Major unveils his lean welfare machine

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The Independent Online

Political Editor

John Major last night set the tone and pace of this week's Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth when he offered "a lean welfare machine" for the 21st century. Speaking to the eve-of-conference agents' dinner, the Prime Minister said that while Labour spoke of aspirations, "We are the party that delivers the goods".

Earlier, a meeting of ministers agreed that the Project Work workfare schemes, currently being tested in Medway and Hull, would be expanded to take in five cities, and up to 75,000 people.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, will announce details in her speech to conference on Thursday, but Mr Major was linking that initiative with yesterday's introduction of the Jobseekers' Allowance, new controls on housing benefit for single people under the age of 25, and "stiffer penalties" for parents, with the care of children, who refuse to co-operate with the Child Support Agency.

According to senior party sources, total savings will amount to pounds 500m over a period of three years.

The overall campaign theme for the week is to be "Opportunity for all", and Mr Major said in a pre-conference statement: "If we want to deliver opportunity for all, we need an economy that delivers jobs for the future.

"That means taking forward our policies that are making Britain the low- tax, enterprise centre of Europe.

"But opportunity for all also depends on an affordable welfare system that offers security for all."

Mr Major said that the aim of the workfare programme was to ensure that people who wanted a job should be able to move "from dole to dignity". Those who did not want to work, and abused the system would lose benefit.

"Project Work is aimed at those who have been unemployed for more than two years, for whom the barriers to employment are often greatest. This includes a package of measures and incentives to help them find a job. But if, despite this help, the unemployed still can't find a job, they are offered three months' work on a community programme as a first step back to regular employment.

"Those who don't want to work are exposed, but those who do want to work are helped."

But the Labour Party, the unions and welfare campaigners yesterday united against the expansion of workfare, and the introduction of the Jobseekers' Allowance was marked by industrial action by thousands of civil servants concerned for their own personal safety.

The Civil and Public Services Association, which wants screens installed in benefit offices to guard against the threat of increased violence, said that staff had been told not to bring their cars to work this week for fear of damage by protesters. People on the scheme receive an allowance equal to their benefit plus pounds 10 a week, but anyone refusing to participate risks losing their benefit.

Peter Hain, a Labour employment spokesman, said the introduction of the Jobseekers' Allowance had been a "shambles", and it was merely designed to push people off benefit rather than help them to find a job.