On one or two things, and on this point the Government do seem to have moved on from the days when some people who are now in prominent Government positions thought that winter fuel payments were “gimmicks”. To be fair again to the Pensions Minister, back in May he answered a written parliamentary question by stating:
“The winter fuel payment provides a significant contribution to an older person’s winter fuel costs and provides vital reassurance that people can afford to turn up their heating.”—[Hansard, 23 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 493W.]
Today, he seemed to suggest that he still agrees with that in principle, and I am glad to hear it, although I disagree with him on whether the amount of money going into pensioners’ pockets has been cut.
The coalition agreement, which has been referred to, states:
“We will protect key benefits for older people such as the winter fuel allowance”.
Most reasonable people reading that statement or hearing those words coming from the mouths of Ministers might reasonably have expected the coalition to have protected all winter fuel payments. They were certainly the words that people heard in the run-up to the election, but as we know the winter fuel payment will be £50 lower this year than it was in each of the last three years for eligible households aged 60 or over, and £100 lower for those aged 80 or over. The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that 9 million households benefit from the winter fuel payment, so 9 million households will be worse off this winter.
People will no doubt seek to make the usual criticisms of the former Labour Government at this point, but when Labour left office no decision had been taken, and it was absolutely in the Chancellor’s power to continue with the extra payment, as Labour Chancellors had in previous years. It is therefore absolutely wrong for any Government Member to say that the decision was taken by the previous Government; the decision to axe the additional payment was taken by this coalition Government —no one else.