Responding to Gus O’Donnell’s attack on older people’s benefits

[Co-authored with Richard Berry]

Former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell, who until recently was the most powerful civil servant in Britain, published a forthright attack on politicians in the latest issue of Political Quarterly. In so doing, he also sought to undermine some of the key principles of liberal democracy, by placing policy-making power in the hands of independent commissions – drawn mainly from the private sector – rather than the public’s elected representatives.

The justification for O’Donnell’s proposal was the British state is beset by a number of serious issues that politicians have failed to solve. Chief among these is the ‘problem’ of older people’s benefits – O’Donnell referred to winter fuel payments, free prescriptions, and the provisional of free travel. This is all part of the ludicrous bias whereby the old are subsidised by the young,” he argued, describing it as an example of ‘bad economics’ that has been deemed ‘good politics’.

O’Donnell proposes a potential ‘solution’ to this problem – compulsory voting. But first, let’s consider whether his initial diagnosis is correct. There are flaws with each of the policies O’Donnell mentions.

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Image: John Karakatsanis