I speak regularly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I am pleased to report that more than 1 million winter fuel payments are made in Scotland, and that the payments represent about 34 per cent. of a pensioner’s average annual fuel bill.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that some pensioners in my constituency will not be able to spend that money? They are like the more than 10,000 pensioners in Scotland whose heating systems have been condemned and will not be sorted until next April at the earliest. Although it is easy to condemn the Scottish National party’s Government for complacency, we should not play politics with pensioners’ lives. Will he convene a meeting to ensure that we get the problem sorted so that our pensioners can have a warm Christmas?
The central heating programme has made a very significant contribution to combating fuel poverty in Scotland. Since it started in 2001, more than 89,000 installations have been done. It is singularly inappropriate that people who qualify for inclusion in the programme, pensioners in particular, should be left waiting over the winter for the installation of a new heating system. There has recently been an increase in the number of people coming to my constituency surgeries complaining about this matter, and I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss it—but as he points out, this is a devolved responsibility.
The Secretary of State is right to point out the significant achievements of the central heating scheme promoted by the previous Scottish Executive. Is it not ironic that many Scottish pensioners will not be able to use the central heating systems that were installed because of exceptionally high fuel prices this winter, particularly oil prices? Does he not accept that historically high oil prices present a particular threat to Scottish pensioners, and that his Treasury colleagues should try to find a solution this year?
I think that we all agree that when fuel prices go up, the least well-off are the most challenged by them. We have an agreed definition of what constitutes fuel poverty. The hon. Gentleman cannot suggest with a straight face that this Government have not been alive to that issue across the United Kingdom. He will recall that winter fuel payments were £20 when they were introduced in 1997 for the first time, but they have now risen to £200, and to £300 for households containing someone who is more than 80 years old. They represent more than a third of an average pensioner household’s winter fuel bill. He should congratulate the Government on what they have achieved.