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.