Winter Fuel Allowance

Oral Answers to Questions — Social Security – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5 March 2001.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North 12:00, 5 March 2001

What the cost is of the winter fuel allowance paid in the winter of 2000–01. [150484]

Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker Minister of State, Department of Social Security, Minister of State (Department of Social Security)

We have made about 11 million winter fuel payments so far this winter, at an estimated cost of £1.7 billion. At our best estimate, 16,000 of those payments were made in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

That is money well spent, bearing in mind the climate at the moment. Has my right hon. Friend found any pensioners in his constituency or elsewhere who have described that sum of money as "a gimmick"—the description used by Conservative Front Benchers on numerous occasions? Why was there no such help before the Labour party came to office in 1997?

Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker Minister of State, Department of Social Security, Minister of State (Department of Social Security)

It was basically because the other lot did not care—not to put too fine a point on it. That is the truth. The winter fuel payment of £200 per household has proved extremely popular. It is double last year's payment and how it could ever be described as a gimmick, I do not know.

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce Conservative, South Dorset

A number of my constituents have contacted me, having listened to Ministers saying that all pensioner households would receive the winter fuel payment, but having subsequently discovered that because they did not turn 60 or 65 by the middle of September, they would lose out—as did those who were in nursing homes. Will the Minister be more careful in presenting such policies? Does he agree that if the payment were a top-up of weekly benefits, all would benefit from it?

Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker Minister of State, Department of Social Security, Minister of State (Department of Social Security)

That is another change of policy. I understand why some people argue as the hon. Gentleman does. As for all benefits, there are eligibility criteria, one of which is the date. We had to fix a date, which, I recall, was in September. That was fixed so that we could guarantee that the majority of payments were paid before Christmas. If the date had been set any later, we would not have been able to achieve that. We delivered on that commitment. For pensioners who were eligible on the relevant date—that is the factor—those payments were made before Christmas. The only payments that are still being made are to those who must claim. In general, those are men between the ages of 60 and 65, as the hon. Gentleman well knows.

Photo of Ronnie Campbell Ronnie Campbell Labour, Blyth Valley

Has my right hon. Friend any plans to abolish the winter fuel allowance? I ask because in my constituency, "Focus", the leaflet from the Liberals, stated that they are the only ones who would retain it.

Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker Minister of State, Department of Social Security, Minister of State (Department of Social Security)

I expect that for every Liberal "Focus" in one constituency pledging one policy aspect, we can find another one in another constituency promising the exact opposite. The only thing that the two major parties have in common is suffering from the fact that the Liberals do not have a consistent policy. The Labour Government invented the winter fuel payment, and we have increased it year on year. We are committed to keeping it, as the Prime Minister said recently.

Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood Chair, Social Security Committee, Chair, Social Security Committee

The winter fuel payment is safe in our hands. The winter fuel allowance for households in which there is someone over the age of 60 has provided invaluable assistance given the disastrous snow storms that we have had in south-east Scotland. The allowance will make a valuable contribution to households suffering from the effects of the inclement weather. Will the Minister confirm that severe weather payments, which are also available through the social fund to people who are on means-tested benefits, will be triggered? They are a valuable addition to households in south-east Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom that have suffered severe weather. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that departmental officials will do all that they can to get those payments made, and that regions such as south-east Scotland will receive severe weather payments in the immediate aftermath of the storms?

Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker Minister of State, Department of Social Security, Minister of State (Department of Social Security)

Yes. For those on means-tested benefits, cold weather payments of—I think—£8.50 a week, which are quite separate from winter fuel payments, have been triggered since the onset of winter. So far, we have made more than 3 million payments at a cost of £28 million. The vast majority have, by definition, been in the north of the country, particularly Scotland. They are triggered and paid as the conditions are met.