My Lords, winter fuel payments are paid to people aged 60 and over to help to mitigate the effects of cold weather during the winter months. There are no plans to alter the eligibility criteria for winter fuel payments this winter. This year, the winter fuel payment is £250 for households with someone aged between 60 and 79, and £400 for households with someone aged 80 and over.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer but, given the National Audit Office’s scathing report on the failure of the Government’s Warm Front programme to reach the poorest and most vulnerable of our people, I wonder whether he might like to look at this again. When are the Government really going to get it right on fuel poverty?
My Lords, fuel poverty is a significant issue for the Government. We are committed to tackling it and have already put in place a number of measures to help those vulnerable to it. Since 2000, the Government have spent £20 billion on benefits and programmes to help those vulnerable to fuel poverty. In addition to this help, in September 2008 the Government announced an extra £1 billion package to tackle fuel poverty; the proposed new package includes £910 million towards the national home energy saving programme.
My Lords, will the Government consider extending the eligibility of this scheme to those in receipt of the higher rate mobility component of the disability living allowance who are under 60? I declare an interest in that I receive the DLA, although unfortunately I am not under 60. There is a limit to the number of woolly jumpers that people can wear when the weather gets very cold and they have very limited mobility.
My Lords, as I explained, we have no plans to extend eligibility. We believe that the right way to support people who are disabled is through disability benefits, in particular the disability living allowance. At the moment, somebody on the highest rate of care component and the higher rate of mobility component would receive a benefit of something in excess of £113 per week. We believe that that is the right way. I should add that people who are disabled do not necessarily suffer the consequences of fluctuating weather conditions. For example, someone who is profoundly deaf will not necessarily have an extra need for support with their heating, compared with others.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that the Government have done their share towards combating fuel poverty and it is about time that some of the utility companies accepted their responsibility? Although energy prices have been falling, that has not been reflected in consumer prices at anything like the speed that the increases were when energy prices started rising.
My Lords, my noble friend is right that the energy companies need to do more, which is why the Government are engaged with them, particularly on data sharing, so that their efforts can be targeted on the most vulnerable. My noble friend is also right about energy prices. Domestic gas prices rose by 51 per cent in the year to September 2008 and domestic electricity prices rose by 31 per cent. While wholesale forward prices for gas and electricity have fallen by something like 40 per cent, that has not yet fed through into cuts to retail consumers, although some of the energy companies have at last announced some decreases.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the energy companies, particularly the gas and electricity suppliers to householders, are bombarding customers with various bits of literature? First, they have a self-read scheme, then they write and say that they do not have one and are going to do X, Y and Z instead. The documents are all in small type with lots of words and they go straight into the rubbish basket. What is Ofgem doing about making the companies more consumer friendly and making people who suffer from fuel poverty aware of what they can do and what they can get? I see that the noble Lord sitting beside the Minister is nodding in agreement.
My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a relevant point, on which my noble friend was whispering in my ear. We are continuing to engage on the issue to make sure that the messages from the energy companies are clear and, importantly, targeted on the most vulnerable in particular.
My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that the fuel poverty lobby, of which I am happy to be an office bearer, both in Scotland and in the rest of the UK, has been advocating a gold standard for the relief of the poorest consumers? At the moment, we are allowing a free market in poverty subsidy rather than properly addressing the issue. The Government really have to grasp the legislative nettle and create a gold standard for fuel poverty assistance for the poorest consumers. We cannot allow the matter to be left to companies, which often fail to meet the undertakings that they have given to the Government because there is a lack of definition in what is required. The Government should show leadership on the issue.
My Lords, I believe that we are showing leadership on the issue. We are continuing to engage with the energy companies. In the Pensions Act last year, we legislated on data sharing, which is an important component of making sure that we can share data on the most vulnerable so that the energy companies can play their part. As for what the Government are doing to play their part, in winter 2007-08 we made more than 12 million payments to more than 8.5 million households. In total, something like £2 billion was spent on winter fuel payments over the winter.
My Lords, the winter fuel allowance is not the only way of combating fuel poverty. There are also cold weather payments to certain recipients of benefit. As these depend on weather stations and their hinterland, is the Minister satisfied that the stations are in the right places?
My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right to say that cold weather payments are part of the support that is available. The Government have increased the allowance from £8.50 to £25 over the post-Christmas period. The Met Office advises that the network of 76 weather stations is sufficient to provide national coverage with a reasonable level of local sensitivity. Three main factors are taken into account in recommending links between postcodes and weather stations: the proximity of the station to the main centres of population; whether the weather station is reasonably representative of the local climatic conditions; and the speed and reliability with which information about temperatures can be obtained. These are reviewed on a routine basis and any representations made are taken into account. The noble Lord may be interested to know that, of the 76 stations, 61 have triggered cold weather payments during the current season. There has been a total of 156 triggers, rising from just one per area to as many as six.