Prime Minister Tony Blair intends to devote the coming year
to reinventing Britain's welfare state. He says he wants to "change
it so that it is better suited to the needs of the 21st century."
But the closing weeks of the old year flashed a warning to
the landslide victor in last May's general election that slashing
welfare spending will guarantee his Labour government a bumpy ride
Blair has no further to look than the bitter debate that
surrounded passage of welfare reform by the United States Congress
in 1996. The measure requires recipients to work and places a time
limit on benefits. More than a year later, the reforms have
prompted a steep decline in welfare rolls, but remain a contentious
In the first months of his administration, Mr. Blair and his
team of ministers rode a wave of unprecedented popularity. At one
point opinion polls showed the man who ended 18 years of
Conservative rule enjoying a 93 percent approval rating among
But by November, the honeymoon appeared all but over when
Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman unveiled plans to cut
welfare benefits to single parents - mainly unmarried mothers.
Unease among Labour members of Parliament (MPs) turned into an
Then, two weeks later, the government announced that special
payments to the physically disabled would also be curtailed.
In a series of speeches and interviews, Ms. Harman sought to
justify the cuts, claiming that the government's plans to create
more jobs and provide day care for children of single parents
joining the work force would prevent her measures from causing
But in the House of Commons Dec. 10, division over the
proposed cuts led 47 Labour MPs to vote against the government; 14
others abstained, and one minister resigned.
The rebellion by Labour politicians determined to defend the
existing welfare state was not great enough to cause acute
embarrassment to Blair - he has a 179-seat majority in the Commons.
But more trouble was to come.
On Dec. 22, more than 100 protesters in wheelchairs waving
signs denouncing planned cuts in benefits for the disabled arrived
at 10 Downing Street, Blair's official London residence. They
daubed the gates with red paint. Twelve protesters were arrested.
Meanwhile, a letter from Education Secretary David Blunkett
to Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, deploring the payment
cuts to the disabled, was leaked to the media. …