LONDON -- Jobless Britons could be forced to do community work to keep their unemployment payments, Britain's top economics minister said Monday, announcing the latest in a series of moves to tighten benefits rules and crack down on "welfare dependency."
Under the plan, those out of work for more than two years could be required to take on tasks like cooking for the elderly or cleaning up litter to keep their payments. The initiative represents a significant hardening of policy in a country that once considered the idea of "workfare" taboo.
The minister, George Osborne, made his announcement in a speech at the Conservative Party's annual conference in Manchester. He also said he would try to freeze duties on fuel in an effort to ease the squeeze on incomes still being felt by many Britons, even as the economy is showing signs of a recovery.
He simultaneously outlined a long-term goal of building a budget surplus, suggesting that if the Conservatives win the next general election, due in May 2015, they will keep up the pressure to contain public spending.
Despite clear signs of an economic upturn, Mr. Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer, was careful to emphasize that a recovery was not yet secure and that there should be no sense of "a task completed or a victory won."
His most eye-catching pronouncement was on welfare -- the latest such shift from the Conservatives, who head a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats and who have identified such "tough love" policies as popular with the electorate.
The plans outlined by Mr. Osborne would not require primary legislation, meaning no vote in Parliament, the Department for Work and Pensions said Monday. Instead, changes to regulations will be "brought forward shortly," the department said.
With an election less than 20 months away, the Conservative Party is trying to highlight the policy areas where it believes it has a lead in public opinion over the opposition Labour Party. Welfare is prominent among them.
The Conservatives are also trying to combat a threat to their right from the U.K. Independence Party, which campaigns against the European Union and immigration, and says it wants to "make welfare a safety net for the needy, not a bed for the lazy."
At the same time, Prime Minister David Cameron has faced internal dissent from some right-wing Conservative lawmakers who opposed his move to allow same-sex marriage and who want him to take a tougher line on Europe and immigration.
Already, the jobless can be sent on work placements, where they are required to do a month's full-time work to keep their benefits, and the government has introduced a cash limit on the amount per week that most people ages 16 to 64 can receive from the state.
But on Monday, Mr. Osborne went further when he said those unemployed for two years would be required to do "useful work putting something back into their community." Alternatively, they could be required to attend job centers each day, while those with problems like drug addiction would be on an "intensive regime of support."
"No one will be ignored or left without help, but no one will get something for nothing," Mr. Osborne said, speaking from a platform that bore the slogan "For hardworking people." "A fair welfare system is fair to those who need it and fair for those that pay for it, too."
Mr. Osborne also accused the previous Labour government of making the "problem of welfare dependency worse."
The issue remains divisive in Britain. While the right-leaning Sun tabloid praised the initiative, the left-leaning Daily Mirror wrote about Mr. Osborne's proposal under the headline "Back to the Workhouse," a reference to the institutions that Britain's unemployed were once forced into.
In a statement, Rachel Reeves, an economic spokeswoman for the Labour Party, was critical of Mr. Osborne's proposal and offered an alternate plan. "With Labour's plans," she said, "we would work with employers to ensure there are jobs for young people and the long-term unemployed -- which they would have to take up or lose benefits."
Under Mr. Osborne's plan, she said, people will still be allowed "to languish on the dole for years on end without having a proper job."
Earlier, in an interview with the BBC, Mr. Osborne ruled out any agreements between Conservatives and the U.K. Independence Party on which races to contest. Some Conservative lawmakers have called for a formal pact, warning that the U.K. Independence Party could draw votes away from them, possibly depriving them of an election victory.
In an announcement on Sunday, Philip Hammond, the defense secretary, said Britain would develop "a full-spectrum military cybercapability, including a strike capability." In its statement, the Ministry of Defense said it would recruit hundreds of reservists as computer experts to work alongside regular forces in the creation of a Joint Cyber Reserve Unit.
"Increasingly, our defense budget is being invested in high-end capabilities such as cyber and intelligence and surveillance assets to ensure we can keep the country safe," Mr. Hammond said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.