For all Lord Sugar's protestations about not claiming his free bus pass, Nick Clegg's central point remains: it is, indeed, difficult to explain why housing benefits must be cut while perks for wealthy pensioners remain protected.
A squeeze on Britain's welfare bill is unavoidable, with another £10bn of cuts by 2016 pencilled in by the Chancellor, on top of the £18bn already made. Not only are costs ballooning unaffordably; there are also any number of areas which, regardless of short-term fiscal pressures, require immediate extra funding – social care, to name but one.
It is here, in fact, that the strongest case against an end to universal benefits for pensioners can be made. Even were winter fuel payments, free television licences and, of course, free bus passes taken away from those with assets of more than £1m – as Mr Clegg suggests – the move would raise less than £2bn, far from enough to obviate cuts elsewhere.
As Paul Johnson at the Institute of Fiscal Studies rightly points out: the kind of savings George Osborne is eyeing can only come from the majority, not just the tiny fraction at the top. But to focus on the numbers alone is to miss the point. Although a curb on wealthy pensioners' benefits may not solve the problem by itself, it will be a basis for broader welfare reductions which are otherwise unjustifiable.
Rather trickier is the question of how such changes might be made. Ultimately, eligibility can only be assessed by means testing, for all the costs that implies. But there are simpler, more immediate options, too, not least raising the age at which pensioner support kicks in, to put a stop to the current – crazy – situation where people still in full-time work can claim.
With the Coalition Agreement clear that OAP benefits are sacrosanct, no changes can be made in this parliament. Both fairness and expediency dictate, however, that it can only be a matter of time.
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