Politics: Union chief lends support to Labour welfare rebels

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The Independent Online
The leader of Tony Blair's own union, Bill Morris, yesterday joined the calls to halt cuts in the welfare state. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says some in the Government believe a U-turn is possible over cuts in benefits for one parent families and higher council taxes.

The growing protest against threatened cuts in welfare benefits for lone parents and council services deepened yesterday as Bill Morris, the leader of the Prime Minister's own trade union, the TWGU, called on Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, to abandon his commitment to stick to Tory spending limits for two years.

The weight of opposition is now growing so much that even some senior sources within the Government believe that it may be forced to make some concessions. The Labour rebels opposing cuts for future claimants of lone parent benefits were digging in, and threatening to vote against the Government in the Commons later this month.

Council taxes may also have to go up by between 5 and 10 per cent in April, as a result of the tight Treasury limit being kept on the support given to councils by the Government.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, will say tomorrow that capping will stay for another year, leaving councils a choice of raising taxes or cutting services.

He will argue that the Government's support will be above inflation, at nearly four per cent extra, and should mean that the rises are less than they would have been under the Tories. He will announce plans which will penalise two flagship Tory boroughs, Westminster and Wandsworth, with a few other councils, to provide fairer funding for other councils across the country.

Alistair Darling, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, yesterday added to the impression that the Government was fighting a bush fire of protests by Labour MPs. He went on a round of television studios to reinforce the Chancellor's message that there would be no backing down. Another ministerial source said: "It has become a bit of a totem for Gordon but there is a lot of pressure on him to weaken his general stance."

The Secretary of State for Social Security, Harriet Harman, is seeing some of the rebels individually in an attempt to head off the revolt, and the whips are warning them that they will "face the consequences" if they vote against the Government.

Ministers are privately reluctant to spell out what the consequences are likely to be. They are not likely to include removing the whip so soon in the Parliament.

And potential rebels will have been emboldened yesterday by the hardest attack so far on the Government's stand by Mr Morris, a member of the Government task force working on the "new deal" for cutting unemployment. "It's bad news for those who rely on public services, because the Chancellor has decide to stick to the Tories' spending limits and if you do that you're into real cuts," Mr Morris said on GMTV. The council tax rises mean the bill for an average Band D house, worth up to pounds 88,000, could go up from pounds 689 to pounds 737 a year in April.

Mr Prescott remains in favour of redistribution of wealth, however, and will be consulting on a plan to introduce a new top rate council tax band, above the present "H band", for those with houses with a value of pounds 450,000 or more.