Mr Blair is doing to the dole what De Gaulle did to Algeria

The Bill may be the end of `something for nothing' but in terms of welfare reform, it's just the beginning
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SOME TIME before the last election, it is said, Tony Blair confided in the late Lord Rothermere that his relationship to the dependency culture was that of De Gaulle to Algeria: he was uniquely qualified to yank his country out of it.

Given that the proprietor of the Daily Mail was suitably impressed by the argument that only Labour could be trusted to reform welfare because only Labour believed in it, it was appropriate that the Prime Minister should choose to trail this week' s Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill by writing an article in Rothermere' s newspaper. There was a much-commented- on, rather macho, "come and get us" subtext in the announcement for Labour backbenchers considering rebellion. As Alistair Darling, the Social Security Secretary, whose Bill it is, was telling readers of The Independent that the new regime would be "far tougher than most people thought" and disclosing that everyone, including single mothers, would be called to a compulsory interview to discuss "what they could be doing with their lives other than claiming benefit", the Blair article made an even larger claim: that it marked the end to the "something-for-nothing" welfare state, and that it was a "fundamental break with the past".

We'll come in a minute to whether that claim is justified. But it certainly looks like good party politics. At the very moment when William Hague goes West to learn at the feet of Governor George W Bush - among other things - about what the Governor calls his "historic reforms to put welfare recipients to work", a Labour government seems to be putting some of the Governor's most cherished goals into practice several years before Mr Hague has any chance of putting anything into practice at all. Moreover, the De Gaulle analogy was probably correct. To understand why, simply ask yourself whether a Tory could even talk about the "something-for-nothing" welfare state and get away with it.

Further, while all the signs are that there will be Labour revolts, possibly quite substantial ones, on the Bill, I do not detect the widespread sullenness and resentment among the silent majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party that there was over the ill- thought-out changes to lone parent benefit cuts in late 1997. Nor does this spring solely from blind obeisance to the Leader. There are some seriously hard cases thrown up by the drive to reform the benefits system, particularly among the disabled, and these are likely to be the subjects of several concerted efforts to amend the Bill. But while it may be unpalatable to say so, MPs know that for every truly disabled constituent who isn't getting what he or she deserves, there is another complaining about the man down the road who seems to be digging his garden energetically despite the bad back that qualifies him for incapacity benefit - a benefit, incidentally, which now goes to a quarter of all men over 60.

Are we really that ill as a nation? Of course we're not. The fact is that successive governments, mainly but not exclusively Tory, have used the benefit as a convenient means of reducing the unemployment register. This is just one of the ways in which there is a large popular constituency, including among Labour supporters, for the mantra: work for those who can, security for those who can't.

At this point, however, various received wisdoms kick in. One says wearily: we know all that, but the Darling proposals are a whimper rather than a big bang; and that the big idea of welfare reform ended with the ministerial career of its radical guru, Frank Field. This seriously underestimates what the unflashy but shrewd and determined Darling has achieved since he took over a shellshocked DSS last July. Its main provisions have been so well trailed that there has been relatively little interest in the Bill as a whole. Yet having quietly shelved some of the wackier notions in his in-tray when he arrived at the department, he has assembled one of the most far-reaching measures of the parliament.

Overall, the pensions changes, while guaranteeing a minimum income for the poorest pensioners, will see the current 60-40 public-private share of pensions reversed over the next four or five decades; the stipulation that widows over 45 without dependent children will not receive automatic benefit, without being considered for work, treads on previously taboo territory; the "single gateway" is a concerted effort to break down dependency; and while the Bill provides for welcome increases in money for severely disabled young people and small children, the exponential rise in incapacity benefit will now be reversed. Finally, it is not true, as some claim, that no young people have been refused benefit for rejecting places on the New Deal programmes. Unpublished figures, I'm told, show that 4,401 people between 18 and 24 were indeed refused benefit last year.

But just because Labour has boldly gone where the Tories feared to does not make the reforms right-wing. Overshadowing all of them is the commitment to work as the emancipation from poverty. It is of a piece with what is beginning to clarify as Gordon Brown's remarkably coherent use of the tax system, including the Working Family Tax Credit, and the national minimum wage, to make work pay.

Ah, but where are the jobs? Well, the Government's line is that this is a question of matching the workless to the jobs that are available - 500,000 vacancies, according to last month's figures. But even if this is too glib, the critics have to answer this question: are they saying it would be more convenient if joblessness could be concentrated on sink estates, in ghettos of the weakest, the poorest, and the longest- term unemployed, and among young people who are second- and third-generation unemployed, brought up in workless as well as fatherless households? Or will they admit that these people, too, should be exposed to incentives to escape the cycle of dependency? In other words, that they should be able to maximise their share of the jobs available?

That doesn't mean that work is the answer in every case; Darling has been impressed by a case in his own constituency of a bright young woman who was forced to take a cleaning job from 5am to 8am to make ends meet, and now, thanks to the New Deal for lone parents, is about to take a fulfilling part-time secretarial job in Edinburgh that still allows her time for child care. Equally, he knows that some women with small children, faced with the loss of a partner or husband, no doubt fulfil the Government's criterion of being able to work. That doesn't mean that they should, or will want to, go straight to work. Nor does the Bill reform the whole welfare system, or anything like it, at a stroke. Beyond it, to give just one example, looms the problem of housing benefit, all pounds 13bn a year of it, much of it a landlords' racket, and currently under review in Whitehall. Darling's Bill is only a start; but it is bigger than it looks.