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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.