Severely disabled people must make heat-or-eat choice

A million adults face stark decisions as ministers fail to extend the winter fuel payment. By Simon Read

Next week will see another slap in the face for 1.3 million hard-up severely disabled people. The coming seven days (20-26 September) are the qualifying dates to be eligible for 2010 winter fuel payments. With those qualifying getting up to £400 towards the cost of heating their homes, the cash can make a real difference. But, once again, disabled people will be left at risk.

Hopes were high that the scheme would be extended to disabled people after the Liberal Democrats made a manifesto commitment to do so. But their coalition deal with the Tories has hit their plans to change the system. It's not simply a case that political promises have been cast aside. Indeed, individual MPs are still fighting for the payment to be extended. In fact LibDem MP Julian Huppert has tabled an early-day motion on the issue. "It is vital that the Government reform the present system," he says.



The payment was introduced by the last Labour government to help struggling pensioners afford to survive the winter. It is paid to people aged 60 and over, with those 80 and older getting £400.



But there are more than a million severely-disabled people who are in just as much need as help in colder months as older folk. That doesn't refer to all disabled people, only those with limited mobility, such as the wheelchair-bound. Many find themselves at home for long periods each day, and consequently need central heating to keep warm. But when money is tight – and few of them are able to earn any income – something has to go.



Research from the disability charity Papworth Trust reveals that disabled people are three times more likely than non-disabled to stay at home during the daytime in winter months. But, crucially, they are twice as likely to go without heating, food, clothes and leisure activities because of a lack of money.



Without the payment, hard-up people could be forced to choose between whether to heat or eat during the cold months. Cutting back on heating because they can't afford it can be a disastrous decision. Last winter, more than 36,700 pensioners died of cold-related illnesses, according to Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners Convention.



"Winter fuel payments were intended to alleviate financial hardship for people whose health could be more at risk if they did not turn on their heating," says the Papworth Trust's chief executive, Adrian Bagg. "They can be a lifeline for those whose health would be more at risk if they did not turn on their heating. We urge the Coalition to extend the payments to severely disabled people."



It may seem unlikely that the current government would agree to extend the payment to severely-disabled people while it is in the process of making massive cutbacks. However the money can be found, especially as the Government has already announced plans to raise the eligibility age to 65 by 2020.



Extending fuel payments to severely disabled people, while at the same time bringing forward the age of eligibility increase, could actually make a small yearly saving for the Treasury until at least 2014, according to Papworth Trust. Alternatively, the payment could become means tested which would free up the cash saved from wealthier older people, who don't actually need the payment, which could then be passed on to severely disabled people who do.



The Papworth Trust is calling for changes to the system at the October spending review. Success could mean a crucial difference for more than a million struggling disabled people.



Case study: Rob Nixon



For six years, Rob Nixon has been wheelchair-bound after developing multiple sclerosis. The disease forced him to give up his job as a mortgage broker in 2004, and he's been virtually confined to his home since.



"Although my brain's good, my body's given up," he says. "I can't even write or hold a pen so I have found it impossible to get work."



Rob survives on incapacity benefit, so money is tight. "I'm still paying off last year's heating bill," he says. "I'm not extravagant with money and I refuse to get into debt."



He volunteers one day a week but spends the rest of the time at home, so his heating bills soar during the winter. "I'm more vulnerable from the cold than many people because I can't walk around to keep warm.



"The winter fuel payment should be means-tested and go to people who really need it. I know some older people who it makes little difference to, but it would make a huge difference to me."



Getting the basic £250 payment would cut his heating bills by 20 per cent, he says.

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