Blair remains unchastened by MPs' rebellion

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The Independent Online
Undaunted and undeterred by this week's Commons revolt on lone- parents' benefit, Tony Blair is determined to press on with welfare reform. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, finds some of his ministerial colleagues shaken by the prospect.

The hard edge of Labour's welfare reforms is to continue with a cutback in industrial injuries benefit, according to ministerial sources yesterday. The Prime Minister is as gung-ho for change as he appeared yesterday when he told Sun readers: "The easy way out on welfare is to keep the status quo. To keep the cycle of dependency which traps so many. I will not do that. I want to build a modern Britain and a decent society. To do that, we need compassion, with a hard edge ...

"The hard edge means demanding responsibility, knowing when to say no to demands for more money, and knowing that without a stable economy with debt in control, compassion on its own will be useless."

Many of Mr Blair's Labour colleagues are behind him in seeking ways of breaking benefits dependency, and are prepared to make the "hard choices" to back that up. But ministers and loyalist MPs have this week started to doubt the Prime Minister's judgement - because the decision on lone- parents benefit, if anything, could make the target group even more dependent on their benefit. Those who find work would go on to the new, lower benefit rate if they lost that job. They also doubt the wisdom of punishing single parents with children under school age.

But The Independent has been told that in spite of Wednesday's Commons vote - when anguish, grief and rage were palpable as MPs went loyally into the division lobby - Mr Blair remains unchastened. There is concern that if he is relying on Peter Mandelson, referred to as "minister with all portfolios", and other members of his inner circle, he is getting out of touch. One minister said that if reform was blindly pursued, there was a danger the revolt would become incremental.

The risk then would be of Mr Blair going deeper into his No 10 bunker and becoming ever more reliant on unsound advice.

As for the threat of party discipline, it was a commonplace at Westminster on Thursday that Nick Brown, the Government Chief Whip, had no intention of cracking down on Wednesday night's rebels - simply because, having been brought up by a lone mother, his heart was not in it.

The Independent understands the most likely target for the next cut is industrial injuries disablement benefit, for which 265,000 claimants currently get pounds 718m a year. Some ministers believe they could "sell" it on grounds that people injured and disabled at work get much more, at a maximum of around pounds 101.10 per week, according to the Social Security Department yesterday, than people identically injured and disabled in accidents at home, who receive pounds 84.10 a week, at most.

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