Yesterday I made some comments at a fringe event for which I want to apologise. They were crass, offensive and made 'off the cuff' - I made a mistake and I want to say sorry for that.
Not only did I let myself down, but the result has been that most are overlooking the point I was trying to make: that by means testing pensioner benefits we can end the perverse situation whereby wealthy pensioners receive Winter Fuel Payments and potentially target money instead at those who genuinely need it – be they poorer pensioners or young people who are losing out.
After all, the principle of the welfare state is to help people who have fallen on hard times. Winter Fuel Payments and free bus passes do not conform to this principle – they are given out regardless of how well off pensioners are.
It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that cutting Winter Fuel Payments for rich pensioners was Labour Party policy going into the 2015 election.
The Government’s approach to welfare has been somewhat lopsided in that reforms and savings have been almost exclusively made in working age benefits – just take the recent cuts to tax credits.
The benefits under the microscope at yesterday's meeting were Winter Fuel Payments, free bus passes and the Christmas Bonus. To summarise the policies the TaxPayers’ Alliance proposed in The Spending Plan:
- Means test Winter Fuel Payments
- Abolish the Christmas Bonus
- Target free bus passes for the elderly on those who genuinely need them
Aside from the Christmas Bonus, which is paid at a rate of £10 a year for each pensioner, we do not propose across the board withdrawal of these benefits for all pensioners. We propose that Winter Fuel Payments should only be received by poorer pensioners while free bus passes should be targeted at disabled pensioners.
With regard to the timing of making such moves, I recommended that the Government should do this at the earliest possible convenience. The immediate aftermath of a clear election victory is the opportune moment to make unpopular but necessary decisions. I was not in any way making a point about mental health, but simply saying the general public are less likely to vote based on a policy decision made five years ago than one made in the election cycle.
I’m frustrated that my careless remarks have detracted from an important policy question. I apologise again and hope that all sides can discuss these issues constructively in future.