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Heating Costs

Volume 977: debated on Tuesday 29 January 1980

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2.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he intends to increase the heating allowance to recipients of supplementary benefit.

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if, in the light of large impending increases in fuel charges and the continuing rise in the rate of inflation, he will bring forward proposals to give extra help to one-parent families.

It has already been announced that the Government are reviewing the whole range of help available to assist needy consumers, including lone parents, with their fuel bills. The supplementary benefit heating additions were increased last November and are due to be increased again in November of this year.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, unless there is a substantial increase in the heating allowance, which takes account of the appalling level of inflation and of the disgraceful gas and electricity price increases recently imposed, there is a danger that an increasing number of old people will die of hypothermia next winter?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises that the supplementary benefit heating additions are uprated on the basis of increases in the fuel component of the retail prices index. They take into account expected future price increases, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that that is a reasonable way of dealing with that element.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the massive tax on gas—decreed by the Government—is equivalent to the medieval salt tax? It will have a brutal effect on the standards of living of the poor. It can be justified only by major compensatory payments throughout the range of the social benefits scheme.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that the Government have given a clear promise to bring forward further proposals—[HON. MEMBERS: "When"]—which will give special help to those on low incomes—including the elderly—to meet their fuel bills.

I welcome the Government's review of the whole range of fuel allowances, but will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will press ahead as fast as possible with that review? There are understandable anxieties among the elderly, disabled and other needy groups, concerning the inevitably escalat- ing fuel costs, for which the Government are not to blame.

I recognise those anxieties. The price increases will begin to take effect in April. However, I think it is right that they will not be reflected in consumers' bills for another three months—and then only for the summer quarter. The main impact of those increases will not be felt until next winter. We intend to announce the results of our review long before then.

Is that good enough? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] Conservative Members seem to think that it is enough. Is it good enough to announce a review that has been announced four or five times when similar questions have been asked? It is well known that something must be done as quickly as possible to establish some type of fuel allowance or rebate scheme. It is possible for the Government to be open. They do not need a private review. They should open up the question and allow hon. Members and others to put proposals to them. The Government should come forward, before this summer at the latest, with a scheme, or alternative schemes, for a fuel allowance similar to that operated for rent allowances.

Order. I must remind the House that at Question Time hon. Members must not argue a case. They must ask questions.

No doubt that question will be raised in debate this afternoon. From the right hon. Gentleman's experience in the Department of the Environment, he will know that any question of a major, new and comprehensive fuel scheme cannot be contemplated now, because of the inevitable administrative constraints, quite apart from the question of cost. We aim to provide meaningful help to those in greatest need who would otherwise be hit hardest by the fuel price increases. I hope that we shall be able to announce the results of the review long before next winter.

Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance on two counts? First, will he assure us that the restricted number of categories that presently applies will be extended under the new scheme? Secondly, will he assure us that the size of the increase will be commensurate with the enormous percentage increase in electricity and gas bills?

The right hon. Gentleman is asking me to anticipate the results of the review. That, of course, I cannot do. It is clear that the scheme which I announced before Christmas gave substantial help to those in greatest need. It covered all fuels, not just electricity and the electricity discount scheme.

If there is not already an index, will my right hon. Friend set up an index that measures the cost of living for one-parent families? Children have only one childhood. If their cost of living appears to be going up at a rate that is faster than normal, will he persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to raise child benefit, and other support for one-parent families, in the Budget?

I know that many hon. Members in all parts of the House are anxious to do the best they can for one-parent families as they face particular difficulties. In our fuel help scheme, which we announced before Christmas, we therefore included provision for those at work who receive family income supplement. We gave the supplementary addition automatically to those with children under 5. The question of a separate index is a different point. If my hon. Friend tables a question, I shall try to answer it.