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Last Updated: Monday, 25 July, 2005, 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK
Frank Field on the welfare state
To mark 60 years of the 1945 welfare settlement, the BBC News website invited an array of politicians and social and business experts to debate the future of the welfare state.

Frank Field is a Labour MP who served as welfare reform minister from in the first two years of Tony Blair's governments.

What might Mr Attlee say if he was able to return 60 years after forming the modern welfare state? What reforms might he advocate?

Such an exercise is not as far fetched as it may sound. Attlee held very firm views about the world in general and human nature in particular.

Frank Field

There are three aspects about today's welfare to which Attlee would have responded.

He would have been surprised by the numbers on means-tested assistance. For Attlee means-testing was a necessary safety-net which he believed should become less rather than more important over time.

Attlee would have known it was dangerous to continue having an ever-growing proportion of the population dependent on means-testing.

Pensioner fears

His second reaction would have been one of amazement at the relative poverty of pensioners. He would be the first to concede that the pension credit has channelled more resources to the poorest pensioners than any previous government.

But Attlee would have been the first to realise also the danger of aiming to have 85 per cent of pensioners qualifying for means-tested assistance as does the present government.

Attlee's background taught him that it was important for people on modest earnings to have an incentive to save and that welfare should encourage honesty.

I guess that Attlee's priority now would be to see in place a long-term pension reform which puts a shelf life onto pension credit - ie a reform that over time ensures that an ever-growing proportion of people retiring have an income above means-tested eligibility.

In planning such a reform I would hope that Attlee would have modified what was his nationalisation of welfare.

Independence call

Having the state deliver a minimum was probably inevitable in 1945. It is not now. Any long-term pension reform which is going to last has to combine some funded element to run alongside the current state pay-as-you-go scheme.

Governance of the scheme has to be at arm's length from government. By giving independence to the Bank of England Gordon Brown has already created the body which might act to house and protect the independence of any new scheme.

Thirdly, Attlee would be likely to be devastated on the change in attitudes to welfare.

He believed that welfare was important because each individual had an inherent worth which a minimum welfare provision reflected.

But the idea that one would claim welfare as a right without first accepting one's duties would be abhorrent to him.

Moral crusade

Attlee was a paid up member of what is called the Idealist School. He believed that each of us should try and achieve our best selves.

Service to others was inseparable from the goal of achieving our best selves. Citizenship was a moral crusade, which, over time, would enhance our moral being. Welfare plainly does not do that now.

Of course the vulnerable are rightly protected and society is better for meeting this objective. But a growing minority of claimants have an attitude of take, take, take rather than give, give, give.

Attlee would be quietly sitting at the prime minister's left-hand side nodding agreement as Tony Blair emphasised that rights are the reverse side of duties, and that without duties there can never be any secure and sustainable programme of rights.


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