Cut benefits for wealthy pensioners, says Nick Clegg

The Deputy Prime Minister mounted a vigorous defence of the coalition's welfare reforms

Nick Clegg today opened a divide within the coalition Government by calling for the means-testing of a range of benefits for pensioners.

The Government is committed to preserving the universal benefits - such as winter fuel allowance and free bus travel, prescriptions and TV licences - until 2015, and Prime Minister David Cameron has so far resisted pressure from Tory backbenchers to signal he will cut them after the general election.

But the Deputy Prime Minister today broke ranks to make clear that Liberal Democrats will "look again" at universal pensioner benefits, arguing that welfare cash "should not be paid to those who do not need it".

"I just don't think it's justifiable, when so many people are tightening their belts, to say multi-millionaire pensioners still receive universal benefits across the board," said the Lib Dem leader.

Asked if Mr Cameron backed Mr Clegg on the issue, the PM's spokesman responded: "The Prime Minister made a commitment to protect those benefits and he believes in keeping his promises."

But there was dissent on the Tory backbenches, as Broxbourne MP Charles Walker said Mr Cameron should be ready to make the universal benefits taxable as income before the election, to show that the older generation are bearing their share of the burden of reducing the deficit.

Mr Walker told BBC Radio 4's PM programme that working people were "pretty sore" at seeing their child benefit and other support withdrawn or reduced, while pensioners' payments are protected.

"Certainly there is going to be inter-generational tension and that tension is going to grow in the months ahead," he said. "I think this is bound to create ill-feeling and it is something I believe the Government needs to look at and address."

In a keynote speech marking his fifth anniversary as Lib Dem leader, Mr Clegg mounted a vigorous defence of the coalition's welfare reforms, insisting the Government had an "absolute duty" to ensure the system was fair to all.

While acknowledging the changes had at times been "painful and controversial", he argued that the Liberal Democrats had ensured they were firmly anchored in the political centre ground. When the Conservatives proposed benefit cuts of £10 billion in the Autumn Statement, the Lib Dems had acted as a moderating force, ensuring they were held to £3.8 billion, he said.

"When two-thirds of people think the benefits system is too generous and discourages work then it has to be changed, or we risk a total collapse in public support for welfare existing at all," Mr Clegg told the CentreForum thinktank.

"We need welfare protection for people who fall on hard times. Of course. But you cannot ask low-income working people to pay through their taxes for people who aren't in work to live more comfortably than they do."

In a swipe at Chancellor George Osborne - who said the Government should be there for the "strivers" and not "shirkers" - Mr Clegg said not everyone who cannot find a job is simply being lazy.

"Of course, there are some on the right who believe that no-one could possibly be out of work unless they're a scrounger," said the Lib Dem leader.

"The siren voices of the Tory right who peddle this myth could have pulled a majority Conservative government in the direction of draconian welfare cuts."

The speech came after a bad weekend for the Liberal Democrats, who slumped into fourth place behind the UK Independence Party on 8%-9% in a series of polls.

Mr Clegg's former director of strategy, Richard Reeves, said the "curtain will probably fall" on the coalition before 2015 if the party fails to boost its support.

"Next year is the year the Lib Dem strategy - deliver then differentiate - will be tested. A more assertive stance in act two of coalition should mean greater support and more votes. If not the curtain will probably fall on the coalition before 2015," wrote Mr Reeves in The Guardian.

Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman said: "Nick Clegg will try every trick in the book to distance himself from the record of his Government.

"But, as ever with the Lib Dems, they say one thing whilst doing another - resulting in a record of economic failure, trebled tuition fees, nurses cut, police axed and millions paying more while millionaires get a tax cut.

"Bearing this in mind, what we really should be hearing from Nick Clegg today is a proper apology and a declaration that from now on he will actually stick by the promises he makes."

The threat to universal benefits was denounced by some of those campaigning for the elderly.

Ros Altmann, director-general of Saga, said that means-testing "may be a populist headline, but it is absolutely the wrong policy".

"Extending means-testing would be a further major disincentive to those hard-working people who are trying to save for their own future," said Ms Altmann.

"If Nick Clegg's policy is adopted, it would punish those who have tried to be self-reliant and give much more money to those who have not saved for their future.

"And then what's next? Will he tell us that rich pensioners don't need a state pension either? This could be the slippery slope to undermining our whole pension system."

PA

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick