John Wall is a a professional electrical and electronic engineer and a former county councillor in Hampshire.
The Winter Fuel Allowance is a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
There are arguments in favour of both universality and means testing; the latter increases bureaucracy and, depending upon the complexity of the mechanism, can result in some of the deserving missing out, but the former means that the very wealthy are in receipt. There isn’t a simple answer but it’s not surprising that Labour are attacking the Conservative manifesto proposals.
A better approach is to help pensioners use less energy and this is not difficult. Changing from incandescent to “low energy” (compact fluorescent) lighting reduces electricity consumption by about 75 per cent, changing to LEDs saves even more. Insulation, draught proofing, thermostats and time switches can also produce significant savings.
Improving energy efficiency is a capital investment and at up to £300 per senior citizen per year the payback period is unlikely to be very long. Reducing energy usage combined with the Conservative manifesto proposals to cap energy bills should be good news for senior citizens. It would fit with the Mayite/Mayist view that the state can be a “power for good”.
The benefits don’t stop there, using less energy cuts carbon emissions and also reduces the demand for electricity during the winter.
It is important that reducing energy usage is done as a complete package rather than piecemeal, extra loft insulation is good but doors and windows must also be draught proofed, LED lighting fitted, etc, etc. A large programme would have significant economies of scale, purchasing things like LED lights in massive quantities would drive the price down.
Some of this has already happened, there have been free insulation schemes, but there hasn’t been a comprehensive nationwide programme to reduce energy usage for pensioner households, recorded in a database that could be cross referenced to benefit payments.
This would be a large exercise – but probably smaller than the conversion from town to North Sea gas – and need considerable planning but the addresses are known. Many local authorities would be able to manage such a scheme and are probably already in contact with many of the potential beneficiaries.
I don’t know whether the Winter Fuel Allowance could be completely eliminated, this would be dependent upon the proposed energy price cap, but I believe that it could be significantly reduced.