Politics: Blair says no U-turn on lone parents

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR denied that the Government had done a U-turn over lone parent benefits yesterday after reports that the budget would bring relief to the poorest families.

Challenged about the stories by William Hague, the Conservative leader, he claimed the reports were untrue.

"We are not backsliding and those stories are wrong," he said. "There is no U-turn, there will be no change in those regulations on lone-parent benefits."

However, there was a strong feeling in Conservative ranks that stories in the Guardian and Financial Times had been planted in order to afford Harriet Harman an easier ride at an MPs' committee hearing yesterday.

The articles claimed the forthcoming budget would compensate for the recent cut in lone parents' benefits by giving extra payments to all poor families with children.

In addition to replacing Family Credit with a new Working Families' Tax Credit, the Government would also increase payments for children of parents on benefits.

Mr Hague suggested that the Government was trying to buy off its own left wing, which has objected strongly to the cuts.

"You know you can have the support of the Opposition on this issue, so on this issue why don't you stop trying to govern the Labour Party and start governing the country?" he asked.

There were suspicions that the leaks, which suggested the cuts might be restored without any apparent backing for the assertion, had been timed to coincide with an appearance by Harriet Harman and the welfare reform minister Frank Field before the Social Security Select Committee.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative social security spokesman, said: "There was a briefing which was clearly intended to get Harriet off the hook. It was the Chancellor's way of giving Harriet some kudos because he owes her that because she is carrying the can for him."

David Rendel, the Liberal Democrat Social Security Spokesman, said the news of the climbdown would be welcome if true.

"I am particularly concerned that the changes should not increase the problems of the poverty trap, he said.

Later, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said in a speech to a Labour "Welfare Roadshow" in Derby that the Government wanted to switch a significant share of national wealth away from benefits and into public services.

"Labour governments have always tried to keep a proper balance in the welfare state between cash benefits and services. Under the Conservatives, cash benefits were allowed to get out of control and overtake services as a proportion of national wealth," he said.

The last government spent an extra pounds 44bn on social security in real terms, an increase of 67 per cent, he added.

By comparison, spending on education rose by only 35 per cent, from pounds 28bn to pounds 38bn. He called for a new consensus for reform and promised it would not be carried out without full consultation.