Attacks on universal benefits risk wrecking the welfare system built up in the UK since World War Two, according to former Cabinet member Peter Hain.
Neath MP Mr Hain served as Secretary State for Work and Pensions and as Welsh Secretary under the last Labour Government. Earlier this year he stepped down as Shadow Secretary of State for Wales to campaign as a backbencher for the building of the Severn Barrage.
He told the Western Mail he was increasingly disturbed by attacks from across the political spectrum on universal benefits like the winter fuel allowance for old people, and free bus passes and TV licences for pensioners.
Mr Hain said: “It’s being suggested that such benefits are unaffordable at this time of austerity and that it is wrong to give free bus passes to the likes of Sir Paul McCartney.
“I think it very unlikely that Sir Paul McCartney travels by bus – he tends to get driven around in limousines. But there are more serious points to be made about the implication of these attacks, which are coming from senior Conservatives, from Nick Clegg and even from some ultra-Blairites in the Labour Party.”
“The argument against these benefits on cost grounds just doesn’t stack up. The entire budget of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is £160bn a year, so the cost of universal benefits is a very small proportion of the budget, and just 0.2% of the entire UK Government budget.
“What also has to be remembered is that means testing is expensive in itself, with complicated administrative systems having to be built up to separate those who get the benefit from those who don’t. And any means-tested benefit results in ‘cliffs’, where people who have a tiny amount more than the threshold miss out.
“I remember speaking to one of my constituents, a chronic asthmatic, before free prescriptions were introduced in Wales. She told me that because of such a ‘cliff’, there was no point in her getting a job. When everyone became entitled to free prescriptions, she was freed up to work.”
More insidiously, said Mr Hain, the jibes against universal benefits risked undermining the consensus on the merits of the welfare state that had built up since the War.
He said: “The middle class support welfare in the main because they benefit from it. They pay taxes and get some benefits back. If they were stopped from receiving benefits like the winter fuel allowance, they would no longer have a stake in the welfare state, and the likelihood is that we would be left with ‘poor welfare’ of the kind seen in the United States, where society is more polarised than it is here and where there is pressure from the right to constantly cut back on safety nets. That’s not the society I want to see in Wales or Britain.
“In any case, the pressure on pensioners in the future following the closure of most final salary pension schemes will mean that the proportion of pensioners who are rich – already tiny – will get even smaller.”
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