The Scottish Government has ruled out plans to means-test winter fuel payments – the day after publishing a paper floating the idea.
Social Justice Secretary Alex Neil had said the £300 boost, paid to all aged 62 or over, could be abolished or cut when control over it comes under Holyrood.
The Creating a Fairer Scotland paper said ministers were “considering the eligibility criteria” with alternative options including a fuel bill rebate or using the funding to provide warmer homes.
Any such move would have represented a big shift for the SNP, who have consistently championed universal benefits.
The party also regularly attacked former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont when she questioned such services such as free prescriptions in a 2012 speech.
In the paper, Mr Neil said: “With a limited budget, those with the greatest need must be given highest priority.”
But a Scottish government spokesperson said: “There is absolutely no question of means-testing eligibility for the winter fuel allowance – or of removing entitlement from anyone who currently receives it.
“What the consultation is aimed at, is seeing if it would be appropriate and effective to use winter fuel payments as part of our aims to tackle fuel poverty and make homes warmer.
“This includes looking at whether it is appropriate to extend eligibility and if fuel bill rebates should be considered. We want to help people who are struggling to keep their homes warm – and this is one area we are exploring to see if are able to do that.”
The government paper on social security stresses the need to “target resources” to make the most of a “limited budget”.
It said ministers could look at “converting the payments into a fuel bill rebate or using the funding to provide warmer, more affordable homes”.
Scottish Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone said: “Alex Neil appears to be now saying something vastly different to what was in a document he has only just written.
“This does not bode well for the SNP being able to handle the responsibility of more powers. At the first hint of criticism on a controversial issue, the party has run an absolute mile.”
Additional tax and welfare powers will be devolved as early as 2017 in the Scotland Bill.