Amid all the talk of Europe and floods and unions, it’s easy to miss what is actually one of the most significant political stories of the day. It’s this one in the Daily Mail, announcing the fact that Iain Duncan Smith is to withdraw Winter Fuel Allowance from expat pensioners who live in warmer countries. Apparently, almost 100,000 folk will be affected. The Exchequer will save £17 million a year.
£17 million? Significant?! Against a deficit of over £100 billion, it may not seem like it. But, as I suggested when this policy was still gestating inside the DWP, it has a multitude of sharp edges. Here, it represents another attack on the universal pensioner perks that David Cameron is generally so eager to protect. There, it’s a riposte to the European Court of Justice and one of its recent rulings that saw an increase in the number of expats claiming Winter Fuel Allowance. It’s actually kind of swashbuckling.
But more than the particulars – e.g. what about those pensioners who live in colder parts of warmer countries? – it’s the general context that really catches the eye. After getting tangled up in the Universal Credit’s dodgy wiring last year, IDS suddenly seems freer and more aggressive. There hasn’t just been this policy, but also his confident response to Benefits Street and his even more confident speech to the Centre for Social Justice. January appears to have reconfirmed one of the Work and Pensions Secretary’s old resolutions: to turn up the volume.
As The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman wrote a couple of weeks ago, there is nothing accidental about this. It will surely not have escaped IDS’s notice that – as I also wrote a couple of weeks ago – George Osborne was becoming the face of Tory welfare policy. Dollars and cuts were trumping compassion and jobs. And although this latest Winter Fuel measure is yet another cut, it’s striking that it is aimed at retired expats rather than working still-pats. We all know that IDS wants the axe to fall on claimants other than the working, and potentially working, poor.
I wonder, though, if IDS also has the Universal Credit system in mind. The fact that it may not hit its 2017 deadline raises the possibility that it could become scrap metal in the event of a Labour general election victory. For someone who has been fighting for the policy even before becoming a minister, that must be a horrible possibility. If Duncan Smith doesn’t gather support now, and entrench his reforms while he can, it will be the unemployed who lose out.