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House of Lords

Thursday, 16th November 2000.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Winter Fuel Payments

Lord Higgins asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether winter fuel allowances in respect of past winters have now been paid to all men between the ages of 60 and 65 entitled to them.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, winter fuel payments in respect of previous years cannot be paid automatically but have to be claimed. However, such claims are not subject to any time limits. To date we have received around 950,000 claims from men for previous years; of those, 930,000 have been successful. An information campaign which began in April advises existing and potential customers of the changes.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but what percentage of men between the ages of 60 and 65 entitled to such payments have still not received any winter fuel payments for any winter? What has been the administrative costs of making payments to them or of making provision for payments to them?

Last week, the noble Baroness said, in regard to pensions generally, that winter fuel payments will start from next Monday. In view of the Government's record on failing to make payments during the winter, is the noble Baroness aware that people are not interested in the date from which those payments will be paid but rather are interested in the date by which they will be paid? By which date does she expect all winter fuel payments to be made?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, there are a number of questions there. First, payments for those receiving £200 who are over the age of 65 will have started going out this Monday and that should be completed within the next four weeks. In the week following that, we expect to complete the claims that we have received so far for those who are under the age of 65; that is, men between 60 and 65. The reason that more payments have not been made is that the claims themselves have come in late. We had expected to complete the exercise by September but we have not done so because of the lateness of applications.

We cannot be absolutely sure about the number of people eligible. We thought that perhaps 1.9 million people might be eligible and we have received just under 1 million claims. But the basic test is that somebody must have been ordinarily resident in the

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UK on the qualifying week, which was the third week in September. Therefore, we need people to contact us, because three years ago they may not have been ordinarily resident or they may have had a household formation different from that which they now have and that may affect the payments. I hope that I have answered the noble Lord's questions.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that severely disabled people under 60 are just as vulnerable to the cold and are just as unable to pay for proper heating of their homes as any old-age pensioner? So in logic and in justice, why cannot the Government extend that winter fuel payment to those people as well?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, very many disabled people are over the age of 60 and will be receiving the winter fuel payment by virtue of that. But we have been subject to pressure from my noble friend to extend the winter fuel payment to disabled people, and I have been subject to pressure to extend it to people with young children or people with large families.

We do not have any present intention to extend the group of people to whom the winter fuel payment is paid beyond those who are currently eligible to it. As my noble friend will be aware, disabled people have received significant additional payments, including those referred to in the Pre-Budget Statement, which will help them properly to meet their additional costs and needs for fuel.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, is there no feeling for men above the age of 65?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I may misunderstand my noble friend, but anybody over the age of 65 who is in receipt of a retirement pension automatically receives the winter fuel allowance. The Question refers to men between the ages of 60 and 65. After the European Court ruling, the Government either had to equalise the payment for women at 65 or for men at 60. As we did not wish to discriminate against women who had already been receiving the payment, we thought that we should equalise at 60.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, given that there are so many hundreds of thousands of people waiting for their allowance from last year, was it not misleading of the Chancellor to suggest that a cheque was already in the post in respect of the £50 increase this year? Can we therefore be sure that that £50 increase will actually reach the people who have been promised it, in view of the Government's record of failing to get the money to pensioners in the past?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am sorry; I had hoped that I had answered that when I was trying to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. Those people who are already 65 or who are already receiving benefit will receive the £200 payment starting as of this Monday and running for the next four weeks. That has been made very clear.

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The problem in relation to men aged between 60 and 65 who are claiming for the first time is that their claims are coming in according to their activity, if I can put it that way. We can respond only when we receive the claims. Of the 950,000 claims that we have received, 930,000 have been successful and only 30,000 claims are still waiting to be paid. So I do not believe that the noble Lord's question was properly informed.

Earl Russell: My Lords, does the DSS hold any medical information on the comparative importance of fuel, insulation and nutrition in lowering the high figure of excess winter deaths? If it does not, will it try to discover some between now and the next uprating Statement?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, we have some information on what contributes to what are regarded as the excess deaths--I am sorry; that is an ugly phrase--of pensioners due to hypothermia, which are in the region of about 50,000 per year. We know that pensioners make up about 20 per cent of the population and that 50 per cent are fuel poor by virtue of the fact that their houses are poorly insulated; they have relatively low incomes; they need higher standards of heating; and--an important consideration--they tend to under-occupy in that very often one pensioner lives alone in a rather large house which he or she cannot afford to heat. That is why we have made those winter fuel payments universal to pensioners.

Asylum Seekers: Information

3.12 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In the light of the MORI survey for the Reader's Digest, whether they have any plans to improve the standard of information available to the public about asylum seekers and refugees in this country.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, the Government recognise the need to provide balanced and honest information on asylum issues. Home Office Ministers and the department take all available opportunities to do that, to put the information in its proper context, and to challenge misinformation or misinterpretation. All of us--the press, politicians and others--have a duty to conduct the debate about asylum and immigration in an accurate and responsible way.

We have a strong commitment to raise the standard of information available to the public. The continuing development of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate's website is one example. It is scheduled to be relaunched in December with new pages on asylum.

We also recently published our strategy for integrating refugees into the United Kingdom entitled Full and equal citizens. The strategy sets out the

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Government's view on ways to enable those recognised as refugees to become full members of our society and to fulfil the undoubted potential that they have for their own benefit and for that of society as a whole.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Can he confirm the UNHCR figures produced in February this year that, within the EU in terms of the number of asylum applications in proportion to population, we were twelfth in 1998 and ninth in 1999? Therefore, does he agree that in relation to the figures we do not need to explain why we attract a flood of asylum seekers, but that we should consider whether we receive our share?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I believe that the figures mentioned by the noble Earl are broadly accurate. We should explain to everyone the contribution that those who seek asylum here can make to our society and we should do all we can to ensure that they are well integrated into a comfortable, multi-racial society that is at ease with itself. I believe that to be the wise strategy and that is exactly the strategy that the Government are pursuing.

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