LONDON (AFP) - Prime Minister David Cameron said on Sunday that Britain's welfare system had "lost its way" and become a "lifestyle choice", amid a raging debate on government cutbacks to state handouts.
Cameron's Conservative-Liberal coalition government, trying to rein in the national budget deficit, is bringing in a series of changes to the system this month - in the face of bitter opposition from the Labour Party.
The debate has been fuelled by the case of Mick Philpott, a nationally notorious welfare-dependent father of 18, who was jailed last week for the manslaughter of six children in setting fire to his own house.
Conservative finance minister George Osborne was blasted by Labour in unusually fierce terms when, asked whether Philpott was a product of the welfare system, he suggested there needed to be a debate about whether taxpayers should be subsidising lifestyles like his.
Opposition Labour finance spokesman Ed Balls said for Osborne "to link this wider debate to this shocking crime is nasty and divisive and demeans his office".
Writing in The Sun newspaper, Cameron launched a staunch defence of the welfare shake-up, which includes capping the amount a household can claim at national average earnings.
He suggested it was "crazy" that welfare claimants could have a bigger income than workers.
The Conservative leader suggested that a system originally designed to protect the frail and be a "stopgap" was now backfiring.
"It was invented to help people escape poverty, but has trapped too many people in it. It was meant to be a stopgap in hard times, but has become a lifestyle choice for some.
It was designed to bring us together, but is causing resentment," he said.
"No-one wants to work hard every day and see their hard-earned taxes being used to fund things they themselves cannot afford or keep generations dependent on welfare.
"So this month we are making some big changes. They are changes that have a simple principle at their heart: we are restoring the fairness that should lie at the very heart of our tax and welfare systems.
"We are saying to each and every hard-working person in our country: we are on your side." The debate has set not only politicians at each other's throats but also newspapers and commentators of opposing political stripes.
Meanwhile a YouGov opinion poll for The Sun found that six out of 10 voters thought welfare handouts were too generous.
Some 67 per cent said the system needed an overhaul while 79 per cent back the government's move to limit a family's welfare payments to £26,000 ($40,000, 31,000 euros) a year - the average working family income.