Means-testing pensioners is wrong, but not for the reason the right hates it

It's the old "universal benefits" chestnut again.

The Conservative MP Nick Boles has riled up the Right by suggesting that the free bus-passes and prescriptions currently awarded to all pensioners ought to be means-tested.

The Telegraph's Ian Cowie speaks for many:

No wonder many people who are sceptical about politicians’ promises regard NICs as the biggest Ponzi scheme ever. Payments made by workers this week are used to fund next weeks’ benefits payments, instead of being invested for the future.

No private sector scheme would be allowed to operate in this way – indeed, as pointed out in this space from time to time, it would be a criminal offence to do so. But a series of governments from all major parties have done just that for decades, with calamitous consequences as baby boomers – a bulge in the population that began after the last World War – reach retirement.

Two common arguments come out in this: the fact that benefits for the elderly amount to a "ponzi scheme", and that any changes to them represent "broken promises".

The first is self-evidently false. National insurance contributions pay for:

Contribution-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Incapacity Benefit, contributory Employment and Support Allowance, Bereavement Benefits, State Retirement Pension and Maternity Allowance.

Absent from the list is "bus passes" and "prescriptions". These are paid for from general taxation, and there has never been any hint that those paying into the system now are paying for their own bus passes in the future.

Even state pensions have never been sold as a savings replacement. Although the contribution requirement makes it seem analogous to saving, it has always been paid out of that years income. When it was introduced, on January 1 1909, it had no contribution requirement at all, and although that has gradually risen to the 30 years now mandated, it remains at best a popular misconception that the government is supposed to be saving contributions to pay for future pensions. 

It may be fiscally prudent to pay for pensions from savings rather than income, but that is frankly a concern which should be taken up with Herbert Henry Asquith and those dastardly Liberals.

As for "broken promises", that is obviously the case; people have planned their lives around receiving one set of benefits, and now may not get them. But pensioners have no special claim to that argument. Just as many promises were broken to this year's school-leavers, who spent most of their childhood and early teens expecting to receive subsidised education through to the end of university, and now will not.

But if he's wrong in substance, Cowie is right in conclusion. The two benefits Boles focuses on are comparatively cheap; bus passes cost £1bn a year, with the Independent calculating that the total cost of all measures under discussion is £5bn, compared to £137bn for state pensions. Means-testing, meanwhile, is expensive, "sometimes amounting to more than the savings" according to Peter Beresford, professor of social policy at Brunel University. And that cost doesn't even take into account the fact that many of the administrative costs are shoved onto the claimant; if you have to spend an hour filling out a form, that's a real cost of the policy, but it doesn't show up on any government accounts.

As well as the economic points, there are the political. Universal benefits help remove the stigma of claiming support from the government; they shore up support for the welfare state; and they ensure that those who need help get it.

There may very well be arguments for doing away with some of these benefits entirely,  and if there are, we should hear them (for instance, the cost of bus passes would be better spent as an increase to the state pension, allowing pensioners to choose what they spend it on). But saving a pittance by restricting them only to the poorest in society won't help anyone.

25th September 1973: An old lady sitting in her kitchen, waiting to be evicted from her flat in a crumbling tenement block. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.