31 January 2012

Gathering Winter Fuel Allowance

An open letter to Ms Emma Boon, Campaign Director of the  Taxpayers' Alliance, who want to abolish payment of the Winter Fuel Allowance to British pensioners living in the EU.  

Nearly 73,000 people living on mainland Europe claimed £15.6 million-worth of payments last winter .... a 52% increase since 2006-7 ... 33,495 recipients live in Spain.  

"This is a shocking increase and is yet more evidence that we need to reform the welfare system, so that money goes to those who really need it, not to well off ex pats living on the Costa Del Sol", says Ms Boon.  "The Government should scrap schemes like this because it doesn't make sense to take people's money in tax, then give it back in benefits that they might not want or need.  It was always intended to help the elderly through the winter but many of those claiming it are living abroad where it's warmer anyway."

Dear Ms Boon,

Emma Boon
As a British taxpayer for nearly 40 years (I still would be, but my pension is below the threshold), I appreciate your organisation's attempts to save me money.   But I have to take issue with your claim that giving it to elderly British citizens living in Spain is an example of "wasteful and unnecessary spending".

Personally I would favour abolishing the WFA altogether and increasing the basic state pension so that people didn't need such handouts.  But until that happens, and for as long as it remains a universal, tax-free benefit, the over-60s should be able to claim it wherever they live.

It has already been cut by up to a third.  Last year that nice Mr Osborne reduced the payment from £250 to £200 a year (per household, not per person).  For the over-80s it was cut from £450 to £300.  This is despite the massive increases in fuel costs seen in the past few years, both in the UK and in Spain.

Anyone over 60 can claim the allowance provided they live mainly in Britain during the year they make the claim, and once you are deemed eligible, you can live anywhere in the EU and continue receiving it.  But you can't claim it retrospectively once you've moved abroad.  So I won't be getting it, and according to your own figures, neither do 97% of  the estimated one million British citizens who live in Spain.

On the other hand the Queen, Richard Branson and the Archbishop of Canterbury are all eligible.  Why don't you focus your campaign on making the payment taxable?  That would claw it back from the better-off - assuming they bother claiming it in the first place.

But my biggest grumble is that you are perpetuating the myth that winters are warm in Spain.  Sure, some parts do get plenty of sunshine and sometimes we can go out in shirtsleeves on a warm sunny January afternoon.  But even though the temperatures look good on paper, they don't convey quite how chilly it gets when the sun goes down, especially in houses that were built to cope with summer heat, not winter cold.  Every Northern European who moves to Spain spends their first winter shivering, in denial, before giving into electric blankets, thermal underwear and fleecy blankets over their knees.

The average winter temperature in our house when we get up in the morning is about 14°C (57°F). To warm it up to a bearable 20°C (68°F) we have to use a combination of oil-filled radiators, a propane gas heater and ceramic wall panels.  The price of electricity has gone up by 45% since we moved here and our average monthly fuel bill in winter is more than the £200 WFA we (don't) get.  Check the temperature in your centrally-heated, carpeted, insulated, double-glazed house in the UK when you get up tomorrow morning, and think yourself lucky.

And we live in the sunny south!  In Northern Spain, and in the mountainous regions of Andalucia where many ex-pats live, the temperatures regularly fall below freezing and there is snow on the ground for months at a time.

Snowy Spain
On behalf of those 33,495 lucky people in Spain who get the Winter Fuel Allowance, may I point out that they have contributed millions into the British economy over the years, yet by living abroad after retirement they forego the pension credits or council tax relief that pensioners in the UK are entitled to.  They are not using up NHS resources by suffering from hypothermia or slipping up on icy pavements.  They are not having their roads gritted or the snow cleared off their pavements at the taxpayers' expense.

And they are not all "well off ex pats living on the Costa Del Sol" by any means.  A lot of them are struggling to make ends meet because of rising prices, paltry interest on their savings, and the falling value of sterling.

So, Ms Boon, I entreat you to think of Good King Wenceslas, and be charitable; they aren't asking for flesh, wine or pine logs to be brought hither.  Just the right to gather their winter fuel allowance ...


Tumbit said...

I guess it must be easier for the politicians in the UK to point the finger abroad than it is to address the bigger problems than they have at home.

Sarah Hughson said...

Hello! This is Sarah the auxiliar de conversación at Juan Armario. I found your blog while searching for information about Alcalá to make my own little page on my blog. I'm trying to put together some info on different places I have traveled. I must say, this is much more thorough than my attempt. Would you mind if I linked to your blog from mine?

Claire Lloyd said...

Hi Sarah - no problem, go ahead!