Thursday, 25 November 2010

BBC News - Tory peer Flight apologises for benefits remark

25 November 2010 Last updated at 15:42

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Tory peer Flight apologises for benefits remark

Howard Flight Howard Flight was sacked as a Tory candidate ahead of the 2005 election

New Conservative peer Howard Flight has issued an "unreserved" apology for saying child benefit changes would encourage the poor to "breed".

In a statement issued by the party, Mr Flight said he would like to withdraw the remark, made to a newspaper.

His comments came after David Cameron urged him to apologise but rejected calls to block his peerage.

Labour branded Mr Flight's comments "shameful" and said they showed the Tories were out of touch with people.

Mr Flight, a former Conservative deputy chairman, was named last week by Mr Cameron as one of more than 20 new Tory peers.

The former MP for Arundel and South Downs, who is yet to take his seat in the House of Lords, was commenting on the government's plans to cut child benefit for top-rate taxpayers.

He told the London Evening Standard: "We're going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it's jolly expensive.

"But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that's not very sensible."

'Insensitive throwback'

Asked at a Downing Street press conference if he would block Mr Flight from taking up his peerage, Mr Cameron said: "I don't agree with what he said and I am sure he will want to apologise for what he said. And I'm sure we can leave it at that."

A spokeswoman for the prime minister stressed that Mr Flight was not a member of the government.

But Labour seized on his comments, which come a week after Tory former cabinet minister Lord Young resigned as an unpaid business adviser to the prime minister after saying most Britons "had never had it so good" during the "so-called recession".

Shadow work and pensions secretary Douglas Alexander said: "These shameful but revealing comments cast serious doubt over David Cameron's judgement in personally appointing Howard Flight to the House of Lords only a few days ago.

"Last week one of the prime minister's senior advisers told us we'd never had it so good and now his latest hand-picked peer comes out with these comments."

Mr Flight's comments also angered trade unions, with TUC general secretary Brendan Barber branding the ex-MP "an insensitive throwback to the worst of 1980s politics".

Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams branded the comments "disgraceful" and said they "showed the Tories' true colours".

Mr Flight was removed as a Conservative candidate in the 2005 general election by then leader Michael Howard, after he was recorded saying the party would make deeper than publicly admitted cuts if it was returned to power. He is a former deputy Conservative chairman.

He told the Evening Standard that Mr Cameron had privately hinted his nomination for a peerage was a tacit admission that Mr Howard was wrong to have axed him.

Mr Flight also said he suspected Chancellor George Osborne's decision to remove child benefit from couples who live together if one of them earns more than £43,000 had been influenced by the Liberal Democrats.

And he attacked the coalition's plans to increase university tuition fees, saying: "Two of my nieces and nephews, both of them very bright, gave up university half way through because they didn't want the financial burden."