A UNION chief has hailed six rebel North-East Labour MPs as heroes after they voted against compulsory unpaid work experience.

The six – including Easington’s Graham Morris - were among 43 who voted against the so-called ‘workfare’ legislation, defying Ed Miliband’s orders to abstain.

Labour MPs were told to sit on their hands, to allow the Coalition to overturn a recent High Court defeat when the flashpoint measure was declared “unlawful”.

Ministers were left red-faced after a celebrated case brought by graduate Cait Reilly, who was required her to work for nothing at a Poundland store - or lose benefits.

The Commons revolt triggered the resignation of Gateshead’s Ian Mearns from his post as unpaid aide to Ivan Lewis, the Shadow International Development Secretary.

Three North-East parliamentary private secretaries have quit over policy clashes within 13 months – after the earlier of resignations of Mr Morris and Ian Lavery (Wansbeck).

Mr Lavery was also a rebel on Tuesday night, alongside Dave Anderson (Blaydon), Mary Glindon (Tyneside North) and Nick Brown (Newcastle East) – a former Chief Whip.

During the debate, Mr Morris told ministers: “I did not come into Parliament to penalise and punish the vulnerable and the poor for the mistakes of the Government.

“It is trying to save money by issuing unlawful sanctions for a Work Programme that is not fit for purpose.

"People in my constituency ask me, ‘Why are we suffering for the consequences of this crisis? Was it created in Horden, Shotton, Haswell, Blackhall or even Murton?’ No, of course not.”

Mr Mearns said he was warned he would be sacked if he voted with the rebels, adding: “I decided to resign immediately. It was a conscience matter for me.

“I am not against benefit sanctions per se, but this is Kafkaesque. People in Gateshead have been sanctioned for not going to a jobcentre, when they were at a job interview at the time.”

Yesterday, Liam Byrne, Labour’s work spokesman, hit back at the rebels – insisting the Bill simply reinstated the power to get tough with jobseekers who “did not take steps to find work”.

Mr Byrne claimed the sanction had been available to ministers since 1991, adding: “Labour has supported this legal power for years and years.”

And, in the Commons, benefits minister Esther McVey said failing to pass the Bill would land taxpayers with having to repay £130m of “benefit sanctions”.

She said: “Jobseekers should have responsibility to take all reasonable steps to increase their chances of finding work.”

But Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, wrote to each of the 43 rebels yesterday, saying: “Labour must not make this kind of mistake again.

“Let me thank you personally and on behalf of our members for taking a stand on this issue and voting for our shared values of decency, fairness and justice.”