Protection of pensioner benefits 'must be wrong' - Johnson

Published on Thursday, 23 January 2014 09:40
Written by Daniel Mason

It "must be wrong" for universal pensioner benefits to be completely protected at the same time as the government is proposing more cuts to other parts of the welfare budget, the former Labour home secretary Alan Johnson has said.

The Hull MP argued it was a mistake to safeguard free television licences, bus passes and winter fuel payments for all older people – and criticised the widely-held view that, when looking to make savings, "you don't touch anything to do with pensions, however expensive it is".

Speaking at Civica's annual conference in Manchester yesterday, Johnson warned of a "war of the generations" as young people faced the prospect of more hardship, having already been hit with higher tuition fees and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance.

The recent suggestion by chancellor George Osborne that under-25s might be barred from claiming housing benefit would add to the ill-feeling, according to Johnson, who also served as education and health secretary.

And, pointing out that spending on pensions accounts for the vast majority of welfare payments, he added: "The fact that you cannot go anywhere near the pensions bill must be wrong."

Last year Labour leader Ed Miliband said universal benefits given regardless of the recipients' wealth would be examined as part of a wider policy review, while Nick Clegg has signalled that the Liberal Democrats believe they should be offered only to the poorest pensioners.

David Cameron, the prime minister, refused to be drawn either way on the question earlier this month – but did pledge that the Conservatives would keep the 'triple lock' on the state pension, ensuring an annual rise of at least 2.5 per cent until 2020.

Yesterday Johnson acknowledged there was still a "fear" in Labour circles that it might be "caught in the trap of being called 'the benefits party'" – too soft on welfare, especially as tough talk on the issue "plays well" for the Tories.

But he argued that restoring the contributory principle to out-of-work benefits could help the party shake off the tag, and gave his support to Labour's shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves, who made her first major announcement in the role on Monday.

Reeves said that those who had paid national insurance contributions for five years could be awarded an additional £20 a week for the first six weeks of claiming Jobseeker's Allowance.

Meanwhile Johnson was joined by Conservative MP David Davis in condemning the language used by some of their colleagues in the debate about welfare reform.

Davis, who ran for the leadership of the Conservative party against David Cameron in 2005, said he "detests" the pitting of "shirkers against workers", while Johnson added that support for the welfare state was ebbing away partly because of the tone of the discussion.

Johnson said the debate was often devoid of facts and led to "a situation where the public is misinformed" and in which "huge misconceptions" about the benefits bill become widely accepted.

Also critical was David Orr, the chief executive of the National Housing Federation, who said politicians were creating "noise and heat but not much light" when it came to welfare reform.

He cited the potential withdrawal of housing benefit from under-25s as an example, saying it made for a good headline but would make virtually "zero difference" in financial terms to Osborne's plan to save an extra £12bn on the benefits bill in the first two years of the next parliament.

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