Plan to axe child benefits condemned

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Downing Street last night stood by Tony Blair's plans to cut child benefit for the parents of unruly youngsters, in the face of bitter criticism from Labour MPs and charities.

The Prime Minister has ordered an investigation into the feasibility of stopping the benefit in the cases of persistent law-breakers and truants. If implemented, a family with one child could lose £15.75 a week, rising to £17.55 for a single parent.

Downing Street officials said he had been "astonished" to discover that 80 per cent of truants caught in police checks of shopping centres were with an adult, often a parent. Mr Blair's spokesman said: "We are totally serious about measures to deal with the problem of parents who do not face up to their responsibilities."

But the plan sparked an uproar among Labour MPs. Even members of the Cabinet apparently had misgivings, and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, gave the scheme a lukewarm response, saying he would be prepared to "consider it as a possibility".

The Halifax MP, Alice Mahon, warned ministers faced a backbench rebellion if they pressed ahead with the idea. She could not understand "how cutting income to some of the poorest families in the country" would help parents tackle juvenile crime. "It seems to me a back-of-an-envelope idea, probably from some overpaid adviser. I am sure it will be opposed hugely within the party," she told Radio 4's The World This Weekend.

Paul Cavadino, chief executive of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said: "By increasing stress and hardship, removing benefits would be counter-productive. It would be more likely to increase youth offending."

But John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "It could work in some cases where the children are not completely out of control."