Iain Duncan Smith appeared to backtrack today over his controversial suggestion that better off pensioners should hand back their winter fuel allowances and free bus passes and TV licences to the Government.
His move came as Downing Street said that David Cameron was sticking firmly to his 2010 pledge to maintain the universal benefits. His official spokesman said the promise covered the full 2015-16 financial year, which will begin shortly before the 2015 election. This rules out any change in the government-wide spending round to be completed in June, in which George Osborne is seeking a further £11.5bn of cuts in 2015-16. "He [Mr Cameron] made a very clear commitment and he is sticking by it," said the Prime Minister's spokesman.
Mr Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, clarified remarks in a newspaper interview yesterday in which he supported the idea of pensioners giving back their perks if they did not need them. Today he told BBC Radio 4: "I am not encouraging people to hand it back or keep it…All I said in answer to a question, [is that] there's always been the position that if somebody wants to hand the money back if they don't use it, that's up to them. But I'm not making that a policy position; it's just there, it's always been available for them to do."
He said his department had provided a hotline to help people pay back such benefits, and was already taking money from people who wished to do so. He added he was proud of what the Government had done to help pensioners. Asked if he would give up his own benefits, he replied: "I'm not asking them to give up their allowances."
His partial retreat came after Kenneth Clarke, the Conservative Minister Without Portfolio, and senior Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg and Vince Cable cast doubt on the idea of handing back the benefits. Mr Cameron's spokesman dodged questions about whether the Prime Minister supported Mr Duncan Smith's call.