Portillo deepens confusion over child benefit: Ministers deny pensioners' prescriptions will be means-tested

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL PORTILLO, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, yesterday questioned universal child benefit, pensioners' free prescriptions and the provision of free food for all hospital patients.

However, he added to confusion over government intentions when he confirmed that ministers would stand by the manifesto commitment to maintain child benefit. 'We are also committed to things like a universal health service,' he said.

That side of Mr Portillo's message was reinforced by a more senior Cabinet colleague, who told the Independent there was 'absolutely no question' of the Government axeing free prescriptions for better-off pensioners or introducing 'hotel charges' for hospital patients - something Baroness Thatcher unsuccessfully tried to float in the mid-1980s.

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, said Mr Portillo had the 'cheek of the Devil' when he alleged in a BBC radio World this Weekend interview that Labour was scaring the elderly.

Gordon Brown, shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, said: 'Now that ministers are reviewing the prescription charges for pensioners and children, and hospital charges for patients, the Government are threatening 7 million mothers and 12 million children, despite all election promises.'

Mr Portillo said: 'This government has a very good record of protecting the elderly. We are not going to throw that away.'

However, he then gave substance to the 'scare stories' when he added: 'We are perfectly sensitive to the people who are just above the benefit level. . . Of course, one wants to see whether it is possible to direct benefits better towards those who most need them and see whether the people who don't need them at all can be removed from that dependency.'

Further pressure on the Department of Health budget has been revealed by officials who have warned the Commons Health Committee that the fact that more old people are keeping their own teeth will add considerably to the dental services budget, as their teeth come up for expensive restorative repair.

The select committee has been told that while patient charges accounted for less than a quarter of the gross cost of the English dental services in 1981- 82, that proportion rose steadily, and patient charge revenue financed nearly 37 per cent of the pounds 1,040m costs of the English service in 1990-91.

Some government sources believe that where charges exist, as in the dental services, they should be pushed to the limit.

Certainly, last year's Tory manifesto appeared to rule out new charges, or the abolition of existing entitlements. Promising that it would 'year by year, increase the level of real resources committed to the NHS', the manifesto said: 'The Government has set out in the Patient's Charter the principles on which the NHS is based. The most fundamental of these is that need, and not ability to pay, is and will remain the basis on which care is offered to all by the NHS.'

Meanwhile, Mr Portillo was left to try to calm the political storm he had himself whipped up. 'What's going on between the spending ministers and me is the usual dance that happens every year,' he said. 'We are all in this together. We are all absolutely committed to meeting our public spending ceilings.'

He also said he had reached no conclusions and that whatever else happened, the Government 'would stick to all our manifesto pledges, including those about child benefit.'

Dentists pay the price, page 6