Leading Article: A cautious proposal caught up in some damaging spin

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ONCE UPON a time, welfare reform was going to be New Labour's big idea. It was all about "thinking the unthinkable". It was to be the Government's abiding legacy, on a historical par with old-age pensions and the National Heath Service. Then reality set in. Frank Field and Harriet Harman were sacked and Social Security was handed to the pragmatic Alistair Darling, a shrewd man who will not fall into the elephant trap of "big bang", welfare reform. For that, at least, we should be grateful.

Many of Mr Darling's proposals are modest, if rather offensively oversold by the spin doctors. This is not the "tough welfare crackdown" it is made out to be. The unemployed can already lose Jobseeker's Allowance if they turn down a reasonable offer of work. The new "single gateway" means that no claimant will stay on benefit unless he or she attends a "back-to-work" interview every five years. That should not be too onerous.

The Government is right to help people with disabilities and lone parents into work, if - and only if - that is what they are able to do. But providing quality advice, subsidising the child-care costs of lone parents who want to work, and investing in people with disabilities, will cost the Government more money, even though it would be cash well spent. Far too many intelligent and talented disabled people remain excluded from the jobs market. We haven't heard much about such things.

But what is truly insidious is not the detail of Mr Darling's policies, but some of their underlying assumptions, assumptions carried over from the Tories, and revealed by colourful spin.

Given all the soundbites about "something-for-nothing dependency", one would think that, to use the economist's jargon, there was no such thing as involuntary unemployment. Ministers talk as though the jobs really were there for the unemployed if only they could be persuaded to take them. But if unemployment could be solved by increasing the frequency of patronising "restart" interviews and the like, we should have seen full employment long ago. What really affects unemployment, as Mr Darling's colleague Mr Byers pointed out last week, is the health of the economy, entrepreneurship, competition, and education and training (the high-quality variety, that is).

Another assumption abroad is that all lone parents ought to be at work. Mr Darling should say, clearly, that lone parents' choice to remain at home with their children is something to be respected, not resented. The balance between work and care can only be struck by the individual.

Mr Darling should not spoil his pragmatic approach by spreading silly slogans about the true nature of unemployment. The cycle of "something- for-nothing" soundbites must be broken.