Leading article: A reform that is wrong in principle, wrong in practice

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BLAIRISM MARK One is ending. "Not everyone will agree with everything we do all the time," Alistair Darling said this week - a shocking admission from a Government which has for so long tried to be all things to all voters. The parliamentary rebellion over lone parent benefit in October 1997 was a sort of accident, with the cut effectively made up in the following Budget. This time the Government means it, and is prepared to face down a bigger revolt in the Commons next week. If Mr Darling were standing up to the whingeing of lobby groups and bleeding-heart backbenchers as he drove forward bold reform designed to "save the welfare state", he would be entitled to support. But the Government deserves to be defeated on Monday, because the measures to restrict incapacity benefit are not part of some "big picture" reform.

It is clear that there is something wrong in a budget for incapacity benefit which has trebled since 1979. Some of that increase may be justified, because benefits are now more generous, or are paid to people who should always have received them. But the largest explanation for the threefold increase is the drive to get older men in particular off the unemployment count. It is that movement that this Government rightly wants to reverse. Although it is not quite the universal panacea as presented, the much- sloganised aim of getting people off benefits and into work is the answer to many problems, not just of the funding of the welfare state but of a divided society generally.

All Mr Darling's efforts, therefore, should be directed towards identifying those benefit claimants who could work and encouraging them, using both carrot and stick, to do so. But the plans to subject claims for incapacity benefit to a means test will have the opposite effect. They will, for example, penalise disabled people who have worked enough to have a company pension. In any case, means-testing support for the disabled is wrong in principle.

As ever, plans to bring in sensible long-term reforms are being threatened by attempts to save money in the short term. The drive to encourage more people into the labour market could produce significant savings in social security benefits in the long term, but the Government is under self-imposed pressure to come up with immediate savings in order to show that "welfare reform is working".

Mr Darling is paying the price for Tony Blair's rhetorical extravagance when he declared at the start of last year that only radical reform could save the welfare state. This was a false premise: the truth is that the system needs rebalancing and continual attention to those bits, like incapacity benefit, which squeeze out of the bottom when pressure is applied from the top. But the idea of "ending welfare as we know it" is as much a fantasy in Britain as it is in the United States.