Blair U-turn over welfare reforms

Sunday, 11 June, 2006

TONY BLAIR is set to back down on his plans for "radical" welfare reforms because of fears of a backlash from Left-wing Labour MPs.

The Prime Minister has ordered his Welfare and Pensions Secretary John Hutton to water down the long-awaited reforms to Incapacity Benefit set to be published this month.

MPs were promised a radical shake-up of the system in a bid to get one million of the 2.7 million claimants back to work and save taxpayers billions of pounds every year.

The Government is expected to publish the results of a major consultation on the planned reforms within weeks, after which the final draft of the Bill will go before MPs.

But the Sunday Express has learned that plans to compel claimants to carry out parttime voluntary and community work to encourage them back into the world of work have been shelved.

Many Labour backbenchers think the plan is too close to "workfare", the US-style system which requires all benefits claimants to work.

With pressure mounting on Mr Blair and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to leave office sooner rather than later, Government whips are wary of repeating the embarrassment of last month's Education Bill, when the Government had to rely on Tory votes to push the legislation through.

The welfare reform green paper had promised to require all new claimants to attend a compulsory "work focused interview" to assess whether they were capable of doing any kind of work, even if they were no longer able to continue in their current j ob due to injury or illness.

Mr Hutton promised to save GBP 7billion from the welfare bill by cutting 100,000 claimants a year over 10 years, starting from 2008.

When he gave evidence to a Commons committee earlier this year, Mr Hutton left open the possibility of compulsory community work for claimants.

He has handled proposals to get one million claimants into work skilfully so far, averting a backbench revolt when he announced the Government's plans in January.

But he fears MPs could now change their minds if the plans are not watered down.

Shadow welfare reform minister David Ruffley MP said: "All the signs are that John Hutton's so-called radical welfare reforms will bottle it, because he is scared of Labour Left-wingers."

Britain's benefits system has grown so complex that a one-page leaflet of "do's and don'ts" has been produced by Whitehall's new GBP 290,000-a-year Simplification Unit to help staff through the maze.