Uncharted Territory

July 12, 2012

The Pensioners’ Crusade

Filed under: Complex decisions, Economics, Inequality, Politics, Public spending, Reflections, UK — Tim Joslin @ 12:06 pm

I noted on Tuesday Nick Boles’ suggestion in a keynote speech at the Resolution Foundation (pdf) to limit certain pensioner benefits to the less well-off:

“Spending on universal benefits for the elderly (the Winter Fuel Allowance, free prescriptions, free bus travel and free TV licenses for the over 75s) reached roughly £4 billion in 2010/11.

I know that this help is vitally important for many older people – and a step away from universal provision of these benefits after the next election would need to be handled very carefully as many members of this generation are admirably reluctant to make a fuss, even when they really need help.

But, does anyone here think it would be responsible for a country in our financial position to go on giving a free TV license to Michael Winner, free prescriptions to Lord Sugar and a winter fuel allowance to Sir Paul McCartney after 2015?”

A point well made.  But, I strongly suspect, to no avail.

I diligently provided links to reaction at the BBC, Guardian, Independent and Mail which all headlined Boles’ hardly original elderly means-testing proposal, even though it would only save £1.5bn of the £8.5bn he says we need to save:

“If we are to achieve stability in our public finances AND make crucial investments in improving productivity and competitiveness, we must find a way to save at least £8.5 billion from the £145 billion we currently spend on benefits other than pensions.”

Popping into Tesco yesterday, though, I noticed that I’d jumped the gun in my headline search.  The Express is going to war on the issue.  Holy war.  Here’s their front page:

I love that capital C in Crusade.  “Upper-case there”, the editor must have ordered.  “We’re not being figurative here.  This is official.  It’ll be there in the history books alongside Richard the Lionheart vs Saladin and, of course, the Children.”

The headline’s a classic as well.  Whereas the Mail and the Independent implicitly accepted the government’s right to cut benefits, but signalled with the A-word (“axe”) that targeting elderly benefits might be a cut too far, the Express went several steps further.  “Secret Plot to Rob Pensioners”.  Hmm.  Not really “secret” is it?  Which means it doesn’t really qualify as a “plot”.  And I think most would agree that discontinuing the provision of a benefit hardly counts as “robbery” (which, strictly speaking, involves violence or the threat of violence, as opposed to theft, which doesn’t).  One might even quibble that it is “pensioners” being “robbed”.  The word “pensioners” has connotations of those struggling to get by on a meagre stipend, and the qualification for the benefits in question is on the basis of age, not – as Boles’ examples of Winner, Sugar and McCartney might suggest – dependency on an annuity.

Boles’ whole point was that benefits would only be withheld from the wealthier elderly, a subtlety somewhat glossed over in the scene-setting opening sentences of the story on the front page of yesterday’s Express:

“A THREAT to strip Britain’s pensioners of benefits such as free bus passes and prescriptions triggered outrage last night.

A key ally of David Cameron yesterday called for strict means testing of claims that also include winter fuel payments and TV licences.

But the move was immediately condemned by charities and OAP groups – and today the Daily Express adds its voice by launching a Fair Deal For Our Pensioners Crusade.

This newspaper urges readers and campaigners alike to support its demand that the Government honours its pledges to pensioners in full, and does nothing to chip away at their universal welfare entitlements. Tory MP Nick Boles caused ­fury after saying the Government could save £4billion a year by stopping better-off pensioners from getting the benefits.”

£4bn/yr is in fact the total cost of the benefits.  Boles hopes to save £1.5bn/yr.

But Cameron’s calculation will be whether £1.5bn is worth the potential electoral damage in 2015 (if the Coalition lasts that long).  He’ll be looking for media outrage at “giving a free TV license to Michael Winner, free prescriptions to Lord Sugar and a winter fuel allowance to Sir Paul McCartney”.  And not finding it.

On one side is most favourable headline to the proposal at the BBC, which reports that the “Rich elderly should lose benefits, says David Cameron ally”.

And on the other is a lot of axeing and the Express’s army of pensioners ready to march against the heathens in Downing Street.

You have to admire the Express.  They understand their constituency.  As, I’m sure, does Cameron.  This kite’s not going to fly.

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