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Thursday, March 18, 1999 Published at 16:32 GMT

UK Politics

Pledge to eliminate child poverty

Better support for children is intended to improve welfare's image

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair has pledged to wipe out child poverty within 20 years.

In a keynote speech aimed at putting welfare reform back on top of his political agenda, the prime minister said he wanted to make the welfare state popular again.

Andrew Webb reports on the 're-modelling of the Welfare State'
His new promise came during the annual Beveridge Lecture on social justice on Thursday.

He claimed Labour had an "historic aim" to be the first generation to end child poverty for ever. He said it was a "20 year mission - but I believe it can be done".

He insisted that the government was embarked on a process of radical welfare reform which had already seen major changes.

[ image: Tony Blair:
Tony Blair: "Radical reform needed"
His comments came amid growing claims that the government has abandoned its plans for real radicalism in welfare.

But it is claimed Mr Blair has backed away from a "big bang" approach and is simply tinkering with the system.

The sacking of former Social Security minister Frank Field - who had been taken on to "think the unthinkable" about welfare - was seen as the first sign that the problem of radically reforming the welfare state had defeated the government.

Tony Blair: "Being poor should not be a life sentence"
But Mr Blair was determined to revive the pledge, declaring: "The third way in welfare is clear, not to dismantle it, or to protect it unchanged, but to reform it radically - taking its core values and applying them to the modern world."

He said government spending on children is rising by more than £6bn over this Parliament and, as a result, of tax and benefits changes, 700,000 children will be lifted out of poverty.

He said the changes already introduced by the government - including the working families tax credit and the new deal for the jobless - had been hugely successful.

"The consequences of these reforms is a quiet revolution. They are being carried through by a quiet revolutionary, Alistair Darling.

"We are creating a welfare system which is active, not passive, genuinely providing people with a hand up not a hand-out," he said.

[ image: A further £6bn will be spent on children in this Parliament, the government says]
A further £6bn will be spent on children in this Parliament, the government says
And, referring to the founder of the welfare state, William Beveridge, whose ground-breaking report into social needs led to the creation of the National Health Service, he declared: "In Beveridge's time the welfare state was associated with progress and advancement.

"Today it is often associated with dependency, fraud, abuse, laziness. I want to make it once again a force for progress."

But his speech was attacked by the Tories who claimed his policies actually undermined the family and marriage and would do nothing to tackle child poverty.

And even welfare groups accused him of making "sweeping statements" instead of introducing practical policies.

Martin Barnes of the Child Poverty Action Group said the speech was looking too far into the future.

"Why wait 20 years, they can do more now," he said.

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