We make no apologies for our tough benefits regime

We will keep people's minds on what they could do with their lives other than claiming benefit
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The Independent Culture
HAROLD WILSON once said that the Labour Party was a moral crusade or it was nothing. For years, many on Britain's left saw this crusade as an end in itself. But all the campaigns in the world count for nothing if they don't deliver, and that's how the Government will be judged.

The Welfare State has been subjected to more crusades than most. Too often these have been crusades to defend the status quo, reacting to the symptoms of huge social and economic failure, but refusing to confront and deal with their causes.

Calls for the "right to benefit" - and even calls for more benefits - miss the point. Someone who loses their job wants to get back into work, and that demands a change in culture on the part of both the Government and the people.

For years there was an acceptance that there were those who worked and those who did not. People were written off, and many expected no better for their children. Fifty years after the start of the Welfare State, a child can still be born poor, live poor and inevitably die poor. The stuff of a moral crusade - yes, of course - but much more than that: we need to confront the causes of that failure. To do that, we need to recast the role of the Welfare State.

Fifty years on, no one has an unqualified right to benefit. And that's not what they want. They want the right to get help back into work. They want to be independent, to get on - to do the best they can for their families, just like everyone else. A new right, matched by a responsibility to do something to help themselves.

Fifty years ago, benefits were designed, for the most part, as a stop- gap between jobs. Now the system has to cater for an uncertain and unstable world, where people work in several jobs between starting out on employment, and retirement. The role of government has changed since post-war Britain.

The new Welfare Reform Bill, published today, sees a radical change in the culture of the benefits system and a new contract between the state and the individual. The new legislation says, in effect: "We will help you to get into work, but in return you have to do something to help yourself."

The new regime will be far tougher than people thought. People will be asked to come in for interview. We will not apologise for our determination actively and repeatedly to keep people's minds on what they could be doing with their lives other than claiming benefit.

All the evidence is that the longer that people are out of the labour market, the longer they take to get back into it. So we will end the something- for-nothing approach that has characterised the past. In its place will be a new approach and a new gateway to the benefits system for everyone of working age, where everyone gets the advice they need and where the option of taking benefit and going home is no longer there. People have a clear responsibility to help themselves. And it is a responsibility that most are more than willing to accept. They can see a genuine partnership between themselves and their government, dedicated to a common purpose.

The old, passive approach to paying benefits means that the benefit system we inherited has failed to keep pace with economic and social change, with people being dependent when they need not be.

Two-thirds of current spending has its roots in decisions taken before the Beveridge Report in 1942. In the past, governments have simply reacted to the symptoms of failure - spending more, but doing little to tackle its underlying causes. Between 1979 and 1997, the Conservatives increased spending by more than 90 per cent. But, despite that, one in three children was living in poverty and one in five non-retired households had no one in work. Now one in three people remains at risk of relying on income support in retirement.

Our strategy is to confront the causes of failure: a serious assault on the causes of poverty - poor housing, poor education, poor health and lack of job opportunities. Right across the board, we are investing more to tackle the problems caused by the years of economic and social failure. Benefits cannot remove the causes of poverty.

Today we set out a radical new contract between the state and people of working age - the Single Gateway, replacing the system we inherited, which focused on cash hand-outs, with no support for people to gain independence. Instead, the Single Gateway will provide everyone with a personal adviser who will help them to become independent, in turn ensuring that they receive help to which they are entitled.

People have every right to expect us to give them this support. But this must be matched with the responsibility of helping themselves. Our new contract will require people to attend an interview as a condition of receiving benefit, and to consider the options available to them. They need help to acquire skills and training, and we are providing that support. It is their responsibility to take up this offer of guidance and, where they can, to return to work. There can be no excuse for failing to take up that opportunity. The Single Gateway will make sure that people understand the opportunities and advice available.

These are radical reforms. We are not prepared to see people written off - nor are we prepared to allow them to write themselves off. By providing work for those who can and security for those who can't, we are reforming a system designed for post-war Britain and building a new system to meet the needs of the next 50 years.