Leading Article: A sense of deja vu - but this time let's act

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The Independent Culture
FUNNY HOW some things have just picked up in 1998 where the last Labour government left off in 1979. Then, an eminent doctor recommended a whacking rise in child benefit as the way to tackle inequalities in health - in the Black Report, buried by the Conservatives. Yesterday, Sir Donald Acheson recommended the same thing after his 16-month investigation. In the meantime, of course, assumptions about the use of taxes and benefits to redistribute income have changed out of all recognition - especially among the Labour leadership. This may account for the fact that, while Sir Douglas Black urged a specific figure for child benefit, equivalent to about pounds 20 a week now, Sir Donald's recommendations come without price tags.

This allows the Government the easy way out, which is to welcome the report and point to all the things that are already being done to tackle social exclusion. Fortunately, one member of Sir Donald's committee suggested at yesterday's press conference that benefits for families with children needed to rise by a quarter. That figure - which is not in the report - should force the Government to engage with the argument. It has already raised child benefit, but not by a quarter, and wants to pursue a parallel strategy of trying to get lone parents and the unemployed into work.

This is the right way to deal with benefit-dependency, but there are other groups for whom the labour market cannot be the ladder out of poverty: poor pensioners and the disabled. The Government has yet to define what "welfare reform" means for them, and how it will strike the balance between means-testing and universality - except that it did not like Frank Field's radically universal approach. If Sir Donald succeeds in prompting a specific response from the Government in respect of these groups, his 16 months' work will have been well worthwhile.

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