Pensioners donate winter fuel allowance to charity

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Pensioners who do not need their winter fuel payments are being encouraged to donate them to charity.

Similar schemes have spread across the UK after an initial appeal was launched by the Somerset Community Foundation.

The funds are to be allocated to local charities which work with the more vulnerable elderly.

The universal state benefit of between £125 and £400, depending on age and circumstances, is made to everyone over 60.

Somerset Community Foundation director Justin Sargent said the idea to ask wealthier pensioners to forego their winter fuel payment was inspired by the levels of fuel poverty in rural areas.

Pensioners in villages can pay more than 25% extra to heat their homes compared to their urban counterparts according to the Joseph Rowntree foundation.

The higher costs are attributed to the absence of mains gas and the more expensive forms of fuel used in rural areas.

More than 386 vulnerable elderly people died in Somerset last winter from causes directly attributable to the cold and poor living conditions.

High-profile donors

Well-known pensioners such as Lord Sugar and Peter Stringfellow have complained that they have not been able to opt out of the universal benefit.

Mr Stringfellow said he is "embarrassed" to receive the payment and called on the government to re-organise the system.

In Somerset, the first donation to the Surviving Winter fund was pledged by Glastonbury Festival founder Michael Eavis.

The Bishop of Bath and Wells, Peter Price, also gave away his allowance to the appeal, as did hotelier and author Kit Chapman.

Mr Chapman, who runs the luxury Castle Hotel in Taunton, said he would prefer a means tested benefit.

"I was really very delighted, particularly at this time of year, Christmas - a time of giving and good will - to forfeit my winter fuel payment and give it to a much better cause."

In some cases the monies raised by the campaign will be passed on directly to people struggling to meet the cost of heating their homes.

But the majority of the funds will granted to local groups and programmes which address the needs of the vulnerable elderly.

Lifeline for elderly

One beneficiary from the Somerset Community Foundation is Accessible Transport West Somerset (ATWEST), which operates an affordable door-to-door transport scheme across the area.

Ruth Lawless, 84, has used the service for five years and described the minibus pickup facility as indispensable.

"They are so helpful. They take you shopping and bring it all back to your door. I don't know what we would do without them."

ATWEST also proved a lifeline for Stogumber resident Mrs Hayes, who received a portable heater from her driver after she told him her boiler was broken.

"It was a new one and the driver spent half an hour installing it and making sure it worked. I was most grateful to them, they are a great asset to me."

Barbara Middleton, ATWEST chairman, said that a grant from the Surviving Winter campaign could help keep the service going, and provide funds to train drivers in advanced driving and first aid.

"It is very difficult to keep services affordable for passengers, and any help would be wonderful."

The Surviving Winter campaign in Somerset is on course to raise over £50,000, with similar schemes across the country attracting further donations.