£13m of winter fuel payments go abroad

The majority of the winter fuel allowance paid abroad goes to those in warmer climes, including Spain, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, official figures show.

The Government paid nearly £13m in winter fuel payments to UK pensioners living abroad last winter, figures show.

Nearly £6m went to pensioners living in Spain, while those who retired to France received over £3m. Overall, 74,685 pensioners living abroad received the payments, including those living in Italy, Greece and Cyprus.

The figures were published by Department of Work & Pensions following a Freedom of Information request.

The number increased by more than a thousand compared to the previous year, but experts fear that it could increase by more than six times in the coming months after a recent ruling from the European Court of Justice.

Until that ruling, 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 to the payment.

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. This means 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 £100m.

Many of the pensioners who get this allowance live in Spain, where the weather is far warmer than in the UK. Iain Duncan-Smith, Work & Pensions Secretary, is considering introducing a "temperature test" to try to ensure that those who have retired to the sun no longer receive it. However, details of this are yet to be finalised.

It is understood that the temperature test would also apply to pensioners in the UK. This could see the elderly in milder areas of the south of England lose the benefit, while those in colder parts of Europe continue to receive it.

At present, the winter fuel allowance, which is between £100 and £300, is paid to you automatically if you were born on or before July 5 1951 and receive state pension or another qualifying social security benefit. If you qualify but don't get paid automatically, you'll need to make a claim.

Most payments are given between November (Xetra: A0Z24E - news) and December. You can download a claim form here: gov.uk/winter-fuel-payment/how-to-claim . There are separate forms for those living abroad or in the UK. Those eligible can also claim for past winters between 1997 to 1998 and 1999 to 2000, but not later. Country Cost of winter fuel payments in 2011/12 Spain £5,777,000 France £3,102,000 Republic of Ireland £1,223,000 Cyprus £926,000 The winter fuel payment is £200 if you live alone and are under 80 and £300 if you live alone and are 80 or over, and increases if you have other benefits, or decreases if you live with someone else who qualifies, or live in a care home.

In a BBC Radio 4 interview today, Mr Duncan Smith signalled the Conservatives could go into the next election warning pensioners to expect a cut in their benefits .

He told the Today programme that pensioners will get plenty of warning in a manifesto pledge "if there are going to be any changes made" to their benefits, which include free bus passes, television licences and prescriptions. His comments are likely to be seen as another strong hint that universal benefits for pensioners could be targeted for cuts after 2015.

Paul Burstow, a former care minister, last week called on the Coalition to withdraw winter fuel payments from nine million older people, leaving it in place for all but the poorest pensioners, and use the money to fund a new system of universal state support for old-age care. He said this could pay for a more generous system than the one recommended by the Commission on Funding of Care and Support, led by Andrew Dilnot.