asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will estimate how much has been spent up to the latest available date in the current financial year on exceptionally severe weather payments.
The information requested is not available centrally, and could be obtained only at disproportionate cost. When the period during which payments can be made is over, local offices will be asked to make a return so that the total number of payments made this winter and the cost can be worked out.
Now that the cold weather is, we hope, behind us again, does the Minister admit that the criteria for triggering the payments have been utterly discredited? Does he agree that, in future, any such payments should be based on temperature conditions that are the same throughout the country? Is not the idea that the Scots and others should be denied help with their heating bills because they are either hardier or thriftier nonsense?
I do not agree that the system has been discredited. Certainly, the operation of the system, which is undoubtedly complex, is being examined. The hon. Gentleman, like a number of his hon. Friends, continues to confuse the operation of this system — which is designed to give budget help in exceptional circumstances —with the quite different question of a cold climate allowance. As Governments of both complexions have understood it, it is generally considered that the arguments in favour of one national benefit scale are stronger.
Is the Minister aware that although the payments recently made south of the border were entirely commendable, great offence was felt in Scotland at missing out, because the temperatures there are usually lower? Will he ensure that, in future, payment of cold climate allowance—such as that contained in a Bill to be proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson), and the principle of which has been contained in other Bills proposed by other hon. Members —is considered by the Department?
Again, the right hon. Gentleman is confusing two separate issues. The criteria for exceptionally severe weather payments are very clear, objective, laid down and are available to the right hon. Gentleman if he consults the Library. The argument for a cold climate allowance has been very carefully considered during our social security reviews and has consistently been rejected by Governments of all complexions.
Is my hon. Friend aware that many poor pensioners prefer to remain cold rather than get into debt? Will he ensure that before next winter there is in operation a fair and sensible scheme that will ensure that every pensioner is at least able to keep one room at a temperature of not less than 70 deg F?
I repeat that the operation of the system for exceptionally severe weather conditions is under careful examination. I remind my hon. Friend that the major support for heating comes from our supplementary benefit rates, which we have maintained at levels above the rise in the cost of living. I also remind my hon. Friend that the Government are now spending £400 million a year on basic heating additions. This figure is £140 million higher than the amount spent by the Labour Government. I would also point out to him that the level of heating payments is kept significantly ahead of the rise in the cost of energy prices.
Twice in my hearing the Minister has said that the severe weather payments system is under review. Will he give the House a guarantee that the review will be completed and a decision taken so that the same nonsense does not occur next winter?
I can certainly give that guarantee to the House.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that our weather has an extraordinary propensity to change from day to day? This system must be extraordinarily expensive to administer. It is about time we called it a day. It is plain daft.
I can only assure the House that the system is under review. It has operated for only two years. Every system that has sought to deal with the matter has run into similar problems. I also remind my hon. Friend that the major help for heating, as with other household additions, comes from our supplementary benefit and other social security programmes. It is important not to get this small addition out of perspective.
Is not this bureaucratic obstacle course of a benefit a monumental farce when pensioners often have to wait weeks or months for the payment, and even then sometimes receive only a footling 50p? When will the Government take some real action, such as restoring the £1 cut in heating allowances which they stole from pensioners last November, building up the home insulation programme which they are now running down and scrapping these absurd severe weather payments in favour of a special fuel payment of £5 a week throughout the period from October to March?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the action taken by the Government lies in the fact that, for example, our heating additions payments of £400 million a year are £140 million a year more than they were when the hon. Gentleman graced the Government Benches. I also remind him that this Government have kept all the supplementary benefit rates higher than the cost of living.