Sunday, 16 April 2017

Tories have already cut funding for TV licences and Winter Fuel payment

I wanted to move on to a more constructive debate about the issues involved in our County Council elections but, like a moth to a flame, I find myself once again drawn back to the defensive comments of Barry Lewis, the leader of the Derbyshire Tories:

"It is the Government that is responsible for these allowances - not the County Council. And the Conservative Government has spelt out its intention in its 2015 Manifesto - it will protect pensioner benefits including the free bus pass, TV licences and Winter Fuel payments. You can't get clearer than that."

In the last two posts I concentrated on the threat to free bus passes and ignored Barry's claims about TV licenses and winter fuel payments, both benefits to pensioners. Cavalier and unresearched statements during an election have to be scrutinised.

TV licences

The Tories have already cut central government commitment to fund free TV licences for 75 and overs. What they actually promised in their 2015 manifesto was a freeze until charter negotiation .............. which has now happened. The Tories refused to fund TV licences for this group and have passed the responsibility to the BBC who will have to pay for this out of the money raised by licences for the under 75's and other commercial activities. This is being phased in from 2018/19 and would currently cost the BBC around £650 million a year, over a fifth of the BBC's income. 

So Barry ... Tories have cut TV licence funding for over 75's

Winter Fuel Payments

There is some history here as the benefit, introduced by the then Labour Party Chancellor Gordon Brown was subject to cuts by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government in 2011/12; cuts imposed by the Tory Chancellor, George Osborne. See here for a Guardian article about this in 2011.

This has always been a political hot potato and every year brings a fresh crop of politicians (admittedly from all parties and persuasions) arguing for some form of means testing over this benefit. What many fail to realise is the level of heat that older people need to keep healthy through the winter. Most of us set our thermostats to lower the temperature when we go out to work but a pensioner sitting at home all day needs a constant level of heat ............. and that isn't at a comfortable for a wooly jumper wearer level but is more likely to be  well above 20 degrees. Now that takes a lot of fuel as many pensioners live in older, barnlike buildings that take a lot of fuel to heat.

Like it or not the Winter Fuel payment is the way that we ensure that the elderly have sufficient means to pay for the extra winter fuel costs. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that a pensioner is 14 times more likely to use the Winter Fuel payment to pay their fuel bills though there are an increasing number of pensioner households where a choice has to be made between fuel or food. 

Locally, the rate of fuel poverty in Derbyshire is 12.8% of all households.

Fuel poverty is an issue on which Derbyshire performs poorly when compared with the country as a whole, reflecting the fact that it has many rural areas (where fuel poverty tends to be more prevalent), a higher proportion of elderly residents (one of the groups most at risk of fuel poverty) and pockets of very deprived urban areas (in which high proportions of households are on low incomes). The proportion of households in fuel poverty in Derbyshire (12.8 percent) is well above the national average figure of 10.4 percent and in 2012 Derbyshire was ranked 23rd out of 152 counties in England, with the county ranked 1st being the one with the highest proportion of fuel poor households. None of the districts in Derbyshire have a fuel poverty rate below the national average (Amber Valley, Derbyshire Dale, Chesterfield and High Peak) have fuel poverty rates above 13 percent).

Photo source - The Independent
This article in the Independent is very informative -  Fuel Poverty crisis leaves 1 in 3 pensioners in turmoil There are countless references to fuel poverty in the media and online but still we struggle to heat our homes. 

Each winter, one older person dies every 7 minutes from cold weather
This issue should be beyond party politics and there needs to be a national consensus on how we heat deprived homes. The elderly are particularly vulnerable as a major factor is poor insulation in older housing stock and no suitable alternative homes being built for older folk to move into; from draughty buildings that would cost them a fortune to modernise into well insulated cheap to run apartments and houses. The Winter Fuel payment is but a stopgap and what is needed is a complete rethink into how we can provide proper housing for everybody ............ young and old. I am particularly impressed with this article in the Guardian by Dawn Foster Nordic countries have much harsher conditions in the cold months, yet mortality rates are lower than in the UK where she points out that female pensioners have a higher rate of poverty than do men ....... 5% to 8% higher. I believe that fuel poverty cuts right across class lines as many seemingly well to do pensioners struggle to make ends meet. The fact that you now live alone in a large family house does not automatically mean that you can afford to heat it.

In her article Dawn reminds us of the Labour Government initiative to tackle fuel poverty, the Warm Front deal which insulated 2.3 million homes. This was scrapped by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government in 2012 and replaced by the Green Deal which they then scrapped in 2015 with only 15,000 homes being insulated. 

The simple truth is that by voting Labour you keep more pensioners alive through the Winter.

In the meantime the Winter Fuel payment is all we have and it must not be degraded in any way. We have seen George Osborne cut this payment in the past and we can but hope that Barry Lewis's faith in the Tory Party to resist the urge to cut once again is well placed. The Labour pledge to fight any cuts is valid to keep pressure on the Tories in Westminster.

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