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Electricity Discount Scheme

Volume 932: debated on Monday 16 May 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he is satisfied with the working of the electricity discount scheme.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy how many claims had been received under the electricity discount scheme at the most recent available date; what was the total value of the discounts provided; and how the take-up compares with original estimates.

In the period to 13th May, claims from about 1·2 million households to a total value of just over £8 million had been reported to Departments. These represent about 44 per cent. of the estimated eligible population of 2¾ million householders on supplementary benefit or family income supplement. But claims are still being received in considerable numbers and although nearly all relevant accounts have now been sent out eligible consumers have until the end of June to claim their discount. While I am glad that so many have already claimed this help with their electricity bills, I hope that many more of those receiving supplementary benefit or family income supplement will do so before the scheme finally ends.

I am grateful for that answer. Will the Minister consider for the future some constructive preparation for developing a really secure token system—a self-cancelling meter system for the coming winter, when we can anticipate many more families than those covered by the existing scheme being affected by the increasingly high price of fuel?

I can assure the hon. Lady that, together with the industries, we are looking very carefully at the proposition that she has made about developing a token meter scheme. It is not as simple as it at first appears. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has taken a very close interest in this matter and we shall report on the progress made as soon as we can.

Does the Minister agree that the people the scheme is most designed to benefit are being deprived because the supplementary benefits offices are recommending that they should claim rent rebates instead of supplementary benefit? Therefore, is it not a fact that these people lose out as a result?

I do not agree with that point. People can choose, and if they feel that it would be better to revert to supplementary benefit they are free to do so. That is a matter upon which they can make a decision.

As for knowing whether they can claim, everyone who was thought to be eligible to participate in the scheme was given a leaflet. The scheme was advertised in offices of the electricity boards and elsewhere, there has been a Press campaign, and I have been on the radio to talk about it. We have done everything we can to ensure that the people who are eligible can get this help.

Is the Minister aware that the calculation whether a person is better off with rate rebates or supplementary benefits is extremely complex? Officials of the DHSS offices themselves admit that they cannot do it, and hon. Members find it difficult. Does not the low take-up of only 44 per cent. indicate that these one-off means-tested benefits are futile, and would it not be better to increase benefits, such as pensions?

I do not accept that helping a considerable number of households with what may be very high electricity bills is a futile exercise. I do agree, however, with what my hon. Friend says about the calculations for benefits in general being complicated. If people experience difficulty in making such calculations they should seek help from the appropriate bodies. I agree that a general increase in benefits and pensions is desirable, but this is a matter for the Department of Health and Social Security.

Since the administrative costs of the scheme are £2·5 million and present claims have reached a total of £8 million, does this not mean that the scheme is one of the most expensive ever launched? Is there not considerable point behind the question raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Bar (Mr. Rooker)?

I do not accept that. The hon. Member is suggesting that the whole of the sum allocated to administering the scheme has been spent. All the evidence to date shows that we have spent less than £1 million on administering the scheme.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will now reconsider his earlier decision not to allow mobile home owners to qualify for assistance within the provisions of the electricity discount scheme.

No. I regret that I am unable to extend the scheme to cover owners of mobile homes who do not pay for their electricity direct to an electricity board. The reasons remain as set out in my right hon. Friend's reply to the hon. Member of 25th March.

Does the Minister agree that this attitude represents discrimination against mobile home owners, particularly as they are so often people who are living on low incomes? Is it not possible to assist them, providing that they themselves are responsible for the paper work and the collection of evidence?

We have looked very carefully at the problem to which the hon. Member has referred because it affects people in other situations as well—those who pay for their electricity to a landlord rather than direct to an electricity board—but for reasons that the Opposition know very well, we had to have a scheme that was easy to administer and avoided abuse. We had to base the scheme on some easily identifiable paper work. That is why it was restricted to those families who received a bill direct from a board. There is a tremendous proliferation of other means by which people pay their bills to landlords, and it would have been impossible to encompass them all in a scheme of this kind. We very much regret it, but that is the fact of the matter.

Is the Minister aware that it is almost entirely the least affluent members of society who are unable to take advantage of this scheme? Does he not think that he could do a little more work with a little real determination to try to find a solution to the problem?

In any event it is clearly too late to do it for the period of this scheme, but we try to help those who are generally recognised as being most in need—those in receipt of supplementary benefit and family income supplement—and because the overwhelming majority of them are eligible they will have the opportunity to benefit.