Leading Article: Think again, Mr Darling, about your welfare measures

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The Independent Culture
IT USED to be said that "welfare isn't working". Given the precarious position that the Government's flagship Welfare Reform Bill now finds itself in, perhaps it is welfare reform itself that isn't working.

The Independent supports New Labour's ambitions in this field. It is undeniably true that the social security budget has been growing at an unsustainable rate. Would that a combination of a consistently strong economy and a consistently strong political will on the part of the electorate to pay ever higher taxes could combine to support a welfare state with unlimited ambitions. Both these conditions are, however, lacking, as they have been for some years.

It is doubly unfortunate, then, that the Government's latest proposals should fail to live up to these challenges.

Of course the Government is right, as was its predecessor, to focus on the fact that the numbers receiving incapacity benefit have trebled since 1979. However, whereas the Conservatives' Peter Lilley rightly saw that the way to deal with a benefit that might be being abused was to ensure that the terms for its eligibility should be drawn up as specifically and tautly as possible, Alistair Darling has chosen instead to administer a rather rougher form of justice, in the form of means testing. Yes, Mr Darling's means test kicks in at a fairly high level, but even that rate fails to take full account of the huge costs incurred by many of those in this position. The disabled often have far higher living costs, to say nothing of the way so many are ignored and discriminated by the rest of society. There may be a case for means-testing other benefits, but not those for disability, especially when, as here, the counting of early occupational pensions introduces an effective marginal income tax rate of 73 per cent.

Even more indefensible is replacing the widows pension with the time- limited bereavement allowance. Employment patterns are changing, but a widow in her forties may still have little or no chance of finding employment.

Tony Blair once declared that only radical reform could save the welfare state. He was right. At the last election the Labour Party said that the basic retirement pension would remain a universal benefit. When you delimit in this way the largest single element of the social security budget, then the prospects of truly radical reform will always remain beyond your reach. They may no longer want to think the unthinkable, but ministers have not yet even thought the deliverable.