Parties compete over 'tough love' mantle as Hain unveils new plan

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Indy Politics

Plans to ensure 140,000 more lone parents return to work will be unveiled today as Labour and the Tories outline "tough love" welfare-to-work policies.

Peter Hain, the Work and Pensions Secretary, will say that 70,000 children will be lifted out of poverty by a shake-up designed to turn benefit claimants from "passive recipients into active job-seekers".

He will contrast Labour's "carrot and stick" approach with a more hardline stance being floated by the Opposition, modelled on "workfare" schemes in US states such as Wisconsin. Critics say mothers there of children as young as 13 months have been forced to work to avoid losing benefits.

Mr Hain will argue that Labour is making a progressive case for reform aimed at cutting poverty and achieving full employment. His document will propose 50 changes to the benefits system to take effect over four years. Hinting at more radical reform in the long term, he will promise to study the idea of a single system of benefits to streamline the welfare state and increase the incentive to work. The "something for something" strategy will include the use of private firms and voluntary groups to provide intensive help for jobless people on the New Deal scheme.

A poll by Ipsos Mori for the Government shows that 84 per cent of people believe it should provide more personalised services for jobseekers and 80 per cent agreed that suitable work is good for people's mental and physical health, even if they have a long-term illness or disability.

At present, lone parents have to be available for work or training when their youngest child reaches 16 or risk losing their benefits. The Government wants them to start preparing for work when their youngest child becomes 14 and may reduce the benefits cut-off age to 11.

The Tories said yesterday that single parents should be willing to work part time when their children go to primary school and to go full time when they move on to secondary.

Chris Grayling, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said the welfare state "must not be a cushion against the choices that most people have to take in their daily lives about work, about priorities, about paying the bills."

In a speech to the Policy Exchange think-tank, Mr Grayling said: "We do no one any favours if our welfare system leaves them with little incentive or pressure to return to work."

He argued that Gordon Brown's "top-down state programmes" had failed, saying Britain had proportionately more children brought up in workless households than any other country in Europe. Mr Grayling said Labour's target of getting a million people off incapacity benefit by 2016 was running 25 years late on current progress.

He said he did not believe that welfare-to-work was about "benefit scroungers" and that the issue went far deeper. "We know that Britain faces skill shortages, and is having to import migrant workers from overseas to fill gaps in both skilled and unskilled jobs," he said. "And yet we continue to commit vast amounts of our nation's wealth on supporting people outside the workforce."

Mr Hain claimed last night that the Conservatives had "no thought-through ideas, no timetable and no extra money for welfare to work programmes". In contrast, he said, Labour's plans were "firm, fair and fully-funded".