When the going gets tough...
Tough. Radical. The end of the something for nothing era.
Those are the words that ministers want to be associated with today's proposals for a shake-up of the welfare state.
Hold on a second though, let's focus on what exactly is the "something" ministers now expect of almost everyone claiming benefits. It is not - contrary to some expectations - going out to work or doing compulsory community work.
The central proposition in today's White Paper is that all those who once were simply on benefit will be expected to agree to the goal of entering the world of work. All those, that is, except those classified as severely disabled or parents of babies under one. The system will accept that "the goal" may take many years to reach or may never be reached at all. During that time the benefit claimant will stay on full benefits and will not be forced into community work providing they stick to a plan they agree with an adviser.
The plan may involve receiving counselling for a problem such as drug abuse or being heavily indebted. It may involve training. It will include help with job search such as advice on how to draw up a CV, money for a new suit or the cost of the ticket needed to get to an interview.
Only if someone who was on incapacity benefit doesn't follow the plan they helped to draw up will they face sanctions. At first, they'll be given a warning (a kind of benefits yellow card). If that doesn't work those on ESA (the new name for those on IB deemed fit to prepare for work) will be fined £12 for a first offence, £24 for a second and then forced into compulsory work such as digging an old person's garden. There will, in other words, be no red card which throws people out of the benefits system altogether nor any American-style time limits for claiming benefits.
Now, I am not saying that today's measures don't represent a major change. They do. Millions of people who were told there was no expectation they should even look for a job will be told that they can and should get one if at all possible. Millions of lone parents who did not expect to have to look for work until their children left home will now be expected to do that. (One of the architects of the reforms, David Freud, writes interestingly about them in today's Times.)
What I am saying is that recent headlines have all been about stick when most of what's in today's proposals is about carrot. How tough they turn out to be will depend on the actions of those administering the system on the ground. What's more, in the short term at least, we will all spend more trying to get people back into work not less.
What makes the proposals really significant is that they represent a consensus between the Labour and Tory leaderships and are, therefore, certain to be implemented in some form. They are not scheduled to come into operation until autumn 2010 - that's after an election and after, we all hope, the recession is over.
PS. Sorry to go on at such length but a man-sized fly may just have distracted you if you were watching last night's Ten O'Clock News. Thanks to those who've said I was incredibly calm. In truth, I had no idea he was there at all. If I had I would have swatted him.