Harman's pounds 65m cuts are quietly dropped

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The Independent Online
A proposal to cut pounds 65m off the benefits of 1.9 million of the most deprived was dropped yesterday. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, says some cabinet ministers were as surprised by the plan as Labour MPs.

The Independent has been reliably informed that if the Cabinet had known in advance of the controversial cut in lone parents' benefit, it would have stopped it. By the time ministers had been alerted to its full impact, it was too late to retreat.

That was not the case with changes proposed in the Jobseeker's Allowance that would extend the "waiting time", blocking claims from the unemployed for seven days, rather than the present three. Whitehall alarm bells started ringing last month when Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Social Security, quietly published a highly critical report from the Social Security Advisory Committee, urging her not to go ahead with the Jobseeker's Allowance (Amendment) Regulations, inherited from the Conservatives.

The committee warned of the dire impact of the cuts on some of the poorest people but Ms Harman was resolute, saying: "Social security is not designed to provide cover for moving between jobs or brief spells of unemployment." David Rendel, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, tabled an objection. Curiously, however, because the idea had been initiated by the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrat objection was joined by William Hague and other leading Tories, who argued that the measure was no longer necessary. It is understood No 10 reached the same conclusion - that Ms Harman was wrong - and the only question then was how to drop the idea without the loss of too much face for Ms Harman.

That Labour performed one U-turn by adopting a proposal it had opposed when in opposition did not weaken the determination of the Prime Minister's office to perform yet another U-turn, and drop the idea completely.

That determination was underlined by the fact that more than 25 Labour MPs had joined the veteran backbench campaigner Audrey Wise, who led the lone parents benefit revolt, in signing a Commons motion of protest and dissent.

Yesterday - very quietly - a junior minister in Ms Harman's Department, Keith Bradley, was given the task of gently dropping the measure, while pretending not to.

In a written Commons reply, he told Chris Pond, the Labour MP for Gravesham and former director of the Low Pay Unit: "In the Welfare State review which the Prime Minister has set up, the Government will be considering the issue of waiting days in Jobseeker's Allowance.

"As it is part of the review, the Government will not therefore be proceeding with the previous proposal to extend the number of waiting days in Jobseeker's Allowance."

Mr Rendel said the move "demonstrates the effectiveness of the Liberal Democrat campaign to bring to an end the benefit cuts proposed by the last Conservative Government, and now being implemented by Labour."

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