Country dwellers eligible for a winter fuel allowance payment - worth £200 to £300 for anyone over 80 - could see their cash early, allowing them to buy off-grid fuel before winter prices start to bite.

The move is supported by energy minister Baroness Verma. If approved, it could help shave hundred of pounds off energy bills for many.

Advance payment?

An advance in the timeline of the winter payment would help around 1m UK pensioners who live in rural areas, forced to buy their energy supplies off-grid (it's thought around 15% of consumers are not linked to the national gas grid).

The move is needed given that average energy bills now cost consumers around £1,400 a year. Yesterday British Gas saw an 11% hike in profits, helped by a 6% price rise in November (British Gas has also paid out £3.5bn in dividends paid out to shareholders in recent years).

The Oil Firing Technical Association, quoted in the Telegraph, claims the average typical rural household could have recouped £170 if heating oil was bought forward to June 2010 compared with buying in mid-winter, due to seasonal shifts in energy pricing. The move is supported by Citizens Advice.

Budget ahead

"People who are not connected to the gas grid," says Citizens Advice, "and therefore rely on heating oil or LPG to keep their homes warm in the winter have to pay for their fuel in bulk and up front. Our evidence shows that people on low incomes, including the elderly, can find it very difficult, or in some cases impossible, to afford to fill up their tanks ahead of winter."

To qualify for the payment in the winter of 2012-13, you have to be over 60. Or your birth date must be on or before July 5 1951. The Winter Fuel Payment is tax-free and not means tested, so it doesn't matter whether you are working or claiming benefits.

However there remains much debate over whether it should continue to be means-tested. Last winter, it was paid to almost 13 million people at a total cost of £2.1bn to the taxpayer. But senior Lib Dem Paul Burstow claims it should only to go those claiming pension credit - currently around 2m (even though 3m are eligible).




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