Errant mothers to be put on subsistence benefit

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MOTHERS OF young children, pregnant women and people with seriously ill dependants will have their benefits cut if they breach court orders, under proposals drawn up by the Government.

Ministers are planning to punish those who fail to obey community sentences by introducing new "hardship payments," allowing them just enough to subsist. Up to 30,000 people a year could have their benefits cut for between four weeks and six months.

The proposals were described last night as "a return to the days of the Poor Laws". Lawyers say the measures constitute a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Details of the plan, which will form part of the Government's new Bill on welfare reform, have emerged in papers drawn up by officials at the Department of Social Security. They state: "The effect of this measure on a lone parent with one child aged under 11, receiving income support, would be to reduce benefit entitlement by 40 per cent of the single adult rate - a reduction of pounds 20.55 per week."

Expectant parents or people with seriously ill dependants would lose 20 per cent of benefits, just over pounds 10. Offenders with no children will be hardest hit, initially losing all of their pounds 51.40 jobseeker's allowance. After two weeks, they would be entitled to apply for a pounds 30.85 "hardship" allowance. Young people on the Government's New Deal employment programme would have their pounds 56.08 benefit cut to pounds 15.38.

Harry Fletcher, spokesman for the National Association of Probation Officers, said the new measures smacked of the 1834 Poor Law. "The fact that the hardship fund has been established shows that the Government acknowledges that the provisions will cause financial problems," he said.

Nigel Walshe, a civil rights solicitor, said the proposals amounted to discrimination against the unemployed and would lead to people having benefits frozen before they had a chance to explain why they had breached an order.

He described the plans as "dangerous and reactionary in the extreme". He said they breached three articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, as they amounted to punishment before any trial. The convention is incorporated into the Human Rights Act in this country.

But ministers want to make community punishments more effective. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has been horrified by the failure of some probation officers to bring back before the courts offenders who repeatedly break the conditions of their court order.

Community sentences include probation orders, which place offenders under supervision for up to three years, and community service orders, which require offenders to perform unpaid work for up to 240 hours.

The plan to remove benefits from those who breach their orders will be introduced in pilot schemes around England and Wales to test the links between Social Security offices and Probation Services and gauge the effect on the behaviour of offenders. It may later be introduced in Scotland.

The benefits likely to be cut include the jobseeker's allowance, income support and the training allowance. Housing benefit and disability allowance will not be affected.

A spokeswoman for the DSS said individual circumstances would be taken into account when deciding how much benefit to cut. "When offenders are being sentenced, they will be told that they could run into benefit cuts if they do not fulfil their community sentence," she said. "We need to also look at this from the victim's point of view. Taxpayers' money is being spent on benefits."