Those of you in southern Europe will probably already have heard the grim news. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced in his Spending Review on Wednesday 26 June that Winter Fuel Payments will be cut for pensioners living in seven European countries and territories whose average winter temperatures are higher than the warmest region of the UK, South West England. The six countries and one territory affected, together with the amounts spent in the winter of 2011-12, are:
Osborne, unsurprisingly, presented the measure to the House of Commons with a populist and xenophobic twist:
Paying out money to people of all nationalities who may have worked here years ago but no longer live here is not a fair use of the nation’s cash.
How about paying out money to British citizens who have been working and paying taxes and NI contributions in the UK for all their working lives, Mr Osborne? Might that be a fair use of the nation’s cash?
He also grossly oversimplified the issue:
People who live in hot countries will no longer get it. It is, after all, a payment for winter fuel.
Makes it sound as if all those expat pensioners spend their Christmases slapping on the sunblock and lying on sun loungers, doesn’t it? Try telling that to people freezing their backsides off in the Auvergne in the depths of January.
I can see the logic of not paying people an allowance for something they don’t need. But judging need on the basis of a whole country’s average temperatures over 29 years – rather than on the basis of whether temperatures fall below a determined point – seems a blunt-edged tool.
What happens in the case of an exceptionally cold winter? You don’t have to look all the way back to the infamous winters of 1946-47 and 1962-63 to find extreme weather – 2009-10 and 2010-11 were unusually cold too. But there was no mention in Osborne’s speech – or the accompanying document from HM Treasury (PDF file, 1.9 MB) – of any leeway for emergency situations of this kind. Perhaps they’re saving that for the draft bill, although I won’t hold my breath.
And what’s the expected saving? A pathetic £30 million a year. Or, in other terms, about a thousandth of the amount of tax HMRC are alleged to have let big businesses off with in recent years.
When Dickens was writing A Christmas Carol he omitted to supply his Ghost of Christmas Future with a face. If he’d been writing today, he wouldn’t have had to look too far to find a good model – the cold, dead eyes of George Osborne.