VAT on fuel 'will mean more winter deaths': Campaigners want elderly to be compensated for higher cost of power to prevent rise in hypothermia cases

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The Independent Online
WINTER DEATHS among poor pensioners and and other vulnerable groups will rise unless the Government gives them an early guarantee of full compensation for the imposition of VAT on fuel bills, anti-poverty campaigners have warned.

They also condemned as a 'sticking plaster' approach to solving fuel proverty yesterday's pledge from the Government of a review this autumn of the cold-weather payment system.

Around seven million households in Britain depend on one or more means-tested state benefit. Households in the bottom fifth of the income range already spend proportionately twice as much on fuel than those on middle and higher incomes.

According to the 1991 Family Expenditure Survey, the average single elderly person, mainly reliant on state pensions and benefits, spent pounds 8.54 a week on fuel out of an income of pounds 70.11. The average household spent pounds 12.25 from an income of pounds 259. In the same year, 249 people died of hypothermia, of whom 205 were 65 or over.

Both Ann Widdecombe, Under-Secretary for Social Security, and Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State, refused yesterday to give a categorical assurance that people on low incomes would be fully compensated for the imposition of VAT on fuel.

Church Action on Poverty calculated yesterday that a typical low-income pensioner living alone would face an increase in fuel costs of pounds 2.50 a week after VAT at 17.5 per cent was levied on fuel. But, given the Chancellor's forecast of inflation, that pensioner's income would have risen by only pounds 1.20 a week if benefit uprating was restricted to Retail Price Inflation, it said.

Paul Goggins, the organisation's co-ordinator, said: 'Research shows those who rely on income support already only receive about two-thirds of what they need to meet their basic requirements. What does the Chancellor suggest the poor do without - heating, lighting or clothes? Or are they supposed to run up more debts?'

About pounds 500m in heating additions to supplementary benefit was phased out under the 1988 overhaul of social security. John Crow, fuel advisor to the Child Poverty Action Group, pointed out: 'About pounds 200m was absorbed into the Income Support system in the form of age-related additions. But these do not take account of ill-health or homes that are difficult to heat.'

In an attempt to plug the gap, the Government introduced a new system of cold weather payments for people on Income Support. But the pounds 6-a- week payments are not triggered until the temperature has been O degrees Centigrade (32F) for seven consecutive days.

Dr Brenda Boardman, Britain's first research fellow in energy efficiency at Oxford University, who chaired the National Right to Fuel Campaign until last year, yesterday urged ministers to extend their horizons beyond a review of the 'sticking plaster' approach represented by the cold-weather payment system.

'The Government should invest some of the extra VAT generated from fuel use in energy efficiency programmes to properly insulate the homes of people on low incomes. These are the people most likely to live in cold homes, yet they do not have the capital to pay for such work themselves,' she said.

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