Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith says better-off older people should hand back benefits like free bus passes and free TV licences if they do not need them.
Iain Duncan Smith said he “would encourage” wealthier pensioners who can afford to pay for their own heating, travel and television licences to give back their taxpayer-funded support packages to the state.
He urged better-off elderly people to pay back benefits like free TV licences, winter fuel allowances and free bus passes, saying it was an “anomaly” that all pensioners receive universal benefits regardless of their personal wealth.
However, the work and pensions secretary stopped short of saying there would be any official change to the £2bn a year system, despite calls from colleagues in the past including Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who has hit out at giving millionaires like Alan Sugar and Peter Stringfellow free bus passes while families on lower incomes are facing benefit cuts.
It is up to them, if they don’t want it, to hand it back. Iain Duncan Smith
In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph ahead of a number of benefits pilots beginning on Monday, Mr Duncan Smith said: “It is up to them, if they don’t want it, to hand it back. I would encourage everybody who reads the Telegraph and doesn’t need it, to hand it back.”
At the moment, the winter fuel allowance is worth £200 to state pensioners, or £300 for those over 80 years old. After 60, prescriptions are free, and after 75, TV licences are also free, saving pensioners £145.50. Bus travel becomes subject to concessions, which vary around the country, at state pension age.
Responding to Mr Duncan Smith’s interview today, Nick Clegg said on the BBC’s Sunday Politics: “I have always argued for us to change the system.
“I do not think it is reasonable for us to say to a working family who has just had their child benefit taken away…why should they, through their taxes, pay for the multi-millionaire next door for his TV licence or winter fuel payment?”
However, it is believed that Prime Minister David Cameron has ruled out any official change to elderly benefits before the next election, as he is unwilling to go into the 2015 contest with a vote-losing policy among an age-group which traditionally backs his party.
Mr Clegg added: “I think the idea of saying in the meantime, you give people benefits and then you say – ‘Oh, by the way, can you please give them back?’ – I don’t think that makes sense. Let’s be clear about this. When money is tight, you have to have the right priorities in tough times.”
I think the idea of saying in the meantime, you give people benefits and then you say – ‘Oh, by the way, can you please give them back?’ – I don’t think that makes sense. Nick Clegg
Elsewhere, speaking to Sky News, Ken Clarke said he wasn’t even sure it was possible for people to give back their elderly benefits. Mr Clarke, who is 72, also refused to say whether he had returned his own benefits.
“It is certainly the case when it comes to a bus pass and when it comes to the winter fuel all taxpayers should decide and recipients should decide what to do with it themselves,” he said.
“You can’t hand it back to the government. I don’t think there is a system for that. Every pensioner and retired person like myself has to make up their own mind about whether they really need it and whether they are going to give it to some worthwhile cause.
“No doubt most pensioners who are reasonably prosperous give quite a lot of money to charity and worthwhile causes in any event.”
The Department for Work and Pensions stressed that people had the right to choose what to do with the benefits.
A spokeswoman added: “People can contact the DWP’s winter fuel payment hotline to discuss handing back or terminating their winter fuel payment should they wish to. This has been the case for several years.”