James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has defended the Government’s plans for welfare reform after a senior Labour Party figure accused him of “stigmatising” benefits claimants.
Mr Purnell will publish a White Paper setting out plans to make “virtually everyone” on welfare seek work or face cuts in their benefits payments.
Mr Purnell told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme the new rules will create “a system where virtually everyone has to do something in return for their benefits.”
He said it was right to “penalise” people who do not try to get work. He said: “If there is work there for people, we believe they should do it. We can’t afford to waste taxpayers’ money on people who are playing the system.”
Rhodri Morgan, the Labour First Minister of Wales, expressed doubts about Mr Purnell’s plans and accused his London colleague of treating claimants unfairly.
Mr Morgan told BBC Wales: “Where we differ is on the rhetoric, you know, the implication that people who don’t have jobs and who are on sickness benefit or incapacity benefit are in some way to be tagged or stigmatised as scroungers, and an implication that various bits of compulsion can be used.”
Mr Purnell insisted that putting conditions on welfare payments was an idea that Labour leaders have supported for more than a century. The reforms are “absolutely in keeping with our core values,” he said.
He added: “Work is good for people. Leaving people on benefits is the cruel thing to do.”
Mr Purnell’s so-called crackdown is designed for the first time to cover unemployed couples as well as lone parents.
At present, around 350,000 couples receive benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance and Income Support, and can choose for themselves which partner submits the claim.
The other partner is currently spared any requirement to seek work, even if they are fully capable of finding employment.
More than 400,000 children live in a home where no one works, and ministers say that it is only “fair” to extend the recent shake-up of the benefits paid to lone parents to cover couples as well.
In future couples will be made to submit a joint claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance.
Those with children aged seven or more will have to prove that they are actively seeking work, while parents of younger children will be categorised in the progression to work group once they reach the age of one.
Despite the Labour worries about the reform plan, doubts have emerged about just how tough the new rules will be.
The new regime will introduce a system where virtually everyone will be expected to do something in return for their benefits, with people put into the “progression to work group” being asked to show that they are taking active steps to return to the workforce.
The group will include parents with children between the ages of one and seven,
Insiders have confirmed that such parents could qualify for benefits under the new rules merely by updating their CV or looking up the number of a local baby-sitter.