Smith launches 'big idea' for welfare state

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Indy Politics
JOHN SMITH yesterday launched his 'big idea' to allow Labour a radical re-think of much of the welfare state, free from the pressures of day-to-day politics - while underlining his personal view that there was 'a strong case' for retaining universal state pensions and child benefit.

The Commission on Social Justice - an attempt to produce a 'new Beveridge' over the next 18 months - has been set up by the Labour Party, but will operate independently of it, based at the left-of-centre think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Its membership draws on the centre and left and contains a wide range of views, but is free of politicians.

Mr Smith said that not since Beveridge 50 years ago had there been 'a comprehensive assessment and re-appraisal of the social condition of our nation' and a 'radical and comprehensive approach' was needed.

But while the commission, under the chairmanship of Sir Gordon Borrie, former director general of fair trading, will be free to recommend what it likes, Mr Smith underlined that Labour would remain free to pick and choose from its conclusions. Mr Smith's renewed commitment to the remaining universal benefits - Labour's pounds 3.3bn plan to boost them accounted for much of the tax increase it proposed at the general election - underlines the difficulty the party may have in adopting any radical changes proposed by the commission.

But with its remit running across the whole of the tax and benefits system, including the possibility of integrating them, as well as employment, education, training, housing and childcare, the commission has more room for manoeuvre than any politically backed study since Beveridge.

Sir Gordon said he planned 'provocative and challenging' interim reports which some in Labour's ranks hope will open up the party to new thinking before the commission's final recommendations are published.

Mr Smith also said yesterday: 'We should no longer be thinking just in terms of providing a safety net, but of creating a springboard to independence, self-reliance and personal fulfilment. People don't want handouts; they want a chance to achieve.'

Sir Gordon underlined that by saying a central issue would be levels of unemployment far higher than Beveridge envisaged.

The young unemployed and those made redundant with little prospect of working again 'must be given the hope of a purposeful life, including some form of employment', he said. 'Unemployment costs the unemployed their income, but it costs the whole country lost production. Poor education costs young people their entire careers, but it costs all of us in slower economic growth. We sink or swim together.'

The committee's 16-strong membership includes some with clear political links to Labour - Patricia Hewitt, deputy-director of the IPPR and a former adviser to Neil Kinnock was a key member of the election team, while Emma MacLennan, the party's research officer on social security and taxation until the election, is married to David Ward, Mr Smith's policy adviser.

But its membership ranges much wider to include Tony Atkinson, Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge, Christopher Haskins, chairman of Northern Foods, the Very Rev John Gladwin, adviser to the Church of England's Faith in the City report, Bernard Williams, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford, and David Marquand, Professor of Politics at Sheffield, an SDP founder.

Ruth Lister, a former director of the Child Poverty Action Group and now Professor of Applied Social Studies at Bradford is a defender of universal benefits, while Steven Webb is an economist from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, which has urged radical tax and social security changes.

Doubt of the benefit, page 19