Short backs benefit cuts for jobless

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Clare Short has given her backing to a US-style overhaul of the social security system which would involve the unemployed losing their benefit if they repeatedly turn down jobs.

The gesture, designed to rebuild her credibility with Labour's modernisers, came as the party leader, Tony Blair, raised the stakes in its internal dispute by planning to use the forthcoming vote on his pre-manifesto document as one of confidence in his leadership.

Ms Short, whose New Statesman interview provoked a Labour crisis last week, went out of her way to make it clear she will side with modernisation when she takes up her role on a new Labour committee, set up to consider how to get people back to work.

Her allies stressed that shewould not oppose plans, proposed by the shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to take child benefit away from some parents of 16- to 18-year-olds.

Ms Short, who met Mr Brown to discuss the committee last Wednesday, also supports measures that go beyond existing policy. Under plans supported by Ms Short, claimants of unemployment benefit could lose their entitlement completely if they decline five jobs. However, Ms Short will insist these are"quality" jobs.

Other key party figures treated the move with caution, arguing that no formal proposals to remove benefit from those who refuse work had been made to the committee. The idea is not thought to have figured in the meeting with Mr Brown.

The welfare-to-work committee, which will be chaired by Mr Blair and includes Mr Brown, Ms Short, Harriet Harman, shadow Social Security Secretary, and Frank Field, chairman of the Commons social security select committee, has not yet set its terms of reference. Senior figures say that it will meet in September and insist that it will be a heavyweight committee.

Mr Field said: "Despite what people believed, this is going to be a serious committee where everything is on the agenda. That does not mean to say that everything will be accepted but we will look at all the options carefully."

Ms Short's enthusiasm for working with the modernisers will be welcomed by Mr Blair, whose allies last week acknowledged the need for proof of party unity in the wake of her interview.

They say that Mr Blair will use his full authority to achieve maximum support for the pre-manifesto document, New Labour, New Life for Britain. One source close to Mr Blair said: "He believes that he must step up his personal efforts. When people hear him directly, they are unfailingly persuaded by his case."

n Labour councillors have been instructed not to take part in media opinion surveys, in a move that critics will see as a new attempt to curb dissenters. A note to all local Labour secretaries warns that newspapers and broadcast media have contacted leading figures in local parties "ostensibly conducting a survey of views on particular issues".

Alan Watkins, page 19

Neal Ascherson, page 20