A spokesman for the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) said last night that the Government could do nothing about the payments, since they were a requirement of the European Commission. The commission ruled in 2002 that all British pensioners living abroad had the right to receive the payment if they had first qualified when living in Britain.

“Winter fuel payments are paid to UK pensioners abroad in order to comply with European law,” a DWP spokesman said. “They are only paid to pensioners who first qualified for the support while living in the UK.”

Like child benefit, the winter fuel payment is not currently means-tested. Instead, it is payable to all pensioners. Between the winter of 2005/6 and 2007/8 pensioners received £200 if they were under 80 and £300 for those households containing someone over 80. In 2008/9 and 2009/10 it was £250 for those under 80 and £400 for those over 80.

Despite recent hints that it might be cut, David Cameron yesterday attempted to allay fears that the allowance would be means-tested as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review. However, he said the recently announced cut in child benefit to those households where anyone earned more than £44,000 was “fair”.

Mr Webb’s figures show that the number of expat fuel payment claimants has been steadily rising since 2004, when 26,000 pensioners abroad received it. Since 2007 people moving to Bulgaria and Romania have also been able to claim the payment, pushing up the total number. Last winter 65,289 people received the allowance, up from 55,533 the previous year.

A spokesman for National Energy Action, a charity partly funded by the Government, said that while it understood that expats abroad had contributed via the tax system, it felt that more could be done to put money in the hands of British pensioners who were struggling. “The money could be better targeted to go to people in fuel poverty,” she said.

A household is in fuel poverty if it has to spend at least 10pc of its income on keeping warm. Official estimates suggest that up to 5.5 million Britons meet this definition.

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