Blunkett, Blair play down split rumours

 

The British Education Secretary, Mr David Blunkett, yesterday denied that the cabinet was split over the government's planned reform of disability benefit. The denial followed the leaking of a letter he had written to the Chancellor, Mr Gordon Brown, expressing "serious concerns" over the proposals.

The existence of the letter, written on December 9th, the day before 47 Labour MPs voted against cuts in lone parent benefits, also forced the Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, to defend welfare reform and deny the split rumours yesterday. Before an informal meeting with the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, at St James's Park football stadium in Newcastle, Mr Blair acknowledged that "change is always hard" but he said the government would stand firm on welfare reform.

At the weekend, Mr Blair's announcement that he will lead a new ministerial group on welfare reform, was seen as a snub to the Social Security Secretary, Ms Harriet Harman. She has endured much criticism in the Commons since the revolt over lone parent benefit but Mr Blair insisted the government must press on with reforming the welfare state.

"The vast majority of people know the system has to change. The vast majority of people know that if you are spending more on benefit than you are on schools, hospitals and police put together and yet more people, particularly more children and more pensioners, are living in poverty, then the system has to change," he said.

Asked if he could sell the idea to a party deeply anxious about the reforms, Mr Blair said the government would approach the issue sensitively but firmly. "We will do it fairly and sensitively, but we are going to stand absolutely, resolutely firm on change because the welfare system isn't working and it needs reforming," he said.

Mr Blunkett attempted a damage limitation exercise, denying his three-page letter to Mr Brown exposed the real extent of the government's difficulties over welfare reform. "I don't think there's a rift at all," he insisted. "I think that all of us have got the same objectives, the principles spelt out by Tony Blair." The letter, however, warned that a Treasury-led switch from national insurance-based benefits to means testing by local authorities "would undermine social cohesion".

While he welcomed "sensitively judged" reforms, Mr Blunkett said that "deep cuts in the totality of support" for disabled people who could not work, or could only take low-paid employment, would "make a mockery" of the "construction of a more just society".

Mr Blunkett's anxiety over the proposed cut in disabled benefit, floated by Ms Harman's department and the Treasury, led the Tories and the Liberal Democrats to predict disaster for the government. The Tory social security spokesman, Mr Simon Burns, claimed the government was in a "state of crisis" over the reforms.

"Ministers are fighting like ferrets in the cabinet sack," he said. The Liberal Democrat MP, Mr Charles Kennedy, went one step further urging the government to change its approach to welfare reform or "David Blunkett will have to relinquish office. Either way it looks like the government is between a rock and a hard place."

Last night members of the Disabled People's Direct Action Network (DAN) said they were considering begging outside government offices in Whitehall during Christmas to highlight the threat to benefits. A spokeswoman said: "We feel the Labour government and Conservatives before them have been forcing disabled people into poverty."