Benefit reform is a seemingly never ending saga that is often muddled by people on both sides of the debate, who let passionate feelings obscure rational thought. The hoo-ha that to light last week was the stuff of the old and the young, specifically winter fuel allowance and child benefit.
The question is this: should benefits be means tested or should everyone be entitled to such support? David Cameron, normally a sunflower in the dreary field of turnips that make up our House of Commons, chose to leave winter fuel allowance untouched. Meanwhile our canary Lib Dem friends, apparently forgetting their less-than-perfect record on keeping promises, tweeted that means testing might be a good idea after all.
I, for one, think that there is little wrong with means testing such things. The starting point here is to ask ourselves whether everyone really needs this support?
Many people currently in receipt of it do not. It is madness to keep on giving things to people who do not need them. It seems there is little meaningful difference between this financial leg-up and, say, bursaries at Oxford. Not everyone can have one because they simply cannot be provided for everyone; they are necessarily restricted to those who need them most. Many would love to have one, but sadly they cannot. C’est la vie. If welfare is to remain comprehensive then those whom it should help will be the ones left disadvantaged.
The reality is that there are a lot of people for whom winter fuel allowance is far from an optional extra. 35% of single pensioners and 15% of pensioner couples are in fuel poverty. Many pensioners face a difficult choice between food and heat. We need to ask ourselves what the most pressing problems are, and what needs to be done about them.
So long as these problems prevail it is ridiculous that those who do not need support, or even those for whom it helps but is not necessary, still continue to receive it. The New Labour culture of giving everyone everything is all very sweet, but it’s not at all viable – particularly when we face a spiralling national debt that is, to a certain extent, the result of their own reckless spending and bad financial housekeeping.
Many argue that once we start rationing who receives what, we are on a dangerous path, and that ultimately everything, from education services to healthcare provision, will be jeopardised. But these fears should not stand in the way of progress. Instead we should take these examples as an indication that the matters should be handled with care and delicacy, and that all parts of society should be considered.
We are only going to be able to address this issue properly when we understand that the best way of repairing our broken economy and damaged society is for those who are privileged to help bear the burdens of those who are less fortunate. This is ever more the case during times of financial strain such as those we are currently experiencing. At these times a punch in the face for one person can be a tap on the hand for another. Until this is grasped, the root of the problem will remain untreated and will become ever more pressing.
We are not “all in this together” and we won’t be until those who can make sacrifices finally do so. The government has realised that for many households child benefit is unnecessary and has acted accordingly. It’s now time that they follow suit with winter fuel al- lowance and say that for many pensioners it is a welcome gift but not used for its intended purpose.
Total equality may be a commendable aim, but ultimately pragmatism will prevail. The answer to this particular conundrum is pure and simple common sense.