Winter fuel payment rejected by about 400 pensioners

Thermostat being adjusted by elderly woman Image copyright Thinkstock

This winter just 29 pensioners decided to decline their fuel allowance. It brings the total number of pensioners who relinquish this benefit to probably about 400 out of over 12 million recipients.

That's despite the fact that two years ago the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith encouraged better off pensioners who can afford their heating bills to return the money to the state.

Figures have been released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in response to a BBC Freedom Of Information (FOI) request.

So if you are one of the 29 public spirited pensioners who decided this winter that you could afford the personal sacrifice and that the government had better things to do with its cash than give it to you to subsidise your heating, then now you know how many of your fellows came to the same conclusion.

'Hand it back'

Interviewed in the Sunday Telegraph in April 2013 about why rich pensioners should get the benefit, Mr Duncan Smith said: "I would encourage everybody who reads the Telegraph and doesn't need it to hand it back."

However, many wealthier pensioners, whether Telegraph readers or otherwise, seem reluctant to follow this advice.

According to the DWP data obtained under FOI by the BBC, the number deciding to reject their winter fuel payment (WFP) was just 163 in the winter of 2011/12, 139 in 2012/13, 78 in 2013/14 and 29 in 2014/15.

The DWP states these recipients would generally also have relinquished their payments for all future years, possibly making a cumulative total of about 400, although they were not able to provide the BBC with detailed figures to confirm this.

Personal circumstances

No statistics are available for previous years, and it was only in 2011 that the government published a clear process for pensioners who did not want the money.

The value of the benefit varies between £100 and £300 dependent on personal circumstances. This suggests that the 29 who decided to return the payment this winter saved the government an additional sum somewhere between £2,900 and £8,700 (the DWP told us it could not supply an exact figure).

If 400 pensioners in total are not accepting the benefit, the annual sum involved is between £40,000 and £120,000.

These savings compare to total government expenditure on winter fuel payments in 2014/15 of £2.1bn.

Target for criticism

The allowance is paid automatically each year to over 12 million pensioners in a lump sum, notionally to cover the additional costs of winter heating. It was introduced in 1997 to tackle fuel poverty amongst the elderly.

The WFP has been a target for criticism from those who argue that this and other universal benefits such as free TV licences and concessionary bus travel should not be provided for wealthy pensioners. Reports have suggested that this is Mr Duncan Smith's personal view.

However last month David Cameron repeated his pledge not to introduce means testing for these payments to pensioners.

Labour say they would abolish the winter fuel allowance for the richest 5% of pensioners. The Liberal Democrats also favour cutting the allowance for the better-off. These plans have been criticised by the National Pensioners Convention.

Moral pressure

The issue achieved prominence in 2010 after the multi-millionaire businessman Lord Sugar complained about the practical obstacles he encountered when he tried and failed to return the payment.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Lord Sugar tried and failed to return fuel payment in 2010

The official government position is less forthright than Mr Duncan Smith's statement. The gov.uk website avoids all moral pressure and merely advises: "Write to the office that pays your Winter Fuel Payment if you want to cancel it."

Government sources stress that there has been no concerted campaign to persuade pensioners to return the money and there is no target for the numbers who do so.

A DWP spokesman said: "Winter fuel payments provide help with heating bills and are available to the vast majority of pensioners. Anyone who does not want or need that help can return the money."

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