Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to report annually on the representativeness in respect of relevant postcode districts of weather stations designated for the purpose of calculating cold weather payments and to conduct a study of alternative methods of calculating cold weather in each postcode district; and for connected purposes.
This Bill seeks to improve cold weather payments to take better account of the location of vulnerable people. Some vulnerable people get a one-off payment of £25 towards their heating during periods of cold weather when the temperature is below 0° C for seven consecutive days, or forecast to be so. Those who qualify are older people, people with a disability and families with young children who are on certain means-tested benefits and who live in particular postcode areas.
However, some vulnerable people are missing out because of how the areas where the weather is sufficiently cold to trigger the payments are defined—that is, by postcode. That is hitting people in upland areas of my Arfon constituency and, I have no doubt, in other upland areas across Wales and England.
Several broad questions about the scheme have always troubled me. Yes, £25 is worth having, but is the payment enough to make a real difference? Must it be paid retrospectively? That is a key issue for anyone on a low income who has to buy their energy up front. And why is there a cut-off date of the last day of March? The weather can be very hard in April and even May, particularly in upland areas.
The subject of the Bill is how the Department for Work and Pensions decides whether it has been, or will be, sufficiently cold for a qualifying period in a particular area. I note in passing that cold weather payments were devolved to the Scottish Government by the Scotland Act 2016, and the system is currently being reviewed for improvement. I will look with interest at how the Scottish Government modify decision making to take proper account of their topography.
What is the problem for Wales and England? At present, help is provided to people on two conditions, according to their vulnerability and their postcode. People’s vulnerability is established by the benefits they receive—their vulnerability having already been verified in assessing those benefits—but their inclusion in a particular geographical area is a potential problem, as geographical areas are defined by postcodes, which do not necessarily reflect topography or weather conditions.
My Arfon constituency is a case in point, as it is bundled together with neighbouring Ynys Môn. Arfon includes a fair chunk of mountainous Eryri—Snowdonia, in English—and the clue is in the name. Ynys Môn is the island of Anglesey: flat, coastal, and basking on its western face in the gulf stream as it heads north. Readings for the relevant temperature are taken not in upland areas of around 200 metres above sea level, such as Deiniolen, Rhosgadfan and Mynydd Llandygai, but at Mona on the western side of the island.
In fairness, there is variability in the Arfon constituency itself—constituencies are not a particularly good definer, either. Most people in Arfon live close to the sea, and Arfon means “upon Môn” or “next to the sea.” But for other vulnerable constituents, the payments are a postcode lottery.
I have had invaluable expert advice from Dr Graham Bird of the school of natural science at Bangor University in preparing the Bill. He notes, for example, from data collected at the university’s Henfaes research centre at Abergwyngregyn that the temperature difference between sea level and 200 metres above sea level can vary from 0° to as much as 4.3°, with an average of between 1.5° and 2.5°.
There are no long-term weather station records from within Arfon, but records from stations for over 20 years at Capel Curig and Cwmystradllyn, at similar elevations of 200 metres, show winter temperatures 1.6° to 2° lower than on Anglesey. Finally, a snapshot over 21 days in October 2017 showed temperatures at Capel Curig up to 3° lower than at Mona at 1 pm and 2.3° lower at 7 pm. Dr Bird therefore concludes that
“there is a strong argument for saying that the temperature data collected on Anglesey is not particularly representative of upland areas of north Gwynedd or neighbouring west Conwy.”
In response to my Bill, the Department for Work and Pensions has said:
“The scheme links postcodes to the weather stations that provide the most stable and accurate readings for average temperatures.”
I have no doubt that the readings at Mona are stable and accurate, but are they representative of all the postcode areas designated to that station? The Department has also said:
“Each year we review the scheme, seeking expert advice from the Met Office, taking into account representations from MPs and the public.”
My Bill calls for a report on that review that can be discussed publicly. The only reports that we found in researching the Bill were from 1996 and 1997. The 1997 report suggested using individual readings from all 600 postcode areas and incorporating a wind chill factor. Those suggestions were rejected on the grounds of increased complexity. An annual report would allow us all to engage properly in an informed and open debate on the system’s future.
Lastly, my Bill calls for consideration of alternative decision-making systems. I have thought long and hard about this, but I am a layperson. I do not know for certain what those alternative systems might be and how they might work. I will look at any changes in Scotland with interest. I note that, at present, the Department uses information from only about half the 200 available Met Office weather stations. Perhaps using more stations or alternative stations could be debated following the report’s publication.
Cold weather payments have been the subject of debate in Wales and elsewhere over the past few days. I am grateful to the sponsors of my Bill and Dr Bird, and I am grateful for the public support of the older people’s commissioner for Wales, Age Cymru and the Bevan Foundation, and for the support of individual constituents in Arfon and across Wales and England. I am also grateful for the two positive meetings I have had with the Under- Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), and for the concern that he and his officials have shown.
I realise that the prospects for change this year are slim, but I trust that the Minister will do all he can and act as soon as possible. Refining the system would not lead to a bonanza for cold, poor, vulnerable people, but the figures from Arfon suggest one or two extra payments per winter, which is worth striving for. There is no time to lose, as the bitter twist to this tale is that each winter there are about 30,000 excess deaths, many of them traceable to poor heating, or even no heating at all.
Question put and agreed to.
That Hywel Williams, Debbie Abrahams, Neil Gray, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Jim Shannon, Caroline Lucas, Dr David Drew, Albert Owen, Douglas Chapman, Liz Saville Roberts, Jonathan Edwards and Ben Lake present the Bill.
Hywel Williams accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 273).