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 assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.