Lib Dems force Treasury to defend welfare cuts plan

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:49

Liberal Democrat backbenchers today forced the Treasury to come to the Commons to defend its controversial plans for welfare cuts.

Speaker John Bercow allowed Lib Dem Bob Russell to ask an emergency question this afternoon. The Treasury was unable immediately to say whether Chancellor George Osborne or one of his ministers would attend the Commons to respond.

Unions, disability charities and Labour were united in condemnation yesterday after a leaked letter revealed plans to slash at least £2.5 billion from Employment and Support Allowance, paid to people unable to work due to sickness or disability.

The Treasury tried to play down the row, insisting the figure was out of date and that any cuts to the support - which replaced Incapacity Benefit - would be "fair".

But the latest revelation further fuelled anger over Mr Osborne's revelation last week that he was to take another £4 billion from the welfare budget in his spending review on top of £11 billion cuts made in June's emergency Budget.

He gave no details of where the axe would fall, but a letter leaked to The Observer showed that in June he had agreed a deal to reduce the ESA by £2.5 billion.

The TUC revealed research showing the poor would be hit 13 times harder than the rich by spending cuts and critics seized on the benefit plans as proof the most vulnerable in society would suffer.

Labour said cuts on that scale could only be made by taking cash from the genuinely sick and disabled in what it dubbed "vicious cuts on the poorest".

Disability charity Scope said it would put a "crucial lifeline" at risk.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said things have "moved on" since the letter was written - part of hard-fought negotiations with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

While Labour left the Government with no choice but to make "significant" cuts in benefits to balance the books, they would be made in a "fair" way, he said.

Mr Duncan Smith is seeking up front investment for reforms aimed at making everyone better off in work than on benefits, which he says will save money in the longer term.

However his camp - which was previously forced to deny a serious rift with the Chancellor - insisted he would not approve any cuts in return which affected anyone judged "too poorly to work".

The benefits row has exposed tensions within the coalition, with Liberal Democrat MPs Mr Russell and Mike Hancock vowing to oppose the cuts.

Mr Russell said Mr Osborne and Mr Duncan Smith were "insulting" benefit claimants by engaging in a public "turf war" over the cuts and called on the Prime Minister to "bang their heads together".

"We are talking about people's welfare, people's standard of living and I find it somewhat insulting that these two high-ranking Tory ministers are playing games," he said.

The Treasury said later that Mr Osborne would be answering the question.

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