Bernard Ingham: Should OAPs receive free TV licences and other benefits?

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LET me be clear: I find it difficult to justify the current political rush to be nice to old age pensioners like me.

I am comfortably off and could manage easily without a £300 winter fuel allowance and a free bus pass (including in Greater London, where I live, free rail and Tube fares), a free TV licence and free prescriptions and eyesight tests.

On top of this they have pledged to keep the “triple lock” on state pensions, guaranteeing they will rise in line with earnings, inflation or 2.5 per cent, whichever is the greater.

As an index-linked Civil Service pensioner, I would not begrudge poorer pensioners retaining all these benefits if I were denied them.

I find it difficult to imagine how some of them manage on their meagre resources.

But the politicians are not being 
nice to us just in the hope that we will vote for them. They have a number of problems.

After all their expenses excesses and failures over immigration control, they are in no position to deny any ancient Briton anything.

They are forced to present themselves as protectors of the old folk by retaining these universal concessions because they know how difficult it is to get rid of benefits once they have been introduced.

To ditch them during an election in favour of means testing might be thought suicidal, even though we need all the economies we can get with an outstanding budget deficit of around £75bn.

Ed Miliband is not even testing the water by proposing to deny the wealthiest five per cent of pensioners their winter fuel allowance.

He reckons he can appear more virtuous than the Tories in tackling the budget deficit when he is unlikely to lose many votes among the landed gentry, tycoons and City slickers.

I wonder why he has not also denied pensioners living abroad the same allowance to keep them warm in winter. True, not all of them live in the Tropics, but why should people who permanently leave this country for foreign climes get any British benefits, no matter what they have paid in contributions over their lifetime? They have put Britain behind them.

David Cameron justifies maintaining all these universal benefits for two reasons.

First, he reckons the elderly, who 
have borne the heat and burden of the day in the nation’s service and contributed to the nation’s resources through taxes and national insurance, deserve looking after.

Indeed, they do, as a general proposition.

Second – and probably reasonably – he claims that the saving would be small after all the administrative costs of means testing.

It would be interesting to know whether Ed Miliband’s denial of the winter fuel allowance to the best-off pensioners will save a single penny.

But there is a greater truth about this political commitment to the nation’s pensioners over the next five years.

The recession has cost the elderly a mint of money and there is no end to 
it in sight with interest rates seemingly stuck permanently on 0.5 per 
cent.

People like me are thousands of pounds out of pocket. The various pensioner concessions (which existed before the crash) have in no way offset the total losses.

In the meantime, leave aside inflation, costs have increased with age and will continue to do so until, God forbid, we surrender our savings and possibly our house to a care home.

My wife and I now need a carer and a gardener and visits from an osteopath and hairdresser (whose home service charge is double the normal cost) plus a chiropodist.

It would consequently be a bold, indeed reckless, politician if, with an election on May 7, he interfered drastically with the array of benefits for the old folk.

But that still does not justify them for people like me. The problem is 
not retaining them – though in terms of national finances that can scarcely be justified – but getting rid of them.

Even with Iain Duncan Smith on the case, we are still light years away from creating a self-reliant, as distinct from a mollycoddled, nation.

Universal pensioner benefits demonstrate how far featherbedding has gone to compensate for an inadequate state pension.

They also underline the British reluctance to resort to means testing.

The moral of this sad story is that politicians should think twice before they introduce another benefit, universal or not. I would be encouraged if, along with lawmaking, they pledged to get rid of two laws and two benefits for every one they brought before Parliament up to 2020.