The eight pillars of welfare wisdom

David Blunkett, who once prided himself on his plain speaking, this week gave us his eight principles of welfare reform (one for each year the government has been in office). With it, his transformation from Sheffield steel to soft soap was complete.

From the outset one could see this was a work of some quality. The eight principles comprise just 135 words, yet 70 of those are hackneyed phrases, a score so high as to make Mr Blunkett the Olga Korbut of cliché.

Principle 1) : “Help people to help themselves by offering a ladder to self-reliance and self-determination, not merely a safety net.” This is a splendid idea. If there’s one thing the disabled need, it’s a ladder to self-reliance. Here is Mr Blunkett at his most daring. He could have gone for a stairlift, but he does not want to deny them the sense of achievement which comes with scaling their own ladder, especially after all those years in the three-wheeler of dependency. What it actually means is less clear. But it might involve some training, or reskilling as we now like to call it.

2) “See work as the best route out of welfare.” – as opposed to what, the lottery? The M25? This translates as “get a job or lose your benefit, you work-shy malingerer” but that didn’t sound as lofty in the first draft.

3) “Promote understanding and enable people to make informed choices for themselves.” This is a tricky one. If you have to “promote understanding” to “enable” people to make the right choice, then how are they making it for themselves? Also, are tax credits a route into or out of welfare? Perhaps they are a route in when you get the money and a route out when you are ordered to repay it.

4) “Balance rights with responsibilities, while recognising the need for care and support where appropriate.” Quite right too. The last thing we need is care and support where it is inappropriate. As for balancing rights and responsibilities – was this the bit about his wish to use lie detectors on new claimants?

5) “Recognise our mutual interdependence and obligation to each other, promoting solidarity between the generations and the importance of using the resources of government to help people cope with rapid economic and social change.” Now, in the first place how do you “recognise” mutual interdependence and obligation? “Hi, didn’t we meet at the claimants’ ball? You were with the Moral Duty sisters.” At least on the bit about using resources of government, we can trust ministers to be true to their word.

6) “Ensure the role of the state is active, liberating and enabling.” Active and liberating? So, that is the government doing even more for you, so you can do even more for yourself.

7) “Address the root cause of poverty and overcome disadvantage and exclusion.” Damn, if only we’d thought of that earlier.

8) “Contribute to a stable and growing economy through investment in the potential of every individual and flexibility of support in and out of work.” Again, more training.

So there it is. Eight years; eight principles; still stuck behind the eight ball. A cynic might wonder whether this whole exercise was designed simply to show Mr Blunkett getting on with the job – one of the eight principles of surviving a tabloid firestorm. When he does fill in the gaps, this will amount to little more than a crackdown on incapacity benefit and whatever the chancellor agrees to on pensions.

BBC’s point of view

The BBC was on Tuesday night accused of “sexing up” its dossier on the case for an increase in the licence fee to shore up public support for the hike.

The dossier stated that the proposed Retail Prices Index plus 2.3 per cent rise amounted to an increase of just £3.14 a year “in today’s prices” and would take the cost to £150.50 by 2013. That figure was then picked up by all the BBC outlets who faithfully reported it, as stated in the press release, without in any way suggesting that might be the teensiest bit misleading.

However, the actual cost, assuming an RPI rises by 2.5 per cent over the period, will be closer to £183.43, or £7.40 a week – a 45 per cent increase.

Senior sources within the BBC say the governors and execs were warned this figure of £150.50 was false and yet included it anyway in spite of the reservations of senior research staff.

There are also doubts about the claim that the BBC had huge stockpiles of repeats which it could deploy within 45 minutes unless it got the extra cash. The stockpiles do exist, but intelligence suggests the BBC has no intention of decommissioning them.

There is also anger over the crucial omission that one reason for the large hike is that the government has loaded the costs of digital switchover on to the licence fee so as to avoid it appearing as public spending. Sources say it was left out on the instruction of the BBC top brass so as not to annoy ministers at this delicate time.

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