Farewell to welfare as Blair orders Britain to work

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The Independent Online
AFTER 50 years' faithful service, Tony Blair's Labour government will today wave good-bye to the Welfare State of Beveridge, offering instead a benefits system that leaves a high-grade safety net only for those who absolutely need it.

The long-awaited welfare Green Paper, A New Welfare Contract, will make clear beyond doubt that those who can work have a "duty" to do so; those who can provide for their own security should "help themselves" - while those who can do neither will be looked after.

Trailing the Green Paper, Mr Blair said during Commons question time: "What is important is that we have a welfare state in which there is work for those who can, security for those that can't, and opportunity for those denied it."

There was no question, the Prime Minister's official spokesman explained later, of offering a low-grade safety net for the destitute. There would be more help for those in the greatest need. Of that, he said, "no one need fear".

But the new model welfare system will overturn decades of passive welfare, in which claimants have sat back and waited for their giro cheques.

In 1948, when the Welfare State came into existence, two-thirds of those claiming National Assistance, the precursor to today's Jobseeker's Allowance, were retired. Now, more than two-thirds are below retirement age, and the Government is determined to do all in its power to get them off welfare and into work. That is the contract.

They have been given the pounds 5bn New Deal welfare-to-work programme, offering them opportunities of work or training; the Budget will make work pay more than benefits; and the next and final stage is to target the welfare system on those who really need it.

Today's consultative document will be accompanied by a Commons statement from Frank Field - a politician whose career has been dedicated to this fundamental change - in which people will be offered responsibilities to go with their rights, to break the cycle of dependency and insecurity.

The Green Paper will not contain a detailed shopping list of hard-and- fast policies on each benefit, but MPs are expected to be given an outline battle-plan, showing which legislation is coming up in next autumn's new session of Parliament, and when other decisions can be expected.

A review of the uprating of the state pension is due to be delivered in June, and a number of other reviews are expected to accompany the comprehensive departmental spending review - timed for delivery in July. That could include answers on the Child Support Agency, benefits for the long-term sick and disabled, and housing benefit.

The seemingly intractable problems of housing benefit were exposed yet again yesterday, when successive social security ministers - Tory and Labour - faced scorching criticism from the Commons Public Accounts Committee for not tackling massive levels of housing benefit fraud. The new Government is about to grasp that nettle.

The Commons report said that fraudsters almost never face prosecution, despite the fact that an estimated 400,000 of them are milking up to pounds 2bn from the state each year. Of those who are detected, fewer than 1 per cent is taken to court. Just under half of all local authorities brought even one prosecution last year.

"The waste of public money on housing benefit fraud is massive and inexcusable, and it has gone on for far too long," the report says.

Tackling fraud will be one of the key elements of today's Green Paper, and Housing Benefit will be a critical target for crackdown.