Robert Leitch is a Parliamentary researcher and Chairman of CarePlus, a charity which works with the elderly in South East London
The Winter Fuel Payment has long been a bone of contention for those who find the universal, all encompassing reach of the benefit merely a sad reflection of the excessive welfare spending embarked upon by the Labour Party after their 1997 landslide election.
The tax-free annual payment carries a standard rate of £200 per eligible household where the oldest person is under the age of 80 (but above State Pension age). For households with a person aged 80 or over, the standard rate is £300. With 12.6 million people in 9.1 million households benefiting from these payments, State spending in this area reached a total of £2.8 billion last winter alone.
A mixture of practical and political motivations combined to ensure that this benefit was perceived as being almost untouchable during the 2010 Spending Review. On the one hand, fuel poverty is not a myth in this country but a very sad reality. In certain pockets of our communities, some pensioners still have to make that dreadful choice between food or fuel; and in a 21st century Britain that is simply unacceptable. Pensioners deserve respect in later life, and they certainly deserve unequivocal support if they cannot afford to heat their own homes.
However, herein lies the longstanding problem. Without any form of means testing, many recipients simply do not need this additional yearly top up to meet their fuel needs. Once implemented, however, universal benefits have an uncanny way of becoming incrementally built into State and household budgets perpetuating the notion that reforming them would be somehow cruel and heartless.
Worse still, if truth be told, as politicians wrongly assess the risks of upsetting the pensioner vote, they disregard and let down those who truly need fuel poverty relief. It is a classic case of casually forgetting the most vulnerable in society who get lost in a distant political game. As the House of Energy and Climate Change Committee concluded in March 2010:
"As a means of tackling fuel poverty, the case for Winter Fuel Payments is weak. Its payment is unfocused and not targeted on people in or near fuel poverty… it would be more intellectually honest to rename the benefit and concede that it is a general income supplement; and stop accounting for it as a fuel poverty measure."
Debating the merits of offering a general income supplement to pensioners is a perfectly worthy debate to have. However, it should not be held at the expense of pensioners stricken by real fuel poverty who need a policy of their own both this and every winter.
Those who defend universal benefits usually do so on the grounds that means testing is too expensive, bureaucratic or simply pedantic. Put frankly, I don’t buy these arguments. After all, we could quite simply end the benefit for higher-rate taxpayers. This should not be viewed as attack on higher-rate taxpayers, but as the necessary refocusing of a policy which has grown out of control and away from its original intentions.
Those who defend the status quo seem to forget that in winter 2009-10 there were 23,100 additional deaths among people over the age of 65, with the cause of death either directly or indirectly related to the cold and damp. Despite over a decade of the Winter Fuel Payment scheme, fuel poverty continues to kill in the worst cases.
Alas, whilst increasingly the State Pension Age for women will, by extension, lower the number of eligible households, it is unlikely that any political will exists to truly reform this policy. Nevertheless, this winter there does exist a national campaign which seeks to redistribute the funds provided by the benefit to those most in need. The Surviving Winter campaign has been backed by a range of celebrities and seeks to rectify the flaws of the Winter Fuel Payments, by encouraging those who receive but do not need fuel poverty support to pass their cheques to local charities instead.
For example, I am the Chairman of a charity in South East London which will directly benefit from this campaign and we will be charged with the responsibility of ensuring that money is, at last, directed to where it is most needed. As a practical expression of the Big Society, I would encourage all those who do not face fuel poverty to sign up to this campaign. By doing so, perhaps society can succeed where politicians have thus far failed and actually tackle fuel poverty this winter.