By Paul Goodman
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David Cameron's proposed reforms to housing benefit are partly about increasing opportunity and party about saving money.
Oh, and differentiating his party from the Liberal Democrats. Which is a reminder that it's possible that none of his plans may be effected, since we don't know what parts of them Nick Clegg's party would agree to in this Parliament, if any, and there's no guarantee of a Conservative Government in the next one.
On increasing opportunity, I think that the Prime Minister is right. Drawing housing benefit and being workless at 18 isn't a likely route to improvement and prosperity. However, I would like to see the detail (of which there may not much, given Mr Cameron's working timescale). He says that his proposals "would not apply to victims of domestic violence". What about others who can't live with their parents – for example, the 60,000 or so children in care? And if living with one's parents is our working presumption – because renting let alone buying for many younger people is unaffordable – how does this square with labour market mobility?
Tim Montgomerie explored earlier this morning on this site the three pipe problem of how to persuade voters that the Prime Minister's plans represent compassionate conservatism when a big slice of them associate compassion with state spending.
And on saving money, I believe that young people are getting a raw deal. State payments to richer older people are effectively being ring-fenced while some of those those made to poorer younger ones are – as far as the Treasury is concerned – up for grabs. Obviously, these are not happy times for many older people, given the absence of reward for saving, the rising cost of care, soaring fuel bills and the end of the house price boom. But the gap between the rise in older and younger people's incomes has been growing faster in Britain than in comparable countries. The central argument of David Willett's The Pinch holds true.
My generation had student grants instead of loans, had easier access to benefits and was able to get its feet on the property market ladder at a younger age. And while it is right that housing benefit should be thrust under the magnifying glass, shouldn't this also be true of the Winter Fuel Allowance for better-off pensioners? Or the free TV licence? Or free bus travel? Iain Duncan Smith and Nick Clegg (to give him credit) would say yes. David Cameron and George Osborne would say no, arguing that older people vote – while some younger people do not – and that in any the Conservative Party is bound by election pledges in any event.
True. But a question follows: if the party was unable to address inter-generational fairness at the last election, why should it be any different next time round – particularly given the backlash against the Chancellor's plan, as sensible in principle as it was mishandled on practice, to freeze age-related tax allowances? Politics used predominately to be (and to some degree still is) about the clash of interests. One of the biggest ones in modern Britain is between older and younger people. There are moments when I wonder whether it will eventually replace the present party system.