In 1996, just months before his triumphant entry into 10 Downing Street, Tony Blair promised to make “a modernised welfare state” a key goal of his nascent premiership.
Yet attempts during Labour’s 11 years in power to shift millions of citizens off benefits and into work have largely failed to match the pre-election rhetoric.
Frank Field, the Labour MP acknowledged as an expert on welfare, questioned whether the measures announced on Monday would do much to improve the party’s record.
He cautioned: “I have lost count of the number of occasions that the government has published what it thinks are radical proposals and nothing has happened.”
Mr Field claimed that £60bn had been spent supporting programmes such as New Deals and Making Working Pay. Yet the “workless roll call” had fallen by only 500,000 at a time when 3m extra jobs had been created.
The Tories claimed on Monday there had been nine significant strategy documents and more than 30 announcements on welfare reform since Gordon Brown became prime minister.
Given the intractability of the problem, Mr Purnell’s decision to stake his political credibility on resolving it will strike supporters as brave but critics as foolhardy.
At the heart of the government’s initial plans to transform the welfare state lay the New Deal welfare-to- work programme which was launched by Mr Brown, then chancellor, in 1997.
Mr Brown insisted that the long-term unemployed would have to undertake either paid or voluntary work, education or training. There would be no fifth option of staying at home on full benefit.
The New Deal’s record has been patchy, however. Chris Grayling, shadow work and pensions secretary, says it has operated like a “revolving door’’ with 18 to 24-year- olds returning to benefits after only short periods of training and work.
There are more jobless youngsters than in 1997, according to this month’s report from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development.
“Ten years ago Gordon Brown was bemoaning the fact that youth unemployment was twice the average for adults. After a decade of his policies it is now four times the average,” adds David Willetts, shadow skills secretary.
More widely, a drop in unemployment figures – the claimant count has halved from 1.6m since 1997 – has been masked by a huge rise in those claiming incapacity benefit. The latter group has risen from 700,000 in 1979 to 2.62m in 1997. The figure still stands at 2.64m, just under its 2003 peak of 2.78m.
It has not all been bad news. Experts acknowledge that the New Deal has helped thousands of older people and lone parents back to work. But in seeking to turn round the culture of dependency in parts of the UK just as unemployment is set to rise, Mr Purnell – who is believed to harbour long-distance designs on the Labour leadership – faces a career-defining task.