Emergency payments to help thousands of Britain's poorest pensioners and families pay for heating during cold snaps may be cut as part of the Coalition Government's spending review.
Cold winter payments, handed to millions of people on low incomes when temperatures sink below zero for a week or more, have been paid at a rate of £25 over the last two years in the face of rising fuel bills.
But the payments could now sink to their traditional level of £8.50, even though fuel prices have not fallen since last year.
Doubts about the future of the payment emerged after legislation laid by the Government on Monday omitted a crucial clause, specifying it would be maintained at £25. Such a clause had appeared in previous years. Labour said it was a sign that a major cut to the benefit was on the way.
“In the last two years legislation was introduced so that when temperatures fell below freezing emergency cold weather payments rose to £25 but, the small print of this year’s legislation does not include that increase,” said Ian Austin, the former Labour minister.
“Is the Prime Minister really saying that four million of the poorest families and pensioners will have their payments cut by two-thirds this year and receive just £8.50?”
Challenged by Mr Austin over the payments at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron said there was “never a guarantee with this scheme”.
“We will look at it very carefully,” he said. “We will make our announcement in the spending review.”
Sources at the Department for Work and Pensions said there was still plenty of time to decide the level of the payments, as they are only paid after 1 November.
“We are committed to helping vulnerable people and will continue to make Cold Weather Payments as and when they may be triggered,” a spokeswoman said. “We won’t comment on the rate for these payments ahead of the spending review.”
Mr Cameron did appear to guarantee the future of the winter fuel allowance, a lump sum of between £125 and £400 currently paid to all pensioners. Some suspect the Chancellor, George Osborne, will alter the age eligibility of the payment as part of his drastic set of measures to cut Britain’s budget deficit.
“I made a very clear promise at the election [to preserve the winter fuel allowance] and I stand by that,” Mr Cameron said.