UK Winter Fuel Allowance: it’s excellent news but (we say) for how long?

That cheerful verdict came from Mary Hughes of the charity Elizabeth Finn Care (formerly the Distressed Gentle Folks Aid Society). What was she celebrating? Following a ruling of the European Commission the UK government has been forced to revise its policy on the payment of the Winter Fuel Allowance to those living abroad. This benefit – £200 a year to those aged 60 and over, rising to £300 when they’re 80 – is intended to help the elderly cope with their heating bills. For expats there were restrictions to eligibility: those who left Britain before 1999 – when Labour introduced the payment – haven’t qualified nor have those who never claimed the allowance when still in the UK. These excluding provisions have been overturned by the European Court of Justice which led one national expat paper to scream on its front page “Thousands more expats to get £200 Fuel Allowance!”. Okay, that’s likely true for this year but beyond that it’s very doubtful.

Warm FireplaceIn the past we’ve had quite a lot of mail about the Winter Fuel Allowance. Some readers complained that they were unfairly denied it, others expressed anger that some politicians and others in the UK objected to expats getting the payment anyway, even within the rules (“most of us paid taxes for years”). Underlying that attitude was the false belief that most expats were wealthy – and especially those who could afford to live on the French Riviera with Philip Green and Joan Collins as neighbours.

Other naysayers have complained that it was ridiculous to pay such a benefit to those living in “warm countries” such as France and Spain. This muddled argument has just been restated by Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary for Work and Pensions, who has come up with a daft notion of “a temperature test” to decide who should get the payment. As N.J. Whiteside wrote to the Daily Mail from Alicante in Spain, “What the minister calls ‘warm countries’ can at times be very cold and there’s a lot of climatic variability. A temperature rule is nonsense.” He added that in January on average Madrid is colder than Portsmouth by 2°C. Readers in the Var, especially, will get his point.

So what’s likely to happen? Well for 2012-13 it’s possible, as mentioned above, that new people will trouser a couple of hundred pounds. And then? Well, in 2011 paying the allowance to expats cost £314 million. If thousands more are to be awarded this benefit the cost will be prohibitive. Already David Cameron has strongly hinted that he is in favour of a tougher line on the implementation of European Court decisions while in the continuing climate of “austerity” a significant rise in payments to expats is simply not on. And, with many being voteless (and likely to remain so), they can’t do much about it. The government will be as intransigent in the matter as it has been over “frozen pensions”.

But don’t miss out this time round at least. You can download an application form at www.direct.gov.uk. Type Winter Fuel Allowance in the Search Box or call the Work and Pensions’ International Pension Centre on +44 191 218 7777.

[Editor's Note]

Mary Hughes, mentioned above, has sent us the following precision.

“I was rather surprised to see this article that began with a quote from me as I have never discussed the UK Winter Fuel Allowance with Patrick Middleton and, in fact, I am as incensed by the proposed withdrawal as everyone else is.”

Our apologies to Mary for this misquote which we accepted from our journalist in good faith. Look for an article by Mary Hughes on Elizabeth Finn Care in the Riviera Reporter due out in late January 2015.

N.H.

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