The State Pension is a vital support for older people and must be maintained at its current level, according to a spokesperson for the Older and Bolder campaign.

Patricia Conboy was addressing the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection.

Minister for Social Protection Éamon Ó Cuív told the committee that the Government was borrowing one-third of the money it was spending.

He said any failure to make adjustments and stabilise the economy could have catastrophic results for social welfare recipients.

Ms Conboy told the committee that a majority of older people relied on the State pension to protect them from poverty.

Without it and other support from the State, upward of 84% of them were at risk of poverty and 96% of pensioners living alone would be at a similar risk, she said.

The pension was a vital support and must be maintained, she added.

Minister Ó Cuív added that last year's decision not to provide a Christmas bonus was not taken lightly and must be viewed in the context of the overall social welfare budget.

This year, he said, €21bn would be spent by the Government on social welfare provision, an increase of 2.4% on 2009.

The minister told the Committee that the social welfare budget had been trebled over the past decade, far in excess of the increase of less than a third in the price of goods and services in that decade.

He said that in the current economic and financial crisis, his priority must be to restore stability to the national finances. He said the measures to achieve this would impact on everybody's living standards.

The Christmas bonus was discontinued in 2009 and there was no provision for a bonus in the 2010 estimates. It would cost in the region of €226m.

Call for fuel compensation

Earlier, the charity representing older people, Age Action, called on the Government to protect the vulnerable and keep its promise to compensate low income households for higher fuel costs.

The call follows the introduction of a carbon tax on home heating oil in May of this year.

The charity estimates that up to 2,000 older people die from cold-related illnesses each year because they cannot afford to heat their homes.

Age Action spokesperson Eamon Timmons warned the delay in compensating those most vulnerable must be addressed immediately.

'This is literally a life or death issue,' Mr Timmons told the committee.

'The delay in introducing the promised payments for older people to compensate them for the impact of the carbon tax is hurting older people.

'It should be a matter of national shame that we have up to 2,000 excess winter deaths each year in Ireland - older people who die from cold-related illnesses because they cannot afford to heat their homes.

'It will be even more difficult for older people this year because of the carbon tax and the electricity levy. The compensation was promised and that promise must be honoured.'