Leading Article: The missing notes of welfare reform

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The Independent Online
FRANK FIELD should be one of the Government's assets when it comes to welfare reform. He has long experience - he became involved with the subject when Tony Blair was still a teenager. He is universally thought of as dedicated, thoughtful and energetic. Only last month he implicitly compared his relationship with Tony Blair to that of Keith Joseph and Mrs Thatcher - philosopher prince (or mad monk?) and powerful monarch.

In the marathon race that is welfare reform, his green paper yesterday, "A New Contract for Welfare", gave him the opportunity, as David Coleman might have put it, to "open his legs and show his class". He showed a little less.

His statement in the Commons showed all the signs of having been put through the Treasury wringer. It sounded as if it had once had specifics in it, which had all been taken out. Its timing, nine days after the Budget, said it all.

But, after a Budget which was all about the duty to work, important questions for the welfare state remain. What sort of responsibility do we owe to those who really cannot and should not work? Mr Field did not have the answers. He mentioned poor present-day pensioners. They shall have pilot schemes. (We knew that.) What about the genuinely incapacitated? Tell you later. What about lone parents of children under five? Nothing.

Mr Field teased us by saying there had been much support for his idea of compulsory second pensions, before announcing a further green paper later in the year. He promised "fundamental reform" of the Child Support Agency. Later in the year. He was going to crack down on housing benefit fraud, by checking people's National Insurance numbers. All well and good. But hardly "thinking the unthinkable", which was oversold during the previous rhetorical phase.

The one concrete proposal yesterday was the setting up of a Disability Rights Commission. The lion of welfare reform roared and brought forth a quango. Worse than that, a quango on a bed of cotton-wool rhetoric designed to calm the panic caused by earlier leaks of big cuts in the disability budget.

What was missing was not soundbites or presentational device. What was missing was not a big statement of the philosophy of welfare reform. What was missing in Mr Field's statement was a translation of all that stuff into plain language that relates the government's intentions to the lives of real people. We are not demanding detailed legislative measures: clearly that will take time. But what should have been in the green paper was a statement of how the Government sees the path of welfare spending as a share of national income, and a clear description of the kinds of people who should gain and lose.

Mr Field mentioned the tripling of numbers claiming Incapacity Benefit since 1979. Kick their crutches away! But then he mentioned the 50 per cent of those entitled to Disability Living Allowance who do not claim it. Give their crutches back!

Perhaps he has a plan and it is not for public consumption. That would be a pity because Blairism needs the same kind of clarity as Thatcherism if this lot are to emulate her abilities as a political educator.

Eric Morecambe described the piano-playing of his partner as "the right notes but not necessarily in the right order". With this government it feels not only as if some of the notes are missing, but that the roadshow has come before the reform, the spin before the policy announcement and, now, the policy announcement before the policy. But it would not take too much to fill in the gaps and get the notes in the right order.