NICK Clegg has opened a divide within the coalition government by calling for the means-testing of a range of benefits for pensioners.
The government is committed to preserving the universal benefits – such as winter fuel allowance and free bus travel, prescriptions and TV licences – until 2015, and David Cameron has resisted pressure from Tories to signal he will cut them after the general election.
But the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday broke ranks to make clear Liberal Democrats would “look again” at universal pensioner benefits, arguing that welfare cash “should not be paid to those who do not need it”.
“I just don’t think it’s justifiable, when so many people are tightening their belts, to say multi-millionaire pensioners still receive universal benefits across the board,” he said.
Asked if Mr Cameron backed Mr Clegg on the issue, the Prime Minister’s spokesman responded: “He made a commitment to protect those benefits and he believes in keeping his promises.”
In a keynote speech marking his fifth anniversary as Lib Dem leader, Mr Clegg mounted a vigorous defence of the coalition’s welfare reforms, insisting the government had an “absolute duty” to ensure the system was fair to all.
While acknowledging the changes had at times been “painful and controversial”, he argued that the Lib Dems had ensured they were firmly anchored in the political centre ground.
“When two-thirds of people think the benefits system is too generous and discourages work, then it has to be changed, or we risk a total collapse in public support for welfare existing at all,” Mr Clegg told the CentreForum think-tank.