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Gale's View 01/05/2013



May 1st 2013 

I understand, and indeed share, the sense of injustice of those who, having worked and paid taxes throughout their lives, see others who have made no contribution towards our welfare system receive benefits that are in excess of many retirement incomes.
I also understand the fury of those on low incomes who object to the fact that others, not those who cannot work but those who choose not to work, have hitherto received benefits far in excess of any income that they might otherwise have earned.  That is why the Government has introduced a benefit cap that, at £25,000 per year, which is the equivalent of an earned income of at least £35,000 a year, is still a lot more than the take-home pay of many of the working people that I represent.
I do not, though, agree with those who believe that the secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan-Smith, was wrong  to suggest that people financially able to do so might consider voluntarily repaying allowances such as the Winter Fuel payment, bus passes and even concessionary TV licences, that they do not need.
I have long felt that, particularly in an age of austerity, benefits ought to be in some way means-tested.  In private sector terms I myself currently earn vastly less than I once earned as a television director but my income is still a great deal higher than probably that of most of my constituents and it seems to me to be a nonsense that I should receive a winter fuel payment while someone much younger, who is for example wheelchair-bound and cannot “run around and keep warm” should not receive help with heating costs.
Nor do I understand the reasoning that gives a “free” bus pass to someone who can afford to run a car, or two, and who probably leaves the pass for which the taxpayer pays lying in a drawer for most if not all of the year.
I have to concede, though, that the means testing approach is a cumbersome and fairly blunt instrument and that even though we are, through the taxation system, already all means-tested at the end of the day the bureaucracy might well cost more than any savings that could then be deployed to the benefit of those in greater need.
Duncan-Smith`s appeal to the generosity of the individual is an elegant partial solution relying, as it does, upon voluntary action and an individual`s assessment of their own personal needs at any given time and, therefore, of their ability to make a “refund” or not.  His problem is that at present there is actually no system that is capable of handling a repayment should someone wish to make one and once again any such machinery would carry with it a cost.
It might be possible, I suppose, to devise a system that allowed an individual to indicate whether they wanted to receive a winter fuel payment or concessionary television license,  and bus passes could be made available on application or, on the basis that people will not pay at all for something that they do not intend to use, even at a very modest cost.  Until the idea is worked through, however, it appears to me that anyone who is in receipt of assistance that they do not need has the simple solution through a donation to charity. That, to me, seems to offer more choice and to be rather more attractive than trying to pay money back to any Chancellor of the Exchequer and it dovetails in, I think, with the concept of “The Big Society”.

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