Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Garnier: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Gibson: I do not want the dialectic to get in the way of the facts at this stage. I may give way later.

It ill befits politicians and others--some of whom have two or even three well-heated homes--to deny people who do not have one well-heated home the rights and resources to have that privilege.

I wish to pay tribute to three organisations. The first is Age Concern, which has done fine work and given help and advice consistently to the elderly. I want also to compliment my two local councils, because they can stand every compliment they can get these days. Broadlands council, which covers part of my area, has started to attack the problem vehemently. It has accepted standards for affordable warmth, and the standard assessment procedure rating is 55. The council has calculated that 57 per cent. of its housing stock--some 30,000 houses--falls well below that standard. There is a huge mountain to climb in

10 Mar 2000 : Column 1309

terms of getting those homes up to the right heat and energy levels. The council is making sterling efforts, with grants and by utilising energy conservation legislation.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): My hon. Friend has mentioned the public housing stock, but we hear that the Bill will apply to public and private housing. It concerns me that many elderly people--particularly single elderly people--who are just above the threshold for the minimum income guarantee but are in a home that they could have afforded when their partner was alive cannot now afford to insulate their homes to a proper standard, and end up fuel poor. Are there any figures on the private stock? Is not that an important part of any survey?

Dr. Gibson: I was just coming to what Labour-controlled Norwich city council has done in that respect.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood the intention of my earlier attempt to intervene. What are the Curwen criteria? The warm homes campaign has alleged that 90 people in my constituency died last year because of excess winter cold. I find that unbelievable. If it is the case, I am surprised that local GPs or the coroner have not been in touch with me or the local press on the matter. Is that figure based on the Curwen criteria? If so, what are they?

Dr. Gibson: I cannot speak in specific terms about the hon. and learned Gentleman's area, but I imagine that the Curwen criteria are used across the country. The scandal is that there are any excess deaths at all in the winter months. That is reflected across the country. The percentages may change a little here or there, but the real scandal is that it happens at all, as it need not. GPs may not necessarily know the figures. Elderly medicine is not a fashionable subject, and it is not something that GPs look into--they accept what happens as the British way of life. The Bill will do much to eliminate that if we ensure that it makes progress today.

Mr. Garnier: What are the Curwen criteria?

Dr. Gibson: The year is divided into three periods of four months. One compares the number of deaths in certain age groups in the winter months with the number in the preceding and the following four months, adding the figures in the latter two groups and taking them away from the winter figure. That gives the number of excess deaths. In every part of the country, there is a winter excess.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): It might also help the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) to understand the problem if I tell him that we have a much greater excess of winter deaths than countries such as Norway and Sweden, which are much colder.

Dr. Gibson: Absolutely. We cannot make that point often enough.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas : Is my hon. Friend aware that the estimated figure for excess winter deaths last year for

10 Mar 2000 : Column 1310

the London borough of Bromley is 88? Should not the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) ponder that, as his record on energy efficiency is, to be charitable, poor?

Dr. Gibson: Yes, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will have his conscience pricked and that he will support what the vast majority demand and stop playing silly, amateurish games.

Our city council has taken up the issue and put £1.6 million into cavity cladding and insulation. Such enthusiasm and determination are to be applauded. We also need the Government to recognise the problem, support the Bill and develop a strategy to ensure that, in the foreseeable future, headlines such as "Killed by the cold" will disappear.

The elimination of cold homes and fuel poverty would save lives, ease the winter crisis in the health service and, incidentally, improve the environment.

10.32 am

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) not only on his success in the ballot but on his perspicacity in introducing such an important and badly needed piece of legislation. I wish him every success in the coming months as the Bill--we hope--passes through both Houses of Parliament and is placed on the statute book.

I know that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, but I want to say how proud I am to be one of the Bill's sponsors, especially as, when I had the privilege of serving on the Front Bench under my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), I was instrumental in securing the support of the Conservative party for the campaign for warm homes and greater energy efficiency.

As the long title of the Bill states, its purpose is:

All legislation carries that catch-all phrase at the end.

Fuel poverty disproportionately affects pensioners, but it is not confined solely to them, important as it is to improve their situation. Far too many other categories of people also suffer from fuel poverty, including those on low incomes, those on benefits and those who do not have the financial resources to improve their homes or cannot get their landlords to do it. I will return to that when I discuss clause 4(b).

The commonly accepted definition, according to the 1999 energy report, is that a household is in fuel poverty if it needs to spend 10 per cent. or more of its income to provide adequate heat and energy. The report suggests that, on that definition, about one in five households are in fuel poverty, while one in 20 could be described as in extreme or severe fuel poverty because they would need to spend more than 20 per cent. of income on energy to achieve a decent standard of warmth.

In 1991, the English house condition survey estimated that about 7 million households were in fuel poverty on the 10 per cent. of income definition, although subsequent

10 Mar 2000 : Column 1311

improvements in methodology, as well as in energy efficiency, have brought the figure down to about 6.6 million. That estimate did not include housing benefit as income, although it included housing costs as expenditure. Including the benefit would affect the total income available to households but not their disposable income.

In response to the consultations on the house energy efficiency scheme, many people said that total income, including housing benefit, and total fuel use, including use for household purposes, should be included. The change in the past few years in the number of households in fuel poverty is substantial. Excluding housing benefit, there were 5.3 million houses in fuel poverty in England in 1996; including it, the number would be about 4.4 million.

There is scope for debate about the figures but there can be little argument about the fact that, even accepting the lowest estimate of 4.4 million, the number is unacceptably high. It should be borne in mind that the figure is for England only and excludes Wales--which is covered by the Bill--Scotland and Northern Ireland. That is crucial because, bearing in mind what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said earlier, Scotland and Northern Ireland are infinitely harsher in winter than parts of the south-west, for example.

What is the fuel poverty impact of cold homes? Evidence abounds that fuel poverty affects the health of the nation to the detriment of far too many people. We have evidence that a cold indoor environment increases the likelihood of respiratory illnesses such as influenza, pneumonia and bronchitis and exacerbates heart attacks and strokes. That is a fact. Fatal domestic accidents among the elderly are more common in winter. That is a fact. Cold and damp conditions can promote the growth of fungi and house dust mites, which have been linked to respiratory conditions such as asthma, which is a problem especially among young children. That, too, is a fact.

Mr. Forth: Does my hon. Friend have any feel for, or indeed facts about, the relative incidence of those phenomena in public as opposed to private housing? Does he make any distinction between the responsibilities of local authorities and housing associations and those of private landlords?

Next Section

IndexHome Page