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Fuel Poverty

Volume 709: debated on Thursday 23 April 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that all cancer patients living in fuel poverty are receiving the financial help to which they are entitled.

My Lords, we are fully committed to providing a scheme of social security benefits to meet the circumstances and needs of the population and to advertise those benefits as widely as possible. The Pension, Disability and Carers Service has an outreach programme and attends more than 1,000 external events and exhibitions each year. The department routinely consults stakeholders such as Macmillan Cancer Support, and the Department of Health is developing information prescriptions, which include information on welfare benefits.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that he is aware of the Macmillan campaign “Freeze out Fuel Poverty”, but is he aware of its two particular concerns that, first, cancer patients over 60 get a winter fuel payment whereas those below 60 do not and, secondly, that, as the National Audit Office report Tackling Cancer: Improving the Patient Journey made clear, 77 per cent of cancer patients are not given any financial information whatever?

My Lords, on the latter point, the noble Baroness is absolutely right about the conclusion of the report, the research for which goes back four or five years. That was acknowledged in the Cancer Reform Strategy, which was published in December 2007. Running on from it was the determination to introduce information prescriptions, part of which would give people advice on benefits and available financial support. With regard to the first point on fuel poverty, the winter fuel payment is specifically targeted at pensioners, not just disabled people or cancer patients, to support them during winter. We believe that the right approach to support vulnerable people generally who have extra needs, including fuel needs, is through the disability benefits provisions, which are available throughout the year.

My Lords, do the Government plan to revise their fuel poverty strategy in light of the fact that it will not hit its target in 2010 to eradicate fuel poverty among vulnerable households, which include people under the age of 60 with terminal illnesses?

My Lords, yes, a review of the fuel poverty strategy is under way and is due to report to Ministers, particularly DECC Ministers, later this year. I should take the opportunity to say that this is a very important issue for the Government. Since 2000, something like £20 billion has been spent on support to keep people out of fuel poverty through a range of measures, not only the winter fuel allowance. I am sure that the noble Baroness will join me in congratulating the Government on their Budget yesterday, which will continue the extra payments that are available through the Warm Front scheme and the cold weather payments, as well as our engagement on social tariffs.

My Lords, with the indulgence of the House and not wishing to display too much sensitivity, let me advise noble Lords that the question that I asked yesterday was not a plant, as indeed the question that I am asking today is not a plant. Is my noble friend aware that for the past two years my 21 year-old granddaughter has been receiving treatment at Christie Hospital in Manchester? That has interrupted her university education and, although she does not experience fuel poverty, she has had tremendous financial help from the measures taken by the Government.

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend’s intervention and can confirm that neither that question nor the one that he asked yesterday was planted. I do not know the individual circumstances outlined by my noble friend but I am delighted and heartened to hear that the Government’s focus on supporting vulnerable people—the people who most need our help—has been so successful.

My Lords, will the review take into account the view that these extra payments ought to be means-tested, so that those who are really in need of them get them?

My Lords, part of the system to support disabled people involves means-testing, but part of it does not. Disability living allowance, which is a key plank of support, is not means-tested. It is focused on the needs that people have. We have not means-tested the winter fuel allowance, which is a popular and well supported universal benefit that is available to people over the age of 60. That is the right way for it to continue.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister and his Government, in all the measures that they have put forward over the past 10 years to help people with all sorts of disabilities, needs and requirements, particularly on fuel poverty, intend to do well. Unfortunately, the forms are so complicated that it is difficult to get any of the money, which means that organisations such as Macmillan have to come to us to plant Questions for us to put down in good faith to find a way through all this complexity. Will the Government, in their dying days, take time to put that right?

My Lords, the noble Baroness would not expect me to accept that the Government are in their dying days; we are full steam ahead on all fronts. The complexity of form-filling is an important issue. The Government are working and have worked to make a range of benefits more accessible, especially pension credit, enabling people to access them by phone and to have multiple benefits dealt with at the same time. In preparing for this Question, I looked at the Macmillan website. The information that Macmillan produces is brilliant and really helpful. Part of the process of dealing with information prescriptions is to signpost people so that they get information from their GPs and other care professionals not only about which government department to contact but about organisations such as Macmillan, which should be congratulated on the fantastic stuff that it produces.