Short in new row over benefits for single mothers

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CLARE SHORT was embroiled in yet another political row last night after she told an interviewer that lone mothers who committed benefit fraud were "good women who are trying to help their kids".

The quote was being whipped up by critics as grounds for a full-scale row with Downing Street, in spite of the fact that the Secretary of State for International Development went out of her way in the interview to support the principle of welfare reform.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister's office said: "Whenever Clare Short does an interview, there are people who are determined to make out she's deviating from government policy. In the interview, she endorses the principle of collective responsibility and underlines the need for reform of the welfare state that isn't properly doing the job it was set up to do."

The new bout of bad publicity followed headlines last week about a documentary in which Ms Short that a cabinet colleague had lied about her to a journalist, claiming she had compared Ulster Unionists with the Ku Klux Klan.

In an interview with this week's New Statesman, due out tomorrow, she said: "If you take benefit fraud, some of that is lone mums doing a bit of cleaning to get a bit more money for their children. Under our system that's fraud. We shouldn't have a structure like that. They're good women who are trying to help their kids. It's a system that belittles people."

She added, though, that she felt the Government's position was right. "People are entrapped into a dependency on benefits. The aim is to create a structure that helps them to reach out, take responsibility for themselves and take control of their future."

Ms Short, who resigned from the Shadow Cabinet in protest at the 1991 Gulf War, used the interview to express guarded support for renewed action against Iraq. "We can't ignore Saddam. If we say 'because it's complex, let him get on with it', it's a licence to all tyrants to create their own biological and chemical weapons ..." she said. "We should all just pray for the visit of the UN Secretary-General to Baghdad."

Of her feelings about her stand on the 1991 war, she said: "You know how your life is. You can't regret it now because it's the journey you took.

"I did what I thought was right at the time. Whether the person I am now would have resigned, I don't know."

She was positive, too, about relations within the Cabinet. Although there had been suggestions that there was no serious debate in cabinet meetings, she said the situation had changed.

"The Government has settled down. There was a period at the beginning when slightly odd things went on, but it's settled down. Cabinet works now. Sensible discussions take place, everyone's listened to with respect and that's all I've ever asked for," she said.

She added that "in return for speaking the truth in Cabinet and running a department, I can't speak my truth in public".