I beg to move,
That this House is concerned about pressures on pensioner households this winter with high and rising fuel prices; notes that the Winter Fuel Payment will be £50 lower in the winter of 2011-12 than in each of the last three years for a pensioner aged 60 or over and £100 lower for those pensioners aged 80 or over; and calls on the Government to review the impact of its decisions on Winter Fuel Payments and VAT, and to announce in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement urgent steps to ease the burden on pensioner households.
It is a pleasure to move the motion standing in my name and the names of my right hon. and hon. colleagues. This motion is about a life and death issue. Fuel poverty and the effects of cold winter weather on the elderly are a lethal combination. Only today, the Office for National Statistics has published figures for cold-related deaths for England and Wales. That report shows that in 2010-11 there were some 25,700 excess winter deaths among old people in England and Wales, which is roughly the same number as last year. However, last year’s figure represented a big increase on the previous year. More people are dying as a result of living in a cold house in the United Kingdom than are dying in road traffic accidents each year.
The figure for excess winter deaths is defined by the Office for National Statistics as the difference between the number of deaths during the four winter months and the average number of deaths during the preceding autumn and the following summer. In the Conservative party manifesto for the 2010 election, these figures were described as “a national disgrace”, and that is absolutely the correct description. This is nothing short of a national catastrophe that affects every region of the United Kingdom. The motion before the House therefore calls for the Chancellor to take
“urgent steps to ease the burden on pensioner households”
right across the United Kingdom.
I want to refer particularly to the situation in our own area of Northern Ireland as an example of the dire circumstances facing many of our senior citizens living in cold houses.
I shall certainly support the right hon. Gentleman in the Lobby tonight. Surely, however, the problem is poor pensioner households. The difficulty with the winter fuel allowance is that everybody over 60 or 65 gets it, irrespective of their means, and as a result it has become a generalised payment that helps the rich but does not give enough to the poor.
I understand that argument entirely. Indeed, the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change pointed to it in its report back in 2010, and I will come on to deal with the targeting of resources and tackling fuel poverty. As for cold weather payments, there is clear evidence that many pensioners do not claim all the benefits to which they are entitled. The benefit of having a universal system is that it reaches all those who need it. I will deal with the issue that the right hon. Gentleman has highlighted in more detail later.
In some of the trials aimed at trying to reduce fuel poverty in other parts of the United Kingdom, there has been a conscious drive to improve benefit take-up, and that has made a huge difference to people’s income, far more than the winter fuel payment would make.
It is a combination of all these factors. The winter fuel payment does play an important role, as the Government and the Minister have acknowledged. The Government made it very clear in the coalition agreement that they would maintain the payment. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that benefit take-up is extremely important, and we should all be doing more to encourage it. Back in Northern Ireland, the Executive have also taken steps to try to encourage benefit take-up. The winter fuel payment plays an important role in tackling this issue.
Does the right hon. Gentleman support the scheme that was proposed initially by Somerset Community Foundation whereby the winter fuel payment, because it is a universal allowance, could be distributed through community foundations, with the assistance of the Department for Work and Pensions, so that people who are less fortunate and less able to heat their homes could take some or all of the winter fuel payment that is given by those who are a little wealthier ?
There has been a debate on that very issue over the past few days. I commend those who decide that because they do not need the winter fuel payment themselves, they wish to distribute it to those more in need. I welcome the initiative that the hon. Lady mentions.
Let me press ahead and make a little progress, and I will take more interventions in a short while.
I want to refer to the situation in Northern Ireland. Last winter, we had the coldest December in 100 years. In 2009-10, there were almost 1,000 excess winter deaths, 80% of which were of people aged 65 or over. On average, we get 910 such deaths per year, and that figure compares with 590 in 2001-02, so there has been a massive increase over that period. We have to understand that in addition to the stark figures on mortalities, for every death from cold there are eight hospital admissions and more than 100 visits to general practitioners and health centres. This is suffering on a vast scale.
The recent interim report from the Government’s independent review of fuel poverty, conducted by John Hills, states:
“Living in cold homes has a series of effects on illness and mental health.”
I will not go into all the repercussions of cold weather and of living in cold and damp housing on people’s mental and physical health. The interim report outlines those very clearly.
The winter fuel payment was introduced in January 1998 as a tax-free annual payment. Its purpose was and is to alleviate fuel poverty by giving specific help to encourage older people to spend more on heating during the winter. What is happening this year? For the past three years, the winter fuel payment has been £250 for those aged 60 and over, and £400 for those aged 80 and over. Despite spiralling fuel prices—we had a debate only a couple of weeks ago in this House on the crisis in the energy sector—and despite the extremely cold recent winters and the forecasts of a very cold winter to come, in 2011-12 the payment for pensioners aged 60 and over has been reduced by 20% to £200, and the payment for those aged 80 and over has been cut by a quarter to £300. That does not affect just a small group of people; it affects more than 9 million households and about 13 million people throughout the United Kingdom. Some 12.7 million of those people are in Great Britain and some 317,000 are in Northern Ireland.
As a result of the changes, the expenditure on winter fuel payments will fall from approximately £2.75 billion in 2010-11 to some £2.136 billion in 2011-12. That is a substantial monetary saving for the Treasury, but at what cost? That is the question that many people are asking. People in charities or third sector organisations who deal with older people’s issues are making it clear that they fear that this cut, which directly hits the pockets and incomes of pensioner households throughout the United Kingdom, will result in more illness, more disease and more deaths.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very moving case. I am sure that there is not anybody in this Parliament who is not concerned about excess winter deaths and this nation’s terrible legacy of not tackling fuel poverty among the poorest and most vulnerable. In his analysis for this debate, has he looked at the wide range of other measures that the Government have put in place to tackle the issue this winter and to make more lasting, wholesale changes in winters to come?
Interventions have an uncanny knack of happening at the precise moment when one is coming on to deal with the very issue that they raise. I will deal with the issue that the hon. Lady has raised. Of course there are other measures aimed at dealing with fuel poverty and coldness-related illness among elderly people. There are the cold weather payments, to which I referred, which some may argue are more specifically targeted. I will come on to that in a moment.
There is also the warm home discount. Recently, the Northern Ireland Assembly unanimously passed an appeal to the Government to think again on this issue, and when the Minister replied he referred to, among other things, the warm home discount scheme. However, the scheme applies only in Great Britain, because the legislation did not apply to Northern Ireland. Half a million pensioners benefit from that scheme in Great Britain, but pensioners in Northern Ireland do not. I am sure that the Minister will address that point.
There are also other measures. On the practical health side, there is the flu vaccination scheme. Northern Ireland has its own warm homes scheme, which I am glad to say was introduced under devolution by a Democratic Unionist party Minister. It has helped 80,000 households and has received widespread support in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland also has a boiler replacement scheme and the social protection fund, which the Executive have brought forward. I understand that discussions are under way to address the specific issue of fuel poverty and the elderly in Northern Ireland. So yes, there are a range of measures, and we need to keep investing in such things as energy efficiency and home insulation to prevent fuel poverty in the long term.
In a moment.
However, I say to the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and the House that those other measures do not mean that we can cut the winter fuel payment to such a massive extent. It goes directly to our senior citizens and is an important tool. It is not the only tool—it goes only to senior citizens but, as I have said, they are disproportionately affected—but it is an invaluable tool in helping to tackle fuel poverty among the elderly.
Looking at the standard Library note on the issue, I am interested to see that the standard payment for the winter fuel allowance has been £200 and £300 since 2003, supplemented by one-off extra payments in the past three years, so the standard rate has remained the same. The right hon. Gentleman may also have noticed that in 2006-07 and 2007-08, that one-off payment was withdrawn and the amount paid was the standard payment of £200 and £300. Does he have any data about the increase in deaths in that period and whether there was a real effect of that money being withdrawn?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the standard rate, and of course when the Chancellor made his announcement about the winter fuel allowance earlier this year he did not dwell on it in any great detail. In fact, he passed over the issue almost completely, and we found out about it only in the small print. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but it beggars belief that whereas it was thought okay to have the increase in each of the last three years, the Chancellor and the Government have chosen this year to cut the extra payments for our senior citizens, despite the anxiety that was expressed throughout the House just a few weeks ago about extremely high and rising energy prices across the country.
When I raised the matter with the Prime Minister on 2 November, he said:
“we have kept the plans that were set out by the previous Government and I think that is the right thing to do.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2011; Vol. 534, c. 918.]
I have listened to the Prime Minister and Ministers speak many times about their spending plans and what the previous Government did, but I do not think I have often heard them say that. On virtually every occasion they have said that the previous Government’s plans were leading to economic disaster, yet on this issue, and only on this issue, they pray in aid the fact that the previous Government were, they say, going to cut the allowance, and that it is therefore the right thing to do. Frankly, that is not good enough. I leave it to the Opposition to outline what their position was.
The Government have decided to maintain health spending at a certain level, saying that it needs to be ring-fenced. They have said that international aid spending needs to be protected, and that we needed to spend money to intervene in Libya. I have no difficulty with any of those things—I support them—but now the Government say that it is right to cut payments to our senior citizens, at a time when they are suffering from extreme cold and high and rising energy prices, because that was what the previous Government had planned. That is a shabby argument, and not one that bears any kind of scrutiny. The Government should stand on their own two feet, argue their case for themselves and justify it to the House and the country.
I want to pay tribute to groups such as Age NI for their work in Northern Ireland, and to Age Sector Platform, which has been very busy in recent months running a significant campaign called Fight the Winter Fuel Cut. Recently, a group from Northern Ireland led by Margaret Galloway, Michael Monaghan and Nixon Armstrong travelled to Westminster and presented the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), with a petition. Hundreds of people are signing that petition every day.
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the subject of Northern Ireland, will he reflect on the fact that, for the first time, a commissioner for older people—and a very good one in Claire Keatinge, who was formerly the director of the Alzheimer’s Society—has been appointed? Does he see a role for the commissioner on the issue of winter fuel payments? How could she influence the Government to do the right thing? We hear a lot of criticism of human rights in the House, but there is a guarantee that no one in the UK should experience degrading treatment. For older people, the Government’s policy seems like degrading treatment. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?
I certainly do agree with the hon. Lady, who rightly points to the important step taken by the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive of appointing a commissioner for older people, which follows the appointment in Wales of someone who fulfils the same kind of role. I have no doubt that the commissioner, who I agree is an excellent appointment, will be active in putting to Northern Ireland Executive Ministers the case for our older people. As I outlined earlier, a number of things are currently being undertaken by the Executive, and they are considering others, to help our older people. However, what the hon. Lady says on winter fuel payments, which affects the entire country, and which is for decision and debate in this House, should carry some considerable weight.
On whether the allowance is poorly targeted and whether it is the appropriate way in which to deal with fuel poverty—the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) mentioned this—the argument against the universal payment principle overlooks the fact that many of those entitled to, for instance, pension credit, do not receive it, for a variety of reasons. In Northern Ireland, somewhere in the region of £60 million is not claimed by those who are entitled to pension credit. Those people are hit with a double whammy: they do not get pension credit or cold weather payments, because the latter go only to those who claim the former. The only way to ensure that the most vulnerable people get financial help is to keep the universal payment. I believe that there is no dispute between the Government and those who agree with me, because the Conservative party pledged in its manifesto that the allowance would be kept.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a potent argument, but does he share my concern that cold weather payments are triggered by monitoring equipment in only certain parts of the country? My area shares the same climate characteristics as his, and my constituents regularly lose out, which is why the universality of the wider payment is a much better system.
Another point is that, currently, cold weather payments are not taxed—they go directly to the person and the payments cover everyone. If the money is put through in different ways, it could be taxed and off-takes would come into operation. That would affect not just those 13 million people, because the families of many old-age pensioners supplement their parents' incomes to make sure they are okay.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that people are 14 times more likely to spend the winter fuel allowance on fuel than they would be if their incomes were increased in other ways. If an allowance is given specifically to spend on fuel, people are more likely to spend it on fuel; they would be less likely spend an allowance on fuel if it was not designated as a fuel poverty measure. There are strong arguments—for reasons that hon. Members and I have outlined—for retaining the universal payment of a winter fuel payment at current levels, and for indexing payments to the rising cost of energy. Some have argued that at a time of pressing demands on the Treasury and given the state of the economy, that would be a luxury we can ill afford. As I have indicated, money has been found for the priorities that the Government have deemed essential: the protection of international aid budgets, taking a penny off fuel duty, ring-fencing NHS budgets and so on. It is vital, however, that we also prioritise saving the lives of our senior citizens in times of very cold weather.
The chief medical officer has said that the annual cost to the NHS of treating winter-related diseases resulting from cold private housing is estimated at about £860 million, but that does not include additional spending by social services, economic loss through days off sick, and so on, which means that the total cost to the NHS and the country as a whole is unknown. However, we do know that every £1 invested in keeping homes warm saves the NHS 42p in health costs, so again this money would be well spent, and it could save the NHS more money in the long term.
Levels of fuel poverty in this country are staggering: in England, 18% of households are in fuel poverty; in Wales, it is 26%; in Scotland, it is 33%; and in Northern Ireland, it is 44%. It is right across the board. That equates to 302,000 households in Northern Ireland alone, 75,000 of which are in extreme fuel poverty, which means that they spend 20% or more of their income on fuel. Furthermore, almost half of all fuel-poor households in the country are headed by over-65s, so clearly fuel poverty disproportionately affects the elderly to a staggering degree.
Yet the situation will only get worse. I have highlighted the rising cost of fuel. In the past five years to October 2011, the retail price of gas in the UK rose by 52%, and the price of oil rose by 86%. In Northern Ireland, the situation is much worse. The price of home heating oil, which is a product that we depend on, has risen by 63% in the past two years and by 150% since 2003. Almost 70% of homes in Northern Ireland depend on it for their primary source of heating—that figure is 82% in rural areas—yet the price of oil has risen beyond anyone’s imagination.
The situation is similar in rural Scotland. I have previously suggested—I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman agrees with this proposal—that the Government make the fuel allowance available earlier in the year to those who rely on home heating oil, when price and demand are lower, allowing them to fill up before the winter hits and the price tends to rocket.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point about those who depend on home heating oil. These are one-off payments of about £600 for 900 litres of oil—it is a lump-sum payment—so it would be extremely helpful to people to have that money in their hands when they were able to buy more oil at a lower price. He makes an extremely good point.
The picture is stark: we have much higher energy costs; there are considerable pressures on pensioner household incomes owing to lower savings returns; and increases in VAT are hitting everybody hard, but hitting pensioners particularly hard. Furthermore, pensioners tend to be on fixed-retirement incomes, and we know that, according to a recent report, the cost of living has risen by one fifth for older people over the past four years, compared with 14% for the population as a whole.
At the last election, the parties made a number of pledges. On pensioners, the Conservative party described the number of excess winter deaths as a national disgrace, and it said:
“we want to set the record straight. Labour are sending cynical and deceptive leaflets to pensioners’ homes saying we would cut their benefits. This is an outright lie, and here it is in black and white: we will protect pensioners’ benefits and concessions, and this includes: the Pension Credit; the Winter Fuel Allowance; free bus passes; and, free TV licences.”
I defy anybody out there in the public to interpret that statement as anything other than a pledge not only to maintain the existence of the winter fuel allowance, so that it continued to be paid as a benefit, but to maintain it at the same rate at which people were receiving it when the election was called. What other interpretation can we put on those words?
The Liberal Democrats said in their manifesto before the last election that they would reform winter fuel payments, extending them to all severely disabled people, and that this would be paid for by delaying age-related winter fuel payments until people reached 65. However, the Minister, who is in his place, said earlier this month:
“There are no plans to extend provision under the winter fuel payment scheme.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2011; Vol. 534, c. 719W.]
The coalition programme for government stated:
“We will protect key benefits for older people such as the winter fuel allowance,”
and so on. Then there is the argument about the Labour party’s position and what Labour was proposing—or not proposing—to do had it remained in office.
I point to those pledges for this reason. People say today that politicians, Parliament and this House are disconnected from ordinary people. People are losing faith in politics; and is it any wonder, when they read those clear statements and are led to believe one thing, but then, as soon as the election takes place and the same politicians come to office, they turn round and do something entirely different? Their argument in doing so is: “Well, we’re only doing what the previous Government said they would do.” When people can so cynically disregard the pledges that they make on such an important issue, that is another reason for the disconnect between politicians and the public out there.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s argument, but does he think that one reason for the disconnect is perhaps also the previous Government’s mistaken decision to raise the rate to a level that they did not think they could afford to maintain in the long term? That was where the disconnect started.
I have not heard it said that the level of the payments made over the last three years was unsustainable. I have never heard anybody make that argument.
Let us be fair: the Government have made choices. They have decided, because of the economic situation and the deficit, to cut expenditure in certain areas. In other areas, they have decided to maintain or increase spending. That is the choice of the Government and the majority of the Members of this House; but do not let anyone pretend that the Government had no choice about winter fuel payments or that they had to do what they did. They did not have to do it: they chose to pick this area for cuts and not others. That is a reprehensible choice—a choice that is not justified either economically or morally. At a time of so many excess winter deaths among our older population, it is appalling that cuts should be aimed at that sector of our population.
I am pressing to a conclusion now. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to catch Mr Speaker’s eye in order to speak, as other Members will want to.
The winter fuel payment should be restored to the amount that was paid over the past three years. Indeed, I would go further and say that future payments should be indexed to reflect rising energy prices. After all, when the winter fuel payment was initially introduced, it paid over half the cost of an older person’s fuel bill, whereas the current level is nowhere near high enough to meet those bills. Our attitude to this issue goes a long way towards illustrating our attitude to the treatment of our older people throughout the country. I hope that the whole House will join me and my right hon. and hon. Friends in supporting the motion this evening, and I commend it to the House.
May I first thank the Democratic Unionists for bringing this subject for debate before the House? It is an important and significant issue. As we have heard from the contribution of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), particular aspects of the issue have particular resonance in Northern Ireland. I shall make some reference to the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland, but it is worth setting the UK-wide context for the decisions taken about the level of the winter fuel payment and the cold weather payment. The right hon. Gentleman is correct that the Government had choices to make, and they made a choice about the cold weather payment, but I do not know whether he is aware that that choice was a significant one—one that I believe has proved to be correct.
The backdrop was as my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) described it a few moments ago. Initially, the winter fuel payment was only for people on means-tested benefits, or a higher rate went to those eligible for means-tested benefits, but eventually, some years ago, it got up to its full universal rate of £200 and it stayed at that level year after year; it was not indexed. Then we reached two years before a general election when the public finances were looking good and the then Chancellor decided to make a one-off increase to £250 and £400. As I say, when it was announced, it was announced as a one-off. Then we reached the year before the general election and the Government of the day thought that cutting the winter fuel payment would look bad so near to the election, so they announced a further one-off increase to £250 and £400. They stressed again that it was a one-off.
Then we reach the March Budget of 2010, and it became apparent in March that the Government would have to announce the rate for winter 2010. Funnily enough, six weeks before a general election did not seem like the right time to reverse a one-off increase, so a further one-off increase was announced again for the winter of 2010. We know it was a one-off increase because the public spending plans of the previous Government were published into the new Parliament. We thus know that the plans we inherited were to cut the winter fuel payment back to its core level of £200 for the winter we are now going into and for succeeding winters. That was the baseline against which we made our decisions.
The Minister is outlining what happened under the previous Government and stressing that the single or “one-off” payment as he has described it on several occasions was maintained just before an election. Given that my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) alluded to the Government’s statement that they would keep faith with the previous Government and in conjunction with what the Minister has just said, does it mean that in three years’ time he will reinstate the cold weather payment?
Well, obviously, cynicism would be well beyond this Government. The rates of public spending are published through a comprehensive spending review period and for the rest of this period the figure we inherited was £200. That, as I say, was our baseline.
Another strange thing that went on was to do with the cold weather payment. That is the money paid when it is freezing cold to the poorest and most vulnerable people—the poorest pensioners and the poorest disabled people. Temporarily, pre-election, that was increased from the regular £8.50 to £25 a week. Temporarily, too, for the year after the election, as announced before the election, it was to be maintained at £25 a week. You will not be surprised to learn, Mr Speaker, that beyond that, it was planned to be slashed back to the £8.50 a week level. In other words, had we done nothing and taken no action, the winter fuel payment would have reverted to its £200 level and the cold weather payment paid to the most vulnerable when it is most cold would have reverted to £8.50 a week.
Let me remind Members that that was the baseline from which we were trying to find something in the order of £70 billion to £80 billion-worth of savings, so the question was not whether we should cut the winter fuel payment or the cold weather payment, but whether we could find the money to reverse the planned cuts, and thus have to find still further cuts from across the budget.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Belfast North on one point—that Governments have to make choices about priorities. He listed some of the priorities of this Government: ring-fencing the NHS, for example, about which I suspect the pensioners of Northern Ireland will be glad. He also mentioned the penny on petrol duty. I was not aware that it was his policy that we should not have reversed that, but I am happy to be corrected.
I am sure that the Minister was listening when I said that I supported those priorities. My point was that the Government had decided to increase or maintain spending in certain areas but to target cuts on other areas, and I wanted to know why they had targeted our senior citizens.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for confirming that the measures that he listed were measures that he supports. I had assumed that, having begun by telling the House that we should spend an extra £600 million on something, he would in the course of his speech identify something on which we should spend £600 million less. Given that he spoke for 30-odd minutes, I may have missed it.
I could have taken much more time—indeed, I had a page devoted to areas that we could cut—but I considered it to be in the interests of the debate to leave time for others to speak. I am sure that my colleagues will make similar points, but may I begin by suggesting that the Minister reverse his attachment to Europe and save the £400 million that is going to the External Action Service, along with all the other money that is being wasted? And what about the £80 million that he wasted on the alternative vote referendum, which could have gone towards helping older people rather than being wasted on a trivial political exercise?
It is intriguing that, in presenting a 30-minute explanation of why we should spend a further £600 million, the right hon. Gentleman should remove the bit about where the money should come from, which seems to me to be fairly central to the debate.
Faced with that baseline of a proposed reversion to a £200 winter fuel payment and an £8.50 cold weather payment, we could simply have gone ahead with the previous plans, and found our £70 billion to £80 billion on top of that. However, we took the view—as does the right hon. Gentleman—that fuel poverty matters, and we therefore found the money that would enable us to reverse the planned cut in the cold weather payment. I believe that ours was the right priority. If we are concerned about the most vulnerable when it is most cold in the coldest of winters, we should bear in mind that an increase from £8.50 to £25 gives people the confidence to turn up their heating when it is bitterly cold. The system even allows cold weather payments to be triggered by a forecast. It need not actually have been freezing cold; we merely have to expect it to be freezing cold.
Last winter in Northern Ireland, we made 672,000 cold weather payments at a cost of £16.8 million. Had we not reversed the earlier decision, the value of those payments would have fallen by about two thirds. Our decision put about £10 million into the hands of the poorest pensioners and disabled people in Northern Ireland during a bitterly cold winter, and I am proud that we made it.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. A number of Members in all parts of the House contact me about cold weather payments for which I am responsible. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), for example, wrote to me saying that he did not think that the cold weather stations in his constituency matched the actual pattern of cold weather.
I have been very impressed by the work of my officials, who take seriously every representation received about cold weather stations. We change them every year in response to such representations. There will be stations in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but if he thinks that they are in the wrong place or measuring the wrong data, I can tell him that we work very closely with the Met Office, and respond thoroughly and carefully to all submissions. As far as I am aware, I have not received a submission from the hon. Gentleman, but I apologise if he has already contacted me. If he has not, I encourage him to do so.
The issue has been raised both by me and by my predecessor. My nearest cold weather station is Bishopton. As anyone from Scotland will know, East Kilbride is one of the coldest places in the country during the winter. However, there is no monitoring equipment, although South Lanarkshire council has monitoring equipment in the constituency to ensure that gritting takes place. I should be grateful if the matter could be looked into.
I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) first and then to the hon. Gentleman. No matter where we put the cold weather stations, somebody, somewhere says, “Hang on a minute, it is in the wrong side of the postcode” and so on. We keep these things under constant review because we want the system to work.
I wish to reinforce the point that the Minister has made. A submission was made that there should be a measuring station at Aboyne in my constituency and the Minister decided that there will be, which means that people living in the colder inland part of the constituency no longer have to rely on measurements taken in a coastal community.
Just two weeks ago, the Northern Ireland Assembly was informed of a change in my constituency, whereby the existing station in Ballykelly, which is a few miles inland, is to be replaced by a new station in Magilligan, which is right on the coast. The Minister will be aware that it is inevitable that coastal stations will be a degree or two warmer than those inland, so 3,500 people might or might not get a cold weather payment on the basis of a reading from a slightly warmer cold weather station.
As I said a moment ago, we work closely with the Met Office on these matters. I do not claim expertise on meteorological matters, but the Met Office does. Where changes are made to metering stations it is always with a view to being more accurate, rather than less. There is certainly no attempt made to move them to where the sun shines. We will examine that issue this winter. If the hon. Gentleman’s impression from this winter is that that change is causing problems, I will be happy to hear from him.
The Minister told us that by maintaining the cold weather payment of the previous year this Government had given an additional £10 million to pensioners in Northern Ireland. Will he tell us how much money he is denying to pensioners in Northern Ireland by refusing to maintain the level of the winter fuel allowance? Has he done the same calculation?
What we have done is preserve the amount that was scheduled to be spent in Northern Ireland exactly as planned. Clearly, £50 a head in Northern Ireland is probably slightly more than the figure for the cold weather payment. I did some mental arithmetic while the right hon. Member for Belfast North was speaking and I suspect that that figure is slightly larger. The key choice was between doing nothing—taking our baseline and taking £70 billion or £80 billion out—and trying to reverse at least one of the cuts. I think that the right thing to do was address the cold weather payment.
Let me give a slightly cheeky example of why that was our priority. I checked the dates of birth of the hon. Members from Northern Ireland and found that at least one of them would, in principle, qualify for a winter fuel payment—I am not going to name names. [Hon. Members: “Go on.”] I am not even going to look in the direction of the person I am talking about.
I hoped to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, and at the commencement of my speech I was going to make it very clear that I qualify for the winter fuel payment. When I have received it, I have always given it to a disabled family who do not get that allowance. I am happy even to give the names of the people who receive it.
That is entirely the response that I expected. The point is that not everyone would perhaps respond in quite that way. Given the choice between spending the money on at least some folk gracious and generous enough to give it away, or on people who self-evidently desperately need it because they are on a low income or are disabled and it is freezing cold, the priority at a time when money is tight is obvious. This is one decision that I would defend.
Will the Minister address the point? Whether he is saving money on one or the other, he has just admitted that the figure spent in Northern Ireland is lower than it would have been overall. However, the cost of energy has rocketed in the past year or two, so every pensioner in Northern Ireland or in any other place in the United Kingdom is paying more for their energy and is suffering through this system. Would it not be better to put some money in to ease that suffering?
Absolutely, and I shall come on to the whole subject of the fuel poverty strategy that we have adopted. I suspect, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) suggested in an intervention, that the correlation between the rate of the winter fuel payment and the depth and impact of fuel poverty is incredibly weak, if it is there at all. In other words, we have seen the winter fuel payment go up and go down, yet if that was plotted against the terrible problem of excess winter deaths or fuel poverty, I suspect there would be no correlation at all. When money is tight, we should be prioritising how we spend it so that it will do the most good.
As the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) rightly says, fuel bills have shot up. Surely the priority should be stopping people paying a fortune for their fuel when half the heat goes out through poorly insulted walls, windows and lofts. Every year, it is tempting to say that this winter we should put cash into people’s hands because it is cold. Of course that is true, but if we always put off the hard work of insulation, energy efficiency and so on, the situation will be the same the next winter and the one after that. Money spent on energy efficiency will save pensioners and others money every winter, rather than our giving them cash one year, only for the heat to go out through poorly insulated roofs and windows.
The Minister has outlined one facet of the problem, but one of the major facets has not been touched on today, although it has been mentioned in Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall. We really need to look at the cartels among the oil companies and to ask what discussions the Government have had with the oil companies. Equally, the increase in VAT is having an impact.
Obviously, the VAT increase does not affect fuel prices directly as they are on a reduced rate, but the hon. Gentleman is right that competition in the energy sector is a key concern of the Government, whether that is in gas, electricity or oil. Our colleagues at the Department of Energy and Climate Change are in regular and close contact with the competition authorities, but one thing the Government are doing is ensuring that people are aware of their ability to switch and get much better tariffs—that is particularly the case with electricity and gas. Clearly, we can do things for the long term, such as sort out the housing stock, but we can also do things for the short term, such as ensure that people get the best price available. There is huge potential to do a lot more that does not necessarily involve hundreds of millions of pounds of Government spending but would benefit people substantially.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the recently commissioned and reported Office of Fair Trading document that specifically, at the Minister’s request, investigated off-grid energy competition was able to recommend a series of actions to improve the market for heating oil this winter, avoiding the terrible problems we experienced last winter? The OFT has now gone on to look at liquefied petroleum gas. The Ministers in DECC are doing everything they can to ensure that the off-grid energy markets are fully functioning.
My hon. Friend is quite right. In Northern Ireland, dependence on heating oil is substantially greater than it is on the mainland and even in a semi-rural constituency such as my own, oil prices, oil supply and so on are big issues. I am grateful for her kind words about our ministerial colleagues as these are important matters.
Let me go back to the issue of fuel poverty. Clearly, it has a number of components and one is income. We focused on a change from last year’s rate to this year’s of less than £1 a week in the winter fuel payment and that is what we are talking about today. Instead, we have taken the basic state pension, which for 30 years has been declining relative to wages, and put a triple lock on it so that every year from now on, pensioners in Great Britain and Northern Ireland will see their pensions rise by the highest number of inflation measured by the consumer prices index, earnings and 2.5%. We are in a strange period in which inflation is greater than earnings, but in most years, earnings have grown faster. That will mean that as we return to more normal times, pensioners will enjoy above inflation standard of living increases year after year.
The cost of that commitment—I hope that the Chancellor is not listening at this point—will add a total of £45 billion to the amount we spend on pensions by the mid-2020s, which gives a sense of the magnitude of what we have announced. That is rather invisible at the moment, because prices are higher than earnings. When I signed the legislation into law last year, I expected bells to peal and for there to be confetti on the floor and so on. That has not quite happened yet, because people have not seen the impact. In the longer term, it will give a sustained boost to the real incomes of pensioners in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The Minister raises the issue of the triple lock. Previously, in the autumn statement the Chancellor has always announced the increase in line with the September rate of inflation, which would mean a 5.2% increase. Does the Minister expect the Chancellor to do the same this year, and would he rebuke the Chancellor if he were to take an annual inflation figure? Given what he has said, I take it that he is very much in favour of the former.
The Chancellor was asked this very question at Treasury questions recently, and he confirmed, as is entirely in line with my view, that the triple lock is something of which we are proud. I am sure that we will be just as proud next Tuesday when he announces his verdict.
This is not just about the basic state pension: it is also about pension credit. As has rightly been pointed out, we need to make sure that pension credit take-up is maximised and we already do many things in that regard. Some people may not know that they can ring an 0800 number—a freephone number—to claim pension credit. They might think there is a long and complicated form to fill out, but in fact they can claim it over the phone and can also claim housing benefit and council tax benefit at the same time. We also undertake a lot of activity to engage with people who might be eligible. For example, we mention pension credit to people when they claim the state pension or when they report a change in their circumstances such as a bereavement. We also have a visiting service so that if people are not online or perhaps are not able to get out, DWP and local authority staff go out to their home and fill in forms with them in their front room.
As a Department, we are doing quite a lot to encourage take-up, but I am aware that the Democratic Unionist party manifesto mentioned trying to pay pension credit automatically. We have been piloting that in Great Britain and I can update the House on that exercise. We took a random sample of about 2,000 customers who were not receiving pension credit but whom we thought, based on what we knew about them, appeared to be entitled to it. For 12 weeks, we paid them the money anyway without their having to make a claim and then we contacted them and said, “By the way, we’ve just given you some free money. This is what we think you would get on pension credit—would you like to make a claim for it?”
The delivery phase of that study ran from November 2010 to March 2011 and an evaluation is now under way, but I can update the House on the early findings from that research. We found that by August, after the process had finished, a percentage of those involved in the study had successfully claimed pension credit. I am going to ask Members to think to themselves what percentage I am about to say, assuming that no one has read what we published. So, of the 2,000 people to whom we gave pension credit because we thought they were entitled to it, what percentage do hon. Members think then successfully claimed it? I shall not do a straw poll at this point. The answer is just 9%, which is a very low figure. Given that 3% of those in the control sample claimed, if we had done nothing we would have had 3% claiming anyway, whereas we had 9%.
We found that those who did go on to claim pension credit did so because the study had raised their awareness of the benefit and their potential eligibility for it, as one might expect. We talked to some of those who did not claim and found that some of them retained the view that they were not entitled to it even though we had contacted them and given them the money. Some felt that they did not need it, which is fair enough, some did not claim because of health issues, others forgot and some did not quite understand what was going on. It was a complex process, and we will publish a rigorous evaluation of it. It would be great if we could spot all the folk who are not taking pension credit and get the money to them automatically, but the early indications are that that will not be the case and that this approach is not a silver bullet that will enable us to deliver the money automatically. However, we will see what lessons we can learn from the pilot and I shall be happy to update the House on that a bit nearer the time.
May I establish when the Minister last visited Northern Ireland? The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) gave the statistic in his opening remarks that 75,000 homes in Northern Ireland are in extreme—that is the word he used—fuel poverty. With the greatest respect to the Minister—and I do have the greatest respect for him—I would like him to visit Northern Ireland and come to some of those homes. It is absolutely degrading for an elderly person to have to eliminate their television because they cannot afford a television licence, or to have to choose between food and fuel. This is a really serious problem in Northern Ireland.
I do not doubt for a second the point that the hon. Lady, for whom I have a great deal of respect, makes. Obviously, as a GB Minister, I am responsible for these matters in Great Britain. Fuel poverty is a devolved matter, although my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who will respond to the debate, was in Northern Ireland last week. Yesterday I spoke to the Northern Ireland Minister for Social Development to discuss with him these issues as they affect Northern Ireland. He was keen to stress some of the measures that the Executive are taking—for example, the double glazing of social housing.
That comes back to the point I was making, which was that this is partly about 98p a week on the winter fuel payment, which is what we are discussing, but far more about stopping people having highly energy-inefficient homes and giving them a decent, dignified standard of living. If hon. Members think about the difference that we are going to make through the triple lock on the basic pension, it swamps the 98p that we are talking about today and will make a real impact on the living standard of pensioners over decades to come.
On energy efficiency and insulation, proposals have come from the Government, including the green deal. My concern relates to my hon. Friend’s comments about pension credit and uptake by the most vulnerable groups. Have any discussions taken place with the Department of Energy and Climate Change about how to improve uptake by those groups, who would benefit most from the proposals?
My hon. Friend raises the important issue of take-up. Clearly, benefits such as cold weather payments and the warm home discount, which is the £120 off fuel bills in Great Britain, as I mentioned in the letter that I sent, are contingent on receiving an income-related benefit. That is a challenge that we always face. We want to target those who are most vulnerable, but if some of those who are vulnerable miss out on the passported benefits, how do we get that money through without spending it on everyone, resulting in it being spread much more thinly? That is a permanent trade-off and why we are looking at ways of improving the take-up of these benefits and having a mixed strategy—a mix of a universal winter fuel payment that goes to everyone regardless of whether they claim, and targeted help for those most in need.
As a Department we are working with organisations such as Age UK to try to make sure that pension credit materials are provided to them. Those organisations have responded positively to make sure that the literature we provide is easy to understand and reaches the people who need it. I entirely take my hon. Friend’s point that there will always be gaps, and we need to address that. My view in the long run is that if we can have state pension reform that guarantees a state pension above the basic means test, that will go a long way to addressing some of these issues, but perhaps that is for another day.
I do not want to go on too long but I will mention, briefly, the warm home discount. This is important because it is the subject of negotiation between the Government and the big six energy companies in Great Britain that will give £120 off the electricity bills of 600,000 of the poorest pensioners. That will make a real contribution. We do it through electricity bills because pretty much everybody has an electricity bill, not because we think the price of electricity has necessarily gone up more, but it does not apply in Northern Ireland.
There is an interesting question about the negotiations or discussions between the Northern Ireland Executive and Power NI, for example, about whether the Northern Ireland providers could be asked to do the same sort of thing. If the big six are doing it in Great Britain, I cannot immediately see why the same should not benefit pensioners in Northern Ireland. Perhaps right hon. and hon. Members could take that back and challenge their own power suppliers to do more.
Clearly, we need to make people aware not just of the means-tested benefits they can get, but of the help with insulation, cavity walls and so on. Further in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), we as a Government are sending letters to about 4 million of the most vulnerable energy customers, letting them know that they have access to heavily discounted insulation for their lofts and cavity walls. Even when we write directly to people, we do not always get the results that we want, but we are aiming to target people directly.
Perhaps I was not explaining myself clearly. There is a whole raft of things that we are doing precisely because low-income households cannot afford the large capital costs of insulation. There is the green deal, the letters that we are sending about subsidised insulation, cavity wall insulation and so on, and the measures that we require the energy companies to take under the carbon emissions reduction target, the CERT scheme. There is a whole raft of things that we are doing, precisely because of the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, which subsidises insulation. It is perhaps a misnomer to talk about that as being long term. Someone’s house can be insulated tomorrow, which will mean savings on their heating bills. It will take a long time to work through the whole housing stock, but that has an immediate and beneficial impact on people today. Perhaps “long term” was not quite the right phrase.
Will the hon. Gentleman forgive me? I know that he is responding to the debate, so he will have the chance to make the points that he wants to make shortly.
I entirely accept that the decision about whether to carry on with Labour’s planned cuts in the winter fuel payment and cold weather payment was a difficult one. We could have gone ahead with both those cuts, which would still have left us having to find £70 billion to £80 billion of deficit reduction, but we took the view that we should target those most in need through the cold weather payment scheme. I am proud that we reversed that cut; that we found the money to pay the large number of cold weather payments that we did in Northern Ireland last year. But the long-term solution to this has not got to be £1 a week either way on the winter fuel payment; it has got to be home energy efficiency and decent incomes for pensioners, both today and in the long term. It has got to be making sure that people are not wasting their money paying high energy bills, but that their homes are kept warm. One of the striking things about the issue of excess winter deaths is that in many Scandinavian countries, which have much colder climates than we do, they do not have such a thing as excess winter deaths, simply because the homes are built to a decent standard to begin with.
There is a broad agenda here well beyond the rate of one particular social security benefit, but I can say to the House that we are absolutely committed to tackling fuel poverty. The reverse of the planned cut in the cold weather payment is one of the things that we have done, but I hope that I have given the House a feel for many of the other measures that we are taking that will tackle the issue not just for this winter but for the long term as well.
I thank the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and his colleagues for bringing this important matter before the House today. The debate is extremely timely, as we are at that point in the year when pensioners are already worrying about what the coming winter weather has in store for them. In my constituency—and in the right hon. Gentleman’s too, no doubt, since he is just across the water from me—we are already experiencing rather colder weather than we have here in London.
All of us on the Opposition Benches know, and many on the Government Benches also know, although they may not openly admit it, that people are feeling the squeeze of rising prices. They are increasingly worried about the basic costs of living, particularly food and fuel prices. With unemployment at its highest level for 17 years, and more women out of work than at any time since 1988, more and more people are struggling to make ends meet.
The real problem is that this out-of-touch Government seem to have no idea what it is like for ordinary people who are trying desperately to keep their heads above water. It is time that out-of-touch Ministers realised how tough things are for pensioners right now and how their policies are making things even harder. This year, pensioners are facing not just a double whammy, which was referred to earlier, but a triple whammy of higher VAT, soaring energy prices and what is effectively a cut to the amount of money that they receive in their pockets to assist with winter fuel payments.
I do not think that the Government understand why people are so outraged that the energy companies can increase their profit margins eight times over at the same time as every household in the country is seeing their bills go sky high. The “Plug the Debt” campaign launched by Consumer Focus and Citizens Advice has highlighted:
“The average energy bill has risen by over 21% since autumn 2010 from £1,069 per year to £1,273.”
I have heard the Minister say that that is only a pound a week, or a small amount, and £200 a year might not mean much to the well-off or the millionaire, but believe me it is a huge amount for a pensioner household with a fixed income, where every penny is a prisoner.
Last week a Mr and Mrs Watt visited my constituency surgery. They do not make the distinction when losing that £50. They believed that they had a promise of £250. When £50 is taken off, a technical argument about whether or not that £50 is there is inappropriate. I also wish to point out that when the winter fuel allowance was first introduced—before some Members came into this place—it was temporary for the first few years and then we made it permanent. This Government could have done exactly the same.
I am sure that Mr and Mrs Watt are fairly typical of many of the pensioners we all see in our surgeries. It is not only my hon. Friend’s constituents who see this as a cut. The charity director of Age UK said earlier this year:
“While the uplift was billed as a temporary measure, renewed annually, for those older people struggling to pay fuel bills, this is a question of semantics and they will view the measure as a cut.”
Pensioners view the measure as a cut as less money is going into their pockets.
I know from my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as was mentioned earlier in the debate, that the average household energy bill is around 14% higher in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales. In the 21st century, it is absolutely shocking that around 1,300 are estimated to have died from cold weather-related illnesses in Northern Ireland last year.
I must also gently point out to the Minister and other Government Members that, although advising consumers to shop around and switch suppliers might make sense to some people, many of the pensioners I have spoken to find the range of tariffs and options on standing charges completely baffling. If people do not have access to the internet and the price comparison sites that the better-off might use, where are they to start? Pensioners do not want the hassle of complicated forms and do not always trust advice given over the phone, particularly after the bad publicity about people feeling under pressure to switch suppliers.
I heard what the Minister said about there being an 0800 number to call for advice. I do not know whether he has sat with constituents and tried—[Interruption.] He mentions pension credit, but I do not know whether he has sat with constituents who use a range of advice lines and sometimes find them difficult to use. They might be pensioners who are unused to speaking in detail over the phone and find it an off-putting experience. It is important that people can have face-to-face advice and I would welcome any effort he can make in that regard.
I also want to mention briefly those who are off-grid, and there are similarities between Scotland and Northern Ireland, particularly in rural areas. It is not so simple for people in those areas to shop around, although some helpful work has been done, for example, in ensuring that there are co-operative ways for communities to come together to purchase fuel. I hope that that is something the Government will support.
With consumer prices index inflation at 5.2%, pensioners on low and fixed incomes are among the most tightly squeezed, and again Age UK states that
“older people have experienced a rate of inflation on average 5% above headline measures and this is, in part, because the proportion of their income spent on food and fuel is higher than for other age groups.”
The harsh reality is that, instead of supporting pensioners, this Government’s actions are making life even tougher— [Interruption.] Right on cue, the Minister starts again the usual orchestrated chorus from Government Members, attacking the previous Government rather than looking at what his Government are doing today.
On the additional costs of food and fuel, is it not really beholden on the Government to realise that those are the areas where pensioners, in particular, feel the pinch? We are in a situation whereby many pensioners say that it is a matter of either heating or eating, so the Government should adjust not their philosophy but the reality of life to the fact that these inflationary measures are hitting pensioners, who do not have the money or the resources to back up the costs when they come in with the bills that they have to pay.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Many pensioners do not want to admit the financial difficulty that they are in. Often, they try to hide it from their family, friends and local community, so they go behind closed doors and curtains, do not put the heating on for fear of the huge bills that may come in, and choose at times when their money is tight to cut down on nutritious food and other essential items. That is the stark reality for many pensioners living in our communities today, and it is time that the Government realised that they have to take responsibility for their own decisions.
The Government have to take responsibility for their actions and face up to the consequences, so let us take a look at the facts. I am sure that I will get more sedentary comments from Government Members, but it is important to remind people that the UK economy has flatlined over the past year, with just 0.5% growth well before the eurozone crisis, which cannot therefore be entirely to blame for choking off recovery. In the European Union, only Greece, Portugal and Cyprus have grown more slowly than the UK, and the United States has grown more than three times as fast as us over the past 12 months.
The Government’s mistaken decision to raise VAT to 20% in January has hit pensioners hard. Estimates are that it will cost a pensioner couple on average £275 a year, and I return to my earlier point: that may seem like a small amount to some Members; it is not a small amount for someone who is facing the rise in prices, trying to make every penny go that bit further and facing such difficulties every day.
We know that the Government’s policies are hurting ordinary people, because we hear it every day from constituents, as my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) said, so we, like the right hon. Member for Belfast North who moved the motion, believe that the Government should look again at the impact of their polices on winter fuel payments and on VAT, which in combination have hit pensioners hard.
The Government have the opportunity to ease the squeeze on pensioners, and they should take it by temporarily reversing the VAT rise. At the very least, they could do so immediately and put that £275 back into the pockets of pensioners.
When Labour introduced winter fuel payments, it did so as part of a drive to help tackle fuel poverty among pensioners, and I accept that some Government Members genuinely want to see the problem tackled. The payments were specifically designed to give older people the reassurance that they could afford to heat their homes in winter—and do so in a way that would allow them to continue to buy their food and to pay the rest of their bills.
At the time there was, and indeed there has been since, criticism that the winter fuel allowance was not targeted in the way that some anti-poverty organisations might have wished. Some people wanted the allowance to go further, and others wanted different groups of people included, but we know from research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that households receiving the winter fuel payment are almost 14 times more likely to spend the money on fuel than they are if their incomes are increased in other ways. That is quite important, and the IFS specifically stated:
“Households receiving the Winter Fuel Payment spend 41% of it on fuel even though there is no obligation to do so. When the same households receive additional income which is not labelled in any way, they spend just 3% of it on fuel. To put it another way, simply increase the income of a pensioner household by £100 and they will increase their spending on fuel by £3. Label that increase a ‘Winter Fuel Payment’ and £41 will go on fuel.”
Indeed, the IFS went further by stating:
“The winter fuel payment was introduced to encourage older households to spend more on heating in the winter. Remarkably it appears to have had just that effect.”
To be fair to the Government, at least for a moment, they do seem, to be fair—
“They do seem to be fair.”
On one or two things, and on this point the Government do seem to have moved on from the days when some people who are now in prominent Government positions thought that winter fuel payments were “gimmicks”. To be fair again to the Pensions Minister, back in May he answered a written parliamentary question by stating:
“The winter fuel payment provides a significant contribution to an older person’s winter fuel costs and provides vital reassurance that people can afford to turn up their heating.”—[Official Report, 23 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 493W.]
Today, he seemed to suggest that he still agrees with that in principle, and I am glad to hear it, although I disagree with him on whether the amount of money going into pensioners’ pockets has been cut.
The coalition agreement, which has been referred to, states:
“We will protect key benefits for older people such as the winter fuel allowance”.
Most reasonable people reading that statement or hearing those words coming from the mouths of Ministers might reasonably have expected the coalition to have protected all winter fuel payments. They were certainly the words that people heard in the run-up to the election, but as we know the winter fuel payment will be £50 lower this year than it was in each of the last three years for eligible households aged 60 or over, and £100 lower for those aged 80 or over. The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that 9 million households benefit from the winter fuel payment, so 9 million households will be worse off this winter.
People will no doubt seek to make the usual criticisms of the former Labour Government at this point, but when Labour left office no decision had been taken, and it was absolutely in the Chancellor’s power to continue with the extra payment, as Labour Chancellors had in previous years. It is therefore absolutely wrong for any Government Member to say that the decision was taken by the previous Government; the decision to axe the additional payment was taken by this coalition Government —no one else.
Leaving aside the fact that the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary was the man who left the note saying, “There’s no money left,” I must ask, if the previous Government planned to keep the winter fuel payment at £250, why did they not set the money aside in their Budget plans?
The decision was taken year on year, and it would have been entirely open to a new Government —indeed, if a Labour Government had been elected, there would have been the option—to look at the measure year on year, so no matter how many times Ministers raise the issue, they cannot get away from the fact that the very people who decided not to go ahead with the payment are the coalition Government.
I am astonished to hear the Minister seemingly suggest that this Government had to follow everything that the previous, Labour Government did. If that had been the case, we would still have had a future jobs fund, and perhaps youth unemployment would not be rocketing. No one wants to intervene on that point, so perhaps we will hear more from the Under-Secretary in her winding-up speech. Rather than harking back to the past, it is time that this out-of-touch Government came back to reality and dealt with the real-life issues facing today’s pensioners.
Let me give the last word on this to the voice of pensioners. Speaking about the Chancellor’s decision to axe the additional payments, Dot Gibson from the National Pensioners Convention has said:
“It’s a shabby way to treat Britain’s older generation. If we really are all in this together, why is he going to take £100 off the winter fuel allowance for the oldest members of society at a time when fuel bills are rising and winter deaths amongst older people are a national scandal? He should be ashamed of his behaviour”.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on choosing this subject. With winter fast approaching, this is an issue that will clearly be on many of our constituents’ minds. Although it has been unseasonably warm in my part of Scotland, we must realise that the winter is still ahead of us and we face the challenge of yet again trying to heat our homes. I declare an interest to the House. In the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I have noted oil and gas industry interests which are relevant to this debate.
As has become apparent in the debate, fuel poverty is made up of a combination of three pillars: the cost of the energy itself, the income of the household, and the quality of the houses that people live in and are trying to heat. All three of those factors need tackling, and attempts have been made to do so over the years. I suspect that one of the mistakes probably made by all of us, but particularly by the previous Government, was relying on the cost of energy as the main platform for tackling fuel poverty in a period when competition brought down energy prices. We did not realise the need to get our housing stock well and truly up to standard to ensure that, when prices went back up, people would be able to afford to heat their homes because they would not need so much energy. The energy efficiency of homes and our housing stock is a crucial factor in building the long-term foundations for tackling the problem once and for all.
In the run-up to this winter, the Government are rightly trying to concentrate on making sure that energy bills are as low as possible by pushing for an end to the complexity. As the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) made clear, many people do not know how to shop around. They are faced with myriad complex tariffs and offers and are lured in to sign up to new contracts and, after that, a rising tariff. One of the ways of improving the markets and ensuring that at least bills are no higher than they should be is to have clearer tariffs and an end to the complexity.
The other problem is that of houses not on the gas grid. It would be interesting to hear, perhaps in the reply to the debate, whether anything can be done in Northern Ireland to extend the gas grid. If we can get more people on to the gas main, it will at least ensure that they have one of the most reasonable fuels for heating their homes in the immediate future.
However, not every house will be on the gas grid and we will have to tackle the problem of those that are not. Consumers of grid heating fuels such as gas and electricity have a market in which Ofgem—the regulator—and the rules consider how vulnerable customers are treated, and vulnerable customers cannot be disconnected in the winter. However, following the Office of Fair Trading inquiry and all the other reports on the off-grid, I am concerned that heating oil and liquefied petroleum gas suppliers do not have the same constraints on their market in terms of how they handle vulnerable customers and their relationship with them.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point. He may remember that, in the previous Parliament, the excuse was always that that market was made up of smaller companies. Does he agree that that is no longer so? In many cases, suppliers have a virtual monopoly, and it is high time that the same sort of tariffs were introduced into that market as those that exist in the electricity and gas markets.
One can certainly buy from a lot of brands, but when one gets behind them and finds out who the beneficial owner is, one learns that it is not necessarily a different company. There is still scope for considering something we pursued when the hon. Gentleman and I were both on the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change in the previous Parliament, and that is whether Ofgem should have some kind of locus in relation to off-grid customers as well as on-grid customers. It is certainly worth pursuing with the Secretary of State and Ofgem whether there is any way it can be involved in that market to improve the treatment of vulnerable customers.
I welcome the warm home discount because, obviously, that targets a saving that goes some way to counteract the loss of income. However, we must recognise that the long-term pressures are upward for energy prices, which brings us back to the need to tackle the quality of homes. There is a hope that shale gas may have the potential to assist with energy prices in the medium term, but the reality is that we have to prepare for a world where energy prices are higher. Therefore, in terms of targeting resources, I welcome the cold weather payment being maintained at the higher level because that at least targets those who have the most need most effectively.
The take-up of benefits is crucial and we need to reinforce the campaigns and the different ways of engaging with customers. The data sharing on pensioners between energy companies and the Government is going some way towards trying to identify those vulnerable customers. The energy companies that are doing benefit audits of their customers have shown that such an approach can greatly improve a household’s income. Pensioner take-up of targeted benefits needs to be improved, as does the information. We need to try to get across to people the message that these payments are entitlements, not gifts. People are entitled to these payments and they should not feel in any way inhibited from claiming them, because they have been paid for and they are meant to be claimed. If they were claimed, the problem of fuel poverty would be reduced.
Information is also crucial in trying to get people’s homes up to standard. There is still a lot of reluctance to engage, even when energy efficiency is free. With the upheaval and the uncertainty, people do not have the confidence to let someone into their home to interfere with the fabric of their building. We need to give people more reassurance that the long-term benefits of improving the energy efficiency of their home will give them a stable future when it comes to fuel bills.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned that the take-up is not as good as it could be, but part of the problem is that we do not have a one-front shop. We should have an organisation—for example, one of those dealing with welfare rights such as the citizens advice bureau—through which someone who is looking for benefits can also find out about the other things available to them. How does that square with the cuts that are being made to local government, because that is the other side of the coin? There are substantial cuts. Many of the people who give the advice are not there now and some of those organisations are closing down. I should also declare an interest in this debate because I am over 60 so I qualify, too.
Yes, it is crucial to ensure that people have access to the information. We also need to ensure that those who have contact with pensioners are aware of it. The health benefits of living in a properly insulated home are very great, but not enough is done through the health service to steer people towards available schemes to help them to heat their homes. When someone presents at a GP’s practice with a health problem that can be exacerbated by a cold home, they should immediately be steered towards information about how to get benefits to improve their home.
I shall highlight one of the frustrations of promoting warm homes week. I went out to help energy efficiency installers. At one semi-detached house, people were drilling a hole in the wall and putting a chain down through the hole in the wall between them and the neighbour. When I asked why, they said, “It’s to make sure the neighbour doesn’t get any insulation,” because the neighbour did not want it. That shows both the resistance to what is inevitably in the best interests of the home and the level of inefficiency. Installers cannot do a whole street because individuals have not got the confidence to share. Obviously, if they are out installing in one house, installing in another house at the same time will greatly reduce the cost of the scheme and increase the take-up. We have to get the information across to people that these schemes are there to help them and that if they make use of them they will have a long-term benefit. The great benefit of improving our housing stock is that as people’s incomes fluctuate and as people move, they will still not fall into fuel poverty.
At a fundamental level, we must get the housing stock sorted out, we must give people the confidence to take up the benefits to which they are entitled, and we must ensure that the energy markets work to maximum efficiency so that even in a time of rising prices we do not pay over the odds for our energy.
This debate has at least established something, because the Minister has acknowledged, as Hansard will clearly show, that we are talking about cuts—that what is being proposed, and what is actually happening, is a cut for pensioners. I appreciate his having forthrightly acknowledged that, for it is often painted in another fashion or covered up in some way.
It is true that we are living in financially difficult times and that hard choices have to be made. The Government have made a choice to cut pensioners’ winter fuel payment, and they must stand by their choice. We have often listened to the Government hiding behind things that the Opposition were going to do had they remained in power. They must stop doing that and face the fact that they are in government, so they carry the responsibility. What some other Government were going to do is not relevant; what is relevant is that this coalition Government have decided to cut money from the most vulnerable people in our society. The cost of living for the over-65s is increasing, as it has been for the past four years, and they are now faced with a cut. When I listened to the Minister’s speech, I wondered whether there was a prize for the quiz that he was holding, but we have not heard whether he will give some pensioners the prize of a reinstatement of this money.
Let us acknowledge that for many of our constituents in Northern Ireland, gas is not a possibility; they do not have that option. People are facing exorbitant, rocketing heating oil prices, and in many cases throughout the Province they have no alternative. Heating oil prices seem to keep going up. My constituents constantly tell me that it is amazing that just when the cheques for the winter fuel payment are about to come through the letterbox, the oil prices go up. Perhaps a review of this could be undertaken, because it has a serious impact on my constituents, who face great difficulties at this time of the year. I acknowledge that the energy stamps scheme run by some of our councils is of great help to our constituents in enabling them to face the heating bills that come in during the winter months.
There is an aspect of off-grid that I did not touch on, and I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that there is more mileage in it. As the renewable heat initiative comes in, does he agree that converting some off-grid domestic properties to heat pumps, particularly air source heat pumps, could make a difference?
With the greatest respect, many of the people who are losing the winter fuel payment—for example, those who are over 80—will not know about the scheme that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Let us deal with reality, because these are the people who are going to suffer as a result of the coalition Government’s proposal.
I congratulate the Democratic Unionist party on proposing this debate, and I presume that there will be a Division of some kind so that we can show our views. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the saddest part of this cut, made for the sake of such a minimal amount of money, no matter what the economic position, is that it is the people over 80 who are really going to suffer?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments, with which I wholeheartedly agree.
When I looked at today’s Daily Mail, I saw that the editor’s comment says—[Hon. Members: “Daily Mail?”] With the greatest respect, let me deal with the issue. It says that at a time when our people are enduring cuts at home, including to the winter fuel payment, UK taxpayers are ploughing an extra £300 million into an organisation such as Europe, with increases of “only” 2%. The Minister asked where the money would come from; I think we have identified where some of it could come from. Instead of paying it to Europe, we could be paying it to our elderly people—those over 80 years of age who are facing a choice between eating and heating. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) mentioned the money wasted on the referendum on the voting system, which was held to placate the minor party in the coalition. That money could have been spent to assist the elderly. It ill behoves those in the coalition to ask where the money would come from to deal with this situation, as they can certainly find it for others rather than the citizens of the United Kingdom.
These past three years have been devastating for the fuel poor within our society. Last winter in Northern Ireland, we faced the coldest December for over 100 years, with energy prices continuing to escalate, and we are entering a situation where the choice between heating and eating is a sad reality for many of our elderly constituents. In my own constituency of South Antrim, it has been estimated that as many as 42.4% of the population are living in fuel poverty, at least half of whom are pensioner householders. That is a significant figure and a worrying statistic.
Behind the statistics are human beings—elderly people within our society—who are suffering. Research carried out by Help the Aged in 2006 suggested that in winter many older people cope with the cold by staying in bed longer or wearing outdoor clothes indoors. The charity’s opinion that it is unacceptable in this day and age that anyone should have to resort to such measures in order to minimise heating bills will surely find support across this House. In its impact report in 2006, it stated:
“Winter is a difficult time for many older people. The cold, dark winter months leave many confined to their homes and for too many older people, those homes are cold, damp and inhospitable. Each year, older people living on inadequate incomes regard the approach of winter with dread”.
This year, with the decrease in their winter fuel payment, will certainly be no exception.
Living in a cold, damp home can have devastating effects on the health and social well-being of the elderly, rendering them isolated and susceptible to what should be avoidable illnesses such as asthma and stroke. Between 2002 and 2009, the number of winter deaths in Northern Ireland increased by 366%, and they are now at the highest level in western Europe. Experts agree that one of the root causes of this shocking statistic is fuel poverty.
When the then Government first introduced the winter fuel payment in the winter of 1997-98, they threw a vital and welcome lifeline to many thousands of pensioners across the United Kingdom. The decision to cut the winter fuel payment this year is shocking and people have reacted bitterly to the news. Only last month, a group of older people from Age Sector Platform in Northern Ireland travelled to Westminster to present the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), with a petition containing the signatures of almost 15,000 people who were united in opposition to the cut to the winter fuel payment this year. The Age Sector Platform campaign continues to receive support as each day passes, not only from elderly people but from younger people who are genuinely concerned about their parents and grandparents who had depended on this additional and welcome source of income. Never before has a lobby issue attracted such a high level of support in such a short space of time.
Members will be interested to know that in June, a Pensioners’ Parliament was held in Northern Ireland for the first time. There was overwhelming support for a motion calling on the Government to reverse their decision to cut the winter fuel payment this year and to look at ways of linking future payments to energy prices. A survey conducted in the run-up to the Pensioners’ Parliament also emphasised the need for action in this area. It showed that three out of four older people identified keeping warm in winter as a worry, making it the No. 1 concern. As politicians, we cannot fail to recognise that a strong message is being sent to us and to this House.
The proportion of homes in fuel poverty in Northern Ireland is three times greater than that in England. Households in Northern Ireland spend 43% more on energy than the UK average. Electricity prices in Northern Ireland are 29% higher than in January 2008 and 11% higher than in the rest of the UK. The price of home heating oil increased by more than 150% between 2003 and 2010, with 23% of that increase occurring in just the last year.
It is inconceivable that once again this winter our elderly will have to choose between heating their homes and putting food on the table. The Government, through their current course of action, are condemning many pensioners in my constituency to a winter of hardship and suffering. As the National Energy Action group has said:
“Fuel Poverty is killing those most vulnerable in our society annually.”
It goes on to say that it is a basic essential that
“all householders in Northern Ireland have access to affordable warmth.”
Unfortunately, without urgent action from the Government on this matter, that entitlement will be denied to many.
I will finish because I realise that many right hon. and hon. Members want to speak. I will leave Members with a direct quotation from a lady known simply as Mrs P, who contributed to the Help the Aged impact report:
“When I get up, because I can’t sleep and I come down, I put an old quilt round me, and I sit here for as long as I can, reading, until I get absolutely frozen. Then I have to put the fire on and I think to myself ‘Look at me wasting all this fuel.’”
Let us not waste a moment longer. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that the appropriate action is taken to prevent people such as Mrs P from falling even deeper into fuel poverty.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea). The speeches of Members on the Opposition Benches have been characterised by a great passion on behalf of their constituents about the issue of fuel poverty. Everybody in this House is concerned about that issue and we have all had to deal with constituents who are finding life a struggle. The opportunity to debate our concern for the vulnerable this afternoon is an example of Parliament at its best, because such issues are why we are all in this place and why we attempt to do our best. It is important that Government Members think about what we are doing for pensioners and how far we are supporting them in dealing with the ever-increasing burden of fuel prices.
I assure Members of the Opposition parties that if the measures that the Government are putting in place were less than adequate, I would be the first in line to criticise them. However, if we look just through the prism of the winter fuel payment, we do not see the whole story. We need to look at the wider support that we are giving to pensioners through pension reform and other benefits.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady so early in her speech. She has conveyed the impression that coalition Members are very concerned, as they ought to be, about this serious issue that affects all parts of the United Kingdom. Why, therefore, are there so few Members on the Government Benches this evening? It is really embarrassing.
I could also point to the lack of Members on the Labour Benches, but this is not an occasion to engage in party politics. We need to turn our attention to debating the substance of the issue.
I am satisfied that what the Government are putting in place is appropriate to support our pensioners. As I said, we need to consider the wider support that we are giving pensioners to deal with fuel bills, the other benefits that we are giving pensioners and the pension reforms. We also need to consider the quality of the housing stock, which has been raised a number of times in this debate. We need to think about what can be done to reduce bills, because then we would not have to give so much support to cover energy prices. At the moment, a lot of energy is used to heat the air above people’s houses.
No one on the Opposition Benches would argue with the point that we need to do more to make homes more energy efficient. The difficulty is that we are in the worst recession for decades, energy costs are going through the roof—literally when homes are not properly insulated—and pensioner incomes have decreased in real terms. We are simply saying that this is the wrong time to make such a cut.
I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with the point about the quality of housing stock. There is a lot of Government support for people to invest in such improvements. The difficult is in take-up. He focuses on the winter fuel payment and identifies it as a cut. Instead of having a broad-brush, one-off payment that is available to everyone, we must tackle the root causes of fuel poverty and identify the households that will benefit the most from such help.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many of the solutions can be found locally in our communities? For example, Community Energy Plus is working with Cornwall council to use the Government incentives to tackle fuel poverty by offering free insulation to vulnerable households living in fuel poverty in Cornwall right now, this winter. The critical role that we can play as MPs is to work in partnership with organisations in our communities to ensure that people know about and take up the good schemes that are available.
My hon. Friend makes a constructive point, which goes to the heart of the point that the Minister made earlier about the lack of take-up, particularly of means-tested benefits. That happens for a host of reasons, including that they are too difficult to take up, that people are too proud, and the lack of awareness among pensioners about the support that they can get to improve the quality of their housing. That is because many of the schemes are nationally designed and rolled out, and the information is not readily available. We can do a lot to push people in the right direction so that they can find help, such as through the project that my hon. Friend mentioned. All Members can play a constructive, championing role, because we are all community leaders. We need to pay our part in pointing pensioners towards the sources of help that they can access to tackle this growing problem.
The hon. Lady is right that we all have a responsibility to make people aware of such things. However, if she were an 89-year-old lady living on her own on a tiny pension, would she really think it her priority to have the huge disruption of someone doing all that work in her house? What she would actually want would be the money that she had last year, so that she could increase her use of electricity over the coming winter.
I think what a lady in that situation wants is to be warm, and we can apply any number of tools to ensure that she is. Part of that is making money available through the winter fuel payment and pension credit, and part of it is improving the quality of our housing stock. That is the point—it is not simply about the winter fuel payment.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She is being very generous with her time.
The hon. Lady has indicated that there are plenty of areas of support for pensioners that should be used. However, when we start to dig into them and explore them, we realise that they are actually quite limited. For example, someone who applies to the boiler replacement scheme will get help only if they are in receipt of rate relief. The people who are in the most need, after means-testing, are those who receive housing benefit, but they are excluded from the scheme. There is therefore a double whammy—even if those people explore and try to exploit the assistance that exists, it is not available to them.
There are a number of schemes that are designed to provide such support, and I suspect that there are alternative schemes for people who claim housing benefit. Also, who is responsible for meeting the cost of such work depends on the nature of the landlord.
I should like to highlight some of the things that the Government have done to alleviate fuel poverty for pensioners. We have heard reference to the warm home discount, which will enable pensioners to have a mandatory rebate on their electricity bills. The Government have also permanently increased the cold weather payments, and it is very important to make that point when we consider where support is being directed. We can have the universal benefit of the winter fuel payments, and to some extent I am attracted to that, because we have poor levels of pension credit take-up. However, it is important that we strike a balance, because we can all point out people who are entitled to that benefit and perhaps do not need it. Focusing more support on cold weather payments, which go to pensioners who claim means-tested benefit, is entirely appropriate.
The motion concentrates on the cut in the winter fuel payments. The Minister said that the level that was previously budgeted for was only a temporary increase. Members have said that we could have decided to stick with that increase, and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) had a nice try when she said, “Look, this is a cut, it’s up to you what to do.” However, as I said, it is important to see the matter in the round and see what we have done to focus additional support on those who need it most, through cold weather payments.
Members have mentioned the issue of housing stock, and I encourage the Government to consider what more can be done to highlight the schemes that exist and encourage more people to take up support to improve the quality of housing. Ultimately, we are not going to tackle the issues of fuel poverty and ever-increasing bills unless we really focus on delivering energy efficiency in all our homes. We need to do that not just for pensioners but for low-income households in general.
With the green deal coming down the track, which could have a huge impact on heating bills right across the country, does my hon. Friend think the Government could learn lessons about how it should be administered, particularly for pensioners? There is a chance that the scheme could be wrapped up in red tape. We have heard about how restrictive various other schemes can be for the elderly. Cannot the Government learn lessons about how the green deal can be delivered for elderly people?
It is always a challenge for the Government and the public sector to deliver such schemes in a user-friendly way that makes them available to people and does not dissuade them. We need to continue our principle of using all organisations in society and making them approachable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) mentioned, we need to use voluntary groups and the other groups that are closest to pensioners, to encourage them to engage. We can see elements of that starting already in welfare reform. The Government are looking to local authorities to be stronger delivery partners, because they tend to be the organisations with which pensioners have the closest day-to-day contact. We need to think carefully about making support people-friendly and easy to access.
I wish to set the winter fuel payment against the broader context of what the Government are doing for pensioners. They have confirmed that they will be keeping other benefits, such as free TV licences, prescriptions and eye tests, and they have set aside £650 million to help local authorities freeze council tax. We should all recognise that council tax has been a real problem and has contributed to pensioners’ financial difficulties. As we know, if local authorities can limit their budget increases to 2.5%, the Government will meet the cost of the freeze. In recent years the average increase in council tax has been quite significant, and it has been a pernicious bill for many households.
I particularly wish to congratulate the Government on restoring the earnings link to pensions and introducing the triple lock to guarantee an increase in the basic state pension of the highest of earnings, prices or 2.5%. That measure will go further than any other in addressing pensioner poverty. It will give pensioners a firm financial foundation from the state and guarantee a more generous state pension. That is the essential goal of what we are trying to do—we want to ensure that everyone is guaranteed an income that will prevent them from being in poverty.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s point about improvements and annual increases in the state pension. Does she agree that some of our reforms to the NHS will also have a hugely beneficial effect on older people? Integrating social care with the NHS and giving the health and wellbeing boards a key health outcome of reducing fuel poverty represents a more holistic approach. We are considering pensioners, their families and their lifestyle in the round, and we are supporting them.
The broader point is that many of the issues that face us in later life have been parked for too long. I congratulate the Government on gripping them, and in the ongoing debate we will have to ensure that we have good provision for people in their later years. I believe that will occupy the House’s attention for quite some time, because we cannot afford to get it wrong. We all need to get behind the Government and help to tackle the matter.
I accept all the hon. Lady’s points, but this is not an either/or situation. Surely the winter fuel payments complement what she has described. As the Minister has acknowledged today, the Government are proposing cuts. Many of our pensioners are asset-rich but income-poor, and they fall into the means-testing trap. The winter fuel payment is one way to help them.
I was just about to come on to means-testing, because that is where problems have arisen. I completely take the hon. Gentleman’s point that many pensioners are asset-rich and cash-poor, and that is why they find it difficult to make ends meet and pay all their bills. However, the biggest problem with pension credit and the move to means-tested benefits is that a number of people are not claiming what they are entitled to, for a number of reasons. It is partly because of the complexity of the system, but probably one of the biggest reasons is pride. Those of us who were familiar with my grandparents’ generation know that they really did not want to ask for what they were entitled to. We have tried to strike a balance between universal payment and means-testing, to direct support to those who need it. Ultimately, that will work only if we make it easier, and less of a stigma, for people to claim what they are entitled to.
I am quite confident that we have got the balance right, but I am not confident that we are doing enough to encourage people to make claims. The National Audit Office has pointed out that of the one third of people who are entitled to pension credit who do not claim it, many are in the poorest households. All of us could do our bit by highlighting the fact that support is available to people and encouraging them to claim it if they are entitled to it.
We want to ensure that older people receive the help to which they are entitled, and we need to satisfy ourselves that we are putting enough measures in place to support our pensioners. I am grateful to Democratic Unionist party Members for initiating this debate, which has given us the opportunity to ask ourselves whether we are doing enough, and I congratulate the Government on all that they are doing in this area.
It is important to say at the start that DUP Members support the measures that coalition Members have talked about, including insulating walls and new windows, but we need to talk about now. We are coming into the winter, and we need to talk about winter fuel payments. Those other measures are good in their place, and eventually—hopefully—they will be implemented in many of our older buildings in the UK, but that is not happening now. We need to talk about the here and now of winter fuel payments.
I begin by quoting a Government Minister speaking in this Chamber a little earlier this year:
“I am sorry, we got this one wrong—but we have listened to people’s concerns. I thank colleagues for their support through what has been a very difficult issue. I now want to move forward in step with the public. I hope that the measures that I have announced today, signalling a fresh approach, demonstrate my intention to do the right thing”.—[Official Report, 17 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 1155-1156.]
That was the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs speaking about forestry. Would it not be an extraordinary state of affairs if a member of Her Majesty’s Government could come to the House to offer an apology, concede that the Government have got it wrong, say that they had listened to the people and announce a change of direction on forests, but another member of the Government says that there could be no such apology, announcement or about-turn when it comes to our elderly, who are some of the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society?
That is the distasteful core of the debate, and it is why the DUP moved this motion today. Some hon. Members might feel that using words such as “distasteful” is taking things a bit far, but let me quote from the independent financial advice website, moneysavingexpert.com. On 24 March 2011, it reported that the Chancellor had “secretly” cut the allowance. In an article published on 19 October 2011, fullfact.org considered the conflicting arguments between the political parties and referenced a recent piece jointly written by the Prime Minister on moneysavingexpert.com on 17 October. The fullfact.org article concluded by saying that despite questions on how long the payment was intended for,
“there seems to be no question that the payments are being reduced.”
My colleagues mentioned this earlier, but it perhaps needs to be mentioned again. The Minister asked, “Where does this extra money come from?” In that respect, we need to emphasise the hundreds of millions of pounds that have been poured into Europe—in Northern Ireland, we would say that it is disappearing like snow off a ditch. We see no benefit from the money, but our old and other members of society in the UK are suffering greatly for it. The Government need to re-look at the money that they are pouring into Europe while our old and infirm are suffering at home.
According to uSwitch.com, the price comparison website, the position for many in the UK is that since November last year, energy suppliers have increased their prices by £224, or 21%, on average. As a result, the average household energy bill has rocketed from £1,069 to £1,293 a year. In just over five years, household energy bills have rocketed by £633, or 96%, from £660 a year in 2006 to £1,293 a year today, following recent increases.
The number of those in fuel poverty has spiralled, with 6.9 million, or 27%, of households now affected. The worst affected groups are single working parents, pensioners or couples living off one income. Almost nine in 10 households—89%—will ration their energy use this winter to save on bills. As a result, potentially 23 million households will be switching off or turning down this winter, 4 million—or 16%—more than last year.
Eighty-seven per cent. of people are worried about the cost of their energy bills as they head towards the winter months, 26% more than last year. Fifty-five per cent. of people went without heating at some point last winter to keep energy costs down. That looks set to rise. The hefty 21%, or £224, hike in the last year means that energy costs are the top household worry for consumers—90% of households are worried about energy costs, whereas 42% of households are worried about mortgage payments and 77% are worried about the rising cost of food.
The disposable income of more than nine in 10 households —93%—has been hit by the rising cost of energy. Thirty-seven per cent. have seen a dramatic reduction in their disposable income, while 19% no longer have disposable income. More than one in three households—37%—are in bill debt and are using credit to cover their day-to-day household bills. Thirty-six per cent. owe more than £1,000 and more than one in 10 households—14%—owe more than £3,000.
If ever a year were exactly the worst time to introduce such a cut, it is this one. If ever there were a year when introducing such a cut was precisely the last thing that the Government ought to do, it is this one.
This debate was introduced by the DUP, but it is not simply about Northern Ireland; it is rightly about the entire UK. However, alongside the issues that I raised previously, I should like to focus on Northern Ireland. According to Age Sector Platform—other right hon. and hon. Members have stated this, but it needs to be stated again—last winter, Northern Ireland faced the coldest December for more than 100 years. It was a horrific time for the elderly. According to figures that I have been given, during the winter of 2009-10, 756 people aged 65-plus died of cold-related illnesses in Northern Ireland.
With the additional costs, the price hikes, the increased bill debt, the reduced disposable income and the increased rationing of warmth, does any right hon. or hon. Member really suppose that we will not witness more vulnerable people dying needlessly this year? Does anyone suppose that the planned cut will reduce the number of deaths? If the Government can come to the Chamber, offer an apology, claim to have listened to the views of the public and announce a U-turn on forests, why can they not do likewise for the old, the frail and the most vulnerable in our society?
There are many men and women fighting for this country in Afghanistan, or who fought in Iraq and Libya, who have parents at home who are vulnerable and getting it hard. They are fighting for their country while this coalition has taken away the very money that could help to heat their parents’ homes. That decision is unacceptable and needs to be reversed. If the Government can do it for forests, surely to goodness they can do it for the most vulnerable in our society.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). I commend him and his colleagues on bringing the motion to the House. In particular, I commend the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on the cogent and assertive way in which he moved the motion and anticipated many of the Government’s arguments.
The motion is timely and focused. Contrary to much of the debate, which has ranged far and wide along the full dimensions of fuel poverty, the structural condition of the housing stock, fuel prices and all those vagaries, the motion is focused on something under the control of the House and the Government: the decision on the winter fuel payments. We are clear that all those issues need to be addressed, and the measures taken by the previous and present Governments are to be encouraged, as too are other more far-reaching measures, but given the rampant rise in energy costs for older people and all the other pressures on their incomes, we cannot countenance complacency about the cut to winter fuel payments.
The decision on winter fuel payments represents a clear and present cut imposed by this Government. The Minister tried to argue first that it was not a cut, then that it was a Labour planned cut, but the fact is this: it is a clear and present cut for pensioner households already facing other pressures and difficulties. It is a sleight of hand for people to suggest, “Well, the Government were committed to doing what the previous Government did”, because really they said, “No, we’re only committed to doing what we think the previous Government planned, not what they did.”
The hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) said that we have to talk to and listen to our pensioners. I have, and every single one has told me that the cut is an issue for them, and every single one is clear that for three years they received payments at a certain level, but that this year they will not get them at that level. That is a cut, and it is a cut from this Government.
Yes, of course it is at a time when they need it most, and it is not only the time of year when they need it most but the time in the economic cycle—with all the difficulties that people are facing.
We have heard some duplicitous arguments from Government Members. On the one hand many people talk about the difficulties with means-tested benefits and with supporting pensioners through pension credits, but on the other hand we have heard criticisms of the fuel payment and the fact that it is not means-tested or discriminatory. We have heard contradictory arguments.
Indeed, the Minister earlier argued against the whole scheme, structure and logic of winter fuel payments. He actually argued against the allowance altogether and said that better, more discriminating interventions were available to protect people against fuel poverty and to support more deserving pensioners. In the light of his logic, I wonder whether the Government plan fundamentally to review or redesign the fuel payment.
The previous Government introduced the single annual payment in 1998, but the first time I heard it advocated was in 1988, when my predecessor, John Hume, commended to the then social security Minister, John Major, the introduction of an annual thermal allowance to overcome many of the difficulties with the cold weather payments, their inadequacy and the poor and inconsistent triggering system. Thankfully, we got something similar with the winter fuel payment in 1998.
Over the years, the amount of money committed to the payment has changed and top-ups have been introduced. Pensioners have come to see those top-ups as a given, and considering what the Prime Minister said going into the election, they had every right to expect them to remain a given. The motion tabled by my compatriots in the Democratic Unionist party gives the House the opportunity to signal to the Government that that is what we want and what pensioners expect.
Many valid arguments have been made about how to tackle fuel poverty—improving energy efficiency, for example. Although some of those measures can be introduced in Northern Ireland at the devolved level, others need wider intervention from here. Those could include more up-front investment in energy efficiency retrofit schemes or VAT concessions, not least to stimulate work in the hard-pressed construction sector, which is not building new houses. There is an awful lot of work that people with construction skills could do to retrofit and improve existing houses, and there are many things that young people who want to get construction skills could do on such schemes. The Government need to think more widely about other measures to tackle fuel poverty, but they should not use the existence of other interventions as an excuse to justify this unjustified cut.
I shall not rehearse the statistics on the levels of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland that my colleagues have mentioned because other Members want to speak, and nor shall I rehearse the number of winter deaths from fuel poverty either in the UK at large or in Northern Ireland. I shall only make the point that those deaths are avoidable and that we need to take what steps we can to avoid them. This cut is avoidable.
The Minister asked, “Where else can the money come from?” I do not necessarily agree with some of the suggestions from right hon. and hon. colleagues, although I am glad that the Government moved on from some of the vanity projects—for example, the NHS IT scheme. Money could also be saved on Trident.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned mortality. As he knows, I have family in Armagh, where the climate can be pretty tough, but it can be even colder and more difficult in Scandinavia, where the figures for hypothermia are much lower than ours. Is that not a point that we should bear in mind?
Yes, it is. That raises questions about investment in quality housing stock and the levels of social support, guarantees and interventions available in Scandinavian countries, and it is why we need to follow the precise focus of the motion, which relates specifically to the winter fuel payment.
I attended the Northern Ireland Pensioners’ Parliament to which hon. Members have referred. It took place in the summer—in June—yet the single strongest issue coming through concerned the winter fuel payment. Yes, people were aware of the changes and the pensions triple lock, but they did not buy it and obviously resented the sleight of hand, with the change in indexation and so on. What they focused on was the direct cut facing them. That is why so many people have campaigned on it, and not just in Northern Ireland.
As the Government look to what they can do to help shelter people from the effects of recession and face the rampant pressures on household costs, I hope that they will reinstate the top-up in winter fuel payments to support pensioners. When pensioners hear the question, “Where will the money come from?”, they say, as some pensioners said at the Pensioners’ Parliament, “When this quantitative easing happens”—supposedly so that money gets out there into the economy—“why is the money given to the banks?” When that money goes into the banks, does it get out there into the economy? Those pensioners make the sensible point—this is one thing we do know—that when we give money to pensioners, it will be spent. It will not stay in those households; it will be spent, in local shops and so on, and go usefully and legitimately into the economy. If there is another phase of quantitative easing and more money is made available to go into the economy, perhaps it should go via pensioners. Then we would all share in the benefits and, in particular, pensioners would be sheltered from the cold.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in this House on behalf of the elderly and those in need, and to address the issue of the winter fuel payment.
I read a statement the other day that said:
“The world is getting older. The UN has called the current global ageing trend a situation ‘without parallel in the history of humanity.’ Here in Northern Ireland, our very own society is ageing…An ageing demographic like this carries significant consequences for the fabric of our community. It changes how we plan the way we live; education systems, health and social care, work life, family life. It affects older people now and in the future.”
I am aware of the clear demographic changes in my constituency of Strangford, to which many people move to retire—it is a beautiful place to visit at most times, but it is also a nice place to retire—and where the issue of winter fuel payments comes up over and over again. It comes up because—let us be clear about this—winter fuel payments are not a luxury, but something that goes to pay for fuel, which, for most elderly people in my constituency, means oil. Therefore, the cost is greater than anywhere else. It is no exaggeration to say that literally hundreds of my constituents have spoken to my offices about this issue, and it is clear what they are telling me: winter fuel payments are critical for them to get through the winter.
Age NI has a vision for Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom:
“To create a world in which older people flourish,”
“To enhance and improve the lives of older people”.
Those are the words of Age NI, but they should apply everywhere in the United Kingdom, and be taken on board by all the elected representatives in this place as well.
Age NI has three themes—health and social care; poverty; and equality and human rights—but this evening we are focusing on poverty. Poverty affects health and social care, and winter fuel payments and poverty affect equality and human rights as well. Although there are many ways of helping—my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) spoke earlier about the pension credit, and the Minister responded in an intervention—we need a way of speeding the system up. The system needs a sense of urgency; I cite the number of times that I have to phone through to the pension credit system to ask for something to be done only for me to have to return to the problem a week later or perhaps the week after that. The system also needs less bureaucracy and paperwork.
The autumn spending review is an opportunity to put older people at the heart of Government policy and to plan for an ageing population. Northern Ireland has some 300,000 people of retirement age, who make up 17% of the population, and the trend is upward. Unfortunately, the figure will be 24% or 25% in a few years. The largest increase will be in what is sometimes referred to as the “older old”. It is not an “Irishism” to say that: it refers to those who are 80-plus, who feel the pain of winter more than most. Other Members have underlined that point today, stressing the importance of all those who fit into the pension bracket, but especially those who are 80-plus, of whom it is estimated that there will be some 130,000 in a short period of time. Again, that is a concern.
Two fifths of single pensioners and one fifth of pensioner couples have no income other than their retirement pension and state benefits. Whenever we put the issue in perspective, we see that the winter fuel payment means a whole lot to those people. Some 44% of my constituents are in fuel poverty. By the way, the same proportion of those entitled to draw the pension credit—44%—are not claiming it. When the Minister responds, I will be keen to hear her ideas about how we can ensure that they apply. One of the figures underlining this issue that came up in research is that average weekly unclaimed benefits are estimated at between £1.2 million and £2.3 million, which is a vast amount of money. It is important that we address those issues.
Some 23% of older people across certain parts of Northern Ireland are living in poverty, whereas the figure is 16% in the UK. The Minister referred to how we gauge the extra money in the winter fuel payment to reflect the temperature. I made the point in a Westminster Hall debate earlier this year that I drove from Greyabbey to Newtownards in my constituency, speaking to people along the way, and found different temperatures all the way up the road. Obviously the temperature is lower closer to the coast, but in certain parts of Ards it was below zero, while over in Ballygowan and Comber it was minus 3º or 4º. That is an illustration of how the temperature can vary within a 50 to 60-mile radius.
Why is it crucial that the winter fuel payment is made? Because a failure to do so will mean more referrals to the health service, with elderly care accounting for 21% of all the programme of care expenditure. I will not go into all the figures that others have mentioned, but I will make this point. It is important to make a “pre-emptive strike” when it comes to health, particularly through the winter fuel payment, which plays a clear role. For every death from cold, there are eight hospital admissions and 100-plus visits to GPs and health centres. When we add that to the figures, we know what we have to do about the winter fuel payment—it helps to avoid lots of those issues, too.
Elderly care expenditure per head for Northern Ireland is £2,086, while in Scotland it is £2,313 and in Wales it is £2,109. I would also like to make an important point—the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) made this point too—about Alzheimer’s and dementia. In some 26 years as an elected representative, I can never recall a time when so many people had dementia or Alzheimer’s. We therefore need to enable our senior citizens to enjoy a level of health that will not cost more later on. The winter fuel payment makes that contribution. The Government have stated that they will restore the earnings link for the basic state pension—that was indicated earlier. The income-poverty figures show that 23% of older people live in poverty, while the figure is 16% for the UK. Some 15% of people in Northern Ireland live in severe poverty—the figure is 9% in the UK, up 3% in the last year—while 30% of single women over 75 live in poverty, and 42% of those homes are condemned.
The winter fuel allowance is the biggest topic in my three advice centres. For those who qualify, the situation is simple. The price of oil has increased—indeed, it has never been as high. If the Government have any intention of reducing the winter fuel payment, balancing the books will not happen. Many OAPs have no income other than the state pension, as I said earlier. This was an issue last winter; it was an issue for me at the parliamentary elections a year and a half ago; it was an issue at the Northern Ireland Assembly elections back in May; and it is an even more critical issue today. I urge hon. Members to support our proposal.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my friends in the Democratic Unionist party on bringing forward this important debate. Fuel poverty is an important issue for all of us, and it is worth noting that in Scotland 770,000 homes are in fuel poverty and that, for every 5% rise in energy prices, a further 46,000 go into fuel poverty. Clearly, those, such as pensioners, who are on fixed incomes are much more likely to be affected by these escalating prices.
In an e-mail prior to the debate, the National Pensioners Convention and Greenpeace made the point that the winter fuel payment used to cover one third of a dual fuel energy bill, but it now covers less than one fifth. That shows how much pensioners are suffering. They also make the point, since the Minister raised the issue of cost, that the impact of cold housing on people’s health already costs the NHS more than £850 million a year, while restoring the winter fuel allowance would cost only £695 million. It is thus questionable whether there is much of a saving in what the Government are doing. The rises in energy prices cannot be looked at in isolation because just as they rising, so is the cost of road fuel, food and other essentials. Clearly, those, such as pensioners, on fixed incomes are the most affected.
In June this year, I received a written answer from the Secretary of State to a question on energy prices and inflation, which showed that in four out of the last five years, the rise in domestic energy prices—whether we use the retail prices index, the consumer prices index or whatever measure—had outstripped the rate of inflation. That was before the latest round of price hikes. The Government’s usual mantra of energy efficiency and switching simply does not wash with pensioners who are struggling to pay their bills. The amount that most people can save from switching is not going to make a significant difference to these bills. That is especially true for the poorest pensioners. To get a better deal on energy bills by switching, they have to move to a direct debit tariff, and many of the poorest pensioners do not have bank accounts or simply like to juggle their bills in the month and do not want to see money coming out of their account on a regular day in the month.
I very much agree that we should insulate our houses and take more measures, but that is a long-term project. What is needed now is relief for our pensioners from ever-escalating bills. In discussing the situation in Northern Ireland, the Minister made it clear that the overall effect of increasing the cold weather payment as against reducing the winter fuel allowance amounted to a cut in the total sums going to pensioners. Frankly, that is irresponsible at a time when prices are escalating.
It is interesting to note the tendency of some Government Members to question whether there should be a universal winter fuel allowance at all, but I would remind them that in the last Parliament they argued against means-testing for pension credit—correctly, in my view—on the grounds that many pensioners would, through pride, not claim means-tested benefit. The same applies here, and I think the Minister’s figures on the trial project of direct payment of pension credit clearly demonstrate that there needs to be universality in order to get through to pensioners.
Let me mention one group of special problems for which I suggest there might be cost-free or at least a very low-cost partial solution. It applies to those who are off the gas grid who rely on home fuel oil for their heating—a problem in Northern Ireland and in large areas of Scotland. These people do not get the special tariffs available for those on the grid and, in many of these areas, extending the gas grid is simply not a practical proposition because of the geography of the area. Even worse, in winter time, these people cannot even be sure of the price of their fuel during the time between ordering and delivering, since in many cases a company will not give them a price at the time of ordering—the price was certainly rising high last winter.
I have previously raised the possibility of allowing these people to receive their winter fuel allowance earlier in the year, which would allow them to fill up their tanks when demand and prices might well be lower. It is not an absolute solution, but it might help in some way. I have raised this with energy Ministers before and I was told that they would consider matters, but nothing seems to have been done. We need to look at solutions like this to alleviate a very serious situation.
The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) talked about the three pillars, and the Minister rightly said that many of these issues were devolved. That is true, but at least two of these pillars—energy prices and the money that comes through benefits—are not devolved matters. The devolved Parliaments and Assemblies thus have a problem in dealing with fuel poverty.
From the outset, the Scottish Parliament has been inventive in tackling these issues. All parties were involved in the central heating scheme in the first instance, and now it has moved on. The current Scottish Government’s energy assistance package, which is worth £33 million, has helped 150,000 people on low incomes to reduce their energy bills. One in six Scottish homes have been visited for a home energy check, which also looks at the benefits side. We all agree that something needs to be done about this, and almost 18,000 installations have been made.
The package was originally targeted at pensioners, but has since been extended to help other vulnerable people in these very difficult times and, in addition to helping pensioners, the scheme has been extended to include the disabled, families with young or disabled children, those with severe disabilities and the terminally ill—and it is to be extended to include those on carers allowance, which could benefit up to another 7,000 households. Next year, the £50 million warm home fund will also begin operation to give additional help to the fuel poor. None of these programmes is cheap; none will ever be cheap. If we go down the road of looking only at energy efficiency, however, we will not tackle the immediate problem. It will take many years before all our homes are energy efficient; the cost of doing it is enormous. Although it is a good thing in the long term, we must also deal in the short term with the immediate problem of getting our pensioners through this coming winter.
At the outset, let me thank all Members who have attended and contributed to the debate. My hon. Friends have agreed with most things, but there have been disagreements on some other issues. That, of course, is the mark of a healthy democracy. We appreciate the contributions of all Members to the debate.
On Friday this week, my constituent Bill Carson will lead 190 pensioners up the hill at Stormont into the Senate chamber for the second meeting of the Pensioners’ Parliament. It has been a very important Parliament meeting in Northern Ireland, which represents—across all constituencies and across the entire community—the feelings of pensioners and people in the aged sector who have issues to raise with the Government. They will debate the report published in June this year, which deals with all the matters that affect pensioners in Northern Ireland. It is a detailed report and lying behind it is a series of surveys carried out across all constituencies asking thousands of pensioners what issues affected them most and what key matters drove their lives today.
Consistently throughout this report, the pensioners came back to one thing, and one thing only—keeping warm this winter. Indeed, the response was significant. In the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency 83.6% of respondents said that the only thing and key thing they were worried about—their No. 1 priority—was keeping warm in winter and energy prices. In Belfast, it was the same: keeping warm in winter and energy prices were the main concern. In my own constituency of North Antrim, it was the same, as it was in Armagh, County Londonderry, County Tyrone and County Down. Right across Northern Ireland, the response was the same.
Nowhere is an island in political terms. The reality is that when a message is as consistent as that and comes back like a tsunami, a response must be made. This House has to face the gauntlet that has been thrown down. The Government must answer the question of what they are prepared to do when pensioners from all across the United Kingdom as well as Northern Ireland say that the issue affecting them most is the fact that they want to stay warm this winter. One of the easiest ways for the Government to help them to stay warm and assist them is through the winter fuel allowance.
As some people might say colloquially, “It’s a no brainer”—and it really is a no brainer. I hope that the Government are listening. We are not after argy-bargy with the Government—we can do argy-bargy with them and we have done it with them and other Governments in the past—because that is not what this issue is about. I believe that Members in all parts of the House care passionately about the needs of the elderly, so let us do something about that: let us address the issues simply and straightforwardly.
The average cost per household of heating oil and electricity in Northern Ireland this year will be £2,114. It is higher in Northern Ireland because more people there have to use heating oil. There is no way around that. All the other mechanisms—improving home efficiency, housing standards and so forth—are fine and dandy, and we will get there one day, but the fact remains that in rural areas 82% of people today rely on heating oil for their homes. The Government have a responsibility to address those people’s needs, and the winter fuel allowance provides them with the easiest, fairest and most consistent way of doing so.
It should be emphasised that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said in his opening speech, this is a life and death issue. We can skirt around it and play about with it, but actions have consequences, and the actions that will be taken by those on either side of the House tonight will have their own consequences. I put it to Members that if they support the motion to which my right hon. Friend spoke so ably, they will save lives. When we cut out all the baloney and party politics, the bottom line is simple: lives will be saved if we keep this allowance. Whose side are we on? Are we going to save lives, or is there the potential for our actions tonight, and the actions of others in this place, to lead to the loss of more elderly lives?
I want to see energy efficiency in our homes, but, as has been pointed out by John Hills of the interim fuel poverty review group, those on low incomes cannot afford the investment that is required to make their homes energy-efficient. Even when the other available benefits are marshalled, it will take some time for us to get energy-efficient homes. I do not want to get sidetracked into all the other poverty issues, but those on low incomes face a triple whammy: the cut in the payments that we are discussing, the hike in energy costs, and the need for their energy-inefficient homes to be heated. We must address the needs of our elderly people as a matter of urgency.
The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) suggested an extension in the gas grid in Northern Ireland as a possible solution. We should love to see that happen, but there is not sufficient footfall for it to happen quickly. The rurality of Northern Ireland makes it more difficult to achieve. We will get there, but it will take time. This measure addresses the problem now, deals with the position as it is, and allows us to make progress.
As we were told by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North, £60 million of benefit is unclaimed, sometimes as a result of ignorance but sometimes as a result of stubborn pride, and whatever the Government are doing is not enough to encourage people to claim it. We have a solution which is already working, and which gives the Government an opportunity to continue to assist those who are in most need.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) was right to say that the Government would be judged not on the basis of what the previous Government had said and done, but on the basis of what they themselves would say and do. That is the bottom line for the Government tonight. What will they do about this issue? I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and explaining what the last Chancellor did, what he should have done and what he could have done, but it was convenient enough for him to say all that. What he should say is the right thing: that we—the Government and the House of Commons—will maintain the winter fuel allowance at the higher rate to help pensioners in a way that really works, putting money in their pockets and allowing them to fill their heating tanks, keep warm, and spend the rest of their money on food.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me, and with many other Members, that if this is about a lack of money and about the economic situation—as the Government obviously feel that it is—we should simply say to the European Union, “We will not pay you this extra amount because we would much rather give it to our pensioners, our old people, than send it to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels”?
When I look at some of the Members who are sitting in other parts of the House, I think that this is another issue on which we might unite the House. The hon. Lady is right: where there is a will, there is a way.
The Minister of State spoke of a baseline, which was all about money. Let me extend the musical metaphor and say, “Your baseline was flat, sir, and your ear was not in tune with the needs of the community.” If the House is to be relevant, it must be in tune with the needs of our elderly folk out there. It must ensure that their needs are not only properly addressed, but met. The Minister wanted bells and bouquets for what the Government are doing. I do not mean to be dramatic, but the fact is that the cuts they are proposing will bring wreaths, and the bell will toll for the most vulnerable members of society. It is clear that this cut will not deliver the assistance to pensioners that they claim their other policies and benefits will deliver.
I was disappointed when the Minister told us—a little disingenuously, I think—that he had been in contact with the Social Development Minister in Northern Ireland. I am sure that that is true, but I understand that the conversation took place a matter of days ago. The Minister has been in office for a year and a half, and ours is the coldest part of the United Kingdom. I am not a cynic, but I am tempted to suggest that the conversation with the Social Development Minister may have been prompted by today’s debate. I hope that if it was, the Minister of State will note what has been said, and will deliver for the House and the people.
I do not think that we should be sidetracked into discussing other possibilities, such as what could be achieved through gas pricing and energy efficiency measures. We should deal with the issue that is on the Order Paper, which is straightforward and simple: will the Government maintain the winter fuel allowance as the public expect them to, and will they keep the promises that were made at the last election? I believe that that is what is fair and right.
I thank Opposition Members for raising this important subject. We have had a lively debate.
Let me begin by emphasising that the coalition Government take the issue of pensioner poverty very seriously. Our record demonstrates that. We pay more than £2 billion in winter fuel payments, and we pay it to more than 12.5 million pensioners, including more than 300,000 in Northern Ireland last year. The payments go to pensioners regardless of their income, and most do not even have to make a claim. I think that Members on both sides of the House agree that the winter fuel payment makes a real difference, ensuring that pensioners can turn up their heating in the knowledge that they will receive the help they need in order to meet their heavy winter bills.
It is regrettable that the last Administration decided not to provide for a temporary increase to become permanent—to last beyond the year of a general election. People can draw their own conclusions about why a temporary increase in winter fuel payments extended in the year running up to a general election but not beyond. It is most telling that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), who spoke for the Opposition, failed to pledge to make concrete the previous Government’s temporary increase. I say that because she is a shadow Treasury Minister and if she does not know whether the Opposition would make that permanent, who would?
Will the Minister accept that it is time that this Government took responsibility for their actions? The decision whether to pay this increase is entirely down to this Government, and it would be irresponsible for anyone on the Government Benches to suggest otherwise. It was not the previous Government but this Government who took the decision on this budget.
I think the House will draw its own conclusions from the fact that the hon. Lady again failed to take the opportunity to make clear what the Labour party’s policy is on this issue. The coalition Government have made permanent the increase in the cold weather payment from £8.50 to £25. Again, hon. Members on both sides of the House will be pleased to hear that that money is going to the most vulnerable of our constituents. Some 2.7 million pensioner households receiving pension credit also receive the cold weather payment.
The coalition Government are taking real steps to protect pensioners, which is why one of our first actions was to restore the earnings link with the basic state pension. We also gave a triple guarantee that pensions will be increased by the highest of growth in average earnings, price increases or 2.5%. Pension credit is also available for those who have low incomes, and we have continued key support for older people such as free NHS prescriptions, travel concessions and free television licences. For the longer term, we will need to help prevent people from retiring into poverty. Again, our actions are speaking louder than mere words, through the automatic enrolment in workplace pensions.
Hon. Members have made a strong case as to why fuel poverty is a real issue for many vulnerable people, including pensioners living in Northern Ireland. The differences in Northern Ireland are clear, and hon. Members have made that point in this debate. That is why Northern Ireland receives not only the support from pension credits, winter fuel payments and cold weather payments, which are provided for the rest of the UK, but a block grant of some £10.4 billion in funding for the Executive to address the particular priorities of Democratic Unionist party Members and other Northern Ireland Members. That money goes along with some £6 billion to pay for the cost of social security and pensions. We should not forget that Northern Ireland receives almost 25% more in spend per head of population than England, in recognition of the real issues that individuals living in Northern Ireland face.
The Minister makes a very valid point, but will she also acknowledge that, as we have highlighted in this debate, the people have horrendously higher needs in Northern Ireland, which arise because of ill health, fuel poverty and so on? Our energy prices are also much higher than those in the rest of the United Kingdom, so what she says needs to be put into perspective.
I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. Indeed, that is why the block grant is so sizeable, and it is important that we recognise that.
Although we clearly want to address these issues here in Westminster, it is important that we work closely with colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive. As the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), mentioned, I was in Belfast only last week meeting the Minister for Social Development to discuss child poverty issues in particular. Addressing fuel poverty is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, and they are well placed to determine what measures should be in place to meet local needs. Hon. Members will be aware that earlier this year Northern Ireland launched its own fuel poverty strategy, which set out key areas for improving the situation for local people. I hope that after today’s debate the Executive may consider some of the initiatives in England and Great Britain, particularly the obligation on energy suppliers, which could well be other ways to improve things over the water.
We heard important contributions from right hon. and hon. Members across the House today, but there have been some puzzling absences. Where is the shadow Minister for older people? Where is the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions? We welcome the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, but she is the shadow Financial Secretary—perhaps that is telling in terms of how the Opposition are dealing with this issue.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) made a number of important points, and he talked about benefit take-up. I hope that he can bring himself to support the work that my Department is doing, through the introduction of universal credit, to improve the working age take-up of benefits. That is slightly different from the issue we are discussing today relating to pensioners, but it will make an important contribution.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun made a number of important points, and I thank her for that. The very existence of the winter fuel payment does help with people’s mental housekeeping and reassures older people that they can afford to turn up the heating, as she recognised in her contribution. However, I must say to her that tackling fuel poverty in Northern Ireland is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. We have to make sure that those important devolved matters are dealt with at a local level. As I said, she was not clear about the Labour party’s stance on the winter fuel payment, but perhaps she will clarify it in the closing stages of this debate—or perhaps she will not.
The Minister of State talked about the importance of prioritising those most in need and he highlighted the fact that we have reversed Labour’s cut to the cold weather payments. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) highlighted the fact that we are dealing with a complex set of factors. I have to be careful now, because I think that I have to correct the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea). He said that we were cutting support for the most vulnerable but that is absolutely not the case. We are reversing Labour’s proposed cuts to the cold—