Jane Devine: A faulty and unfair benefits system

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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IT HAS been referred to as many things, but the most recent I’ve come across is the “winter coat” allowance.

It is of course the winter fuel allowance: a payment of £200 to everyone over the age of 60 and of £300 to those over 80, designed to help with heating bills during the coldest part of the year.

As with all universal benefits, many of the people receiving it do not need it. And, a bit like parents who used to pay their child benefit into their children’s bank accounts, or use it to go on holiday, the winter fuel allowance is seen by those who don’t rely on it as a free gift.

In an ideal world, it would be wonderful to give everyone something, but this is not an ideal world nor have we got the balance right here. As some use the payment for a festive night out, others find it not sufficient to allow them to keep their homes warm enough.

Last week Dame Joan Bakewell supported a campaign asking that those who did not need the winter fuel payment donate it to charities that assist older people.

She pointed out in her newspaper column that “given the cumbersome nature of officialdom, it seems that the only way to provide genuine assistance to the fuel poor is for the more affluent to do so themselves by supporting this campaign”.

I’m sure many people will do this and that many do it already, but the fact that members of the public have to come up with an alternative method of public spending is quite telling, particularly when the implications of not getting this right are so tragic.

Last year 28,000 older people died as a result of cold-related illnesses in the UK, with almost 3,000 as a direct result of fuel poverty. In an oil-rich nation, that’s not right. Unfortunately though, it is not the only shocking trend blighting the UK.

A few days ago on Twitter I read a tweet from celebrity GP Dr Ellie Cannon which said: “I’m sad to say that at my NHS practice, if we have a patient who has unexplained symptoms, we have started to ask if they can afford to eat.”

So in one of the world’s richest economies, people are hungry and dying of cold.

Last year Prime Minster David Cameron celebrated food bank volunteers as proof that the “Big Society” was working; to which Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition, retorted: “I never thought the big society was about feeding hungry children in Britain.”

Yet that is what it has become, that and rebalancing a faulty and skewed benefits system which sees older people die of cold when there is money to keep them warm.

I wonder if David Cameron ever thought that his flagship policy, which was all about people helping others, would in fact manifest itself as people working to mitigate against the worst impacts of his own decisions.