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Neil McNicholas: The right to refuse the winter fuel allowance and other handouts

What should be done to tackle fuel poverty?
What should be done to tackle fuel poverty?
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THE strapline on the news today (as I write) read: “Ministers are seeking views on a new approach to helping people 
who are struggling to pay their energy bills.”

It’s by no means a new concern because I stand in a long line of people who have made this suggestion before: that the Government gives those who automatically receive the winter fuel allowance, but don’t need it, the choice to opt out so it can go to those who do.

There are a great many people whose personal financial resources mean they don’t need the £200 that they started receiving when they reached retirement age. In that sense, it is “wasted” on them.

All the Government needs to do is to set up a social media or email contact address where people could register to opt out of receiving their fuel allowance because they don’t need it, and then the annual total saved in that way could be used to help those who do. But so far, despite this suggestion being made before in one form or another, no one has acted on it.

Is the problem simply that no one is used to people refusing a free handout?

It’s the same as when I go food shopping and arrive at the check-out with a particular item and the person on the till informs me that they are two-for-the-price-of-one and would I like to go and get a second one from the shelves and I say no.

I usually get one of those looks as if I wasn’t safe to be let out on my own.

Why wouldn’t I want a second item free? Well, quite simply, because I wouldn’t use it and so it would simply be a waste.

My reverse logic would be that if they can afford to give away two items for the price of one, why don’t they let us buy just one at half the price? But I don’t say that because it would probably result in security being called to escort me outside as a trouble-maker.

Similarly there’s a baker’s shop in town where I occasionally buy a sandwich for my lunch. Sometimes it’s part of a “meal deal”, meaning I could also get a drink with it – but I politely decline the offer because I don’t want a drink.

It’s always a puzzlement to the lady behind the counter because (and this really is a nonsense) the sandwich and the drink together are a few pence cheaper than the sandwich by itself – that’s the “meal deal”. So I could accept the drink with the sandwich, pay less for it, and then pour the drink down the drain – but what a waste. And so I say no and leave, quite content with the sandwich only.

And that’s how I feel about the winter fuel allowance.

I personally really don’t need it and neither do a great many other people in the country.

To me it’s a waste of Government (i.e. taxpayers’) money which could be 
better spent – in this case by contributing in some way to providing assistance to the elderly and vulnerable who are genuinely in need, as opposed to anyone and everyone already on benefits milking the system as fast as we may be contributing to it.

Surely that much at least should be easy enough for the relevant Government department to work out and administer (pause for cynical laughter to die down).

As and when this issue comes more into the public forum than just a passing headline on the news, I’m sure we will hear a lot more voices making that same suggestion that the fuel allowance isn’t paid automatically, and so possibly wasted, and the money be used instead to help the elderly and vulnerable keep themselves warm in the winter.

It’s just the problem of how to ensure that assistance reaches those who genuinely need it on behalf of those 
who don’t.

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.