asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will give priority to introducing a special scheme for the elderly and disabled under the term of the Homes Insulation Act 1978.
On 1 November last, we introduced changes to the homes insulation scheme and to its administration to help pensioners and others with low incomes. We shall be watching progress.
Does the Minister accept that the need to watch progress has become somewhat more acute as a consequence of the Government's failure to arrest the rising price of domestic fuels? Is not the need for such a scheme an absolute necessity?
I should point out that the increases will not affect bills for this winter.
Will my hon. Friend be involved in consultations with his colleagues in preparing the new scheme to help the elderly with their heating bills? In that context, is it not absolutely essential, in terms of economics and savings, to have a major scheme to help the elderly insulate their homes?
As my hon. Friend will know, we have made quite a few changes in the scheme which ought to help the elderly. In particular, we have given freedom to local authorities to decide their own priorities. We have asked them to pay particular attention to pensioner applicants, and we have also said that they need not require the applicant to produce receipted accounts. That ought to help pensioners and others on low incomes.
:Does the Minister accept that under the existing scheme these people must still find about 50 per cent. of the cost? Will he persuade his colleagues in the DHSS to instruct supplementary benefit offices to be prepared, in exceptional cases, to meet the householders' proportion of the cost, or at least to increase the fuel allowances, so that there is no cost to them?
I am sure that my colleagues at the DHSS are well aware of the hon. Gentleman's point. I ought, perhaps, to make it clear that the average grant paid between September 1978 and June 1979 was £38 and that the Contractor's cost of insulating the loft of an average three-bed roomed house is about £70. Up to now, it has not proved necessary to raise the maximum grant of £50.
Is there not a strong case for making the scheme more flexible—along the lines of the argument that we put forward at the time that we opposed the proposals outlined and enforced by the previous Government—so that those who have spent their own money on some form of insulation are not penalised?
There are two points that I would make to my hon. Friend. First, we are trying to be as flexible as we can, but we cannot pay grant once work has commenced. Secondly, it is not possible to follow the line that he is suggesting because the major priority must be to ensure that uninsulated homes are insulated before we consider increasing the amount of insulation that is already installed.