IDS and pensioners: undermining social security

By Savi Hensman
April 29, 2013

The Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has urged better-off pensioners not to claim payments such as the winter fuel allowance, free bus pass and TV licence. He said he “would encourage” those who do not need the money to “hand it back”.

Some ministers in the ruling Coalition would like to see such ‘benefits’ means-tested, but this might go down badly with older voters, and the Prime Minister has ruled it out, at least until after the general election. It is argued that, at a time of cuts, older people should not be spared when others are being hit.

However there are a number of problems with this approach. While the handful of rich older people might have little need of such payments, these promote the notion of an interconnected society in which all contribute and all receive something. The principles of social security have been under attack by the government, and only feebly defended by the Labour opposition.

It is surely better that the wealthy pay their taxes in full, and are adequately taxed, while sharing certain modest gains with their fellow-citizens, than that they enjoy huge tax cuts and are offered loopholes while losing small amounts in universal ‘welfare’ payments.

IDS’ statement also helps to promote divisions between different sections of society, encouraging older and younger people to battle one another for a shrinking pool of payments and public services rather than questioning why these are becoming so scarce. Austerity policies are damaging the economy, with harmful consequences for ordinary people across age-groups.

There are also large numbers of pensioners who, though not poor, are not rich either and who might be affected by ending their opportunity to travel without charge and maybe get free eye tests and prescriptions. This would not only be unpleasant for them but also damaging to public health: keeping people physically and mentally active after retirement and encouraging check-ups and treatment may save large amounts in healthcare costs.

In addition there are older people on very low incomes who would not claim what they were entitled to if it was means-tested because of stigma, hassle or lack of awareness. Though government ministers have often been keen to smear the image of people on ‘benefits’ as fraudsters out to milk the system, in reality many claim less than they are entitled to, and some pensioners would be left in severe need.

Retired people also often play a valuable social role, including caring for grandchildren or sick and disabled adult relatives and volunteering for various good causes. Making this more difficult would be costly to society as well as unjust.

What is more, means-testing can be complicated and expensive, so some of the money ‘saved’ would be spent on administering the new system.

The undermining of concepts such as national insurance is already far advanced, so that even those who have worked hard and paid in money or made other contributions for decades are widely seen as ‘scroungers’ if they require something back. If this continues, in time it might be seen as acceptable to charge for more NHS services such as hospital care at the point of delivery.

The principle of social security should be defended, and pensioners encouraged, rather than handing money back to the Treasury, to use their experience, time and other resources to help create a more just and humane world for people of all ages.

(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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