Opinion: Labour learns from its welfare mistakes

As we move towards a general election, we enter a period in which the political parties will inevitably offer ever quicker fixes on issues that worry voters. There was therefore very real concern that the Government's long-promised fresh look at incapacity benefit would simply be a way of reducing the 2.7 million current recipients to satisfy the middle classes.

New Labour has, after all, a history of favouring macho gestures on welfare reform.

Remember 1998, when benefits to lone parents were cut to prove the new Government's virility. Savings were paltry and the changes were quietly reversed a few years later, but the signals sent out were important. It was the beginning of disillusion for many of the Government's core supporters.

So it came as something of a relief when work and pensions minister Alan Johnson unveiled his review: no immediate cuts, and no threat of new criteria to satisfy for those already receiving incapacity benefit. Instead, we have a regime for new claimants from 2008 that attempts to balance guaranteeing ongoing support for the most needy 20 per cent with well-resourced and constructive encouragement to the other 80 per cent to reconsider the workplace with the help of expert advisers. There have already been local trials of the plans, and they have produced positive results.

Knowing how difficult it is to get it right, most third sector organisations working with people on incapacity benefit have broadly welcomed the proposals.

One person's incapacity is another's spur to achievement. We all react differently to physical or mental disability, depending on our circumstances, personality and support network. For every David Blunkett, there are others for whom the loss of their sight is impossible to handle ever after.

Those who apply the benefits system can get an accurate diagnosis of illness, or even expert advice on an individual's state of mind. But they cannot accurately predict what is going to help and what will hinder the pursuit of independent and fulfilled lives. The best you can hope for is that for every five people you help, one will fall by the wayside.

It may not make for vote-winning politics, but on incapacity benefit the Government appears to accept that true reform takes longer than the life of a Parliament. Such an acceptance, when dealing with the lives of vulnerable people, may even be a first sign that New Labour has learnt the lessons of its earlier mistakes on welfare reform.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster and sits on various trustee boards

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