When it comes to pensioner perks, it’s easy – and right – to point out the inconsistency and immorality of millionaires receiving Winter Fuel Allowance. But what about expat pensioners who receive the same benefit despite living in warmer climes than Britain? New figures reveal that £21 million was spent on winter fuel payments for Britons living abroad, including countries such as Spain and Cyprus, in the last financial year. That’s a 64 per cent increase on the previous financial year’s figure of £12.8 million.
Why the sudden increase? Europe, that’s why. As set out in this DWP briefing, the European Court of Justice ruled that anyone with a “genuine and sufficient link” to Britain had a right to claim the payment. Previously, only those who lived in Britain until they were 60 years old did. It could be said that this corrects various inconsistencies: people who have paid British taxes for most of their life, only to then move abroad, might feel hard done by if they then lose out on benefits that others receive as a matter of course. But it certainly creates others: sure, parts of Spain can have cold winters, but what about those parts that don’t?
IDS isn’t happy about this. In fact, he’s said that “this increase is a direct result of a ridiculous ruling by the European Court of Justice and we are not prepared to sit back and allow hard-working taxpayers’ money to be used in this way.” That he should respond in this manner isn’t too surprising. We already know that IDS isn’t particularly fond of universal benefits. We also know that he’s one of the most euro-sceptic members of the Cabinet. This issue mixes the two, and must taste like a cup of vomit to the man.
But the minister’s response is still worth noting, not least because it adds to the standard centre-right argument against pensioner perks. Now, it’s not just a matter of protecting “hard-working taxpayers’ money” – aka, deficit reduction – but also of repelling rule from Brussels. It’s almost as though he’s reaching for the collective hand of reluctant Tories, hoping to lead them towards the growing consensus against universal winter fuel payments; a consensus that now includes Labour, the Lib Dems, the Sun, the Telegraph and, er… me.
And when I say “reluctant Tories”, that group includes David Cameron and George Osborne, who are more or less sticking to their pre-election promises about universal benefits. Yet perhaps they’ll listen to IDS in this instance. Not only are they scrabbling around for powers to repatriate from Europe, but they also face – as Guido points out – the harsh political climate that may follow on from a harsh winter. If thousands die because of the cold, while millionaires and those in warmer parts of warmer countries receive money for fuel, then that consensus may swell even further.