Blair backs Harman over cut in lone-parent benefit

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The Government was facing rebellion by Labour MPs on a pounds 6-a-week cut for new claimants of lone-parent benefit. But, says Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, Tony Blair is standing firmly behind Harriet Harman.

The Prime Minister's office yesterday threw its weight behind Harriet Harman to face down a growing Labour backbench revolt over a pounds 6 a week cut in lone-parent child benefit.

It was made clear that there would be no change in the policy, in spite of the threat by Labour MPs to try to embarrass the Government with a vote in the Commons before Christmas.

Mr Blair's personal backing for the Secretary of State for Social Security underlines his determination not to allow her to be picked off by the left wing who are beginning to flex their muscles for the first time on the issue after a stormy confrontation at the weekly Parliamentary Labour Party meeting.

"There was a clear majority in favour of the Government's approach. We have got a number of policies being implemented to deal with poverty and there is broad support on this too. The policy was agreed before the election and it is government policy," the Prime Minister's office said.

Diane Abbott, a left-wing member of Labour's national executive committee, blamed Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, for enforcing the policy, signalling the critics were not seeking to make it a personal confrontation with Ms Harman. "It's not really her - it's Gordon Brown and Gordon Brown is not a great one for backing down," Ms Abbot said on BBC radio.

More than 80 MPs, including 17 Liberal Democrats, signed a Commons motion in July attacking the plans inherited from the Tories which would abolish the higher single-parent rate of income support and child benefit for future claimants - worth up to pounds 10.50 a week for some families and pounds 6 a week on average - if new claimants do not seek work. The move is incorporated in a Bill to implement the Government's commitment to spend pounds 200m in a new deal to lift lone parents off welfare into work.

Another attempt will be made to reverse the policy when the Social Security Bill returns to the Commons next month after its committee stage. Ms Abbott said a wide spectrum of Labour MPs were against the cut, and 46 Labour MPs have signed a Commons motion led by Audrey Wise, a veteran left-winger, and some members of the new intake including Ann Cryer and John McDonnell.

Labour MPs accused the whips of stuffing the standing committee with loyalists to ensure the Bill got through unamended. A group of women protesters shouted "Labour scum" when it was approved.

Alan Simpson, a leading member of the Campaign Group, remained hopeful that the Government would change of policy. "Labour didn't stand on a manifesto which said we would launch first-strike attacks on single parents. The policy should be changed."|

Defending herself yesterday, Ms Harman said: "I am quite determined what we should do is keep our promises to the public to stay within the budgets of the departments but also to have a welfare to work strategy."