Ros Altmann: It is time for a national emergency plan to help elderly people survive the tough times ahead
Former Pensions Minister Baroness Altmann led a House of Lords revolt against the Government’s suspension of the state pension triple lock.
MPs spurned her efforts and voted for a hike of 3.1 per cent next April, but the inflation rate has since hit 5.1 per cent.
Altmann argues that with fuel bills soaring and many depending on meagre pensions, the Government has not yet recognised the scale of the crisis elderly people face.
She now calls for an emergency winter manifesto of action to help them.
Pensioners are facing a perfect storm this winter as fuel prices and inflation soar but pensions fail to keep up.
The Government must address the living cost crisis for elderly citizens who are most vulnerable to the cold this winter, and help them to heat their homes with reduced prices or increased benefits.
Every winter, tens of thousands of pensioners die, often due to respiratory illnesses caused by the colder weather.
Official calculations show ‘excess winter deaths’ among older citizens averaged over 20,000 annually in recent years.
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 people isolating because of Covid, but also 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.
Struggling with bills: Over two million pensioners were in poverty and over a million in extreme fuel poverty before the pandemic
This poses particular risks for Britain’s pensioners, who are already struggling to live on their pensions, and many of whom have little or no additional help.
Over two million pensioners were in poverty and over a million in extreme fuel poverty before the pandemic.
The rise in heating bills and the meagre 3.1 per cent increase in state pensions next April, following the Government’s decision to abandon its triple lock manifesto promise, will leave more pensioners living on inadequate incomes.
The Government must recognise that its decision not to increase state pensions in line at least with earnings will cause significant hardship.
So far, there has been no official recognition of the plight of even the poorest 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 save lives.
1. A national campaign to increase take-up of pension credit
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.
This top-up for their state pension 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 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, the mainstream press and social media, is urgently required to raise awareness.
2. Offer pension credit to all over-60s, especially those in poor health this winter.
Pension credit should be made available to more older households. In recent years, the eligibility criteria have been significantly tightened.
Are you elderly and anxious about energy bills?
You can call Age UK for free to check you are receiving everything you are entitled to on 0800 678 1602.
Are you claiming pension credit? Find out more about applying here, or call Age UK which will help you apply for help that includes cold weather payments.
Have you contacted your supplier? Age UK says energy providers have a duty to offer support if people are struggling with bills or debt, and you can ask about an affordable repayment plan.
Has your supplier gone bust? Find out what to do here.
Read a This is Money guide to dealing with soaring energy bills here.
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.
Rather than being available to any household with one person over age 60, pension credit will only be paid if both members were born before September 1955 (around age 66).
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.
This will increase the risk to the elderly people who have a younger partner caring for them, who cannot work and are no longer eligible for extra state pension top-ups as they would have been in the past.
3. Increase benefits that help with heating
Winter Fuel Payments are lower than in 2009. Cold Weather Payments of £25 a week have not risen since 2008. The Warm Homes Discount of £140 a year has not increased for over 10 years.
These are in urgent need of updating after either being reduced or staying the same over the past years. They could be increased for pensioners, to reflect the rise in heating bills.
Winter Fuel Payment: This has remained the same for ten years after being cut in 2011. When first introduced, Winter Fuel Payments for pensioner households 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: This has stayed at £140 for over ten years. It is offered to those living on certain means-tested benefits, including pension credit, and provides a discount on heating bills.
Although the Government is consulting on extending the coverage for younger households, there is no plan to provide extra help for pensioners.
Cold Weather Payment: This has been frozen at £25 a week since 2008.
It was introduced in 1986 to provide extra money for the poorest citizens when weather conditions turned exceedingly cold.
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.
4. The DWP must urgently identify and reimburse people who are being underpaid state pension
The Department for 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.
The issue particularly affects women and the over-80s who are most at risk of fuel poverty.
All the over-80s, who are not receiving their full £82.45 ‘Category D’ state pensions, should be contacted to get them their extra payments.
>>>Have YOU been underpaid state pension? Find out what to do here
5. Encourage family, friends and neighbours to check on the elderly
Let’s ask everyone to keep in touch with older people to check they are warm enough and eating well.
Please check on them, to ensure they have what they need to keep safe through the winter. So many will be at risk and have been cut off from their loved ones or usual sources of support due to Covid.
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