Pensioners miss out on winter fuel payments

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More than a million older people may have missed out on a total of £200m in unclaimed winter fuel payments.

More than a million older people may have missed out on a total of £200m in unclaimed winter fuel payments.

A high proportion of men aged between 60 and 64, who are entitled to the hand-out but are not paid it automatically, have failed to claim the allowance, according to Commons written answers.

The Government dismissed accusations of incompetence on the issue, insisting it was doing all it could to alert people to their entitlements.

Originally the allowance was linked to the official retirement age and automatically given to women aged 60 and over and to men aged 65 and over. But in 1999 the European Court of Human Rights judged the system to be discriminatory, entitling men between 60 and 64 to payments backdated to 1997.

However, the parliamentary answers from the Department for Work and Pensions reveal that only 1.2 million of the 1.9 million men eligible for backpayments for the winters of 1997-1999 have claimed. The other 700,000 non-claimants will be entitled to up to £98m for the period.

A further 500,000 missed out on as much as £100m last winter, when the value of the payment was raised to £200. That group cannot make retrospective claims. Another 50,000 men in the age group have not claimed this year, losing out on some £10m.

Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman, accused ministers of an "administrative bungle". He said the Government had taken the "scattergun approach" of publicity campaigns rather than informing potential claimants of their entitlements in writing.

Dr Webb added: "If they can't get a simple system of paying £200 to the over-60s right, what hope is there for the eye-wateringly complicated pensions system they are bringing in."

David Willetts, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said: "The Government is in a mess over winter fuel payments. It has no idea how to administer this benefit and no idea how many people it should go to. It is the pensioners who will suffer from this incompetence."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions said the Government had run a concerted information campaign – including special leaflets and a winter-fuel payment helpline – at national and local levels.

"The Government wants to ensure that everyone is claiming what they are entitled to," she said. "We really do hope that people come forward. Eleven million other pensioners get the payments automatically. We rely on people coming forward."

The winter fuel payments are a centrepiece of Labour's drive to combat poverty among pensioners. They were fixed at £20 a year per household in 1997-98 and raised to £100 in 1999-2000 and to £200 in 2000-1. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, guaranteed in his pre-Budget Report in November that the allowance would be paid every year until at least 2005.

The Government faced anger last week when it emerged that an estimated 70,000 pensioners were not entitled to the payments because they reached their 60th birthday after a 23 September cut-off date for claimants.