Excess Winter Deaths

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:00 pm on 9th December 2004.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 5:00 pm, 9th December 2004

The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S2M-2027, in the name of Margaret Ewing, on excess winter deaths. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with growing concern that, despite various efforts to reduce fuel poverty, excess winter deaths still continue to rise; believes that additional measures must be implemented to reverse this trend and eradicate this blight in an energy-rich nation, and therefore believes that the Scottish Executive should review the effectiveness of existing schemes.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party 5:09 pm, 9th December 2004

I thank all the members who signed the motion and those members who have stayed behind—I know that many find it difficult to attend debates on Thursday evening.

For several years, I have been the vice-president of Energy Action Scotland. I express members' deep gratitude to Ann Loughrey, who has been director of Energy Action Scotland for 12 years. She is leaving her post on hogmanay and is moving to Scottish Power—I am quite sure that in her pleasant but focused way she will ensure that fuel poverty is very much on that company's mind. I know that the Executive is also grateful for her input into some of the schemes that have been implemented.

I started campaigning on fuel poverty 30 years ago. When I look back, I am pleased at the progress that has been made by both the Scottish Parliament and Westminster, because we have had a great deal of movement on the issue. I have never hesitated to welcome any scheme that has been introduced or any assistance that has been given to eradicate the scourge on our society that is excess winter death. The issue should be on our consciences; I see it as a matter on to which we must try to project the reality of social justice.

My friend and colleague Christine Grahame obtained the most recent figures on excess winter deaths, which show that, despite all our efforts, there has been an increase of 400 excess winter deaths. That compares poorly with the figures for our nordic neighbours. Indeed, some of the nordic communities do not understand what fuel poverty is, because their housing stock and all their schemes have eradicated it from their minds.

I will raise specific points, which I know the minister will do his best to address. I believe that the biggest factor in fuel poverty is household income. The 2002 Scottish housing conditions survey, which I thoroughly recommend to everyone who is interested in fuel poverty, showed that the 50 per cent reduction in fuel poverty between 1996 and 2002 was due to increased household income. It also showed that pensioners were either at the top or runners-up in every measurement of fuel poverty. I am sure that that point will be developed by John Swinburne, who I sincerely hope will have the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

That is why I believe that there should be a non-means-tested citizens pension, on which my party has spelt out its policy. Pension organisations, which are much more sophisticated in their understanding of pensions than I could ever hope to be, have said that we could have such pensions now, because the money is in the Exchequer. It is incumbent on us to point out to Westminster that we believe that more should be done to help our aging population and others who are vulnerable.

In recognising that household income is a critical element, we should also take into account people on other fixed incomes, such as disability living allowance, pension credit or income support, which are the passports to access help with heating. We have to acknowledge that fuel poverty is not only about pensioners, but about people of all ages, particularly those who are lacking in mobility.

A series of schemes are in place, but the ways in which people meet the criteria and access them are complex. In a written answer to me last month, the Minister for Communities indicated that the Executive is

"committed to eradicate fuel poverty in Scotland as far as reasonably practicable by 2016."—[Official Report, Written Answers, 10 November 2004; S2W-11820.]

As I recall, the manifesto gave the date of 2007, so there is an element of slippage. We have to consider how we can best implement all our initiatives. How do people access the schemes? As I said, there is a passport system of receiving benefits.

Single, dedicated helplines are also important. I know that, since Help the Aged set up its helpline earlier this year, it has had on average 500 calls a week. I am aware that schemes are running in many cities and areas of Scotland. The Executive should consider setting up a dedicated helpline, which, quite honestly, would not be terribly difficult to do and would not be particularly expensive.

We must also ensure that information is distributed. The public seem to be confused about how to contact somebody about fuel poverty. Practice varies from council to council: in some councils, the technical services department has the issue in its portfolio, whereas, in others, the housing department has it. There should be a dedicated fuel officer in every council in Scotland. There are only 32 councils and if there was someone in each council who was dedicated to dealing with fuel poverty and could pull together the information from the housing and technical services departments, that might lead to need being met more effectively.

The minister has been in correspondence with the public utilities and I look forward to hearing what he has learned from them. They give sound advice. Some hand out thermometers such as the one that I am holding, which is important because it enables people to gauge the temperature in their house—I point out to members that, all afternoon, the temperature in the chamber has been 24° C, which means that the chamber is energy inefficient. However, under the Data Protection Act 1998, the utilities cannot access the information about who is fuel poor unless it is drawn to their attention. MSPs, MPs and councillors can access the information, but the Data Protection Act 1998 means that some of the most vulnerable people are unable to make the contact that could help them to reduce their fuel bills. I ask the minister to consider along with his colleagues at Westminster whether there is a mechanism that could enable more to be done.

Another aspect on which I will touch briefly—I asked about it at question time—is the continuing problem of private landlords and landowners who refuse people permission to access the central heating programme despite the fact that all the criteria have been met. Seven such refusals were mentioned in the most recent written answer on the subject, but there is now an additional one in my constituency. The matter must be addressed quickly, because we are in the winter months and I know of at least one family that cannot access the central heating programme and in which there are severely ill people, even though they are young.

Sadly, the Scottish Parliament does not have control over energy prices. It is estimated that, for every 5 per cent increase in energy prices, 30,000 people fall back into the fuel poverty trap, so we must negotiate with the utilities how they can best address the issue and help people on the lowest incomes.

A little warmth goes a long way, especially at Christmas time. The fuel poor are the poor—that is a tautology—but, even if we were to distribute a little more winter warmth this winter, the Parliament should still show solidarity with those who live in fuel poverty. We should not only approach the issue from a moral or social justice point of view, but demonstrate the political will that will end the scourge of excess winter deaths.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 5:18 pm, 9th December 2004

I congratulate Margaret Ewing on securing the debate. It is a debate that we seem to have annually. Although progress has been made, there is a place for the debate, to ensure that the issue is highlighted frequently.

I also send my best wishes to Ann Loughrey. I congratulate her on the work that she has done and that I hope she will continue to do in her new role.

I am sure that all members agree that the Scottish Executive's central heating programme and warm deal have been among the most successful programmes it has introduced. However, I share Margaret Ewing's concern that contact is sometimes confusing. It was only while I was a deputy minister that I realised that not all councils did it in the same way as West Lothian Council. There is a need to ensure that people have adequate information to enable them to access the programmes.

The programmes have undoubtedly improved many people's quality of life and they have probably saved lives. Figures from the Scottish house condition survey in 1996 suggested that 35 per cent of the population lived in fuel poverty. That had reduced to 13 per cent by the time of the 2002 survey. A significant number of those who suffer the problems of fuel poverty are older people.

We must recognise that not just the Scottish Executive's programme has tackled the problem and reduced the numbers. There are three parts to reducing fuel poverty. The first is our central heating programme and the warm deal. As Margaret Ewing said, the second is improved income. People have been assisted by the increases in the heating allowance. Only last week, the chancellor increased that further from £200 to £250 for over-70s and from £300 to £350 for over-80s. That is to be welcomed. In general, pensions have improved and the pensions credit has made a contribution. A benefit check, the aim of which is to maximise incomes, is part of the warm deal programme.

The third element of reducing fuel poverty is low fuel charges. Few people would disagree that the price increases of recent months will continue, so we must consider how we tackle the problem of fuel poverty and continue to reduce the figures.

Last week, I visited the village of Westfield in West Lothian, where I saw an example of a new fuel system that uses fresh air—can members believe it? It is similar to a refrigeration system and is programmed through electricity. The system is wonderful and I ask the minister to visit the project, because it presents another opportunity to provide heating that will not be caught up in the increasing fuel prices.

The debate is about more than just fuel poverty. Other actions need to be taken to deal with winter deaths. The flu jabs and pneumonia jabs that the minister was involved in promoting in his previous ministerial post are important, but fuel poverty has undoubtedly played a part in winter deaths. I hope that the Executive will take on board any suggestions, such as that of the project in my constituency, to tackle fuel poverty, improve many people's quality of life and—I hope—reduce the number of winter deaths.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 5:23 pm, 9th December 2004

I congratulate Margaret Ewing on securing the debate. She has an honourable track record. I remember her talking about cold weather payments when nobody else was listening—including me. We have moved so far and she is one of the pioneers.

Pensioners form one of the groups that are most vulnerable to fuel poverty. It is reckoned that 58 per cent of Scottish pensioner households live in fuel poverty. Another rather dreadful statistic is that 18 per cent of single pensioner households do not heat their main living-rooms regularly. How many of us go home to that? Even as I speak, my central heating programmer is switching the heating on. I have—fortunately—forgotten what it is like to enter a cold household, but many of our elderly have not.

The number of cold-related deaths in winter has risen substantially. Last year, the number was 10 times the figure for deaths on the road. Shock statistics about road deaths prompt a huge reaction, but deaths from simply not having the money to heat a home do not receive the same reaction. Poor housing, poverty, low wages and indoor temperatures that are not high enough have a direct causal link to cold-related deaths.

In addition to excess cold-related winter deaths, we should address hypothermia. I have obtained statistics that show that the Executive projects that 239 people will be taken to hospital suffering from hypothermia this year. Not all of them will have come from their homes, but some will. That is another shocking statistic.

The central heating programme has much in it that is to be welcomed, but it could go further. For example, the Eaga Partnership Ltd has put it to me that there are some people who are eligible for the programme because of their age, but they have a faulty central heating system. I know that the programme has been extended to very elderly groups, but the Eaga Partnership has been concerned that its hands have been tied and that it cannot replace systems that might even be dangerous. I ask the minister to consider adapting the central heating programme to allow a heating system to be replaced when the Eaga Partnership carries out an assessment and thinks that a system is dangerous.

Similarly, I ask the minister to consider extending the central heating programme to disabled people who are not at the appropriate age to receive help. I am talking about disabled people who are confined to wheelchairs or disabled people who are confined to chairs and have zimmers. They need more substantial heating than we do as a result of their immobility.

There are also hard-to-heat homes in Scotland. There is a limit on the money that can be spent on central heating programmes, but there are properties that are so old that there should be flexibility in certain circumstances, particularly for older people who live in such properties.

I share Margaret Ewing's concerns about the fuel poverty helpline not being up and running. I know that Energy Action Scotland has recommended it and I support that recommendation. It would be a simple move.

Last week was warm homes week. What people are entitled to is quite complex and somebody else should sort out those complexities for them. We should try to prevent some of the 2,510 excess winter deaths that should not happen in Scotland.

Photo of Nanette Milne Nanette Milne Conservative 5:26 pm, 9th December 2004

I, too, congratulate Margaret Ewing on securing the debate at the start of a winter that has been quite mild so far, but that is variably predicted to become severe after the new year. I am sure that we all share her frustration that, despite strenuous efforts by successive Governments to reduce fuel poverty, too many older people and other vulnerable people are still dying in the winter months from the effects of cold and hypothermia.

It is appalling that in 2003—which is the last year for which I have figures—2,900 people died in Scotland from cold-related illnesses. That is more than double the number of people who died as a result of road traffic accidents.

Significant progress has undoubtedly been made in decreasing the number of inadequately heated houses, but around a third of pensioner households still cannot afford to heat their homes properly. We know that those people spend a lot of time at home and that to maintain their body temperature they need a warmer environment than do younger and fitter people. Every winter, they may have to choose between food and adequate heating.

The recently announced boost to the winter fuel payment will be of some help to people who are over 70 or over 80, but it is not only extra cash handouts that are needed, welcome though they may be. As Energy Action Scotland concluded from recent research, advice and education are needed to manage debt and the size of fuel bills. We must ensure that people have the right tariff and the right method of payment to suit their needs.

Many older properties—particularly in the private sector—are still badly insulated. They may have inefficient heating systems. Investment to improve insulation and heating standards will help to alleviate fuel poverty by reducing running costs for householders.

Help is available to do that, but many of the most vulnerable older people are unaware of the help that they can get. I have been extremely interested by schemes such as the "Are You Cold?" helpline, which I have read about. That scheme was set up by the west of Scotland seniors forum to inform people about free central heating, insulation and heating allowances and the advisory services that are available. I agree that there would be great merit in extending such a service throughout Scotland.

I also agree with Energy Action Scotland that better co-ordination of social, housing and health policies is needed. I hope that that will begin to happen under the new national health service system when its community health partnerships are properly functional. I would like health and social work to come together with a single budget, because I am convinced that that would significantly help in achieving appropriate services for vulnerable elderly people, particularly in finding suitable accommodation for those who can no longer look after themselves properly at home. Of course, that particularly applies in winter. That, together with a high uptake of flu vaccinations, dietary advice and the provision of regular hot meals for those who cannot cook for themselves will help to keep the elderly out of hospital during the winter. In turn, that will relieve the pressure on beds that is currently bedevilling the health service.

Older people often have difficulty adapting to change and, having lived in a cold house all their lives, do not really know how to use central heating when they get it. I visited a modern sheltered flat where the heating was shut off in the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom and the doors were all kept closed to keep up the heat in the sitting room. The occupants were quite unaware that they could have warmth throughout the flat at no extra cost if they allowed the thermostats to do their job.

Although significant progress is being made in the battle against fuel poverty, much needs to be done to improve our older housing stock, particularly in the private sector, and education and advice are needed if the most vulnerable people are to achieve maximum benefit from the help that is available to them. I agree with Margaret Ewing that the Scottish Executive should review the effectiveness of existing schemes and look to implement other initiatives to improve energy efficiency in domestic properties to ensure that access to help is easily achieved. We hope that that will help more people to live healthily during the winter months and, in turn, reduce the on-going rise in excess winter deaths about which we are all very concerned.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 5:31 pm, 9th December 2004

Sometimes there is a whiff of crawling on to bandwagons about members' business debates, but that is clearly not the case this evening. Margaret Ewing is held in high regard by the people who are professionally involved in this subject, as I know from attending conferences with her. She is quite right to secure this members' debate.

There are various aspects to the problem. There is, for example, the issue of income, which is mainly a Westminster issue in that it relates to pensions and benefits. However, I will just put in a commercial for the Liberal Democrat proposals for a citizens pension, which would kick in at the age of 75. The pension would be £105 for single people, £160 for a couple and would be related to residence and not to contributions. That would especially help women, many of whom have not historically made as many contributions because they were not in paid work. It is up to all the different parties to push really hard for adequate pensions.

We also have to push for simplification of the benefits system. I am reliably informed that 23 different benefits impinge on the area that we are debating this evening. Most people do not understand them and many do not apply for them. Many people, even those of us who are reasonably well-educated, are not good at filling in forms. The whole thing must be made much simpler so that the money and benefits get to the people who really need them.

We should support the Executive's efforts to persuade power companies to impose social tariffs—that is an excellent idea. We do not have the power to impose that, but we do have the power of persuasion, which we should make best use of. We should also improve the advice that is given to people on best use of whatever heating they have, and on keeping their houses as warm as possible. Advice and help with often simple electronic equipment is useful and important.

The Executive deserves credit for its warm deal programme and the central heating programme, which have done a lot of good. They are not a complete solution to the problem, but are examples of something being done that benefits people. I agree with Christine Grahame that the programmes should be extended to partial heating systems, to disabled people and so on. The system is good; we just have to push it as far as we can and get it to as many people as possible.

As others have said, we have to consider the quality of our housing. The quality of housing in Scandinavia, especially in relation to energy conservation, is infinitely better than much of our housing. We must improve existing houses and ensure that new houses are built to a better standard so that we do not waste lots of heat up the chimney or out of the single-glazed window. We can do much to put pressure on various bodies to deliver better heating to people and to give more money to people so that they can live their lives better.

Above all, and as we were saying in last night's members' business debate, we should encourage older people to be as active as possible, whether as volunteers or in other ways. The more active they are physically and mentally, the more likely they are to get through the winter, instead of sitting around shivering. Activity must be one of the main issues on which we focus.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 5:35 pm, 9th December 2004

Like other members, I begin by paying tribute to Margaret Ewing not just for securing this debate but for her 20-year campaign on the subject. I also pay tribute to Ann Loughrey, who has made Energy Action Scotland one of the most efficient non-governmental organisations in Scotland, if not in the United Kingdom.

Margaret Ewing was right to say that there is a direct link between poverty in general and fuel poverty. I have been examining the statistics on the incidence of winter deaths over the past five years by constituency. The latest statistics—those for 2003-04—show that there were no excess winter deaths in only two parliamentary constituencies, Dumfries and Glasgow Kelvin, both of which are relatively prosperous parts of the country. At the other end of spectrum, some of the figures are very worrying, especially in Glasgow and Lanarkshire. The Hamilton North and Bellshill area accounted for one quarter of all excess winter deaths in North Lanarkshire, which has five parliamentary constituencies. There were 130 such deaths in Hamilton North and Bellshill and Hamilton South. There is nothing to suggest that excess deaths occur in that area but not in Glasgow Kelvin because the weather is worse in Lanarkshire.

Apart from the weather, there are three fundamental contributors to fuel poverty and excess winter deaths. The first, which many speakers have mentioned, is the relatively low income level of many households, especially pensioner households. One problem relates to pension credit. Only about two thirds of the people who are entitled to pension credit claim it. That is bad enough, but pension credit is also a trigger for assistance with gas bills, for example. Because a third of our pensioners are failing to take up pension credit, about 212,000 pensioners in Scotland do not receive the benefit of the Scottish Gas price cap to which they would be entitled if they claimed the pension credit. I hope that as well as considering specific Scottish Executive policies, such as the central heating programme, the minister will take up with his Westminster colleagues how we can increase uptake of pension credit, pending—I hope—introduction of a citizens pension, which is not only Liberal Democrat policy, but SNP policy.

The other two contributors are housing conditions and energy prices. As was mentioned, gas prices are increasing by 12.4 per cent and electricity prices are increasing by 9.4 per cent. However, there will be nothing like 12 or 9 per cent increases in the basic pension, pension credit or any other benefits. It is clear that we can look forward to fuel poverty getting worse, not better, because the increase in energy prices is four times the increase in income for our poorer households. Again, I ask the minister to take up that matter with his Westminster colleagues. Until we increase income levels, we will not reduce fuel poverty. Unfortunately, that is all that I can say in four minutes.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green 5:39 pm, 9th December 2004

I add my congratulations to those that have been offered to Margaret Ewing on securing the debate and on her long and committed work. I apologise to her and to Parliament that I will be unable to stay for the rest of the debate.

Fuel poverty and the excess winter deaths that it causes are among the issues that have benefited from the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. The issue has moved higher up the political agenda, and rightly so.

Members have mentioned the three factors that contribute to fuel poverty: fuel price, energy efficiency and income. I will say something about each. Fuel price, as a component of the reduction that has been achieved in fuel poverty, has been acknowledged. In the long term, the situation will get worse and our society has to stop thinking of energy as a cheap resource. Environmental constraints will necessitate that.

The short-term price increases to which Alex Neil referred are expected, but the long-term increases will be even worse. The message is clear: even if Parliament had the power to intervene to affect price, it would not offer a long-term solution to the problem of fuel poverty.

Energy efficiency is an area in which the Scottish Executive can do rather more. Much has been done and none of us would argue with the aspiration to provide central heating to those who need it. Tens of thousands of people in Scotland have indeed benefited from that installation. On its own, however, the Executive will not solve the problem. It contributed only 15 per cent of the reduction in price that has been achieved so far. Although that is not a figure to ignore, neither is it an overwhelming one.

I endorse the call from Friends of the Earth—a member organisation of the fuel poverty forum—for a greater push on the development of small-scale domestic renewable schemes that not only generate energy where it is needed for the people who need it, but which return the excess to the national grid, which can reduce people's fuel bills and even bring a repayment from time to time.

However, because of the longer-term picture and the ecological constraints that will force us to consume far less energy as a society, we have to think not only about domestic energy efficiency, but about our societal approach to how we produce, consume and charge for energy. Taxes on consumption of fuel and other resources—or eco-taxes—have a role to play because they can be levied in a socially just manner, with those who consume more than their share of resources paying disproportionately so that basic needs such as home heating remain affordable for all. That would also enable Government to make generous additional provision, such as for additional winter heating costs.

Shifting the burden of taxation from income alone to resources could help and would also have a knock-on effect on income. Income is less easily influenced by the Scottish Executive, but we should not ignore the possible exception of the council tax. Fairer local government finance is important and I am glad that a land-value tax will be one of the considerations of the current review.

Another Green proposal relates to Donald Gorrie's and Alex Neil's words about the citizens pension. I urge them both to look harder at our proposals for a citizens income for all. We all receive income from the state, whether through tax thresholds, tax credits or benefit payments. The simplest way to ensure a basic quality of life for all people would be to give a basic income to all as a right of citizenship and to tax all other income progressively.

Fuel poverty and winter deaths are taken seriously by all members. Once again, I offer my thanks for the opportunity to discuss them.

Photo of John Swinburne John Swinburne SSCUP 5:43 pm, 9th December 2004

I thank Margaret Ewing for securing the debate. I lodged a motion on the subject, which was debated earlier this year. It is a sad reflection on the lack of consideration and care that is given to elderly people in this country that we are again debating the matter.

Perhaps more significant is the increase in excess winter-related deaths since last winter. The figures have increased from just over 2,500 deaths to 2,900 deaths in the same period in 2003. From 1997 to 2002, Scotland registered 16,600 more deaths among people over 65 in the winter months of December to March than in the rest of the year. Those numbers are on a parallel with deaths from 10 major air disasters, yet there is no comparable response from the Government.

A closer look at the Scottish Executive's praiseworthy free central heating scheme highlights a number of reasons why the implementation of the policy falls short of all our expectations. For example, the strict eligibility criteria mean that senior citizens who have some form of heating, however old or inefficient it is, do not qualify. There are unacceptable waiting times of up to seven months for installation and older houses can have electrical systems that are incompatible with the new heating systems.

I have spoken to many senior citizens who face fuel poverty, so I can say categorically that the current scheme is not working for them. A constituent got in touch with my office about her 73-year-old mother, who has a fairly complex medical history and has had a heart attack and breast cancer. The daughter said, "Please help. My mother is freezing to death in her own home." My immediate thought was that the lady must live somewhere in the Grampian highlands, but I was astonished to find out that she is a resident of East Kilbride.

The lady has had no heating since July. Although her application for central heating was duly processed and granted, the installers discovered that her home was not suitable for installation because the electrical wiring was in a poor state. The lady applied to South Lanarkshire Council for a means-tested grant for rewiring and was eventually promised 81 per cent of the cost of the work. That left a shortfall of £500, which was a daunting prospect for a widow who lost her husband nine years ago. To be fair, the council pulled out all the stops to overcome the financial problem and managed to increase its offer to 89 per cent of the total cost, which means that the lady must find £300. I hope that a source for the shortfall will be found and that work will begin soon to ensure that that senior citizen does not become yet another Government statistic in the figures on excess winter deaths as a result of the cold. However, I am afraid that even after the completion of the rewiring the lady will have to wait months for the installation of her free central heating system. Sadly, although I have highlighted her case, we might be well into the second quarter of next year before the installation takes place. To be fair, South Lanarkshire Council officials have been co-operative throughout, yet such situations seem to be commonplace, as the statistics bear out.

There is also the problem of whether pensioners can pay for the central heating that has been installed. If they cannot afford to switch it on, they cannot keep their houses warm. Research shows that winter-related deaths are connected to multiple deprivation. Household income is a factor and the pensions system urgently requires a complete overhaul, which should include the withdrawal of means testing and the restoration of the link with earnings. Until that happens, senior citizens who live in fuel poverty will continue to live in one heated room in their houses. If they open the door and leave the room, the heat flows into colder rooms and causes condensation, which makes winter-related deaths as a result of respiratory problems more likely.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

You must close there. I call Mr Ewing, who may have a couple of minutes.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 5:48 pm, 9th December 2004

It would be ungallant of me not to congratulate my wife Margaret on securing the debate—it would also be rather risky. It is a rare experience for me to have the last word and I begin by congratulating the efforts of the Highland senior citizens network, which recently carried out a survey of the views of 2,000 senior citizens. It is interesting and gratifying that relatively few respondents considered that their heating was "poor", although given that only 50 per cent of the sample replied, perhaps the people with the most serious problems did not participate in the survey.

However, the survey highlighted the incidence of fuel poverty in the Highlands and other areas that have a large rural hinterland. A recent answer to Christine Grahame's parliamentary question, S2W-11715 included a table that demonstrates that the incidence of fuel poverty is far higher in island communities than it is in urban areas: there are 18,000 fuel-poor households in the Highland area and 4,000 fuel-poor households in the Western Isles. That is a worrying trend, which I hope will be addressed. Government money should be spent sparingly and sensibly; I wish that instead of frittering money away on matters such as transferring jobs in Scottish Natural Heritage to Inverness the money could be spent on pensioners. I hope that John Swinburne agrees with me.

We should bear in mind other factors. Through a trust fund, Scottish Gas provides the useful here to help scheme, whereby people who need help can receive £350. One such person might be the gentleman who replied to the survey that I mentioned saying that he had had to curb his heating bill because he had had to spend £700 on a new door. He should contact Scottish Gas on 0845 600 0294.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

That is a serious suggestion, and if I can do anything about it I will make sure that Scottish Gas receives that application.

We also need to invest in infrastructure, as has been pointed out. In conclusion, for even longer than Margaret has campaigned, the SNP has campaigned, with Duncan McKellar, who was the first SNP councillor—

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Okay, Mr Ewing. That is fine. I gave you two minutes. I call Malcolm Chisholm to wind up the debate.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour 5:50 pm, 9th December 2004

I, too, congratulate Margaret Ewing on securing this important debate and on all the work that she has done in the area over the years, both here and at Westminster. I join her in paying tribute to Ann Loughrey of Energy Action Scotland for all the work that she has done during the past 12 years. I benefited from meeting her on many occasions in relation to both my housing and health responsibilities.

Excess winter deaths is a serious but complex issue. It is not simply about living in a cold climate or poor housing. Recent research, which I studied for some time today, shows a variety of causes, including pre-existing respiratory disease. Other research shows that rates of excess winter deaths in countries such as Spain, Portugal and Italy are similar to those in Scotland, if not higher.

Taking account of that complexity, we are doing our utmost to tackle the causes of excess winter deaths, from increasing pensioners' incomes to improving people's homes and providing free flu jabs. We are having some success and the figures for people who live in fuel poverty are plummeting. Between 1996 and 2002, which is the latest period for which we have figures, the number fell from 738,000 to 286,000. As Margaret Ewing reminded us, much of that is to do with changes in income. That there was a high number of pensioners who lived in fuel poverty in 1996 must say something for the pension changes that have been made since 1997. I do not intend to go far into those controversies, but we should acknowledge that across the United Kingdom the Government is spending £10 billion more on pensioners than in 1997, and that is significantly more than an earnings link would have cost. Almost half of the spending is targeted on the poorest third of pensioners.

We are meeting all our targets for the warm deal insulation programme and the central heating programme, which provides central heating to pensioners and tenants in the social rented sector who have none. Also, as Mary Mulligan reminded us, we offer a benefits entitlement check. However, that does not mean that we are in any way complacent. We know that some of the easy-to-treat homes have been dealt with and that we will be challenged in the future by homes that are more expensive to treat. We also know that some people need a higher income or cheaper fuel and that is why we encourage people to find out whether they are getting all the benefits and tax credits to which they are entitled and to switch fuels or suppliers if they can get a cheaper deal.

The central heating and warm deal programmes are making significant inroads in the eradication of fuel poverty and the improvement of health—cold, damp housing can have serious health implications. Since the central heating programme started in 2001 we have installed more than 43,000 central heating systems. Those homes now benefit from central heating where none existed before.

Our warm deal programme provides the most vulnerable people with a package of measures to help them to insulate their homes. So far, we have insulated more than 200,000 homes, which is nearly one tenth of Scotland's housing stock.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Will the minister speak to the Eaga Partnership about an issue that I raised, and to which John Swinburne alluded? Some pensioners have systems that are not just faulty but dangerous, but they are prohibited from accessing the scheme. Will the minister consider investigating that, as it is obviously of great concern?

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

I will certainly look into that matter, which two members have raised in the debate and which has been raised previously.

Significant sums are available to take forward the central heating and warm deal programmes. So far, we have spent more than £116 million on the central heating programme and £55 million on the warm deal programme.

The motion calls on the Executive to review the effectiveness of our schemes. We have commissioned research to do that for the central heating programme. A report published earlier this year showed that more than 60 per cent of recipients were fuel poor, which is one of the best targeting rates in the UK. Further, of those in fuel poverty who entered the programme, nearly 90 per cent were lifted out of fuel poverty by the programme. We know, therefore, that the central heating programme is a key tool in eradicating fuel poverty. The programme was extended in May 2004 to include applicants who are 80 and over and who have partial or inefficient systems.

Looking ahead, Communities Scotland has produced a detailed fuel poverty report. We are studying the evidence to ascertain where fuel poverty is most prevalent now and what measures will be most effective in eradicating it. We will use that evidence to create a fuel poverty programme to continue our work after our current programmes end in 2006. We will consult on a future programme in the new year and would encourage everyone to participate.

We know that fuel prices are rising and that that is bound to have an effect on the levels of fuel poverty. Last month, I challenged the major fuel supply companies in Scotland to offer a social tariff—that is, a lower tariff—particularly to people on pension credit. Since then, all the companies have requested to meet me to discuss the idea, and I met the first of them earlier today. I was also pleased to see earlier this week that the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets has called on the companies to improve awareness of the help and information that is available to their vulnerable customers. Ofgem also said that, in its opinion, the companies were able to offer social tariffs to their vulnerable customers and that there is nothing in their licenses, in competition law or in other consumer protection law that prevents them from developing such tariffs. More recently, I welcomed the chancellor's pre-budget report that provided extra money for pensioners aged over 70 and 80, respectively, for their winter fuel payment. Mary Mulligan referred to that. I know that that money will help many people with their fuel bills.

Margaret Ewing raised again the question of landlords who would not allow their tenants to have central heating systems. There is only a small number of such cases, but it is still a problem. In the context of the forthcoming housing bill, we have consulted on giving disabled tenants of private landlords the right to make adaptations to their houses to meet any particular needs arising from a disability. In some cases, that could include the installation of central heating. I will consider further whether it would be desirable and appropriate to introduce such a right, through the forthcoming housing bill, for elderly and disabled tenants more generally for the purpose of installing central heating.

On help and advice, I am sure that members will know that there are energy efficiency advice centres throughout Scotland, which have an 0800 number. They serve the purpose of the helpline to which Margaret Ewing referred. I will, of course, take up Mary Mulligan's invitation to visit the project in West Lothian to which she referred. In reply to another of Margaret Ewing's points, I inform her that the eradication of fuel poverty by 2016 was, in fact, enshrined in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001.

The cumulative effect of the various measures and actions that I have described is that a substantial number of people now benefit from warm and comfortable homes from which they did not benefit at the start of the central heating and warm deal programmes. It is, of course, a sign of a civilised society that it looks after its elderly citizens, and that has certainly been the focus of our efforts in relation to fuel poverty in particular. Those achievements illustrate our commitment and the importance that we place on the health and welfare of our senior citizens. There is much more to do. In saying that, we should acknowledge the progress that has been made.

Meeting closed at 17:59.