AS public alarm grows over hypothermia deaths among the elderly, the effect of new government rules will be to cut the level of cash help to the old and cold. Investigations by The Sunday Times reveal that ministers have devised a scheme which will ensure that special cold weather payments are hardly ever made.
So-called "exceptional severe weather" benefits jumped to £12m last year, compared with £1.7m in 1985, after widespread disquiet about hardship suffered by the old. Ministers relaxed controls to allow social security staff more discretion in giving help.
But under a new scheme devised by John Major, the social security minister, these payments are being cut to virtually nothing this year for the elderly, and abolished altogether for younger people on supplementary benefit, who make up half the number who used to qualify.
On the surface, the plan appears sensible - offering £5 a week to pensioners when it gets very cold. But the regulations have been drawn up with the intention that they should yield cash help only every five years.
"The DHSS came to us for meteorological advice," said one expert at the government's weather headquarters in Bracknell, Berkshire. "They asked: 'What temperature is likely to be reached one winter in five in the major population areas of the country?' We said -1.5."
Ministers have also ruled that for money to be paid, a cold period - defined as a daytime temperature of -1.5 - must last from Monday to Sunday, so that even the severest conditions prevailing during other periods in any week would not lead to a payout. Even one day's respite during the very worst and most prolonged bad weather would cancel any right to the payment.
Under the new arrangements it is almost inevitable that few people can look forward to assistance. Had the scheme been in operation for the last seven years, nothing would have been paid in four - and during last winter, which included the coldest February since 1947, only half the areas in which money was paid would have been eligible for help.
In the London area, which experienced unusually severe conditions last year, government calculations for the new scheme show that no payment would have been made. Pensioners and other poor people in the capital would have received only one £5 payment since 1979.
Extra help for the old and needy during the coldest months has become an annual issue for social security ministers. Official figures show that some 60,000 old people die each year as a result of winter weather. Many, though obviously not all, of these deaths could be prevented given sufficient domestic warmth.
Major's plan has infuriated organisations representing the elderly. "This is shabby and mean," said David Hobman, director of Age Concern. "It is very cruel to make people go through another winter without the confidence to keep themselves warm."
Age Concern will tomorrow launch a new appeal to raise money and volunteers to help the elderly poor. The campaign aims to distribute food, warm clothing, room thermometers and advice kits to thousands of people who might otherwise become vulnerable to hypothermia.
"The issue this raises is that many old people are very poor," said Andrew Bowden, Conservative MP for Brighton. "No system of ad hoc payments will be effective until the real value of pensions is increased."
The Department of Health and Social Security refused a customary briefing on the new scheme, but this weekend denied any intention to cut help to the old. "We are not hoping not to spend money," a spokesman said. "If it is cold we expect to pay."
* Weathermen predict that the next three days will be the coldest so far this winter with snow and ice hitting most parts of the country for the first time. The London weather centre said: "There should be up to three inches falling in some places, particularly the northeast." Temperatures are expected to fall to between -4C and -7C over much of the country and in some places to -10C.
Snow fell yesterday in Kent and Surrey for the first time this year and the eastern counties in England are likely to bear the brunt of further falls.
Time for a thaw to help the old
The Sunday Times, January 18 1987
Editorial (written by Brian Deer)
For three years, The Sunday Times has been campaigning for Britain's old and cold, and complaining about the miserable priority they are accorded in the scheme of government thinking. Last week, something finally happened, although only after we had revealed on our front page the full callousness of the government's new scheme of emergency winter payments. We were just in time. Within hours of our report, Britain was entering into its worst cold snap for years. But there was no certainty that even that would have triggered the ludicrous special cold weather payments formula of £5 a week if the average temperature drops to minus 1.5C from Monday to Sunday. In the event, Mrs Thatcher is to be commended for sorting out the bunglers at the Department of Health and Social Security who, as we illustrated, rigged the payments so that hardly any of Britain's old could get them. Mrs Thatcher decreed that the old should get their £5 but, leaving aside the board and lodging debacle, there is no feature of welfare policy more spectacularly mismanaged than this one.
The baptism of fire accorded to Mr John Major, the new social security minister, will no doubt do him good. But the government must do some deep thinking about where we go from here. Despite our campaign and last week's rapid change of mind we remain pessimistic for the future. The government has made endless petty adjustments to dodge short-term political flak and there was no indication that last week's retreat was any more than a temporary one. Next winter, Britain's old will probably be as cold as ever.
The old have no greater hope under a Labour administration. Inevitably, Labour sought to score some point from the government's humiliation. Mr Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, had a photocall with a pensioner and made fine-sounding speeches about the poor. Of course Mr Kinnock was able to pledge an extra £5 a week throughout the winter to pensioners and to other people as well. Why not £10? Or £20? Such pledges can be plucked out of the air as easily as Mr Major produced his own small-minded scheme, which lacked only the condition that there must be no "R" in the month to make it complete.
Like the board and lodging regulations, on which we have also long campaigned, the cold weather payment rules seem to change from one day to the next. Last winter, payments were made on the basis of local civil servants putting their heads out of the window and deciding whether they thought it was cold. That system paid out some money - around £12m in total - but it was no less daft than the one which we exposed last week and which Mrs Thatcher changed so abruptly.
Mr Major is said have had an uncomfortable time of it, and is no lover of The Sunday Times this week. If Mrs Thatcher is immortalised for the school milk, then Mr Major will go into the political annals for his old and cold formula. It will always be difficult for him to explain why he devised a scheme that was not due to pay any money in four years out of five, especially since the whole thing is being abolished next April with the new social security act.
We find no great enjoyment in the minister's embarrassment, however. Unlike previous governments, social security ministers under Mr Norman Fowler have made a sincere effort to rethink welfare payments so that they are more accurately targeted towards those who need them most. The fact that this cannot be done without creating more flexibility and discretion for local officials is a matter more of logic than it is of party politics.
Mr Major and his officials cannot wait for an election result to concentrate their thoughts. As Mr Major knows, social security can give money to the old, but it does not necessarily give them warmth. For that, his department must get together with Mr Peter Walker at energy and Mr Nicholas Ridley at environment to forge a national fuel efficiency plan.
It is time for a bold and imaginative initiative. If the nation managed to re-equip itself for North Sea Gas, with workmen going into every home, something similar could be done with an insulation scheme. At the present rate of progress it will take about 30 years before our roofs are protected as well as Sweden's. Such a scheme is a quick job-creator and, if there is any doubt about where the money would come from, why are not the same questions asked about, say, Sizewell B? Energy conservation may be less glamorous than energy creation, but it is all part of the same equation for people who need warmth.
If the government shuns this task, we will be back again with the same tragic stories that peppered the press after our revelations last week. But this need not always be the case. If Mrs Thatcher and her ministers still have any radical aspirations, they can set about the much-needed task of helping lead Britain back towards a respect and a commitment to our most senior citizens that too many of us have forgotten.
Postscript: Within four years of this report and stinging editorial, John Major had succeeded Margaret Thatcher as British prime minister.