Gordon Wilson – 1985 Speech on Heating Bills

Below is the text of the speech made by Gordon Wilson, the then SNP MP for Dundee East, in the House of Commons on 4 December 1985.

The subject of the debate is the effect of poor summer weather on the elderly and the very young. Before coming to that, I must say that the debate on the Northern Ireland (Loans) Bill evoked memories of 1975 and devolution. It is one of the paradoxes of this place that Northern Ireland is to be offered devolution when it does not want it, while Scotland, which wants it, cannot get it.

I want to turn the attention of the Minister and the House to the problem facing many elderly and very young people because of the poor weather during the summer —if summer be the right description. In recent years a considerable amount of attention has been drawn to the instances of fuel poverty, but most of the concern was about the effects of winter weather on the frail, elderly and the families living on the margins of income.

Those on supplementary benefit and heating allowances hope that during the summer they can save to pay their winter electricity, gas and coal bills. Many hon. Members will have experience of constituents approaching them at the end of winter with high bills that they have great difficulty in paying under the current supplementary benefit rates. Indeed, they have been faced with the prospect of disconnection.

Some of those people were able to cut their arrears during the summer months when they could turn off their heating systems, or perhaps put something aside towards the bills for the winter months. We must recognise that this is not an academic matter, nor is it purely a case of the discomfort that many families experience because they cannot afford sufficient fuel. It can be one of life and death.

Age Concern has looked into the matter. It has said, based upon a survey done as far back as 1972, that some 70,000 Scots pensioners are at risk from hypothermia. If, however, one scales it up to the present population aged over 65 years, I am informed that the figure is now nearer 130,000.

The problem medically for the elderly, although it applies also to children in their first year of life, is that they sometimes have difficulty in being able to sense changes in temperature. The young have no control over their clothing or the way in which they react. The elderly frequently do not notice changes in temperature up to something like 5 degrees Centigrade. That is why they can be at risk and, before they know it, they can be in danger.

There are between 3,000 and 5,000 deaths per year in Scotland from cold-related illnesses. Some 20 per cent. of all Scottish houses —and that may be an underestimate —have a problem with dampness. In 1972 the Wicks report when it came out made it clear that pensioners spend over twice as much of their budget on fuel as the average of all households. Indeed, that same report demonstrated that 88 per cent. of people who would have liked more heating cited expense as the reason for not having it. They deliberately economised on fuel because they felt they did not have the resources with which to pay for it. We are now dealing with the problem of the population becoming progressively older so that at present some 17 per cent. of the Scottish population is over pensionable age.

I do not pretend that this is a purely Scottish problem. Other areas of the United Kingdom suffer from climatic variations, but I trust that it is stating the obvious to point out that the Scottish climate, because of our northerly location, suffers from harsher weather conditions. It is a matter of indisputable scientific proof that it is 20 per cent. more expensive to heat a house in Glasgow than it is to heat a similar house in Bristol. In Aberdeen the comparable figure is 30 per cent., while there are many more upland and exposed households where the weather is windier and colder. Nor is it just the case that cold weather is more severe. People also have to cope with a longer winter, lack of sunshine, shorter days, greater wind velocity and a higher rainfall, all part and parcel of living further to the north in winter. It is not surprising, therefore, that electricity consumption is 25 per cent. and 50 per cent. higher in the south and north board areas respectively compared with consumption in England.

If any further proof were needed, a glance at a recent written answer given to the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) shows not only that official hypothermia death returns are running in the first half of 1985 at record levels but that Scotland accounts for some 33 per cent. of all the deaths where mention is made of hypothermia on the death certificate. As we know, the official returns on the death certificate, because of the difficulty of diagnosis, represent only a small proportion of those who die from cold-related illness.

All this has been compounded by the 1985 summer. Apart from the month of October, it was simply appalling. Cumulative Scottish weather conditions were found to be the worst for a century. From July to September rainfall was 200 per cent. to 300 per cent. above normal. Sunshine was less that 75 per cent. of the usual. This has had a direct impact on heating. People had to heat their homes right through the summer. During the summer quarter, fuel consumption rose dramatically. Compared with 1984 gas consumption went up by 20 per cent. and electricity in the south of Scotland electricity board area by 12 per cent. Figures have not been made available for the hydro-board area, but might be greater because it covers the more northern latitudes. Increases in coal were also sustained in different areas, to upwards of 20 per cent.

It is not surprising that during the summer fuel arrears have arisen. Many people have used up the savings that they had kept for fuel consumption during the winter. This is serious, because the graphs show that deaths among the elderly rose by 20 per cent. and among the very young by 40 per cent. in winter, as compared to summer. This phenomenon does not occur in similar age groupings in Scandinavia. Part of the blame lies in the poorer quality of housing. With lack of insulation, a disproportionate amount warms the external environment, and there is no real programme of upgrading, and what there is seems to be under attack. It is one of the stupidities of Government policy that in 1981 –83 they paid out something under £15,000 million of fuel benefits, actual or reputed, but provided only some £18 million for basic insulation.

The whole point is about ability to pay. on 28 November, the Government acknowledged the exceptionally bad weather conditions, when the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food gave a subsidy to farmers, for fodder for their cattle. What about the people who also had to put up with the cold, wet and windy summer? So ​ far, there has been no announcement, although winter has struck early and most bitterly. The benefit system is inadequate, unfair and unjust.

The House knows that I have before called for a cold climate allowance. Instead, there is the severe weather allowance, which I prefer to call a warm climate allowance because it favours payment in the south rather than in the north. Last year, 170,000 payments were made in England, but none in Scotland, although lower temperatures were prevailing in our country.
No one in Scotland will miss the severe weather allowance when it is abolished. It does not give us any help —a case of cold comfort for the Scots, and southern comfort for the English. In any event, the system has been declared illegal by the Social Security Commissioner, but the Government are silent, and I hope that the Minister will say something to clear up the position, and about the guidelines. Will the scheme last, and will any back-money be paid to all those people who applied last year, but failed to get a bean out of the system?

In plain language, the scheme is daft. It is unfair to those living in normally cold areas. It is confusing for benefit officers, and if it is confusing for them, how much more confusing must it have been for the general public? The elderly could not predict whether the cold temperatures would last long enough to bring clown the average and so trigger off the payments. Old folk had no way of knowing whether they could afford the extra heat. The winter has struck early, and the fear of the size of the fuel bills is the greatest disincentive to the elderly in keeping warm. After the summer, many could have difficulty in paying for fuel, and be in a more difficult and harsh position than last year.

The Government cannot be complacent about the trend in deaths. It is immoral to give extra cash to keep animals alive when people either die or face the misery of being trapped in cold and draughty homes. It is necessary to give help to the farmers, in view of the bad summer, but, if the Government are willing to give it to the farmers, they should also be prepared to help other people. The Government cannot abolish fuel allowances. Adequate allowances are the only guarantee for aged and low-income families that they will have any chance of keeping themselves warm in this and future winters. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond sympathetically to my case.

Gordon Wilson – 1985 Speech on the Televising of the Commons

Below is the text of the speech made by Gordon Wilson, the then SNP MP for Dundee East, in the House of Commons on 20 November 1985.

The hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Lawler) lives in cloud-cuckoo-land if he believes that the public will receive his speech or mine at great length and watch them unadulterated and unedited. My impression is that there is not much demand for the televising of Parliament. People ​ will probably want to see snippets on the “9 o’clock News” or “News at Ten”, and that will be the end of it. I am not against the televising of Parliament, but we must be realistic about the coverage that will be achieved.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should not treat the Chamber as if it were a sacred institution, with the idea that it would be sacrilege to alter it. I am only too well aware of the inadequacy of our procedures. Hon. Members must be frustrated by the lack of financial power we have in the House compared with many Parliaments in western Europe and beyond.

We are in danger of taking the debate out of context. I was prepared to vote against the motion because it seemed to me wrong that we should vote for a principle without knowing the practicalities. According to the motion, which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) moved so well, we were apparently prepared to agree to an experiment in principle and then to have running sidesaddle with it, so to speak, a Select Committee charged with the job of implementing it but not with the consideration of whether it would be desirable.

However, the Leader of the House has swayed some of my views, because, if we follow his advice and vote for the motion, we shall not be voting for what it describes. In other words, we shall have an opportunity to consider the principle and the detail when the Select Committee reports. It will then be possible to put the boot in to the proposal if it does not match up to what we expected.

The House, through the Select Committee and the debate that we shall have in six months, can dictate to the broadcasters what it wants to put over. We could make many mistakes. We do not have to look far from sound broadcasting, which I think was one of the biggest gaffes the House has made for a long time. That is saying something considering some of the peculiar decisions that we have made.

Broadcasters naturally look at the most entertaining and lively parts of our proceedings. That must of course mean Question Time. Question Time is entertainment. We should all stagger back in disbelief if we ever managed to obtain some information out of Question Time. It is there. It is prime time. The public desperately want tickets to get in and it is carried to its zenith—if I may use that description, probably incorrectly—at Prime Minister’s Question Time. We face each other in an adversarial, indeed gladiatorial, fashion and make a great deal of noise. If we want to get rid of the noise, we must alter the shape of the Chamber and call people to a rostrum to make speeches. We should soon all be preserved in aspic and the quality of many of our debates would decline.

One of the dangers of introducing television to the House without considering our procedures is that their shape may change in a way that we have not determined. Right from the start, we must take on board the fact that we are moving towards television because television is the principal medium of communication. It is the medium for election fighting. It is anachronistic to go around knocking on doors and speaking to our constituents. With one television appearance, we can reach more constituents during an election than we can with all our knocking on doors. Leaflets through the door are not a useful way of imparting ideas. Television is the medium.

I suspect that one of the reasons why we are discussing this issue tonight is that we are in the gravitational pull of a general election. Some people have been looking at their sums and are beginning to say, “We should have coverage ​ on television during the run-up to an election because we may put over our case more effectively.” If we introduce this experiment, we should not do it in the run-up to a general election. It would be far more effective to introduce it immediately after the election of a new Parliament.

I have some doubt about what the practical effects of television coverage might be. I take up some of the points made by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on the subject of Question Time. If Question Time gets the television slots, members of a minority party will want to be called, because Question Time receives the coverage. All hon. Members will have to change their priorities. It will not just be a matter for minority parties. There will be competition for a restricted time slot.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Would it not be better, instead of coverage being slotted into programmes, to have a 24-hour channel so that people could switch on and off when they wished? That would prevent all the problems. It could cover the work of Select Committees and the Standing Committees which do most of the work.

Mr. Wilson

The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point. He must remember that the electorate might not want to watch a 24-hour channel. Heaven forbid that we move to a 24-hour day.

My point is still valid; if we are talking of television we are talking of prime time. Prime Minister’s Question Time takes place at the right time of day for coverage in the news programmes. In general debates, if a Member is not called before 5 o’clock, his chances of being quoted in the television news have probably gone. The point has already been made about statements. We will have to re-adjust our individual, party and parliamentary priorities to meet the demand made by the new medium. Many of us may be disappointed and disillusioned by the experiment, and electors may reach a similar view.

Practical problems must be considered. I want to make it clear on behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party that we would not be happy to be represented on the Select Committee by a member of the SDP or the Liberal party. [HON. MEMBERS: “Where are they?”] They have vanished to do their plethora of television interviews. At one time we could have trusted members of those parties, because they wanted to further the interests of smaller parties. They now have ambitions beyond their stature. They are imperialist in the sense that they want to aggrandise themselves to get media coverage. That is legitimate, but I should not like to trust our parties to their care on the Select Committee.

The Leader of the House will not be able to answer other specific points, but I wish to put them on the record on behalf of Plaid Cymru and the SNP. What facilities will be made available to broadcasters in Scotland and Wales? Will adequate editing facilities be available? The experiment should not be done purely on a metropolitan basis. Many hon. Members will want their local television stations to have access to coverage of their own speeches as frequently as possible.

Important debates on housing and local government in Scotland and Wales often take place after 10.30 pm. Will the television cameras cover those proceedings in the wee small hours of the night? Those debates will affect our constituents more perhaps than grand debates on foreign ​ affairs. If the cameramen will be there at that time, who will pay them? Will it be the House, the BBC. ITN or the local companies? The local companies would not want to take on that expense.

There are the proceedings of Select Committees, and of Standing Committees too, although heaven forbid that anyone should want to watch what we get up to there. What about the Scottish and the Welsh Grand Committees’? The Scottish Grand Committee deals with some Bills that might otherwise be taken on the Floor of the House. Is the Scottish Grand Committee to be covered? If not, we should insist that all Scottish Bills are dealt with in the House because of the possibility of television coverage.

If the Scottish Grand Committee is covered, will its proceedings be televised when it meets in the Scottish Assembly building in Edinburgh? As the Leader of the House is no doubt aware, it meets in Edinburgh four or five times a year to deal with legislation and other important matters. Who will take the cameras there for occasional visits? Yet it would be wrong if important visits by Scottish Members to the Scottish Grand Committee in their own country were not covered. The gallery is not large enough to accommodate many members of the public, although I must put it on record that my experience of meetings in Edinburgh is that the general public are not keen to inflict on themselves the same masochistic damage that we inflict on ourselves.

I support in principle the televising of the House, but I have reservations about how it may be put into effect. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I will support the motion because of the assurance given by the Leader of the House that the principle of coverage will be married to a detailed report from the Select Committee and that we will have another bite at the apple.