Brown is back – straight into benefits row

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown returned to lead the Government yesterday and face a series of questions over benefits spending, Afghanistan and the release of the Lockerbie bomber that threaten to derail his planned counterattack on the Tories.

The Prime Minister took back the reins from Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, who had a brief stint in charge this week. However, a Labour rebellion already looks set to hit Mr Brown: it emerged that a plan to change housing benefit rules would cost some of Britain's poorest families as much as one-fifth of their income.

Under the changes, people on low incomes would no longer be able to pay rent at a lower level and keep up to £15 a week of their housing allowance. Planned reforms to be introduced next April would hit 150,000 people, with the Government believing it would save around £160m.

MPs are unlikely to be able to block the move in the Commons. But Labour rebels and the Liberal Democrats are hoping that heaping political pressure on Mr Brown, as they did to secure concessions over the ditching of the 10p tax band, will lead to a U-turn. The fight will be led by Frank Field, the Labour MP whose campaign forced Mr Brown into retreat over his 10p tax changes earlier this year.

"In the future there will be no incentive for tenants to bargain with their landlord," Mr Field said. "What we need is for the Government to cut public expenditure by £100bn, that's how precarious our national accounts are. We are not going to meet that with these vicious little cuts." He added that the move could damage Labour support because the changes would kick in just before the next general election.

Mr Brown also faced fresh calls last night to make a statement clarifying Britain's role in Afghanistan in the wake of a summer of heavy British casualties. A total of 207 British personnel have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP, said that the public had a right to know why British troops remained in place.

Mr Brown held talks in No 10 yesterday with the President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, to discuss security in the region. A spokesman for the Prime Minister said that Britain's "highest priority" in working with Pakistan was to reduce the safe havens for violent extremists on its borders with Afghanistan.

The Prime Minister's attempts to distance himself from the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, were again damaged amid claims by Colonel Gaddafi's son that the British Government had discussed a prisoner transfer deal for the Libyan during trade talks. Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi claimed that the "deal in the desert", signed two years ago, specifically targeted Megrahi, leading to calls from the Tories for Mr Brown to release more details about the discussions.

Who is Asifa Bhutto Zardari?

*The youngest of Pakistan's first family's offspring, Asifa Bhutto Zardari has kept a low profile while studying in Scotland. Her brother Bilawal, himself a student at Oxford, is tipped as a future leader of the country and her elder sister Bakhtawar has captured the headlines with her homages to her assassinated mother Benazir Bhutto.

Asifa has opted for a more modest approach, something that is not easy when your father, Asif Ali Zardari, is President of Pakistan, a country that Time magazine has suggested is the most dangerous in the world.

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