DAVID Cameron has rejected criticisms that he is putting wealthy pensioners ahead of struggling families as he made a bid for the influential “grey vote” by promising to protect benefits for older people.
In a major speech against a backdrop of up to £30 billion of planned spending cuts in the next parliament, the Prime Minister pledged that a Tory government would stick to his 2010 election pledge to keep universal benefits for pensioners.
His promise came despite concerns that education in England, work-aged welfare, defence and police budgets are all facing swingeing cuts in the next parliament to protect other areas of spending.
But he dismissed calls for the winter fuel payment and TV licences across the UK, with free bus passes, prescriptions and eye tests in England to be means-tested – saying it would save only comparatively tiny sums.
He insisted that older people were already making their fair contribution to reducing the deficit, through a rising retirement age and other measures.
Mr Cameron has faced pressure from within his own party to abandon the policy, which opponents say highlights the priority he gives to the better-off in society.
Labour has said it would strip winter fuel payments from the richest 5 per cent of pensioners and the Liberal Democrats are in favour of means-testing to ensure only the poorest benefit.
Critics pointed out that pensioners are the group most likely to vote and claimed that Mr Cameron was making an election bribe.
Addressing an audience at older people’s organisation Saga in Hastings, Mr Cameron said it was “fair” to maintain the universality of the benefits.
“I tell you what I think is fair: it’s fair to have raised the state pension age which will save us over half a trillion pounds. That is a very significant saving,” he said.
“You are only going to make very, very small savings – which according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies are almost lost in the rounding errors of the national accounts – from taking that away from richer people.
“To do that you are giving up a very important principle [that] those things are there for you as right.
“To give that up for such a tiny saving in comparison with the big changes that need to be made, I don’t think is worthwhile.
“We need to make sure that we are fair as we reduce the deficit, we need to make sure the richest pay the most – and they have and they will in future.
“But I don’t think we should break the system of having benefits for pensioners for such a small saving when you are giving up such an important principle and such a reassurance to people in our country.”
And he suggested the Opposition would quickly reduce other benefits if it took power.
He said: “Once they have started chipping away at these benefits, believe me, before long, they’ll start getting rid of them altogether.
“And we’ll be back where we were: the people who have worked hard all their lives being written off and forgotten about.”
Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said: “Pensioners will find it hard to take pre-election promises seriously from a Prime Minister who has introduced the granny tax, increased VAT, and caused the Tory NHS crisis which has damaged social care services.”
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