Reports have suggested that the Tories are thinking of scrapping the Winter Fuel Payment for all but the poorest older people. The backlash has been swift – with one petition already attracting nearly 100,000 signatures in just a matter of days.
The Winter Fuel Payment
The Winter Fuel Payment is a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) benefit for older people. It’s not means tested – meaning almost everyone who is old enough can get it. As the government says on its website:
If you were born before 25 September 1957 you could get between £250 and £600 to help you pay your heating bills. This is known as a ‘Winter Fuel Payment’.
There are some people who don’t get it – namely older people on benefits who were living in a care home between 26 June and 24 September 2023. Otherwise, the Winter Fuel Payment is a universal benefit. However, the Tories have reportedly been eyeing up slashing people’s entitlement to it.
As Sky News first reported, sources told it that the DWP, the Treasury, and Downing Street were having a “live discussion” about means testing the benefit. It was under the premise that by doing so, the Tories could keep the so-called ‘triple lock’ on pensions. One source told Sky News:
Mr [Rishi] Sunak was interested in the option, while the chancellor and work and pensions Secretary Mel Stride were less enthusiastic about means testing pensioner benefits.
Therefore, according to another one of Sky News‘s sources, someone at the DWP or Treasury leaked the news to “kill it off”.
After Sky News broke the story, the government quickly stepped in. Downing Street told it that the policy was “not happening”. It’s of little wonder it did, when even its right-wing cheerleaders at the Daily Mail object to it:
Playing with fire. Conservative manifesto in 2019 contained unambiguous commitment to keep the winter fuel payment https://t.co/8LMEyOrSNh
— Jason Groves (@JasonGroves1) September 29, 2023
Sign the petition
However, given Sunak and the governments’ current policy platform of taking an axe to anything and everything, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the idea of means testing the Winter Fuel Payment isn’t dead in the water yet. So, campaign group 38 Degrees rapidly launched a petition on the issue.
The petition started late on Friday 29 September. It noted that:
Energy bills are still sky high and countless pensioners are struggling on the edge of fuel poverty. These payments are the only thing keeping some older people warm in the winter.
Last year alone, 5,000 people died as a result of living in a cold and damp home. Many more saw their health conditions deteriorate. We’re in the middle of an unprecedented crisis and it’s clear the Prime Minister has no idea how tough things are for so many of us.
Meanwhile, energy giants are making BILLIONS in profits off the back of the cost of living crisis. And with experts saying energy bills will likely stay high for the next two years, this proposal is flat out dangerous – it must be stopped.
As of 12pm on Monday 2 October, over 85,000 people had already signed it. You can add your name here.
Stop means testing
Some people have argued that the Winter Fuel Payment should be means tested because the DWP gives it to even the richest older people. However, changing universal benefits to means testing is always a slippery slope. As the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) wrote the problems with means testing include:
- It creating a very complicated system.
- Lots of people who are entitled to the benefits ending up not claiming them.
- It giving the government the power to create stigma around benefit claimants.
- The end result being trapping claimants in poverty.
Moreover, means testing benefits allows governments to consistently move the goal posts – with prescription charges being a good example.
When Labour created the NHS, prescriptions were free for everyone. The Tories brought in prescription charges in 1952, with exceptions for people on certain (what we’d now call) benefits. A Labour government scrapped them in 1965, before they were brought back again in 1968 – and at an even higher rate of charge, although benefit claimants, children, and older people were still exempt.
Successive Tory governments then increased prescription charges consistently above the rate of inflation. Now, we have Universal Credit which limits the entitlement to free prescriptions to only some claimants. Plus, the government has been debating increasing the age at which older people get free prescriptions.
So, free prescriptions have gone from being a universal benefit to being means tested. Consequently, one in 10 people now don’t get their prescriptions, because they can’t afford them.
Means testing is always the thin end of the wedge when it comes to government cuts. So, people are right to be angry about the Tories even mentioning means testing the Winter Fuel Payment. Whether they will follow through or not now remains to be seen.
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