New Labour’s Welfare Reforms: Anything New?

Published date01 March 2001
Date01 March 2001
New Labour’s Welfare Reforms: Anything New?
Julian Fulbrook*
The Labour Government’s path to legislative reform of the welfare system has
been characterised by internal party dissension, a mauling from both Opposition
parties, and repeated defeats in the House of Lords. Two major statutes have been
enacted, but with the promise of further modernising reforms to come, tactical
considerations in the run-up to a General Election suggest that there may be a lull
before the next legislative combat. In the House of Commons the 1999 Welfare
Reform and Pensions Bill suffered repeated rebellions from Labour backbenchers,
and even though the scale of the revolt declined steadily, from 67 in May to 54 in
the final vote in November 1999, risking further difficulties might be considered
unwise in the short term of the electoral cycle.
Despite many protests, and a background of controversy over the amount of the
state retirement pension, the Government refused to back away, and few
concessions were made. Having survived one serious battle on welfare reform in
1999, the Government returned for a second round with another controversial set of
measures in 2000. Taken together these statutes have made important changes to
the social security system, but how far can they be described as a ‘New
Beveridge?’ Both the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999 and the Child
Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 are now on the statute book, so it
is perhaps a useful moment to reflect on these measures and also to look at their
historical context.
Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security, has repeatedly
indicated how welfare reform is central to the Government’s whole modernising
programme. The aim has been to ‘modernise the welfare state so that it meets the
modern needs of our country . . . I believe our reforms, based on principle and
recognising the changes in our society over the past 50 years, will help lay the
foundations for a modern welfare state in the 21st century.’1In this endeavour, Mr
Darling has obviously been following the line promoted by both No. 10 and No. 11
Downing Street. However, the Government’s ‘big agenda for change and reform’
has certainly had a rough passage so far. The Prime Minister has repeatedly
declared that ‘Welfare reform goes to the heart of what Labour stands for. It is the
issue on which our government will be judged’.2
ßThe Modern Law Review Limited 2001 (MLR 64:2, March). Published by Blackwell Publishers,
108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA. 243
* Law Department, London School of Economics and Political Science. I am grateful to several colleagues
for their comments on an earlier draft of this article, and in particular to Professor Nick Wikeley of
Southampton University, Professor Adrian Sinfield of Edinburgh University, and Dr. Peter Wright, Office
of the Chief Medical Adviser, DSS.
1The Guardian 5 November 1999. See for a recent assessment of Mr Darling, Jackie Ashley, ‘The NS
Interview’, New Statesman 2 October 2000.
2 See in particular the Beveridge Lecture at Toynbee Hall in March 1999, reported in The Times,19
March 1999.
Thinking the unthinkable
When, a year after the General Election, little seemed to have been achieved, other
than the publication of a Green Paper in March 1998 entitled New Ambitions for
our Country: A New Contract for Welfare,3the Prime Minister abruptly changed
his social security team. Harriet Harman, the then Secretary of State and repeatedly
under opposition fire for a ‘wasted year’ was sacked. Her deputy, the long-term
welfare campaigner Frank Field, chose the more maverick route of resigning as
Minister for Welfare Reform, rather than take a sideways move to oversee the
problem of fraud. Most of the rest of the junior team, apart from Baroness Hollis
(who still remains), were moved to other departments.
The travails of Frank Field, now ‘Fearless Frank’ to the readership of mass
circulation newspapers where he has carved out a new career, is a highly
illustrative case study of the Government’s difficulties and philosophical approach
to these vexed matters. The original Green Paper version of New Ambitions had
been very much Mr Field’s own work, although later drafts were filleted in
Downing Street and the Treasury. Somewhat unusually Mr Field, as the number
two in the Department, introduced the final version to the House of Commons.4It
offered a ‘new’ drive against benefit fraud, action to get claimants into jobs and the
first steps towards compulsory saving for second pensions. The Government
promise was to break the ‘dependency culture’, as part of the ‘New Contract’ with
the electorate. In a personal foreword, the Prime Minister promised ‘work for those
who can and security for those who cannot’; this remains the central tenet. Mr
Field, a former director of the Child Poverty Action Group and of the Low Pay
Unit, claimed in his speech that the case for welfare reform was overwhelming.
The first objective of the system would be to ‘get people back into work’ rather
than simply paying benefits. The Government then set itself 32 ‘success measures’
against which the reforms should be judged. They range from an increase in the
number of working-age people in work to a fall in the number of pregnancies
among girls under 16. However, these have not been given a time-scale, and the
Government indicated that the changes should be judged ‘over the next 10 to 20
years’. Iain Duncan Smith MP, the then Conservative social security spokesman,
also promising ‘Draconian’ measures to root out fraud, described the Green Paper
as ‘vacuous’ and ‘a series of missed opportunities’.
Unfortunately, Mr Field, despite an illustrious thirty years of campaigning on
welfare issues, had very little time left to make Government policy. He had been
asked personally by the Prime Minister to ‘think the unthinkable’, but it may be
that there was rather too much cerebral cogitation and not enough action. In
particular, the Minister had been asked to cut the cost of welfare to the taxpayers
and to root out fraud; but there had not been much of a practical outcome in the
time-scale allowed. Mr Field had a spectacular few weeks in the spotlight
following his resignation, and has now returned to the role of pundit. Perhaps
teamwork was also an issue; he had been installed in the DSS to work in tandem
with Harriet Harman, but claimed that ‘it was like grafting someone else’s organ
on to a body. Chances of rejection are pretty great’.5In the introduction to a
3 See the White Paper Cm 3805 (1998). See also the companion, A New Contract for Welfare: Support
for Disabled People Cm 4103 (1998).
4 HC Deb vol 309 col 682 26 March 1998.
5The People, 2 August 1998: ‘Whatever has gone before, I won’t give up. I will be extremely vocal.
The benefits culture in this country must be changed. It rots people, it destroys their sense of
responsibility to their family, it kills their will to work, it pays for them to be dishonest. It’s also a
The Modern Law Review [Vol. 64
244 ßThe Modern Law Review Limited 2001

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