In victory for 'New Labor,' Commons cuts welfare benefit New applicants no longer eligible for payment for single parents


LONDON -- Britain's Labor Party shed another layer of its welfare past with a stern message to single parents last night: Get to work or get married before having children.

With Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair quashing a rebellion from his party's left wing, the House of Commons approved a bill to reduce welfare payments to single parents.

The action was Blair's boldest bid to refashion the remnants of Britain's Labor-built, cradle-to-grave welfare state.

Blair, who claims to represent "New Labor," wants people to take responsibility for their lives -- and actions.

Under the new measure, single parents would no longer receive an $18 benefit on top of the benefits granted to all families with children in England, no matter what their income.

The measure will affect only new claimants beginning in April, enabling 1 million people to keep their existing benefits.

Blair told the House of Commons: "We were elected as a government because people believed we would keep a tight control on public finance and because we said clearly before the election -- and I repeat again now -- that what is important is to get as many people as possible off benefit and into work.

"What they need for the future is not to live in a household and bring up children where there is no work in the family," he said. "They need the chance to get into work, and we will help them do so."

For Blair and his team, the debate was embarrassing.

Three low-level members of his government quit, and more than 40 bolted the party in a key vote.

But in the end, Blair and his allies blocked an amendment to reinstate the single-parent benefit, 457-107.

But old Labor showed it could still pack a punch.

"This thing has been turned into the most insane loyalty test," said one of the rebels, Gordon Prentice.

Labor's 101 women legislators were also put on the spot, since the benefit cut will fall hardest on some of Britain's poorest women and children.

Labor's Alice Mahon accused the government of social engineering worthy of Stalin.

"Never in a million years when I was fighting the May election did I believe that a Labor government, the first Labor government for 18 years, would actually take this punitive approach to people who arguably we should be increasing benefits for," she said.

The Conservatives, who proposed the cut while in power, came out in force to support the measure.

Conservative leader William Hague chided Blair's conversion to welfare reform, saying, "Isn't it another example of a government without principles and without values?"

But Blair didn't flinch.

Instead of providing benefits and cash handouts to everyone, Blair is eager to transform the welfare state into a safety net for the poor.

Blair has vowed to get young people "off the dole" -- welfare -- and back to work, with an ambitious jobs program.

He is also targeting the middle class, proposing tuition fees for colleges, which are currently free.

Other proposals have been floated, included taxing or means-testing an array of government benefits, including state pensions, disability payments and housing subsidies.

Liberal Democratic leader Paddy Ashdown said, "People are simply bewildered as to why a Labor government should choose to ask the poor to pay for the poor."

Single mothers converged on Parliament.

"Raising children is work," said Nina Lopez-Jones, of the pressure group Single Mother's Self-Defense.

"As for dependence, it's not dependence that they [the government] want to stop, they want to stop women being financially independent from men, and they want women to be at the mercy of employers."

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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