Cold-snap payout limits under fire

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The Independent Online
The Government's system of bad weather payments for the poorest pensioners and families came under attack yesterday after it emerged that the cold spell had triggered payouts in only six areas.

Five places in Scotland were joined for the first time this winter by Liscombe in Somerset as having endured average temperatures of freezing or below for seven consecutive days, qualifying thousands of people for extra assistance with heating bills.

Opposition MPs, Age Concern and Help the Aged claimed the infrequency of the payouts showed the formula was too tightly drawn and called for more help for the most vulnerable.

The area-by-area decisions are based on data from 70 Meteorological Office stations. Once temperatures have reached freezing or below for seven days, payments of pounds 8.50 are made by the Benefits Agency to pensioners claiming income support, families with children under five on income support, and disabled people on income support or their partners.

The Labour MP Audrey Wise, who has proposed a backbench Bill requiring the wind-chill factor to be taken into account when calculating payments, said the present system was designed to be triggered as infrequently as possible.

Harriet Harman, the shadow Social Security Secretary, said the rules particularly penalised almost a million pensioners who did not claim income support to which they were entitled. She added: "The stark truth is that Britain's poorest pensioners may have to choose between heating and eating this winter."

Diana Maddock, for the Liberal Democrats, said more than 250 people died in Britain last winter from hypothermia, a higher figure than elsewhere in western Europe. "When the Government crows about tills ringing in the shops, people forget that around the country there are a lot of elderly people who are too frightened to turn on the heating."

The cost varies widely. Last year, payouts totalled pounds 62m but only pounds 77,000 the previous winter.