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Living Standards

Volume 541: debated on Monday 5 March 2012

I beg to move,

That this House believes that next month’s Budget should include a real plan for jobs and growth in order to boost the stalled economy, help hard-pressed families, pensioners and small businesses, bring down unemployment, and so ensure that the deficit is brought down and done so in a fair way; notes that while the banks are receiving a tax cut this year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis shows that families with children will lose an average of £580 per year from tax and benefit changes coming into effect in 2012-13; further notes that up to 200,000 couples with children who work part-time face losing all their working tax credit of up to £3,870 per year from April 2012 if they cannot increase their working hours to 24 hours per week, further squeezing family living standards; further recognises that, in addition to ending the principle of universal child benefit, the Government’s unfair and ill-thought-through changes to child benefit will mean that a family with two earners each earning £40,000 would keep all its child benefit, but a single-earner family on £43,000 would lose it all, at a cost of £2,450 per year for a family with three children; and calls on the Chancellor to use extra revenue from tackling tax avoidance to cancel his changes to eligibility rules for working tax credits and announce in the Budget an immediate and urgent review of his changes to child benefit, to report before they come into effect in January 2013.

The Opposition have called this debate to draw attention to the injustice of ill-considered changes to benefits and tax credits, which are about to hit hard-pressed hard-working families across the country. We urge the Government to take this chance to review and rectify the pressure they are piling on families who are already under huge strain.

The debate takes place against the backdrop of the biggest squeeze in living standards in a generation, which is made all the more painful because of the Government’s failure to generate jobs and growth, and to deal with the deficit fairly. This year, they have chosen to take more from women and families with children than they are taking from the banks—they are refusing to repeat the tax on bank bonuses that the previous Labour Government introduced, with banks benefiting instead from a cut in corporation tax. At the same time, the average family with children faces a £580 cut in their annual income next month, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Those families will get a Budget bombshell from the Chancellor this year.

Today the Opposition are calling attention to two ways in which the Government are clobbering families with children. The Government’s lack of competence or care when it comes to fairness for families includes a crude cut to child benefit planned for 2013, meaning that while two-earner families with incomes up to £84,000 will keep all their child benefit, a single-earner family with an income of more than £43,000 will lose all theirs. Families will be asking: “Is that fair?” We are also about to see a punitive withdrawal of working tax credits for couples with children, meaning that unless a family on £17,000 can increase their working hours from 16 to 24 by 1 April, they will see their income fall by almost £4,000. Families will be asking the Government: “Is that fair?” I look forward to the Minister’s answers.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is appalling that in Liverpool, Riverside alone, more than 520 children from families who are working, but in low-paid jobs, will suffer as a direct result of that measure?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes the point about her constituents. All hon. Members will have heard at our surgeries from people who are beginning to realise that in just a few weeks’ time, they will lose all their working tax credit, despite the fact that they are working and doing the right thing.

Will my hon. Friend put it to those on the Treasury Bench that when child benefit came in, it replaced family allowances and child tax allowances, and therefore played a crucial part, because whatever level of income people with children were on, we in some way maintained equity with tax-free income? The Government are abolishing that for the sake of higher rate taxpayers. How can they maintain that the tax burden is being shared between single and childless people, and those with children, if they abolish child benefit?

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. This country will be one of the few that does not support families with children across the income distribution. Having children is expensive, and it is right that when people bring up a family, and when they retire, the state is there to provide that bit of extra support when they need it. The Government’s changes go entirely in the wrong direction.

That is a shocking illustration of the Government’s failure to come to grips with the crisis that our country faces—the crisis that is putting families under strain is the crisis in jobs, incomes and living standards. The cost-of-living crisis does not hit the headlines like a banking crisis or a currency crisis perhaps because it is a crisis from which those with the loudest voices can too easily insulate themselves. For the vast majority of people, however, trying to keep going and keep their heads above water is one of the toughest challenges that they have ever faced. Every day is a battle in a long war of attrition.

Does my hon. Friend agree that those at the top of the income scale do not mention the crisis because they are not facing a crisis? The RBS bonus pool was £785 million.

My hon. Friend is right to say that those on the lowest incomes and modest and middle incomes are being hardest hit by the changes to taxes and benefits that the Government have instituted.

Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that the Government’s proposals to take more than 1.1 million people out of tax, through the personal allowances, represents a tax cut for more than 25 million people? On the motion, will she confirm that the Budget is this month, not next?

The changes come into effect next month, but the Budget is in 16 days. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), who is a Liberal Democrat, says that he was going to vote for the motion. Perhaps he was thinking of before the election, when he agreed with progressive policies.

Every day, families are struggling, while the Government demand more from them, and there is no end in sight, no light at the end of the tunnel, just the fear that one day, sooner or later, they will not be able to pay the mortgage, rent or gas bill. We have called this debate because the Government seem unaware of what is happening, unable to understand what people are going through, unwilling to do what it takes to get our economy growing and unemployment falling, and uninterested in taking the trouble to find out what impact their decisions are having.

The choices that the Government are making are hurting but not working. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Taunton Deane says that we are wrong. It is the Government who are wrong because they are hitting hard-working families harder than anyone else, and giving the banks a tax cut while penalising families and young children trying to do the right thing and stay afloat. The choices that the Government are making are hurting but not working. They are penalising those trying to do the right thing. In response to the crisis in living standards hitting families, the Government are piling on the pressure with badly designed and badly targeted cuts to benefits and tax credits.

Although, of course, it is desirable to lift more people on low wages out of tax, is it not the case that this is not a particularly well-targeted measure in difficult times because it applies exactly the same tax advantage to higher paid people?

My hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge, having formerly worked for the Child Poverty Action Group, and what she says should hold great sway with the House.

In response to the question from the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) about people being taken out of tax, will my hon. Friend agree that more people are being taken out of tax—and put on the dole? What is that costing us? Some 700,000 public sector workers have gone on the dole in this country. Not only will they not be paying tax but they will not be paying national insurance, which will make things even worse for this country.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As we all know, unemployment is at a 17-year high and youth unemployment at an all-time high. That is taking more people out of tax and costing taxpayers more and more every day, as the bills of this failed economic policy add up.

Will my hon. Friend consider the point that the people affected by the change to working tax credit who work 16 hours a week—probably on the minimum wage—already fall well below the tax threshold, so however desirable it is to raise the tax threshold, it will not help those people at all?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The most by which someone affected by the changes to working tax credits could benefit from next month’s increase is £125. That pales into insignificance compared with the £3,800, which is the amount by which these families will be worse off because of these changes.

Having highlighted the anomaly with one and two-earner families regarding child benefit withdrawal, does the Labour party have a suggested solution to sort it out?

I am looking to the Government Front-Bench team for their solution, given the words that we have heard from Ministers over the past couple of days. The Labour party supports child benefit as a universal benefit. At the very least, the Government must iron out the anomaly that means that families earning £84,000 a year can still get child benefit, while a one-earner family on £43,000 cannot.

One month tomorrow, on Good Friday, 212,000 families stand to lose up to £4,000 because of changes to the working tax credit. The Government will say that people need only to increase the number of hours they work from 16 to 24. If they were in touch with working families and businesses, they would know that this is simply not an option for many people because the jobs are not there, and employers are laying people off and cutting hours, not increasing them.

The hon. Lady is demonstrating to the House that she is a very good Opposition politician. What exactly would she do to address the problem that she is highlighting?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for saying that I am a good Opposition politician; I hope, in due course, to be a good Government politician, so that we can put into practice measures to help families, pensioners and businesses facing the squeeze. But it is this Government’s mistakes and wrong-headed policies, which are callous, incompetent and unfair, that are penalising families trying to do the right thing. As I said to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), I would like child benefit kept as a universal benefit to help all families with the cost of bringing up a family. At the very least, however, the Govt must address the anomaly.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this devastating cut in tax credits, which will take £800 million away from families in Wales alone, is not only a tragedy for each family but economic madness, because these are the very families who have to put the money immediately back into the local economy? That money will be sucked out of the local economy, resulting in fewer opportunities for growth and economic recovery.

My hon. Friend is right. Government Members would do well to listen to her point. We also know that because of the changes to working tax credits, many families will be in the crazy situation whereby they would be better off on benefits than in work, as the Government’s own figures show.

The hon. Lady is moving on to some of the complexities of the benefits system. Does she support the coalition Government’s policies for a universal benefit as a way of simplifying this process? Did she vote for that?

This has nothing to do with universal credit. Those changes take effect in about one and a half years. In the meantime, families will be £74 worse off a week because of what the Government are doing, and would be better off on benefits. That is totally inconsistent with what universal credit is supposed to do, which is to ensure that everyone is better off in work. This policy goes in totally the opposite direction.

The hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) mentioned universal credit. That is designed to ensure that work pays in 18 months, but what would my hon. Friend say to my constituents, the parents of 1,700 children in Slough, who currently work between 16 and 24 hours and who will lose £3,800? That is in no way compensated for by the measly £200 resulting from raising the tax threshold.

I will come to that very point. Hours are being cut at the moment, so many people working part time who will be hit by these changes to working tax credits are working part time because they cannot find full-time work. Numbers from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of people working part time because they cannot find full-time work is at a record high of 1.35 million—a 13% increase on a year ago. It is therefore not the case that families can simply increase their hours to keep their tax credits. They are being penalised, first because of the lack of economic recovery, and secondly because of this Government’s decision to cut working tax credits.

Government Members keep asking what a Labour Government would do. I was a Social Security Minister when the Labour Government put together effective welfare-to-work policies. What is needed to make them effective is a macro-economic policy that creates jobs and allows people in part-time work to increase their hours. Under the Labour Government, the number of jobs in York increased from 40,000 to 57,000, many of them in retailing. It is precisely those people—1,600 in York—who look set to lose family income as a result of this Government’s policy.

Like my hon. Friend, many of us will have spoken to constituents in jobs whose hours vary—for instance, those working in retail or call centres, or those working as cleaners. However, at the moment, their hours are varying in one direction: downwards, because employers are cutting hours and cutting staff.

In addition to the changes to working tax credits, next January more than 1.5 million families will lose every single penny of their child benefit. The Government are saying, “Well, we’re only cutting child benefit for rich families.” However, if they talked to working families, they would realise that many families are heavily reliant on a single earner, because there is only one parent or because one parent is staying at home to bring up the kids. Those families are being hard hit by the changes.

I am listening to the hon. Lady’s speech carefully, and she has made several references to the crises in various parts of our society. The greatest crisis facing the Government, I hope she would agree, is the debt crisis, a huge contribution to which was made by the previous Government. We would all appreciate it if the hon. Lady told us whether the response to the issue being raised today is simply to add to that debt crisis or to find some other way of dealing with it.

I would like to know how the hon. Gentleman would explain to the 348 kids in his constituency who will be affected by the changes to working tax credits how it makes sense for their families to be better off on benefits than it is for their parents to be in work. That will surely add to the debt, not reduce it. It is this Government who are borrowing an extra £158 billion, because of the costs of their failed economic policies; it is they who are adding to the debt.

A Government who believe in fairness—a Government who say, “We’re all in this together”—are straining at the leash to cut tax for individuals with incomes over £150,000, while one-earner families on £43,000 stand to lose £2,500 of child benefit and families struggling on just £17,000 stand to lose around £4,000 because of changes to tax credits. Instead of worrying about the top 1%, this Government should start thinking about the other 99%.

The hon. Lady says that she cares about our children. Those of us on the Government Benches also care about our children and our grandchildren. Does she think it right to saddle them, generation on generation, with debt, racked up by the previous Administration?

As for caring for children, the Government’s own figures show that child poverty will increase under this Administration. As I said in answer to an earlier question, there is nothing helpful about throwing more people out of work and on to benefits, either for those families or for taxpayers, who have to pick up the bill of extra benefits and lower tax revenue.

The hon. Lady has had her chance; I will carry on.

When it comes to child benefits, a Government who say that they believe in rewarding work are creating a perverse and damaging incentive for people near the higher-rate tax threshold to limit their hours or pay, because of the crude cliff-edge effect that their policies will create. At the same time, changes to the rules for working tax credits will mean that some families could end up £728 better off on benefits than in work, according to a written answer from the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling).

The Chancellor said when he took office that he did not intend to balance the books on the backs of the poor. Is that not now exactly what he is intending—and failing—to do? That is the real answer to the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry).

Does my hon. Friend agree that the 1,200 people in Stoke-on-Trent earning just under £17,000 a year who will be worse off under these changes desperately need the Government to listen to this debate and do something in the Budget about the comprehensive spending review, so that they do not have to pay the price for these unacceptable changes?

My hon. Friend is right when she sticks up for the people of Stoke, who, like many of our constituents, will be hard hit by the changes, which do nothing to encourage people to go back to work, and instead encourage people to stay on the dole, because they will be better off on benefits than in work.

I hope I can add some weight to what my hon. Friend is saying. I was contacted by a local small business owner in my constituency—Keith Bannister, who runs Harley’s pub, which people in Staveley will all be aware of. He told me that three women on his payroll are threatened with the loss of their tax credits. They have told him that they will have to give up work if that happens, but he knows that if he increases the hours of two of them, he will have to lay off the third. It just does not make sense, does it?

It would be better if he was advising the Treasury, rather than the people who are currently doing it, because that is absolutely right, and it gets to the heart of the problem.

Indeed, that seems symptomatic of a wider problem with this Government: rushing out announcements to generate headlines before the costs have been counted; dreaming up the next big idea, when they should be focusing on the impact of their policies in the real world. We heard over the weekend that the Prime Minister had lost his blue-skies thinker. However, it might not be such a bad thing, because in tough times such as these, our constituents need a Government with their feet on the ground, not with their head in the clouds. I hope that this debate gives the Government a much needed reality check, because it is not too late to change course and protect hard-pressed families from further hardship and strain, inflicted on them by this Government.

It is the job of this House to ensure that our constituents’ voices are heard and their struggles taken into account, and that the impact of Government policies on their lives is fully understood. Labour Members hear every day from our constituents, and from the people we talk to around the country, about how hard it is to make enough money to pay the bills, find work or keep businesses afloat. It is not too late for the Chancellor to correct the mistakes that he is making with child benefit and working tax credits. I urge the Government to commit now to an urgent review of the child benefit changes and to use the money from a crackdown on stamp duty avoidance to cancel the damaging cut to working tax credits.

There is still time to listen to the families who will be hit by the restrictions on working tax credits, 78% of whom said in a survey for USDAW—the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—that they would be unable to find the additional hours needed to keep their tax credits. There is still time to listen to the many families hit by the change who cannot work extra hours because they have disabled children or other caring responsibilities. The Government have refused to exempt those families where one parent is a full-time carer. There is still time to listen to the Child Poverty Action Group, which warns that the change will

“cause a surge in child poverty of hundreds of thousands”.

There is still time to listen to the children’s charities and organisations speaking up for hard-pressed families—including Barnardo’s, Carers UK, Citizens Advice, the National Children’s Bureau and Working Families—which today wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to think again. There is still time to listen to one woman—Mary, from Belfast—who said:

“I can’t get my employer to give me the extra hours I need to qualify. There are people in my work who have had to take redundancy or cut their hours from 36…to 12 hours a week…Where does he think we are going to pluck the extra hours from? It’s a joke.”

Frankly, Mary is right.

On child benefit, there is still time to listen to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which says that the Government’s proposals will

“create a bizarre and economically damaging set of incentives”.

There is still time to listen to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who said that the Government’s plans would lead to

“a lot of unfairness and injustice”.

He is right. There is also still time to listen to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), who said that the Government’s policy was “barmy, tokenistic and unfair”. He, too, is right. I look forward to both of them, and others on the Government Benches, joining us in the Lobby this evening to tell the Government what they think of their policies.

All day, we have been getting smoke signals and spin from the Government. The Deputy Prime Minister says that they are thinking again, yet the Secretary of State for Justice says that they are not. Who is right? I look forward to getting an answer on what the Government’s policy on tax credits and child benefit actually is. It is a shame that no member of the Cabinet is in the Chamber tonight to give that answer and to talk about Government policy.

With 16 days to go until the Budget, the families that are about to be hit by the changes need certainty and commitments. The motion gives Members on both sides of the House an opportunity to dispel any doubts about the seriousness of our commitment to families and to fairness, and to show that we have listened to our constituents and our consciences. We have an opportunity this evening to stand up for fairness in tough times and to vote to protect family incomes by supporting the motion.

After all the sound and fury that we have just heard, perhaps I may provide a little context for the benefit of the Opposition. When this Government came to power, we had the highest borrowing in our peacetime history. We were borrowing one in every four pounds that we were spending. It was clear then, and it has since become clearer, that countries that lack fiscal credibility pay the price in higher market interest rates, at a cost to mortgage holders and businesses throughout the country.

In order to reduce a structural deficit—that is, one that will not go away with growth—it is necessary to cut spending or raise taxes, or a combination of the two. Cutting spending and raising taxes will, unfortunately, have an impact on people’s living standards. We do not want that to happen—we did not go into politics to do that—but the impact on living standards is the inevitable consequence of the dire state of the public finances left by Labour and the recognition by the coalition parties that we could no longer continue to borrow in the same reckless way.

Does the Minister acknowledge that if some of the families that we are talking about give up their employment and claim other benefits—including, in some cases, help with their mortgages, to which they would then become entitled—the savings that he is trying to achieve would simply not be made?

I shall speak in greater detail about the reforms to the working tax credit in a moment, but there is a question that we all have to answer. As the hon. Lady knows, there is a threshold for claiming the credit. For lone parents, it is 16 hours a week. We think it entirely reasonable that the joint target for couples should be not 16 hours a week but 24; we believe that that incentive will be helpful. The principle of a threshold has been in the tax credit system since it was put in place.

Let me just make a little more progress.

We heard the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) set out the challenges and pressures on living standards, but it takes some cheek for Labour Members to complain about the consequences of their own irresponsibility in power. Their position today in this motion relating to living standards is the equivalent of that of a man who sets his house on fire, then complains, after the fire brigade has extinguished the fire, that it has damaged his carpets. We accept that difficult decisions have to be taken, and we have taken them, but the British public know that we have had take them now because Labour failed to take them when it was in power.

The Minister is peddling the persistent Tory untruth that this economic situation existed only in Britain. Will he now accept that there was a worldwide banking crisis in 2008, and that the action that was taken to reflate the economy had contributed to the size of the deficit by 2010?

I will happily re-fight the 2010 general election with the hon. Gentleman any time. He will remember how well his party did on that occasion. The fact is that the UK had the worst deficit of any major economy.

This debate is about living standards, and central to good living standards in our country are job creation and economic growth. Does my hon. Friend agree that the role of the private sector is central to creating jobs, to make up for Labour’s failure to rebalance the economy and provide job creation?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The recovery that this country requires will be driven by the private sector. It cannot be driven by more borrowing and more debt, which is the policy of the Opposition.

Given that the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says that one in five firms are cutting hours, rather than increasing them or creating new jobs, how are people who work 16 hours a week going to find the extra hours to qualify for working tax credit? Where are those hours going to come from?

The figures for the last quarter for which figures are available show that there were more than 1.1 million jobs—[Interruption.] That is not a net number; it is the gross number of people moving into employment. We are not going to do anything for employment in this country if we undermine credibility, or if we see our interest rates driven up because we lack credibility because our policies do not hang together. That is what Labour is advocating, but it would be bad news for private and public sector employees.

Does the Minister not recall that, at the time the coalition came to power, interest rates were extremely low and had been for a long time? Our policy at the time of the banking crisis did not therefore create high interest rates. Will he also remind us what the national debt was at the time of the election? I think that it was between £700 billion and £800 billion, whereas it is now more than £1 trillion for the first time in our history, and that is because of this Government’s poor economic growth.

There is so much wrong with that that I do not know where to start. Perhaps I will begin by pointing out that, at the last general election, our interest rates were at more or less the same level as those of Italy and Spain, yet there is now an enormous difference between us. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong.

I am going to make a little progress.

We know, given the constraints that we face in the public finances, alongside high commodity prices and international uncertainty, that these are tough times for many families. That is why we have taken substantial steps to protect living standards, and to ensure that we support our poorest and most vulnerable families. Even as we cut the deficit, fairness has been at the very core of our spending plans. We will not let our poorest and most vulnerable families bear the consequences of the previous Government’s failures. That is why we have secured the largest ever cash rise in the basic state pension, and why we have uprated working-age benefits by 5.2% to protect the real incomes of the poorest.

I want to make a bit more progress.

That is also why we increased the child tax credit by £135, in line with inflation, which means that, by this April, it will have increased by £390 since May 2010. It is telling that the Opposition motion makes no mention of this Government’s plans to increase the personal allowance, no doubt because their last contribution to the debate on income tax for the low paid was the 10p debacle.

Will the Minister tell us how his Government are helping the poorest in our society? Hundreds of families in my constituency are going to lose working family tax credit and will not be able to increase their hours. They are facing the possibility of losing their homes because of the cap on housing benefit, and of losing services because of the cuts to local authorities. The people who are most dependent on such services are inevitably the poorest in our society, yet his Government seem quite deliberately to be attacking them, perhaps because they believe that there are no votes in that part of the country.

We believe there are a lot of votes in the hon. Lady’s constituency.

I was going through the things we have done to help the poor, but let me continue. What we have done with the personal allowance is a big step—helping working people, ensuring that work pays and lifting living standards for those on low incomes. That is why this Government have made increasing the personal allowance one of our key priorities in supporting low and middle-income families across the UK. In April 2012, we will make a £630 increase in the personal allowance, taking it £8,105, which, taken with the £1,000 increase in April 2011, will benefit 25 million taxpayers, taking 1.1 million low-income individuals out of income tax altogether. We note that the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury expressed her opposition to that policy just a few minutes ago.

Will the Minister explain how living standards are increasing for families in Glasgow when 2,000 couples and 4,000 children will lose up to £4,000 in working tax credits at the same time as VAT is going up, inflation is high and the cost of living is going up? How is that improving living standards for poor families in Glasgow?

I come back to the initial point: we face a huge deficit. People recognise we have to reduce it, but at the same time we are trying to do everything we can to protect the poorest. That is why we are running through the issues here.

When the previous Government introduced so much regulation into the child care market, did not the number of child minders fall from 100,000 to 50,000 placements while the cost of child care doubled? Was that not a shameful increase in the cost of living for some of the poorest families in our country?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. If we are to find practical ways of improving living standards, the work that she is undertaking is exactly what we need to be doing. We need to ensure that we have an effective environment in which parents can work and child care costs are manageable.

Will the Minister point me to the bit of the Conservative manifesto that promised hard-working families that they would lose their tax credits and be better off out of work, and to the bit that promised other families that if they had a pay rise that took them into the 40p band they would lose their child benefit and be much worse off, too? Will not people who voted Conservative at the election feel utterly betrayed by the introduction of these anti-work and anti-aspiration policies?

The people who voted Conservative at the election, and indeed others, recognise that this Government are prepared to take difficult decisions to get the public finances on track to provide the long-term credibility that our public finances need and to ensure that our economy can grow strongly once again. By sticking its head in the sand and opposing every step taken to get the deficit under control, the Labour party does itself no favours.

The Minister talks about putting the public finances in a sound state, yet are not the Government’s policies singularly failing because the Government are having to borrow an additional £158 billion? Surely that should tell the Minister that he is getting it wrong, that he needs to think again and put people back in employment to give them the opportunity to pay tax and contribute to society rather than wasting taxpayers’ money on keeping people idle on unemployment benefit.

For the hon. Gentleman’s information, borrowing is falling year on year, and we are not going to get borrowing down by borrowing more—however often the shadow Chancellor claims that that is the case.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Opposition really believed in looking after low-paid people, they would have voted for the welfare cap and not voted against it? My constituents do not understand why they did that.

My hon. Friend is right to raise that point, which reveals a lot about Labour’s priorities. It is for Labour Members to answer why they pursued that policy. I want to address the point about welfare reform.

Let me make a little more progress.

We want to target support where it is needed most. Tackling the deficit fairly requires us to ensure that tax credits are targeted at our poorest and most vulnerable families. We simply could not continue on the path that the previous Government took. From 2003-04 to 2010-11, spending on tax credits increased from £18 billion to an estimated £30 billion, with nine out of 10 families with children eligible for tax credits. In total, the previous Government had spent more than £150 billion on tax credits since 2003—a staggering sum, poorly targeted and an unsustainable level of spending. It is absolutely right and fair to reform the system to support those who need it most.

At Work and Pensions questions earlier, the Secretary of State made it clear that because of the support of Jobcentre Plus and other agencies, he did not expect anybody to opt out of work as a result of the changes. Does the Minister stand by that? If so, let me give him this challenge. If any family comes into my constituency office to tell me that it is no longer worth them going to work because of these changes, will he personally respond to their financial queries, which I will put in front of him? I suspect that other Members will be doing exactly the same to explain to their constituents why this Government have now made it no longer worth going to work. This seems to be a complete aberration and against his own policy—

Given that we ask lone parents to work 16 hours a week before they are entitled to working tax credits, I would say that it is not right to have the same threshold for a couple. Asking and incentivising them to work 24 hours a week is perfectly reasonable. Under the universal credit that we are going to introduce shortly, every hour extra worked will be worth while, as there will not be the same threshold. Essentially, we are working within the system that we inherited from the previous Government.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the extra hours, but with more than 2 million people unemployed, where are those extra hours going to come from?

As I said earlier, over the last quarter for which figures are available, a further 1.1 million jobs were created, while today we have had announcements of 20,000 jobs created by Tesco. We are going to take steps to make it easier to create jobs in this country.

Order. Members know that they should not stand and point at the Minister; they should ask him to give way. If he declines to give way, it means that they have to sit down and try again later.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Increasing the working hour requirements for a couple is entirely fair. It is absolutely right that a couple with children should put in more hours than a lone parent before receiving working tax credits. This also creates a clear work incentive signal to potential second earners who could benefit from working tax credits if they moved into work or increased their hours.

The Minister referred to universal credit. Is not one of the most foolish parts of this policy the fact that it will be out of date within 18 months or so in any case? This will potentially mean a lot of people deciding to get out of work, but it will be superseded by the policy on universal credit. Why not just wait until universal credit comes in?

I come back to the point I made previously. With the difficult financial situation we inherited, we needed to take steps, and one of them was to increase the threshold for a couple from 16 to 24 hours. That seems perfectly reasonable and fair in the context of a 16-hour requirement for lone parents.

I want to make a bit of progress, because I know that many other Members wish to speak.

We are also right to reform child benefit to target the families who need it most. I fully understand that child benefit provides a vital boost in parental income for millions of families throughout the country, but it represents a substantial cost to the Exchequer. It makes up about 7% of total social security and tax credit spending each year, including child benefit payments of over £2 billion per year to higher-rate taxpayers. When we face such tight constraints on the public purse, it is right for us to refocus resources where we need them most.

The Minister mentioned the administrative cost of child benefit to the Exchequer. Can he tell us what is the estimated cost of all the extra form-filling that the change will require?

I was actually talking about the overall cost. We will give details of the cost of administering child benefit when we announce the details of the policy, which, as the hon. Lady will know, we will do shortly. However, as the Chancellor has said:

“We simply cannot ask those earning just £15,000 or £30,000 to go on paying the child benefit of those earning £50,000 or £100,000.”

It is simply not fair for working parents on low incomes to subsidise millionaires. If members of the Labour party believe in that, they can add it to their election literature along with their opposition to the benefit cap. By making these changes, we can continue to direct child benefit to where it is needed most, supporting millions of families and millions of children from birth until they leave full-time education at the age of 18 or even 19.

Can the Minister explain to Members on both sides of the House why he thinks it fair for a family with a joint income of £84,000 to keep all their child benefit, while a one-earner family will lose all their child benefit if the husband or wife stays at home and their income is just £43,000?

Let me explain the challenge that we face. Basing child benefit on household income means a full means-testing regime with all the complexities that that involves: all the form-filling, and all the administration problems. I do not know whether that is what the shadow Chancellor wants, or whether he supports the position taken by the shadow Chief Secretary, who would not touch child benefit at all; but if we do not pursue the policy that we have announced, we will incur an additional £2.5 billion of borrowing every year. That is what the Labour party is committing itself to.

The Minister is right: the policy is very complicated. It is a pity that the Government did not work that out before they announced it 18 months ago. The Secretary of State for Justice wants to keep it, the Deputy Prime Minister wants to drop it, the Prime Minister also wants to drop it, and the Chancellor is confused. My advice to the Minister is this: sit down, finish the speech and let us see what happens in the Budget, because this is doing his career no good at all.

Treasury Ministers have taken advice from the right hon. Gentleman in the past, and it did not end well. In that context, I will continue my speech.

At the same time as refocusing child benefit, we are investing £7.2 billion in the fairness premium, including £2.5 billion in the pupil premium, to support the poorest in their early years and at every stage of their education. There are substantial reforms and tough decisions to make, but we have not shirked our responsibility to do so. We will not burden future generations with unsustainable debts that would mean higher taxes and diminished public services. We cannot keep building debt to fund spending on today’s generation at the expense of tomorrow’s.

I am going to make a little more progress.

We cannot ask our poorest and our most vulnerable to carry the burden; it is right and fair for those with the broadest shoulders to carry the heaviest burdens. Those who say that we are not asking the wealthy to pay their fair share are the very same people who are jumping up to oppose reform of child benefit, which will do exactly that.

Under the previous system, about nine out of 10 families with children were eligible to receive tax credits. Under our reforms, the proportion will fall to six out of 10. As is shown by our distributional analysis of the impact of the autumn statement and previous fiscal events, the top 20% of households will make the greatest contribution to reducing the deficit as a percentage of their incomes and benefits in kind from public services.

Strictly speaking, what the Minister has said is accurate, but he knows as well as we do that the only reason for the positive distributional effect is the measures taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) before the last general election. Surely the Minister can acknowledge that the measures taken by the coalition Government are massively regressive.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for accepting and confirming that all the measures that will be put in place in 2012-13—which we could implement or not implement—are progressive.

Can the Minister tell us whether the measures introduced by his party are progressive or regressive?

All the measures that will be put in place in 2012-13 are being implemented by this Government. That is the point. It is impossible to disaggregate those measures. They are all going to be put in place, and we are responsible for all of them. If we had wanted to reverse some of them, we could have done so, but we did not.

Of course, none of what we are doing ignores the fact that this will be a tough year for households across the board. We know that that is the case, and it is our reason for going even further to support families and businesses throughout the country.

I want to make some progress.

We are limiting the increase to Transport for London and regulated rail fares, funding South West Water to enable it to cut bills by £50 per year for households that currently face the highest water bills in the country, setting aside an extra £675 million for local authorities in England to freeze or reduce council tax in 2012-13, and providing real help for households that are feeling the squeeze. We are deferring the fuel duty increase that was due to take effect on 1 January to August this year, while also cancelling the further increase in August. As a result, tax on petrol will be a full 10p lower than it would have been, and families will have saved £144 on the cost of filling up the average family car by the end of next year.

No, I am going to make a bit more progress. I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman once, and I think that that was enough for all of us.

It is because of our decisions that we have secured record gilt yields, feeding through to record low and stable interest rates that make a real difference to families paying their mortgages and businesses refinancing loans throughout the country. If we are going to discuss a squeeze on living standards, let us discuss what an increase in market interest rates would mean for families throughout the United Kingdom. It would force taxpayers to find an extra £21 billion in debt interest payments, increase the cost of business loans by £7 billion, and add £10 billion to mortgage bills every year, an extra £1,000 for the average family—and that is just a 1% rise. Let me remind the House that when the Government came to office, our rates were tracking those of the likes of Spain and Italy, and that they are now close to those of Germany. It is because of the tough decisions that we have made to cut the deficit that the UK has broken ranks. In the last year alone, its rates have fallen by about 1.5%, whereas those of Italy and Spain have risen by almost 3%.

I know the shadow Chancellor considers that low interest rates are a sign of trouble, and that he would prefer higher interest rates, a bigger squeeze on families, and an even bigger fall in living standards, but the simple truth is that the Opposition have no credible response to the economic challenges that the country faces.

I am wondering whether the Minister has been out of the country for the past few days, and therefore has not noticed that several banks are increasing their mortgage rates.

If we had pursued the policy advocated by the Opposition, our market rates and gilt yields would be going up and we would be facing a very significant problem. We have record low interest rates at present. That does not necessarily mean mortgage rates will remain at their current levels for ever across the board, but the fact is that the tough steps we have taken have ensured that interest rates are much lower than they would otherwise be, which is to the advantage of both mortgage holders and businesses looking for finance.

We have debated this question before, and it was clear that quantitative easing is what has led to the reduction in interest rates. The recent £50 billion of quantitative easing has, in effect, been an attack on pension funds; it has wiped out almost a quarter of private pension funds compared with the situation before the last general election. Will the Minister confirm that further credit easing will also affect private pension funds?

Credit easing will benefit businesses. I should also point out that the current low interest-rate trend was in place before the additional quantitative easing undertaken by the Bank of England.

The simple truth is that the Opposition have no credible response to the economic challenges we face. It took the coalition Government five days to come together in the national interest to forge a joint commitment and approach to tackle the deficit, yet 18 months later the Opposition remain confused and conflicted. Every now and again a member of the shadow Cabinet—even the shadow Chief Secretary—crops up to say they will be fiscally credible but, in practice, they oppose welfare reform, for instance, and say it affects the poorest, even when a household receives more than £26,000 a year. They also oppose reforming universal benefits, even though that protects the richest, and they oppose anything that affects the squeezed middle. Clearly, their economic plan involves more spending, more borrowing and more debt.

However many Opposition days they have, and however many economic policy relaunches they make, it is clear that Labour was irresponsible in government and is irrelevant in opposition. We are fixing the failures of the past and are repairing our economy. This Government are committed to supporting families across the country through difficult economic times.

It is, of course, a tough challenge to secure our economic stability and lay the foundations for sustainable growth, but we are determined to restore the UK’s prosperity, and we will put fairness at the heart of our recovery by protecting living standards for our poorest and most vulnerable families, by lifting millions out of tax, by taking steps to reduce the cost of living and by refocusing welfare on those who need it most. Yes, that means that those on the highest incomes will bear the heaviest burden as we pull together to tackle the deficit, but it is absolutely right that those who can contribute the most do so.

A fair and sustainable recovery demands leadership, and that is exactly what this Government are providing. It is this coalition Government alone who are determined to face up to today’s economic challenges, and to build tomorrow’s fair, prosperous and sustainable economy.

I was amazed to hear the Minister claiming to be putting fairness at the heart of policy, when this Government are viciously attacking the most vulnerable and the lowest paid in the country.

As has continually been said, the forthcoming Budget must include measures for jobs and growth. Without jobs and growth, everything else in the economy fails and the cuts will continue indefinitely. The country is suffering greatly as a result of the coalition Government’s policies. I call on them to reconsider their intended changes to tax credits and child benefit, which will cost ordinary hard-working families up to £4,000 a year.

These proposals will impact heavily in my constituency. For the benefit of the Government Front-Bench team, I should point out that Wansbeck is in the north-east—not near Aberdeen, but in the north-east of England. We are being hit very hard already. Before the general election, the Prime Minister said he would hit the north-east the hardest, and, by goodness, that is one promise he has kept. Some 240 households in Wansbeck will be hit by the measures that are to be introduced, and 465 children in Wansbeck will suffer as a consequence. The situation is dire.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s constituents. In my constituency, 880 households, which include 2,095 children, will be affected. Does my hon. Friend agree that these measures are disgraceful?

I entirely agree.

The dire situation in my constituency is compounded by the following fact. The Office for National Statistics stated last week that 55.4 people are applying for each vacancy advertised at the jobcentre—and there are only 48 unfilled jobs in Wansbeck—although two weeks ago the House of Commons Library said this figure was a little lower, with some 36.5 applicants per vacancy. The notion that there are plenty of job opportunities, and opportunities to take on extra hours at work and part-time employment, is a myth propagated by the Government.

I am very concerned. Today, I have written to the Prime Minister, the Business Secretary and the Employment Minister, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), calling for urgent discussions on the future of my area. The attacks on the disabled and the less well-off seem to have abated since the new welfare reforms passed through Parliament, but now the Government are beginning in earnest their attack on hard-working families with children.

The tax and benefit changes will hit women, children and single parents hardest. We must ask why that is the case. Why are the bankers not being attacked? Why do they get a tax cut? Why is there now talk about the rich people getting their 50p tax rate reduced, while at the same time the Government are continuing to attack those who are unable to support themselves? That is obscene, to say the least.

The average family with a child will lose up to £580 per annum. As many as 200,000 couples with children will face losing up to £4,000 in their income. Some 212,000 households and 470,000 children will be affected if people cannot secure extra hours in their workplace. We have got to ask ourselves: where will people get these hours from in their workplace? There is not enough employment in any case—if the Minister wishes to intervene, that would be great. He can tell people in Wansbeck, where there are 50-odd people after each job, how they will get extra hours in part-time employment. The fact of the matter is that they have absolutely no chance, so they are going to lose their money. In a recent Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers survey, 78% of people said that there was absolutely no chance that they would get an extra hour in their workplace, and so they will be losing their tax credits.

My hon. Friend rightly says that there are no jobs out there, with more than 2 million unemployed. So people will become unemployed and the state will then have to spend hundreds of pounds on keeping these families on benefits, as opposed to allowing them to work and contribute to the economy.

Again, I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, as I could not have put it better myself.

We are talking about the same hard-working families who were used two or three weeks ago by the Government as shining examples of why people on benefits should lose them. We are talking about the people who are getting out of bed and going to work, even if it is for 14, 15 or perhaps 16 hours a week—these are the shining examples and look what has happened to them. A lot of people believed in what the Government had to say but, unfortunately, that has now gone out the window. These are not necessarily the squeezed middle, but the working poor, and they are very hard-working people. I must point out that £4,000 is a mortgage to lots of people involved in this issue, and people—hard-working families—will lose their homes as a result of these policies being introduced by the Government. Their figures suggest that some people will actually be better off not going to work. Only a few weeks ago, we heard a million and one times, “It doesn’t pay to be on benefits and nor should it.” So they attack the “scroungers” first and look what is happening now. The situation is an absolute disgrace, because under these new proposals someone can be better off on benefits than in work, possibly by as much as £728 per annum, as some have it. How is it that people can be better off on benefits?

The proposal on child benefit is the most bizarre and ridiculous, and it has to change, as I am sure everyone in this Chamber understands—it is that stupid and it involves a huge anomaly. How can it be fair that someone in a family earning £84,000 can keep their benefits, whereas someone in a family earning £43,000 can lose theirs? It is absolutely outrageous. I am sure that that will change—if it does not, God help us all. I hope that this glaring anomaly will be cleared up.

The Government cannot continue their unfair attack on those less well-off in society—it is mainly an attack on women, children and hard-working people. The hard-working people cannot continue to pay the highest price for this too fast, too far Government approach. Hard-working people cannot continue to pay the lion’s share in a failing economy, purely on the basis of ideology. Given an increase in fuel prices, the introduction of unfair welfare reforms, high unemployment—the highest in 17 years—huge energy prices, pay freezes and pension cuts, the burden must be shared. It must not be shared just by women, children and those hardest up who are willing to go to work—the hard-working people, as we have heard a million times. It is time that the coalition Government changed direction. Instead of flying into the abyss, they should look after the hard-working people in this country, and revisit their proposals on child benefit and tax credits.

We have debated many Opposition motions on the economy and public finances in the past 20 months, and this one is little different from the many others that I have discussed—I have spoken in all these debates. We are asked to focus on the needs of hard-pressed families—we are hardly likely to disagree with that—and on pensioners, but the whole tenor of this motion, like all the others that have gone before it, is that the coalition Government should do more for some people and should reverse the planned changes that they have set in train. So despite the U-turns that the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition have made in recent weeks on the need to cut the deficit, we are exactly where we have been before on all other Opposition days. We are back with uncosted proposals somehow to make us all believe that tackling the deficit can be a painless and, indeed, invisible process of fiscal rebalancing. It is as if public finances can be restored to health by magic, with no tax rises and no expenditure cuts—it simply is not credible.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the importance of tackling the deficit, but he will recognise that by 2013 this policy will be out of date because of the incoming universal credit. What is the point of putting 200,000 people through tremendous pain for the sake of 18 months? When the Government review their books in 2015 that figure will have entirely disappeared, so why not wait until the universal credit has come in and sort the system out at that point?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I think he made the same point to the Minister. The coalition Government have a five-year programme of reform, which includes cutting the deficit as well as long-lasting reform of our entire welfare state, which has evolved over a long period of time. Many of the reforms, whether they are on the universal credit, pensions or other parts of the welfare state, are designed to last for a generation whereas the deficit reduction measures are, of course, short-term measures, painful as they might sometimes be. I acknowledge that for many households and some families what this Government are having to do—not because we choose to do it, but because we have to do it—causes discomfort.

What matters most to all households is putting our public finances and our economy back on track. That gives our country fiscal credibility and allows our Government, businesses and households to borrow and invest at affordable rates.

The hon. Gentleman clearly has not read the motion, which makes it absolutely clear that our proposals on working tax credits will be matched by an increase in tax take on stamp duty from those people who have houses worth more than £1 million and who are offshoring. That would match the revenue needed for the working tax credit.

All I can say is that the hon. Lady must have been reading an earlier draft, because that is not what the motion says. I shall discuss tax avoidance later in my speech, as I am sure she will be pleased to hear.

Even in the tough fiscal environment that the Government face, it is right that we should do what we can to help low-income households. That is why the Government are absolutely determined that the budget will not be balanced on the backs of the poorest and those in work who have low earnings. The Government will not repeat the fiasco that happened in good times under the previous Government. The Chancellor who became Prime Minister, in his last Budget as Chancellor, abolished the 10p rate of income tax, raising income tax for the lowest paid in society and all his hon. Friends, who, at the time, sat on the Government Benches and waved their Order Papers with glee that a tax on the poorest in society was funding a tax cut for the rich.

I have given way twice and I am on a time limit, unlike some previous speakers. The hon. Lady will have her turn later.

That is why reducing the tax burden for the lowest paid is the No. 1 priority, as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned, of this coalition Government. I and all my colleagues stood at the last election on a promise that the income tax threshold would be raised to £10,000 and the coalition Government’s first budget raised the threshold by £1,000 to £7,475 a year, taking 800,000 people out of income tax altogether and giving a £200 tax cut to every basic rate taxpayer. From next month, the threshold will be raised again to £8,105, cumulatively taking 1.1 million low-paid people out of income tax altogether with a cumulative income tax cut for every basic rate taxpayer of £330. That is £330 extra take-home pay, particularly for part-time workers, who are disproportionately women and young people, that they can spend immediately in their communities.

Two weeks ahead of the Budget—16 days, as the shadow Chief Secretary kept saying—the Liberal Democrats want the Chancellor to go further and faster in announcing a timetable to reach that £10,000 threshold in this Parliament. We want to know that when all our constituents go out to work, they will be able to take home £10,000 a year and not face the burden of income tax. That will send out a message that we are determined to make work pay and to reduce the tax burden for everyone on the basic rate of tax.

I have already given way twice and I am on a time limit.

The same arguments apply as when the Government had to take tough decisions on whether to raise out-of-work benefits in the comprehensive spending review and the last autumn statement, and those benefits were raised by the high consumer prices index of 5.2%. Child tax credits have also been raised by 5.2%; that is £135 extra this year. As the Minister said earlier, there has been £390 extra cumulatively so far since the general election. Difficult decisions are being taken on the reform of tax credits. The Liberal Democrat manifesto explicitly said that we thought there was scope for the reform of poorly focused tax credits. In 2010, nine out of 10 families with children received tax credits and, even after the difficult reforms we are introducing in these tough fiscal times, six out of 10 families will still receive tax credits.

Child benefit is another area in which the Government have to make a tough choice. If the Labour party’s message is that it opposes even that tough choice of withdrawing child benefit from the richest families in the country, where on earth is it going to find the cuts? I look forward to hearing, in all the Labour speeches between now and 10 o’clock, what alternative cuts would be made to replace that cut in child benefit. The cliff edge of the higher rate tax threshold is difficult. We all acknowledge the anomaly that was expressed in the extreme by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) regarding the earnings of two people in a household. The Deputy Prime Minister confirmed this morning that we are looking for ways to smooth that withdrawal of benefit from those who are marginally over the threshold; we will have to wait until the Budget to see the outcome of those discussions.

The Government are introducing other measures to support families with children. This morning, I visited a secondary school in my constituency, St Mary Redcliffe, and on Friday I visited the City academy in my constituency as well. Both those schools and all the other schools in all our constituencies are benefiting from the introduction of the pupil premium. Parents who are working need support with child care, and the Government are introducing 130,000 extra places for two-year-olds.

At least this motion mentions pensioners. The last time we had an Opposition motion on living standards, it neglected to mention pensioners at all. That was hardly surprising because the Government had just announced the largest cash increase in the state pension since it was introduced by Lloyd George and Asquith in 1908. The Government have a triple lock in place to ensure that pensioners always receive an increase. We will not have the embarrassment of 75p pension rises in future.

The Government are taking action on tax avoidance. I note that the motion says that everything Labour wishes for, whether on child benefit, child tax credit or working tax credits, is somehow going to be paid for through tax avoidance measures that are unspecified in the motion. That would have more credibility if Labour had voted in favour of the tax avoidance measures introduced by the Government in the last Finance Act, rather than voting against them. I want to see more action on tax avoidance in the Budget, such as a general anti-avoidance rule, and I look forward to hearing what the Chancellor has to say—

We have heard a lot of twaddle from Government Members today. I was shocked that the Minister seemed to agree with the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) about the need for unregulated child care, as though high-quality, regulated child care is a cost too high for working parents to pay. As a working parent who uses child care, and as someone who represents many young people in my constituency who face having to seek child care, I must say that having lower-quality child care is not the answer. Cost is an issue but lowering the quality is not the answer. I hope the Minister will pick up on that point in responding.

I represent half of a borough that has the unenviable record of being one of the country’s poorest. About 45% of children in my constituency live in out-of-work households or in in-work households that have an income below 60% of the national average. That compares with 22% in the UK as a whole according to 2009 figures.

One in five of my constituents is under 16, so the two changes that the Government are introducing have a very big impact on a very large number of people in my constituency—the youngest, the children who need the support, and their parents as well. Anything that hits children affects Hackney particularly hard. When we are talking about the impact on young people, their life chances and their opportunities, we should not forget the impact that that has on the wider population. It is my constituents who will be paying the pensions of the older population of the rest of the country in time to come. It is my constituents who will be creating the jobs that will pay for this country in time to come. We need to make sure that we give them a little more respect than the Government currently do.

The Government have form in this respect. About a third of my constituency is aged under 24. This group has already been hit massively by the loss of the education maintenance allowance, which had a high take-up in my constituency. For example, one young woman said to me, “By Thursday, when the electricity key was running out, I would pay that,” so she could do her homework and the house would be warm. It paid for basics like that in my constituency. I will not revisit the pain of tuition fees, on which the Liberal Democrats have shown their true colours.

I turn to working tax credits. In my constituency 12,000 families receive tax credits overall. Of those, 4,500 families, which include 8,600 children, are in work and receive both child tax credits and working tax credits. Of the total 12,000 families, 1,100 families receive working tax credit only. Those figures are from December last year, and they hide real people, such as the woman who came to see me on Friday and wept as she said to me, “I’m working 16 hours a week. I want to work more but I cannot find the hours.” She will lose more than £300 a month as a result of the Government’s changes. She has one month to find eight hours of extra work. Where is she going to find that at her level of income?

A related issue, which I am digging into, is school support staff. I have had a number of reports from primary schools in my constituency where low grade staff working 10 or 11 hours a week have been told by the jobcentre that they need to increase their hours to 16, because that gets them off some statistic that the Department is gathering about part-time work. When they went back to the school to ask for extra hours, one head teacher had the wit to go to Jobcentre Plus and say, “Give me this in writing. Tell me who is directing this.” No information was forthcoming.

Those people were being encouraged to give up a good job of 10 or 11 hours a week to find some job somewhere that might be 16 hours a week, but as many of the jobs in low level retail are on zero hours contracts, it is difficult to be guaranteed the 16 hours, let alone the 24 hours. They may get 16 hours now in a good week but not in a bad week, but going up to 24 hours will be increasingly challenging. I talk about my constituency, but as we have heard, up to 200,000 working parents will lose almost £4,000 a year in working tax credit as a result of the changes, which are about three weeks away.

I move on to child benefit. We know that in London child care costs are very high and many of my constituents on good incomes find it unaffordable to work. Their child care would cost more than quite generous full-time earnings, so many have made the understandable decision to opt for one of the couple to stay at home and look after the child. The Minister’s answer was, “Unregulate the child care and make it cheaper”, but that is a retrograde step.

The Government talk about being family-friendly and wanting to support the family unit of two parents with children. The reward for those families for doing what the Government profess to want is a cut in child benefit. What does that mean? If one of the couple is earning £43,000 but the other is not earning and they have three children, they lose £188 a month in child benefit.

I shall be brief. The hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) commented that that is an extreme example. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not extreme; it is absolutely accurate?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is rich for the Liberal Democrats to speak sanctimoniously today, when we know what they were saying on the campaign trail just over two years ago.

A family with two incomes totalling £84,000 a year and three children loses nothing in child benefit. The policy is bonkers. It was not even written on the back of an envelope. It must have been written late at night in the bar, because it does not make sense in any way, and the Minister was unable to answer my question about how much it would cost administratively for individuals to collect the paperwork to find people who are on those incomes, in order to take their child benefit away.

We will have the Budget in a fortnight’s time, but my constituents are already being hit. Working tax credit is being taken away from the lowest-paid. There are the cuts to child benefits. We hear from The Daily Telegraph that there might be some changes, but we have heard nothing today from the Minister at the Dispatch Box. VAT has been increased to 20%, affecting the cost of day-to-day purchases for all my constituents. We read of the threat of mortgage interest rates going up. Rents for new social housing will now have to be 80% of private rents, which in my constituency will make it unaffordable for most people—and we can add to that the housing benefit cap, which would affect two thirds of my constituents renting in the private sector, the fact that private rents are increasing exponentially all the time, that energy bills and food prices are going up, that unemployment is increasing, and the loss of the education maintenance allowance.

Many of my constituents may be poor, but there is no poverty of aspiration in my constituency. These policies, layered on month after month and year after year under this wretched Government, are a real kick in the teeth for my constituents, many of whom have come from other countries to do well and to put time and effort into education and training in order to improve their lot. As they are struggling up the ladder of ambition and trying to improve their lot and support their families, the Government are pulling the rug out from under their feet and taking away the lower rungs of the ladder. It is shameful.

I am grateful to the Labour party for choosing this important subject for this evening’s debate, because it is right that we should debate living standards. It is quite brave of the Labour party to choose this topic, because there was a sharp decline in living standards in the last years of the Labour Administration, but it is also true that there has been a further decline in the first 18 months of the coalition Government. It takes time to turn these things around. The main reason why living standards have continued to fall in the past 18 months is that inflation has been too high. If time permits, I wish to suggest some things Ministers could do in the drive against rising prices so that we can relieve some of the pressure on our constituents.

I agree with Labour and colleagues on the Government Benches that we are here above all to ensure the better prosperity of the people we represent. None of us wishes to see their constituents’ livings standards fall, and it is right that today we should consider, on an Opposition motion, how we might strengthen and improve living standards. I also agree with Labour that we need to debate jobs and growth and am delighted that the motion starts off with that. I am sure that Ministers on the Treasury Bench are well aware that, although they have introduced some measures, they have not yet done enough to ensure a rapid, strong and continuing recovery. We all look forward to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor adding to the range of policies and instruments that he can adopt to improve the chances of more rapid and sustained growth.

Again, it is a matter of common agreement across the Chamber that growth is a good thing, that it will mean more jobs, rising living standards and higher incomes and that it will bring with it more tax revenue. More tax revenue is much needed, because the Chancellor and his Front-Bench colleagues have decided to increase public spending in cash terms every year of the five-year period, which will not be easy to finance, given the very large running deficit and accumulated debt they inherited. Contrary to what some people in the media have said, the debt is still rising day by day because we are still running a large deficit.

I was hoping to say something good about the parts of the motion where Labour highlighted one of the problems people have with one of the Chancellor’s proposals. As many Labour Members and others have pointed out, with the wish to make richer people pay a little more by withdrawing child benefit there is the problem that those who are better off might in some cases get a better deal than those who are worse off. None of us likes that, and I think that there is common ground on that across the House. It is not a new discovery that Labour has highlighted today. I was hoping that it might have a contribution or a solution, because we know that the Treasury is thinking about whether the problem can be dealt with, but when I asked, thinking that I might find something I could support, answer came there none.

What advice would the right hon. Gentleman give to a constituent of his, earning perhaps £42,000 or £42,500, who has three children, is working hard, getting on in life and wants to do better, but who is offered a pay rise that would take them into the 40p tax band? They would then face the difficult choice between taking a promotion that they have worked hard to get and losing thousands of pounds in child benefit. What would he advise them to do?

That is a very good example of the problem one can get into, and that is why I wish my right hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench every success in dealing with what we can all see is a problem, but I am not recommending to them that they give up and say that somebody on £200,000 a year should still be able to get full child benefit. That is not the right answer, and I should hope that Labour might sympathise with that proposition and agree, but I am grateful that some Opposition Members are now coming round to my view that high marginal rates of tax and of benefit withdrawal, at all levels of income, are a disincentive.

Just as Government Front Benchers are rightly trying to tackle the very serious problem at the lower end, perhaps with some support from Labour, they should have some sympathy for people in the middle of the income scale, where the situation can be equally unpleasant and difficult for families struggling to meet their bills. Sometimes Opposition Members forget that, although people in my constituency tend to have a higher average income than many of the average incomes in their constituencies, my constituents’ housing costs, their travel costs and other factors in their cost of living mean that they need higher incomes in order to have the same living standard as those whose houses are half the price or less, because housing is a very big component.

The Labour party has rightly said that it would be wonderful if we could tax the banks more, and I again find myself in agreement with that. It is an immediately attractive proposition. We all know that banks are pretty unpopular, and we like to think of them as very rich, so it would be good if we could tax them more. Unfortunately, Labour is wrong to suggest that the Government have just offered another tax break to some banks by cutting the marginal rate of corporation tax. The reason we are getting so little tax out of them is nothing to do with a small drop in the corporation tax rate; it is that two of the biggest banks, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds HBOS, are loss-making, so it does not matter what corporation tax rate we set, because they are not going to pay a penny of it. That is a disgrace, but it is where we have got to because of the disasters and problems in bank management over recent years.

Worse still, we are in the position whereby, if those banks do start to make money—it is true that the losses have been much reduced in the past year and they might start to make money—they will not be about to pay any tax, because they have such huge inherited losses from the period under Labour when they plunged into massive deficit and got into a disastrous position.

My right hon. Friend is making very good points about the importance of companies being profitable so that they can pay tax, but when it comes to bankers and high earners paying taxes does he think that it is more important that the tax take is as high as it can be, or that we have a headline-grabbing marginal tax rate? Which is more important: the take or the rate?

I am very much of the view that we want a higher tax take, and I favour taking the tax from the people with the money, the rich, and from the companies with the money, rather than from the people who do not have it. That is what I believe, and I would hope that that again was common ground. The way we do so is by charging a rate that people are prepared to stay and pay, because the danger is that if we set the rates too high, people do not stay or they do not pay; they find clever accountants and lawyers, do less, invest less, risk less or go. It is the same with banks: if we get the rate wrong for banks, instead of getting more money out of them, we get less.

In 1979 when Labour had had a strongly socialist Government, they left office with a marginal income tax rate—in which some current Opposition Members would take pride—of 83p in the pound. In those days the top 1% of income tax payers contributed just 11% of the total income tax take, because the rich had either gone or had clever arrangements to avoid paying tax. When the Conservatives brought the rate down to 40%, not only did the amount of money paid by the rich go up, and the real amount that they paid go up significantly, but the proportion of total income tax that they paid more than doubled. Surely that is a desirable outcome, and it is the same with banks: we need to find a way of taxing them.

My first recommendation to the Chancellor for his Budget is to sort out the banks. We need to create some working banks out of the RBS framework, get them out there in the market, sell them off, get them into a profitable state without all the back history of tax losses, and create new entities that can trade properly and lend money for the recovery, and then we can get some tax revenue out of them. I hope that Labour Members might agree with that proposition. We then need to tackle the problem of inflation, which has been rising too rapidly.

I am glad that those on the Front Bench have done something about council tax bills—I hope that Labour councils will join Conservative councils in keeping those bills down, because they are very difficult for many people to afford—and have started to do some work on fuel prices, although they are still extremely high. We could do more to get water and energy bills down. I recommend that we allow more competition in those industries, particularly water. In the energy industries, we need more private sector-led investment, with an emphasis on cheaper power, which is needed to tackle fuel poverty and inflation and to secure an industrial recovery. The Government need to recognise that energy is now usually the biggest cost in many industries and, instead of favouring dear power, follow competition and private investment policies that will promote cheaper energy.

If I showed some hesitancy in rising, Madam Deputy Speaker, it is because I tend to find that I am called at the very end of debates, so I am extremely grateful to you for calling me at this stage.

Sometimes Government get things wrong and must have the grace to say so. The change in working tax credit proposed for this April is one of those occasions. Interestingly, it was announced in October 2010, before the Government’s proposals on welfare reform were fully announced and explained. There is an obvious dichotomy between what the Treasury is saying and what the Department for Work and Pensions is saying. It is unfortunate that DWP Ministers have not been present in the debate to give their point of view. Those of us who served on the Welfare Reform Bill Committee had hours of Ministers and Government Back Benchers telling us that any job and any hours of work were better than none, and how important it was that we should be encouraging the mini-jobs that we were hearing so much about. The DWP is very clear that it is important that people should be supported in working, even for relatively short hours, whereas the Treasury Minister who opened the debate told us that it is very important that a couple should work more hours, and that if they do not the Government are going to take their working tax credit from them. Those two positions are irreconcilable. It is not good enough to say that it will all come right next year when the universal credit comes into being, because people will soon be suffering from this change, which is the complete and direct opposite of what the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has been telling us he is going to do.

Is it really the Government’s position that they want people to stop work, as some people will in this situation because it is more attractive to do so? If the family who cannot find the extra eight hours’ work give up work altogether, then without the working tax credit they will get benefits paid at a higher rate than they would otherwise have received. In addition, if they are home buyers they will qualify for other things such as help with the mortgage, which they do not get if they are working. At that point, they may well conclude that it is not worth their while to continue with their jobs. They may continue to think like that in the future. We hear a lot from the Government, particularly from the Department for Work and Pensions, about how benefits policy should drive behavioural change. This policy will drive behavioural change, but in precisely the wrong direction.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best things parents can do for their children is to embed the work ethic early on? By working, parents not only bring in an income for their children, but set an example for them and bring future benefit.

There is a long-term benefit in people learning from their parents what it is to work.

We used to hear so much about the couples penalty from the Conservative party. It used to say that there should no longer be a couples penalty and to talk about how unfair it was. However, this provision creates just such a couples penalty. A couple who lose their working tax credit might look at their neighbour, who is a single parent, and think, “She’s not losing her working tax credit. That doesn’t seem fair.” Why, when we have heard so much about that, are the Government creating a new penalty for the sake of just 18 months or two years?

That all comes on top of the decision not to increase working tax credit in line with inflation. We have heard a lot, particularly from the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), about how wonderful it is that benefits will rise by 5.2% in the coming year, as if it is some unique act of generosity. In fact, people are simply being given the rate of inflation.

There were, of course, other choices that the Government could have made. There were voices —I will not say who they were—telling the Government not to raise benefits by that historically high rate of inflation. The previous Government used the lowest possible rate when they raised pensions by 75p. This Government took a different view.

I think that the hon. Gentleman would accept that the 75p increase followed the rate of inflation. I might not have made that decision if I had been the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but that is the decision that was made.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Bristol West and his colleagues, who are remarkably absent from this debate, managed to persuade the Government that out-of-work benefits should increase by the full amount. I support that. What I find strange is that a Government who wish to support work did not take the same view about working tax credit. I am not talking about levelling down the increase for out-of-work benefits. I am talking about a decision that increases the degree to which work does not pay, when the Conservative party says that it wants work to pay. If all these things are taken together, one begins to wonder where the Government are going.

People are sceptical about universal credit and anxious about what will happen. Let us consider something else that will happen under universal credit. Somebody who is working and who qualifies for universal credit will have their universal credit reduced if they have savings of more than £6,000 and eliminated if they have savings of more than £16,000. People who have managed to save, perhaps towards buying a house or towards their retirement, will be told, “You don’t need support, so we’re going to take it away from you.” Despite all the Government’s warm words about how much they want to support hard-working people and people who save, this is another example of how their policies will not do that in practice.

I say one last time to the Minister: change now. You —the Government, not you, Madam Deputy Speaker—know it makes sense.

Order. We are running out of time in this debate. I am taking the time limit down to four minutes, so we might get most Members in, but we will not get all of them in.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, because from what I have heard thus far it seems to be a chance to draw a contrast between the policies that this Government are pursuing to support jobs, growth and living standards and the record of economic failure that hangs like a millstone around the necks of Labour Members. Few things would be more damaging to the living standards of all our constituents than the introduction of the Labour party’s discredited policies.

I should like to focus on three areas in which the Government are making a real, positive difference to living standards despite the challenging economic circumstances and the appalling state of the public finances inherited from the previous Government. The first is business and growth.

Supporting jobs and growth is essential to maintaining good living standards, and the Government are putting Britain on the right track. The commitment to a lower main rate of corporation tax of 23% will boost Britain’s competitiveness, and I emphasise that that will mean more jobs being created and better living standards for all our constituents. Importantly, that pledge rules out a financial transaction tax and gives great stability to the City of London and the financial markets, which are key to the triple A rating that provides the financial stability underpinning our economy.

The Government have also cut the small profits rate to 20%, which is a welcome step forward to support growth. That, of course, helps to stimulate economic activity, particularly among small businesses. In my constituency, 83% of jobs depend on small businesses, compared with the national average of 68%. Few things would have been more damaging to business men, entrepreneurs and wealth creators looking to invest more and create jobs than the previous Government’s plan to increase the small profits rate to 22%. Jobs and growth are fundamental to our living standards, and it is a shame that the previous Prime Minister, who did so much to damage our economy and undermine our triple A credit rating, is not in the Chamber today to listen to the debate and account for the previous Government’s failures.

I should also like to touch on support for pensioners, which is central to living standards. The Government deserve great praise for the action that is being taken to support our pensioners. Council tax freezes in particular are a welcome way to keep more money in the pockets of all our constituents, including pensioners, whereas the Labour party doubled council tax when it was in government. That hit pensioners the hardest. We have also protected the winter fuel allowance and made cold weather payments permanent. The triple lock on pensions, which has been mentioned, has led to a record increase of £5.30 in the state pension, which will benefit about 13 million people and of course have an impact on living standards.

In the time that I have left I wish to refer to the reform of public services. Only last week, we learned that 17 million adults—about half the working-age population—have the numeracy skills of primary school pupils. Having a work force unable to do the basics in maths and arithmetic is naturally detrimental to our living standards. The Labour Government have much to account for on that front, as well.

The Government are investing a great deal in education and reforming public services. Frankly, after the previous Government left the country with an unprecedented scale of economic and social problems—

It is now painfully obvious that our economy has stalled. That is evident in the soaring increase in unemployment and the even more alarming increase in youth unemployment. There is now a demand, clearly expressed by families up and down Britain, for a real plan for jobs and growth in next month’s Budget.

We also need the Government to make different choices to help families who are feeling increasingly squeezed in these tough times. If we are indeed in this together, why have the Prime Minister and the Chancellor chosen to hit hard-working families with children, who will lose an average of £4,000 a year from policies coming into effect this April? If we add to that the high cost of food, fuel, rents and so on, it seems that some are more in it than others. My constituents in Inverclyde need a Budget for jobs and growth to boost the economy—a fair Budget to ensure that families on low and middle incomes do not bear the heaviest burden in these difficult times.

I shall focus on two aspects. First, the proposed changes to eligibility for working tax credits will hit hardest many parents in part-time work. People who are responsible for at least one child and working at least 16 hours a week can get working tax credit, but from 6 April the rules for couples with at least one child change. In most cases, to qualify for working tax credit, they will need to work at least 24 hours a week jointly, with one working at least 16 hours a week. If only one of the couple works, they must work at least 24 hours a week. Working tax credit for couples to whom neither situation applies will stop from 6 April.

In my constituency, 185 households containing 365 children stand to lose out from that proposal, which will penalise parents who are working and trying to do the right thing, but who cannot increase their working hours at a time when the economy is flatlining and unemployment is rising. Few employers are currently offering an increase in part-time work hours. The change to tax credit is unfair and damaging and should be cancelled before it makes matters even worse for those hard-working parents. The Chancellor could use the hundreds of millions of pounds that the Government have said could be raised by closing a stamp duty tax avoidance loophole on properties worth more than £1 million. That would resonate as fair with my constituents and go some way to convincing them that we are in this together and paying for it equally together.

Secondly, the Government need urgently to review the planned changes to child benefit, as a result of which around 1.5 million families will effectively lose their child benefit. Surely it cannot be fair that a two-earner family on £42,000 each—a total of £84,000—will keep their child benefit, but a single-earner family on £43,000 will lose out. The Opposition support the principle of universal child benefit, but if the Government are determined to make changes, can they not be made more fairly and in a better and more workable way?

Hitting families with the two changes I have outlined will unfairly reduce their living standards. The changes were rashly and hurriedly announced last year. The feeling is that Ministers have clearly not thought through the consequences. Many thousands of parents on low and middle incomes face losing a huge proportion of that income at a time when every penny counts. Bizarrely, far from the Government making work pay, many parents could find that they are better off on benefit. That makes no economic sense at all.

We are tonight invited by the Opposition to join them in sympathising with the squeezed middle. Of course, that is Labour’s cynical project to identify itself with the people hardest hit by the crisis with which it left us. It seems to be the Opposition’s only policy. In the absence of any serious consideration of the crisis for which they are responsible, they now posture as the only people who feel the public’s pain. That is utterly cynical, and we have seen and heard tonight how little truck the House has with that view.

The truth is that we are all being squeezed, but not for the reasons the Opposition set out. The shadow Chief Secretary, in hysterical tones, accused Government Members of indulging in reckless and heartless cuts. We are being squeezed by the actions of a responsible coalition, which was invited by the country to tackle a national emergency. We need to remember the scale of the crisis we inherited, the effect on living standards, which we are all feeling, and the steps the Government have taken.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways the Government could help to improve living standards is by creating an environment in which private sector businesses can grow, employ more people and, potentially, give them pay rises when they do well?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I could not agree more. We need to rebalance the economy and realise that every pound spent here is a pound that has to be earned by businesses and the people who work for them.

The truth is that we inherited £1 trillion of debt—£25,000 for every man, woman and child in the country—and a situation in which £1 out of every £4 of Government expenditure had to be borrowed. We had debt interest payments of £120 million a day, and debt interest would have risen to £76 billion per annum over the Parliament had we not tackled the deficit. Yes, there was an international credit crunch, but it was the actions of the Labour Government that led us into a position of extreme vulnerability. They inherited a golden legacy in 1997 after the previous Conservative Government had had to put the country through a painful and difficult period. It was a golden legacy that, after two years, they set about—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has a minute less than the clock is showing before I interrupt him. There is a problem with the clocks.

After two years of sticking to the previous Administration’s prudence, the Labour Government set about the biggest spending spree in peacetime history, but because of their cynical promise to the electorate not to increase income tax, they set about a series of other measures: they sold the gold at the bottom of the market; they launched an unprecedented programme of indirect stealth taxes, which we are still feeling today; they bungled the regulation of the Bank of England—apparently planned in the back of a taxi by the former Prime Minister—which led to an explosion of cheap credit and the very crony capitalism that they accuse us of; they created an out-of-control boom that led to the very bust they promised to prevent for ever; and they set about, quite deliberately, a massive public sector expansion without the necessary structural reforms to make it sustainable. Unless we had tackled the deficit, we would have left the country facing the possibility of rising interest rates, triggering a massive and serious depression.

In truth, the squeeze is being felt not just by the middle but by the young and old in this country. Every child has £25,000 of debt and a mountain to climb. Every middle-income family—in more and more of them, every man and woman has to work to pay their way—will face a tidal wave of taxes, a rising cost of living and the ticking time bomb of inflation if we do not keep the deficit under control. Our elderly have been let down by the previous Government, who promised so much and delivered so little. They are now facing an NHS structurally unable to meet the challenges of the ageing population that depends on it.

The coalition Government have set out to tackle this legacy fairly, with great rigor and in a way that is progressive—meaning with the intention of driving social mobility and helping people to break out of Labour’s dependency culture through serious reforms to welfare and education. I want to cite several things that have been done that future generations will look back on kindly: the targeting of child benefit on the most needy; the raising of personal allowances, taking 1 million people out of tax and handing money back to 25 million of our poorest families; the freezing of council tax; the uprating of pensions and the triple lock, which will be worth £15,000 to the average pensioner family; and the protection of cold weather payments. The Labour party should hang its head in shame for coming here and posturing on behalf of the people who are paying the price of their irresponsibility.

There is a general acceptance in the House that if we are to increase living standards, it has to be done through economic growth. Apart, perhaps, from the Green party, which appears not to consider economic growth desirable, there is a recognition that it is the way forward, although there is considerable debate about how we do that.

I say to the Government Front-Bench team that I cannot understand why our triple A rating will not be affected by huge borrowing to pay for the unemployed, but would be affected if we borrowed for projects that showed an economic return—for some reason financial markets would apparently take a dim view of that. When we consider how to get out of the current problem, we must think about growth, spending and borrowing in those terms.

If we consider the sources of the increase in living standards over the past years—the Institute for Fiscal Studies has looked at the past 40 years—we see that the biggest contribution has come from the increase in economic activity rates, particularly those increases resulting from bringing women into the workplace and work force. If we are going to increase economic activity rates, including among young people in Northern Ireland, 44% of whom are not economically active—there are various reasons for that, one of them being the huge rise in youth unemployment—there has to be economic growth to create jobs and attract people from inactivity into economic activity. There is an important message for Labour Members from that, because it will mean having to implement some of the welfare reforms that the Government are introducing. Those reforms are good, because they give people the incentive to work. However, there is no point introducing such reforms if there are no opportunities open for people, which is why economic growth and job creation are so important.

The second thing that the Institute for Fiscal Studies identified as being associated with rising living standards over recent years is tax credits. The point has been expressed well this evening, so I will not dwell on it, but if tax credits are so important, I have to say that I find it very odd that, at a time when jobs are short and hours are being cut, the Government should think that it is a step forward to take tax credits away from people who cannot find extra hours in the week to work, even though they want to, or that this will help with current living standards.

The last point I want to make is this. One of the big things that has affected people’s living standards is increasing energy bills. Indeed, it is a bit bizarre that we should be debating this motion after the previous one. We have been encouraging the Government to pursue and invest further in the most expensive form of energy available, namely wind power. Those high-cost energy sources have already added 20% to energy bills, and the previous Government’s predictions, as well as the current Government’s predictions, are that by 2020 they will add 43%, thus increasing costs and reducing living standards.

Sitting in this debate on living standards has taken me back to the campaign trail in 2010, when I was explaining to my constituents—as I am sure many of us were—that the problems that we would be inheriting from the then Government were long-term problems, and unfortunately there were no short-term solutions to those problems.

I represent a constituency where unemployment was above the national average even in the so-called boom period of the last Labour Government. Unemployment has gone up, and I am sure that both the Government’s proposed changes highlighted in the motion will impact on many people in my constituency. What guides me and this coalition Government, and what enables us to look the British people in the eye, is that we are taking steps that will be better for our country’s future generations. They are steps that will alleviate the burden on the next generation of children and on our grandchildren. We do not think that it is appropriate to pass on debts to cascade down the generations; we think it is right to cascade down opportunity, which is something that the last Government failed to do.

There are two things that I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on when she sums up. First, when it comes to the long-term solutions, I hope that she will maintain a commitment to ensure that work must pay. That is incredibly important—in reality, the cultural idea that it is easier to live off benefits arose under the last Government. As with the benefit cap and their work on tax thresholds, this Government have to demonstrate that they are committed to the notion that everyone, given the opportunity to work, will always be better off working than on benefits.

The second thing that is important to living standards, but which we have not really touched on—my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) mentioned it briefly—is the importance for this Government of keeping inflation low. We heard some Opposition Members say that inflation is continuing to rise, but we have not yet confronted the question of what will happen when this period of quantitative easing comes to an end. When that happens, there will be a corresponding rise in interest rates, which will put further pressure on living standards. I should say to my hon. Friend the Minister that in three or four years’ time, it is unlikely that the private or public sector will be able to pay working people pay increases. We therefore have to ensure that when we unwind quantitative easing, we do it in a way that is not inflationary, or that at least minimises the inflationary impact.

One way of doing that is to look at quantitative easing not as a way of providing short-term stimulus—many Government Members are sceptical about the Government’s ability to stimulate the economy in the short term—but as a means of long-term infrastructure investment. We have that opportunity, but we can do that only if we take our understanding of our debt obligations to embrace not only the treaty debt but the debt obligations of our public pensions liabilities. Those are long-term liabilities, and there is an opportunity for the Government to use quantitative easing for investment, if they can match their investment in long-term assets with reductions in those long-term liabilities.

The only other option for a short-term stimulus—to invest to improve living standards in the short term—would involve significant tax cuts, matched or exceeded by further cuts in public expenditure to pay for them. I doubt that the Opposition intended that to form part of the debate today, but it is one option that they could look into in the short term. My main messages to those on my Front Bench are that they should keep their focus on the fact that long-term problems require long-term solutions, and that they should ignore the representations from the Opposition.

This debate is an example of how the Government’s thirst for cuts—any cuts—has blinded them to the basic foolishness of the policies that they are pursuing. Even when their cuts are demonstrably ineffective, counter-productive and unfair, they plough ahead with them because they cannot countenance any alternative. The hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) has just said that it would be unfair to pass on the deficit to future generations, but the Government are, by their own admission, borrowing £158 billion more because of their failure to get growth into our economy. The question is not whether we have a deficit; it is about the best way to pay it off.

Anyone who understands anything about this Government will recognise that deficit reduction is their primary priority. However, their proposed changes to working tax credit will not move them one penny piece closer to that objective. There are 335 Chesterfield families, and 635 children, who will lose up to £4,000. There are 1,305 people in my constituency alone—working families who are trying to play by the rules and do their bit—who are having the rug pulled out from under their feet. Yet this policy, which will have a huge impact on working families across Britain, will be defunct by 2013, when universal credit comes in. It will therefore not move the Government any nearer to their target of eradicating the deficit by 2016, or 2017—whatever the moving goalpost.

More working people will be forced to give up work and to rely on benefit, which is the polar opposite of what the Minister wants to achieve. These changes will lead to parents being £728 a year better off out of work than staying in work without the tax credits. Why would a Government who support marriage and the family introduce harsh fiscal measures that are likely to put more pressure on those families who stay together? The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers has stated that 78% of its 410,000 members working in retail cannot get extra hours at work.

The Government’s policy of cutting child benefit for higher rate taxpayers is entirely chaotic, as has been exposed by several Members. If two members of the same family earn £42,000 each, that family will keep its child benefit, but a single parent on £43,000 will lose theirs. About 170,000 families could increase their net income if an individual in the family managed to lower their pre-tax income to just below the higher rate tax threshold. The policy creates a perverse disincentive to success, and it is wholly anti-aspirational. It is unbelievable that a Conservative Government should introduce such a policy.

In the few moments that I have left, I should also like to make the case for the principle of universality in the system. Beveridge’s principle for the welfare state was that it should be a contributory system. Of course, some will receive more than others, based on their need. That is absolutely right, but the idea that we are all entitled to basic support such as child benefit, the state pension and the winter fuel allowance is a good one. At a time of ever-increasing resentment from those who pay taxes towards those who get benefits, stoked up by the Government and some of their friends in the right-wing media, we should all be fighting hard to protect the universal principle.

The Chancellor recognises that people on £43,000 a year earn more than the average, and he therefore thinks that people will perceive them to be loaded. Let me tell him that someone on that income with three children and living in a four-bedroom house is not loaded. They have to watch what they spend. They worry about the cost of fuel and about their energy bills. They see prices going up while their income stagnates. The Chancellor is making a huge mistake if he does not recognise that. We are debating the policies of a Government who have failed to get growth back into the economy and who are bringing forward illogical proposals that will make the situation worse.

It would be fair to say that the Government have had to make a number of very tough choices as a result of the economic and financial situation they inherited from the previous Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) pointed out, this is not a question of the squeezed middle: we are all facing difficult times as a result of the difficult financial situation to which the Government have to face up—and they are facing up to it clearly. At the same time, they are making an effort to balance those tough decisions with decisions that are focused on fairness.

As other hon. Members have pointed out, the decision to provide the means for local authorities to freeze council tax is a measure that assists fairness and helps people on middle incomes who are struggling to keep control of one of the most important taxes they have to pay. Local authorities up and down the country—Conservative and Labour authorities—should accept the council tax freeze as an important component of their budgetary decisions.

As a result of other coalition Government decisions, we are able to live in a low interest rate environment, which is keeping mortgage rates low and allowing householders to continue to function and to continue to live in their homes without fear of repossession. That is a crucial achievement of the Government.

It is right, too, that the coalition Government have the ambition to take people on low incomes out of tax altogether. The Chancellor has taken significant steps in that direction in the recent Budget, and I urge the Front-Bench team to take further steps to take people out of tax altogether.

Although Labour Members seldom mention it, we have seen a substantial increase in the state pension as a result of decisions taken by the coalition Government. The triple lock—as I say, not much mentioned by Labour —guarantees a substantial increase in the state pension, which is relieving pressure on pensioners across Britain. That is something to be applauded.

Let me deal with the broad subject of tax credits. I see the shadow Chancellor in his place and he was one of the key architects of the previous Government’s tax credit policy. I know that tax credits have a role to play in certain areas, but one of the downsides of the policy is that it tends to focus on poverty alleviation as being something to do with income transfer. Clearly, that is important, but the coalition Government are doing something else, which is also significant. In his recent review of poverty, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who is not in his place said that we need to tackle some of the underlying causes of poverty, which goes beyond income transfer. What the Government have done with the pupil premium, for example, is fundamental to getting under some of the issues that cause low aspiration and create generational poverty in Britain.

Under the previous Government, we saw a rise in absolute poverty, despite the complex tax credit system put in place by the shadow Chancellor. So I think the coalition—

I have been a Member of Parliament for just over a year now, during which time I have seen the significant impact of this Government’s devastating and detrimental economic policies in my constituency. The flatlining economy has led to a 15-year high in unemployment in Oldham with over 8,000 people out of work across the borough and 12 people chasing every job. The number of women out of work is the highest since 1995, and youth unemployment is well above the regional and national averages.

Young people at Oldham sixth-form college, which I visited on Friday, are devastated about their future. The cut in education maintenance allowance is preventing many of them from taking college courses, and because of the trebling of tuition fees, they do not know whether they can go on to university. Given the lack of available jobs, things are looking dire for them.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her first year in Parliament. In my view, the unemployment figure is the key statistic. Today the British Chambers of Commerce announced that it was likely to reach 3 million by the end of the year. Will that not have a hugely detrimental effect on living standards?

It will indeed. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments.

It is not just our young people who are suffering as a result of the Government’s economic mismanagement. Last month, Oldham’s first borough-wide food bank was set up to help struggling residents who are finding themselves in desperate economic conditions—not just homeless people, but people in work.

My constituents are being squeezed every which way, experiencing increases in outgoings as a result of higher energy costs and food prices while the incomes of most people—unless they are bankers—remain the same. As we have heard, the Halifax and Royal Bank of Scotland are raising their standard variable mortgage rates, which will mean increasing problems with repossessions. We have already discussed the working tax credit changes that will affect 650 families and 1,500 children in my constituency.

These are ideologically driven cuts that reflect the Government’s desire for a United States-style welfare system. Health care is not the only welfare pillar under threat. The Government’s skilful media machine hoped that using the language of the blitz—a time when people were literally “all in it together”, accepting rationing of food and fuel regardless of where they were on the social spectrum—would whip up nostalgia and reassure people that the protective safety net in which we all invest through our taxes and national insurance, and to which we all have access if we need it, would keep them safe. Well, it is not doing so.

Let me begin by thanking everyone who has taken part in the debate. It is clear from the level of interest that has been shown, the number of Members who have spoken, and the number who were not able to do so that we were right to raise these issues in the House today.

We heard passionate speeches on behalf of constituents from my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). We also heard thoughtful contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams)—and, indeed, from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), although I began to be worried about the number of occasions on which he seemed to be agreeing with the Labour party. Unfortunately, we also heard some of the same old rhetoric from, predominantly, Tory Members. It is time that the Government took responsibility for what is happening on their watch.

We heard from Members what their constituents tell them. We heard, for instance, that it is not simply a case of being able to secure an extra few hours for those who are on 16-hour contracts. We did not hear from Ministers where those extra hours were to come from, although they were pressed on the issue. We heard the views of charities such as the Child Poverty Action Group and organisations such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and those of trade unions, particularly the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. We heard about the difficulties experienced by people who are already on low incomes and are trying to make ends meet, while fearing what will happen when their working tax credit is cut.

It is sad that we heard that same tired, out-of-touch rhetoric from many Government Members. It just shows that they do not understand what it is like for families who are trying to make ends meet while facing problems such as ever-rising prices. Some Government Members are shaking their heads. Let me deal with a few of the points made by the Exchequer Secretary in his opening speech. He seemed to suggest that it was reasonable for couples to work 24 hours rather than single parents working 16 hours, but, as I said earlier, he did not give us any indication of where those extra hours were to come from. In response to an intervention, it was suggested that people could simply change jobs and that there are always jobs out there. We Opposition Members are concerned about unemployment, and we would like to know where those jobs are now, and where they are going to come from—and I suggest that Government Members should try explaining that to the millions of people who are already out of work.

It was also suggested that the raising of the personal allowance was going to make a big difference. I gently say to those who made that point that people who are working 24 hours or fewer on the minimum wage will not benefit from that, and that this measure does not serve as an argument for cutting the working tax credits of people on low incomes.

The Exchequer Secretary and others used the word “fairness”; indeed, he suggested that it was at the heart of everything he did—and he said that with a straight face, which I found astonishing given what the Government are doing. Far from everyone being in this together, people cannot understand why David Cameron and George Osborne have chosen to give the banks a tax cut at the same time as their Budget measures are hitting women harder than men and are pushing up child poverty.

We heard during the course of the debate that families with children are set to lose an average of £580 a year from policies coming into effect this April alone. Some Government Members may think that £580 is not much money, as for them it may merely mean cutting back on a few luxuries, but for ordinary families in ordinary houses in ordinary streets in the cities, towns and villages Opposition Members represent, £580 may well make the difference between those families being able or not being able to pay their electricity or gas bill, or buy shoes for their children, or ensure that they can go on the school trip. That sum may be what enables them to provide a decent standard of living—not luxuries, but the necessities of family life.

Next month’s Budget must pass two tests: on jobs and growth, it must boost our economy and put in place the long-term reforms that we need; and on fairness, it must ensure that families on low and middle incomes do not bear the heaviest burden. The Government have not explained how it can be fair that working families on the lowest incomes who are trying to do the right thing are going to lose out.

I repeat our call for a plan for jobs and growth in the Budget, and I look the Economic Secretary in the eye and ask her whether she will press the Chancellor to think again on the changes to tax credits and child benefit, which will cost families with children up to £4,000 per year. Will she urge him to abandon the changes in eligibility for working tax credits that are set to hammer hundreds of thousands of parents in part-time work by up to £74 per week and put them in a situation where work will not pay? Will she say to both her constituents and mine that the Government will pull back from the plan under which, from April, couples who have children and who are earning less than about £17,700 will need to increase the number of hours they work from a minimum of 16 hours to 24 hours per week, or they will lose all their working tax credits? Will she say how she will create the fairness that her colleague, the Exchequer Secretary, talked about? If she believes people should be better off in work, how can she support a change that will penalise about 275 families in her constituency who are working and trying to do the right thing, but who cannot increase their working hours at a time when the economy is flatlining and unemployment is rising? Does she agree that this unfair and damaging change could, and should, be cancelled? We want a straight answer to that question from her.

I also press the Economic Secretary again on whether she has asked David Cameron and George Osborne to review urgently—

Order. May I gently say to the hon. Lady that she should refer to Members of the House not by name, but by their title?

I apologise, Mr Speaker. I am afraid I got carried away in the heat of the moment. I should have asked whether the Economic Secretary will press the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to review urgently their planned changes to child benefit, which are unfair, unworkable and ill thought through.

As we have heard time and again in this debate, it cannot be right that a two-earner family each earning £42,000—a total of £84,000—would keep all their child benefit, but a single-earner family on £43,000 would lose it all at a stroke. When the Exchequer Secretary was asked to explain that, he seemed to indicate that it was a bit of a challenge, but he did not say how he was going to solve it and how he would remove that burden from the poorest. The Government should put the implementation of their child benefit cuts on hold and conduct an urgent review that will report before their changes come into effect next January.

Labour Members did not come into this debate only to score political points in this Chamber, notwithstanding what some Government Members have said, or only to put this Government under pressure, although we have done both those things; we did so because we want the Government to listen. We want them to stop what they are doing, to re-examine the issues and to come back with a fairer alternative. There now seems to be some dispute at the heart of the Government; I listened to what was said in questions earlier today, when I heard the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions seem to blame the Treasury, and reports tonight suggest that No. 10 and the Treasury are at odds over this. The Government’s own internal brief is for them to sort out, but either way the problem is of their own making. Perhaps they thought they would get away with it —although, again, we are hearing reports tonight that perhaps the Chancellor never really intended to implement these changes but the problems in the economy mean he is now not able to back away from them. If the Government do not listen today and they fail to act, they will be confirming that they are out of touch and that they have no understanding of the realities of life for families. There are families up and down the country who simply will not forgive them.

I thank hon. Members for their contributions to what has, on the whole, been an insightful debate. We have heard from the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), my hon. Friends the Members for Witham (Priti Patel), for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) and for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and, indeed, my fellow by-election winners, the hon. Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), whom I very much welcome to this House.

I note that today’s motion is deficient, in that it gives the wrong date for the Budget—I wonder whether that reflects the Opposition’s grasp of detail when they want to spend and borrow an extra £12 billion. It is no surprise that they do not wish to talk about how to bring the deficit “down”, as mentioned in the third line of their motion. They also said nothing about lone parents. Do they not care about the single mums and dads? No, there was not a word for them and the fairness of their already having to work 16 hours a week.

As the House is well aware, we all face tough economic conditions as we recover from the disastrous economic legacy left to us by the previous Government.

No, I shall not, because we have had plenty of time to hear from Labour Members. I must press on. We all know that, in these tough times, families across the UK are tightening their belts, managing pay freezes or worse, and coping with ongoing economic uncertainty. Many families are confronting falling living standards because of the dire economic situation we inherited. The Opposition want to keep on spending and keep piling on the debt, but we refuse to burden our children and mortgage the country’s future with their profligacy.

Tackling the deficit is the vital precondition for a sustainable recovery, underpinning private sector confidence to support growth and job creation. It is right and fair that we tackle the deficit now, as a foundation for prosperity. It is because of our decisiveness that we have secured record low gilt yields, which feeds through to record low and stable interest rates that make a real difference to families paying their mortgages and to refinancing business loans right across the country.

If we are going to discuss a squeeze on living standards, let us talk about what a rise in market interest rates would mean for families across the UK. It would force taxpayers to find an extra £21 billion in debt interest payments; it would increase the cost of business loans by £7 billion; and it would add £10 billion to mortgage bills every year, or an extra £1,000 for the average family—and that with just a 1% rise. Let me remind the House that when we took office, our rates were tracking those of the likes of Spain and Italy, but now they are close to those of Germany. That is because of the tough decisions we have taken.

No, I shall not, as I have already said.

According to the shadow Chancellor, who, as ever, cannot be quiet, low interest rates are a sign of trouble. He would rather have higher interest rates, a bigger squeeze on families and an even bigger fall in living standards.

The simple truth is that the Opposition have no credible response to the economic challenges that this country faces, which is why we must never return the keys to those who crashed the car. It is we who have the answers to tackling the deficit and securing our prosperity. I know that for many families, however, these are tough times. That is why we have taken substantial steps to protect living standards and to ensure we support our poorest and most vulnerable families. That is why we secured the largest ever cash rise in the basic pension and why we uprated working age benefits by 5.2%, protecting the real incomes of the poorest. We are taking the same approach as we reform our welfare system, targeting support where it is needed most.

Tackling the deficit in a fair way means that we have to ensure that tax credits are targeted at our poorest and most vulnerable families, unlike the path taken by the previous Government, who spent more than £150 billion on tax credits and let nine out of 10 families be eligible for them. That is a staggering, untargeted and unsustainable level of spending and it is right and fair that we should reform it.

Let me turn to the working tax credit. It is not fair that a couple with children can claim the credit if one partner works 16 hours, whereas a lone parent has to pull in the same time on their own. Increasing the working hour requirements for a couple is entirely fair. It is right that they should put in more hours than a lone parent before receiving the working tax credit. That also creates a clear work incentive signal, which many Members have sought in this debate, to potential second earners who could benefit from tax credits if they moved into work or increased their hours—and hours are available. Let me answer this one. In the quarter to January, there were 11,000 vacancies across the economy, meaning that 1 million people moved into work. That paves the way for the principles of universal credit because work must pay.[Official Report, 6 March 2012, Vol. 541, c. 9MC.]

At the same time, we are right to reform child benefit to target it towards those families who need it the most, rather than millionaires. I fully understand that it is a vital income boost, but it comes at a substantial cost to the Exchequer, including more than £2 billion a year in payments to higher rate taxpayers. It is right that we should refocus resources where we need them most, and that means taking the tough decision to withdraw child benefit from families with a higher rate taxpayer, because it is simply not fair that working parents on low incomes should subsidise child benefit for millionaires.

None of these points ignores the fact that across the board, we know that this will be a tough year for households. That is why we have gone even further to support families and businesses across the country, limiting the increases to Transport for London and regulated rail fares and funding South West Water to enable it to cut bills by £50 a year for households that face the highest water bills in the country. We are helping pensioners, setting aside an extra £675 million for local authorities in England that freeze or reduce their council tax, deferring the fuel duty increase that was due to take effect on 1 January to August this year and cancelling the further increase for August. As a result, tax on petrol will be a full 10p lower than it would have been under the shadow Chancellor’s plans, meaning families with the average family car will save £144.

As we fix the failures of the past and repair our economy, we are committed to supporting families across the country. It is a tough challenge to ensure and secure our economic stability and to lay the foundations for sustainable growth, but in our determination to do so and to restore the economic prosperity of this country, we will put fairness at the heart of our recovery. We are protecting living standards for the poorest and most vulnerable families by lifting millions out of tax, taking steps to reduce the cost of living and refocusing welfare on those who need it most. Yes, that means that those on the highest income will bear the heaviest burden as we pull together to tackle the deficit, but it is right that those who can contribute the most should do so. A fair and sustainable recovery demands leadership, and that is what this Government are providing.

Question put.