Vision for a working welfare state

A war on fraud is at the heart of Frank Field's reforms, writes Stephen Castle
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The Independent Online
THE timing could hardly be more symbolic. Fifty years after William Beveridge's report which established the welfare state, the Government this week will outline its long-awaited vision of social security in the 21st century.

Frank Field's Green Paper on welfare reform, which will be delivered on Thursday, has had its share of difficulties. Not only was it blown off course by the row over lone-parent benefit, but the politics of the Department of Social Security have played their part.

Mr Field, the main author, is actually number two in the department whose Secretary of State is Harriet Harman. It was she who last week made the presentation to Cabinet, Mr Field keeping his contribution brief. But in the Commons it will be Mr Field who makes the formal statement.

Nor has the Prime Minister been inactive. After worries that numerous policy reviews might contradict each other, and stung by criticisms, Mr Blair set up another group, which he has chaired, to bring together the findings.

The idea of this week's document, therefore, is not to introduce a big bang, but to set the intellectual boundaries of what will follow, to signpost the future.

The document will have seven themes reflecting the familiar New Labour line that the public has responsibilities as well as rights. It will argue that: everyone who can work should do so; services should be designed to help people to become independent; help should go to those in greatest need; families and children should be supported; the welfare state should combine the best of public and private provision; it should provide services rather than simply paying benefit; and it should bear down on fraud.

Behind the sometimes tortuous language of welfare reform lie some simple principles. Dependency should be ended where possible, people should be both helped and pressured to find work, abuses of the system should be tackled but those in genuine need should be assisted.

Significantly the Government will also publish a list of more than 20 tests by which its progress should be measured. Judge us, ministers will say, by the reduction in the number of people of working age in families with no one in a job, by the rise in the number of second-tier pensions, by the drop in estimated fraud.

Most detailed decisions have yet to be taken. On pensions the message will be that people should provide more for their old age.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, is reluctant to introduce compulsory second- tier pension contributions which could be seen to be a backdoor tax. That, however, is the direction in which the Government is moving in the long term.

The future of housing subsidy for those on low income has yet to be resolved. Instead of housing benefit, paid direct by local authorities and open to widespread abuse, the Treasury favours a tax credit for recipients in work. Mr Field favours a voucher. Either way, the objective remains that this pounds 4bn monster is tackled and that the pounds 1bn estimated fraud is eliminated. Social Security ministers see this as a way of redistributing money to those in genuine need.

Further work will be commissioned on child support and disability. When the latter issue was raised before Christmas, it caused a sizeable row. This week's document will go some way to reassuring the disabled, discouraging speculation that such benefits will be means- (or affluence-) tested. It will, however, take a tough line on those who abuse the system.

Bearing down on fraud, once a Conservative preserve, is now centre stage for Labour. The Benefit Fraud Inspectorate, which audits local administration of housing benefit, will be beefed up and better-quality civil servants encouraged into this area.

Mr Field wants benefit fraud to be socially unacceptable in the way that drink-driving is, and may introduce a publicity campaign. He will call for flexible penalties against fraudsters - including fines and reduced benefit - and quicker punishment.

It is a message rather different from that delivered by William Beveridge all those years ago, and one rooted in realism rather than idealism. As one source put it: "Beveridge's White Paper sold a million copies. We're not expecting this document to manage that."

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