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Benefits cap plan 'fairness issue'

David Cameron has said Tory plans for a fresh squeeze on benefits if he regains power at the general election in May are a "basic issue of fairness".

The Prime Minister has indicated that he would act "within the first few days" of forming a new government to reduce the annual benefits cap introduced by the Coalition from £26,000 to £23,000.

He said the savings generated would provide another £135 million towards funding three million apprenticeships by 2020.

With 100 days until polling on May 7, Mr Cameron rejected claims that the new cap would plunge more families into poverty, saying members of the public had repeatedly complained that it had been set too high.

"This is a basic issue of fairness. I don't think a family should be able to get more in benefits than someone going out to work, working every day, and trying to do the right thing for them and their family," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"One the criticisms of the cap set at £26,000, which I have heard all over the country, is that the cap was set too high. We're responding to that.

"We're generating these jobs. People listening to this programme don't pay their taxes to sustain people on welfare who could work."

He confirmed that regulations to tighten the limit - which are expected to mean an additional 40,000 households seeing a reduction in state help - would be among the first priorities of a Conservative administration.

The maximum loss - on top of the effects of the existing cap - would be £60 a week, with an average weekly loss of around £40 or £25 for those newly capped.

Another £120 million would come from removing housing benefit from 18 to 21-year-olds on Jobseeker's Allowance.

The rest of the £300 million-plus cost of the scheme - around £75 million - is expected to come from "benefit savings as young people move into work more quickly", the Tories said.

Ed Miliband told BBC1's Breakfast: "The Conservatives say everything is fixed, they say 'You've never had it so good, everyone's doing well'.

"I don't agree with that. People are £1,600 a year worse off at the end of this Parliament than they were at the beginning. It's the first time since the 1920s that a Government will leave office with people worse off than they were at the beginning.

"David Cameron likes to say it's all fine. I don't think that's what most people are feeling. I think they want a different direction for our economy. They want a better plan for working people, which is what we offer."

Mr Cameron said he believed there had been a "change of culture" in the UK, with voters no longer willing to tolerate people who opt for a life on benefits as a lifestyle choice.

The Prime Minister told LBC radio: "I think I sense in our country there's a change of culture, which is - as I said on the steps of Downing Street on day one - 'those who can should, those who can't we always help'.

"I think that mentality, that change of culture is happening in our country as people think it is unacceptable to opt for welfare as a lifestyle choice when you can work."

With the opinion polls showing the Conservatives slightly behind Labour, Mr Cameron acknowledged that the election would be close.

He warned that the country faced a stark choice, with the election of a Labour government led by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls risking a return to economic "chaos".

"It is going to be, obviously, a very close and tough fight but I think we have a really strong offer for our country," he told Sky News.

"Obviously I am worried about the future of our country if we end up with an unstable, left wing government that starts to borrow and spend and wreck the progress that we have made. Of course I worry about that."

"When I became Prime Minister our deficit was bigger than Greece's - it was over 10% - we have cut that it half. That's why it's so important we stick to the long-term economic plan."

Mr Cameron who last night phoned Alexis Tsipras - the leader of the radical left wing Syriza party in Greece - to congratulate him on his election victory, said he had made an offer of British assistance to improve the rates of tax collection which had been "well-received".

He said that he hoped that talks between the new government in Athens and its creditors in the eurozone on Syriza's demand to re-structure Greece's debts would be conducted "constructively".

"I hope that all sides can talk constructively. Obviously we want stability and growth on the continent and any outcome that helps deliver that would be good for Britain," he told the Today programme.

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