Labour stands charged with harbouring “disdain” for the North East after it emerged the benefits cap could be harsher in this region than in the wealthy South East if they win power.
Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said an independent body will review the threshold on an area-by-area basis, and admitted it could vary depending on the cost of living.
Ian Jones, chair of the North East Lib Dems, poured scorn on the move and accused Ed Miliband’s party of “treating the North East like a second class citizen”.
Conservatives, meanwhile, said it would “penalise” the North East and called the idea “simply wrong”.
Mr Balls said the issues will be looked at by an independent board that will “double check we are doing the right thing” maintaining a national standard.
“We are not proposing to lower the benefit cap,” he said. “We are asking an independent advisory committee to check and make sure it is at the right level in all parts of the country.
“We have a national benefits system and we are going to keep the benefits system national.
“We are going to make sure by double checking with the advisory committee that we are doing the right thing.
“The right thing to do is to have the same level of support across the country but there is a cost of living difference and we have got to get it right.
“We aren’t thinking to undermine support for people, we are looking to enhance it.
“This is why we are asking for an independent committee to look at it, we don’t think it should be a political decision and we don’t want to give a steer to the committee. There is no preordained agenda from the Labour Party.”
The news is likely to anger Labour’s support in one of their heartland regions. It also comes after a controversial statement by Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves. She was attacked by opponents as being part of a “metropolitan elite” and turning her back on the unemployed when she claimed Labour was “not the party of people on benefits.”
The senior figure added: “We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work.”
A Conservative spokesman said: “The benefits cap is an important measure, and it is right it is applied fairly. But under Labour plans, people could be penalised for living in the North East rather than another part of the country. That is simply wrong.
“Labour just have no credibility when it comes to welfare – they voted against our benefit cap and every single measure we’ve taken to get people off the dole and into work.”
Ian Jones, chair of the North East Lib Dems, said: “Ed Balls’ weasel words on this won’t fool any one. The Labour manifesto is clear that they will look to treat people in the less well-off areas of the country worse than those in London and the South East.
“We saw the same thing with Conservative plans for regional pay cuts for teachers and nurses in the North East. Both parties, for different reasons, treat the region as a second class citizen. Labour are incredibly complacent and the Conservatives have nothing but disdain for the North.”