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Philip Hammond says that scrapping universal benefits is not on the Conservative agenda - yet

HAMMOND-PHILIP-BIG-BEN The Observer's splash this morning suggests that there are increasing calls within Labour to scrap universal benefits - such as child benefit, winter fuel payments and free TV licences for the over 75s - for the middle classes.

It quotes several (un-named) ministerial aides as favouring such a policy - not least as it might shore up the party's core vote at a time when it is still scoring in the twenties in opinion poll ratings.

Whether Alistair Darling dares goes down that route remains to be seen, but speaking to the paper, Philip Hammond, George Osborne's powerful deputy, suggested it was not currently on the Conservative agenda:

Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Philip Hammond told the Observer that attacking universal benefits was "not part of the debate in our party yet", citing fears that means testing would discourage saving: "It's superficially attractive thinking about means testing benefits that go to people who apparently don't need them, but once you start introducing means testing you get perverse incentives."

Meanwhile, on the debate on councils introducing user-charging, Hammond said that councils would be free to experiment under a Conservative Government:

"If local authorities judge that within their area there is a case for a congestion charge regime and local citizens agree that in a referendum – as they have mainly spectacularly failed to do so far – well, that's the price of localism."

Jonathan Isaby

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