It's about time.
Someone has finally put their head above the parapet and suggested that maybe, just maybe, it's time to rethink some of the universal benefits that pensioners currently enjoy. In this climate of recession, cuts, job losses and benefit-slashing for the poor, you have to wonder why no-one has suggested it sooner.
Backbench MP Nick Boles has been testing the water on behalf of the Government by suggesting that wealthier people of pension age should no longer automatically receive winter fuel payments, free bus travel, free TV licences and free prescriptions, which collectively cost £5 billion a year.
Should we throw up our hands in horror at this assault on older people? No, for once we shouldn't. If the benefits of disabled people are not to be spared the Chancellor's paring knife, why should benefits for wealthy pensioners? Abolishing free prescriptions for better-off pensioners is going too far. Older people should not be penalised for generally having poorer health than the rest of the population, but fuel payments, TV licences and bus travel? They ought to be targeted at those pensioners who need them most.
It's a question of fairness. At any time, but particularly during a recession, the system of taxation and benefits has to be seen to be just. We are all being asked to "do our bit" to share the pain of spending cuts; the aphorisms of wartime Britain are on every tea towel and mug. In that climate, it isn't really on to have a group of well-to-do people receiving benefits they don't actually need. Either we're all in this together or we're not.
The money could be better spent elsewhere: just pick your favourite embattled public service. At the same time, the system has to be fair on current taxpayers. Many a working-age man and woman can add redundancy and unemployment to their list of character-building experiences, one reason why many households have had to tighten their belts.
Earlier this week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation claimed that, to maintain a certain minimum acceptable standard of living, as judged by panels of ordinary people, a family of four would require just under £37,000 a year. This would allow for a week's self-catering holiday in the UK, £90 a year to spend on meals out or takeaways, a computer and TV (but no satellite) and a second-hand car. Their lifestyle would be reasonably comfortable but perks would be rationed and spare cash scarce.
Today in the UK, 17 million people, many working, do not meet that living standard, that is three million more than in 2008. Some of those people, struggling to make ends meet, might wonder why taxpayers' money is helping fund free bus travel and fuel payments, not just for poor pensioners but those with large disposable incomes.
Many well-off pensioners ask the same question. Many are deeply uncomfortable about receiving the money. Saga set up the Surviving Winter campaign last year, inviting retirees who didn't need their winter fuel payments to donate it to help others, after well-off pensioners got in touch saying they wanted the money to be given to those who really needed it.
Then there is free bus travel for pensioners. This was a brilliant policy; it still is. It gives older people freedom and helps them remain more socially connected by facilitating visits to friends and relatives. Yet due to the fact that the Government does not reimburse bus companies for the full cost of the scheme, operators say they must put up fares for other passengers, many of whom are on marginal incomes themselves. That's an absurd anomaly. Maintaining free bus travel for the worst-off retirees and introducing concessionary fares for other pensioners would surely make more sense than universally free travel.
Pensioner poverty still abounds and benefits must be protected. The eligibility level for receiving benefits must also be set high enough that losing them does not push anyone into poverty.
It will be controversial and might be difficult to administer, but at least it would be fairer than it is now.
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