Harman faces growing anger over disability cuts

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Labour MPs were last night upset by Harriet Harman's refusal to rule out cuts in benefits to the disabled. Colin Brown and Barrie Clement report that the Prime Minister backed her up, in spite of a trade-union rumblings at Downing Street.

Harriet Harman stood firm in the face of anger from her own backbenchers after refusing to rule out cuts in disability benefits as part of the Government's spending review.

The Social Security Secretary told an all-party group of MPs on the disabled that the review was not cuts-led but she made it clear she was looking at ways of tightening up checks on some benefits, particularly incapacity benefit, which has soared in cost to pounds 8bn.

Lord Ashley, the Labour campaigner for the disabled, said after the meeting that the Government was in for a long, angry and bitter battle if the disabled were targeted.

"We asked Harriet Harman for a categorical undertaking that there would be no cuts in disability benefits and she refused to give that. This is a matter for very deep concern."

Ms Harman said her review was aimed at helping more disabled into work and she would not defend the status quo. The Cabinet agreed to press on with the changes to the welfare state in spite of concern by TUC leaders yesterday at a meeting with the Prime Minister.

In particular they expressed dismay over cuts in payments to lone parents and urged Tony Blair to ignore calls for lower disability benefit. John Monks, TUC head, who led the delegation, said unions favoured a review of the welfare state "but we don't want to see the most vulnerable people left out".

Roger Berry, Labour MP and secretary of the all-party group, said: "We fully supported a review. Fraud is an issue that has to be tackled. We were disappointed that there was a reluctance to see that disabled people would not be worse off after the review."

He said there was an inconsistency between Ms Harman's assurances that the review was not cuts-led and a leaked policy paper suggesting the cuts in benefits were aimed at achieving savings.