Thursday 10 October 2019 4:20 am

DEBATE: Last year’s winter fuel allowance for pensioners cost almost £2bn – should the benefit be means-tested?

Imogen Farhan is a researcher at the independent think tank Reform.
and Caroline Abrahams

Last year’s winter fuel allowance for pensioners cost almost £2bn – should the benefit be means-tested?

Imogen Farhan, a researcher at the independent think tank Reform, says YES.

It is vital that those struggling to heat their homes receive support, but handing out cash to wealthy pensioners is a waste of taxpayers’ money. Age alone is an unfair way to decide who gets a £100-£300 lump sum from the government.

Statistics show that fewer than 10 per cent of older households (with one person aged 60 or over) are in fuel poverty, compared to 26 per cent of single-parent households. And while private renters are at the highest risk of fuel poverty, less than four per cent of over-65s live in the private rental sector.

Handing out the winter fuel allowance to all pensioners, regardless of their income, is a thinly-veiled election bribe. With many working-age benefits frozen and families struggling to make ends meet, all parties must set aside concerns about winning over the “grey vote”.

Means-testing the benefit would ensure that the poorest pensioners continue to receive this vital support, while enabling much-needed public funds to be redirected towards cash-strapped public services.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, says NO.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need the winter fuel allowance. All older people would be free from poverty and live in warm, well-insulated homes.

But we are a long way from that. As energy prices have rocketed in recent years, this payment has become a crucial weapon in the battle to help older people, particularly those on a low income, to stay warm and well through the winter.

Given that around 25,000 older people die prematurely every year from cold-related illnesses as it is, we fear the consequences of a means-tested allowance. Means-tested benefits can be costly to oversee, complicated, and often fail to reach the most in need. It is precisely because the winter fuel allowance is paid automatically to everyone, without the need to put in a claim or prove eligibility, that it reaches the very poorest and most vulnerable.

As well as the inevitable human cost, a hefty price would be paid by an already stretched NHS and social care system required to support older people suffering from unheated homes. Means-testing the winter fuel allowance would be a disaster.

Main image credit: Getty

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