ALISTAIR DARLING, the Secretary of State for Social Security, last night sought to head off a backbench revolt over cuts in benefits by strongly defending the reforms which will be reinforced by a new Bill.
Social security ministers have been briefing selected groups of Labour MPs to avert a rebellion when the Government's Welfare Reform Bill is published tomorrow to establish a "single gateway" for claimants to seek work.
Mr Darling also yesterday refused to deny a report in the Saturday Independent that the Chancellor planned to tax child benefit for those on the higher tax rate of 40 per cent in his Budget on 9 March, but to soften the blow by raising the benefit.
Leading members of the Campaign Group of left-wing Labour MPs are ready to oppose the tax on child benefit, but those on the centre-left said last night that they would support it on the grounds that it would tax the rich to protect the poor.
The possible tax came under fierce attack by Francis Maude, the shadow Chancellor, who dismissed the plans as a "tax burden on hard-working families by stealth".
But Mr Darling insisted the Bill would introduce a new culture into the benefits system. "There is no unconditional right to benefit. We will do something to help people but in turn, they have got to do something to help themselves," he said.
Earlier, Mr Darling confirmed that ministers were looking at the abolition of benefits for convicted offenders, as "a matter of social justice".
Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory social security spokesman, dismissed the proposals as "quite a small move".
In the Commons, Mr Darling announced that Treasury ministers were taking over responsibility for national insurance contributions (NICs) policy from his own department in April. The change, combined with transferring NIC administration to the Inland Revenue, would provide a better service, help lift burdens on business and provide clear accountability to MPs, he said.
But Frank Field, the former minister for welfare reform, said the "fundamental change" would practically abolish Mr Darling's department. The MP for Birkenhead said: "We are talking about half your budget and the policy decisions are now going to be determined in the Treasury."
However, in the second reading debate on the Social Security Contributions (Transfer of Functions) Bill, Mr Darling said: "Any talk of the end of the DSS is premature. What we are talking about is ensuring that those responsible for policy and operations... should be housed under one roof." He said it would simplify the distinction between policy and operations."
t Iain Duncan Smith said the New Deal programme to get lone parents back to work had been a failure, with a "strike rate" of people going back into work of just over 5 per cent, at a cost of pounds 15,000 per job. Replying, Angela Eagle, Social Security minister, said 88,662 letters had been sent to lone parents up to December, 27,231 joined the scheme and 5,881 found jobs.
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