Politics: Blair takes on mission to explain welfare reform

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair is to return to the campaign trail, starting in the Midlands on Thursday, to persuade public and party that welfare benefits need to be reformed to help the poor. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, examines the need for clarity and reassurance.

After months of confusion and fear, capped by the House of Commons revolt over lone parents' child benefit and a backlash from the disabled, the Prime Minister said in Tokyo yesterday that he had a mission to explain.

"I want to get to the heart of the country and get to the heart of the matter and say to people, `Welfare reform is not about increasing poverty or harming the poor; it's about helping the poor, those in genuine need, but making sure we've got a system fit for the 21st century'."

But with Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Social Security, talking of the possibility of an "affluence test" to curb benefits for the better- off, the sensitivity of the issue was abundantly illustrated by one comment made by Tony Blair about pensions.

He told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost programme yesterday: "In the field of pensions, for example, people are already providing for themselves privately far more. Now the role of government there is going to be different from where it was in the past because if all the Government does is simply increase the amount of money and the basic state pension, many of the poorest people don't benefit from that at all."

That was immediately pounced upon by some of the reporters travelling with the Prime Minister on his visit to Japan as a threat to the existing state pension and its annual up-rating - something that had to be denied by the Prime Minister's spokesman.

Mr Blair said in his interview: "I haven't come into politics to increase poverty. I came into politics to fight it, but our welfare system at the moment is costing more and more and more and it's not actually helping the poorest in our society.

"You've got a million pensioners at the moment that aren't even claiming the income support to which they're entitled, and living sometimes in considerable poverty indeed. So it's not working, the welfare system, it's going on costing vast sums of money, so the idea that we can simply sit there and say nothing needs to change is foolish."

But Mr Blair insisted that the changes would proceed along strictly defined lines, and one of the principles was laid down yesterday by Ms Harman, who said: "We are not going to reform the welfare state by reducing the living standards of those dependent on benefits."

She also questioned the principle of the universality of some benefits, saying: "People do not like the idea of a means test on the poor, but they may wear an affluence test, and that is one of the options which should be looked at."

She told the Observer newspaper: "Do people want benefits all the way up the income scale, or is there a point when it is fair to say these people are so rich that we do not want income to be distributed this way?"

The Secretary of State cited the example of the main disability benefits - disability living allowance, attendance allowance and incapacity benefit - where more than pounds 3.5bn of the total pounds 24bn annual bill was going to the top quarter of income- earners.

Mr Blair said that he believed he could carry his party and the public, "provided people listen to what we're actually saying and don't listen to a whole load of non- sense about betraying the basic principles of the Labour Party or ditching the welfare state".

But Peter Lilley, the shadow Chancellor, told BBC Radio 4's The World this Weekend that Mr Blair was confused. "He said before the election they were against means testing, now they are talking in terms of means testing even the universal and contributory benefits," he said.