`Cold comfort' payments row boils over

The big freeze: Government embroiled in dispute over bad-weather hand-outs as accused firm stays defiant over services
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The Independent Online
Cold weather payments of pounds 8.50 a week are to be paid to households across a broad swathe of Scotland and northern England, the Department of Social Security said yesterday.

It said payments had so far been triggered in nearly all Scotland, Tyneside, Teesside, Carlisle, Manchester, Birmingham, North Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, West Midlands and Wiltshire, with other areas expected to be included as the Arctic conditions continue.

But MPs and campaigners said that the payments should be higher and that the Government's stringent criteria meant too many families would not qualify.

Scottish Labour MP George Foulkes, chairman of the all-party pensioners' group, said the scheme should be revised to take account of the exceptionally cold weather in Scotland and the north, where temperatures have plunged to minus 20C.

Payments are triggered when temperatures fall or are predicted to fall to freezing or below for seven days in a specific area. They are only paid to three groups on income support - families with children under five, the disabled and long-term sick, and all pensioners.

Mr Foulkes called for a "double premium" to be paid when the temperature fell to minus 10C for 24 hours or longer.

John Crowe, of the National Right to Fuel Campaign, said that many households would be left with high fuel bills, or out in the cold.

"Any family receiving income support, with a child over five, for example, will get nothing. That is wrong," he said.

This was reiterated by Lady Sally Greengross, director general of Age Concern, who said she was concerned that those above the income support threshold would find it difficult to face fuel bills later in the year.

"It's time that the Government rethinks the cold weather payment system so that all pensioners can keep warm all through the winter," she said.

David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, said the Prime Minister should intervene to authorise payments in all areas of the country. "The weather is sufficiently harsh, and therefore these payments are certainly justified, modest as they are," he said.

Social security minister Andrew Mitchell said the Government had to take "a prudent view" but that the scheme would be kept under review.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The Government recognises that hearing a government minister talking about cold weather payments when you have got temperatures of minus 15C in the north of Scotland can be rather irritating for those who are battling against those conditions - and we do recognise the importance of an annual review."

Pressed about situations where the weather had been cold for a prolonged period but did not meet the Government criteria exactly, he said: "We have to take a prudent view. These payments are meant to deal with very severe weather".

All but 100 of the 1,500 homeswithout power in the Shetland and northern Scotland had been reconnected by last night, as privatised power company Hydro-Electric defended its handling of the crisis in northern Scotland.

A spokesman for the company said that Western Isles Labour MP Calum MacDonald, who claimed staff shortages at the firm may have contributed to the problems, was "ill-informed" and that there were no job cuts among field staff. "Our men have been working in outrageously difficult conditions. We do have sufficient people to do the job but circumstances were beyond our control."

With the cold weather set to continue until the New Year, fresh snow continued to cause havoc on all roads in the north and north-east yesterday, with the coastal areas of North Yorkshire worst affected by snow and ice.

Most of Wales was covered with a blanket of snow six inches deep yesterday morning and the big freeze also took a firm grip on Northern Ireland, where temperatures plunged to a December record of minus 13C.

The AA said it had been inundated with breakdown calls.