Peter Hain attacks Labour plan to remove winter fuel payments from wealthy pensioners

Former cabinet minister tells The Staggers that the move "raises the question of whether Labour is really going to offer an alternative".

I wrote earlier that Labour's pledge to remove the winter fuel allowance from wealthy pensioners wouldn't be well received by all on the left and even before Ed Balls has finished delivering his speech, the backlash has begun. 

I've just spoken to Peter Hain, the former Labour cabinet minister, who has criticised the decision, warning that it "opens the door to a wider attack on universal benefits, such as free bus passes" and raises the question of "whether Labour is really going to offer an alternative".

While shadow Treasury minister Chris Leslie insisted on the Today programme this morning that Labour had no plans to means-test other pensioner benefits such as free TV licences and free bus passes, the decision to break with universalism makes it easier to justify doing so in the future. It is also likely a signal that Labour would not prioritise the reintroduction of universal child benefit, which the coalition has removed from all those earning over £50,000.

I asked Hain, an early backer of Ed Miliband, whether he was surprised by the move given Miliband's long-standing support for universal benefits (as recently as January he described them as as a "bedrock of our society"), he replied: "Yes, I am. But I think it's a combination of the commentariat and the pressure within the party to show a sufficiently hairshirt approach". 

In a piece for the Guardian last month, Hain warned that "Cutting or means-testing pensioners' allowances risks turning young against old and rich against poor while making negligible savings for the Treasury." But Miliband, in perhaps his most significant rebuke to his social democratic supporters, has chosen not to heed his words.

Former Labour cabinet minister Peter Hain with Ed Miliband, who he supported for the leadership, in June 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The SATs strike: why parents are taking their children out of school to protest against exams

Parents are keeping their children away from school to highlight the dangers of “over testing” young pupils.

My heart is beating fast and I feel sick. I force myself to eat some chocolate because someone said it might help. I take a deep breath and open the door…

The hall is silent except for the occasional cough and the shuffling of chairs. The stench of nervous sweat lingers in the air.

“Turn over your papers, you may begin.”

I look at the clock and I am filled with panic. I feel like I might pass out. I pick up my pen but my palms are so sweaty it is hard to grip it properly. I want to cry. I want to scream, and I really need the toilet.

This was how I felt before every GCSE exam I took. I was 16. This was also how I felt before taking my driving test, aged 22, and my journalism training (NCTJ) exams when I was 24.

Being tested makes most of us feel anxious. After all, we have just one chance to get stuff right. To remember everything we have learned in a short space of time. To recall facts and figures under pressure; to avoid failure.

Even the most academic of adults can find being in an exam situation stressful, so it’s not hard to imagine how a young child about to sit their Year 2 SATs must feel.

Today thousands of parents are keeping their kids off school in protest at these tough new national tests. They are risking fines, prosecution and possible jail time for breach of government rules. By yesterday morning, more than 37,000 people had signed a petition backing the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign and I was one of them.

I have a daughter in reception class who will be just six years old when she sits her SATs. These little ones are barely out of pull-up pants and now they are expected to take formal exams! What next? Babies taught while they are in the womb? Toddlers sitting spelling tests?

Infants have fragile self-esteem. A blow to their confidence at such an impressionable age can affect them way into adulthood. We need to build them up not tear them down. We need to ensure they enjoy school, not dread it. Anxiety and fear are not conducive to learning. It is like throwing books at their heads as a way of teaching them to read. It will not work. They are not machines. They need to want to learn.

When did we stop treating children like children? Maybe David Cameron would be happier if we just stopped reproducing all together. After all, what use to the economy are these pesky kids with their tiny brains and individual emotional needs? Running around all happy and carefree, selfishly enjoying their childhood without any regard to government statistics or national targets.

Year 2 SATs, along with proposals for a longer school day and calls for baseline reception assessments (thankfully now dropped) are just further proof that the government do not have our children’s best interests at heart. It also shows a distinct lack of common sense. It doesn’t take a PhD in education to comprehend that a child is far more likely to thrive in a calm, supportive and enjoyable environment. Learning should be fun. The value in learning through play seems to be largely underestimated.

The UK already has a far lower school starting age than many other countries, and in my opinion, we are already forcing them into a formal learning environment way too soon.

With mental health illness rates among British children already on the rise, it is about time our kids were put first. The government needs to stop “throwing books at heads” and start listening to teachers and parents about what is best for the children.

Emily-Jane Clark is a freelance journalist, mother-of-two and creator of stolensleep.com, a humorous antithesis to baby advice.