Up to £25m in Winter Fuel Payments given to dead pensioners' families28 October 2010
Up to £25million a year is being spent on Winter Fuel Payments intended for dead pensioners, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.
Each year cheques are sent to the relatives of tens of thousands of elderly people who died before the cold weather set in.
The Department for Work and Pensions believes the payments are justified if the deceased was alive when their eligibility was being assessed, earlier in the autumn.
But it has prompted renewed questions over the affordability of universal benefits paid to pensioners, which escaped the worst of the cuts announced by the Government last week.
Patrick Nolan, chief economist at the think-tank Reform, said: "To be wasting money in this way is just scandalous. There's almost no appreciation of the public finance context and the difficult times that a lot of people are in.
"If the Winter Fuel Payment was a small amount of money it would be laughable but at almost £3billion a year it's outrageous."
The Winter Fuel Payment was introduced by Labour as a way to help pensioners keep their homes heated during the cold months, starting at just £20 per household in 1997.
By last year the payments had risen to £250 for the over-60s and £400 for the over-80s, and because they are not means-tested the total bill came to £2.7billion.
Many people called for the benefits to be restricted to the poor or the very elderly as an easy way to reduce Britain's huge welfare bill, but in last week's Spending Review the scheme was spared the axe.
Most pensioners - except those in care homes, hospitals or prison - receive their cheque automatically each November or December after the DWP assesses who is eligible during the third week in September each year.
However anyone who dies between the qualifying week and the date when their cheque is sent out is still considered entitled to receive the payment, with the DWP forwarding it to their next of kin.
One woman, whose 99 year-old mother died in late September this year, was sent a letter this week stating: "I am sorry to hear that [the elderly woman] has died and would like to express my sympathy to you.
"We owe arrears for Winter Fuel Payment in respect of her, details of this payment are shown below.
"A cheque will be sent in the next few days."
The woman and her husband, who did not wish to be named, have now been sent a cheque for the "shared rate" £200 as her mother lived at their home. They are also over 60 and so will receive their own Winter Fuel Payments.
The DWP said it could not calculate how many bereaved relatives received the Winter Fuel Payment last year.
However the Office for National Statistics said that 71,057 people over 60 died during October and November last year, in England and Wales alone.
Of these 28,148 were between 60 and 79 while 42,909 were over 80 years old.
If all of them had been entitled to receive the Winter Fuel Payment it would have meant taxpayers spent as much as £24.2m on benefits for the dead.
A spokesman for the DWP said: "If a person has qualified for the Winter Fuel Payment during the qualifying week they will receive it for that winter, it is a standard one-off payment issued in November or December.
"If someone has died their family would receive it, if the person has already qualified."
Natalie Evans, Deputy Director of the think-tank Policy Exchange, said: "The Winter Fuel Payment is flawed both in its administration, as evidenced by these apparent payments to people who have passed away, and by the fact it is ill-targeted.
"It isn't directed to those in fuel poverty, but rather is a universal benefit for pensioners. If the Government really wants to tackle fuel poverty it should focus on energy efficiency measures and focus help on those that really are fuel poor."