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Means testing is the wrong answer to social failure

Tough timesThe Don Paskini column on Liberal Conspiracy contains a partial defence of means testing the winter fuel allowance. Despite conceding the valid points he notes have been made by Peter Hain, Owen Jones and others, it contends that the welfare state has never been “universally universal” so this is nothing to worry about. Social Security has always been a mixture of targeting and universality. Why, we are asked rhetorically, do we means test housing benefit?

This is the wrong starting point for considering the principles involved. The huge cost of housing benefit is due to a failure in housing policy.  The correct starting point is that it should be an aspiration of a socialist government to extend public sector housing provision at low rents and ensure it can be property status of choice for all.  No council house tenant should be means tested out of their property.  If we invested properly in council housing (in a way New Labour failed to) we could reduce means tested housing benefit, just like we can invest in universal dignity in retirement and reduce reliance on means-tested benefits for pensioners.

Of course the Don Paskini column is right – there is a mix of universal and means testing benefits – for pensioners as well as everyone else.  We should aim to reduce means testing that arises from social failure – a failure in housing policy and (fortunately a much lesser) failure in tackling pensioner poverty.

Winter fuel allowance might be said to arise in part from social failure – home insulation and green energy not bringing down bills in the way that they should, not to mention the failure to regulate privatised energy companies. (Can we re-nationalise please?)

However whatever success is achieved in energy policy, a universal winter fuel allowance should remain. It could be incorporated into the basic state pension, but actually it is advantageous to a present a lump sum in season to remind pensioners they shouldn’t worry about their winter fuel bill and can keep warm.

That’s the principle.  Don Paskini’s blog was about the principles and ignored the politics of this.  This is surprising from a blogger who is normally such an astute political observer.

The reality is means testing the winter fuel allowance isn’t about intelligent considered reform of the welfare state, and the ditching of universality is not a minor tinkering in the mix of provision.

This announcement is made, deliberately, in parallel with Ed Balls aspiration of wider ‘fiscal discipline‘ – i.e. it is a concession to austerity politics. This is about a disastrous direction of public sector cuts, risking further decimation of a welfare state and wider public services the next Labour Government should be committed to protecting and investing in.

If this road is travelled down by the next Labour Government, it will make any technical discussion in 2013 about the exact parameters of universality look rather insignificant.

Image: Flikr: David Shankbone

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