The row over providing benefits such as winter fuel payments and free bus passes for better-off pensioners has split the very top of the coalition government, with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg telling colleagues he would be happy to see them dramatically cut.
The Liberal Democrat leader’s intervention comes after reports that the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith is pressing for cuts to the £5bn bill for elderly benefits, which also include free TV licences and prescriptions. However, the prime minister is said to be adamant that he must stick to the promise he made before the last general election that the payments would be safe under a Tory government, a promise considered important enough to be enshrined in the coalition agreement.
Ministers are also under fire for delays in getting cross-party agreement on how to fund social care amid concerns that they are preparing to water down proposals by the Dilnot Commission to introduce a cap on total personal costs and to increase the wealth people can accumulate before they have to start paying for their own care. Pressure is building on the prime minister as departments across government are being asked to make savage cuts to spending while the costs of medical bills and other issues keeps rising.
The Sun launched a campaign to “ditch handouts to [the] rich”calling on the government to “axe the freebies” for about half of pensioners. The newspaper estimated that would save £2bn a year. The Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott called on the prime minister to accept taxing winter fuel payments, pointing out his party had already had to accept making a major policy U-turn by agreeing to raise student tuition fees, a move which has proved deeply unpopular with its supporters.
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We continue to protect key support for pensioners including winter fuel payments, which make an important contribution to the fuel costs of pensioners.”
7th June 2012