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1979-1987 - Mr Major’s Response to the Severe Weather Payments Debate

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons response to the Severe Weather Payments debate, held on 14th January 1987.


Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West) I beg to move, That this House, recognising that the Government deliberately chose such a low threshold as -1.5° Centigrade for the Exceptionally Severe Weather Payments Scheme so as to ensure that help is difficult to obtain and insecure in provision, and noting that as a result of the break in the uprating with earnings, single pensioners are today £8 per week worse off and married couple £12 per week worse off than under Labour's formula, calls upon the Government to pay £5 per week automatically as of right to all the poorest and most needy pensioners and families with small children as the only way to guarantee that they receive the necessary heating when they need it without fear of debt.

Mr. Speaker I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Meacher A month ago the Opposition launched a debate demonstrating that the Government's proposals for exceptionally severe weather payments were a cruel farce because the scheme had been rigged in such a way that hardly a pensioner would get a penny. We pressed the Government to improve the scheme before it was introduced on 12 December, but the Government took no notice. We then held another debate a week before Christmas to urge the Government to reconsider. Again the Government took no notice.

Last week was bitterly cold and culminated in the coldest night for a quarter of a century. If there was ever a need for exceptionally severe weather payments it was demonstrated last week. Precisely one area in the entire country, one area out of the 64 weather station areas into which Britain is divided, triggered the minus 1.5 deg. C threshold. That area, Eskdalemuir, is a sparsely populated area in south-west Scotland where there are probably more sheep than people. It was obvious that the scheme had fallen at the first hurdle yet two days ago faced with irrefutable evidence of the scheme's pathetic inadequacy, the Minister blithely insisted that the new system had to be given a try.

Precisely one day later, yesterday, the Prime Minister denounced the scheme as a bureaucratic procedure as though her Government had not introduced it in the first place. The Minister made a statement confessing that it did not matter about the temperature readings and that he would pay all the pensioners in the qualifying categories. Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth". We want to know whether the Government are genuinely repenting or whether this is a convenient one-off concession brought about, not by the temperature outside, but by the political temperature inside. This change of mind on the part of the Government was taken at the last possible moment yesterday and was clearly prompted by an anxiety to save the Government's face in the debate today. Perhaps we ought to have a debate on this subject every week in order to jog the Government's conscience.

We want to know whether the Government are discarding this miserable little scheme altogether and replacing it with a payment as of right throughout the winter to all the poorest and most needy pensioners. That is what we have proposed all along. The Minister had better understand at the outset that there is little rhyme or reason in a one-week concession. Why not last week, and what about next week?

Mr. John Maples (Lewisham, West) Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher No, I will not give way now. I shall give way in a moment. What is the point of disregarding a bureaucratic procedure one week if one immediately returns to it the next week?

Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble) Does the £3.6 billion poverty programme that the Labour party is supposed to have agreed at its recent Bishops Stortford meeting include provision for £5 a week for the duration of the winter? That adds up to about £180 million. If it does not include that amount, where will the money come from?

Mr. Meacher I can tell the hon. Gentleman one place that it could come from. I do not know whether he has had notice of some of the contents of the public expenditure White Paper, but I see that the Government are proposing to spend an extra £230 million in the next two years on the cost of stocking Common Market food mountains. I suggest that that money would be much better spent on elderly people in the cold. [Interruption.]

A single one-off £5 payment is not exactly generous in present conditions. It is about enough to heat one room for two days using a two-bar electric fire. What about the other five days of the week? I can tell the Minister that running a two-bar fire for 24 hours a day costs about £18 a week at current prices. I suspect that many pensioners need to spend an extra £10 to £15 a week to keep warm in the current freeze. That is why the cumulative effect of successive £5 payments every week which we recommend is so important. A one-off payment, like the one that the Government have just announced, does not lift any of the anxiety of elderly people who turn off the heating for fear of running into debt because of the uncertainty of future payments.

Mr. Maples Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House how much the last Labour Government spent on exceptionally severe weather payments?

Mr. Meacher I certainly will, and I give advance notice of a later section of my speech. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that on the electricity discount scheme we spent nine times more than this Government are spending on the exceptionally severe weather payments scheme.

The Minister for Social Security and the Disabled (Mr. John Major) Since the hon. Gentleman has made that interesting and freshly discovered observation, would he care to put it into its proper context by reminding the House of the level of inflation in electricity prices at that time?

Mr. Meacher Perhaps the Minister - [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I am answering. What matters to elderly people is the increase in the value of their pension, in real terms, after inflation is taken into account. On that basis, under the last Labour Government the value of the pension increased by 20 per cent. in real terms. Under this Government, it has increased by 3 per cent. in seven years.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow) Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher No, I do not intend to give way again. I want to get on with my speech.

Nor are the qualifying categories for this single one-off payment anywhere near wide enough. They are confined to pensioners on supplementary benefit. There are a million or so pensioners with incomes that are only slightly above the supplementary benefit line who are just as much in need because they are struggling to pay their fuel bills. We would include them in the regular weekly payment of a £5 special winter fuel premium.

Mr. Hayes rose -

Mr. Meacher The Government have not included them even in the single one-off payment that they have conceded for one week. That is the difference.

Mr. Hayes Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher I shall give way once more.

Mr. Hayes The hon. Gentleman speaks loftily of the earnings-related formula, which is an integral part of the Opposition's motion. However, does he remember that his Government abandoned that formula in 1976, 1977 and 1978 and that in 1979 the then Secretary of State for Social Services - now Lord Ennals - in Pensioners Voice, said that he did not have to take it into account, anyway?

Mr. Meacher I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will convince any pensioners by producing statistical distortions of that kind. What matters to pensioners is the value of the money in their pockets and its purchasing power. Under a Labour Government, it rose by a fifth, but under this Government it has been virtually stationary for seven years. However, that is not the real issue. The real issue is that this scheme is hopelessly inadequate. It must be replaced as a matter of urgency if thousands of preventable deaths are not to occur this winter.

The scheme has three fundamental defects. The trigger threshold at minus 1.5 deg C is absurdly low. Even when that temperature is reached, nearly always it does not trigger payment because of the absurd seven-day averaging requirement from Monday to Sunday, which is so bureaucratically cumbersome. Pensioners cannot receive the payment, anyway, if they have more than £500 in the bank. The Minister knows, I hope, that most pensioners save for their funerals. Today a funeral costs more than £500. Under this scheme, money reserved for one's funeral makes it more likely that one will not get help to stay alive. That is hardly a sensible way to run a scheme.

If the scheme had been in operation last winter - which was the bitterest for 40 years - more than half the country would still not have triggered payment for one week throughout the entire winter. What is so cynical about this exercise is that the Government chose the minus 1.5 deg C threshold not on the grounds of health or need but as a temperature level that would ensure that about only one in eight pensioners qualified for a single £5 payment once every five years. That is why the scheme is virtually useless, and it was intended to be useless.

I invite hon. Members to look at the evidence. Last week temperatures reached minus 17 deg C at Aviemore, minus 12 deg Cat Shrewsbury, minus 16 deg C around the Pennines and minus 7 deg C in London, yet in not one of those areas did pensioners get a penny. After the worst January weather on record and the coldest night for 26 years, 99.9 per cent. of pensioners were still excluded from payment. At Aberdeen, Arbroath, Dumfries and Dundee the temperature fell below minus 1.5 deg C for three of the seven days last week, Monday to Sunday, yet pensioners and families with babies got nothing. At Colchester, Clacton, Ipswich and King's Lynn in East Anglia and at Glasgow, Coatbridge, Paisley, Dumbarton and Inverness in Scotland the temperature fell below minus 1.5 deg C for four of the seven days last week, yet pensioners and families with babies got nothing. In Edinburgh, the temperature fell below minus 1.5 deg C for five of the seven days last week, yet pensioners and families with babies got nothing.

Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling) Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher No. Fourteen weather stations registered an average weekly temperature below freezing. Last week the highest weekly temperature in the whole of Britain was only 3.6 deg C. That was in the west country. Almost everywhere the temperature was virtually at freezing point, yet throughout the country only a handful of pensioners received the payment. That is not fine tuning. That is callous neglect.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) If the Government's purpose in fashioning this scheme were to avoid making any payments to those who the hon. Gentleman says are in need, they have not been very successful, have they? Why is it that in the first year after the introduction of this scheme we find that we are paying out under it?

Mr. Meacher The hon. Gentleman has missed the point. The point is that it was needed last week, but virtually nobody got it. The Government are so utterly embarrassed and ashamed of the fact that in the worst cold weather for 30 or 40 years nobody received the payment that they have decided to scrap the scheme, but only for one week, so that they will have something to say in this debate. Their action is as callous as that.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw) When the Labour Government were in office is it not a fact that when the weather was nowhere as cold as this we gave a 25 per cent. discount on winter electricity bills to all pensioners and that we sold gas at cost price, which was a very much cheaper price than it is now, because of the profit margin that has been added to it?

Mr. Meacher That is right, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) also ended disconnections in the winter of 1977 and, I believe, in 1978 for all pensioners. That was extremely important because it removed fear and did not lead people to turn off their heating when they most needed it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point.

It is also very disturbing that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) and I have had the greatest difficulty in obtaining information about temperatures. I put down a parliamentary question for answer yesterday, asking for the average weekly temperatures last week in all 64 areas of the country. I was not given the answer yesterday but was told in the evening, by the press office I might say, that the answer said that the information could not be given. I have now found out why. The Meteorological Office would not give the information on temperatures because it is run by, of all organisations, the Ministry of Defence. I have also since discovered that a circular has been issued forbidding officials from giving any information that might be contentious, and apparently day and night temperatures come into that category.

We seem to have reached a point where the Soviet Union is more open about riots in Kazakhstan and about nuclear explosions at Chernobyl than are the British Government about temperatures in Britain. I would have thought that even a Government that abused the whole concept of national security over the Peter Wright memoirs could scarcely pretend that revealing daily temperatures endangered the safety of the realm. So I put the Minister on notice that the House expects and has a right to have weekly temperature readings in each of the 64 areas of the country, and the Ministry of Defence had better be told that now.

Not only have the Government suppressed relevant information, they have also been active in an orgy of misinformation. The Prime Minister rested her case yesterday on the claim that £400 million more was being spent on heating allowances and that at least severe weather payments are being made, which was not the case under the Labour Government. What she did not say was that Labour did not need to do that because increases in the pension were so much higher under Labour. If the Tory Government had not broken Labour's uprating link with earnings - and this is of crucial importance - the pension for a single person would now be £7.20 a week higher, every week of this year, and that for a married couple would be £11.40 a week higher, every week of this year. If we had pensions at that level today, we could simply dispense with this piffling farce of a scheme, and guarantee that pensioners had the necessary income to keep warm.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge) On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has just stated that the Labour Government implemented pensions in a particular way. The hon. Gentleman is aware that that simply is not correct.

Several Hon. Members That is not a point of order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) Order. I hope that hon. Members will leave it to the Chair to rule on points of order. That is not a point of order.

Mr. Meacher Another thing that the Prime Minister did not say was that while her Government have increased heating allowances by £400 million - about £140 million in real terms - which I welcome, they have also, by breaking the uprating link with earnings, cut over £3,000 million from pensioners' incomes. For every £1 which pensioners have gained from higher heating allowances and exceptionally severe weather payments, they have lost £8 from the cut in the pension under this Government.

There is another thing, too, that the Prime Minister somehow did not quite manage to remember yesterday. Two years ago her Government knocked £1 a week - that is £50 a year - off the supplementary benefit of pensioners with heating allowances - not exactly the kind of policy that we would expect from someone who really cared about pensioners in the cold.

Mr. Michael Forsyth rose -

Mr. Meacher The Prime Minister also said yesterday, in what I must say was the most selective misquotation of the political record that I have heard for a long time in the House, that Labour did not have a cold weather payments scheme. Quite apart from the much higher pensions that we paid, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) has already made clear -

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) Pensions have increased under this Government, mathematical illiterate. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker Order. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that he cannot intervene in that fashion and must not seek to do so.

Mr. Meacher I suggest that the hon. Member for the "Hollering Tendency" listens for a bit. He might learn something about the true situation.

The Labour Government did provide a top-up scheme, and it was a much more generous one than this miserly exceptionally severe weather payments scheme. Under the electricity discount scheme, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield, £5 was paid automatically to all persons on supplementary benefit and family income supplement, plus 25 per cent. of the cost of the winter electricity bill in excess of £20. The Labour Government devoted £45 million to that scheme. The Tory Government are spending about £5 million.

Mr. Forsyth rose -

Mr. Meacher Under our scheme 4.5 million people were eligible; under this Tory scheme fewer than 2 million people are eligible, so let us have no more of the lies and claptrap about Labour, which are specifically designed to divert attention from the central fact that, according to Age Concern, 100 old people are dying in this country at this time every week.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East) Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher No, I will not give way.

Unless the Government go a lot further than the tiny concession forced out of them yesterday, I fear that we are on the brink of an even bigger disaster than last year Last year 1,060 elderly people died of hypothermia and another 40,000 died of bronchial pneumonia, heart attacks and strokes brought on by the extreme cold. There is nothing inevitable about this roll-call of tragic deaths. They are preventable. In Canada, in Sweden, in France, the winters are much colder than they are here normally, yet hardly any old people die of hypothermia. That is because in those countries the houses are much better insulated and pension levels are much higher, perhaps almost unbelievably to many hon. Members - and even more unbelievably to many pensioners in Britain - three times higher in Germany and France, in relation to average earnings, so pensioners can afford the fuel to keep them warm. That is why we now press the Government as a matter of urgency -

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. Norman Fowler) I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he at this stage in his argument concede that the worst year in the last decade for deaths from hypothermia was the winter of 1978-79? He will concede that fact, I hope.

Mr. Meacher It is perfectly true that the number of deaths from hypothermia has been in the region of 50 and has stayed at much the same level throughout the past 10 or 20-year period, but I will say this to the Secretary of State. If this scheme is not changed by the Government tonight or in the very near future, more people will die of hypothermia this year than in 1978-79.

I want to press the Government to adopt a three-point programme. First, they should announce today that they are dropping the exceptionally severe weather payments scheme, in acknowledgement of the fraud that it is, and replacing it not just for one week but for every week this winter with a £5 payment, not only to all the 1.75 million pensioners on supplementary benefit but to the I million or so on the margins of poverty, just above the supplementary benefit line. That is the only way for pensioners to be certain that they will receive payment and not be frightened into turning off or turning down the heat for fear that they will not have the money to pay for it.

The Government should do something else to provide immediate relief in these exceptionally severe conditions. There are estimated to be between 25,000 and 40,000 people homeless and sleeping rough in London at this time. The London Labour boroughs have been opening night shelters as best they can. Young people are also being turned out of lodgings into the snow because of the Government's iniquitous board and lodging regulations. The Government should today instruct London Transport to open the tube stations at the Bank, Monument and Charing Cross to provide night shelter and protection from the bitter cold for the homeless. I am advised that those stations are best equipped for such an emergency, because they cover the worst areas, have the most space and facilities and using them would cause the least disruption. Will the Secretary of State, as a matter of priority, in conjunction with the London Labour boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark, Islington and Camden, make available the facilities of the civil defence bunkers at Clapham Common, Clapham North, Clapham South and Stockwell underground stations for the immediate shelter of the homeless in inner city London? We regard immediate action as a litmus test of the Government's commitment at this time.

Mr. Andrew MacKay Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher No, I want to conclude.

I wish to refer to one other urgent matter. At present, the London borough of Greenwich is absolutely snowbound. At 9 am this morning, 100 soldiers from the Royal Artillery, Woolwich, started to assist. They are using their four-wheel drive vehicles to deliver meals on wheels to the elderly and doing such vital work as getting home helps to elderly people and digging out elderly people from snowbound homes to take them to day centres to warm them up. At lunchtime today, the Ministry of Defence instructed the Army to cease all such help at 12 midnight. The borough needs to re-apply for assistance. If this is general Government policy, it is placing a bureaucratic block in the way of commonsense help which is urgently needed in this crisis. I hope very much that the Minister will give a commitment that this will not happen again. [Interruption.] This is not just about London. What happens in -

Mr. MacKay rose -

Mr. Deputy Speaker Order. The hon. Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) must not persist in that fashion. It is clear that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) is not giving way.

Mr. Meacher May I say to the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) that what happens in London can happen elsewhere if the Government so wish. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be more concerned about what we are proposing in London because there are many Scottish young people homeless and in need of assistance in the Metropolis.

Secondly, there is a desperate need to improve insulation and draught-proofing, starting with the homes of the most vulnerable elderly people. Research has shown that a badly insulated home costs 12 times as much to heat for every 1 deg. C drop in temperature as a well-insulated home. Britain has probably the worst insulated homes in western Europe, and the biggest sufferers are probably the elderly. At present, the insulation programme is, to say the least, fragmentary. Worse still, for the elderly, it will come to an absolute halt in a year's time when the Fowler Social Security Act halts the single payments for this purpose in April 1988.

As for the immediate crisis, the Child Poverty Action Group, Help the Aged, and four other major groups wrote to the Minister in October, I understand, pointing out the huge problems if there was a sudden drop in temperature and offering their help and experience. They received an acknowledgement and have heard nothing else since.

For several years, the Opposition have been pressing for a national insulation scheme. It would provide jobs - since, of course, it is highly labour-intensive - save energy and protect old people from the extreme cold. We believe that some priority insulation work could still be done this winter, but at least the Government should now give a commitment that throughout this next year, this programme will command funding and support to ensure that elderly people, families on low incomes with babies and sick and disabled people never again have to face the rigours of exceptionally cold weather as unprotected as they are this winter.

The third component of a programme -

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak) Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher I am winding up.

The third component of a programme to meet this crisis is an adequate pension, and perhaps it is the most important component of all. There is no way around that. That is why Labour is committed to an immediate increase of £5 a week for single pensioners and £8 a week for married couples and committed to preserving and consolidating the state earnings-related pension scheme, which the Government want to erode and destroy, to restoring the link with earnings that the Government broke so that pensioners share in rising living standards with the rest of the community and to providing the £5 a week special winter fuel premium. Labour believes in providing decent pensions, good health and welfare services and, above all, adequate heating for pensioners who have given their working lives for this country. I submit that those policies and the Labour Government who would implement them have never been needed more than at this time.

The Minister for Social Security and the Disabled (Mr. John Major) I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: 'recognises the substantial improvement in the levels of supplementary benefit payments together with the containment of inflation, the extension and improvement of heating additions and the introduction of a statutory entitlement to cold weather payments to assess vulnerable groups; notes that these provisions are all running at record levels; and welcomes the Government's continuing commitment to provide good health and social services to the pensioners of this country'. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) began his speech by misquoting my comments, misunderstanding the scheme and misinterpreting - deliberately, I suspect - the announcement that I made yesterday. He did not respond - it was easily noticeable to the House that he did not - to the specific question by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) about whether his winter premium scheme is or is not contained within the £3.6 billion by which the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) threatens to raise taxes. I offer the hon. Member for Oldham, West, an opportunity: is it, or is it not, contained within that £3.6 billion, which is the maximum, we are told, by which taxes will be raised? [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] The hon. Gentleman is silent.

Mr. Meacher I shall gladly answer. The Government propose, as the Chancellor did in the autumn statement a month or two ago, to increase public expenditure this year by £4.5 billion. That would easily provide an extra £150 for the elderly. The Government should put the money there, not into electoral tax bribes for the better-off.

Mr. Major Now we know the answer. It is that the hon. Gentleman does not know, and will not say, that this is yet another in those long lists of cynical and bogus promises which he knows he cannot meet, yet which he repeatedly makes every time he rises to his feet.

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West) Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Major I shall not give way. [Interruption.] I shall get on with my speech.

This morning the hon. Member for Oldham, West seemed to extend even his previous promises about the winter premium scheme. In composite 14 at the Labour party conference, it was to be for 13 weeks or so. This morning, when the hon. Gentleman conducted an interview on the "Today" programme, he seemed to commit himself for a far longer period. We shall carefully cost that extension. The fact is that the hon. Gentleman is adept at making promises which he knows he cannot keep and does not intend to keep.

The hon. Gentleman claims that he was in contact with our press office and sought certain information. I understand that he particularly sought night temperatures separately, which we have said we shall speedily provide and pass on to him. If the hon. Gentleman wishes, I shall either pass them on to him directly or via the CIA, whichever option he prefers.

Mr. Randall rose -

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) rose -

Mr. Major I shall not give way. [Interruption.]

Mr. Randall The hon. Gentleman is not concerned about the people who are freezing, only about the money. The Government should and can find the money for these people.

Mr. Major I shall come specifically to other points when I have dealt with the dross of the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West. This is a debate, and I shall talk about the problems and our practical propositions when I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

The hon. Gentleman talks of an electricity discount scheme and criticises bureaucracy at the same time. I seem to recall that that needed a vast amount of documentation to support it, with 40 to 50 specific questions, most of which included the magic words: write to the Department of Energy for information. We will come specifically to fuel prices. The hon. Gentleman may not like this, but it is a fact that since the last election domestic gas and electricity prices have fallen in real terms, gas by 7 per cent. and electricity by 10 per cent. In real terms domestic gas now costs less than it did in 1970. The hon. Gentleman may care also to bear in mind that the increase for electricity has been about 2 per cent. a year. It rose 11 times as fast when the Labour party was in power as it does today. That is something that he might usefully bear in mind.

Mr. Ashton rose -

Mr. Deputy Speaker Order. Clearly the Minister is not giving way.

Mr. Ashton rose -

Mr. Deputy Speaker Order. Hon. Members should not rise when I am on my feet. Is the hon. Gentleman seeking to raise a point of order?

Mr. Ashton On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister is deliberately misleading the House, as the Prime Minister did yesterday. The figure since the last election -

Mr. Deputy Speaker Order. Mr. Speaker has ruled that allegations that a Minister or any hon. Member is deliberately misleading the House are out of order. The hon. Gentleman must not say that.

Hon. Members Withdraw.

Mr. Ashton Much of the debate this afternoon has been about the Prime Minister -

Mr. Deputy Speaker Order. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman was rising to withdraw the use of the phrase "deliberately misleading". I very much hope that he will do so.

Mr. Ashton I rise to seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If you ask me to withdraw those words, I shall do so, but I seek your guidance. When the Prime Minister deliberately makes a statement, as she did yesterday, and the Minister makes a statement today about what has happened since the last election, since 1979, what phrase can we use for this deliberate mis - whatever it is?

Mr. Deputy Speaker The hon. Gentleman might have made a more generous and less grudging withdrawal. I advise him to do so.

Mr. Ashton Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will.

Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock) On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that this will clarify the matter. In a written answer -

Mr. Deputy Speaker Order. Neither the contents of speeches nor answers to questions are matters for the Chair. If there are matters which hon. Members think should be rebutted, I hope that they will seek to do so in the course of the debate.

Mr. Major No doubt it would be of considerable pleasure to the House if the hon. Lady were to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker. She might then make the remarks that she has sought to make in a bogus fashion just now.

Dr. McDonald rose -

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) rose -

Mr. Deputy Speaker Order. The hon. Gentleman must contain himself. The whole House is anxious to hear the Minister's speech. If there are matters with which hon. Members disagree, they will have the opportunity in the course of the debate to catch my eye. I hope that the Minister will be given the right to make his speech, which is the right of every hon. Member.

Mr. Major It becomes noticeable, does it not, that members of Her Majesty's Opposition seem disinclined to proceed with the debate and to determine what realistically may be done to solve the special problems that exist? There are specific matters that I wish to deal with later which even the most boneheaded Member of the Opposition might conceivably find of some interest. [HON. MEMBERS: "Name him."] If hon. Members who shout "Name him" think the hon. Member may come well out of it were I to do so, I fear that I must disabuse them.

We are having this debate today because yesterday the Leader of the Opposition changed his mind and changed the business of the House for today. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of the issue. Because of its importance, it was decided that we would have the debate today. It is interesting to note that the debate which he previously had in mind was to be on the economic crisis which the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook keeps inventing, but that has been postponed. The crisis is off for today. It can apparently wait to be reinvented at a later date. Like Bunter's postal order, the crisis never comes, however much Bunter promises.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) rose -

Mr. Major Even with the change in the business, one thing that the Opposition will not like - the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) is among those hon. Members - is listening, because facts disturb them, and reality disturbs them.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe that when the Minister referred to a boneheaded Member he must have meant me, as I am surely the boniest-headed Member in the Chamber. If that is the case, he ought to give way. He should answer the point that I make, which is that he has got his statistics wrong.

Mr. Deputy Speaker Order. Hon. Members must not use bogus points of order to make the intervention that is otherwise denied them.

Mr. Major I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on becoming spokesman for the arts, an appointment which the whole House welcomes. I accept that the hon. Gentleman has much more inside his head than on top of it. For that reason, if for none other, I shall give way to him.

Mr. Fisher I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am sure he is aware of his Government's statistics. In answer to a written question by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald), the Under-Secretary of State for Energy explained clearly to the House that gas prices had risen in current terms by 124 per cent. since 1979. Will the Minister explain that?

Mr. Major If, upon reflection -

Dr. McDonald What about the written answer?

Mr. Major The hon. Lady has a delightful dulcet tone. I think that it would be more to the general agreement of the House if she were to rise in her place later and utter then rather than now. If, upon reflection, when I have studied the record in Hansard, I find that I inadvertently misled the House, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and willingly acknowledge that fact.

In changing the business, the Leader of the Opposition was doubtless anxious to demonstrate the concern of the Labour party over the difficulties that the elderly face during this extreme weather. They do face problems. I propose to address those problems directly in a moment.

I would have been more impressed with the right hon. Gentleman's concern had his record in this issue not been so clear. We know that he supported the year-long miners' strike and a series of other industrial disputes without one peep on behalf of those who were suffering, whether the elderly, the sick, the disabled or whoever else. I might have accepted his concern even more if during those disputes he had bombarded the House, including the Order Paper, with questions that reflected his concern for the vulnerable. The fact remains, however, that he supported the miners' strike. He showed no public concern for the elderly whatsoever during a winter of savage industrial disruption. We know now the depths of his concern. The elderly come first after his support for militancy, his self-interest and the Labour party. That is the position of the elderly. They are to be the shock troops in the right hon. Gentleman's campaign on behalf of the Labour party and second to every interest of his own.

I turn specifically to the matter which, for the Government at least, is of prime concern.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) The Minister has spoken for 14 minutes before reaching the main topic.

Mr. Major The hon. Gentleman may have lunched well if not wisely. If he wishes me speedily to proceed to the issues, perhaps he will permit me to do so. Perhaps the most vulnerable of all members of society are the elderly who live on their own. I shall address myself specifically to the social security benefits that are available to them, but there is - [Interruption.] The silence of the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and others might be appreciated by many more hon. Members than myself.

Whatever social service and social security help is available - and it is substantial - many vulnerable people are often proud, independent and determined to manage on their own. They are disinclined to bother others even though they may often need help, whomsoever may be involved. I hope that in these unprecedented weather conditions others who are fit and healthy will unobtrusively keep an eye on their vulnerable neighbours and offer help, or call for statutory help if that is needed.

Mr. Wareing What is the Minister going to do?

Mr. Major I shall come to that. Such action will be increasingly valuable and may avoid unnecessary hardship or tragedy, and would be utterly in keeping with the longstanding tradition of community care in Britain.

This morning one national newspaper - Today - printed a poster bill for the housebound to place in their windows should it be necessary to do so. I believe that the newspaper will continue to do that, and I welcome the initiative. It is a simple and excellent illustration of what can be done and I hope that everyone, even those Opposition Members who seem to have nothing more on their minds than to scream mindless abuse at me, will be alert to the needs of their neighbours during this severe winter weather.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) rose -

Mr. Major When the hon. Gentleman talks sense I shall give him the Floor to do so, but I fear that it may be a long time before he does so.

In making my plea, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do so without any attempt -

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn) I endorse entirely what the Minister has said about the admirable act which Today and some other newspapers have performed in printing a poster for the housebound. If old people take the notice and stick it in their windows, if neighbours respond, as I hope that they will, and if the old people say, "It is all very well for you to come here, but I am afraid to turn on my heating because I cannot afford the bill that will ensure", what will the Government's response be to the bills that appear in old people's windows?

Mr. Major It is clear that the right hon. Gentleman did not hear what I said yesterday and on other occasions. We are determined that the elderly should keep warm during this extremely cold spell. That is why all the three tiers of help for heating, whether supplementary benefit, heating additions, or the new statutory entitlement to cold weather payments, have been improved in real terms during the Government's lifetime. The right hon. Gentleman cannot duck that.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) rose -

Mr. Major I make no apologies for drawing the importance of neighbourhood help in these extreme weather conditions to the attention of the House. Whatever social security and social service assistance there is - and it is substantial - there are those who are left alone and who, through their own pride and independence, may miss the help that is available. I have suggested that their neighbours should ensure that where necessary help is directed to them.

The main focus of concern -

Mr. Hughes rose -

Mr. Stuart Holland (Vauxhall) rose -

Mr. Wareing rose -

Mr. Major Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), are anxious that I should make progress, and that is what I propose to do for a moment or two.

It is clear that the main focus of concern is the system of special payments at times of exceptionally cold weather. I make no apologies for reminding the House - not for the first time - that they have always been only one part, and a small part, of a substantial overall network of financial support. The primary help for those on supplementary benefit for heating is through the regular supplementary benefit weekly payments. These payments are made to cover normal living expenses, including heating costs.

Further, there is a substantial system of heating additions. Extra money is paid each week throughout the year to those with special heating needs.

Mr. Wareing On that point -

Mr. Dobson Nineteen minutes.

Mr. Major It was this Government who put the payments formally on a regulated entitlement basis in 1980. That was not specifically acknowledged by the hon. Member for Oldham, West. The Government -

Mr. Wareing Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Major If the hon. Gentleman can prevent his hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras from saying "19 minutes" or "20 minutes" like an agitated parrot with constipation, I may conceivably give way to him, but not until that has been done.

Mr. Stuart Holland Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wareing rose -

Mr. Major We have improved and considerably extended the categories of people who receive help through heating addition. They now go automatically -

Mr. Wareing Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker Order. The Minister has made it clear that he will not give way.

Mr. Major The payments now go automatically to householders aged 65 or over -

Mr. Wareing rose -

Mr. Robert Atkins Wareing by name and wearing by nature.

Mr. Wareing On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister referred in a derogatory way to an Opposition Member. The hon. Gentleman pointed in my direction and I have a feeling that he was pointing at me. I wished to ask him whether he would restore the heating additions, or whether he would take them away from the available scale margin under which he introduced them just a couple of years ago.

Mr. Deputy Speaker Order. I have already made it clear to the House that I deprecate bogus points of order being used as masks for interventions which hon. Members desire to make but have been denied the opportunity to do so.

Mr. Major I was seeking to stress that the higher rate of heating addition is now paid automatically to those over 65 and to disabled people receiving attendance allowance or mobility allowance.

Mr. Wareing rose -

Mr. Deputy Speaker Order. The hon. Gentleman must not persist in this fashion. He knows that if the Minister or any other hon. Member chooses not to give way, he should not persist in seeking to intervene. I hope that he will bear that in mind.

Mr. Major The House will be surprised that the specific increases in heating additions did not form a material part of the remarks of the hon. Member for Oldham, West. Apparently he overlooked them. Nor did he mention that the latest figures show that nine tenths of pensioners on supplementary benefit receive a heating addition, compared with only about 70 per cent. during the period of the Labour Government. He did not mention also that there had been a significant increase in the value of the payments after taking account of inflation, an increase well above anything that was provided by any previous Government. We are bound to wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is misinformed, or is seeking to misinform, when he lays charges before the House of the sort that we have heard today.

Regular help with heating costs is now over £400 a year for the average pensioner aged 65, and over £600 for the very elderly who are over 85 and for the severely disabled. The scale of that help is in sharp contrast to the impression given by the hon. Member for Oldham, West, and is notably more comprehensive than anything provided when the hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the Department.

That is not all. The help that I have already outlined will enable people to meet their fuel bills and to keep warm. The help is there throughout the year and is paid weekly, winter and summer. However, we recognise that people look for extra help when the weather is particularly savage.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South) rose -

Mr. Major That is why we placed the severe weather payments on a clear statutory basis, with a known entitlement. I must make it clear to the House that such arrangements have always been intended to deal with exceptional weather conditions to provide extra reassurance to people so that they turn their heating up at times of maximum cold.

Mr. Rees As we are dealing with realities, I advise the Minister that an old-age pensioner, from the part of Leeds that I represent, gave advice to other pensioners on the radio today. Feelings are running high and he said, "I do not intend to die because of the cold. I am going to have my heating on and, if needs be, I will go to gaol." That was heard throughout the country.

Although not strictly relevant to that point, I should like to ask the Minister whether, before the debate ends, he will arrange for an official from the Department of Energy to come to the House. Whatever the scheme, some old-age pensioners will have on only one bar and they will not have the heating on overnight because they are afraid of the bill that will come later. Despite the £5 allowance that was announced, we must do something more. Officials from the Department of Energy must talk to the gas people, the electricity people and others. The bad weather may last for only a fortnight, but old people are cold in my area and in others, and we must do something to help them.

Mr. Major We have heard the right hon. Gentleman mention the comments of those who are worried about their personal position. I reiterate the assurance that I sought to give in the past. In these savage and unprecedented weather conditions, we wish to ensure that people keep their heating on and that they keep warm. I hope that there is no doubt about that.

Mr. Campbell-Savours The old-age pensioner said that he could not afford to.

Mr. Major Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish. Most people pay their heating bills at the end of a quarter. The sum total of the quarter's bill is presented to them at the end of the 13-week period. Many people may not have borne in mind the fact that December 1986 was almost the mildest December since records have been kept. They may well find that they used less fuel that month than they previously would have budgeted for.

In any event, the Leader of the Opposition, who is more the leader of the yobbo tendency today than of anything else, might do well to set a better example to this Back Benchers if he does not want the true spirit of the Labour party to be too well known outside the House.

Mr. Kinnock The Minister has been speaking for 27 minutes. There are people dying in this country, and people who are cold and poor, but all that the hon. Gentleman has done is to make inferior debating society points. He plainly does not give a damn. He should either get down to the issue, or sit down and let people speak who know about the issue.

Mr. Major As it happens, I have spent most of the 27 minutes listening to inane fifth-form interventions such as that one. While the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues try to spread fear and despondency, we are trying to reassure people that they should keep their heating on, and that is what we shall continue to do. I made that absolutely clear yesterday. Even the right hon. Gentleman should have understood, because I told him often enough, that people should keep their heating on and keep warm. I made it equally clear yesterday that in these circumstances the trigger point will overwhelmingly be reached this week, but even if it is not reached in some areas, payment will be made.

We have taken immediate action to alert local and regional offices to that statement and to our intention to make that payment. We are placing advertisements in the national press tomorrow, if space can be found, or on Friday if it cannot. All 45 local radio stations in Britain and Northern Ireland will carry commercials advertising those payments, seven times a day from tomorrow. Local offices have been asked to advertise through the local press as quickly as possible and to make the new leaflets, now being distributed, available in their areas. Both the advertisements and the leaflets contain simple claim forms so that people can obtain the payment.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) rose -

Mr. Major We have been especially concerned with the immediate plight of those who find themselves without any shelter at all during these appalling weather conditions. In addition to what I shall say about that, I give an undertaking to the hon. Member for Oldham, West that we shall look carefully and speedily at the specific suggestions that he made to deal with that problem.

Mr. Dobson rose -

Mr. Major Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will wait a moment. We have already been in touch with the major voluntary organisations and are actively helping to coordinate the practical aid. I applaud their efforts, and I am glad to say that we have also been able to offer additional funds to enable them to expand their range of activities and to act more rapidly. We have, in effect, agreed to underwrite their additional expenses for the "crisis intervention" work that they are doing during this period of extremely savage weather.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) rose -

Mr. Major Their efforts, and ours, are being coordinated by Crisis at Christmas. By today, several new night shelters will have been opened in London, offering sleep, shelter and food to people who need it. Some people may choose not to go into shelters or hostels even in the present conditions, because that, alas, is their culture. The voluntary organisations are continuing their excellent work in going out to those people and offering what help they can. We are prepared to back those efforts, and we are actively exploring other ways in which we might help. There is space in several resettlement units and in Salvation Army units. I am delighted that the Bishop of London has asked many parish priests to open their church halls while the savage weather continues. Those are helpful and useful initiatives and I hope that homeless people will take advantage of them.

Mr. Dobson I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I welcome the measures that he has announced. I welcome also the efforts which the churches, borough councils and charities are making. However, the Minister should remember that the 6,000 homeless people who live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in London, and the 20,000 people who are sleeping rough, did not come down with the snow and that they will not go away when it melts. We need to stop the unemployment that has made them homeless. We need money to build houses so that those people have somewhere decent to live, and we need decent levels of benefit so that they can be looked after in the interim. That crisis continues and does not exist only in periods of bad weather.

Mr. Major It would also be helpful if some local authorities made more attractive and relevant use of the voids that they have, because they can often offer specific help, perhaps not least in the London borough of Camden, about which the hon. Gentleman knows so much.

Mr. Benn Will the Minister clarify one point?

Mr. Major I shall not give way to the right hon. Gentleman, because many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate. In his usual graceless fashion the Leader of the Opposition said that the debate was making slow progress, so I shall not give way.

Mr. Meacher My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) introduced a scheme.

Mr. Major If the right hon. Gentleman introduced a scheme, I am sure that he will catch Mr. Speaker's eye and be able to elaborate on that.

Earlier today the hon. Member for Oldham, West apparently advocated a nationwide insulation scheme. He did not say whether he had costed his plan or what it would be. He did not say whether it was agreed with his right hon. Friend the Shadow Chancellor, or whether it was genuine or another gimmick. However, whatever it may be, I must say that we have been promoting voluntary insulating projects for years. In 1980 the total number of such projects was under half a dozen. Expansion since then has been dramatic. There were 200 in 1984, there are some 360 now and many more are at the planning stage. As a result of the project, the home conditions of over 200,000 on low incomes have been made more comfortable and the total cost to public funds for the voluntary work is often funded through the public sector, in spite of what the Leader of the Opposition may have muttered. The total cost to public funds now amounts to over £30 million a year.

Even earlier today, at breakfast time, we heard yet again about the plan of the hon. Member for Oldham, West for a £5 winter premium. However, despite repeated challenges as to where the money will come from, there has been no answer.

There is one further critical factor in ensuring that people are kept warm - the price of fuel. Whatever reflection I may subsequently make upon the statistics challenged by the hon. Member for Oldham, West, it is undoubtedly true that the level of inflation in fuel prices during the period of the previous Labour Government was infinitely higher than anything that has occurred subsequently. The Opposition's effrontery in tabling the motion before us today is absolutely breathtaking.

There are three tiers of support for heating. First, there is supplementary benefit, where the levels have been increased. Secondly, there are heating additions, where the levels have also been increased, the number of people entitled has been extended and it has been made a statutory weekly payment. Thirdly, of course, there is the exceptionally severe weather payment, which has also been put on a statutory basis.

We have substantially eliminated fuel inflation and we have expanded the insulation project. The value of pensions, despite the hon. Member for Oldham, West's extremely perverse statistics, has been increased and inflation has been contained. I am content to let our substantial record of practical help stand against the repeated uncosted promises of the Opposition. Their fine words and promises will keep no one warm. Our record of practical assistance throughout the benefits system and in the other policies that I have outlined will keep people warm. I invite the House to endorse all that and to reject the Opposition's motion.