Take heed of Frank's maverick plan

Labour's welfare programme may be shaped by the ideas of one MP with a radical, moral agenda
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The longest journey in Britain, it sometimes seems, has nothing to do with Groats or Cornwall; it is the journey from Labour MPs' constituency surgeries to their offices at Westminster. In the surgery, they come across the failures of welfarism. Here are the people losing self-respect, the battling-on people and the giving-up people. Yet in the Commons, at the level of national policy-making, this terrible distress isn't answered by a ferment of optimistic energy. Labour MPs believe they may be in power within 18 months. They know the expectations will be huge. But they also know that the money to help the slumped and desperate people in their surgeries isn't there.

It would seem that they are walking with their eyes wide open towards a great disillusion. Donald Dewar, the social security spokesman, is among the very best Labour frontbenchers. He is armed with the fruits of the Borrie Commission on social justice. Yet Labour policy is still caught in a trap between fast-rising demand and the dogged refusal of taxpayers to shell out.

Here is the issue which can break or make a Blair government. It is the key to much else - tax, the size of the state, even a sense of courage and purpose. Just at the moment, Labour MPs can afford to let their Tory opposite numbers worry about whether they would rather be defeated under John Major's leadership, or under one of the Michaels. What they should be sweating about is more significant: the bleak, black numbers in the latest social security select committee report, mapping how the budget is due to grow, and grow, threatening other budgets and dragging up taxes.

Some serious people argue that welfare-as-usual is still affordable. John Hills, of the London School of Economics, who has done the best detailed work, says that this could be paid for by a chancellor going to the country ''to find an extra half billion pounds each year".

This, he says, would be ''painful ... but not impossible". That depends on whether you're a politician or not. It represents an extra 2p or 3p on the basic rate of income tax every four to five years, without any more spending anywhere else - nothing more on education, nothing on transport.

The only other option would be to keep trimming welfare costs. But the Tories' experience is salutary. Peter Lilley, the driest of the dry, has tried his best, attacking invalidity benefits, introducing the jobseekers' allowance and equalising pension ages. But even this isn't, in total terms, big bucks. To go on as at present means that Labour would either have to tax more heavily, and be punished by furious voters, or would have to scrimp and snip like leftish Lilleys. Neither is a happy prospect.

One Labour politician, however, has devoted himself to a revolutionary alternative. Frank Field has been seen as a moralising maverick, who is "brave" and "interesting" (those deadly epithets) but not a contender for power. He has become the Labour MP whom it is safe for Conservative MPs to admire. Enough said?

Well, as it happens, not enough. Frank Field, it is slowly becoming clear, is not nearly as much of an outsider as we have been assuming. His ideas are being studied. Some influential Blairites now say he may go straight into government at a senior level. If that's true, the implications are enormous - not merely for Labour, but for the rest of us, too.

The first thing to say about Field's agenda is that it is a consciously moral one, in that it focuses on how the benefits system affects people's behaviour. This outrages some people, because they think it leads straight to blaming the poor for economic failure, witch-hunting single mothers and all the rest of it. Yet in the end, this is an indefensible objection: if we think tobacco companies and manufacturers of late-night television programmes should confront the social consequences of their actions, we can hardly exempt the pounds 74bn social security budget from the same challenge.

It has taken Field into a head-on assault on means-tested benefits, which now cover someone in nearly half the households of Britain. These, he argues, ''penalise all those values which make strong, vibrant communities. Those with savings above a certain level do not qualify. Those who try a part-time job lose almost pound for pound from their benefit. Those who do work can qualify, but only if they lie.''

Yes, this sounds a lot like the anti-welfare agenda as it is emerging on the hard right. Field, I think, would make this distinction: that while the right blames the poor for fiddling, lying or refusing work (remember Peter Lilley's ''little list'' at Tory conference time), he doesn't blame his constituents at all; he blames the system for making their behaviour rational.

The kernel of Field's proposal is the destruction of means-tested benefits and their replacement by compulsory private insurance. For years the consensus has been for targeted benefits. Because of his hostility to means-testing, Field goes in the opposite direction, calling for universality, but outside the tax structure.

He proposes that we all take more responsibility about what we pay in. What we get out would reflect our payments in. This would allow our insurance to be tailored to the less secure working life of the Nineties. Redistribution would happen alongside this private provision, with the Treasury stepping in to pay insurance contributions on behalf of the sick, the unemployed and so on.

As with insurance against unemployment and misfortune, so with insurance for old age. Field wants employees and employers to be obliged to pay into private pensions, which would be regulated by a new corporation. Unlike the current state pensions system, this would be independent of politicians and fully funded - that is, you would pay for your own pension.

There are many other aspects to the Field plans, including changing the income support system into an agency aggressively trying to get people back into work and tackling the "free market" housing benefit racket. But the key is the shift away from doling out money raised through tax to a system of self-insurance, merely overseen by the state.

It is, in essence, breathtakingly simple. Yet this is also, without doubt, the most radical reform of the system proposed since the war. Field is well aware of that. He modestly compares it to the programmes of the 1906 Liberal government and Labour in 1945; as chairman of the social security committee, he is frogmarching that fine body of MPs into the same territory. He is showing, in short, something of the energy and flair for propaganda (as well as the moralism) of William Beveridge himself.

The question for Blair is whether he wants to seize the radical welfare agenda before the Tory right gets to it, perhaps on the back of a taxpayers' revolt and in a filthy mood. Rumours sneaking through the party suggest that maybe he does. The idea that we might one day see Frank Field in charge of Britain's social security budget is the one of the most dramatic prospects of the political year so far. It is a wild thought. But it is no longer a mad one.