In reports from today’s Liberal Democratic conference, both Nick Clegg and Don Johnson have queried why the Winter Fuel Payment should be available to rich pensioners. The same argument is frequently heard about other benefits, including Child Benefit, and it could be extended to any non-means-tested benefit – health care, pensions, social care and so forth.
There are several arguments for universality – social inclusion, avoiding deterrents and so forth – but the simplest one is this. At present, everyone is already subject to one test of income: the tax system. The easiest way to manage any benefit is to pay a fixed sum and then to claw it back from tax. If there was to be a separate test for benefits like Winter Fuel Payment, everyone who might qualify would then be subject to a further test of income. Testing people’s income repeatedly is a recipe for unnecessary administration and intrusion. Why would anyone want there to be more tests than we need?