With the recent Comprehensive Spending Review protecting universal benefits for older people for example the Winter Fuel Payment, there has been lots of debate about whether better-off older people really need these payments. Opinion is divided on the issue – including among older people. Peter Preston in the Guardian argued that those older people who could afford it should donate their Winter Fuel Payments to charities – one such scheme has now opened in Somerset.
After reading this type of story you could be forgiven for thinking that those ‘greedy geezers’ – wealthy boomers and pensioners – are awash with money, unfairly wringing out of Government ever more concessions at the expense of those more deserving. It’s just not a accurate picture of what later life is like in the UK.
There are approximately 1.8 million older people living in poverty in the UK – which means managing on less than £119 a week. Many more people live on low incomes, often just above this poverty line struggling to make ends meet, and make daily choices about whether to eat or heat their homes.
So, some richer pensioners might not need the Winter Fuel Payments they receive to stay warm this winter. Millions more do. As my colleague Mary wrote recently, the new excess winter deaths figures show the alarming consequences of not being able to heat your home.
Here at Age UK, we understand that the universal benefit system isn’t perfect. However, the alternative of means-testing would be expensive to administer, would segregate older people into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and could miss out some of those in need. As the numbers who don’t need this benefit are relatively small, introducing means-testing could well leave us with little in the way of real savings in public expenditure.
Just like other charities, we rely on public donations to provide a range of support to people in later life. We’re delighted that some people are willing to donate to us to help our work for poorer and more vulnerable older people. But the Winter Fuel Payment is an entitlement – people shouldn’t feel guilty about using it if they need it this winter.