Ministers and Field carry on vicious war of words

Battle over welfare: Darling signals that Government will lower its sights on benefits reform as briefing war escalates
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THE GOVERNMENT yesterday signalled a big shift in its welfare reform policy from "thinking the unthinkable" to "doing what is practically possible".

As it moved to put a line under a bitter war of words surrounding the acrimonious departure of Frank Field from the government, Alistair Darling, the new Secretary of State for Social Security, indicated the clash was not just about personalities but policies. The message yesterday from ministers was that some of Mr Field's ideas were simply wrong-headed.

Mr Darling, former chief secretary to the treasury, said: "There is room for debate, discussion and argument about the whole nature of welfare reform and the welfare state, but there does come a time when you've got to move from these general discussions to what is practically possible."

Mr Field, who resigned as number two in the Social Security Department amid the ministerial reshuffle last week, was described yesterday by a senior colleague as "a joke" and others suggested his ideas were "paltry and unpublishable". Mr Field, MP for Birkenhead, rounded on Harriet Harman, the former secretary of state for social security, for blocking his ideas. In a statement to the House of Commons last week he indicated that Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, had been the main opponent of reform.

Mr Darling and Jack Cunningham, the new Cabinet "enforcer", confirmed yesterday that Mr Field had demanded he be made head of the Social Security Department in succession to Ms Harman. Mr Darling said such a request would have been "impossible" and Mr Cunningham said no prime minister could have possibly given in to such a demand.

Mr Field had been charged by Tony Blair with "thinking the unthinkable" when he was appointed a minister.

Yesterday the Government seemed to have more modest ambitions.

Mr Field continued yesterday to fight shy of attacking Mr Blair. He said his ideas had got "lost on the way" to Number Ten. Ms Harman had been responsible for "losing" them.

He told the Sunday People: "The whole department simply did not function for a long period of time. Nothing happened.

"In the end I ceased to put projects forward because nothing ever happened. They'd be run into the sand, disappear into a black hole."

One of Mr Field's main opponents in the Cabinet was the Chancellor, who sought to introduce a means-tested minimum pension. Mr Field believes that corrupts the poor and penalises the thrifty.

Mr Darling declined an opportunity to defend Mr Field against the anonymous allegations that he was "a joke".

Mr Darling said simply that he had made a useful contribution to the Government and would continue to do so from the back benches.

Iain Duncan Smith, shadow social security secretary, said Mr Blair had now admitted his programme for welfare reform had failed.

Attacks by unnamed ministers had "highlighted the hole at the heart" of policy.

Steven Webb, the Liberal Democrat social security spokes- man, said the dispute showed the Government was "neurotic" about criticism.

Leading article,

Review, page 3

Frank -

Fearless and Free

"I want to speak publicly and campaign in public for all the things I know need doing but which I was frustrated from doing when in office." - in an 'exclusive' interview in the Sunday People "Incentives to work and save are fatally undermined." - the Sunday People "In the end I ceased to even put projects forward because nothing ever happened. They'd be run into the sand, disappear into a black hole." - the Sunday People "Whenever he [the Prime Minister] got personally involved in something it would happen . . . In my case, it was clearly very easy for the message to get lost on the way to Downing Street."

"It is entirely true that Gordon was trying to block my ideas on pensions... [Brown's plans for a means tested minimum pension] would be a corrupting influence on people." - The Sunday Telegraph

Ministers -

Say the Unsayable

"Field's talents were 'not best suited to running a government department' and his proposals 'never took the form of policy capable of being implement by a government'." - Prime Minister's spokesman in the


"Of course this is an area where there needs to be a debate and discussion, but the point comes where you have to implement reform." - Alastair Darling on Radio 4, The World This Weekend

"All Brown did was to ask the difficult questions which exposed the shallowness of his plans," said a member of the cabinet's welfare group. - The Sunday Times

Accusing Field of forcing the Prime Minister's hand by demanding a promotion to the Cabinet during the reshuffle. "That's not the kind of pressure any Prime Minister is going to accept," he said. - Jack Cunningham on Sky News

"We would explain to him the subtleties of a particular benefit and then he would just announce what he wanted to do, as if the practicalities were completely irrelevant." - Ministerial source in the Independent on Sunday