Parliament Welfare reform: Minister gives concessions on benefits

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS SOUGHT to head off a backbench revolt over the Government's radical plans for welfare reform yesterday, pledging its determination to tackle the causes of poverty and social exclusion.

As part of the Government's concessions to critics of its key legislation, Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security, announced that the age limit for young disabled claiming invalidity benefit who begin training or higher education before 20 would be rising to 25.

"One of the strongest arguments that disability organisations made was that the Bill would wrongly penalise disabled young people who stay on after school to go into higher education or training. We accept that," Mr Darling said.

Backbenchers have been angered by plans to introduce stricter tests for incapacity benefit to ensure it is only paid to those in "genuine need".

Opening the second reading debate on the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, Mr Darling insisted that the legislation would introduce an entirely new culture into the benefits system because it would end the dependency culture by making work pay. "Of course we will be sensitive to people facing particular difficulties," he said.

People with disabilities too severe for them ever to work would never be required to take part in the compulsory interview under the "single gateway" to work scheme, Mr Darling stressed. However, pointing to lone parents, he added: "But for the majority of people to whom the gateway does apply, we will require them to take part in further interviews."

Social security ministers have been briefing selected groups of Labour MPs to avert a rebellion over the single gateway programme, hoping to address their concerns during the Bill's committee stage.

They have also been reminding them of last week's announcement that the Government would produce an annual audit on actions taken to tackle poverty. The first report, to be published this summer, will focus on tackling the causes of poverty, including issues such as housing, unemployment, health, education, single mothers and the gap between rich and poor.

But Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory spokesman on social security, attacked Mr Darling for having done "nothing" to reduce the massive cost of social security spending. Any claimant could be exempted from the single gateway at the discretion of any member of Employment Service staff, he said.

He went on to attack the Government's proposals on pensions, which would leave250,000 women worse off. The Bill created a "complex nightmare" and "massive confusion which will hurt the most vulnerable", he said.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, complained that the Bill was "creating a very big market for private pensions when the Government could be re-funding the state earnings-related pension scheme to ensure that very good system was allowed to continue".