UK Politics

Clegg put on the spot over winter fuel payments

Gas hob
Image caption Ministers insist winter fuel payments will continue to be paid but without "temporary boosts"

Nick Clegg has said he will write to a member of the public to "clarify" remarks he made about winter fuel payments, after appearing to be unaware of changes announced in the Budget.

Extra "top up" payments worth between £50 and £100 a year are being ended.

But when asked about it by two callers to a phone-in programme on BBC Radio Sheffield earlier, Mr Clegg initially dismissed their concerns.

Mr Clegg's spokesman insisted he was fully aware of the Budget's contents.

But, the aide added, the deputy prime minister's response could have been more clearly worded and he confirmed Mr Clegg would be writing to one of the callers to clear up any confusion.

He said Mr Clegg was correct to say that the main winter fuel payment would not be cut.

Under plans contained in the Budget, increases in winter fuel allowance for England, Wales and Scotland introduced by Labour in 2008-9 - but which the government says were regarded as temporary - are to be discontinued.

'Wild allegations'

As a result, the annual tax-free payment to help people pay for their heating over the winter months will fall from £250 to £200 for the over 60s and from £400 to £300 for the over 80s in 2011-12.

Mr Clegg was asked about the issue on a radio phone-in by a man who said he had read about the change in a newspaper.

The deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader replied: "Firstly, I wouldn't believe everything you read in the papers, I certainly don't these days. Secondly, we have increased winter fuel payments."

Another caller said he had heard shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, talking about the change to winter fuel payments on Radio 5Live.

In response, Nick Clegg said of Mr Balls: "Honestly, I don't know what he's on about. He keeps sort of throwing around a lot of sort of wild allegations."

Mr Clegg later accused the Labour Party of "making it up as they go along to frighten people" but when challenged by the presenter, he said on air that he would look into it.

A spokesman for Mr Clegg insisted that he was fully aware of what was in the Budget but added that the deputy prime minister would be contacting both phone-in callers and BBC Radio Sheffield to clear up any confusion.

'Directing resources'

During the election campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron attacked Labour for suggesting winter fuel payments were under threat if the Conservatives came to power, accusing them of lying to voters.

The Department for Work and Pensions said winter fuel allowance would "continue to be paid at the rates budgeted for by the last government".

Officials also pointed out that the government had raised the value of cold weather payments - for which four million people are potentially eligible if temperatures are at or below freezing for seven consecutive days - from £8.50 to £25 a week.

"The temporary boosts (to winter fuel allowance) for the years immediately before and after the election will no longer be paid," a spokesman said.

"Instead, we have directed our resources to guaranteeing the cold weather payment at £25, which means we have paid out £420m this winter to those with greatest need."

The decision to discontinue the top-up winter fuel payments has been attacked by pensioners' groups, which said fuel bills were already rising and the number of older people dying each winter was unacceptably high.

The National Pensioners' Convention also said it was "shabby" that Mr Osborne did not announce the move in his Budget statement and people had been left to read the smallprint of the Budget document.

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