David Cameron will join rebel Labour MPs in opposing plans which would force single mothers to prepare for work when their youngest child reaches the age of one.
The Conservative leader yesterday denounced the Government's proposal as "shameful" and accused ministers of playing "macho" politics with vulnerable lone parents.
Although the Opposition pledged its support in principle to the Government's welfare reform plans published last week, it believes it is wrong to expect single parents to prepare for work until their youngest child reaches school age.
Mr Cameron's strong criticism was seen as an attempt to bury the Tories' image as the "nasty party" among lone parents, who accused the previous Tory government of stigmatising them. While he has "decontaminated" his party's brand, groups representing single parents remain suspicious of Tory intentions.
Under the Government's White Paper, lone parents whose youngest child is aged between one and seven will be expected to start preparing for work – for example by tackling health or debt issues, attending work-focused interviews and agreeing an "action plan" to get them back into a job. If they refuse, their benefits could be cut.
But the Tory leader said this was the one "rotten apple in the barrel" of the Government's welfare reform plans. He did not oppose practical proposals to help parents, such as debt or drug counselling, but said the "sensible" moment for them to think about work was after their children started school. "We need to help families, not make life harder for them," he said. "It potentially hits single mothers at a very vulnerable time of their lives."
He said he wanted the idea taken out of the Welfare Reform Bill, which will be debated in the new year. The move raised the prospect of the Tories inflicting an embarrassing defeat on the Government if 32 Labour MPs vote against the measure.
However, ministers insist that any Labour rebellion will be much smaller than that. They deny that lone parents would be forced to take jobs or face benefit cuts before their youngest child reaches the age of seven. But they would have to prepare for work by attending interviews and getting help with skills, so it would be easier to return to work when their youngest child reached the age of seven.
James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said: "We want everyone on benefits to do something in return for their money – including asking lone parents to take active steps to prepare for a return to work."
Jenny Willott, work and pensions spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrats, who oppose the Government's plan, said: "It is clear public opinion is against persecuting single parents, yet it has taken the Conservatives a week to fall in step with popular sentiment."
Mr Cameron also prompted speculation that he would reshuffle the Shadow Cabinet, by saying he is "always looking at ways to make my team stronger".Reuse content