Thursday, August 30, 2012


UK expats living in other European countries can now claim the Winter Fuel Payment. To qualify this winter they must have been born on 5 July 1951 or earlier and have what the Department for Work and Pensions calls 'a close and sufficient connexion' with the UK. They must also live in one of the 26 other EU countries, the three EEA countries or Switzerland. These countries  are listed below. Some countries where expats can now claim are a lot warmer than the UK. 

Until this year people who lived outside the UK could not claim the Winter Fuel Payment. If they had already qualified and claimed it in the UK they could keep it if they moved, but they could not claim it for the first time from outside the UK.

The change was brought about by a judgement of the European Court of Justice in a case about disability benefits. The court ruled that it was wrong to prevent people from claiming the benefit just because they did not live in the UK at the time of the claim. As long as they had what is called 'a genuine and sufficient link to the social security system of the UK' they can claim from another European country. The DWP is interpreting that as meaning that the person worked and paid National Insurance in the UK for a long period of time, certainly enough time to qualify for a state pension. New guidance from the Department of Work and Pensions published this month set out the judgement and its effect on Winter Fuel Payment

The Winter Fuel Payment is £200 per household where a qualifying person lives. So a couple will normally get £100 each. If someone is over 80 (born 23/9/1932 or earlier) the payment is £300. People born before 20/9/1939 may also qualify for one of more payments from earlier years if they were living in a country which qualified in 1999/2000, 1998/99 or 1997/98 when the EU was much smaller. Payments were also smaller then - £20 in 1997/98 and 1998/99 and £100 in 1999/2000. Payments for years from 2000/01 to 2011/12 cannot be claimed now.

The countries
Claims can be made from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia,, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

France includes its overseas territories Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, French Guiana on the equatorial coast of South America and even RĂ©union which is south of the Equator in the Indian Ocean tropics. Winter temperatures in these countries are typically 25-30C. It can also be claimed in Spain’s Canary Islands, Ibiza and Majorca as well as the Portuguese Azores and Madeira islands.

However, the payments cannot be made in the Channel Islands nor the chilly Isle of Man.  They are not part of the UK or the EU. Nor is Turkey or Serbia. Croatia will not join until mid 2013.

Although the Government would like to change the rules to exclude payments to warm countries it cannot say when or indeed whether it will make any announcement. So for now claims are allowed and will be paid. Find out more about winter fuel payment and download the forms here Remember men in the UK aged under 65 normally have to claim it too the first year they qualify.  If you want to get advice call +44 191 218 7777 if you live abroad. If you live in the UK call 08459 15 15 15 or 0191 218 7610.

If you do not qualify this year find your qualifying date in future here

Future plans
The Government is unhappy about the court ruling. Partly because it could cost up to £100 million a year. But also because claims can now be accepted from expats living in very warm places. But for now the Government has to accept the court's judgement and guidance on the website has been updated.

The DWP has told me that it is investigating whether an extra condition could be added to the rules for qualifying for the payment based on average winter temperatures. For example it could add a rule that the person claiming had to live in a country with average winter temperatures not more than, say, 5C above the UK's mean winter temperature. But there are at least three problems with that idea.

First, winter temperatures change from year to year. If long run averages were used then that may not reflect the current colder winters many countries have felt recently. And of course many European countries have colder winter temperatures than the UK so they would not be excluded. Second, the Government would not save much money unless it excluded countries where most UK expats live - Spain, France, and Italy. That may prove difficult on temperature grounds and seem very unfair to those living in cold parts of those countries. And if it did not exclude France then the tropical and Caribbean islands would not be excluded either. Third, if the law was challenged as a disguised attempt to prevent claims from outside the UK the court could rule it unlawful.

What tweeps think
A lot of people have tweeted and emailed since I revealed the details of this story on BBC Breakfast on 30 August. Most objected to the WFP being made outside the UK especially in warm countries. @mattp48 calls it "EU rubbish" especially when the country is "in so much debt".  Marcia @MMEdinburgh says it is "outrageous and unfair" and David @daw9000 says it "shows the farce of European law".

Sally @Sals78 calls it "Ridiculous...when here it has been reduced back to £200" from £250 last winter. Kevin @slater4353 makes the more general point that "pensioners get enough free stuff what about middle aged people who are struggling?". And Karen @minervastitch says "As a disabled mother of 3 virtually housebound I need to keep warm" but she is too young to get it. Welfare benefits adviser Pauline @pkmsandell says "at a time of cuts...need to rethink".

However, others thought it was fair to pay it to expats. Michael @yearwood4 "why not?...I'm sure they have paid a lot more into the system" and Tim @tp11235 "the people paid a lifetime of taxes and now they don't use the NHS, why begrudge them a few pounds?"

A few, whether seriously or not, pointed out "people in those countries have high air conditioning costs" (@andyroberts1967) and @Alan_S_Morrison agrees "use it as a Summer Power Payment to pay for aircon. Same principle, money to alleviate climate".

As for answers, means-testing was the most popular Sue @taxqueen "only needed by people on low incomes on pension credits" though @suebeesley thought it could be "adjusted in inverse proportion to average winter temperatures overseas".

Others stepped up to defend it from attack in the UK. Gillian @gillypance "I'm 74 8 feel the cold a lot so grateful to have payment" and @Cornish_K8 says it "pays my mum for 50% of her electricity for the whole year and she doesn't have gas".

And a few in Spain and France were very pleased and want to claim. @patricia_laing says it "will certainly help to pay for the mountain of firewood we use" she lives in southern Spain where "it get surprisingly cold".

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