My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.
The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will consider supplying purpose-made electric-blanket type heaters suitable for use as a coverlet to an armchair or for a bed to those elderly people and others who cannot afford adequate overall room heating and are in consequence in danger of dying from hypothermia.
My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have recognised the impact of rising fuel prices on poor fuel consumers and are currently spending about £200 million a year on special help for them. However, ways of keeping warm are very much a matter of personal preference best left to the individual to decide.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, although it does not really seem to answer my Question at all. First, would he confirm that allowances given to people for fuel can be spent on other things and frequently are? Secondly, is he aware of the number of cases of hypothermia which have occurred in recent years? Thirdly, surely he would think that investigation of a proposal on the lines I am suggesting would at least be worth while. Does he further realise that, in addition to the suggestion that I had put down on the Order Paper, there are other alternatives which might be very welcome if they were on the market. In the war there were heated flying suits. One can imagine an armchair similarly heated. Would the noble Lord take this matter a little more seriously and investigate it?
My Lords, the noble Viscount has asked me rather a lot of questions and I will try to deal with them. First, I think perhaps the most important question was the number of deaths by hypothermia. I should like to tell the House that there are just over half a million deaths in England and Wales each year, and there are about 20 deaths from hypothermia out of that total. I understand that there are death certificates showing it as either a main or subsidiary cause of death in the case of 600 or 700. So the incidence of hypothermia is nothing like as large as it is sometimes said to be, although I realise it is a very important matter. With regard to the noble Viscount's suggestion of blankets or coverlets, there are a number of such products on the market and they can be bought by anyone who wishes to do so. But there are problems with them for the elderly and infirm; it may or may not be wise for them to buy them. Plugging in such products, or zipping them up in some cases, is not at all easy for handicapped and disabled people.
My Lords, is not the fact that the suggestion is being made that old people should spend their lives sitting in armchairs wrapped in electric blankets a sad reflection on life in the 1980s under a Tory Government?
My Lords, I quite agree that it would certainly be a very bad thing to do, either with a Labour or a Conservative Government.
My Lords, while appreciating the motive behind the noble Viscount's very well-intentioned Question, in connection with his Answer, may I ask the noble Lord to bear in mind that overheating or too rapid reheating of cold elderly people could in fact be a potent cause of circulatory failure and indeed death? What is really necessary for elderly people is good food, warm clothing and an adequate standard of living. We really should bear in mind that there are grave dangers in merely heating them up.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for saying that. There is a rather good pamphlet available from all the health authorities giving people common-sense advice on this matter.
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Minister whether he is in a position to say whether the department will be undertaking, or is already undertaking, some kind of publicity to call the attention of people entitled to certain benefits, particularly the heating benefit, to the fact that these benefits do exist?
Yes, my Lords, attention is drawn to this. The £200 million I mentioned in my first Answer goes very much to supplementary benefit families and also to those on family income supplement, and they are, of course, kept well in touch with the department.