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Wednesday September 19, 2012

Winter warmth payment fuels bitter expat debate

As the minister about to declare war on British expat pensioners claiming winter fuel payments, Iain Duncan Smith will no doubt wisely be planning ‘staycations’ for the foreseeable future. Should he dare to step outside the UK, there’s a good chance he’ll find himself at the mercy of a ‘grey power’ lynch mob.

A recent ruling by the European Court of Justice has overturned the British government’s erstwhile draconian decision to exclude British expat pensioners from claiming winter fuel allowances on the basis that they lived in the sun. Up until now, only those Britons living within the EU who had reached the age of 60 and had made a claim for a winter fuel payment before leaving the UK, had been entitled. The new ruling will mean that as long as British expats are aged over 60, live in an EEA country –Switzerland included- and have genuine links to the UK, they will be eligible for the allowance.

It is estimated that in 2010-11 72,840 British expats were able to claim the £200 benefit- £300 for those over the age of 80- at a cost of £16 million. Now the new ruling to be enforced 2012-13 will apparently mean that as many as 444,000 British expats who currently claim a state pension could be eligible for the payment, a potential cost to the British government of £100million. Iain Duncan Smith, Minister for Work and Pensions, has declared his intention to ‘fight these ridiculous rules’ and claims that ‘it is ludicrous to have to pay more pensioners living in hot countries.’ His solution to the problem is the introduction of a ‘temperature’ test. I wish him luck in its implementation. He’ll need it.

What of course Mr Duncan Smith fails to understand is that Europe is not a perennially hot place. Expat pensioners living in France have reliably informed me that in the south west temperatures drop to 20C during winter. In Switzerland others have recorded temperatures of -30C and even here in Majorca, temperatures dropped in my rural town to about -5C earlier this year. Expat pensioners on the Spanish mainland and in France –clearly outraged by the British government’s stance have told me that the cost of radiators, purchasing logs and running boilers is often prohibitively expensive to the extent that many brave out the winter with minimal or no heating.

Of course there are affluent British expats of pensionable age who choose-laudably- not to accept the allowance but equally there are those on low incomes who having made National Insurance and tax contributions for 40 years rightly feel that they are entitled to make the claim.

It seems bizarre that instead of considering the needs of its many elderly and loyal citizens overseas, the British government has decided to leave them shivering out in the cold. Odder still that it should be the EU that has come to their rescue.

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