HOUSE OF COMMONS
Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
SOCIAL FUND COLD WEATHER PAYMENTS (GENERAL) AMENDMENT REGULATIONS 1996
Wednesday 18 December 1996
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The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairman: SIR ROGER SIMS
Butler, Mr. Peter (Milton Keynes, North-East)
Coe, Mr. Sebastian (Falmouth and Camborne)
Congdon, Mr. David (Croydon, North-East)
Connarty, Mr. Michael (Falkirk, East)
Davidson, Mr. Ian (Glasgow, Govan)
Davies, Mr. Quentin (Stamford and Spalding)
Dixon, Mr. Don (Jarrow)
Evans, Mr. Roger (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security)
Fishbum, Mr. Dudley (Kensington)
Forsythe, Mr. Clifford (South Antrim)
French, Mr. Douglas (Gloucester)
Gapes, Mr. Mike (Ilford, South)
Gerrard, Mr. Neil (Walthamstow)
Grylls, Sir Michael (North-West Surrey)
Hutton, Mr. John (Barrow and Furness)
Jackson, Mr. Robert (Wantage)
McLeish, Mr. Henry (Fife, Central)
Norris, Mr. Steve (Epping Forest)
Wright, Dr. Tony (Cannock and Burntwood)
Mr. T. W. P. Healey, Committee Clerk2 3 Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation Wednesday 18 December 1996
[SIR ROGER SIMS in the Chair]
The Chairman: As this is an instrument subject to the negative procedure, and the motion which triggered its referral to this Committee was tabled by the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish), I call the hon. Gentleman to move the motion.
Mr. Henry McLeish (Fife, Central): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Social Fund Cold Weather Payments (General) Amendment Regulations 1996 (S.I., 1996, No. 2544). This is an important issue, as I think all members of the Committee would agree. The various schemes that have been introduced since 1986 to help people in need with their heating difficulties have met with resistance and criticism, so the Government have tried to improve the cold weather payments for especially long periods of cold weather. The new regulations make the system more sensitive to local variation, which helps us. There is nothing in the regulations that we would wish to vote down this afternoon. It is important to say that because the spirit is to exchange comments, make inquiries and seek clarification, instead of to vote down the regulations—or attempt to vote down the regulations, in view of the arid ranks here today. Criticisms of the scheme have related mainly to the lack of transparency; the complicated linking of postcodes to weather stations; and the calculation of weekly average temperatures. There has also been an accusation of a great deal of unfairness merely because of how postcodes have fallen in specific communities, as well as a question about whether someone experiencing cold weather would receive a payment at the end of the cold period. The issue has become sensitive and important and I want to spend a few moments asking for further information from the Government about the matters that were discussed in the Meteorological Office review of the cold weather payments scheme in the summer of 1996. The concern about heating is important. Even in 1996, in a modern economy with a welfare state, hundreds of thousands of people suffer from cold weather because their income is often not sufficient to deal with day-to-day events, never mind the added burden of extra heating costs at a time of severe weather. I do not want to inject any political acrimony, but I think that the Government would acknowledge 4 that the introduction of value added tax on fuel was a burden that many people in need could well have done without. It is important to examine the past few years and to acknowledge where heating is a sensitive issue, any burden that we pass on to such people, for any reason, should be considered very carefully. The cold weather payments had an added significance both last year and this year because of the extra burden of VAT on fuel. It remains to be seen whether the Government's slight compensation for the changes has helped some of the poorest people, especially pensioners. Getting to those in greatest need is linked to recent Government statistics on income support. In Britain, 1.6 million pensioners are on income support. Amazingly, on Government estimates about 1 million extra pensioners are eligible but do not claim. The cold weather payments regime exists and pensioners who claim income support are transported into that benefit, however inadequate people might think it is. However, an enormous number of people—1 million, or almost 2 per cent. of the population—are eligible for income support but do not receive it and consequently lose out on the cold weather payments. I do not want to go off at a tangent and you would not allow me to do so, Sir Roger, but it is important, on every occasion, to remind Ministers of their responsibilities to the 1 million people revealed in the Government's statistics as having unmet needs. The subject that we are discussing today is very important for that group. I want to raise two matters on the regulations and the report on which they are based. The first is the wind-chill factor and the second the forecasting of severely cold weather so that calculations can be made in advance. A private Member's Bill, sponsored by a Labour Member and supported by Age Concern, is before the House. It is based on the fact that in times of cold weather the wind-chill factor may be significant. The Meteorological Office report upon which the regulatons were based considered the matter in detail. Paragraph 9.7 states: "The Met. Office advice is that for much of the country the additional domestic heating requirements generated as a result of the effects of exposure of houses to wind are too small and too highly variable for there to be much merit in trying to allow for them within a Scheme essentially orientated around payments in of cold weather lasting up to a week." The Meteorological Office consists of technicians, so it is not for me to comment on whether that assumption is correct. However, a significant matter that has not been given much coverage is discussed in paragraph 9.5: "The Met. Office suggests that if the DSS wishes to pursue consideration of a wind-chill formula to replace or complement the existing scheme, a trial could be carried out. The costs of such a trial would have to be borne by the DSS." That paragraph accepts that the impact on people's benefit could be considerable in terms of technical difficulties and small in terms of benefit, but nevertheless there is an understanding that it is technically possible to take account of the wind-chill 5 factor. Will the Minister comment on paragraph 9.5 and say whether a pilot scheme could be introduced to test a wind-chill formula? The second issue relates to direct determination of seven-day mean temperatures by postcodes. I refer again to the Meteorological Office's helpful report. Paragraphs 10.1 to 10.6 discuss the systems that are used by insurance companies and loss adjusters when making calculations related to weather. Paragraph 10.6 states: "The Met. Office recommends that once a means of incorporating forecasting into the direct calculation system has been devised, consideration may be given to a trial being carried out." It is accepted that that is a possible improvement, that there would be financial implications, and that a trial may be necessary. I am not sure whether the Department's thinking has moved greatly, but I should like the Minister to say whether such forecasting has been included in the regulations and, if not, whether we can learn from what the Meteorological Office is doing for the private insurance industry. I shall conclude on those two points. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that the matter is important. The payment of £8.50 goes to people in greatest need, not only pensioners but people with dependant children and a host of others. The Department's February figures show that 5.8 million people claim income support. With dependants, children and spouses, that figure exceeds 10 million. Income support is not a minority issue. With the greatest respect, the Government have accelerated the problem over the past four years. Before I become too political, I ask the Minister to deal with the two central issues that I raised.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Fife, Central for putting so simply his submissions to the Committee. He asked two questions, which I shall deal with immediately. What about wind chill and the paragraph in the Meteorological Office's report to which the hon. Gentleman referred? One of the advantages of open government is that debates such as this can concentrate on the real issues. We have published the Meteorological Office's report, on which the regulations this year are based, have placed it in the Library, and copies of it are available on the Table for members of the Committee. Given the nature of the regulations, we simply implemented the expert advice that was given in a nutshell. The two issues that arise from the report, and on which the hon. Gentleman focused, are important. He discussed wind chill and the associated matter of forecasting. I should stress —and this was apparent from the beginning of the Meteorological Office's report—that the Government are prepared to consider those matters. This year we commissioned the Meteorological Office to review the linkages, the weather stations and the problem of wind chill. We are 6 also sympathetic to trials and further investigations. We are presently having discussions about the matter and studying it in greater detail, we shall see what we discover. With regard to wind chill generally, the conventional way of examining the problem and the formulae used to compute it usually relate to human bodies chilling in the wind rather than to buildings chilling in the wind. We are having discussions with building experts and with the Building Research Establishment to establish how that can be overcome. One of the attractive possible candidates for dealing with that matter is a scheme that was devised by the Meteorological Office in association with insurance companies, which are basically interested in the simple question of fraud. If Mrs. Somebody claims for insurance on the grounds that her pipes had frozen and burst one night in a certain location, insurance companies can establish whether her claim is prima facie credible, bearing in mind the state of the weather in that spot on that night of the year. The Meteorological Office and insurance companies have developed a complicated model, but it has one fatal flaw for our purposes: it cannot be used—at the moment—for forecasting. One of the strengths of the cold weather payment scheme is that the question is not simply whether the weather has been zero or below for seven days, but whether it is forecast by the Meteorological Office to be zero or below for seven days. Under those conditions payment is automatically triggered and people do not have to make a claim. We regard that as an important and valuable feature of the scheme and we do not wish to change it. My answer to the question about the Meteorological Office model is that we are considering whether it can be altered, improved and adapted for our use. We look sympathetically on both of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): I thank the Minister for his remarks. I generally welcome the regulations. I had a constituency problem under the old system—one road fell into both the RM and the IG postcodes, and those in the RM postcode were dealt with by reference to the Stansted calculation and those in the IG postcode were dealt with by reference to the Heathrow calculation. Last winter, one family received three times the cold weather payments—or perhaps they received four times as much; they received four weeks' as opposed to one week's cold weather payments—compared with other people living in the same street, although those people were virtually next-door neighbours. The regulations have gone some way towards resolving that problem—everyone will be dealt with by reference to the Heathrow calculation so the whole of Greater London will be treated in the same way. It seems that last winter temperatures at Stansted were lower than those at Heathrow. I am worried that people might feel that they have been tricked out of receiving money that they might otherwise have 7 received if the figures had continued to come from the Stansted weather station rather than from Heathrow. Have figures from the two weather stations been compared over several years and was there a statistical anomaly for just that one winter? My final point concerns an aspect of this issue that was raised on 27 February in the Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge). In his response, the Minister said that he would consider my suggestion that east London constituencies should have their temperatures calculated at London's City airport, which is the nearest airport, instead of Heathrow or Stansted. That idea did not feature in the Meteorological Office's report. Was it considered, and if so, what reasons were given to rule it out? I understand that we would be in danger of creating further anomalies by having more than one weather station in Greater London, and I accept that the proposal to relate all areas to temperatures at Heathrow is an improvement on using Gatwick, Manchester, Heathrow and Stanted. I am reasonably happy with the regulations, but I should like those questions answered.
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I welcome some elements of the regulations, but the operation of the whole scheme is seriously flawed. It works especially badly in Scotland, where many people do not live on flat land. Wind chill, which is not taken into account, is a substantial factor in the temperatures of people's houses and bodies which are subjected to serious drops in temperature. I live on the Slamannan plateau, formerly known by the old constituency name of east Stirlingshire. In that area are the villages of Slamannan and Limerig, which are high on the plateau before it reaches Lanarkshire. It also includes the villages of California, Shieldhill and Maddiston—where I live and which is 130 feet above sea level. Readings from low ground do not reflect temperatures in upper areas, especially as those villages lie in the face of the north wind. The wind-chill factor can cause the temperature to drop by 3 or 4 degrees on any day in my constituency in east Stirlingshire. The fact that the Government have ignored that consideration shows their severe ignorance of what it means to live in an upland area in a northern part of the United Kingdom and face quickly changing winds. The period of seven days means that people often lose out. Three, four or five days of extreme changes in temperature can occur on the Slamannan plateau, which lies on the southern side of the River Forth. I am sure that it is the same for other upland areas in central and north Scotland. The Government's payments take no account of the inflation factors facing people in many parts of Scotland that do not have a gas supply and where the only alternative to electricity-generated heating is oil, which has risen in price from 15p per litre to 18.5p per litre. Nothing is built into the regulations to take 8 account of the fact that in some winters people can only keep their bodies warm by turning up the temperature of their heating systems. That leads to a quick increase in the cost of maintaining adequate heating in many parts of Scotland, especially in upland areas. I welcome one aspect of the regulations. As an alternative to Turnhouse—the Edinburgh airport weather station—which is on flat land beside the Forth at sea level, Salsburgh will be used. That is in mid-Lanarkshire and covers part of the upper reaches of some of the hills there. However, those hills do not rise to anything like the height of the Slamannan plateau or many other areas of Scotland, such as parts of Fife, where my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central comes from, and further north and west. Nevertheless, at least it is a sign from the Government that they realise that there is a difference in temperature between upper parts of the Scottish hills and flat land around Glasgow and Edinburgh airports. However, it is not really good enough because if they do not take account of the chill factor, they will not take account of all the elements that are relevant to estimating the real cost of the effect of a sudden change in wind direction and a sudden drop in temperature, when rising heating bills are the consequence in most of Scotland. The scheme was flawed from the beginning. The regulations tamper with it a little, but not enough.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Govan): As I understand it, the Government's objective is to ensure that of those people who are entitled to the benefit, as many as possible receive it. I wonder why this pattern of weather stations has been selected and why we are not using more weather stations that could provide the necessary information. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) explained the difficulties in his area. In west-central Scotland, the Abbotsinch station at Glasgow airport lies in the middle of a valley and the area covered by Abbotsinch goes a long way to the south and includes a substantial chunk of the southern uplands, where the weather is traditionally much more severe. Similarly, the borders of Scotland, where I was born, will be covered from Turnhouse. There can be snow on the ground in the borders for long periods, while people in Turnhouse are virtually growing bananas because it is so warm. Given that discrepancy, it would be more advantageous to potential recipients if the maximum possible number of stations were used. The area covered by the Aviemore station in annex D is a bizarre shape, especially as it would seem that there is an alternative as several other weather stations could be used. Presumably, that would provide a more finely tuned scheme for making the benefit available to those who qualify. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.
Mr. Roger Evans: I shall deal briefly with the points that have been raised. First, I shall reply to the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes). The provisions 9 relating to Heathrow are based on the advice of the Meteorological Office, which is available in the form of a report. Under the previous scheme London was quartered, with a weather station outside on each section: Heathrow in the west, Stansted in the north, Manston and Gatwick. Now, the Meteorological Office has advised us that in the absence of a suitable station in central London, it is more appropriate in climatical terms to link the whole M25 ring with Heathrow. It is easy for all of us to have views on weather, but the Government have to rely on the expert advice of the Meteorological Office, and that was its advice. I carefully investigated the interesting possibility put to me in the Adjournment debate to which the hon. Gentleman referred, of using facilities at London's City airport. I regret to say that I was advised that suitable information was not available from that source. If it had been, I would have considered whether it could have been used. The hon. Member for Falkirk, East mentioned, with some force, the question of wind chill in Scotland and referred to the fact that he lives on a 120 feet high plateau. It is easy to make amateur comments about weather. I live at a height of more than 600 feet and we sometimes have snow when Raglan, which is barely 10 miles away, is not quite growing bananas but certainly has a mild climate in comparison. Of course, there are problems with high and low areas—but for Scotland, over the past two winters, we have made substantial alterations in response to representations. Last winter, it was said in Braemar that Aviemore was not representative and that the school at Braemar was 10 available to provide information. There was the problem that Tiree on the coast was not really suitable, so Loch Glascarnoch and Aultbea have now been introduced. Of course, we could make the scheme infinitely more complicated, but we must strike a balance between costs and the ultimate purpose of the scheme. I note the point that the hon. Gentleman made about fuel oil and the expense of heating, but the actual figures do not bear out his remarks. Over recent years, fuel prices generally—including fuel oil—appear to have gone up less than the retail prices index. I should stress to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Davidson) that we could, of course make the system more complicated by having more weather stations. However, I am reluctant to do so when the Meteorological Office advises that we have the optimum number under the current arrangements. If we continue to explore the question of wind chill and, possibly, a more complex modelling of that issue, different recommendations may be put before the House next summer or autumn when the reviews and studies have been completed. At present, however, I recommend the regulations as the best arrangements that can be made in the circumstances.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Social Fund Cold Weather Payments (General) Amendment Regulations 1996 (S.I., 1996, No. 2544)
Committee rose at five minutes to Five o'clock.
THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:
Sims, Sir Roger (Chairman)
Davies, Mr. Quentin
Evans, Mr. Roger
Grylls, Sir Michael