Downing Street said yesterday that ministers were determined to stand up to the threatened revolt by Labour MPs when debate on the report stage of the Bill resumes in the Commons. Margaret Beckett, Leader of the House, reinforced the tough line when she told MPs the debate would be guillotined to allow votes to be held in "prime time daytime".
Some 67 Labour MPs had been prepared on Monday night to vote for a key amendment blocking plans to means test and restrict entitlement to incapacity benefits.
But government whips cut short the debate at 5am yesterday in what appeared to be an attempt to head off a potentially embarrassing vote timed to coincide with the morning news bulletins. It is understood that the debate tomorrow will be ended at about 7pm.
The rebellion threatens to become the biggest revolt since Labour was elected, overshadowing the 47 MPs who defied the Government in December 1997 over cuts in lone parent benefits.
Earlier, a Downing Street spokesman denied the Government was trying to stifle debate and said it was "not in the business of playing games".
Alistair Darling, the Social Security Secretary, told The Independent the changes were an "essential" part of the reform of the welfare state to direct resources towards the poorest.
"We are pressing ahead and doing it in prime time because we believe the principles are right. Everybody says they are in favour of welfare reform but the test of a reformer is whether they actually put things into practice," he said.
But Lynne Jones, MP for Birmingham Selly Oak and a Labour critic of the reforms, said the delay would do nothing to dampen opposition.
The determination to tackle welfare will be emphasised today when David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, unveils a "three strikes and you're out" plan for claimants under 25. Those who refuse three job offers will lose benefits for 26 weeks.
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