David Blackburn

Waiting for welfare reform

Waiting for welfare reform
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After a summer of sporadic announcements, IDS’ welfare reforms will be published in a white paper next week. As in 1997, when Tony Blair urged Frank Field to think the unthinkable, there is consensus on the need for radical welfare change. IDS has earned respect as a moral and pragmatic reformer, and he attracts goodwill from across the House. The Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg and Steve Webb particularly, were ‘vital’ in securing a spending concession from George Osborne, whilst Douglas Alexander has described IDS’ plans and ‘noble’ and pledges to support principle that welfare should be a safety net, not a vocation.

He warms to the theme in today’s Guardian. Labour will back government plans to introduce a universal credit, redefine access to incapacity benefit, drive out fraud and test the availability of incapacity benefit claimants to work. Alexander also agrees that benefits should be withdrawn from those who refuse to take up work, but he wants assurances that the government will guarantee work if it is to withdraw benefit – at the moment, Duncan Smith has no such plans.

This cordiality evaporates when housing benefit is concerned. Again, Alexander says that Labour agrees to the principle but not the detail. For instance, limiting the level of benefit from the 50th to the 30th percentile of rents in just one year would mean, he says, that 700,000 of the poorest people lose an average £9 a week. Introduce the changes in stages and the vulnerable are much better protected.

There are several points on which there can be no compromise: child benefit cuts and the decision to cut 10 percent in housing benefit from dole claimants.

On paper, Alexander’s opposition looks very measured. IDS may be revered but he is not infallible: Ed Howker has revealed how proposed housing benefit changes may penalise those in work, and the child benefit debacle suggests that this white paper will be knocked around the committee rooms. In principle though, Westminster seems to be on side.