Factometer: fact

The claim
“I know [pensioners] are getting these letters from the Labour party that say the Conservatives would cut the winter fuel allowance, would cut the free bus travel, would cut the free TV licence. Those statements by Labour are quite simply lies.”
David Cameron MP, Conservative party leader, 23 March 2010

The background
It is being dubbed the “Mumsnet” election, but with an ageing population more likely to vote than their younger counterparts, politicians ignore the grey vote at their peril.

Today David Cameron went on the attack against Labour claims, made in election literature, that the Conservatives would cut key benefits for pensioners.

He branded them “lies” – a strong word, and one FactCheck doesn’t use lightly, but we will look at the factual basis for the three claims Cameron picked up today – that the Conservatives would cut the winter fuel allowance, free bus passes, and free TV licences for the elderly.

We asked the Tories what the basis was for David Cameron’s claim. They sent us eight samples of leaflets from six Labour MPs in England, and two PPCs (one in Wales). Although the wording varies, there’s a common theme: that Labour is committed to payments and freebies for pensioners which would be under threat if the Tories got into power. Over to Labour’s evidence.

The analysis

Winter fuel allowance
This payment – brought in when Labour first came to power – goes to all elderly people regardless of how rich they are. In 2009-10 it was worth £250 to single over-60s and £400 to single over-80s.

We questioned where the Labour party got their facts. They sent us a few examples of Tory anti-winter fuel cash behaviour. Firstly, a quote from Tory front-bencher David Willetts, which described the payment as “complicated and indiscriminate” and “patronising and intrusive”. The quote dates from 2000, which doesn’t make it irrelevant, but it’s hard to put much weight on it 10 years later.

More recently, shadow work and pensions minister, Nigel Waterson, was asked during a June 2008 parliamentary debate to commit to keeping the winter fuel allowance. He refused, saying: “I will not make any commitments two years from an election about what we are going to do.” Today though, Cameron went further, saying the Conservatives would keep the policy it inherited.

TV licences
We did a full-length FactCheck on this last summer, when Cameron pounced on Labour’s claim that the Conservatives were “threatening to do away with free TV licences”.

Today, as then, Labour drew our attention to the same fairly non-committal quote from Ken Clarke, shadow business secretary, who said last April that free TV licences and bus passes “ought to be looked at, but they’re not up for discussion and wild debate.”

When we looked into this before, the Tories told us free TV licences for pensioners were just not up for review – something Cameron reiterated today.

Free bus passes
Labour points out that Welsh Assembly shadow minister David Melding called last year for a review of the free local bus pass scheme.

Rather than the free all-hours pass issued to Welsh over-60s, he said it would be more efficient only to give pensioners an off-peak pass gratis.

This is already the case in England – where free bus travel doesn’t kick in until 9.30am on weekdays.

So this part of the claim has a bit more oomph in Wales – but the Tories aren’t calling for abolition on either side of the border.

The verdict
We haven’t been able to find a killer fact or quote to back up Labour’s claims that the Tory axe hovers over free TV licences and bus passes for pensioners or the winter fuel allowance.

That isn’t to say hard choices aren’t ahead for whoever wins the election.

We know cuts (or extreme tax rises) are needed, but neither Labour nor the Tories have given chapter and verse on what faces the chop.

To see the leaflets referred to in this blog click here.  And we need you to help us keep an eye on election leaflets during the campaign. Please get in touch at factcheck@channel4.com if campaign literature you think deserves further scrutiny lands on your doorstep.

Update on 23 April 2010: In light of the row that broke out on last night’s leaders’ debate between David Cameron and Gordon Brown the FactCheck team have been working on this afresh so for the latest on this story go to the links below:
Leaflets from Labour are ‘pure and simple lies’
Did Brown authorise leaflets containing ‘lies’?

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Category: Conservatives, David Cameron, Fact
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