The Tories in Bournemouth: Means-tested pensions rejected: Peter Kellner, analysing our special poll on the welfare state, finds that calls for reform do not extend across the board

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ONE of the trickiest issues for politicians of all parties is how to reform the welfare state. How generous should it be? How far should the principle of universality be maintained? Should better- off people be required to fend more for themselves?

Such questions could scarcely be more sensitive, yet little recent work has been done to measure public attitudes. NOP's conference-season poll for the Independent and BBC2's Newsnight fills an important gap. It finds that few people want the Government to make room for tax cuts by spending less on child benefits or state pensions; and most people reject the recently floated idea that the NHS should stop providing the older members of better-off families with free geriatric care.

Yet there is one big change that most voters want: 60 per cent think the universal flat-rate child benefit should be replaced by a new means-tested system, with the money targeted more at poorer families.

This view does not extend to pensions. Most people think that the same basic state pension should continue to be paid to all retired people, regardless of their means. Older electors are especially keen on this.

NOP offered respondents four options on both child benefits and state pensions (questions 1 and 2). In each case option (a) provided for higher benefits all round, with taxes raised to pay for them. Options (b) and (c) retained the present overall budget: (b) involved redistributing benefits from better-off to poorer recipients, while (c) left the system as it is. Option (d) was NOP's cost-saving, tax-cutting option: retaining levels of benefits for poorer recipients, but reducing them for the better-off.

NOP's respondents plumped most often for the two options that retained the present overall budget. This applied to both child benefit - 66 per cent chose (b) or (c) - and state pensions (60 per cent).

Higher across-the-board spending on child benefit was particularly unpopular: only 6 per cent chose this option. Among Labour supporters the number climbed only to 7 per cent, even though this was one of the party's most prominent promises at the last election. Three times as many Labour supporters (22 per cent) preferred the tax-cutting option (d).

What about the way the money is distributed? In each case, NOP offered two universal options - (a) and (c) - and two means-test options, (b) and (d). Views about child benefits and pensions diverge significantly.

On child benefit, most - 60 per cent - support one of the two means-test options, while 35 per cent want to keep the same rate for all. On state pensions, however, supporters of universality outnumber those who want means tests by 54 to 43 per cent. Among people over 55, universality wins by 63 to 34 per cent.

One of the most notable findings concerns Labour supporters. Labour has been more insistent than its rivals on retaining the universal principle; the report of the Commission on Social Justice, to be published later this month, is likely to uphold it for both child benefit and basic state pensions.

However, NOP's figures show that Labour supporters are less keen on flat-rate benefits than Conservative or Liberal Democrat supporters. In other words, Labour supporters are more likely than the supporters of other parties to think that the welfare state should target benefits to help the poor more than the rich.

This view, however, does not extend to geriatric care in the health service. Last month there was speculation that the Government was considering trying to cut costs by requiring better-off older people, or their families, to pay for day-to-day geriatric care. Yet by a margin of more than three to one, NOP's sample said the NHS should continue to guarantee such care, even if taxes needed to rise to pay for it (question 3).

Finally, NOP found that most voters reject the idea of banning strikes in essential public services (question 4). However, if such a policy is announced at the Conservative Party conference this week, then it is likely to go down well with many Tory supporters: they support it by 54 to 39 per cent.

NOP interviewed a representative quota sample of 1,117 electors face to face at 54 sampling points throughout Britain on 15 and 16 September.

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE INDEPENDENT/NOP POLL ----------------------------------------------------------------- WELFARE REFORM 1) Which of these options would you preter for child benefits? All Con Lab Lib Dem % % % % a) Child benefits should be increased significantly for all children, and taxes raised to pay for the extra cost 6 4 7 5 b) Child benefits should be increased significantly for less well-off families, but reduced for better-off families 37 33 41 31 c) child benefits should continue for all children at their present level, keeping pace each year with inflation 29 32 27 37 d) Child benefits should continue at their present level for less well-off families, reduced for better- off families, and taxes reduced with the money saved 23 28 22 23 e) None of these/don't know 5 3 3 4

2) And which of these options would you prefer for state pensions? a) State pensions should be increased significantly for all retired people, and taxes raised to pay for the extra cost 24 21 27 20 b) State pensions should be increased significantly for less well-off pensioners, but reduced for better-off pensioners 30 28 34 29 c) State pensions should continue at their present, level, keeping pace each year with inflation 30 41 22 37 d) State pensions should continue at their present level for less well-off pensioners, reduced for better-off pensioners and taxes reduced with the money saved 13 8 16 11 e) None of these/don't know 3 2 1 3

3) The NHS is spending increasing amounts on the day-to-day care of the growing number of old people who cannot look after themselves. In the future do you think: a) The NHS should continue to guarantee such care, and taxes should rise if necessary to pay for it 71 70 74 72 b) Families who can afford it should be required by law to care for, or pay for the care of, their older relatives 23 26 22 21 c) Neither/don't know 6 4 4 7

----------------------------------------------------------------- STRIKES IN ESSENTIAL SERVICES 4) Would you approve or disapprove of a new law to outlaw strikes in essential services such as transport, water, gas and electricity? Approve 39 54 27 36 Disapprove 53 39 67 56 Neither/don't know 8 6 6 8 -----------------------------------------------------------------