Blair to water down welfare policy reform;

Sunday, 11 June, 2006

TONY BLAIR is set for a climbdown on 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 (IB) set to be published this month.

MPs had been promised a radical shake-up of the welfare system in a bid to get one million of the 2.7m claimants back into 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 Scottish Sunday Express has learned that plans to compel claimants to carry out part-time voluntary and community work to encourage them back into employment have been shelved amid fears of a left-wing backbench rebellion. There is also resentment among the medical profession over the crackdown, which would see GPs drafted in to help police the system.

With pressure mounting on Mr Blair and his Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, to leave office sooner rather than later, Government whips are wary of repeating the embarrassment of last month's backbench rebellion over the Education Bill, which forced the Government 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 job due to injury or illness.

Mr Hutton promised to save GBP 7bn a year from the welfare bill by cutting 100,000 claimants from the benefit roll every year over a 10-year period, starting from 2008.

Mr Hutton had left open the possibility of compulsory community work for claimants. But sources have indicated that plans for a compulsory training programme, or voluntary work for all those fit enough, have been shelved.

Many Labour backbenchers see any attempt to compel claimants to carry out voluntary work as too close to "workfare", the US-style system which requires all benefits claimants to work.

Mr Hutton has handled proposals to get one million claimants into work skillfully so far, averting a backbench revolt when he announced the Government's plans in January. But he fears MPs could change their minds.

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."

The reforms could see the doctors recieving bonuses for cutting numbers of patients on Incapacity Benefit.

Dr Murray Macpherson, assistant medical secretary of the Greater Glasgow and Clyde local medical committee, said: "There is widespread concern that these proposals could damage the relationship between doctors and their patients, particularly if the Government is looking to set targets and offer incentives.

"Using GPs to police the benefits system will not improve the health of patients and may be counter-productive in helping those with sickness and disability back into work."