Iain Duncan Smith asks wealthier pensioners to hand their benefits back

The Work and Pensions Secretary says he “would encourage” those who don't need the money to return it to the state.

Iain Duncan Smith has said that he "would encourage" wealthier pensioners to hand back benefits like the Winter Fuel Allowance, free TV licences and free bus passes voluntarily.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Duncan Smith said: "I would encourage everybody who reads the Telegraph and doesn’t need it, to hand it back." He did stress, however, that beyond his plea for the voluntary return of "unneeded" benefits, there are no plans to make changes to the welfare system to enforce that idea.

Whether or not the principle of univeralism should remain in the welfare system is a significant point of difference between the Work and Pensions Secretary and the Prime Minister. David Cameron pledged to defend universal benefits for a whole parliament in his party's 2010 manifesto, and is understood to have ruled out removing them in 2015. Iain Duncan Smith has previously called the pensioner benefits scheme an "anomaly", while Nick Clegg has termed them "difficult to defend" in a time of spending cuts.

It's highly doubtful whether any Telegraph readers will accede to Duncan Smith's request and hand back their benefits, but the minister has raised what is going to be a key political argument going into the next election - whether any political parties will take the plunge and abandon universalism in our welfare state. My colleague George Eaton has made a powerful and persuasive case here for defending it - not only does it help ensure that benefits are received by those who truly need them, the projected cost of means-testing has been shown to outweigh the savings recovered from the fraction of pensioners who are wealthy enough not to need the benefits. For now, the political consensus around universalism is such that it would seem that asking wealthy pensioners not to claim is the furthest Duncan Smith is able to go. If we don't see substantial economic recovery before the next election, though, it might be that he is given the political latitude to be able to go a lot further.

Iain Duncan Smith. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.