Labour leaders respond cautiously

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SOME of Labour's MPs reacted yesterday to John Major's floating of the idea of workfare with warnings of 'slave labour'. But the party's leaders were showing cool caution as it became clear that any large-scale scheme would be opposed by Tory backbenchers.

Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, said anything which left people without benefit of any kind was unacceptable. What Labour would be interested in was 'the creation of choice and opportunity where people can take up job offers within the context of the benefit system. It is compulsion that, perhaps, is the stumbling block.'

The party's frontbenchers are aware that its Commission on Social Justice has 'responsibilities' as well as 'rights' written into its remit. That would include looking at the many variations of work fare as part of the 'whole range of options in that area', David Miliband, the commission's secretary, said yesterday.

Frank Dobson, the party's employment spokesman, accused Mr Major of launching 'a diversion' from the problems of three million unemployed.

On the Conservative benches, David Willetts, MP for Havant and a former member of the No 10 policy unit, said workfare was impractical and expensive and he did not believe it was on the agenda. The Government would in effect be 'nationalising unemployment'.

What was supportable was an extension of existing rules which said that if people repeatedly refused training or work they could be judged unavailable for work and their benefit curtailed.

The Department of Employment's opposition to workfare was spelt out last November by Patrick McLoughlin, the employment minister. He said there were 'no plans to introduce a compulsory workfare scheme', warning it would 'increase levels of benefit dependency'. A compulsory scheme 'which forces people to work in jobs that they do not want and does little to improve skills or motivation does not enhance either the efficiency or the adaptability of the labour market'.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, also aimed to strike a balance over government proposals that are as yet unclear. 'Any scheme designed to make the victims of your policies the inmates of a compulsory ghetto of low wages and no hope would be rightly condemned,' he told the Prime Minister. 'But a programme designed to give the long term unemployed real training and real job experience - like the Community Programme from which I and thousands of others benefited 10 years ago - would be well worth considering.'