Simon Read: Cameron must avoid fatal spending cuts

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The Independent Online

Millions of people will be dreading next Wednesday when the Government announces full details of its spending cutbacks. But there's one proposal already leaked by the Treasury which I really hope is blocked. The government department suggested this week that emergency cold weather payments to pensioners will be cut from £25 to £8.50.

That's alarming, especially in light of official figures published on Thursday which revealed that the number of households in fuel poverty has climbed to 4.5 million. Fuel poverty is when a household needs to spend a 10th or more of its income to keep its house warm. Meanwhile research from Consumer Focus published this week showed that four in every 10 single older people are living in fuel poverty. It's these folk that will be hit by any cutback in winter fuel payment.

The benefit is paid out when the average temperature drops below freezing for seven days in a row, requiring people to turn up their heating. But if it's slashed to just £8.50 it's not really going to help pensioners cope with extra heating costs, bearing in mind that many need to have their heating on all day. And what happens when older people can't afford to keep their heating on? The simple truth is that for frailer people, cutting back on heating can be fatal.

The latest official figures for excess winter deaths show that in winter 2009 the number of mortalities climbed 49 per cent over the previous year. And the vast proportion of those were among people aged 85 or over. There will always be more deaths in winter when chill weather hits and influenza strikes, but that's all the more reason to ensure that at-risk people such as the elderly can afford as much heat as they need.

The fact that millions are in fuel poverty is simply not acceptable. The possibility that the amount of support we give to those at risk is being slashed should fill us all with shame. If this is a working example of David Cameron's much-promised Big Society, then it's sickening.

Even worse is the theory that behind the move may be some sad political posturing. The winter fuel payment had stood at £8.50 until Gordon Brown as Prime Minister increased it two years ago to £25. But Tories claimed the increase was simply a pre-election bribe. Even if that was true, the payment is a valuable and necessary benefit if it helps to save the life of just one pensioner this winter. The Government must not leave the older members of our society out in the cold when it announces its cutbacks next week.

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