Tough plans for `workshy youngsters'

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT signalled its determination to face down its biggest- ever backbench rebellion yesterday by announcing tough new plans to deal with "workshy" youngsters.

As MPs prepared to vote on controversial incapacity benefit cuts, David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, raised the stakes with a plan to withdraw benefits from jobless under-25s who refused to work or train under the New Deal. But Labour rebels claimed that his "macho" language would fuel opposition rather than quell it.

The rebels' defiance came despite a strong warning from Tony Blair in the Commons that he was determined to push the reforms through in their entirety. "Those people who talk about welfare reform should have the courage to see it through," Mr Blair told MPs at Prime Minister's Questions.

Later, Mr Blunkett unveiled his "three strikes and you're out" plan to toughen sanctions against youngsters who refuse to take up a job or training place under the flagship New Deal programme. Under-25s will have benefit stopped for six months, rather than the present four weeks.

In a lecture at Beveridge Hall in London last night, Mr Blunkett said: "This shows our determination to ensure something for something. The traditions of self-help in this country were built on inter-dependence, and not dependence on the state."

But Roger Berry, MP for Kingswood and a leader of the campaign against the cuts, said that support for the rebels' amendment was "solid" and had grown since the Government cut short debate on the bill on Monday night. One leading rebel said that Mr Blunkett's language had stiffened the resolve of those opposed to the changes. "This macho stuff is counter- productive. We're not going to back down now."

Damien Green, the Conservative employment spokesman, said that Mr Blunkett's announcement was a "diversion" from the real problems of the New Deal. "Tens of thousands of young people are finding that the New Deal is a trap, not an opportunity," he said.

Martin Barnes, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, said that stopping benefits for 26 weeks would simply drive vulnerable people away from the New Deal. "This is not the way to get vulnerable people like the homeless or drug takers to sign up," he said.