Scotland politics

'No plans' to abolish or means-test winter fuel payment

Pensioner in front of heater Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Winter fuel allowances are paid out to about 1.1m people in Scotland each year

Scotland's social justice secretary has promised not to abolish, cut or means-test the winter fuel payment when it comes under Holyrood control.

Alex Neil made the pledge after a Scottish government paper said ministers were "considering the eligibility criteria".

Alternative options included a fuel bill rebate or using the funding to provide warmer homes, the paper said.

The government said no-one who receives the benefit currently would lose it.

The winter fuel allowance, of up to £300, is currently available to everyone aged over 62 and is paid to about 1.1m people in Scotland each year.

In 2013/14 the total amount spent on winter fuel payments in Scotland was £186m.

The government paper on social security stresses the need to "target resources" to make the most of a "limited budget".

Warmer homes

It said ministers could look at "converting the payments into a fuel bill rebate or using the funding to provide warmer, more affordable homes".

A Scottish government spokesperson later clarified the plans, saying: "There is absolutely no question of means-testing eligibility for the winter fuel allowance - or of removing entitlement from anyone who currently receives it.

"What the consultation is aimed at, is seeing if it would be appropriate and effective to use winter fuel payments as part of our aims to tackle fuel poverty and make homes warmer.

"This includes looking at whether it is appropriate to extend eligibility and if fuel bill rebates should be considered. We want to help people who are struggling to keep their homes warm - and this is one area we are exploring to see if are able to do that."

Last year the SNP called for an increase in winter fuel payments, and pledged to protect the allowance in its 2015 election manifesto.

There have previously been calls to means-test fuel payments. A BBC investigation found that across the UK only about 400 out of 12 million recipients had chosen to decline the allowance.

The new paper on social security in Scotland says "tackling fuel poverty" is "a priority for the Scottish government", but calls for views on how effective the payments are in doing this and what changes "might be welcomed".

'Sufficient testing'

An Age Scotland spokesman said: "Age Scotland welcomes this debate over winter fuel poverty and cold winter payments, however, it must be stressed that no action can be taken until sufficient testing of changes to the programmes are undertaken.

"Therefore, we strongly advise that the Scottish government examines how older households will be affected by these changes by firstly seeking to engage the opinions of older people across the country."

An Energy Action Scotland spokesman said: "On proposals to use the winter fuel payment monies to provide a targeted fuel rebate, we would point to evidence such as the research that shows excess winter deaths among the over-65s fell by 50% following the introduction of the winter fuel payment.

"The winter fuel payment does appear to be used by people for the purpose intended and is making a difference to those who need support to keep warm at home.

"If the monies were to be channelled into the schemes to make homes more energy efficient, then Energy Action Scotland would have concerns.

"We need to be convinced that the monies would be well-targeted on those who need it most and also who need that support now. Most of the energy efficiency programmes are unlikely to deliver help instantly - they deliver longer term benefits."

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