The British Prime Minister Tony Blair has made the first in a series of country-wide speeches 'selling' his plan to modernise the welfare state, while on the same night a social security minister's speech was interpreted as supporting mandatory pensions.

In a speech made last month, Blair told party activists in the Midlands that it could be 15 years before the fruits of any pension reform were felt, but he made it clear that those in genuine need will always be helped".

At a meeting in London, Social Security Minister Frank Field, number two in the department and regarded as an intellectual heavyweight, said: "We believe that people have a responsibility to provide for themselves when they are in a position to do so."

These remarks were widely regarded as part of a two pronged approach indicating a government move towards mandatory pensions, although there is still a considerable lack of detail.

Field's speech - notable because it was given as a memorial lecture for the late architect of Thatcherism, Sir Keith Joseph - continued: "This is the other side of the coin to our unwavering commitment to provide help to those in genuine need, who are unable to provide for themselves."

He attempted to set the government programme in the tradition of other welfare reforms but notably added that while the aim - "that of ensuring more welfare cover" - was the same, the means had changed.

"The change is in the means by which welfare is delivered, as well, ultimately, as a radical alteration in what is thought of as welfare."

He went on to praise the occupational pension system as one of the "unsung heroes of the post war welfare system".

"Today, 86% of men working full-time are members of a company pension scheme. In 1953 only 28% of all employees were members of an occupational scheme," he said

But he also warned of the collateral damage that could result from a single sweeping reform - which he referred to as the Big Bang approach - for example where earlier reforms damaged private organisations, a signal that the government was aiming for a process of continuing reform. John Lappin"