Life on full-time benefits is not an option, says Blair

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair, the Labour leader, last night unveiled plans for far-reaching reform of the welfare state which would take people off benefit and help people to "help themselves".

Speaking at a social policy conference in Amsterdam, Mr Blair highlighted the need to create new incentives which would reduce the number of people on benefits, stressing the need to target single mothers, the long-term unemployed and families on housing benefits.

"There will be no option of a life permanently on full benefit," he said. "Where there is a suitable offer people will be expected to take this up. That is fair: rights and responsibilities go together."

Mr Blair made clear that Labour intended to devise a "properly costed" welfare system which addressed the "modern purpose of welfare" and said it was Labour's task to create a genuine "one-nation" society by carrying out proper reforms. "We created the welfare state. It is our duty to reform it."

Mr Blair set out a six-point plan for welfare reform, including a strategy to get lone parents off benefit and into work. This would involve single parents with children over the age of five going for interviews at a Jobcentre where they would be urged to look for work. Labour said the plan, and other proposals to reduce the pounds 10bn cost to the state of single parents, had been modelled on Australia's successful jobs, education and training (Jet) programme.

He also proposed a system of "flexible" and "customised" benefits intended to ensure that welfare payments are better targeted to the individual.

Mr Blair said the plans would help Labour fulfil its election pledge to get 250,000 off benefit. But he insisted that his proposals were not about "compelling" people to work or "interfering" with arrangements for their children. "Instead they are an attempt to offer them a choice: a choice ... to work and escape a life of dependence on welfare, and often poverty. "Naturally we cannot guarantee every single mother who wants it a job. But we can help."

However, the Prime Minister accused Tony Blair of adopting copycat tactics and "jackdaw tendencies", picking up Tory-style plans to encourage lone parents to move from welfare.

Well before the Labour leader had even left Britain for Amsterdam, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats moved in to mock Mr Blair's pledges.

Mr Major said in his Huntingdon constituency: "From what I know of what he plans to say, the policy of after-school clubs for children has been our policy for some time, and we have devoted many tens of millions of pounds to it ...

"I'm afraid this is another example of the jackdaw tendency in the Labour Party - that if we leave a good policy lying about they will certainly scoop it up, shine it brightly and claim it as another brand new policy for themselves."

Mr Major said Labour's scheme appeared to be a watered-down version of government policy; excluding more spending and private sector involvement. "So I suspect there's not a great deal in the speech except some copycat policies."

Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, reinforced the Prime Minister's point, saying Mr Blair was imitating the Government's "Parent Plus" plans.

However, the pounds 20m Parent Plus project, a pilot scheme, is to be used in only 12 areas and does not start until April - the very last possible month of the present Parliament.