An argument which dominated the liberal media in the months preceding the general election was whether or not the government should dish out perks to certain groups irrespective of income, such as free bus passes and the like afforded to pensioners. I say an argument – although I don’t actually remember hearing the side which came out against means-testing for such perks, and in favour of what is in many cases current practice. One of the foremost proponents of stripping perks from the better-off was New Statesman ex-Editor Peter Wilby. And the arguments he set out were actually quite convincing:
deprivation is no longer the default condition of old age, and, given the urgent needs of a minority (mostly in their late 80s and 90s), it makes no sense to continue treating the over-60s – who receive fuel allowances and bus passes even if they are in well-paid fulltime work – as an homogeneous group
When I spoke to Ken Livingstone shortly before he settled down to go head-to-head with Oona King at an hustings event earlier this evening, he hinted that means-testing could be an area of clash in the forthcoming debate. At the time, I recalled Wilby’s arguments in my head – why should the better off receive services they can well afford to pay for themselves at the cost of the public purse? Why not use the money to fund education, or the NHS?
Sure enough, the debate progressed to the subject of means-testing – in this case, a questioner asked if free bus passes for under-18s should be restricted to the less well off. Admittedly, when you think about such benefits in relation to yourself – or your own generation – it feels very different. To me, the free bus pass is proof that the assertion Oona King has made, that City Hall ‘never changed anyone’s life under Ken’ is delusional. Ken certainly changed life for me, and many others my age, when he introduced free travel. As Lee Concerns, who wrote to the Camden New Journal to say as much, argues, their greatest strength is to enable young people to “develop their independence”.
But, I thought, maybe this is just the selfish streak in me. What I was after now was a positive case for means-testing – not just the (admittedly quite strong) sense that things could have been different for me personally, and my friends and family, if the policy had been put in place. The latter, I hasten to add, I had rarely felt before, as the concept is all-to-often confined to pensioners, and like many young people, I find it hard to think that far in advance to apply it on a personal level.
And sure enough, Ken delivered – and what a great argument it was. If middle class people didn’t receive the benefits of universal provision, and services were only provided for those who could not afford them, Ken argued, when such services are under threat, will the middle classes – including in the media and the corridors of power – stand up for them? Surely it is better to give everyone a vested interest in protecting the welfare state? (This may sound like a pessimistic view of human nature, but to me seems pretty realistic as well.)
Ken then went on to talk about the stigma which can be produced by a culture of means-testing. He recalled his own days of free school meals as a child, when children who paid for their lunches were admitted into the dining room first. Another compelling argument – especially when it comes to young people – bullying can take this on board and intensify class divides.
A third factor I thought of when I started writing this is unrelated to these two – but just as significant. Arguments for means-testing often latch on to the cost savings for the state. But as I alluded to earlier with the life changing nature of the free bus pass, perhaps sometimes the benefits – which vary from scheme to scheme – mean it is worth it. Personally, I think it’s a price worth paying if universal free travel – whether for young people or pensioners – means that people are encouraged to get around more, and to travel without their parents.
Universal free school meals, as pioneered in Islington, means that many children who were previously taking packed lunches into school are now eating a daily hot and healthy meal, which has the effect of improved performance in class. Isn’t this too a price worth paying?
Like in most policy areas, Oona King’s arguments were incoherent and confusing. She suggested scrapping means testing in certain areas, although she suggested that this would give her no choice but to introduce it in others – she wouldn’t rule out means-testing free travel.
Illtyd Harrington, the man responsible for introducing the Freedom Pass in the 1970s, rages against the threats the coalition are making against his legacy in this week’s CNJ. Labour needs a mayoral candidate who can stand up for the welfare state, rather than introducing policies which can facilitate its unnoticed decline.
As Ken said in the debate, we can always get the money back in taxes.