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Heating Allowance

Volume 453: debated on Monday 27 November 2006

4. If he will make an additional payment to those entitled to heating allowance to reflect the recent increase in energy prices. (102899)

The winter fuel payment rose from £20 in winter 1997-98 to £200 in winter 2000-01, and to £300 for those aged 80 or over in winter 2003-04. There are no plans to make an additional payment to those entitled to winter fuel payments to reflect the recent increase in energy prices.

May I ask my hon. Friend whether she is aware that National Energy Action, which is one of the partners that is being used to deliver the warm homes agenda, has said that the Government’s figures for fuel poverty levels are based on 2004 levels? NEA’s latest estimates, which are based on this year’s figures and incomes rises, show that the figure for those facing fuel poverty is near to 2.8 million. May I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to work with NEA to try to get to the truth of where we are now and report back to the House as soon as possible?

We will obviously consider the views of the energy agency that my hon. Friend has highlighted, but I should also like to ensure that the House is fully aware that between 1997 and 2005 pensioner income increased by 25 per cent. We spent £2 billion on winter fuel payments in winter 2005-06, which is only part of the agenda to tackle fuel poverty. The Warm Front scheme and similar schemes in the devolved Administrations, to which my hon. Friend alluded, are also part of our campaign to ensure that fuel poverty is eradicated in this country.

I know that the Minister cares deeply about the issue, as I do. What discussions has she had with the Minister for Energy about ensuring that any reductions in wholesale gas prices, as we have seen recently, are passed on to the customer, particularly the elderly? We know that hundreds of elderly people froze to death last year as a result of being scared to turn on their gas fires. Could the Minister have a word with the Minister for Energy to ensure that the savings are passed on?

I do not wish to challenge the hon. Gentleman’s memory of the previous winter, but our impression was different. His recollection may reflect the situation prior to 1997, when no winter fuel payment was available, and the only thing to which pensioners could look forward was a £10 Christmas bonus and paying 17.5 per cent. on fuel. At the weekend, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer indicated that energy companies also have responsibilities, and while some companies have good schemes to help low-income users, others do not. I know that the Chancellor’s ambition is to reduce the cost of energy for consumers as quickly as possible to reflect decreasing energy prices on the wholesale market.

As the Minister knows, low-income families with small children also have difficulty paying fuel bills at this time. Will she consider Save the Children’s suggestion of introducing one-off winter grants for those families too?

I am aware of Save the Children’s campaign, and I spoke at our meeting with that organisation only the other evening. I refer my hon. Friend to the strong words of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about the need for companies, too, to take responsibility and ensure that low-income users have a better deal, as I indicated to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard).