
Romford is in the London borough of Havering and the relevant postcodes extend to Essex. But RM postcodes include postal districts in Barking, Dagenham and Ilford. I have constituents who have RM postcodes and are assessed by the Stansted station. I also have constituents who live a few yards away from them who have IG postcodes and are assessed by the Heathrow station.
Nos. 1 to 73 Mayesbrook road have the RM8 postcode; Nos. 75 to 143 have the IG3 postcode. Someone living at No. 73 Mayesbrook road has been eligible for four cold weather payments. Of course, if he was not eligible for income support he would not have received the payments. Theoretically, however, the payments could have been made. The person living next door, at No. 75, has an IG3 postcode: tough luck. That person was eligible for only one payment.
On the side of Mayesbrook road with even numbers, Nos. 2 to 72 are part of the RM postcode; Nos. 74 to 134 are in the IG3 postcode. It is not merely a matter of different assessments on each side of the road. Along both sides of the road people are being treated unjustly as a result of a mad bureaucratic system.
How do we deal with this madness? How do I explain the system to my constituents? I have received several letters and telephone calls querying what has happened. One of my constituents said, "My mother has received extra payments but I had a payment for only one week. My mother lives only half a mile away from me." I repeat: how can I justify the system?
Some of my constituents who live in the borough of Redbridge are treated differently from others who live in the borough. Some of my constituents live in the area of the IG3 postcode, and they are treated differently from those in RM postcode areas.
According to the list attached to the Social Fund Cold Weather Payments (General) Regulations 1988, SI 1988/1724, there are 54 climatological message stations. The list includes some stations that have disappeared. In other words, there are not quite 54 stations. We know, however, that 56 million people live in the United Kingdom. In logic and fairness there should be some relationship between the number of stations and the population, or a relationship between numbers of stations and geographic areas. I estimate that the population of Greater London and of areas beyond is about 8 million or 9 million, yet we have—this includes Barking and Dagenham—only three stations.
If an airport station is supposed to be in London, why is London City airport not used as an assessment point? It is more likely than other stations to have temperatures closer to those in the boroughs of Barking, Dagenham and Redbridge and those in the IG3 and RM postal districts. Oh, no; that is too easy. Instead, we have an absurd, nonsensical system. I look forward to the Minister's explanation. Having read "Alice in Wonderland", I look forward to hearing him try to justify the present system.
I do not want to detain the House for much longer. I merely say that I hope that this will be the last winter during which anguished constituents will come to us, write to us or telephone us to try to secure an explanation of the cold weather payments system from us, elected Members of this place. As I have said, the regulations are nonsensical. Let us hope that a system can be introduced that is fair and just to all the residents in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking and to all my constituents. Let us have a system that makes sense in logic and can be publicly justified. The present regulations are absurd and must be amended quickly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) on securing the debate, and on the powerful case she made on behalf of her constituents in both Barking and Dagenham. My constituency adjoins those of my hon. Friend and of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes). That being so, I am very familiar with the problems that they have described. I associate myself with the proposal so recently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, that London City airport would be an appropriate place for a weather station. I hope that the Minister will consider that suggestion.
This is an extremely serious matter. A report produced this month by that excellent organisation, Neighbourhood Energy Action, entitled "Heating Action for Older People", reminds us that, in the winter of 1991–92, there were 33,000 cold-related premature and avoidable deaths in the United Kingdom. That is an enormous number. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barking said, it is two or three times more than the number of comparable deaths in countries such as Canada and Sweden.
It is clear that we have a serious problem with the way in which we deal with cold in this country and how it affects older people. We have not managed to resolve the problem in the same way as other countries. The present winter has been a good deal colder than that of 1991–92. It is estimated that, in the most severe weather—this estimate was made before the present winter—during a winter period, there could be up to 50,000 premature and avoidable cold-related deaths.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the high cost to the health service of treating illness caused by cold in winter. I understand that it spends about £800 million a year on treating illness caused by cold and damp housing. The failure to deal adequately with it is a costly national failure, as well as being tragic for a remarkably large number of people.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) about the narrowness of the application of the current cold weather payments scheme. Not everybody on income support in Barking and elsewhere is eligible for such payments. What about people who are not on income support?
I had a telephone call today from a widow aged 76 who had lived in the same house for 49 years. Her husband died five years ago. She is living on the savings that they had accumulated, which are dwindling. She asked, "Why should I be penalised for not being dependent on the state?" That is a hard question to answer, and it is one that many people are asking.
In a recent letter, Councillor Jim White, of Rushmoor borough council, argued that the scheme should be extended to all pensioners. There is much sympathy for that case. I take the point that was made about the narrowness of the application of the present scheme. I hope that something more generous will be introduced.
The cold weather payments scheme is part of the measures that are needed to tackle the problems caused by the cold each winter. Another part is energy conservation. My hon. Friend the Member for Barking made the point that, tragically, the Government's home energy efficiency scheme has had £31 million cut from its budget of £105 million, despite the fact that, in December 1994, we were told that about £100 million a year would be available for three years.
Such a severe cut will mean greatly increased dependence on cold weather payments in Barking and elsewhere. For example, the amount available to people over 60 who are not on benefit will be cut from £315 to £78. That will mean that less home insulation will be carried out in Barking, and that there will be greater dependence on the cold weather payments. I very much regret that.
I make a specific point to the Minister. If he cannot answer it when he replies, perhaps he will write to me. One of the criteria for the higher rate of payment under the HEES is that the person is on disability living allowance. That should be amended to include the attendance allowance, because DLA is not paid to people over 60. There may be an inconsistency in the regulations.
I understand that the HEES is to be cut further, because the money is being top-sliced to fund the new requirements on local authorities under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, which was piloted by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock). It is an excellent Act, but it is regrettable if it means that less will be paid for home insulation. Poorer insulation will mean greater dependence on the cold weather payments.
I was interested to learn recently of the proposed project for the Gascoigne estate in Barking, which is modelled on pilot work in my borough of Newham, where the money that has been put aside by London Electricity through its £1 per customer levy is being used, with funding under the HEES, to improve home insulation and reduce the consumption of electricity. That is welcome. It is hoped that that scheme will be adopted more widely, but there will problems, given the cuts in the overall amount that the Government are making available for the HEES. The cuts undermine the excellent training and employment opportunities that are provided, for example, by Newham Wise and Miller Pattison, network installers in my constituency.
There is much unhappiness about the scheme, as my hon. Friends demonstrated powerfully this evening, caused by narrowness, meanness and the arbitrary nature of the decisions related to it. I very much hope that the Government will be able to make changes in the light of those concerns.
I hope that Ministers will always listen when Members of Parliament come up with a sound argument based on an allegation about the differential effect of a policy that has disproportionate consequences on particular constituencies. That is what Adjournment debates are for, and that is why we are here to discuss the particular problem in Barking.
The hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) strayed from the important and central task of her argument, to make wider allegations about the Government's "penny-pinching" approach. I must tell her that the Government are spending £90 billion a year on social security—the largest amount by far of any Government in British history. I also heard talk about the narrowness and meanness of approach, but, frankly, the context is so astonishingly different that her specific case is undermined by a grotesque exaggeration of the context.
In trying to formulate Government policy, the targets that we have are to provide the most effective help at the most appropriate time to the most vulnerable people. The cold weather payments scheme has been very successful indeed. Last November, for this winter we increased the sum for the seven-day period from £7 to £8.50—a substantial increase of 20 per cent.
As the amount paid each year depends on the weather, it is not surprising that last year's winter led to payments of only £76,000, as the hon. Lady said, because it was an exceptionally mild winter. This winter, we have paid out £62 million so far—whether more is paid out depends on the weather criteria being met—which means 7 million individual payments to 3 million individuals.
The particular problem in focusing the scheme comes about in this fashion. The year 1991 was the key one, when the modern scheme came into operation. There is no mystery to the modern scheme. There is no accident in the linkage between postcodes and meteorological stations, because the regulations each year list both. It is not a question of discretion thereafter by the Government or the Benefits Agency. Parliament lays it down, and alters the list each year to some extent. I am told that the annual amendment regulations have never been prayed against to permit a debate to take place. Perhaps the system is less controversial than we might have gathered this evening.
The key factor in the 1991 change. in terms of administration and the provision of a better service, was that computerisation in the Benefits Agency had reached a point at which we could introduce an automatic payments scheme. That dispensed with the need to make a claim: when the average temperature was recorded or forecast to be below the qualifying level—0 deg C over seven consecutive days—computer scans would be carried out weekly, and everyone who met the criteria would be paid. The conditions relate not just to individuals whose qualifications depend on the scheme that we discussed earlier, but to the postcode of the area involved.
In the modern world, it is commonplace for commercial organisations to use the postcode system—which has become increasingly developed—to determine, with the help of a computer database, which groups should be targeted in one way or another. We have managed to arrive at a detailed local arrangement by using the postcode system, while linking it with the current number of meteorological stations—55.
Let me tell Opposition Members, who have made various local complaints, that the list of meteorological stations is reviewed after each winter, and it has been our practice to amend it to some extent. I stress that, on the basis of its professional judgment on climate grounds, the Meteorological Office advises Ministers on which meteorological stations, in climatic terms, can most appropriately be linked with particular postcodes. That is amended by regulations as may be.
Having received correspondence on the matter, I have slightly more sympathy for those who live in mountainous areas. When we were discussing Barking, the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) used a tremendous amount of parliamentary imagination to hint at problems in his constituency; I have no doubt that he will write to me about them at greater length.
The hon. Gentleman's letters have not reached me yet, but when they do, they will be replied to, and the particular circumstances involved will be considered.
Normally, problems with cold weather payments relating to meteorological stations concern mountainous areas in Scotland, Wales, the Pennine region or the west country, where there are climatic differences between the tops of mountains or hills and coastal stations. We amend the list each year. Complaints were made, with some force, that a community in Braemar had been the subject of unfair prejudice through being linked with Aviemore; last year, we changed that.
The problem in London is slightly more complicated than was suggested by the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes). There are four meteorological stations to deal with the Greater London area: Heathrow to the west, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, Stansted to the north, Gatwick to the south and RAF Manston in Kent, which deals with a portion of east London—including the south bank of the Thames, a stone's throw from the constituency of the hon. Member for Barking. It is no accident that those stations tend to be airports. Traditionally, the Met Office has been provided with the service by either commercial operators or the RAF.
Ironically, this year—I suspect that it is an accident of this year's weather, which has highlighted the difficulties in London—Stansted has been triggered four times, which would provide £34; Gatwick has been triggered three times, which would provide £25.50; Manston has been triggered twice, which would provide £17; and Heathrow has been triggered once, which would provide £8.50. The problem of the constituents of the hon. Members for Barking, Ilford, South and Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) is that, in that portion of Greater London, the overlapping boundaries meet. It is frontier territory.
In fact, the circumstances are not peculiar to this year. I understand from constituents who have approached me that my predecessor, Jo Richardson, had been campaigning on this very issue for many years, drawing attention to the absurdity of the bureaucratic differences.
I understand that a mountain would make a difference. If there were a mountain in the middle of London, the weather on one side of it might well be different from that on the other side. The point is, however, that there is no mountain in Newham, Ilford, Barking or Derbyshire. All those areas experience the same amount of cold at the same time.
I hear what the hon. Lady says, but mountains are a more obvious example than Greater London. The fact remains that temperatures have been different at those four points around London.
It is possible that, on a different basis, there might have been a less favourable result for the centre of London, which tends to be warmer. The fundamental problem is administrative, however, and the Government think it important. Obviously, money can be spent on administration and the creation of more weather stations—our minds are not closed, and we review the issue each year—but I wonder whether the hon. Lady is being realistic when she asks why there cannot be a weather station at every benefit office and town hall.
I also question the hon. Lady's suggestion of boundaries based on parliamentary constituencies. I do not see why drawing a line on a simple, arbitrary, administrative basis would deal more rationally with her constituents or those of her neighbours.
I did not suggest that every constituency should have a meteorological station; I suggested that London's City airport should be used. It is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms), as well as being close to my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge). The provision of a meteorological station there would meet the needs of people living in east London, and would end the absurdity of parts of our boroughs being dealt with by Heathrow and other parts being dealt with by Stansted.
If the hon. Gentleman had been a little more patient, he would have heard me respond directly on that issue.
Whenever a Member of Parliament presents us with a specific proposal about a meteorological station, we are prepared to listen. I do not know—and I have no instructions immediately to hand—whether there is an appropriate meteorological station at City airport, but if there is, if the Met Office will then advise us, and if it is suitable, I will certainly consider the proposal when we review the scheme in the summer.
I do not understand why we need the whole meteorological outfit. All that is necessary is to measure the temperature: we need only a thermometer. Surely a simple system, rather than a huge bureaucratic system, would be more sensitive to real temperatures in London.
This is not a monstrous administrative or bureaucratic measure. Nowadays, everything is done electronically. The temperature is taken at 9 am and 9 pm GMT, and automatically relayed to the headquarters of the Met Office, which is, I believe, at Bracknell. I can also comfort the hon. Lady with the information that, because of the advance in technology, the cost of meteorological stations is falling. That depends, however, on the Met Office's being satisfied that the station is of a certain standard, and that the integrity of the data is sufficient.
The hon. Lady shakes her head. She says that the requirements are simple; if they can be met, I will give careful consideration to any proposals that are put to us, but I warn her that there may be a problem. If there is a meteorological station at City airport, I shall be intrigued to know whether she will want me to find out exactly what it has recorded in the past few weeks. I wait to see whether it will be better than Stansted for all her constituents. She will no doubt come back to me on that. It may well be better on that gamble—neither of us knows; whether she comes out better is another matter.
The serious and important point is that it would not be rational to follow administrative boundaries. All that would happen if we were to do that is that I would have two hon. Members sitting next to each other on opposite sides of the House, saying, "Does it really matter whether you live in this constituency or that one?" It is better to operate the system on a climatological basis, on the basis of advice from the Meteorological Office. I have heard hon. Members ask whether that was too broad-brush an approach, but it seemed to us to be much more reasonable than introducing administrative boundaries.
It would be technically feasible, with the appropriate expense and the rewriting of computer software, to alter the Benefits Agency computer to have boundaries by parish, street, borough, county or whatever other small division might be desired. However, the modern method to do such things is by postcode. That method is extant, and it is the well-established and modern way of doing it. The difficulty is that the postal districts do not coincide with the constituency boundary of the hon. Member for Barking. Therefore, I can appreciate that the differences are particularly clear cut.
I do not want unduly to prolong this debate. I am prepared to listen to individual arguments for extra meteorological stations when we review the matter this summer. This year, because of the exceptionally bad winter, the operation of the scheme has been much more apparent, and the consequences of its operation have been more clear cut than last year, when the scheme scarcely operated at all because of a much milder winter. There is some opportunity for flexibility in this matter. Ultimately, however, Ministers will be guided by meteorological advice rather than special pleading on behalf of areas which contain constituents.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Barking had her facts right. I was a little concerned to read in Hansard—on 20 February 1996, at column 157—of her speaking about one side of Lodge avenue being covered by one station and the other side by another station. She probably did not mean Lodge avenue, but the places that are off Lodge avenue. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said:
It does not make sense that the residents of Nos. 450 to 472 Lodge avenue have received one … payment … when the residents of Nos. 453 to 469 Lodge avenue have received four".—[Official Report, 20 February 1996; Vol. 272, c. 208.]
That is wrong. That portion of Lodge avenue—with all those numbers—is in the same postal district, and has been treated exactly the same.
I appreciate that hon. Members, very properly, wish to represent their constituents. However, the Government must have a scheme that is simple and effective, and that automatically delivers payments without a need to claim—which was the difficulty with predecessor schemes. I could go through the long history of those schemes, but, in terms of helping greater numbers of people, paying out greater amounts of money or the take-up arrangements, they were nothing like as successful as the current arrangement. That is one of the advantages of information technology, and the ability to perform computer scans based on local geographical areas and to say that the people who are within the qualifying groups can be paid automatically.
The system is effective. It pays more vulnerable people in the appropriate circumstances than anything that has existed before. As I have said more than once, we will listen to representations each year on whether specific meteorological stations are appropriate for specific postcode areas.