Churches and charities spring to defence of lone parent benefit rebels

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Church leaders and charities attacked the Government's decision to cut lone parent benefits as a Commons rebellion appeared to be gathering support. But while pledges of support were rolling in last night for MPs planning to vote against the benefit cuts, the Conservatives promised to vote with the Government tonight.

Government whips were hinting that Labour rebels would face disciplinary action. Yet many constituency Labour parties, including nine in Greater Manchester, are backing the rebels, and the leaders of main churches in Scotland also gave their support.

Cardinal Thomas Winning, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, Richard Holloway, the Bishop of Edinburgh and Alexander McDonald, Moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, all signed a letter urging Scottish MPs not to support the measure until a further study of the effects of the cuts had been carried out. The letter, organised by Scotland's two largest one-parent family groups, One Plus and One Parent Families Scotland, said the cuts "will mean taking food from the mouths of children." Although the English bishops have not spoken out, a number of other church groups south of the border have done. Niall Cooper, the national co-ordinator of Church Action on Poverty, described the cut as "indefensible and incomprehensible."

However, government ministers were delighted to learn that the Conservatives, who first thought of the cut, would vote with them tonight. William Hague, the Conservative leader, said the Labour Government was right to press ahead with the cut in benefits. "Of course, they promised not to, so they are breaking their promise, but we will support them in this measure," he said.

Party whips were suggesting that between 10 and 20 would vote against the Government, while some left-wingers had put the figure as high as 30, with many more abstentions. Last night Labour backbenchers were claiming that both Tony Blair and Harriet Harman had been given special dispensations from the whips during the 1980s in order to go home and see their children in the evenings. "These are the people who are now telling single parents to leave their children and go out to work," said one MP.