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Pensioners' Heating And Communications

Volume 80: debated on Wednesday 12 June 1985

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3.32 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to guarantee supplies of gas and electricity to pensioners and to abolish standing charges for pensioners for gas and electricity and to abolish telephone rentals.

Last winter was an especially cold and unpleasant one and many people used extra heating during the winter to maintain some degree of comfort in their homes. I am sure that Members of this place did so, along with many pensioers throughout the country. Those hon. Members who did so will have no problem in paying last winter's gas and electricity bills, but many pensioners have been in some fear ever since the end of the winter, as they do not know how they will be able to pay their bills. The bills will be especially high because the winter was particularly severe.

It is important that we discuss the effects of the high costs of heating and cooking on pensioners and try to do something to alleviate them. Many statistics are available, but one that stands out a mile is that the deaths of the elderly are greater by 22 per cent. during the winter months than they are in the summer months. This is because the elderly cannot cope with the cold. Unfortunately, because of the high costs, many of them do not heat their homes to the level that they should. Many suffer from hypothermia and tragically many die as a result. The House should consider this matter seriously.

The number of pensioners whose gas or electricity supply is cut off as a result of inability to pay the bill is considerable. During December 1983 to December 1984, there were 92,825 electricity cut-offs. The most recent estimate suggests that about 4·5 per cent. of that number were pensioner households, which means that over 4,000 pensioners had their electricity supply cut off during that period.

The electricity and gas boards both claim that the number of cut-offs has reduced since the introduction of direct payment schemes, whereby pensioners and other poor people have their gas and electricity bills paid direct. That may be a satisfactory way for the boards to collect their money and to make the enormous profits that they now enjoy, but it results in a squeeze on the household budgets of pensioners and others who are the poorest in our society. This means that they lose out in other directions. For example, they may not eat properly and they may be unable to go out or do anything else to support their standard of living.

The aim of the Bill is, first, to guarantee supplies of gas and electricity for pensioners so that they cannot be cut off in any circumstances. That aim is based on society recognising that pensioners hold a special place in society and have special needs and that cutting off their gas or electricity is dangerous and could lead to their death.

I also suggest that we go some way towards alleviating pensioners' hardship by abolishing standing charges for them. The system of standing charges has been in operation for some years. It was supported by a report from the Price Commission on gas prices in 1979 and 1980 which claimed:

"The economic rationale for a separate standing charge for domestic credit customers is that it ensures that prices charged are more closely related to costs than would be the case if a single rate per therm were charged at all levels of usage. The supply of gas involves fixed costs per customer unrelated to the volume supplied."
I object to the fact that the report says that the introduction of standing charges would protect the largest consumers of gas and electricity, whereas I believe that we should be protecting the smallest consumers. The standing charge system means that the smallest consumers pay the most for gas and electricity. Because of that, a rebate system was introduced which meant that no consumer would pay more than half the bill in standing charges.

The problem with the rebate system is that it has not necessarily exclusively benefited pensioners. A report from the South of Scotland electricity board, and a number of others, shows that the main beneficiaries of the rebate scheme have not been pensioners but have been the owners of second homes which are the cause of great anxiety in Wales, Scotland and some parts of England.

Although the boards concede that the standing charge falls unfairly on the smallest consumers, they are now trying to withdraw it on the grounds that the only people who have benefited to any great extent are the owners of second homes. The boards are deliberately and callously ignoring the plight of pensioners and other small consumers who have to pay far more because of the standing charge system.

My Bill therefore proposes to end the rebate system and abolish standing charges for pensioners only so that the owners of second homes, who can well afford to heat their first home and probably their second home, do not benefit on the backs of pensioners and the good campaigning that the pensioners' organisations have done over the years.

The cost of standing charges varies, but added to the standing charges for gas and electricity and the telephone rental, they can easily amount to between £20 and £40 per quarter for a pensioner household. That is a scandalous amount and a major attack on living standards.

It is important that if the Bill is passed into law, as I hope it will be, hon. Members realise that I am not proposing to abolish standing charges for pensioners merely to increase the unit costs of gas, electricity and telephones for every other consumer—that would also obviously affect pensioner households — but that the Government should use public funds to ensure that there is no further increase in those prices for anyone because of the abolition of standing charges for pensioners.

Any examination of the financial results of both fuel boards in the past year would show that they could well afford to do that. In the year 1983–84, the Electricity Council returned a profit of £623 million, the British Gas Corporation returned a profit of £668 million and, over the past six months alone, British Telecom returned a profit of £684 million.

According to the Government's figures the cost of abolishing standing charges for gas and electricity would be only £300 million in one year. The British Gas Corporation levy last year was £522 million. The Government could well afford to abolish standing charges, and it would be a major benefit to pensioners.

I do not believe that the Bill would end the horror and poverty that many pensioner households face day in, day out, and the fear that many of them have about heating their homes adequately or even cooking a hot meal on a cold evening because they cannot afford the bill. However, it would go some way towards alleviating that poverty.

It is amazing that, in a few moments, the Secretary of State for Defence will be telling us of the bottomless pit that defence expenditure has become. The cost of just one quarter of the Trident programme will be £2.5 billion. The cost of abolishing standing charges for pensioners could be paid for by not proceeding with the ludicrous proposal to build a major international airport at Port Stanley. There are hundreds of other examples in the defence Estimates that could be used to pay the cost of my Bill.

It is unlikely that any hon. Member will rise and oppose the Bill. In some ways, I should be glad if hon. Members opposed it, because at least we would hear their arguments for charging pensioners and poor people more than wealthy people for gas and electricity.

Many pensioners' groups throughout the country have written to me enclosing copies of letters received from their own Members of Parliament who say how much they support the abolition of standing charges for gas and electricity for pensioners and the abolition of telephone rentals. Some of those letters come from surprising quarters. I shall not detain the House by reading out the names of the hon. Members involved, but when I have completed my researches I shall publish all the names and I think that we shall find that they make up a majority of the House. The nearer we get to the general election, the larger the majority will be.

I am sure that you will be glad, Mr. Speaker, to give me the opportunity to read out those names and to prove that there is a majority — albeit many of the hon. Members in that majority are practicing self-imposed silence — for the abolition of standing charges for gas and electricity for pensioners.

I hope that the House will take the problem seriously and will support the Bill to end the fear that many old people face as they try to meet last winter's bill and their trepidation about their inability to keep themselves warm or adequately fed next winter.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Tony Benn, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Bob Clay, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Dennis Canavan, Miss Joan Maynard, Ms. Clare Short, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mr. Chris Smith, Mr. Robert N. Wareing and Mr. David Winnick.

pensioners' heating and communications

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn accordingly presented a Bill to guarantee supplies of gas and electricity to pensioners and to abolish standing charges for pensioners for gas and electricity and to abolish telephone rentals: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 5 July and to be printed. [Bill 157.]