Child benefit rise sweetens welfare reform crackdown

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ALL BENEFIT claimants will be required to attend rigorous Jobcentre interviews under far-reaching reforms announced by the Government yesterday as part of its plans to modernise the welfare state.

The Social Security Secretary, Alistair Darling, confirmed that lone parents, the disabled and the unemployed would receive no cash unless they agreed to a formal interview with a jobs adviser.

In an attempt to sweeten the controversial move, however, Mr Darling announced a record rise in child benefit, upgrading the allowance by pounds 2.95 to pounds 14.40 for the first child.

The Government's move towards compulsion was a centrepiece of the long- awaited proposals and was accompanied by plans to revolutionise benefits for the disabled.

The Welfare Reform Bill, which will be a central feature of the Queen's Speech next month, aims to target help at those who are most in need of it, while deterring benefits fraudsters. All claimants will face a "single gateway" for state aid, and will have to attend a "one-stop shop" for information on benefits and help with finding work.

Incapacity benefit, currently claimed by 1.7 million people at a cost of pounds 7.4bn a year, will be overhauled completely in an attempt to prevent its abuse. To restore its original role as a form of compensation for those injured while at work, the benefit will in future be paid only to those who have been in recent work. Mr Darling also announced rises in the state pension and new aid for severely disabled youngsters, claiming the reforms would target those in most need.

The Benefits Integrity Project, which had been criticised for forcing the disabled to face tests in order to qualify for aid, will also be scrapped.

Disabled rights and lone parents groups welcomed Mr Darling's decision to boost benefits for the poorest claimants, but attacked the idea of forcing anyone to attend compulsory job interviews. Both the Disability Benefits Consortium and National Council for One Parent Families said that compulsion would undermine the Government's plans for the New Deal.

Mr Darling stressed that current claimants would be protected from the proposed changes, whose introduction will be phased in over the "medium term".

Critics had claimed that the Government's flagship welfare reforms had stalled when Frank Field resigned as social security minister this summer. However, Downing Street claimed that yesterday's announcements proved that the programme was firmly back on track, and Mr Darling said that the detailed proposals were proof that real action was being taken on the general principles backed by Mr Field.

The Government denied, however, that plans had been rushed forward to deflect attention from the controversy over the resignation of the Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies.