By Bob Duncan
Pensioners deemed ‘well off’ should lose their free bus passes, TV licenses, winter fuel payments and prescriptions, according to plans being suggested by a close ally of David Cameron.
Conservative MP Nick Boles is calling for the winding up of universal benefits to better off pensioners at the next election as he urges a shift towards policies which he believes will raise the productivity and competitiveness of the UK’s workforce.
As yet there are no details as to how the Conservative MP would define “better-off pensioners”. One option suggested would be to target the 5.6 million of them who pay tax. The tax-free threshold is currently £10,500 for 65- to 74-year-olds and £10,660 for those aged 75 and over.
Mr Boles, who is parliamentary private secretary to Schools Minister Nick Gibb, urged an additional £10.5bn welfare cuts by 2016, along with a freeze on existing proposals for future funding of social care. He wants means testing to be in place after the next general election in 2015.
Boles is also urging a significant further scaling back of tax credits and housing benefit, and a re-examination of the “lazy sentimentalism” of the Sure Start programme of children’s centres. Speaking on Newsnight on Monday the Tory MP claimed he wanted to propose ways his party can best address the decline in living standards, faltering in the UK for the last decade.
Speaking to the independent Resolution Foundation yesterday – whose work is devoted to diagnosing the problems affecting low to middle income earners – Mr Boles proposed a philosophical shift that should guide the next round of spending cuts due for 2013 or 2014.
In his speech, he said: “If we are to achieve stability in our public finances and make crucial investments in improving productivity and competitiveness, we must find further savings from the welfare budget. He will say that only those tax and spending policies that can explicitly be seen to increase competitiveness of the UK workforce should be supported.
“And if we are going to protect spending on pensions – as we should – equity between the generations requires that these cuts cannot only fall on adults of working age. We need to acknowledge now that we will not be able to continue the protection of these other benefits for better-off pensioners after 2015.
“The coalition is going to be confronted with some very hard choices on public spending – in Government the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have already shown that we are willing and able to grit our teeth and take unpopular decisions in what we believe is the national interest.
“Is the current leadership of the Labour Party willing and able to do the same? We know what cuts Ed Miliband and Ed Balls oppose but very little about those they support. We know what further spending they would like to see but very little about the taxes they would raise.”
David Cameron promised during the 2010 election campaign that the benefits would be retained by a Conservative government and has vowed not to touch them during this parliament. But last month Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith suggested that commitment would be reassessed in the run-up to the election.
The Prime Minister is believed to be ready to look again at whether pensioners who live abroad should receive the winter fuel allowance. The number of UK pensioners living in Europe and claiming the payments has risen by more than 50 per cent in five years.
In the 2010-11 winter, 72,840 claimed up to £300 at a total cost of £15.6m. They included 33,495 living in Spain and 17,815 in France.
Mr Boles concedes changes would be politically difficult but insists the Coalition Government has to admit it cannot continue to protect the payments after the next election. He also proposes that, in the spending review, the Chancellor should permit growth only in areas that have a clear impact on the productivity of working people.
Labour MP David Crausby has begun to collect signatures to a protest motion in Parliament. “Pensioners to a man and a woman must stand up and fight against this,” declared Mr Crausby.
The Bolton North East MP added: “The Tories are the nasty party. This attack against pensioners has always been in their heart and soul.”
He warned that taking benefits away from “better-off” pensioners was just the start. “They’re putting a foot in the door in order to prise open the whole thing. We have got to stop them.”
Tory proposals to means test concessionary travel, prescriptions, TV licences and winter fuel allowance for pensioners highlight the consequences of a No vote in the independence referendum, says SNP MSP Margaret Burgess MSP.
Ms Burgess, a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee and former elected board member of the national charity, Citizens Advice Scotland, said:
“Pensioners have worked hard all their lives and the Scottish Government recognises this with its policies on free personal care, free central heating installation and concessionary travel. To suggest means testing for pensioners obviously shows how out of touch the Tories are with such a policy.
“These comments yet again shows how Scotland’s pensioners cannot trust the decisions made by Westminster where Scotland has less than 10% of the representation.
“The only way to protect Scotland’s progress and progressive policies for pensioners is to vote Yes for independence. With a Yes vote decisions being made for Scotland will be done by our own 100% directly elected Scottish Parliament.
“It is also a challenge for the Labour Party who must explain why they support an anti-independence campaign that will leave such decisions in the hands of a Tory-led Westminster government that Scotland rejected at the polls instead of a Scottish Parliament 100% directly elected by people in Scotland”
Meanwhile changes to the welfare system are hitting the most vulnerable in society according to a leading Charity.
‘Contact a family’ say that 1 in 4 children are cared for by a single parent and these families are being “disproportionately hit” by UK Coalition welfare cuts.
According to a survey carried out by the charity, 58% expect to be worse off in future, with 82% putting this down to the introduction of welfare reforms.
The charity surveyed 2000 families across the UK, 200 of them in Scotland.