November 11, 2011

UK: Stars rally to help vulnerable older people keep warm

LONDON, England / The Telegraph / Personal Finance / November 11, 2011

Celebrities such as Sir David Jason and Sir Terry Wogan are pledging their winter fuel allowance to help those worse off.

Staying warm and healthy in our cold winters is something most of us 
take for granted." Photo: Jeff Gilbert

By Emma Simon

Wealthier pensioners are being urged to "recycle" their winter fuel payments to help older, more vulnerable people keep their homes warm this winter.

A host of senior celebrities, including Ann Widdecombe, Sir Michael Parkinson, Dame Cleo Laine and Sir David Jason, are backing this new charitable appeal by handing over their own winter fuel payments.

It's hoped their star quality will encourage others to do the same. All money raised by this Surviving Winter appeal will be distributed by the Community Foundation Network, which works with local charities and organisations to help those struggling with rising gas and electricity bills.

The winter fuel payment has long been mired in controversy. Payments have been sharply reduced this year – with the poorest households losing almost £100 – although all the major energy companies have hiked up gas and electricity prices by almost 20pc this year.

The universal benefit is paid to all households where at least one person is over 60, regardless of income. But in the small print in this year's Budget, it emerged that the coalition won't be paying the additional "top-up" payments – which have been paid every year since 2008, when they were introduced to ensure payments kept pace with rising bills.

This means this winter, those aged 80 or over will receive a £300 payment, compared to the £400 they received last year. Younger pensioners will get £200 instead of £250. Last year, more than 12.6 million people received this benefit.

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But while there is concern that these payments won't provide enough help to the poorest households, there is also disbelief that they are made to far wealthier families. An estimated 100,000 recipients have incomes of over £100,000, and more than 450,000 are higher-rate taxpayers. This benefit is paid to 65,000 expatriates, including 31,145 in Spain and 4,674 in Cyprus, plus more than a thousand in Greece and Italy – none of which are known for harsh winters. The number of expats collecting this payment has gone up by almost three times in the past six years.

There have been repeated calls for the benefit to be means-tested to focus resources on those in most need. Dame Joan Bakewell, a former "government tsar" for older people, caused ructions when she tried to hand back her payment last year to highlight the system's iniquity. She said it proved to be "nigh on impossible", despite ministers' claims that wealthier pensioners were "encouraged" to forgo the allowance.

It is hoped this new charitable endeavour will provide a more viable alternative, as the money people give up will find its way to help others, rather than simply be swallowed up into the black hole in the government coffers.

Ros Altmann, the director-general of Saga, said: "I am delighted to be supporting this brilliant initiative to help recycle winter fuel payment from those who don't need them to those that do. It is important, as part of a caring society, to enable people who want to support those at risk of fuel poverty to keep warm and well this winter."

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