The Government is looking for a further £10 billion of cuts in the £220 billion-a-year welfare budget after 2015. Where will it find them? Why, from pensioners of course. There seems to be a consensus that they are enjoying some sort of bonanza while everyone else is suffering the effect of cuts.
Nick Clegg's latest silly wheeze, unveiled at this week's Lib Dem party conference, is to take away so-called universal benefits – free bus passes for the over-60s, winter fuel allowances and free TV licences for those over 75 – from pensioners with assets of more than £1million. He asks why taxpayers should go on subsidising these benefits while conveniently forgetting that most of the elderly have paid tax all their lives. It's simply not true that pensioners are having the time of their lives, even if they have been spared the brunt of welfare cuts so far. The Bank of England's £375billion money-printing policy of quantitative easing has triggered a collapse in private pensions that has led to the worst retirement payouts in memory. Twenty years ago, a 65-year-old man with a pension pot of £100,000 at retirement could have bought an annuity – an income for life – of £15,000 a year. Today, he would be lucky to get £5,700.
Of course, many elderly people either do not have private pensions or only negligible ones. In that case, they will have to survive on the basic state pension of £107.45 a week if they are single, and £171.85 a week for a married couple. There are also the escalating costs of care as the elderly live longer.
So pensioners are very far indeed from enjoying an easy ride, and I would include in that number most of those who are by Mr Clegg's definition 'wealthy' because they are deemed to have assets of more than £1million. In some parts of the country, pretty ordinary houses can cost almost that amount.
Mr Clegg's proposals are also wildly impractical. They would inevitably involve inspecting every house in the country to determine whether its value exceeds £1 million. Other assets such as stocks and shares, jewellery and antique furniture would also have to be valued to establish a pensioner's true wealth.
It is mind-boggling that a supposedly grown-up politician could envisage this happening.
And what savings would result from depriving these allegedly well-off pensioners of their universal benefits? According to Paul Johnson, director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the Government would be lucky to find £1 billion, which might be wiped out by the costs of setting up a bureaucracy to administer the new system.