Leading article: Stop the petty politics and get on with welfare reform

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The Independent Culture
THE PRIME Minister's rubbishing of Frank Field in the weekend press was all too predictable. Make no mistake: Tony Blair himself thinks Mr Field, the former Minister for Welfare Reform, is "not best suited to running a department", and that his plans "never took the form of policy capable of being implemented by a government". The words were attributed to the Prime Minister's official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, and were backed up by a long string of cheaper insults: "hollow", "a disgrace", "childish and pathetic". These were attributed to unnamed cabinet ministers who may or may not have included Peter Mandelson and Alastair Darling (who was given the job Mr Field wanted), and would have transmitted their Master's Gist, if not his actual Voice.

This kind of pre-emptive strike - or, as it turned out, simultaneous mutual trashing, with Mr Field contributing at least four "exclusive" articles or interviews to the Sunday papers - is neither attractive nor necessary. Mr Field is a proud man who feels he has not been listened to in his own land.

But Mr Blair and those who speak for him should have let Mr Field have his 15 minutes and stuck to the issues instead of the personal insults. The Prime Minister wants to keep his eyes on the big picture, but unfortunately has his firmly locked on the wrong picture - a battle for the loyalty of the Tory press. Mr Field is their Darling, so to speak, and his credibility needs to be undermined. But the ferocity of the attack has been counter- productive. The net effect of Mr Field's resignation and the briefing against him has been to allow the Tory press to crow over the collapse of radical welfare reform.

Mr Blair should have stuck to the real big picture, which is what kind of welfare reform is both desirable and practical. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister helped elevate Mr Field into a symbol of radicalism in the first place. Despite knowing full well - or at least being in a position to know full well - that there was a problem in turning his vision into policy, Mr Blair trumpeted Mr Field's surprise appointment as No 2 in Social Security and, unusually, a privy councillor, as an earnest of his commitment to root-and-branch reform.

It is a poor comment on the state of politics and political reporting that few people could say what the spat between Field and Blair is really about. But Mr Field's views are no secret. There are two things Mr Field is good at, and they are - not by chance - related. He is good at the rhetoric of morality and he is good at self-promotion. What appealed to Mr Blair and many of his supporters among right-wing commentators was his talk about dependence on state benefits sapping self-reliance, honesty and responsibility. And he was given the chance in opposition, as chairman of the all-party select committee on social security, to work out a detailed blueprint for welfare reform. What is more, he did. No less an authority than the Government Actuary was asked to produce costings for his plan, which was published to deafening silence in October 1996.

Since then, the Conservative newspapers have not carried leading articles demanding compulsory second pensions now. They do not devote pages of analysis to a massive, state-backed pensions scheme that raises taxes by pounds 3bn a year and transfers money from those earning more than pounds 15,000 a year to those earning less. They are not interested in giving trade unions and co-operatives a role as providers of insurance policies for unemployment, sickness and old age.

There is a more fundamental argument: Mr Field argues that targeting benefits encourages fraud and discourages self-reliance. But universal benefits are expensive. How much better if the Prime Minister, who briefly toured the country to defend the principle of welfare reform, could have engaged with those issues instead of indulging in petty political abuse.

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