Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Who benefits?

It was fascinating listening to Cameron on the Today programme. I don’t think they laid a glove on him, in boxing parlance. What would I have said if I was interviewing him?

On universal benefits there is an interesting debate to be had. Do give it to every one, or do you try to arget those who need it most? Take winter fuel allowance, for example. I get it, I’m old enough, I’ve filled in the forms and it duly turns up each year. I also don’t need it. So why not check my tax code and stop it?

In reality, i.e. outside the rarefied atmosphere of the Today Programme, fuel poverty is not that simple. For example there are old people who have big houses because once upon a time they had children at home. By the time there is just an elderly widow left she may have a house full of memories, but it could well be too cold to be healthy. She may well appear to be rich because that great big house will count as an asset, but she might not be able to afford to heat it.

She should move to somewhere smaller, I hear you say, but maybe grandma thinks her children will never visit if she doesn’t have enough bedrooms. Modern education and work practices have scattered families all over the country – go away to university and never come back. The aspiration to send half the population to higher education not only teaches half of us to be in debt but will probably increase our chances of dying alone, or at least only connected by broadband.

Winter fuel payments could be targeted. You could put together what the local authority knows about housing stock, not just when it was build, but all that stuff that goes into meeting the better homes standard, plus those thermal image things that some councils have on the web sites. If you did that you would know a lot of stuff and you ought to be able to predict how much energy it takes to keep each house warm.

The energy companies know how much energy we all actually consume – they send us bills for the stuff after all.

If you put both of those sources together it ought to be easy to calculate who is not using enough energy to keep warm. If the winter fuel allowance were only sent to them that would be bound to save a packet.

On the other hand it would be intrusive. It means that some computer would be able to delve into our lives and if hacked into, tell the world that we were too poor to keep warm.

That is where the dilemma lies. Targeting, means testing, whatever you want to call it, is intrusive, and as it only helps the poor it means we end up living in a society where there is literally one rule for the rich and other for the poor.

The same sort of thing applies to the child benefit stuff. Back when I was a single parent I got child benefit and I did like having it. In some insane way it was a sort of acknowledgement from the government that I as a single father was able to bring up my kids. It sounds foolish in the light of day, but back then when sometimes I wondered if I could hack it, there was a certain reassurance to getting those cheques. When my youngest daughter finally passed the right age and the last cheque came I remember having a quiet drink and saying to myself.

‘Well I did it.’

On the other hand I am in no doubt that I could have managed without child benefit. I earned enough that under the new proposals mine would be stopped. What I find odd is that they are going to base it on individual income rather than household income. A single parent just over the right tax band will lose the benefit, two people living in the same house each of whom earns half of that will get the benefit, even though their combined income come to the same as the single parent. Somehow that doesn’t seem right.

‘Oh but it will be harder to calculate household income than just doing on the tax band.’

Pull the other one. We are quick enough to penalise people on benefits if they cohabit without telling social security. The ‘system’ is obviously quite capable of assessing household income when it feels like it. If they implement this proposal as written it really will be one rule for the rich and another for the poor.

I suppose one good thing about it is that it really will encourage women to go out to work as soon as their husband’s income begins to come close to the upper tax threshold. At least that chucks a bomb under a different set of traditional Tory values – or maybe Cameron is even cleverer than he looks.

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