Britain may take a big step away from the welfare state

Prime Minister Blair says new law signals an end to 'something fornothing culture.'

Automatic state handouts for the unemployed and disadvantaged will disappear under new laws about to be enforced by Britain's Labour government.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has shocked traditional socialists in his own party by ordering reforms that will cut deep into the welfare state - the cradle-to-grave economic and social system that has prevailed in the United Kingdom since the end of World War II.

The reforms will mark the end of what Mr. Blair calls a "something for nothing culture."

They also underscore "new" Labour's swerve away from heavy dependence on working-class support and its pursuit of middle-class voters, who were key to Blair's victory in the May 1997 general election.

A bill unveiled by Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling Feb. 10 means that jobless Britons, single parents, and citizens claiming state benefits because of physical handicaps will have to show a willingness to work before the government agrees to help them financially.

Unemployed people claiming state benefits will be required to attend a series of job interviews. Mr. Darling told the House of Commons that if, after three interviews, they refuse a reasonable offer of employment, the government will withhold their benefits.

Similar, though less stringent, provisions will apply to single parents and the physically and mentally disabled who currently receive payments from the state.

The government's long-awaited Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill has been attacked by left-wing Labour members of Parliament (MPs) as an assault on the party's long-held belief in the principle of universal benefits for the jobless, poor, and needy.

The idea that benefits should be paid without any form of means testing was entrenched in laws passed between 1945 and 1950 by Britain's postwar Labour government and has prevailed, more or less intact, ever since.

Lynne Jones, MP for Birmingham, where unemployment levels are high, said: "People fear this kind of harassment will be oppressive, particularly to those with mental ill-health."

But Blair sees the measure as part of a concerted program to change the basis of Labour's social and economic policy, with stress on work rather than welfare. At the same time he wants to reduce Britain's ballooning welfare costs. In the current fiscal year, according to government figures, Britain will spend 98 billion ($159 billion) on social security - by far the largest item in the nation's budget.

The government estimates that initially under the new rules, some 30,000 people will no longer be able to claim incapacity benefits. In the long term, that figure is expected to rise to 170,000.

No reliable estimates are available on the new law's likely impact on unemployment. The effect on Britain's estimated 1.7 million single parents and their 2.9 million dependent children is certain to be considerable. Some 56 percent of single parents currently receive state benefits.

Darling describes his plans as "radical but necessary."

"People have a right to expect help to get into work and security if they cannot," he told the Commons. "In turn, they have a responsibility to take up that help when it is offered. What we will not let people do is simply rot away and live a life on benefit."

The new measures surprised some groups that normally support Labour.

Mencap, Britain's largest disability charity, complained that forcing claimants to go for job interviews or risk losing benefits would "create real anxiety and slam the door on their certain right to relative financial security."

The National Council for One Parent Families called the new rules "harsh," and said Darling should "think again."

IT IS unlikely, however, that Blair and Darling will agree to do so. It has taken nearly two years for the government to develop its welfare state strategy.

A year ago Blair weathered a storm of protest from left-wing MPs after he reduced state benefits for single mothers. This time he has been careful to proceed with care, and left-wing Labour MPs are thought to be too few in number to mount a credible challenge to the welfare crackdown.

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