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Wednesday, February 10, 1999 Published at 02:21 GMT

UK Politics

Blair faces welfare test

Benefits: time for change

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

The publication of the Labour's much-heralded welfare reform bill was always intended to mark a high point of Tony Blair's first government.

Tackling Britain's creaking and hugely-expensive welfare and social security system was a central plank of the new Labour manifesto.

Mr Blair took a leaf out of Bill Clinton's "how to win elections" book and suggested he was out to "end welfare as we know it".

[ image: Field only thought the unthinkable]
Field only thought the unthinkable
And it was working with the grain. Few people believe the current £98bn-a-year system can continue and there isn't a Western state that has not been forced to take a long, hard look at the problem.

Mr Blair appointed radical Frank Field to "think the unthinkable" and draw up root and branch reforms of the entire system.

Piecemeal approach

Previous governments were accused of recognising the problem but adopting a piecemeal approach.

The first signs that it was going horribly wrong came early in the Blair government.

Moves to cut benefits to single parents landed the prime minister with his biggest backbench rebellion yet, and rumours of reductions to disability benefits saw demonstrations outside Downing Street.

Now the government is about to finally unveil its proposals, and they are bound to be greeted with claims that the promised radical reform has been abandoned in favour of yet another piece by piece change.

Worst of all, the government will come under attack from its own side for either chickening out of taking the hard decisions, or for hitting those who can least afford it.

[ image: Will Blair pass the welfare test?]
Will Blair pass the welfare test?
Plans to tackle abuses of disability and invalidity benefits could see genuine claimants forced back to work, taxing child benefit - not likely to come in the bill but expected in the budget - will prove hugely difficult and controversial by breaking the principle of universality.

Meanwhile Alistair Darling, the man chosen to replace Mr Field after he walked out of the Cabinet, is determined to prove he is taking a tough and radical approach.

New test

That is most likely to make itself felt through plans to force all claimants to attend an interview to examine all possible job opportunities - a refusal to attend or take up a job will mean the end of benefit.

But it will be the fine detail of the proposals affecting the disabled, widows and pensioners that will attract the attention.

One Labour backbencher with a passionate interest in the issue claimed the government has no coherent policy and is now "making it up as they go along."

The stated aim of "work for those who can and security for those who cannot" sounded good but meant little, she claimed.

Worse for Tony Blair is the prospect that the proposals will be seen by pressure groups and any of his own backbenchers as attacking the weakest in society - and that could threaten more rebellions in the Commons.

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