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
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.