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Exceptionally Severe Weather Payments

Volume 77: debated on Thursday 18 April 1985

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  • (1) The Supplementary Benefit Commission, in exercise of their power under section 3(1) of the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976, shall pay single payments to meet the fuel costs of any assessment unit where they are greater than the amount which has been put aside to pay for them because a period of exceptionally severe weather has resulted in consumption greater than normal; having regard to any available information in previous levels of consumption.
  • (2) The amount payable under subsection (1) above shall be the cost of the amount of excess over normal consumption.
  • (3) Single payments paid under subsection (1) above shall be calculated for all regions of England, Scotland and Wales on a common trigger-point established with reference to the data compiled by the meteorological office for the weather station at Plymouth.—[Mr.Kirkwood.]
  • Brought up, and read the First time.

    I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

    7.45 pm

    The Minister, having studied the new clause for two or three months, will realise that some of the points of the clause have disappeared since the weather has changed. Indeed, in politics we are often accused of changing our policies with the weather. I understood that the Bill would be reported to the House some weeks ago. Indeed, I expected it to be reported just at the time when there was the stramash about the trigger point being reached in the southern and western parts of the country for exceptionally severe weather payments.

    I tabled the new clause because I wish to draw attention to the absurdity that has caused a tremendous amount of heartache and distress in the northern reaches of the country about the perceived injustice of certain parts of the country being paid different levels of grant and having different trigger points for exceptionally severe weather payments, depending on the ambient temperatures.

    People in the north and in Scotland felt that the fact that they were expected to endure much lower consistent annual ambient temperatures than people in the south was entirely unfair. The Minister knows that that has been referred to frequently in the House in Adjournment debates, questions to the Prime Minister and questions to the Minister who is to reply to this debate. I wish to take this opportunity to reinforce the antipathy that was expressed when the trigger points for exceptionally severe weather payments were reached. I accept that there are deficiencies in the new clause, and I shall be happy to ask leave to withdraw it when I have heard the Minister's reply.

    The position has been compounded by the Prime Minister saying that the Government are spending more than ever on heating additions. Many figures have been bandied about. People in the north and in Scotland are well aware that more money has been spent on heating additions, but the reason for that has been that more people than ever before have qualified for them. That has put salt in the wound.

    In addition, some weeks ago it became clear that the electricity and gas industries, because of the external financing limit policy being imposed by the Government, were paying more than necessary for the energy required to heat homes. That produced a great deal of bad feeling in the north and in Scotland. I hope that the Government recognise that and will take the opportunity this evening to say so.>I recognise that there are many difficulties in trying to achieve a sensible and equitable exceptionally severe weather payment scheme —such as humidities, wind forces and seaboard as opposed to inland locations. I am certain that that is fiendishly difficult. However, I hope that the Minister will accept the principle that low temperatures are low temperatures wherever they are. If the scheme is to continue, it must recognise that.

    I hope that the Minister will say a few words about the position when such schemes as this are buried not only in the detail of secondary legislation but in the S manual procedures. When I began to study what was happening with these payments, I found myself among the pages of the S manual. It is difficult when primary legislation produces secondary legislation which spawns regulations buried in the S manual. I hope that there will be no need in future schemes for anything of that sort.

    Will the Minister say, albeit retrospectively, how the exceptionally severe weather payments scheme has worked in practice? He may not be able to say how much was given in, say, the west country and the home counties and how many applicants overall received payments, but it would be helpful to have information of that type so as to know whether the scheme could be salvaged.

    I am sure that the Minister will have studied the terms of the Social Security (Cold Climate Allowance) Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson). I was happy to be a sponsor of that measure, which was designed to deal with the cold climate situation in the north and in Scotland.

    The new clause was designed to highlight a discrepancy that existed at the time when I thought Report and Third Reading would take place, before the Chancellor of the Exchequer put the Bill in cold storage, so to speak, until he could include the national insurance contributions aspect. Nevertheless, it has been useful to rehearse some of the arguments on the subject. I hope that the Minister will comment on any proposals he may have to change the arrangements for the exceptionally severe weather payments scheme.

    Given the geographical location of my constituency, I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without speaking in full support of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood).

    I agree with my hon. Friend that if the Government were not aware of the fact when they embarked on the scheme of trigger payments, it must have come home to them by now that few issues could have caused such massive nationalistic—I use the word in its best sense rather than in any political way—sentiment across the political spectrum in Scotland. The odd exception may have been the moving of football matches at short notice, but that is not this Minister's problem.

    It has been nothing short of scandalous the way in which severe weather payments have been made available in some parts of the country and not in others. A Conservative Member, who had better remain nameless, told me of a classic case that occurred in his constituency, which is also towards the north of Scotland. An elderly lady went to the south of England to spend a few weeks with her married daughter. Her pension was transferred so that she could collect it during the weeks of her holidays on the south-east coast of England.

    When the weather turned severe, she arrived at the post office to collect her pension, and was also given a severe weather allowance. She was given that allowance in the south of England, where it was about 10 degrees warmer than in her home town, where—had she been there—she would not have received a penny. That was crazy. The Government have accepted that it was a bizarre situation and needs review.

    I endorse what my hon. Friend said about the scheme's review. We hope that in trying to improve it, the rumours that have been circulating—one suspects at the behest of the Treasury—to the effect that a change will merely mean the scheme being scrapped or suffering a considerable clawback will prove to be unfounded. I hope that our fears about that can be allayed.

    The Minister has said on several occasions that there is a difference between an exceptionally severe weather payment and a cold climate allowance. As my hon. Friend and I have been sponsors of the Social Security (Cold Climate Allowance) Bill on the two occasions when it has been introduced—I was also a member of the delegation which saw the Minister on the subject—I hope that, while I appreciate that a distinction exists, the Minister will have some encouraging words to say tonight.

    The fact that the meteorological office for the weather station at Plymouth has been chosen for this proposal is, I am sure, pure coincidence and is not an example of organised politics at work.

    We, too, are concerned about the many problems that exist for people who need recompense for their heating bills.The operation of the exceptionally severe weather payments scheme has been the most recent, most inexplicable and perhaps most scandalous example of such problems.

    It is clear that more and more people are having difficulty meeting their fuel bills. As the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) pointed out, the problem has been exacerbated by the deliberate policy, both before and since the last election, of forcing up gas and electricity charges, despite Conservative assurances that that would not happen.

    Reference has been made to the anger that has been caused, particularly in areas such as Scotland, by the operation of the severe weather allowance. The hon. Members for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) will agree that just as much anger has been felt by pensioners over the operation of the available scale margin deduction, under which many pensioners became entitled to heating allowance, only to discover that, having managed to satisfy the conditions to receive allowance, some of it was removed from them.

    In recent weeks there has been a reduction in the standing charge concession which had been given to pensioners and small users of gas and electricity. Wherever we look we seem to see a retrenchment, rather than an expansion, in the help that people are given to meet their heating costs at times when their needs increase.

    I echo the hope of the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye that rumours that the social security review will simplify the procedure essentially by abolishing most of the help that has been available will prove to be unfounded and that, when the review is published, we shall be able to welcome the action that the Government are taking.

    I note with interest that this is one occasion when hon. Members speaking on behalf of the Liberal party and the SDP are in agreement, and on this issue they are in agreement with the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), speaking for the Labour party.

    I agree with the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) that this has been a matter of great concern in Scotland. It would be an insensitive Sassenach —certainly an insensitive Minister in my Department—who was not aware of that. I am glad, therefore, to put yet again the facts of the case, and I hope that they will be noted, especially by the people of Scotland.

    The first point to get into perspective is that the major help for those on low incomes to cover their day-to-day expenses, including fuel expenses, is given through the supplementary benefits system. I remind the House that the scale rates for that benefit increased in real terms by about 6 per cent. between November 1978 and November 1984. In other words, for pensioners and others on supplementary benefit, there has been that increase, of which the Government are justifiably proud.

    The hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) spoke of the heating addition. We take pride in the fact that there have been increases in the heating addition payments. Those payments have reached £400 million a year, representing an increase in real terms of £140 million above that spent in the last year of the Labour Administration, of which the hon. Member for Derby, South was a member.

    Reference has been made to fuel charges. I agree that they have increased, but those increases pale into insignificance compared with the increases in fuel charges that we suffered under the last Labour Government. Against the increases in fuel prices that have taken place during the period of this Government, increases in heating additions in real terms have amounted to 20 per cent. It is important to set the exceptionally severe weather payment system against the background of the important and real increases in support to low-income families that the Government have provided.

    8 pm

    The exceptionally severe weather payment system was an attempt to even out the exceptional budget problems of those on low incomes and tight budgets and was not related directly to actual temperatures. That was the objective system that we sought to establish. Earlier systems had been subjective and complicated and it was thought that something that established objective criteria would be more easily understood and more easily accepted. Of course there are differences in average ambient outside temperatures throughout the country. I believe that I am right in saying that for the purposes of the exceptionally severe weather payment system Birmingham or Suffolk has to be colder than Glasgow. There is no victimisation against Scotland. We have attempted to use objectively the scientific data available.

    The Government have accepted that the system has not been understood and we accept that it is not satisfactory. As I said to the House on 12 March, we have decided that changes should be made before next winter. It is too early for me to say what those changes will be, but I repeat that assurance to the House.

    Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.