MPs plan revolt on benefit reforms

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The Independent Online
FURIOUS LABOUR MPs last night threatened to mount the biggest backbench rebellion since the general election over the Government's plans to force all social security claimants to attend regular back-to-work interviews under the threat of losing their benefits.

The Government's crackdown was condemned bygroups representing the disabled, mentally ill and sole parents, and even some ministers privately expressed their hostility to the sweeping changes unveiled yesterday in the Welfare Reform Bill. They accused Tony Blair of "pandering to middle England" by "taking a stick to beat benefit claimants".

One cabinet minister warned the moves could alienate traditional Labour supporters and would harm Labour's prospects in this spring's elections of local authorities, the European Parliament and the Scottish and Welsh assemblies.

The drive to end the "something for nothing culture" of Britain's pounds 98bn- a-year benefits system, disclosed in The Independent yesterday, will involve regular interviews for claimants of income support, housing benefit, council tax benefit, widow's benefit, severe disablement allowance and invalid care allowance. Although the Bill allows benefit reductions for claimants refusing a work-focused interview without good reason, Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Securityy, made it clear that all, rather than part, of their state handouts would be stopped.

He said that a severely disabled person might have to attend an interview every three years, while a young jobless person would be called in "far more often" - probably after intervals of only some months.

In a departure from his previous "softly, softly" approach in which welfare reforms applied only to new claimants, Mr Darling said the new changes would be gradually extended to those already receiving benefits. He described his proposals as "harsh but justifiable", adding: "There is no automatic right to benefit."

But Diane Abbott, the left-wing MP, accused ministers of "harassing" single mothers and predicted a bigger rebellion than the 1997 revolt over cuts in benefits for lone parents, when 47 Labour MPs voted against the Government and many others abstained. "It will be even more taken aback by the response to this," she said.

John Marek, Labour MP for Wrexham, said he would not vote for the "anti- family" Bill.

The Liberal Democrats accused the Government of subjecting 100,000 of the most vulnerable people to benefit cuts totalling pounds 1bn. But the Tories said Labour had not gone far enough, claiming it had backed away from compulsory work requirements because the jobs were not available.

Mind, the mental health charity, said: "Many people with mental health problems will be worried sick by the prospect of having their benefits threatened if they don't attend these interviews."