Major forecasts improved cold-weather payments: Patricia Wynn Davis and Esther Oxford report on plans to offset cost of VAT on fuel

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IMPROVED cold-weather payments are to form part of the package to compensate the less well-off for the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel, Downing Street sources confirmed yesterday.

The final shape of the package has still not been settled despite protracted negotiations between Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, and Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

But John Major confirmed during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday that next week's announcement of the details, coinciding with the Budget, would include enhanced cold-weather payments as an element.

He was responding to a call from Margaret Ewing, SNP MP for Moray, who said: 'There is now a clear need to have automatic and continuing payments to the most vulnerable . . . throughout the winter months to remove the fear which many of our population face.'

Pensioners now have to sit out seven days of zero temperatures before the weekly pounds 6 benefit is paid. Lady (Sally) Greengross, director of Age Concern, said: 'Old people tend to cut out basic necessities such as food to pay their fuel bills. This makes them more prone to illness. Last year pensioners in London did not receive any cold- weather benefits. This year they are worrying about the early onset of winter. Heating bills are expected to be astronomical.'

At present, bouts of cold weather are measured from 12 weather centres. Lady Greengross hopes to see a uniform payment: 'Instead of waiting for one of the 12 weather centres to announce the start of a cold- weather bout, pensioners should be awarded cold-weather payments when the cold weather starts. Otherwise fluctuating temperatures are not taken into account,' she added.

Eskdale, in Scotland, is the only place where cold-weather benefits have been paid this winter. Temperatures have hovered around -9C in some parts of Scotland.

Stephen Spiro, consultant physician at University College Hospital, said yesterday that most of the patients admitted into casualty had ailments directly related to cold weather and homelessness.

'We can hardly cope. Casualty has been on red alert for five days now. This means that all routine admissions and booked admissions have been cancelled,' he said. 'Often an old person may be suffering from arthritis or bronchitis. These conditions are aggravated by poor housing insulation and inadequate heating. They put off asking for help until the condition has deteriorated . . . We have no other choice but to offer a bed.'

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