Simon Read: Cutting back on benefits must not mean risking lives

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The Independent Online

The Coalition Government's plans to cut back pensioners' winter fuel allowance is sickening. Not because they are going back on pre-election commitments not to abolish the allowance allowance. I really don't care if politicians turn out to be two-faced liars. In fact, I expect it. Especially from career politicians who, let's face it, would have said and done anything to get themselves into Downing Street.

But there's a more pressing reason for the current Government to think again about its plans to cut the payment and raise the qualifying age. It could mean the difference between life and death for millions. Some three million pensioners in the UK are currently living in fuel poverty, which means they are forced to spend at least a tenth of their income on energy bills.

What will happen to these struggling folk if their payment is cut? The obvious answer is that given the choice of whether to heat or heat, many people will just turn their heating off when they can no longer afford it. And without adequate heating the results for the elderly can be fatal. In short, cutting the amount of cash given to them could mean risking their lives. "The winter death rate among older people is a national scandal and getting worse," warns Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners Convention. "Last winter over 36,700 pensioners died of cold-related illnesses – that is a staggering 13 pensioners every hour."

According to reports published this week, the winter fuel payment – which is currently made to some 12 million older people – could be cut by £50 for new recipients and £100 for the oldest. The reports suggest that ministers also plan to increase the qualifying age for the annual payment from 60 to at least 66. There are even rumours that the payment could become means tested. At present any household with someone aged 60 or more automatically gets a £250 winter fuel payment. For households with people over 80, the payment climbs to £400. The proposals could cut the payment to £200 and £350 respectively. Even worse, means testing could leave even more missing out, even if they may qualify.

Roger Turner, the general secretary of the National Federation of Occupational Pensioners, warns that a change to means testing for the allowance could prove to be disastrous for thousands of pensioners that desperately need help. "Many of the most poverty-stricken pensioners will not want – or be able – to fill in complex forms or go "cap in hand" to the State; they see it as demeaning," he says. "Over half a million or so pensioners already live without money from the Pensions Credit because they do not claim it." There are other proposed cutbacks – such as the scrapping of free TV licences – which would hit pensioners.

The reports have angered Ros Altman, who is a pensions expert and a former adviser to the Treasury on the issue. "The Government cannot just get rid of winter fuel allowance and free TV licences – it would be like cutting state pension by over £10 a week!" she says.

Ms Altman proposes that the allowances be rolled into the basic state pension instead. "We should move towards a decent, flat-rate pension for all older people," she demands. I agree. More specifically I believe that no pensioners should live in fuel poverty. Whatever cutbacks we face, we must not risk more lives this winter simply because of cost. There must be a serious rethink of plans to hit our older people.

Using your nest egg to live is wrong

alarming research published today reveals that a third of us are surviving at the moment by using savings to get by. The investment house Schroders reckons we've collectively wasted £60bn-worth of savings – with the average person needing to reduce their nest egg by £4,600 in the past 12 months.

Bearing in mind that the statistics are slightly questionable as they're based on a survey of just 2,011 people, the fact that even some folk are having to rely on savings is of concern. Not least is the presumption that they're not earning enough.

With warnings of a double-dip recession still echoing around, the chances of pay increases or better times look forlorn, leaving those relying on savings facing a time when they will surely run out. And then their real problems will start as they will be forced to make some hard decisions about where cutbacks can be made.

But it also points to the fact that many people clearly can't afford to save. How can they approach the future? With some trepidation.

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