Monday, 20 December 2010

Cold Weather Welfare Deficiencies

A PENSIONER was found stranded on his kitchen floor after falling while trying to keep himself warm in front of his oven. Paramedics discovered the man, in his 80s, in Grands Vaux after he had fallen in front of his cooker.
He had been standing with his knees in front of the open oven door open because he could not afford to heat the rest of his home. (1)

Jersey's citizens advice bureau says people living there less than five years will be hit hardest by the rise in the goods and services tax (GST). Malcolm Ferey, from the bureau, said they may not be able to apply for income support. Jersey politicians voted to keep GST on food and fuel and to increase the tax to 5% from June 2011. Malcolm Ferey said he was disappointed the States did not allow goods and services tax (GST) exemptions. He said there was a portion of the community that falls into the gap and loses out on support. This group includes pensioners and those who have been there for fewer than five years. Mr Ferey said that the increases would also hit the middle earners who have no tax buffer and would mean many could not afford "life's little luxuries". He said: "There are people who fall through the gaps and if someone has been here for four years it is feasible they have contributed to society, they have a family and fall on hard times.

"These are the type of people, it is a social group that do need to be looked at.
"They won't qualify for income support because they have been here for less than five years, there is little or no support for these people."

Mr Ferey said there were no reduced tax thresholds to soften the blow of the increases. It is into these "gaps" that the 80 year old pensioner falls, quite literally, and where income support does not catch the relevant people within its net.(2)

Even within income support, and its cold weather component, there can be problems.

A "Memorandum submitted by National Energy Action" to the UK Parliament noted that:

The time-lag in fuel poverty data means that official statistics are not current. However even on the basis of older data covering a period before the worst effects of energy price increases there was no prospect of meeting the 2010 target and little prospect of meeting the 2016 target for England (4)

The definition of households in fuel poverty commonly used-i.e. those households where more than 10% of income has to be spent on fuel for adequate heating

The reliability of official fuel poverty data is compromised as a result of the time-lag between collation and publication of survey findings.(1)

The figures for "fuel poverty" under these thresholds gives a significant weight towards the elderly single pensioner, which is precisely where the pensioner above falls:

One person aged 60 or over 34%
Couple aged 60 or over 14%

Jersey doesn't use this measure of benchmarking and instead bases its component of income support upon "the aggregate of the amount by which the average daily temperature of each day in that month falls below 15.5 degrees Celsius".

When the JEC had an increase of 25% in its heating bills, the basis for doing this was refined so that the component was first increased, and then fixed to the Retail Price Index.

The Minister decided to amend the Income Support (Special Payments) (Cold Weather Payments) (Jersey) Regulations 2008 to increase the value of the cold weather payment by approximately 20% and to link future cold weather payments to the fuel and light element of the Retail Price Index and accordingly requested the Law Draftsman to prepare the necessary draft legislation.

It is possible for fuel prices to fall as well as rise and the regulation should allow the base value to reduce as well as increase from year to year.

This is a better measure for statistics than the UK, where a time lag of several years occurs, but it is still deficient in giving a three month lag, where the cost of fuel - as we have seen in recent months - can increase extremely rapidly. This means the quarterly heating bill may well be hitting the home at least 15 days before the retail index is published. It is also not clear whether the retail index is the best measure - an index based primarily on fuel costs would probably be better, as it would not be reduced by the averaging and weighting effects of other items in the calculation.

Moreover the current advice on hypothermia, which is more likely to effect the elderly (whose temperature regulation is poorer) is to keep the room temperature warmer. The temperature of 15.5C is the minimum given in the UK NHS guidelines, and this reflects the problem of Jersey in taking what might be fine for younger families, and applying such a criteria across the board, without reflecting the very real dangers to older people.

Even if you keep your temperature between 60°F (15.5C)and 65°F (18.3C) , your home or apartment may not be warm enough to keep you safe. For some people, this temperature can contribute to hypothermia. This is a special problem if you live alone because there is no one else to feel the chilliness of the house or notice if you are having symptoms of hypothermia. Set your thermostat for at least 68°F (20C) to 70°F (21C).

The paper on "Evaluating welfare state efforts and the model family approach: problems and promises" notes that one of the problems with benefits systems is "The methods used to target assistance at households which need it most". The Income Support Cold Weather payments does target infants under 3, and elderly over the age of 65 years, which are the two most significant areas, but only for those who are "in receipt of income support".

But the paper notes that:

The correlation between social assistance levels and poverty risks is probably rather weak because the model family approach focuses on only one specific dimension of social protection, that is the level of fiscal and social benefits. The adequacy of social protection arrangements however also depends on other factors.

and in particular, because:

Firstly, the eligibility rules can exclude certain categories from income protection. (3)

If this is the case for the pensioner - that he falls into the "gap" where eligibility ceases, but need is still there, then clearly the rules need reconsideration. Part of the problem may be how the family types considered by income support are defined:

Because the impact of social protection measures is necessarily calculated for only a limited number of family types, model family results are far more illustrative than representative. (3)

But what is equally significant is to do with how "pro-active" claimants are. In the days of Parish Welfare, the disadvantage was that the system was not on a universal Island wide statutory level, but the advantage was that Parish officials were employed to proactively seek claimants who - perhaps like the pensioner in question - may have a need but had little or no idea how to go about that. This is a finding of a problem across Europe of pretty well all welfare systems:

Secondly, family models assume that all families claim and receive the benefits for which they are eligible. In other words, family models do not take into account the administrative feasibility of social protection measures and related non-take-up rates. Nevertheless several studies indicate that non-take-up rates for social assistance benefits can amount to 20 % and more

The UK Report on "Winter Fuel Payments and Cold Weather Payments" to the Select Committee noted that the problems with take-up were significantly high to pose a risk to the health of those vulnerable to cold weather, and that a universal fuel payment was probably a better safety-net.

There is understandable ambivalence about the Winter Fuel Payment as a fuel poverty initiative and this is inevitable whilst the payment is based solely on age with no reference to need. However the universal nature of the payment overcomes a number of difficulties including non-take-up of entitlement, which is common amongst pensioner households, and the issue of those who would be marginally excluded from entitlement if the benefit were to be means-tested. (4)

That is, of course, a political decision, but so is the decision not to exempt domestic fuel from GST. Clearly better safety nets need to be organised so that a near tragedy does not turn into a real tragedy, and people like this pensioner are found and given help. This occurrence should act as a warning, flagging up deficiencies that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. For later may turn out to be too late.

First Collector: At this festive time of year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute.
Ebenezer: Is there no income support?
First Collector: Plenty of income support for those who can access it. Although it barely supplies enough to keep off the cold, and little enough for food.
Ebenezer: Oh, from what you said at first I was afraid that something had happened to stop it in their useful course. I'm very glad to hear it.
First Collector: I don't think you quite understand us, sir. A few of us are endeavoring to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth.
Ebenezer: Why?
First Collector: Because it is at Christmastime that want is most keenly felt, and abundance rejoices. Now what can I put you down for?
Ebenezer: Huh! Nothing!
Second Collector: You wish to be anonymous?
Ebenezer: [firmly, but calmly] I wish to be left alone. Since you ask me what I wish sir, that is my answer. I help to support the establishment I have named; there is income support, and forms to complete, and those those who are badly off must go there.
First Collector: Many can't go there. They are not eligible.
Second Collector: And some don't know that they can, and would die.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

yesterday solar physicists reported no sun spot activity
(in of its self nothing to worry about), however with the ongoing
low flux count, solar cycle 24
(the present one)is expected to be low in solar activity

it seems likely we can expect 2-3
years of colder than average winter tempretures, until solar cycle 24 hits its maximum in 2014-2015

there is a possibility this trend could continue into solar cycle 25,
this would then mirror the Dalton minimum of 200 years ago