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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Forget Blunkett's private life. The real shocker here is Blair's public life

Avert your eyes from the rollercoaster that is David Blunkett’s political career and focus instead on the real scandal. Although Blunkett has dominated headlines for days with tales of unauthorised share-buying and dodgy use of House of Commons stationery, we are missing the point because the scent of sleaze is stronger than anything else.

Amidst all the sensationalism there lurks a far more shocking story. One which reveals, again, Blair’s obsession with power instead of policy.

For years now, Britain has faced rising numbers of incapacity benefit claimants who do not ever return to work. There are now 4 times as many people claiming IB as there were 30 years ago (a problem arising from high unemployment under the Conservatives, as job centres put people on IB to lower figures). After receiving IB for 2 years, a claimant is more likely to retire or die than go back to work. One reason for this is that if they find a job and it falls through they may not be able to claim IB again.

Enter the Pathways scheme which has been piloted in Britain for nearly two years. The scheme encourages rather than bludgeons; claimants are offered £40 extra per week for returning to work, with the opportunity to go straight back on IB if the job falls through. Because of its carrot, rather than stick, nature, and early intervention, the scheme has succeeded, with 8% more claimants coming off IB in the first six months.

Sounds great, right? So let’s introduce Pathways all over Britain. Blunkett, the Work and Pensions Secretary, thought so. Even Margaret Hodge thought so. But, apparently, Blair doesn’t. He fails to accept evidence showing that this is a workable, effective scheme, and instead concentrates on being ‘radical’.

Blair would rather cut IB by £20 a week than implement Pathways to Work.

Why?

Our Prime Minister has come to value radicalism and boldness even when this involves being radically and boldly wrong. Is he pandering to Tory calls for tough measures on benefit? Is he trying to court the vote of the rich? Who knows.

What we do know is that this truly scandalous story has been jostled aside by accusations aimed at Blunkett. The fate of one man with illicit shares may determine the fate of 2.6 million people who are on incapacity benefit.

I myself do not find Blunkett an endearing figure. But I respect a man who has defended a policy which is morally and economically viable in the face of opposition, even if he has tarred his reputation with a very thick brush. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of a man who refuses to cater for the needs of his electorate, choosing instead to back a flawed policy in the interests of power and bravado.

At our best when at our boldest? Show us you are boldly paving the way for a fairer Britain, Mr Blair, and I’ll believe you. Until then, I’d say you’re at your best when at your Blunkettest.

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