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Social Security (Cold Climate Allowance)

Volume 75: debated on Tuesday 12 March 1985

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3.33 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for more equitable heating allowances to reflect increased costs of domestic heating in colder climates; and for purposes connected therewith.
Spring may have arrived in these southern latitudes, but elsewhere memories remain of the bitter winter weather that we recently had, and the weather forecast for tomorrow suggests that snow and sleet are likely to return. Such weather as we have experienced has affected the south only occasionally, but further north and in higher altitudes blizzards and sub-zero temperatures are all too common; and, of course, on an annual average basis, temperatures are lower.

I first introduced the Bill in January 1984, but, more recently, the issue has been fired afresh by the iniquitous workings of the single payments system, which is supposed to cover the increased heating costs of supplementary benefit beneficiaries when exceptionally severe weather strikes. The fact that that system discriminates against those parts of the United Kingdom which are generally colder, and that the extra payments are usually made only to those living south of the Wash, has released a tide of anger and indignation in other areas the like of which I have never before experienced as an hon. Member.

I wish to make it clear, however, that this Bill is not an attempt to change that weird and wonderful system— as it has been described by the Minister. The system is already an embarassment to the Government and is under review. I earnestly hope that a new and fairer way of dealing with severe weather in all parts of the United Kingdom will emerge, and I am sure that that sentiment will be echoed by all the sponsors of the Bill.

Under present social security arrangements, the amount of money paid to recipients of supplementary benefit to cover their heating costs is the same regardless of whether the recipient lies in Cornwall or Caithness or in other words, regardless of the severity of the climate. There is, however, indisputable scientific evidence which proves that the further north and east one lives in the United Kingdom, the colder is the average annual temperature and consequently the higher one's heating bills. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that, taking two identical houses in Aberdeen and Bristol, it takes 30 per cent. more fuel to heat the house in Aberdeen and to maintain it at a given temperature than the Bristol house. Such climatic differences are not taken into account by the present fuel benefits—neither in the notional fuel element contained within supplementary benefit nor in the heating additions available to claimants over and above the normal rate of supplementary benefit, which can be obtained on the grounds of old age, chronic ill health, having children under five years of age or having a home that is hard to heat.

My Bill seeks to make changes affecting the level of payment of both heating additions and the notional fuel element itself. Using data published by the Meteorological Office, I have, on the basis of average annual temperatures, divided the United Kingdom into four zones. For the exact boundaries of the zones it has been convenient to utilise regional or, in the case of England, county boundaries. Roughly speaking, the areas with an annual average temperature of less than 8·5 deg. centigrade comprise zone 1, which is the coldest zone. The warmest zone, zone 4, has an annual average temperature of 10·5 deg. or more.

Zone 1 includes the Scottish islands councils and the Highland, Grampian and Tayside areas. Zone 2 includes the rest of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Durham and north Yorkshire. Zone 3 includes the remainder of northern England, Wales, the Midlands and East Anglia, and zone 4 includes London and the south-east and south-west of England. The zones are described in greater detail in the Bill.

A basic level of payment with regard to both the notional fuel element and the heating additions should be made to claimants living in zone 4. Those living in zone 3 would receive 10 per cent. more than the basic rate; those in zone 2, 20 per cent. more and those in zone 1, 30 per cent. more; Regional variations in the payment of fuel benefits are nothing new. Until November 1970, they were worked out on the price of coal, which varied from place to place. My scheme calls for variations to be made on the basis of a much more constant factor—climate severity.

The Bill has received a tremendous amount of support. In the wake of the previous introduction of the Bill I secured the full backing of 50 regional and district councils in Scotland, the Scottish electricity consultative councils, Age Concern, several social welfare and pensioners' organisations and many people from all parts of the United Kingdom. A recent motion supporting proposals similar to those in the Bill was signed by 65 hon. Members representing all parties and all parts of the country, and there are hon. Members of all parties who are willing to sppnsor this Bill.

It is now widely recognised that there is an urgent need for radical reform of the system of fuel benefits. Only the DHSS attempts to defend the present arrangements. It has argued that family expenditure surveys do not show that more money is spent on fuel in more northerly areas. I and others dispute that, but even if it is true it may show merely that the elderly and poor in those areas simply cannot afford to pay more for the extra heating that they desperately need.

The correspondence that I have received in the past couple of years shows that there are many cases of need. I recently received a letter detailing the case of an old-age pensioner who has suffered two strokes, was forced to stay in the house all day and had just received an electricity bill of £203 for the winter quarter. I have received another letter from a pensioner in the Highlands who had suffered hypothermia previously and was understandably worried about what might happen during the winter. The weather had been so bad that she could not get out of the house and had to spend all of her available money on fuel. Those are just two examples of the terrible way in which many of our old and poor people suffer each winter, especially in areas with the harshest weather.

Statistics on hypothermia have recently been published in parliamentary answers. In Scotland, 174 deaths were ascribed or partly ascribed to hypothermia in 1984. The comparable figure for England and Wales was 568. In other words, 23 per cent. of all registered hypothermia deaths in the United Kingdom last year were in Scotland. I would expect the statistics to show a gradual increase in deaths according to the zones that I have described. However, we all know that the figures represent only the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Albert Long, convener of social services in Strathclyde region, has said that possibly about 3,000 people died from cold-related diseases this winter.

I have tried to keep the criteria in my Bill simple and capable of implementation at little administrative cost. The DHSS might want to adapt my proposals or to make them more sophisticated. As the social security system is under review, my sponsors and I, with, we hope, the support of the House, want to establish the principle that the greatest help should be given to those in greatest need and that, for fuel benefits, one of the main criteria of need must be climatic severity.

As Ministers work on the review, I hope that they will heed the express wish of the House and introduce a system of fuel allowances which fully and fairly reflects climatic differences within the United Kingdom.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gordon Wilson, Mr. David Alton, Mr. Robert C. Brown, Mr. Dennis Canavan, Mr. Tom Clarke, Mr. Charles Kennedy, Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Mr. David Knox, Mr. Albert McQuarrie, Mr. James Molyneaux, Mr. James Tinn and Mr. Dafydd Wigley.

Social Security (Cold Climate Allowance)

Mr. Gordon Wilson accordingly presented a Bill to provide for more equitable heating allowances to reflect increased costs of domestic heating in colder climates; and for purposes connected therewith: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 26 April and to be printed. [Bill 98.]