Peter Hoskin

The coalition’s choice over Winter Fuel Allowance

The coalition's choice over Winter Fuel Allowance
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The Winter Fuel Allowance has tapdanced back onto the political landscape today, and it's all thanks to some insightful work by the FT's Alex Barker. He had an article in this morning's pink 'un which suggested that IDS is lobbying to have it, and and some other "middle-class benefits", trimmed to help pay for his benefit reforms. And he's followed that up with a blog-post explaining how even an apparent "cut" in the allowance may not result in savings for the Treasury or the DWP. Strange but true, as they say.

This could be a delicate situation for the coalition. In the background to it all is David Cameron's pre-election pledge that the Tories wouldn't cut Winter Fuel Allowance. And then there's the wording of the coalition agreement, which says: “We will protect key benefits for older people such as the winter fuel allowance, free TV licences, free bus travel, and free eye tests and prescriptions.” There's a question over whether "protect" means quite the same thing as "ringfence," but really the answer doesn't matter. The coalition agreement has already shown itself to be malleable. We shouldn't be surprised if further changes are made.

With both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable attracted to the idea of limiting middle class benefits, there's every chance that this particular change might come about – and it wouldn't simply be a nasty Tory cut. In which case, the real question is whether we can afford to prioritise middle-class benefits ahead of reforms targeted at the least well-off. Or, indeed, whether we can afford most middle-class benefits at all. For reasons I've outlined before, I'd say not. But, given the position that some in Labour have adopted on the matter, this debate could take a while to fully unwind.