With the lowest state pension in the developed world and older people needing to keep warmer than the young, the costs of home heating and basic bills mean that the elderly tend to succumb to bad weather in large numbers, even in a normal year.
But this winter is far from normal, partly due to Covid isolation but importantly because of the sharp spike in heating bills. Ofgem’s increase in the energy price cap in October has already hit many pensioners. Further price rises are in the pipeline for the months ahead. This poses particular risks for Britain’s pensioners.
It is time for a national emergency plan to help them survive the tough times ahead. Here are my suggestions for a Pensioner Winter Manifesto to try to address some of the worst affected and save lives.
Increase take-up of the State Pension top-up (Pension Credit) with automatic payments or national media campaign: Since 2010, around four in 10 pensioners who are eligible for Pension Credit are not receiving it. This is the lowest take-up rate of all means-tested benefits and reflects the reluctance of pensioners to claim extra help.
They are often too proud and do not realise this is their right, not a handout. Latest figures show that more than one million pensioners (920,000 pensioner households) miss out on this top up for their State Pension, which can be worth thousands of extra pounds a year.
The DWP and HMRC could work together to identify those who are entitled to an increase in payments, rather than waiting for people to claim.
Calling the Pension Credit a ‘state pension top-up’ and helping pensioners understand that the money is their right, with a national advertising campaign on radio, television, mainstream press and social media, is urgently required to raise awareness.
Pension Credit should be made available to more older households: In recent years, the eligibility criteria for Pension Credit have been significantly tightened. The age at which Pension Credit can be claimed has risen from age 60 in line with rise in women’s State Pension Age and the rules now require all household members to be over state pension age before claiming Pension Credit.
That means many pensioners who would previously have been able to receive extra help with their living costs are no longer able to do so.
DWP should accelerate efforts to find and reimburse all pensioners who have been underpaid: The Department of Work and Pensions has been underpaying thousands of pensioners for many years and has still not found out who these people are, nor ensured they receive the backpayments due to them.
This exercise should be accelerated. All the over 80s, who are not receiving their full £82.45 in Category D pensions, should be contacted to get them their extra payments.
Increase the existing benefits that help with fuel cost: Winter Fuel Payments, Cold Weather Payments and Warm Homes Discount have either been reduced or stayed the same over the past years. They could be increased for pensioners, to reflect the rise in heating bills.
Winter Fuel Payment is lower than in 2009 and has remained the same for 10 years after being cut in 2011. When first introduced, these payments went to all over 60s.
In 2009, households with someone aged 60-79 received £250 tax-free each winter, while the over 80s were paid £400 tax-free. In 2011, this was reduced to £200 for households with someone over age 60 and £300 for over 80s. Since then, the eligibility age has risen, while the amount has not increased to reflect rising fuel costs.
Warm Home Discount has stayed at £140 for over 10 years while Cold Weather Payments have been frozen at £25 a week since 2008.
During the months November to March, if a successive period of seven days sees temperatures below freezing, a Cold Weather Payment can be claimed. It was increased to £25 a week in 2008, and has remained the same ever since, despite rising inflation.
Encourage family, friends and neighbours to keep in touch with older people to check they are warm enough and eating well: I would urge all family, friends and neighbours of older people to check on them, ensure they are able to heat their homes and buy the food they need to keep safe through the winter while we wait for the Government to offer its policy solutions.
Baroness Ros Altmann is a Tory peer and former Pensions Minister.
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