Leading Article: Ministers lost in the welfare forest

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The Independent Online
The Prime Minister was without doubt one of those boys who was up all night swotting before the exams. He is a deadline-driven politician who leaves things to the last minute. Welfare reform is the most glaring example yet of his failure to think difficult issues through.

Before the election he made a number of grand and not necessarily compatible statements. One of the more important was (in this newspaper): "I see huge inequalities in wealth and opportunity and believe they should be corrected." Others were made less publicly, to the effect that lone mothers were feckless and the young unemployed should be forced to get off their backsides. Closer to the election Tony Blair delivered not policies but streamlined slogans: hand-ups not hand-outs; work as the best way out of poverty; a national childcare strategy. This broad-brush approach was good. It was quite right to drop the old left-wing assumption that tax- and-spend was the answer to all social ills.

But there was no detail. And since the election, there have so far been only gestures. The new prime minister made his first speech on a deprived housing estate in south London and talked of the multiple causes of "social exclusion". The Labour Party's most radical thinker in this area, Frank Field, was given a big ministerial post. Now, here was a man with a blueprint. But, though Blair liked Mr Field's rhetorical lines about family and duty, the detailed scheme was a Heath Robinson contraption that would never have worked.

So who did he appoint to cut this Gordian knot? Harriet Harman, an arch- moderniser who had lost the confidence of the Labour Party while failing to convince the wider public that she could do her sums.

After the public relations disaster of the vote to enact (next month) the Conservative cut in benefits for new lone parents, Mr Blair took to the country to "sell" his welfare reforms. But what are they? All he has sold so far is the proposition that the present system is not working and that we should not be afraid to change it. Meanwhile, Ms Harman was asking her friends to rally round and save her job.

Little wonder, then, that the Government approaches the Budget in two weeks' time with its welfare policy in tatters. Last week we thought - for a moment - that Mr Blair had a plan after all; that the lone parent benefit fiasco had been a bad dream; that it was all going to be put right in the Budget and all poor parents - single, double, in work or out - would be better off. It did not take long to realise that this was a desperate bid by Ms Harman to spin a series of highly technical Budget options into a tapestry depicting her higher virtues. We can hardly blame the Social Security Secretary for resorting to the women's network in the face of such cattiness from the old boys', but it would have helped if sums involved in the great scheme for giving back with the other hand had been done correctly.

It turns out that, while lone parents in work will benefit - as had already been leaked on behalf of the Chancellor himself - from the new Working Families Tax Credit, new lone parents who choose to look after children (such as under-fives) at home will still be worse off from next month. Meanwhile, ambitious plans to give tax relief worth up to three-quarters of the cost of child care are highly tentative, and would not begin until next April at the earliest.

But this is only one part of the welfare reform forest where ministers cannot see the wood for the trees. The Government has a good story to tell on its ambitious plan to get the long-term unemployed off benefits and into work or training. It failed utterly to sell the imposition of university tuition fees as a measure of social justice to reverse the subsidy to the middle classes. And, as we report today, it will put up NHS prescription charges to pounds 5.80, further undermining the principle of universal free health care for trivial revenue gain.

It is a miserable mess, although not ill-intentioned, and some progress towards a fairer society might be made by the time of the next election. But a lot of time has already been wasted, a lot of people have been needlessly offended (the disabled, pensioners and students) and one unkind cut has been endorsed. Ms Harman should go, but Mr Blair should take the blame.