The number of pensioners handing back winter fuel payments to the Government has dropped by 78pc as even wealthier retirees struggle in the cost of living crisis.
Only 186 pensioners opted out of winter fuel payment in the 2021-22 financial year out of more than 11 million recipients, falling from 846 the previous year, a Freedom of Information request seen by this newspaper has revealed.
Just one in every 60,000 over-65s declined the payment last year despite one in five people in this age group being classed as a millionaire, according to the Office for National Statistics.
All people of pensionable age are paid the state benefit regardless of their financial status. Wealthy businessmen and celebrities have previously criticized the system, including Lord Sugar and Peter Stringfellow, claiming it was difficult to opt out of the payments. Both have donated the benefit to charity in the past.
Anyone over the age of 66 will automatically receive between £100 and £300 depending on personal circumstances, such as age and whether they live alone or in a care home.
Caroline Abrahams of Age UK, the charity, said the winter fuel payment was providing to be a more crucial lifeline for pensioners than ever before, including middle class retirees.
“With spiraling energy prices, older people are finding it more and more difficult to heat and power their homes,” she said.
James Heywood, of the Center for Policy Studies think tank, said pensioners would be “really feeling the squeeze” this year and the winter fuel payment had become an important source of support for many retirees.
Pensioners have already begun taking on debt or drawing more from their personal pensions to manage the rising cost of living. Energy bills rocketed this April, with £693 added to the average annual bill. Pensioners have taken a double hit, with the state pension failing to keep up with inflation after the Government abandoned its promise to raise the state pension in line with earnings this year
The Government could either means test the benefit or make it taxable if it wanted to ensure the payments go to those in real need, Mr Heywood said.
“There is a strong case for doing that and putting those funds to better use, but we should be realistic – assuming this would only remove the payment from relatively well-off pensioners, the savings would be quite modest,” he said.
Amid the ongoing energy crisis, the government has committed to expanding the Warm Homes Discount which will mean the value of the household rebates will rise from £140 to £150. However, much like the winter fuel payments, there is a risk that those who do not need it will fail to opt out. Ian Browne of wealth manager Quilter, who lodged the FOI, said the support needed to be more smartly distributed so that funds went to those most in need.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith has previously encouraged elderly people who can well afford to pay for their own heating bills, bus passes and television licenses to return the money to the state. When contacted he failed to respond.
A spokesman for the Government said: “We recognize the pressures on the cost of living and this year we’ll support over 11 million pensioners with energy costs through our Energy Bills Rebate and Winter Fuel Payments. As in previous years, people who wish to opt out of receiving a Winter Fuel Payment can do so by contacting our Winter Fuel Payment Centre.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.