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Wednesday, May 19, 1999 Published at 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK

UK Politics

Blair defends welfare cuts

Charities say disabled people would suffer under the cuts

Prime Minister Tony Blair has defended the proposed cuts in disabled benefits, which threaten to cause the largest backbench revolt since Labour came to power.

More than 60 Labour MPs remain set to vote against the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill when it returns to the Commons on Thursday.

They are deeply concerned about the effect on disabled people of plans to means-test and restrict access to incapacity benefit.

Several major charities previously resigned from a government advisory panel in protest at the cuts.

The Commons vote had originally been scheduled for Monday, but was delayed at 4am on Tuesday morning after a prolonged debate.

Conservatives accused the government of having "panicked and run away", but the prime minister has since continued to insist the reforms are crucial and correct.

Speaking at the unveiling of his party's European election campaign, Mr Blair insisted that the bill was "the encapsulation of what New Labour is about".

In an apparent dig at the Labour rebels he criticised people who supported the party's general election pledge to reform the welfare system in principle, but shied away from actually taking action.

Later, at Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Blair extended his attack to the opposition benches.

He said: "To those members of the Conservative Party that are now complaining about this, last week the leader of the opposition said he wanted welfare spending cut in order to deliver tax cuts.

"The first opportunity they have for proper welfare reform, they refuse it."

'Rights and responsibilities'

[ image: Tony Blair says disabled people who can work should]
Tony Blair says disabled people who can work should
The government is determined to try to get its way on Thursday and intends to force the bill through on a guillotine motion that will limit debate to three hours.

Ministers have insisted that the new measures are vital if the welfare system is to be brought up to date.

Although the government is certain to win the vote, the backbench rebellion is expected to be the largest since Labour came to power and could well be embarrassing.

Under the changes, incapacity benefit would be restricted to people who have paid National Insurance in either of the two years before they make a claim.

Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling has said this would ensure the benefit is used for its original purpose, to support people who are too ill to continue working.

Mr Blair said that the bill was in line with Labour's determination to ensure "rights and responsibilities" were balanced properly within the benefits regime.

It contained extra support for those who did want to find a job as well as more cash for young disabled people, he said.

The new measures would ensure that help was targeted at those who needed it most, he stressed.

But disabled who could work also had a duty to seek employment, he added.

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