British expat pensioners living abroad in Europe could see the winter fuel payments they receive from the government cut under plans that would mean it is temperature tested.
The fact that expat pensioners can claim the benefit worth up to £300 despite living in warmer places such as the south of France and Spain has long been a source of political debate.
Now the UK’s Work and Pensions Secretary is considering changing the system after an European Union ruling that any British pensioner within the EU could be entitled to the benefit.
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said it is examining the ruling but at present it understands that expat pensioners living in the European Economic Area and Switzerland may be entitled to the payment.
The latest figures available show that in 2010/2011 some 72,840 expats claimed the allowance at a cost of almost £16 million to the UK taxpayer. It is estimated that there are currently 444,000 expat British people in Europe of pensionable age who could take the annual cost to £100 million if they all claimed the allowance.
But many politians in the UK take the view that is should only be for those facing real hardship in terms of heating their homes in the winter.
They believe, for example, that pensioners living in Scotland where it is colder in the winter are entitled to it but those living in the South of Spain should not get it.
Opponents are angry that the EU has made the rules less stringent. Previously, the elderly could only qualify for the winter fuel allowance if they reached 60 before leaving the UK and anyone who left before the payment was introduced in 1998 was also excluded.
But the EU has decided that now claimants only need to ‘have a genuine and sufficient link with the UK’ including having ‘lived or worked in the UK for most of your working life’ to qualify.
It means that anyone born on or before 05 July 1951 can now make a claim for the payment for winter fuel this year. Also any household with a pensioner qualifies for a payment of £200 and those with someone aged over 80 get £300.
Officials are now looking into how a temperature test might work but any change in the criteria would require new legislation and it is not clear if this could be done in time for the 2012 payments.
Critics points out that there are some 60,000 expat pensioners living in France, many of them based in the south where the average temperature in winter can be as high as 13C and in parts of Spain, where there are some 100,000 British pensioners, average temperatures in December and January can reach 17C.