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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. Photograph: Getty Images

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.