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Last Updated: Monday, 16 May, 2005, 22:02 GMT 23:02 UK
Blunkett makes welfare reform vow
A wheelchair user at a computer terminal
Ministers say they want those who can work to do so
Punishment is not the aim of the shake-up of benefits paid to sick and disabled people, new Work and Pensions Secretary David Blunkett has said.

The government announced earlier this year it wanted to reform incapacity benefit and get about one million claimants back to work.

Promising to consult widely about the changes, Mr Blunkett said: "Let's not patronise people, let's support them."

An incapacity bill is still expected to feature in Tuesday's Queen's Speech.

But the Conservatives say Labour is backing away from its manifesto pledges.

People's wishes

Welfare reform has provoked Labour backbench rebellions in the past.

With the party's majority in the House of Commons cut to 67, there is now less scope to resist such revolts.

Mr Blunkett said: "Don't believe for a minute that the reform of the welfare state for the 21st century is somehow punitive. It is not.

David Blunkett
David Blunkett is signalling a consensual approach

"It is about 50 years on taking a real look at what people want in their own lives."

BBC chief political correspondent Mark Mardell said Mr Blunkett realised the "hard man image" he had gained as home secretary was not useful in his new job.

Twin benefits

Plans unveiled in February meant scrapping the current Incapacity Benefit, which is paid to 2.7 million sick and disabled people.

People with the most severe conditions would get new Disability and Sickness Allowance, with no requirement to look for work.

But most claimants would move onto new Rehabilitation Support Allowance - with a lower rate for those not trying to return to work.

Mr Blunkett's consensual language comes as more details of how the government intends to proceed are due to appear in the Queen's Speech.

Inner conflict?

Lorna Reith, from the Disability Alliance, said: "We know that in the past there have been differences of view between No 10 and the Department of Work and Pensions about how punitive a regime to take to disabled people on benefits.

"It does sound like David Blunkett is certainly breaking with the view that No 10 has taken."

Conservative shadow work and pensions secretary Malcolm Rifkind said the government had spent eight years promising action against abuse of benefits.

He said: "They have just fought an election promising to deal with it. We are literally within days of that election, now we are being told it may be kicked into the long grass."

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