Letters: Universal benefits in perspective

Your editorial (Perks amid penury, 5 October) adds fuel to the increasing chorus and pleas of conscience-stricken journalists on finding themselves recipients of universal benefits for elderly people such as the winter fuel allowance. In this emotive atmosphere, a few facts may serve to refocus the debate.

One of the most illuminating statistics regarding the fate of poor pensioners is that in 2010-11 it is estimated there were 26,156 excess winter deaths among elderly people. Fuel poverty is recognised as a significant factor in such appalling loss of life. Any allowances that aim to address such a toll by effectively targeting universal benefits must surely be supported.

The suggestion that means-tested benefits would be a more effective method of addressing fuel poverty is undermined by the evidence that, according to Department for Work and Pensions statistics, £4.5bn of means-tested pensioner benefits were unclaimed in 2008-09. This contrasts with the estimated costs of winter fuel allowances of £2.8bn in 2010-11.

The central issue is therefore a fair protection mechanism for elderly people. In this context, it seems apposite to quote the pension minister’s statement in May 2011 that the winter fuel payment “provides vital reassurance that people can afford to turn up their heating”. Such sentiments should evoke positive rather than critical commentary from all who espouse a fairer society.
John French and Carmel Kelly

• Your editorial makes a compelling distinction between the way the government’s benefits regime treats the younger poor compared with pensioners. I cannot disagree with your analysis. If, however, you are suggesting that removing pensioners’ benefits will allow the government to restore (or at least not reduce further) the provision it makes for the working and disabled poor, then your naivety is beyond belief.

The government is on a crusade driven by much of the tabloid press – if on benefits, you are a scrounger.

There is a system for assessing whether individual pensioners need more financial support; it’s called the tax system and, if structured properly, this would provide an ideal basis for making such decisions.

But what needs retaining is the free bus pass (no “freedom pass” outside London you know). This encourages the elderly to go out and, equally important, encourages the middle classes to use the bus, not only maintaining rural services but ensuring they don’t return to using their cars – this government once said it would be the “greenest ever”.
Maureen Panton
Malvern, Worcestershire

• Your editorial quite rightly points out that the government doesn’t dare to alienate the “grey vote”, while feeling quite comfortable targeting disabled people (among others) with vicious cuts.

However, you repeat a mistake I’ve seen so many times – describing pensioners and disabled people as though they are entirely separate groups. I’m a pensioner, and disabled too. This must apply to thousands of folk. Add to that the pensioners now having to help out their disabled sons or daughters and the government forgets this at its peril.
Merry Cross

• Your article has a peculiar implication: that delivering pizza or cleaning a barber’s shop is humiliating for a person receiving unemployment benefit until he hits retirement age, but noble for a worker receiving a salary which is taxed to pay unemployment benefits. In fact, the salaried worker is being enslaved for the benefit of the unemployed youth.

Poverty is not an impediment to work, but old age is. It is ludicrous to consider unemployed youth in the same breath as a pensioner.
Fiamma Truuvert

• Would it not be much more equitable, unavoidable and cheaper to collect if all universal benefits such as free bus passes and prescriptions, fuel allowances and, dare I say it, child allowances, were treated as regular income and taxed? The result would be no loss of income for the poorest, but substantial funds raised from the better off – I would hazard hundreds of millions of pounds a year.
Mike Gotch

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