Blair seeks to tie job search to British welfare benefits

Prime minister says move is needed to overcome `something for nothing'

February 11, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON -- In a new effort to attack what he called the "something-for-nothing welfare state," Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced legislation yesterday that would require most of Britain's welfare recipients to attend regular interviews to discuss job opportunities or lose their benefits.

The plan is the latest in a series of measures that Blair's Labor government has taken in the past year and a half to reduce Britain's $157 billion-a-year social welfare bill and to encourage the country's welfare recipients to look for work.

While it does not threaten most people with the loss of benefits if they fail or refuse to find jobs, Blair said, it does require that they make a determined effort to enter the job market.

Some groups of recipients, including the terminally ill and people with severe mental handicaps, would be exempt.

The bill also attacks the country's program of providing so-called incapacity benefits to people with long-term illnesses, which Blair says has "drifted out of control" as more and more people use it as an excuse to take early retirement and never seek work again.

Tightening the requirements for the program and reducing payments to some recipients could result in about 170,000 people losing their benefits, for a saving of some $1.2 billion a year, according to advocates for welfare recipients.

Blair's previous welfare reform programs, known collectively as the New Deal, have been criticized for not going far enough toward ending the culture of dependency. The new proposals seemed intended to address some of that criticism.

"Individuals have a responsibility to accept work, train themselves for jobs, be flexible in the jobs they take and avoid dependency where they can," Blair said in an article in the Daily Mail yesterday.

His proposals join earlier efforts by the government to urge welfare recipients to find jobs. Under previous legislation, people who receive unemployment benefits are now required to accept reasonable offers of work or lose their benefits.

And under the New Deal, which gives employers incentives to hire the unemployed, more than 100,000 people ages 18 to 24 have found work, the government says.

But the new proposals were immediately attacked from both the left and the right.

The Conservative Party accused the government of "talking tough" but not "acting tough" and said the new plan would not work unless more jobs were created.

Members of Parliament on Labor's left wing said the government's plan of compulsory interviews would be particularly difficult for such vulnerable welfare recipients as the mentally ill or people seeking single-parent benefits for the first time.

And advocates for welfare recipients accused the government of using overheated language in order to pander to middle-income people who are not traditional Labor supporters but who voted for the Labor Party in the last general election.

"Tony Blair's statement that he wanted to end the `something-for-nothing' welfare state is offensive, because it implies that people get benefits as a matter of course," said Martin Barnes, the director of the Child Poverty Action Group, an advocacy group for low-income families.

"This is not true -- there are means tests, medical examinations, lots of forms to fill out -- and it reinforces negative stereotypes about the benefits system."

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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