A proposal to reform the current Winter Fuel Payment (WFP)

This was a paper that I wrote from my Energy and Resource Economics class, built on previous work attempting to show the efficiency savings from reforming the Winter Fuel Payment.

 

Abstract

Currently the UK government offers a Winter Fuel Payment (WFP) for those born before January 5th 1953 (Age 63), receiving a state pension, housing benefit, council tax reduction, or child benefit. This can range from £100 – £300 and is not means tested. Statistics show that only 41% (Beatty et al. 2011) of this benefit is actually spent on its purpose, to heat homes sufficiently throughout winter. This paper will suggest a reform of the policy through a method called ‘Energy Credits’. The reform not only seeks to drive the full use of this benefit, but at the same time potentially reducing the Government’s expenditure and possibly increasing the demand from Energy Suppliers.


Introduction

In 2014/15 the UK government spent £2.177 billion on WFP’s, representing 1.27% of the Gross Benefit Expenditure within the same financial year. Nonetheless, a clear market failure is implied due to the actual implementation of the policy measure. Despite the tax-free annual cash payment significantly reducing excess Winter Deaths (EWD) by 50% in England in Wales since its introduction (Iparraguirre et al. 2014), the WFP is paid in an inefficient manor which is hindering the policies effectiveness at reducing EWD’s. This paper will be focussing solely on reforming the WFP for the purposes of improving the efficiency of the public purse; however, it should be recognised that this isn’t the only policy measure that is aimed at tackling EWD’s in the UK.

The current situation

Attempts have been made to make sure that the WFP is used as intended. One measure that has been put in place to try and boost the use of the payment is the ‘labelling effect’, a behavioural nudge that pushes citizens into socially desirable behaviours (Lange et al. 2015). By simply naming the cash transfer as the “Winter Fuel Payment”, it is estimated that this raises the use of the benefit by 38% (Beatty et al. 2011).

Nonetheless, this is still not an efficient use of the public purse. Making the payment in November and December is another attempt at ensuring recipients get the hint to use the payment on heating their homes for the Winter. Working against this on the other hand, is the issue that the benefit is paid before Christmas, creating a nice windfall for those looking to buy some extra presents.

 

Data

This section will look at the data collected on pensioner income for the financial year of 2014/2015, with a specific focus on the top 5th percentile. Currently in the UK, there are 8.7million pensioners, that will qualify for the Winter Fuel Payment in some shape or form. With a near 50/50 split on the number of couples and singles, essentially households.

The following tables breakdown the income of the two categories to better understand what the lowest and also the highest income percentiles are. It is important to grasp what the income gap is amongst pensioners, so that whatever policy reforms are made, we know how the income of those ‘worse’ off are affected. However, in the case of this report, we want to understand what the effect would be on a reduction in the number of higher earners, claiming the WFP.

Table 2

Pensioner Couples (Weekly)
Quantiles 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th Mean
Net income before housing costs 255 358 456 592 912 563
Pensioner couples’ net income before housing costs distribution
Recently retired 17% 18% 19% 22% 24% 100%
Head aged under 75 17% 18% 19% 21% 25% 100%
Head aged 75 and over 26% 24% 22% 18% 10% 100%

(ONS 2015)

Table 3

Single Pensioners (Weekly)
Quantiles 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th Mean
Net income before housing costs 137 197 244 305 436 280
Single pensioners’ net income before housing costs distribution
All single pensioners 20% 20% 20% 20% 20% 100%
Recently retired 16% 17% 20% 21% 26% 100%
Aged under 75 18% 19% 21% 20% 23% 100%
Aged 75 and over 22% 21% 19% 20% 18% 100%

(ONS 2015)

As we can see from Table 2, there is a significant gap in income, from the lowest to the highest 5th percentile of 72%. Similarly, the gap in single pensioner income (Table 3) is 69%. Understanding the difference in ‘Net income before housing costs’ is vital to recognizing the disparity in what these two groups are likely to spend on their energy bills. The ONS in 2014, estimated that the average pensioner’s expenditure on energy bills is roughly £97 per household per month. By this estimate, the lowest income single pensioner will be paying 17.7% on energy bills per month, whilst in comparison to the higher incomes at 5.6%. A somewhat similar story is being told amongst the couple’s category, with the lowest percentile paying 9.5% of their income on energy bills and the highest percentile paying 2.6%.

Table 4

No. of Pensioners – Top Fifth Percentile
Recently retired All under 75 75 or over All
Pensioner couples – £912 PW  336,000  725,000  135,000  850,000
Single pensioners – £436 PW  221,000  471,500  432,000  890,000

(ONS 2015) *To the nearest 50,000

Table 5

Government Cost – Top Fifth
All under 75 75 or over Range
Pensioner couples – £912 PW £72,500,000 £27,000,000 £85,000,000 £170,000,000
Single pensioners – £436 PW £94,300,000 £129,600,000 £178,000,000 £267,000,000
Totals £166,800,000 £156,600,000 £263,000,000 £437,000,000

(ONS 2015) *To the nearest 50,000

In the final analysis, Tables 4 and 5 seek to establish the cost of providing a WFP to the top 5th percentile of both categories. As a result, we can see that under the current payment systems for each age group, the UK government could be saving in the range of £263 and £437 million every winter, if pensioners with the highest incomes chose not to take the WFP. Even if this was in the lower range of the top 5th percentile, there is still a huge saving to be made.

Energy Credits are an efficient benefit allocation method that provides a better return on investment for the UK Government. The method is as follows:

  1. The Department of Works and Pensions provide secure access to a data set of those eligible for the WFP to every energy retailer in the UK.
  2. Included in this data set is the eligible amount of money that is allocated to each individual.
  3. The amount allocated translates into credit held by the energy retailer, that is available for the individual to reduce their energy bill.
  4. Throughout the winter, the individual is able to pick and choose when they use their credits.
  5. At the end of the winter, the energy retailer simply claims the used amount back from the government.

 

Through this method, those over 65 would have to contact their energy retailer in order to use their energy credits when they wanted. This would enable the recipient to spread their benefit over the winter, as and when they needed to.

Herein lies the incentive for the Government. Using the above data analysis, it is then possible to implement the findings of Finn & Goodship 2014. Within their study, analysing the ‘Take up of benefits & Poverty’, they establish that individuals with a higher income are less likely to take up a benefit. This is due to the relative value of the benefit not making a large difference in their welfare, over the absolute amount. Therefore, implying that that those in the higher quartile of pensioner incomes, may not claim the WFP because of the smaller relative welfare increase.

Furthermore, cost-benefit rationale signifies that an individual will not participate in a benefit, if the information costs are higher than the increased welfare from receiving such benefit. Therefore, proactively seeking the WFP, may not be in the interest of the top 5th percentile.

The incentive for the energy retailers, are that the 1st – 4th percentile, are nudged down the route of using the entire benefit on energy consumption. Promotion of the use of the benefit will be to their advantage, as the more credits being used, the more money they can claim back from the UK Government before the end of the financial tax year.

Limitations & Conclusion

One issue that has arisen from the research into this method is the fact that there is still 15% of UK homes off-gas (Greenage). However, this 15% still have access to electricity. The credits would then become available for use on the electricity bills of the person in receipt of the benefit, providing the same level of welfare support.

A potential limitation is that those aged 65+ would have to contact their energy supplier in order to ask for the benefit to be used. This may be more difficult for some older members of society; however, it will be in the interest of the energy retailers to make contact with those that are most vulnerable in society, in order to use up the energy credits.

In 2013, the think tank CentreForum suggested means testing the winter fuel payment in line with receiving pension credit (Telegraph 2013). The likely outcome of this would mean that the top 5th percentile of earners wouldn’t qualify for the WFP. However, this was discredited by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, who highlighted that incorporating the WFP into the pension credit scheme would reduce the impact of the labelling effect, mentioned above. Therefore, they concluded that this would not be the most socially optimal way to provide the benefit. This would also penalise workers for investing into a private pension scheme.

In conclusion, the DWP should reform the WFP through implementing Energy Credits in order to make more efficient use of the public purse.  Energy Credits provide an effective means of delivering a universal benefit without means testing, putting the onus on the Energy industry to ensure that our pensioners homes are heated sufficiently.  The savings potential is massive for the UK Government and this is without mentioning a reduced administration budget from actually delivering the cash to UK pensioners.  It is therefore advised that there is further data analysis into an exact saving that the DWP could make from implementing Energy Credits.

Altmann, R. Means-testing winter fuel payments would be disastrous for millions of pensioners. The Telegraph, . Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/comment/9781034/Means-testing-winter-fuel-payments-would-be-disastrous-for-millions-of-pensioners.html [Accessed: 24.11.16].

DWP (2015) Benefit expenditure and caseload tables. ONS. Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/benefit-expenditure-and-caseload-tables-2015 [Accessed: 07.11.16].

DWP (2015) Pensioners’ incomes series: financial year 2014/15. Gov.uk: ONS. Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/pensioners-incomes-series-financial-year-201415 [Accessed: 15.11.16].

Anonymous Engal Curve. Economics Online. Available: http://www.economicsonline.co.uk/Competitive_markets/Demand_and_income.html [Accessed: 07.11.16].

Anonymous How do we heat our homes? Greenage. Available: http://www.thegreenage.co.uk/comparing-the-us-and-the-uk-how-do-we-heat-our-homes/ [Accessed: 07.11.16].

Iparraguirre , J. (2014)
Have winter fuel payments reduced excess winter mortality in England and Wales? Available: http://jpubhealth.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/08/30/pubmed.fdu063.full [Accessed: 15/10/2016].

Anonymous (2010) Lord Sugar handed £200 a year winter fuel allowance
. Daily Mail, . Available: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1322165/Multi-millionaire-Lord-Sugar-handed-200-year-winter-fuel-allowance-says-I-dont-want-it.html [Accessed: 08.11.16].

Newell, R. (2013) Nudging energy efficiency behavior: The role of information labels. National Bureau of Economic Research, (19224).

UK Government Winter Fuel Payment. gov.uk. Available: https://www.gov.uk/winter-fuel-payment/what-youll-get [Accessed: 08.11.16].

Rosenbaum, M. (2015) BBC News. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-31963099 [Accessed: 08.11.16].

Winter Fuel Payment – Policy Brief

Born before 1953…here, have £300 for free…even go on a spending spree

 

What’s the issue?

Currently the UK government offers a Winter Fuel Payment (WFP) for those born before January 5th 1953 (Age 63), receiving a state pension, housing benefit, council tax reduction, or child benefit. This can range from £100 – £300 and is not means tested. Statistics show that the immediate introduction of the WFP, reduced the number of excess winter deaths of over 65’s by 50%. Due to this payment usually given automatically and in the form of money, the WFP isn’t always fully used towards heating purposes.

This policy brief aims to provide an insight into the current policy and propose a reform to the WFP, that involves the full benefit being directly used for energy consumption, thus revealing its full potential. Progress Energy look to progress the policy into a more modern state benefit.

 

What’s the solution?

Energy Credits, given at the same value as the current payment. Energy firms would be responsible for collecting the credits and claiming the money back from the Government.

Let’s improve!

The Beatty et al. (2011) analysis of the WFP showed that actually naming the cash transfer with the words “Winter Fuel” instead of neutrally naming the payment, increased the recipient’s expenditure on fuel from £3 to £41. (Out of a £100 payment). Therefore, by actually giving the WFP as designated Energy Credits, this forces the recipient to use the benefit to its full potential and purpose.

  • 59% – Still not directly being used on energy!

Pre – Existing Polices

 

Benefit Fact
Warm Home Discount

 

1.1 million of the poorest pensioners received £135 off their energy bill in winter 2013/14.

 

Cold Weather Payment

 

A means tested payment of £8.50 a week to £25 a week.

 

These means tested benefits can be in addition to the WFP

 

Let’s have a bit more detail on that solution…

 

Who would receive the benefit?

The standard age for the benefit would remain, as well as the criteria mentioned in the opening statement.

 

How would the system work?

Each qualified person would have their entitled amount held as Energy Credits with their energy supplier. The supplier would then have a list of those eligible, supplied by the government.

Energy Credits?

Instead of receiving the benefit as an annual cash transfer, those eligible would contact their energy supplier asking to use the credits WHEN and IF they needed them, throughout that given winter.

WHEN and IF?

At Progress Energy, we understand that the benefit is currently being given to those who might not even need it. For example, Sir Alan Sugar famously attempted to hand the money back, along with only 28 others in 2014/15. He actually failed to do so effectively and efficiently…could that mean there is someone getting fired!?

 

WHEN and IF continued…?

By creating Energy Credits, Progress Energy feels that this could allow the benefit to be used to its full potential. Rather than a lump sum payment, the benefit could be spread out across the winter, allowing recipients to use the Energy Credits WHEN needed. Giving the recipient a choice of when they used the credits.

KEY FACTS

  • Energy Credits remove the WFP from being a Disposable Income for the recipient
  • Allowing credits to be spread across the Winter, means that bills can be lower in times of need
  • Since the introduction of the WFP, only 400 out of 12 Million have rejected the payment

 

Energy Credits keep the WFP a Universal Benefit

 

Why not means test the WFP?

A report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2012 highlighted the effects of adding the WFP on to the pension credit scheme. Their results show that this would reduce the impact of of the labelling effect, mentioned above. Therefore, they concluded that this would not be the most socially optimal way to provide the benefit.

 

Means Testing…

Imagine the scenario of means testing the WFP so that the top 5% of wealthiest pensioners do not receive this benefit – a proposal from Labour in 2014.   Progress energy believe that this would unfairly discriminate against pensioners who have paid their fair share into the welfare state. Keeping the benefit universal would also reduce the administrative burden of means testing.

 

Let the benefit be used to its fuel potential

Let us Progress…

Furthermore, because those qualified would then have to actually contact their Energy Provider to receive their allocated credits when they are claimable, this could potentially reduce the number of claimants. Progress Energy believe that those most in need of the benefit would then have an incentive to contact their energy supplier. Those who perhaps have the means to heat their home sufficiently may not bother contacting to claim their credits. This technique is reversing the behavioural tool that states that people should be opted into something in order to encourage them. The Energy Credits remain a universal benefit, but to only those that ask for it. Think of this as a reversal of the auto – enrolment pension scheme.

 

What’s the gain for the Government?

The idea proposed directly above could reduce the number of claimants, hence reducing the burden on that famous Red Briefcase. With the process being passed onto the energy companies, the Government would only have to pay out what the energy companies claim back. Therefore, the administrative side of paying the benefit could be greatly reduced.

 

So that leads us to…Why would the energy companies bother to help?

At Progress Energy, we believe that this could ultimately lead to the increased final use of the benefit. Therefore, it is anticipated that the energy companies would see a rise in the actual amount of money they receive from the WFP. At the end of each winter, they would simply claim the value of the used credits back from the government.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this proposed reform to the WFP aims at making the full use of the benefit for the recipients. From the Governments point of view, all of the money goes towards its intended purpose, heating homes. From the energy companies point of view, they take on an extra service, but could potentially see a rise in the amount of money they receive from the benefit. Overall, Progress Energy believes that Energy Credits have the potential to transform the WFP into a more useful benefit that ultimately creates a more efficient welfare system.

 

Appendix

 

Circumstance Born on or before 5 January 1953 Aged 80 or over in the qualifying week
You qualify and live alone (or none of the people you live with qualify) £200 £300
You qualify and get one of the benefits listed* £200 £300
You live with someone under 80 who also qualifies £100 £200
You live with someone 80 or over who also qualifies £100 £150
You qualify and live with your partner or civil partner and they get one of the benefits listed* Nil** Nil**
You qualify but live in a care home and don’t get one of the benefits listed* £100 £150

 

* Benefits: Pension Credit, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)

** Your partner getting the benefit will get the Winter Fuel Payment on your behalf

 

Resources

Frack-ing or Frack – off?

Fracking; it doesn’t even sound nice does it? A study back in 2011 by Gregory FCA Communications, found that the industry would be better of just trying to get rid of the word all together. However, it is now thanks to the industry itself, the media, just about every Government whose land it effects and most importantly, the so called “Fracktivists” – that this word is circulating the energy industry today.

 

Currently, the Scottish Government has a moratorium on fracking, but is this preventing economic growth or helping our nation to reduce its carbon footprint? Well, the answer is quite complicated, but in the end it does both. Exploiting shale gas now could prove almost as successful for us, as it did and is currently doing for the Americans. On the cleaner hand, not exploiting it is preventing the further demise of our environment.

 

Drilling firstly into the arguments for this, a review by the House of Commons (Yes, that’s the UK Government – but lets not kid ourselves, it has an influence up here), detailed that introducing shale gas into our energy mix could bring £3.7Bn of investment, per annum to the UK. Now, the multiplier effect from the jobs created is a little self explanatory, however delving deeper into some of the estimates, I have found ranges from 15,000 – 64,000 jobs according to some reports. The graph below from refracktion.com is a nice indicator of what I’m rambling about.

jobs-estimates

The same government is suggesting only a 30% taxation on the profits of the industry. This is compared to a current 62% on off shore oil and gas. Still, if the Scottish Government decide that they fancy lifting this ban, imagine what this could do for the finances… Not to mention the financial benefits that local councils could receive if their land posses the sought after energy source.

 

Moving swiftly on, who can guess what one of the DECC’s favorite buzz words are? There is three you can choose from…

 

What were you thinking – Money? I was looking for Energy Security! Basically meaning, we need a secure base load of a non-renewable supply so that we can all get on with our electrified and gas powered lives.

 

With a declining production of oil and gas in the North Sea due to unsustainably low prices, can shale gas save the day? According to Ken Cronin, chief executive of United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas “At the beginning of this century, we were energy independent, producing enough oil and gas from the North Sea to provide for everyone in the UK. Today we are dependent for nearly 50% of our oil and gas from overseas and that is going to rise to over 75% in the next 15 years without further onshore production”. Scary isn’t it? Well, for someone who is probably not interested in how they will charge their tablet or drive their nice car in the coming 20 years, nah who cares?!

 

Now, on to some more concerning matters surrounding fracking. The added air, noise and visual pollution that it will bring is causing a right stir amongst environmentalists. Adding fuel to the fire, the water resources required to actually carry out the fracking, not to mention the hazardous waste water that it creates, are in themselves a pressing issue.

 

With regards to the environment, the potential leakage of GHG’s including the highly damaging gas methane, do pose a severe environmental risk. This is regardless of the safety precautions put in place by the operator, as there is no solid guarantee that this could not and will not happen. On top of this, there is the actual effects of the operator damaging the landscape, the noise and pollution of their trucks and sheer disruption to the area containing the resource.

 

Now, even though the resource extracted from fracking is much “cleaner” than the likes of oil or gas taken from the North Sea and substantially cleaner than coal in terms of emissions – the fact of the matter is, its not clean! It is also more expensive to extract and requires a high oil and gas price for sustainability.

In relation to our countries water resources, the usage is being estimated at around 7,000 – 23,000 m3. Depending on the location of the operations, this could potentially effect certain sites, however Scottish Water would treat the request for water provision in the same manor as any other business. In the USA, MIT have created a report highlighting certain incidents associated with Natural Gas drilling, the contents of which are displayed in the table below. Interestingly, 47% of these incidents have effected raw water.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 16.29.50https://mitei.mit.edu/system/files/NaturalGas_Appendix2E.pdf

 

Again, like my previous article (https://kylebarrieblog.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/oil-vs-renewable-energy-investments/ – if you fancied a read) I want to keep this short and sweet. So I will end with a few take home opinions of mine.

 

Firstly, I believe that if the Scottish Government were to consider lifting the temporary ban on fracking, then they need to fully understand the burdens that it will have on the environment. If we are really serious about becoming much more environmentally friendly and we want a future of clean energy, is this really the right way to go about it? I feel that our focus needs to be more on developing the potential that we have for renewable technologies and not on introducing cleaner forms of dirty resources. The financial and energy benefits do not in my opinion outweigh the detrimental impact that fracking could have on our nation.

 

As ever, I welcome constructive comments and discussion about your view on the matter, thanks!

Oil vs. Renewable Energy Investments

Has the fall in Oil Prices affected Renewable Investments?

 

At the end of last year, myself and a fellow student gave a presentation on how the price of oil effected investments into renewables. From the facts that I am about to state below, I believe that the answer is yes. As I am sure most of you are aware, the oil price is having a tough time of it at the moment. OPEC has kept up a steady pace of supply, the Americans are surviving the excess supply storm – so far – and Iran is about to open its doors to the world once again. But, the question at hand is, does this have any effect on a world that is in need of renewable energy?

 

Now, some of you may be thinking that the two are very different things. Oil in the UK is mainly used for the likes of petroleum, compared to renewables that are mostly used for heat and electricity. Currently the global crude oil price is below $30 a barrel and has potential to fall further. Even though capital expenditure in the industry was expected to slow down, such a decline in the price has been considered a double hit to the industry. Therefore, producers and investors should be looking to alternative investments that don’t have a heavy reliance on oil I.e. renewable technology.

 

Despite a record growth in global green energy investments of 17% to reach $270Bn in 2014, certain policy decisions, especially in the UK, have led to fear that the the development of renewable technology could be slowing down – Taking for example the announcement of an 87% cut in renewable subsidies and a move towards Contracts for Difference in the energy sector. This in turn could lead short term investors to be sceptical about potential returns and long term investors working about their investment yields.

 

Oil - renewables

 

Taking a more in-depth look into the situation – I have taken the real price of oil over the past ten years and world renewable investments over the same period – as you can see from the graph above, the two are clearly linked.

Regression

Having taking the global renewable investment figures for 2014 and regressed them against the real oil price, we can see from above that the global oil price has a significant impact on renewable investments. An increase in the oil price is likely to lead to an increase in renewable investments from America for example.

 

Interestingly, notice how for the likes of China, a global leader in renewable investments, there is a reduction in green investments as the price of oil increases, the same goes for India and Brazil. Now, what do each have in common? Developing nations! Further stressing the fact that developing nations, should be reducing there need for oil.

 

Now, take from these statistics what you will – however, for me the facts state some clear truths that leading policy makers across the globe need to consider. For one, it is clear that the oil price does have an effect on renewable energy, therefore, policy decisions such as the one taken by the UK government to slash subsidies is only going to hinder further investment. Secondly, with such a link having been shown, developed countries need to be putting pressure on developing nations, to reduce and a skip the stages of using fossil fuels in their economic development.

 

I understand that I have not divulged fully into all of the facts and arguments of this topic in the blog. However, as this is my first one I just wanted to share some interesting and very relevant information that I had been working on. Please feel free to comment or get in touch with me with regards to what has been said – thanks for reading!

Kyle Barrie – kyle.barrie@icloud.com