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Labour's budget and the right to universal benefit

Those who have asked how Labour would pay for a revolution in education and training have had an answer. Gordon Brown's plan to save Pounds 700 million from child benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds and divert it into the education of the same age-group will not meet the whole cost of the programme which the party's leader regards as a prerequisite for economic competitiveness in the next century, but it would go some way. More importantly, it begins to challenge those who say that Labour has ideas but no costed policies, and it signals willingness to abandon shibboleths in pursuit of modern realism.

Let us examine the last point first. The party's left wing and anti-poverty campaigners have denounced Mr Brown, who as shadow Chancellor has abandoned a long-standing commitment to universal benefits for young people. But he has had the courage to ask whether money paid to mothers of all children up to the school leaving age should continue for those who choose to remain at school but not for those who take a job or training or those who end up unemployed and homeless (although the opposition parties have other plans to help the victims of the most obvious and objectionable feature of 17 years of Conservative government).

Child benefit is not in reality universal. It helps middle-class families, whose children stay on at school, and discriminates against the poor whose staying-on rate is understandably lower. If Mr Brown can guarantee that money saved can be devoted to improving opportunities for all young people, the change of tack will be applauded. It may be that all 16 to 18-year-olds will in time have to receive some payment. They deserve straight support more than older students, for whom a graduate tax, or variant thereof, increasingly looks like practical politics.

But until a Labour government shows that savings are being put into education and training, there is bound to be scepticism. Treasury officials will see a useful pot of money in any financial crisis. Any inalienable link between money specifically raised for education (as the Liberal Democrats propose) or savings made for that purpose is bound to be hard to maintain. The left is not alone in remembering the effect of abandoning universal free health provision by Labour as well as Conservative governments.

Mr Brown's speech in Edinburgh last weekend has begun the process by which the party has to cost and make provision for its policy proposals. He will not go as far as John Smith, his predecessor in the shadow Chancellorship in whose memory his lecture was given. Too detailed spending plans would allow the Tories to make hay as they did with Mr Smith's "budget" in the 1992 election. But sceptics, who include teachers worried about the effect on workload of pupil compacts and other ideas, will have to be convinced that money would be available and shown where it would come from.

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