Lone Parents: Blair savaged as MPs defend the 'betrayed'

The Prime Minister was confronted by Labour backbench anger over the cuts in benefits for lone parents at Question Time. Colin Brown, Chief, Political Correspondent, says a string of Labour MPs risked the wrath of the whips in speaking out against the Government.

Alice Mahon last night appeared close to tears when she joined a string of ministerial aides who resigned or were sacked for rebelling against the Government over the cut in lone parent benefit.

"Sadly I am making a hard choice because I am not supporting the Government. I am supporting the family," said Ms Mahon, MP for Halifax and PPS to Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

"Very hard choices are going to be imposed upon some of the poorest people in the country and their children." Complaining that their pleas had not be heard, she said:"There is something rather punitive and cruel about these cuts."

Another ministerial aide, Gordon Prentice, the MP for Pendle, resigned his post to oppose the Government. "It's very sad. I am not one of the 'usual suspects'. But this is a defining moment," he said. "Every time I hear the minister try to persuade the world outside, it's like we live in a parallel dimension - we don't connect with what people outside are thinking."

Earlier, Diane Abbott led the Labour backbench attack by calling on the Prime Minister at Question Time to justify the cut. Ms Abbot, a member of the left-wing Campaign Group, said there would always be mothers who were not able to work.

As the House fell silent, Mr Blair defended the decision. "I have to say frankly to you we were elected as a government because people believed we would keep tight control of public finance and we said that clearly before the election.

"What is important is to get as many people as possible off benefit and into work."

The Prime Minister's words failed to quell the backbench rebellion as Harriet Harman, the Secretary of State for Social Security, faced a sustained attack from her own side. "I have been arguing for 15 years in this House that lone parents are poor but I have also been arguing that it is not parenthood of itself that makes them poor. It is the absence of the opportunity to work," she said.

Alan Simpson, a leader of the Campaign Group, told Ms Harman that the help to find work should be put in place first, before a cut was introduced in benefit. But she said the extra help would be introduced on the same day.

Ken Livingstone said he was voting against the Government regardless of the consequences, because lone parents who were meeting in the Commons felt "betrayed".

Audrey Wise, the Labour MP for Preston, who led the first Commons motion calling on the Government to think again, said: "What we are facing is the abolition of all lone parent premiums, for those who are out of work and those who are at work - and the biggest cut of all for those who are at work on low pay. I don't see that as a strategy for encouraging people to go to work."

Forty seven Labour MPs voted against the Government. They were:

Diane Abbot (Hackney North and Stoke Newington); John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead); Harry Barnes (Derbyshire N W); Tony Benn (Chesterfield); Roger Berry (Kingswood); Harold Best (Leeds NW); Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley); Dennis Canavan (Falkirk W); Martin Caton (Gower); David Chaytor (Bury N); Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh N and Leith); Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley); Frank Cook (Stockton N); Jeremy Corbyn (Islington N); Ann Cryer (Keighley); John Cryer (Hornchurch); Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre); Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton); Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich); Bill Etherington (Sunderland N); Maria Fyfe (Glasgow Maryhill); Ian Gibson (Norwich N); Norman Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde); Bernie Grant (Tottenham); David Hinchliffe (Wakefield); Kelvin Hopkins (Luton N); Brian Iddon (Bolton SE); Lynne Jones (Birmingham Selly Oak); Terry Lewis (Worsley); Ken Livingstone (Brent E); John McAllion (Dundee E); John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington); Kevin McNamara (Hull N); Alice Mahon (Halifax); John Marek (Wrexham); Bill Michie (Sheffield Heeley); Gordon Prentice (Pendle); Brian Sedgemore (Hackney S and Shoreditch); Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford); Alan Simpson (Nottingham South); Dennis Skinner (Bolsover); Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent); Ian Stewart (Eccles); Robert Wareing (Liverpool West Derby); David Winnick (Walsall N); Audrey Wise (Preston); and Mike Wood (Batley and Spen).

During the vote; 14 Labour MPs remained in their seats to abstain: They were:

Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff W); Julie Morgan (Cardiff N); Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead); Gerald Steinberg (City of Durham); Huw Edwards (Monmouth); George Galloway (Glasgow Kelvin); Chris Mullin (Sunderland S); Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead); Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish); Bill Rammell (Harlow); Diana Organ (Forest of Dean); Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh); Jim Marshall (Leicester S); and John Naysmith (Bristol N W).

How cuts will bite

l The Bill would abolish the higher rate of child benefit for new lone-parent claimants from next April.

l There are currently about 1.6 million lone parents, with about 2.5 million children.

l Parallel cuts are also to be introduced for Income Support, Job Seekers'

Allowance, Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit for all new lone-parent claimants, which mean overall benefit cuts for new claimants of pounds 4.95 to pounds 10.25 a week..

l It is estimated there will be a saving to the Treasury, overall, of pounds 60m in the first year, 1998-99, rising to pounds 195m in the third year.

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