Labour rallies MPs to avert welfare revolt

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT has cancelled all leave to force through welfare benefits cuts for the disabled as its faces one of the biggest Labour backbench revolts since the general election.

Ministers are being warned to cancel all trips abroad and to be in the Commons on Monday to vote for the Government's Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill after Alistair Darling, the Social Security Secretary, failed to head-off the rebels in private meetings at Westminster.

MPs were furious after Mr Darling refused to offer any concessions and insisted that the Government would go ahead regardless of their vote against the measure. "One or two of my colleagues will have difficulties with this but the vast majority will support us. What we are doing is the right thing to do," he said.

Mr Darling also briefed colleagues on the reasons the Government is taking an uncompromising line at yesterday's cabinet meeting.

Tony Blair is likely to miss the vote by making a visit to Albania to see the refugee camps, but even the Prime Minister's presence would not stop some MPs voting against the Government.

The rebellion goes wider than the "usual suspects" in the left-wing Campaign Group. Those lining up to vote against the Government include Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour chair of the Commons Select Committee on Transport, and Frank Field, the former social security minister who resigned from the Government last July.

Accusing the Chancellor of using national insurance as a tax, Mr Field, speaking in Manchester last night, said: "Labour is missing its chance of effecting transparent welfare reforms which win broad public support and funding through national insurance. Instead, they are set on a course which will destroy NI and result in a 20p starting rate of income tax."

A total of 61 Labour MPs signed a rebel amendment, and are expected to vote against the Government or abstain. In spite of the efforts by Mr Darling in a series of private meetings to defuse the row, the rebellion was growing last night. Tam Dalyell, an opponent of the bombing of Yugoslavia, who has not signed the amendments, told The Independent: "I will vote against the Government because if there is money for Tomahawk missiles, I am sure there is money for the disabled."

David Winnick, MP for Walsall North, asked MargaretBeckett, Leader of the Commons: "Would it be possible between now and Monday for Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling to understand the deep feelings which exist on the Labour benches on this issue?"

Mrs Beckett said Mr Darling was "very conscious of people's anxiety that we get the balance right" and that "we make proposals that will effectively support people with disabilities where that support is required and assist them to a greater degree of independence where that is possible and practicable".

The Disability Benefits Consortium quit the Disability Benefits Forum this week in protest at the Government's plans.

Leading article, Review, page 3