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Clash over fuel poverty fears

A Government minister insisted elderly people would be able to afford to heat their homes this winter after Conservatives raised fears over the growing impact of fuel poverty.

During ministers’ question time Conservative MP Ann Winterton questioned Pensions Reform Minisiter Mike O’Brien about the Government’s performance.

She said: “The Government’s fuel poverty target has, according to their own advisers, been missed, so I wonder what warm words they can offer elderly people and pensioners who face dramatically increased fuel costs.

“The Government appear to have no clear strategy for addressing fuel poverty among the elderly, who will be too afraid to turn up or even to switch on the heating in case they incur very large bills. What action will they take to assist this most vulnerable section of our community?”

But,  Mr O’Brien argued the number of pensioners in relative poverty had fallen by 900,000 since 1997 and the number in absolute poverty had dropped by 1.9 million.

He added: “Winter fuel payments will increase this year. There will be an extra £50 a week for those aged between 60 and 80 and an extra £100 for those aged over 80, bringing to £250 the amount that the Government provide to the elderly each year to help with their winter fuel bills.

“An extra £400 in winter fuel payments will be paid to those aged over 80. Indeed, we are going further than that by taking powers in the Pensions Bill that will enable the data sharing of information with suppliers so that poorer pensioners can be put on to lower social tariffs, ensuring that they pay lower bills and get insulation.

“Warm Front has given 1.7 million homes assistance on insulation: an average of £2,700 has been provided to ensure that homes are insulated and fuel bills are kept down, so quite a lot is happening in this respect.”

Tory MP Nigel Waterson echoed Mrs Winterson’s fear: “Does the Minister accept that the latest figures, which show that an extra 300,000 of our older citizens now live in poverty—well above 2 million—are bad enough, but that since the statistics were prepared even more pensioners will have been driven into poverty by the recent surge in energy and other living costs?

'Is it not time that the Government got serious about tackling pensioner poverty?”

But, Labour MP Dennis Skinner backed the minister. He said: “Whatever happens in the course of the next winter, one thing is certain: I do not expect anybody from our Front Bench to tell old-age pensioners to knit a woolly hat or to take a hot water bottle to bed, just like the Minister did in those grim Tory years.

'What was her name? It was Edwina Currie, and there are a load of them on the Tory Benches that act just like her.”