Steve Richards: David Blunkett's problems with blondes are irrelevant to the challenge of welfare reform

I do not believe that Blunkett is as vulnerable as he seems, at least in terms of his private life
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Not so long ago he was the stern Home Secretary, bringing to his brief a moralistic fervour as he lectured us on the bleak consequences of misbehaviour. Now his alleged misbehaviour causes a stir. His affair with Kimberley Quinn is the subject of a play, a musical and a television film. In the newspapers, various blondes associated with the minister fill the pages. He attracts more publicity than Jude Law.

As far as some in the media are concerned, Mr Blunkett is the equivalent of the vicar caught with his pants down - which places him in a potentially precarious position. When a politician is ridiculed he is usually finished. But I do not believe that Mr Blunkett is as vulnerable as he seems, at least in terms of his private life. The films, plays and musicals have not been particularly funny or successful. Few have seen them. In this sense Mr Blunkett has had the last laugh.

Nor can I get worked up about Mr Blunkett's apparent hunt for new girlfriends after the trauma of his relationship with Ms Quinn. He is a single man who would like a relationship. Shock! Horror! I would be more alarmed if Mr Blunkett had thought to himself in the midst of his post-Quinn misery: "I will devote every waking hour to welfare reform."

Admittedly, in such circumstances there would be fewer jokes, but he would not have much fun: a morning spent on pension reform, an afternoon on incapacity benefit, tax credits in the evening over a drink or two.

I do not want to sound like a vicar with his pants firmly in place, but Mr Blunkett's ministerial brief is a bigger challenge than his search for a girlfriend, and one that impacts more on our lives. Mr Blunkett the politician deserves more attention than Mr Blunkett the supposedly erratic lover. As the minister in charge of welfare reform, he is pioneering a programme that is emblematic, vividly highlighting the progressive aspirations and limitations of the government's wider agenda.

Yesterday he published the principles that would shape a welfare reform Green Paper, to be published later this year. In essence, Mr Blunkett aims to get more people off benefit - especially incapacity benefit - and into work. I get no sense that in Downing Street or beyond there is a desire to revive the populist slogan: "Get the scroungers off benefit". Instead, in thoughtful and reflective interviews yesterday, Mr Blunkett stressed his belief in an active and enabling state. The Government would play a constructive role in assisting claimants' return to work.

Quite often, ministers do not attempt to define the role and purpose of government, an omission that gives considerable space for those on the right that argue the state has virtually no role at all. At least Mr Blunkett made clear that the Government is not stepping back, but will be involved in developing new ways to encourage people back to work. It plans to offer training schemes, and to liaise with the NHS and potential employers in order to find satisfactory working arrangements.

As far as they go, there is much to commend in these proposals. The problem is they do not go very far. It is easier for ministers to outline proposals than to ensure their successful implementation. In advance of any implementation, Mr Blunkett addresses a complex conundrum. How to instruct people in local communities to think and act on their own behalf?

As a senior government insider put it to me: "At a national level, we are trying to create a permissive environment for local change." This is an illuminating quote that applies to a whole range of public service reforms. It is a contradiction in terms that is difficult to resolve: "We order you to be more innovative!"

Mr Blunkett wants local GPs to cease signing sick notes and take more time to discuss the problems facing the patients. He hopes potential employers respond imaginatively to those who seek work. He expects continuing support for former claimants from the NHS. Even if Mr Blunkett turned away from problematic women for the rest of his ministerial career he would not have the time to address each case from his office in Whitehall. He depends on a new approach from claimants, GPs, health workers and employers.

Mr Blunkett will be the latest cabinet minister passing legislation in relation to welfare reform with his fingers crossed.

No one can accuse the Government of rushing into these changes. With trumpets blaring, some of Mr Blunkett's predecessors have already outlined the principles behind these particular welfare reforms. A few months before the election, Alan Johnson made clear that it was time to get more claimants off invalidity benefit and back to work. In a range of interviews, he explained the principles behind the reforms. Yesterday Mr Blunkett went no further than explaining the principles yet again.

The slow progress is partly a reflection on the never-ending changes to the Cabinet. In Education, Health and the Department for Work and Pensions cabinet ministers come and go more quickly than leaders of the Conservative Party. Each one decides that first of all they must outline the principles of their controversial reforms even if their predecessors have already done so.

A cautious approach is better than premature proclamations of boldness that are subsequently accompanied by tiny, timid reforms. But the caution also reflects a genuine nervousness. There are no easy answers to that key question in British politics: How does the centre help to bring about local innovation?

All the main parties agonise over the answers. At the last election, the Conservatives pledged to make local communities responsible for their police forces. At the same time, the Conservatives pledged to reduce crime. What would have happened if a local police force proved to be inefficient under a Conservative government? In theory this would have been a matter for the local community and not the Government. The conundrum explains some of the policy tensions between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in relation to the reform of public services. Now Mr Blunkett tiptoes around it in the most sensitive area of all, the reform of the welfare state.

His biggest challenge is not the likely revolt from Labour MPs, but making the reforms work. If he succeeds he will have a made a significant contribution to the welfare to work agenda. But the speed of implementation and its success will depend on the co-operation of many people and agencies around the country. Mr Blunkett discovers once more the limits of power at the centre. Dealing with problematic girlfriends is a piece of cake compared with the reform of the welfare state.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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