Parliament & Politics: Welfare - Labour peers queue up to attack benefit cuts

THE GOVERNMENT'S crisis over its controversial plans to cut disability benefits deepened last night as Labour peers queued up to attack the legislation.

Lord Ashley of Stoke, the long-time campaigner for disabled rights, confirmed that he would introduce amendments to reverse the reduction and means- testing of incapacity benefits during its committee stage.

Speaking during the second reading debate of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, Lord Ashley appealed to the Government to reconsider. "I cannot believe that a Labour government would want to introduce cuts to the most vulnerable in society," he said.

Lord Ashley's amendment, which is similar to the one put forward by Labour backbenchers in the Commons, is likely to be overwhelmingly supported be peers and further embarrass the Government.

Tony Blair suffered an earlier setback to his plans for welfare reform when 67 Labour backbenchers voted against the cuts, and others abstained.

During the debate, Lord Ashley's concern was echoed by Baroness Castle of Blackburn, the former Cabinet minister, who said it was unbelievable that "poor disabled" would have to be supported by "less poor disabled people".

But, opening the debate, Baroness Hollis of Heigham, the junior social security minister, defended the legislation, stressing no existing claimant would be affected by the changes.

"Incapacity benefit was and is intended to be an earnings replacement benefit when illness or disability unfortunately forces people to stop work.

"However, over the past 20 years, it has become for many an unemployment benefit."

Four out of 10 claimants were previously unemployed and someone who had worked for only six months and been unemployed for 20 years could claim it. "We don't believe that's right," she said.

She confirmed that Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security, was prepared to review whether the pounds 50-a-week pension threshold for the means-testing of incapacity benefits was set at the right level.

Lord Higgins, for the Tories, said: "In our view the principle involved here is wrong. We are very concerned indeed at the way in which the question of entitlement to incapacity benefit is going to be reduced because people have been prudent enough to provide for a pension."

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