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
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In the fight against climate change, humanity has a choice of two futures

We must fight man-made climate change, says Patricia Scotland. 

So here we are at this fork in the road. On one path, the risk of a future of chaos. A new world map with miles and miles of stormy ocean where there were once islands and schools and playgrounds, businesses and life.

A globe with acre after acre of arid desert where there were once fertile mountains and valleys, green vegetation and food.

A path where our existence is defined by pandemics and migration crises, as the earth’s population tries to squeeze into the ever-reducing areas of habitable land.

In this reality, all the arguments about progress and advancement are consigned to the pages of our history, the only agenda item at international meetings is survival.

But the other fork is an alternative path. From the window of an airplane, with wings that exactly resemble a bird’s feathers, views of healthy mangrove as far as the eye can see, miles of luxurious, green canopy, interrupted by shimmering blue oceans.

Nature in all its glory and striking colours, thriving. And when it meets a city it doesn’t mind pausing for a while, because this metropolis is powered by geothermal energy, and the office buildings are made of carbon-eating concrete that behave like trees, and the mall is modelled after a termite mound. Every roof is lined with solar panels.

Two sides of the same coin. The first possibility a dystopian apocalyptic vision; the other a reality, already happening, which may just prevent and reverse the existential threat on this precious planet we call home. 

Last month, representatives of Commonwealth governments met with climate change experts, academics and businesses to launch an alternative pathway to addressing climate change, one that moves beyond adaptation, beyond mitigation, to actually reversing the human effects of climate change. 

It proposes to regenerate the environment by taking excess carbon and carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere, where it is poisoning our planet, and putting it back in the soil where belongs.

This initiative, Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change, in collaboration with the Cloudburst Foundation, creates the potential for climate change to become an opportunity for innovation and sustainable, eco-friendly economic growth.

Strong support from some of the greatest environmental advocates, including Prince Charles, Mary Robinson and Anote Tong, and powerful presentations from some of the finest minds in the climate change arena, gave us the gift of possibility.

World-renowned experts like Paul Hawken, Thomas Goreau, Janine Benyus and Ben Haggard pointed out that these innovations are already happening. And it is quite simple really. For years man has watched nature and copied nature and nature has always led the way. How else did we make human flight happen if we did not copy God's own 'animal aircraft'?

We see it in other ways too, and the truth is that we already have amazing examples of biomimicry – technology that mimics nature. The eco-friendly Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe is modelled after termite mounds. In China, the dry, barren plains of the Loess Plateau have been regenerated and restored to healthy green land; and we have similar examples of land regeneration in Rwanda.

What I am saying is that the genius of man, which created technologies that have huge benefits for human beings but detrimental effects on our environment, is the same genius we will employ to help us through mitigation and adaption, and ultimately to reverse climate change and stop global warming. But there is a fundamental problem. We have ecologists, scientists, environmentalists and academics coming up with these solutions working in silos.

So what the Commonwealth began to do last October, when we had our first climate change reversal workshop, is to bring them together. We invited 60 experts who are pioneering these approaches to climate change to Marlborough House. They explored how we can create an integrated plan on climate change reversal.

My goal is to be able to offer every Commonwealth country a package of multidisciplinary, multisectoral solutions to this multidimensional problem. Collaboration and political will are key, because we will need to weave the ideas into our curriculum, insert them in our building codes and business regulations and integrate them into our gender, agricultural and environmental policies.

But how will cash-strapped countries fund this? This is where initiatives like our Climate Finance Access Hub comes in. This programme gives countries the capacity to make successful applications for funding from the Green Fund and other climate change financing mechanisms.

We also have to listen to what the captains of industry are saying. At our meeting last month, Paul Polman, CEO of the mega-consumer goods company Unilever, stressed that when businesses consider investment they take into account sustainable development goals.

If there is no justice and peace, if there is hunger and destitution and if they are operating in cities which are not sustainable, on land that might be reclaimed by the sea or deteriorate into desert conditions, they are investing in a venture that will fail. So the regenerative approach does not have to come at the cost of economic growth. Actually, it will boost investment and development.

The Commonwealth has been at the forefront of the climate change discussion since the 1980s when it first became topical. Our milestones include the Langkawi Declaration in 1989 which commits us to protect the environment, and our leaders' summit in 2015, days before COP21, was instrumental in the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change. But the empirical evidence shows us that even at 1.5 degrees, islands will disappear into the ocean.

This November when governments convene at COP23, we will be posing the question: which pathway will you take? But this is not just a question for governments and organisations, it is a question for every single individual on this earth.

So what are we going to teach our children? More than 60 per cent of the 2.4 billion people in the Commonwealth are under the age of 30. How are we going to harness this exuberance and abundant talent and transform them into innovative solutions? How are we going to run our businesses and manage waste and energy in our homes? What path are you going to take? One that risks our future? Or one that is built on the principle that we can work with nature instead of against it to progress and develop?

Patricia Scotland is Secretary-General of the Commonwealth

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