Welfare reform risks Labour revolt

James Purnell, work and pensions secretary
James Purnell, work and pensions secretary

The government is facing a potential revolt from backbenchers about the extent of its welfare reforms.

A white paper, to be published by the work and pensions secretary James Purnell, sets out plans to "transform" the lives of those on benefits.

The white paper was described as the next step towards a society where virtually everyone will be expected to do something in return for their benefits.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Purnell said: "Clearly at a time of economic difficulty, people want to make sure that everyone's playing their part, that there aren't people who are in a boat and not rowing.

"Everybody needs to be playing their part and our system is making sure that virtually everyone is doing something in return for their benefits, because we know it changes their lives and we know it gets them back into work."

Ministers said this could be something simple like updating CV's or researching the availability of childcare, but could also involved skills training or trial work.

The proposals include sanctions for those who turn down reasonable work or interviews and could lead them to losing their benefits or performing mandatory community service.

People on incapacity benefits will also be made to prepare themselves for work in addition to non-working single parents with children as young as one, but they will not have to actively start work until the child is older.

Only the severely disable and single parents with babies under the age of one will be exempt from the new benefit conditions.

The changes, previously announced by city financier and prime ministerial advisor David Freud, will now be implemented in full.

Gordon Brown rejected Mr Freud's recommendations when he first became prime minister, but has now had a change of heart and wants them initiated comprehensively.

Backbench Labour MP's are angered by the changes being put into action, feeling it is unfair on the people who depend on benefits, particularly during an economic downturn.

John McDonnell, Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, said: "The government has got its priorities all wrong. It has allowed the bankers to get away with extravagant bonuses and yet is turning on the poorest and most vulnerable.

"It is lunacy to force people into jobs that are not there and to force lone parents to take up childcare which is either unaffordable or non-existent.

"There is widespread and growing dismay at the government's dismantling of the welfare state built by the post-war Labour government. This smacks of unfairness and another 10p tax rate, which will cause revolt and revulsion across the labour and trade union movement."

Responding to criticism, Mr Purnell said: "Some people say we should be slowing down the pace of welfare reform because we are entering a recession.

"I say we should be doing exactly the opposite. If it's harder for people to find work, we should be providing them with more support, but also making sure they stay in touch with the world of work."

Ministers have made welfare reform a focus point for their legislative agenda in the coming year, saying it would be wrong not to act when faced with a recession.


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