How many pensioners really need a Winter Fuel Allowance?

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Picture: Ross Brown (www.rosscbrown.co.uk)

THE image of the impoverished pensioner shivering in the cold is an incredibly emotive one, especially at this time of year. Amid rising energy prices and much talk of fuel poverty, it might seem a no-brainer to increase the Winter Fuel Allowance as the Scottish Government has this week urged. What kind of heartless Scrooge would leave granny warming her hands on just one bar of the fire as she tunes in to the Queen’s speech tomorrow afternoon?

But the reality isn’t quite as simple as that. MSP Chic Brodie argues that the allowance should be increased to reflect the fuel prices hikes since it was frozen in 2001, but given that prices have risen for all households, why exactly should pensioners be singled out for help? Research published last month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found pensioner poverty was at a record low, and that pensioner families were the only group to see their incomes increase over the past decade.

“While one in six may live below the poverty line, plenty of others warm themselves up with holidays in the sun”

Suddenly life doesn’t sound so bad for a group so often unhelpfully and disingenuously characterised as needy and frail. Many pensioners are fit and active and enjoy a very comfortable retirement, thank you very much. While one in six may live below the poverty line and require extra support from the state, plenty of others warm themselves up with holidays in the sun.

While the standard logic is that voters suit themselves – favouring policies that put more money in their pockets – the reality is that pensioners do not live in a bubble, insulated from the struggles faced by younger members of society. Older people see their offspring made redundant or working insecure jobs with little hope of pay rises, locked out of the property market and facing spiralling private rents. Those who recognise that they were privileged to have jobs for life, affordable housing and decent pensions might feel motivated to share the wealth within their own families – but doing so doesn’t help tackle the underlying issues, just as filtering more public money to energy firms doesn’t solve the problem of rising gas and electricity prices.

It’s easy to see why those who do not need help paying their bills may feel uncomfortable about receiving age-related subsidies at a time when vital council services are being hacked back. Some, like nightclub tycoon Peter Stringfellow, feel embarrassed. A few years ago the septuagenarian – who judging by his bronzed appearance isn’t short of a few UV rays – unsuccessfully attempted to return his a Winter Fuel Allowance to the government before donating it to charity. He and Sir Alan Sugar, another disgruntled recipient, may be unusually wealthy, but many with more modest incomes and assets surely must take a similar view about the government’s flawed priorities. The usual arguments can be made that the cost of administering a means-tested system would outweigh those of paying out to every pensioner, but the payment is already linked to receipt of other benefits (including the state pension) and that same argument failed to stop the Coalition Government from restricting eligibility to Child Benefit.

Calls for a rise in the allowance comes amid a sharp rise in the proportion of very old people, for whom heating may literally be a matter of life and death, and after questions have already been asked about the affordability of the flagship SNP policy of universal free personal care for over-65s. Former Labour leader Johann Lamont made herself unpopular by suggesting populist but non-redistributive policies might be unsustainable in the long-term, but that doesn’t mean she was wrong.

Older people may spend a high proportion of their income of fuel, thereby falling under many definitions of fuel poverty, but asset-rich baby boomers can probably afford it, given they have neither rent nor mortgage payments to meet and their council tax has remained frozen for years. And amid all the urgent talk of a need for more social housing, it seems politicians have conveniently forgotten who is currently occupying much of the existing property, especially after the disastrous implementation of the “bedroom tax” from which pensioners were so cynically excluded. Does it make sense to subsidise older people to live in family homes long after their children have flown the nest, and then hand them extra money to heat the unoccupied rooms? Warm words may appeal to our sentimentality about old people, but cold, hard facts support the targeting of help towards those who really need it.

The article was first published in The Herald on December 24 2014

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