A taxing challenge for consumers' champion: Labour today launches its Commission on Social Justice, aimed at rethinking policies on tax, benefits, wealth distribution and social welfare. Nicholas Timmins talks to Sir Gordon Borrie, its chairman

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AS THE Director-General of Fair Trading for 16 years until last June, Sir Gordon Borrie worked on a large canvas.

A consumer's champion, he tackled brewers, car dealers and undertakers, tangled with takeovers and triggered the 'Big Bang' by litigating over anti- competitive practices in the City.

Today, and unpaid, he takes on an even bigger one - loaded, at least on Labour's part, with expectations. John Smith has dubbed the commission, his idea, 'a new Beveridge' and 'an alternative Royal Commission'.

Sir Gordon, 61, who appears to have emerged still bubbling with energy from a job that might have ground many down, is aware of the scale. But he plainly believes it's a job worth doing and worth doing big. A sign of the independence for which he was known at the OFT is that he has insisted that the commission, whose full membership will be announced today, has drawn up the final terms of reference - not Mr Smith.

And his study will be no narrow examination of tax and benefits - it will range across training, the balance in health spending between public and private, the minimum wage, the issue of full employment, and will take in the 'middle-class' welfare state of tax reliefs on mortgages and pensions.

Before that, however, it will go back to first principles. 'It is worth examining from scratch. We are not going to repackage Beveridge, we are going to rethink all the concepts behind Beveridge,' he said.

Fifty years on, some of Beveridge's prognostications no longer hold, he says. 'It was assumed there would be full employment, women would mainly be at home, that without state pensions many would be poor in old age, whereas now quite a high proportion are not, they have got private pensions, but there's a divide between them and those who haven't. All sorts of changes have taken place. What we have to do is analyse those, and ask what the perception of a fair and just society is and what we mean by social justice, and then look at how the tax, National Insurance and welfare benefit system fit the society in which we live and are expecting to live in the next century.'

In the 1950s, Sir Gordon, a lawyer by training who has returned to the Bar, stood twice as a Labour candidate - a membership he discreetly dropped while at the OFT but has picked up again. His qualifications for his new task, he says, include 'not being committed to any firm views for or against universality as against means-testing and targeting', or any of the other sacred cows of left and right. He feels 'complete freedom' over the conclusions his commission may reach.

Its relationship to Labour is advisory, but equally it was 'advisory to the country as a whole'. Any party could pick up its recommendations and 'no party has a monopoly on doing right, fair and just things'.

'I don't feel it is our job to temper our proposals to what might be politically convenient at some point in the mid- 1990s' - and big changes to universal benefits, or to mortgage tax relief, if they made sense, would need to be phased. Labour, it appears, is likely to get at least as much as it bargained for in Sir Gordon's commission.

Now, he says, is a good time for a fundamental rethink, not just because there is evident unease in a society where many people 'do not feel perfectly comfortable with large numbers of unemployed, untrained and homeless people'. He also judges that after 13 years of Conservative rule, a change next time is both desirable and likely.

Leading article, page 22

(Photograph omitted)