The Conservatives pledged yesterday to help the Government defeat a Labour backbench rebellion to ensure that a shake-up of the benefits system becomes law. Some Labour MPs criticised plans by the Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell under which almost all claimants would face cuts in their benefits if they did not prepare for or seek work. He said taxpayers' money would no longer be "frittered away" on claimants who "play the system", adding that there were 500,000 job vacancies compared to 200,000 people a month finding work.
But Chris Grayling, the Tory spokesman on welfare, told Mr Purnell in the Commons: "There is no doubt you are going to face a big rebellion on the Labour backbenches... I can assure you that Conservative votes will help these measures on to the statute books – even if Labour members try to stop them."
The promise of support could unsettle Labour MPs, as it did when David Cameron helped Tony Blair survive a Labour revolt over his plans for city academy schools. Labour MPs and trade unions expressed concern that it was the wrong time to implement the benefits crackdown because there would be fewer jobs available.
John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, warned that the children of claimants who lost benefits would be pushed into more severe poverty. He said: "We have two million unemployed, we are facing the longest and deepest recession in our lifetime and the Government has laid off 30,000 workers in the Department of Work and Pensions... and yet we are threatening to withdraw benefits from some of the poorest people in our society."
Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, said: "At a time of rapidly rising unemployment, the Government needs to stop talking as if every benefit claimant is a potential scrounger."
Jenny Willott, for the Liberal Democrats, accused the Government of "demonising" claimants and calling some of them "offenders". She added: "The proposals treat the long-term unemployed as if they were criminals on community service."
But Labour's former welfare minister Frank Field expressed scepticism about the shake-up. He said: "Let us hope that this time the view at the top of government has moved on from uttering merely macho statements to a programme of action that has been missing for over a decade."
Mr Purnell insisted his changes were in line with the founding principles of the welfare state. The only claimants exempt from the "preparing for work" rule would be lone parents whose youngest child is under one year old, carers and the disabled.
"Some people say we should be slowing the pace of welfare reform because of the downturn," he said. "The Government believes we should be doing the opposite. We should not repeat the mistake of the recessions of the 1980s and 90s, when hundreds of thousands were shuffled on to inactive benefits to keep the unemployment count down, and trapped there."
Under the proposals, after a year on the dole, the jobless would be allocated to a work provider and expected to do four weeks in full-time activity. Under a pilot scheme, after two years the jobless would have to work full-time.
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