Leading article: A welcome return to the principles of Beveridge

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The Independent Online

Some were bound to react to the Government's proposals for further welfare reform by attacking them for "punishing people for being poor". They are nothing of the sort, and it does not foster mature political debate to dismiss as right-wing or illiberal the idea that people have a responsibility to work, alongside a right to social support when they are in difficulties. It is true that yesterday's Green Paper targets those in the bottom quartile of the social economy. But the plans are an attack not on poverty so much as on dependency.

It is perfectly reasonable to expect those looking for a job, and receiving benefits, to do a month's community work after a year, and do full-time voluntary work after two years, if they have not found a job. Those receiving incapacity benefit should have to prove they are incapable of any work. Single parents who lack the support or skills to find a job should be obliged to accept that support or acquire those skills as the start of the journey back to economic self-sufficiency. Likewise, drug addicts should be obliged, in return for benefits and help, to accept treatment designed to help them out of their dependency.

It may be politicians' hype to describe this as the biggest shake-up of the modern welfare state since the Beveridge Report of 1942, but it restores an important principle of that settlement. One of its key principles was that the welfare state should not stifle incentive, opportunity and responsibility. So the benefit system is not there to give people a choice between benefits and work; it is there to help those who genuinely cannot find work.

All this was reiterated when New Labour arrived on the scene and Frank Field was brought in by Tony Blair as welfare minister to "think the unthinkable". Mr Field's programme to reduce means-testing, crack down on benefit fraud and get people "off the sick" proved too radical for the then chancellor, Gordon Brown. Better late than never, Mr Brown has come to embrace much of Mr Field's approach, which insists that human potential is most generally realised through work and by acting in a community with others.

Work expresses human dignity and also increases it. Some have said that forcing the unemployed to pick up litter and erase graffiti is demeaning. But where is the dignity in sitting at home, dependent on the state, caught in a benefits trap? Those claiming cash from the state have a duty to try to change their predicament. The alternative is defeatism as well as deprivation. A situation where two-thirds of the 2.7 million people currently on incapacity benefit are judged to be claiming illegitimately is not just bad for the taxpayer, it is bad for the claimant. Those "on the sick" tend to get more unhealthy, doctors say, than those who return to work in a different kind of job.

When the Conservative Party made similar reform proposals recently, government ministers dismissed them as unworkably expensive. Certainly these changes will cost more in the short-run – or at least they ought to. The Government may be right not to embrace Mr Field's most extreme proposal – to reduce the benefits system to a single level of payment. That would reduce the incentive for people to feign illness. But it would be unfeasibly expensive.

What the Government must not do – as recession and increased unemployment loom – is try to avoid the real cost of the proposals it has embraced. This is not a programme that should be driven by cash targets, but by the need for a cultural change. The consequences of reform on the cheap could be social unfairness, increased crime and political chaos. If benefits reform is to be done, it is essential that it is done properly.