PMQs review: Cameron hints at protecting all pensioner benefits

The PM's warning that means-testing pensioner benefits would raise only "a very small amount of money" was the most notable moment in a sombre session.

After the sad news of the death of Labour MP Paul Goggins, the first PMQs of the year was a sombre affair, with both Ed Miliband and David Cameron making fine tributes. For the first time in recent months, Miliband split his questions, starting with three on the floods followed later by three on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). This allowed him to shift into a more offensive gear, criticising Cameron for his inaction over the terminals, without it jarring too much after the tributes to Goggins.

FOBTs (dubbed the 'crack cocaine of gambling') are tricky territory for Cameron, with a significant number of Tory MPs and the Daily Mail wanting to seem them more tightly regulated. In response to Miliband, who has called for local authorities to be given the power to reduce the number of betting terminals in their area, Cameron announced that the government's review into them will report in the spring and said that he was making "a reasonable point". Based on that, it seems likely that Cameron will bring forward legislation in the near future. He emphasised that if he and Miliband "work together" they can "sort it out" and that "there may well be more to do". With the Lib Dems having long campaigned inside the coalition for action on the terminals, a cross-party consensus is within sight.

But the most significant moment of the session was undoubtedly Cameron's response to a question on pensioner benefits. After the DUP's Nigel Dodds welcomed his pledge to maintain the triple lock on the state pension and asked him whether he would similarly promise to preserve the winter fuel allowance as a universal benefit, Cameron replied "we will set out out plans in our manifesto". But, significantly, he added that means-testing the allowance, for instance by withdrawing it from those who pay the 40p tax rate, would save only "a very small amount of money". That is Cameron's first public hint that he is likely to repeat his 2010 pledge to ring-fence pensioner benefits. Since the winter fuel allowance is the most expensive of the main pensioner benefits (costing £2.2bn last year) it seems equally likely that free bus passes (£1bn) and free TV licences (£600m) will similarly be protected.

It is rather disingenuous of Cameron to protest that means-testing the benefits would raise little money when one could say the same of measures such as the benefit cap (which is forecast to raise £110m) and the bedroom tax (£490m - and both, as analysts have warned, may end up costing more than they save by increasing homelessness and other social ills). But the view among the Tories is that, having lost many pensioner voters to UKIP since 2010, they can't afford to hand Nigel Farage another attack line.

David Cameron attends a press conference at the end of the EU leaders' summit at the European Council building on December 20, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.