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Author: Observer
Published on 16 September 2012 12:00 PM

Katharine Whitehorn writes in the Observer about benefits for older people and suggests donating the Winter Fuel Payment to charity if unneeded.

I have lost my bus pass again, but I'm getting on all right with an Oyster card. Plenty of people think it's absurd, anyway, for all OAPs to trundle around London for free, and that quite a lot of senior entitlements – winter fuel, free prescriptions and so on – shouldn't necessarily go to those who don't need them.

I see their point – though it's worth remembering that we have paid into our pensions over the years. The irony is that the idea of universal benefits was originally designed to remove the shame attached to taking any state help – witness the mother in Angela's Ashes who would beg for scraps at the priest's back door rather than take her state benefit – and the degrading way the means test was done, people having to sell or hide their last few treasures before they got the dole.

After more than 50 years of universal benefits there is today no shame involved – but no cheap and easy way, either, to work out who should and shouldn't benefit. I doubt if Camden Council is rejoicing much in the money it's saving on my lost bus pass, or if it would thank me not to ask for another.

But I do think charities could make more out of slogans such as: "Do you really need your winter fuel allowance? Let us use it to buy blankets for rough sleepers." And then shame could usefully attach once more – to those who didn't pass an unneeded benefit on.

Katharine Whitehorn is a writer and journalist and the author of Cooking in a Bedsitter. Since 1997 she has written a monthly column for Saga magazine.

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