The blueprint for a modern welfare state

From a speech by the Education Secretary David Blunkett at a seminar on the welfare state, held by the Policy Studies Institute

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The welfare state was founded on the principle of "universality". The theme is resilient, but it has not proved untouchable, and it has meant different things to different people. It is now time to re-examine how the principle of "universality" should be interpreted to meet the needs of people in the coming century.

The welfare state was founded on the principle of "universality". The theme is resilient, but it has not proved untouchable, and it has meant different things to different people. It is now time to re-examine how the principle of "universality" should be interpreted to meet the needs of people in the coming century.

Collective provision did not start from a fully formed social-security system. The major religions all included support for those in need as a key part of religious practice. The Elizabethan Poor Laws were in large part a response to the collapse of the traditional local welfare system that depended on charitable foundations swept away by the Reformation and the sale of Church assets.

The Industrial Revolution inspired early examples of collective provision such as goose and burial clubs, the embryo craft trade unions, mutuals and friendly societies. All this was patchy and involved only a minimal role for the state. The collective spirit generated during the First and Second World Wars forged a more modern welfare state, supporting people from cradle to grave.

Of course, the modern welfare state has always had its opponents. Early in July 1948, the Daily Mail told its readers: "On Monday morning you will wake up in a new Britain, in a State which 'takes over' its citizens six months before they are born, providing care and free services for their birth, for their early years, their schooling, sickness, workless days, widowhood and retirement. All this, with free doctoring, dentistry and medicine for 4 shillings, 11 pence out of your weekly pay packet. You begin paying next Friday."

Thank goodness the Daily Mail and this government agree on the need for a welfare state that enables people to earn their own living, to take responsibility for themselves and their family, to determine their own future, but also to be able to call on essential services that see them through times of need.

For decades, governments have treated the welfare state not only as a safety net, but as one from which people are not expected to climb out. No wonder, then, that its customers have treated it in the same way. The modern welfare state should be more than a safety net. It should be a platform for independence, prosperity and social inclusion, based on different sectors of society working together.

There are 2.4 million people who claim incapacity benefits. Every week, 3,000 people move from work on to benefits designed to help when illness or disability leaves them no option - most of whom historically have stayed on benefits and not gone back to work. And on average, claimants will stay on sickness and disability benefits for five years. The cost to the Exchequer is £6.8bn a year.

Our challenge is to ensure security for those who cannot work and real opportunities for those who can. We need to give practical help to enable as many of these people as possible to have the chance to work again.

It is a "something for something" approach, in which people have an obligation to help themselves where they can. In a world of computers and increasing variety in the nature of work, more opportunities are available for people whose work capacity may be limited by disability or ill-health.

With the help of employers, we can ensure that the transition between full-time and part-time work, and between paid work and volunteering, can be made easier, more flexible, less bureaucratic and of greater value to both the giver and the recipient.

Possibly through private sponsorship, we could ensure that people moving from work into retirement or semi-retirement receive information and guidance on what voluntary opportunities exist - for example, reading schemes in schools, family support networks and helping local charities. An effective, flexible and responsive welfare state should lie at the heart of any reasonable vision of a good society.

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