Considered in Committee
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
Before I call the first group of amendments I must tell the Committee that the amendments to the schedule have been marshalled in error before the new clauses. The Committee will deal with the new clauses before it considers the schedule. I invite Members who wish to speak to clause 1 as a whole to do so in this debate, as I do not anticipate that there will be a separate debate on clause 1 stand part.
Up-rating of certain social security benefits for tax years 2014-15 and 2015-16
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 7, page 1, line 4, leave out ‘1%’ and insert
‘the Retail Prices Index measure of inflation.’.
Amendment 10, page 1, line 4, leave out ‘1%’ and insert
‘the percentage by which the general level of earnings is greater at the end of the period under review in that tax year under section 150(1) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 than it was at the beginning of that period’.
Amendment 20, page 1, line 22, leave out subsection (5).
Clause stand part.
In this Bill the Government are punishing people who are already hard up for the failure of their economic policy. We were promised that the policy would lead to steady growth and falling unemployment, but it has failed. We have had a double-dip recession, and some predict that this week we will learn we are in a triple dip. Unemployment is now officially forecast to go up next year, so spending on unemployment benefits will go up, and borrowing will go up too.
The Chancellor’s policy has failed and the Government have decided to respond by forcing down the incomes of those whose incomes are already the lowest of all. Roughly speaking, the saving over the two years to which the Bill refers will be about the same as the increase in welfare spending resulting from the rise in unemployment forecast just between the Budget last year and the autumn statement.
The Government want to cut the incomes of the least well-off in real terms, not just for the coming year but, through this Bill, for the year after and the year after that. At the same time, in April they will give a tax cut to everybody earning more than £150,000 per year. That combination of policies will force up poverty in every part of the country, and it is a disgrace that Ministers are forcing this Committee stage into a single day.
This Bill is a bitter blow to large numbers of families—in work and out of work—who are on low incomes at the moment and struggling to make ends meet. Three new food banks open every week; last year a quarter of a million people received help from a food bank because they could not afford enough to eat, and this Bill will make matters significantly worse. It means that for three years, low-income families will get below-inflation increases. The number of people visiting a food bank will be higher this year and, because of this Bill, it will be higher still next year and higher again the year after that.
As Citizens Advice points out:
“The cumulative impact of capping the uprating of most benefits to no more than 1%”,
for the next three years, will lead to an exponential increase in net losses each year. Child Poverty Action Group stated that
“the poorer you are, the greater your loss.”
We certainly want it to be more worth while for people to be in work, but forcing down the incomes of those who are out of work is not the way to do it.
Clause 1 affects mainly out-of-work benefits, but people struggling to make ends meet in work are hit as well. Schedule 1(b) means that the personal allowance used in the calculation of housing benefit for people in work will go up by only 1%, irrespective of what happens to rent levels.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will make a little more progress, and then gladly give way again. As I was saying, schedule 1(b) means that housing benefit for people in work will be cut in real terms as well. We will return to that when we speak to amendment 17.
The change in the personal tax allowance, which we have heard a good deal about, will not do very much to help people who are in work on low incomes. Citizens Advice points out that
“any rise in net earnings leads to a reduction in housing benefit and council tax benefit.”
In addition, of course, the change will do nothing at all for people who are out of work.
No—I will make progress before I give way again.
The Bill was designed by the Chancellor to promote his party’s narrow interest. Like a number of the Chancellor’s efforts of that kind, it has not worked out as he hoped, but let us be clear that the Government have restricted uprating to 1% for the coming year without a Bill and did not need a Bill to restrict uprating for future years. The Chancellor thought he could boost his party’s standing if he introduced a Bill, so we have one. Coalition Ministers are here to help advance the Chancellor’s cause.
In particular, it is ridiculous to announce now—before we know anything about the future course of inflation—by how much benefits will be uprated in more than two years’ time, which is well after the general election. The Opposition therefore reject the proposal to restrict the uprating of social security benefits and tax credits to 1%. As I have said, in our view, uprating should be in line with inflation and assessed, as it always has been, at the end of the preceding year.
The Secretary of State claimed in his speech on Second Reading that, as part of employment and support allowance, the support group is protected, but it is not. The Secretary of State said that people who are not in the support group will find that they are affected. That is true, but people in the support group will be hit as well. Citizens Advice has worked out that a lone parent with three children who is in the support group will lose £600 in 2015-16 because of the exponential way in which the Bill will grind down the incomes of people who are already hard-up. We will come back to that.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the coalition of 60 Scottish charities that says that the Bill contradicts the principle that everyone should have a reasonable income in order to live a dignified life, and that many people in Scotland will be adversely affected by the Bill?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as are the organisations to which she refers. Indeed, as I shall say, there has been a widespread call along those lines pointing out the damage that the Bill will do. Disability Rights UK states:
“The Government has suggested that all disabled people are protected from the lower 1% increase in benefits. This is not the case.”
In fact, as the impact assessment tells us, disabled households are more likely than others to be hit by the changes in the Bill.
I will make a little more progress and then I will gladly give way again.
In moving amendment 12, I wish to focus on the effect of clause 1, as it stands, on child poverty. Previously—reflecting the commitment in the coalition agreement to eradicate child poverty by 2020—the Government have published the effect of Budgets, spending reviews and autumn statements on child poverty. We know from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that, taking account of everything that the Government announced before the autumn statement, child poverty is set to go up by 400,000 by 2015 and 800,000 by 2020. In this autumn statement, they did not mention child poverty at all. There was no mention in the impact statement, where it should have been. I tabled a question and the Minister told me that he would reply as soon as possible: I am still waiting.
Despite the Government’s best efforts, the answer did slip out in an answer from a different Minister. In that, we read that the three years of uprating will increase child poverty by an additional 200,000 on top of the increase that is already due. That means that we are on track for 1 million more children below the poverty line by 2020. That is a devastating blow and will undo all the progress of the last 15 years.
The powerful figures that the right hon. Gentleman cites show that this is a cruel and callous Bill. Given that that is the case, does he not think that Labour supporters might be disappointed that he will not commit now to re-link the upratings with RPI? Nor has Labour said that if it were to form a Government next time, they would reverse the Bill. Is not there a danger that people will think that it is all rhetoric and no action from the Opposition?
The time to announce how benefits would be uprated for next year is later this year in the normal way. The time for the following year is the end of next year. We reject the Bill, which is the Chancellor’s partisan and unprecedented device to set out the trajectory for two years’ time, before we know anything about the future course of inflation.
Ministers still say that they are committed to eradicating child poverty. It says so in the coalition agreement. That commitment is clearly now fictitious. The Bill is simply incompatible with that commitment. Ministers should stop pretending. They have given up on reducing child poverty. They have not just given up on publishing the numbers as they used to do: they have given up on delivering the goal as well. Now they are implementing policies that will force child poverty up.
Given that the last Government spent £150 billion on tax credits and achieved a 6% reduction in child poverty, does the right hon. Gentleman think that lifting 350,000 out of child poverty for a £2 billion investment in universal credit represents good value for money?
The policies of the previous Government reduced the number of children below the poverty line by 1.1 million. The policies of this Government are set to increase it by 1 million by 2020. That is a shameful record.
What we will have from April is a toxic combination of policies that will cut the highest rate of income tax and real-terms cuts in benefits and tax credits. Some 8,000 people who earn over £1 million a year will get a tax cut in April averaging more than £2,000 a week. Someone receiving the adult rate of jobseeker’s allowance will receive 71p a week. People are getting angry at what the Government are doing.
The right hon. Gentleman may or may not think that the Bill is a partisan device by the Chancellor—and he may or may not be right—but in refusing to support either the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) or the various amendments tabled by Liberal Democrat Members, is not the Labour party being absolutely pathetic? It has the opportunity to do something about this and it is not taking it.
We will announce uprating policy in the normal way on the normal timetable, not on a date chosen by the Chancellor for his own partisan purposes.
I think the Minister knows that I have been looking back at his speech in the Child Poverty Bill Second Reading debate in July 2009—fewer than four years ago. It was an autobiographical speech, as he said at the time. He explained that his first job was with the Institute for Fiscal Studies, where he had the task in the 1980s of compiling its poverty statistics. He said that
“year after year the level of child poverty would remorselessly grow. A majority of people would do relatively well, enjoying tax cuts, and the people at the top would do exceptionally well, but year after year more and more children would find themselves in poverty.”
He said that he decided to become a politician because he
“was appalled at what was happening in our country to the most vulnerable people”—[Official Report, 20 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 625.]
Now here he is, three and a half years later, arguing in this Committee for exactly the same combination of policies he condemned at the time: tax cuts for the highest paid and benefit cuts for the most vulnerable. Exactly as in the 1980s, as he knows better than anybody, the result is certain: child poverty rocketing. With the extra rise as a result of the Bill, if current policies are maintained it will go up by 1 million by 2020—right back up to the level he was logging at the IFS in the 1980s.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the most recent data demonstrate a reduction in child poverty last year of 300,000? If he disputes that, does he have any comment on the way the previous Government measured child poverty, and whether that measure should be changed?
Absolutely right—the policies of the previous Government have continued to have beneficial impacts, but as soon as this Government change the policy the numbers will rocket back up again. According to the IFS, child poverty will rise by 400,000 by 2015 and by 800,000 by 2020. On top of that, there will be an additional rise of 200,000 as a result of the Bill. That is what the Government’s policies are doing.
Of course, that is the figure the Government have been prepared to acknowledge in relation to relative income poverty, but they have said nothing about the impact on absolute poverty, material deprivation or persistent poverty—all measures they are signed up to in the Child Poverty Act 2010. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that they should publish the impact on those measures of poverty as well?
Absolutely. That is what they have done in previous Budgets and autumn statements; in this one there was silence. I agree with my hon. Friend that the Government should absolutely return to the practice they adopted after the election.
Like the Minister in the 1980s, anybody who cares about poverty and who is looking at what is set to happen to the most vulnerable in the next few years, will be appalled. Child poverty will be growing remorselessly once again—back to the policies of the 1980s and back to their consequences, too. There is enormous public concern about the effects of clause 1 and the Bill as a whole. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) referred to the coalition of organisations in Scotland who have written about their concern. The Child Poverty Action Group has said:
“The Bill is a cause of great concern.”
Barnardo’s has stated:
“This policy will punish children the most by trapping them in poverty and impacting on their lives, leading to poor health, poor qualifications and unemployment.”
Citizens Advice said:
“It is imperative, particularly whilst increases to earnings from work are restricted, that support for low earners received through the welfare system is not disconnected from inflationary measures to the cost of living.”
The Children’s Society said:
“Groups which are meant to be protected (such as households with somebody with a disability) are more likely to be affected than households without protection.”
In an open letter this morning, the chief executives of Catholic charities in Liverpool, Manchester and London warned of the threat the Bill
“poses to the fundamental well-being of disabled, unemployed and low paid people, as well as their families who are already buckling under the weight of recent changes to the welfare system.”
I simply ask the hon. Lady to look at all the other things the Government have done and at the Institute for Fiscal Studies assessment of the consequences for child poverty. As I have said, its assessment is that the number of children living below the poverty line will increase by 400,000 by 2015 and by 800,000 by 2020 and that there will be an additional rise of 200,000 as a direct result of the Bill.
The general secretary of USDAW, the shop workers’ union, has spoken of
“a kick in the teeth for working people that will fill many households with despair.”
Disability Rights UK has said:
“We are fearful that the Welfare Benefits UP-rating Bill will… impoverish thousands more disabled people.”
Homeless Link has said that
“the proposals contained in the Bill are grossly unfair, hitting the poorest in society the hardest.”
The right hon. Gentleman should ask the Institute for Fiscal Studies, where the Minister served with considerable distinction in the 1980s. It has been a reliable guide in the past and will be in the future. The assumption is that the existing policies will continue.
This is a terrible Bill that is being rushed through in a disgraceful manner. It will hit very hard those people who are already struggling to make ends meet. It will hit women disproportionately hard. It will hit disabled people, including everyone in the support group for employment and support allowance. It will hit children, pushing 200,000 below the poverty line.
At a time when the coalition Government are—
What the right hon. Gentleman is saying sounds like a peroration, so I think that he might have accidentally dropped the page on which he was going to say where, if not from these measures, he would find the £3.5 billion. Where would he find the money?
Of course, the background to this policy is the failure of the Government’s policy. If we look at the unemployment forecast set out at last year’s Budget and compare it with the forecast set out at the autumn statement, we will see that it will cost an extra £3 billion in additional benefits. What the Minister and the Chancellor should be doing is putting in place policies that will reduce unemployment, not see it continue to rise.
At a time when the coalition Government are handing the richest people a tax cut of £2,000 a week each, they have decided that people on jobseeker’s allowance can have only 71p each, 72p the year after, and 73p the year after that. To quote the Minister’s 2009 speech, it is “appalling”. I urge the Committee to support our amendment and vote against clause stand part.
I will speak briefly. I think that it is important that all of us who represent communities with a lot of deprivation, such as my constituency of Dover and Deal, make sure that the Government, or any Government, have policies that make work pay. About 5 million people in this country could work but do not. We need more of an incentive for people to realise their potential and do well in life. Part of that needs to be an economic incentive. Let me pray in aid the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer:
“We have to acknowledge that over the last five years, those on out-of-work benefits have seen their incomes rise twice as fast as those in work. With pay restraint in businesses and Government, average earnings have risen by about 10% since 2007. Out-of-work benefits have gone up by about 20%. That is not fair to working people who pay the taxes that fund them.”—[Official Report, 5 December 2012; Vol. 554, c. 879.]
I will in a moment.
It is also unfair on those people who are not in work, because they have no incentive to go and seek work. We need to provide that incentive, not because we want to attack people who are unemployed but because we want to give them every incentive to get work, realise their potential and take the opportunity to do really well in life and be a great success.
As the hon. Lady knows, the principal part of clause 1, which we are discussing, deals with out-of-work benefits. As she also knows, the policy of the Opposition—that uprating should continue according to inflation—and their opposition to this Bill would cost £3.5 billion. Money is tight in this country today. The reason for that is that she and her party drove our economy off a cliff, overspending for years and displaying fiscal incontinence that was unparalleled in this country in the last century.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that since his Government were elected, they have increased borrowing by £212 billion?
The hon. Gentleman makes the case better than I could about the extent of the mess left by the previous Government, which was such that recovery has been choppy. As the whole Committee knows, a recovery from a debt crisis is always much tougher, particularly when we also have the eurozone plunging into crisis because of its years of mismanagement. Unless we have sound money and ensure restraint in the public finances and growth in the private sector, we will not be able to turn the corner and get the economy growing and the nation’s finances in place. The economy is now starting to heal, but part of that involves building in an extra incentive to ensure that work pays—universal credit is part of that—and ensuring an extra incentive for those who are out of work and on benefits to go into work. We do that by not continuing with the over-generous benefits or over-uprating of benefits, as compared with what people in work have received, that we have seen in recent years.
The hon. Gentleman is making the point strongly that it is important that we make work pay. On that basis, is he concerned that 60% of those affected by the clauses we are discussing today are in work, and that this Bill is making precisely those hard-working people on low and middle incomes worse off by being in work?
The hon. Gentleman well knows that this Government have taken many people on low incomes out of tax altogether. That is not something that his party did. Labour froze the personal allowance and, over time, had more people in the tax system relatively speaking. We have taken people out of tax, because we do not see the point in taking money off people in taxes and then handing their own money back to them. It is better not to take it off them in the first place.
The key point is that the Opposition are proposing to impose a cost of £3.5 billion. I ask them: where are they going to find the money? How will they pay for their spending pledge? If they want to pay for it through more borrowing—which always seems to be their policy—all they will do is raise interest rates for hard-pressed mortgage holders, small businesses and borrowers.
Is not the truth that the Opposition’s opposition to this Bill would cost the average family £5,000 extra in debt? Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no money growing on trees—we pay for that either in debt or in tax—and that the Bill is a sensible measure, as debt simply holds more families back?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The Labour party just thinks that we can sink further into a sea of debt. We have to call time on that. We have to get control of our public finances and our private finances, and restore sound money once again.
I have been quite generous in giving way, so I would like to make a bit of progress.
Let me turn to the issue of child poverty. We heard a lot of rhetoric on child poverty from the shadow Minister, in addition to the amazing spending commitment that he delivered to the Committee in response to my intervention. Let us look at the child poverty figures, which the Opposition say are a key reason to oppose clause 1. The figures from the last Parliament show that, after housing costs, there were 3.6 million children in poverty in 2004-05. In 2009-10, there were 3.8 million. In other words, it went up 200,000 under the previous Government. The figures for 2010-11, the latest available, went down 200,000 under the present Government. The achievement of the previous Labour Government was therefore to increase child poverty by 200,000—not a great record, to put it mildly—while the present Government have been in office at a time when child poverty has been falling.
Let us also consider the fact that there were 700,000 children in severe poverty in 2004-05. By the end of the Labour Government, that figure was the same. After one year of this Government, however, the figure had gone down to 600,000. Before the Opposition start talking about child poverty, they ought to take a closer look at their record in office. We also need to have a closer look at the policy of universal credit, which, according to Government statistics and the Red Book, will take about 350,000 children out of poverty.
It is important that we look after children and give them the best possible start in life, and this Government are committed to that. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is certainly committed to that, as am I. I am committed to the Bill, and the measures in clause 1 are really important because we need to do all we can to ensure that people who are not in work achieve their potential, get into work, do really well and achieve great success in their lives.
The hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) forgot to mention that while those on benefits have had their benefits uprated at twice the rate of those in work in percentage terms over the past five years, the actual increase in financial terms has been on average about £49 for those in work and about £12 for those on benefits. Those figures were put into the public domain by Paul Lewis on “Moneybox” on BBC Radio 4, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has. It is important to take those figures into consideration. Percentages are meaningless; 50% or 100% of very little is still very little. Making comparisons in the way that he did demeans the debate.
I would like to thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Evans, because this is an important debate on a Bill that, if voted through, will have a detrimental impact on many thousands of my constituents and others across Tyneside and the north-east. I have said this before, but it is important: the way in which this country’s economy works is very different in different parts of the country. It is therefore important to remember that the equation of welfare to work is a two-part equation. Welfare is one part; work is the other. In some parts of the country, there is no work; in others, between a dozen and 20 people—or even more in some places—wait for each vacancy. In such places, where people have no real opportunity to get work anywhere near their own locality, there must be decent welfare so that they can sustain themselves, their families and, most important, their children.
I was fortunate enough to speak in previous debates on this issue earlier this month, so I shall keep this speech as brief as possible, given that many Members will wish to take part in the debate. I shall try not to repeat the points I have already made. Instead, I shall focus on the impact that the Bill will have on families and, particularly, on children. I also do not want to disregard one important set of people—namely, those with mental health difficulties. I believe that the impacts of the Bill on those people has been underplayed to a certain extent.
I visited Tyneside Mind in Gateshead on Friday and spoke to a range of service users there. It is disturbing to see the increased pressure being put on those vulnerable people, who are in a fragile state of mind, to jump through a whole range of hoops, and to see the impact that the new measures are having on them.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this situation puts great pressure on local agencies that are trying to help people back into work—the Agored Cymru in my constituency, for example, which works with people with mental health and substance abuse problems—and that they are feeling the pinch as well?
I have no doubt that that is the case. It applies to the north-east of England where the capacity of local authorities to help out local communities has been dramatically undermined—disproportionately, by comparison with other parts of the country.
This Bill provides yet another example of the Government demonising the most vulnerable in our society, making the poorest live in relative poverty. The Government’s decision to cap uprating on certain benefits and tax credits will, as confirmed only last week by the Minister with responsibility for disabilities, result in around 200,000 more children living in poverty. Let us bear in mind the fact that this is not the only policy forcing those on the lowest incomes into poverty. We need look only at the sprouting of food banks everywhere truly to understand the impact of this Government’s welfare agenda.
According to the Child Poverty Action Group report entitled “The Double Lockout: How local income families will be locked out of fair living standards”, this Bill
“is poverty-producing and means that both absolute and relative child poverty will increase”.
How exactly? First, delinking the uprating of benefits from increases in the price of commodities such as fuel and food will obviously result in a fall in standards of living for anyone dependent on state assistance. Given that two thirds of the households affected by the Bill have children in them, it is not hard to understand why child poverty will increase. Furthermore, given that proportionately poorer households spend more on basics such as fuel, food, water and other households necessities, their rate of inflation is higher when the prices of those basic goods increase faster—a trend we have seen over recent years.
In the last few months we have seen utility companies hiking up their prices—the highest change we have seen is about 10.8 or 11%. How on earth are the low paid and those out of work supposed to heat their homes if their benefits are not increased in line with inflation? We are going to see families—we are already seeing them—having to make the difficult choice between eating or heating.
The Children’s Society estimates that the following professions are also affected: 300,000 nurses and midwives in the NHS; 150,000 staff in primary and nursery schools; 1.14 million admin workers, secretaries and secretarial assistants; 44,000 electricians and electrical fitters; 510,000 sales assistants and cashiers; and 42,000 armed forces personnel.
Does not that list of people in those professions that are going to be badly hit fundamentally undermine the idea that the Bill is really about incentivising lazy people to go and get a job, which will happen only if the incentive system is made a little bit nastier?
I think it is the ultimate insult to ordinary people’s intelligence to say that in order to incentivise those at the top end of the economy we have to pay them more, while incentivising people at the bottom end by paying them less. “We are all in this together”—I don’t think.
By no stretch of the imagination should these hard-working people—all those I have just listed—be regarded as shirkers. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates the cost of child poverty to the taxpayer as £25 billion, despite the fact that 57% of children living in poverty have one parent working. Surely increasing the number of children suffering from child poverty, which is what the Bill will do, will take more out of the Treasury’s coffers in the long term than would be saved from capping the uprating.
What I will do is listen to the debate and see whether I can be convinced one way or the other.
Given that the majority of the people impacted by the Bill are in work, the Minister should perhaps have listened to my suggestion on Second Reading: why not legislate for a living wage so that low-paid workers are not reliant on the Government to top up their income but are paid an adequate wage?
The hon. Gentleman talks about low-paid people and what they are suffering, but will he acknowledge that many people have been taken out of tax altogether, including 3,000 in his own constituency, and that 30,000 people in his constituency have at least benefited from the increased personal allowances?
I live in the heart of my constituency, among the people whom I represent, and, oddly enough, the people whom I represent do not feel massively better off as a result of the Government’s changes. VAT, for instance, has a dramatically greater impact on those at the lower end of the income spectrum.
I could not agree more, and that, of course, has a dramatic impact on people at the lower end of the income spectrum.
Let me clarify something that I said a moment ago. The average income per household in my constituency is just above £20,000 per annum, but that average is dragged up by some relatively well-heeled neighbourhoods. An awful lot of my constituents are struggling to get by, and I have a fantastic amount of sympathy for them, but there seems to be a compassion bypass on the Government Benches.
Given that most of the people affected by the Bill are in work, perhaps the Minister should adopt my earlier suggestion and return to the idea of a living wage. That could reduce the benefits bill, and also make companies such as Starbucks pay their staff a real wage so that we, the taxpayers, would not have to subsidise multinationals that may not be paying the corporation tax that they should be paying.
The Chancellor talks of strivers and skivers, but I see something different on the ground. I see families scraping by in low-paid work, or jumping from insecure jobs to benefits and back again. I have come across people who are working with all their might and main, moving from one part-time job to another just to scrape a living, and all too often the work that they are doing is demeaning and low-paid.
The truth, unlike what the Government keep spouting, is that those who rely on benefits and tax credits are in work, have worked, or will be desperately trying to find work in the near future. They are not scroungers, but victims of a stagnated economy, and the Government are undoubtedly making the situation worse. We need to stimulate the economy rather than stagnating it. We need to provide jobs in places such as the north-east. That, rather than crippling those who are on the lowest income levels in the whole economy, is the way to reduce the benefits bill.
Let me say this to Members in all parts of the House. When they walk towards the Lobbies, they should think long and hard about whether they can vote to allow 200,000 more children to live in poverty. I know which Lobby I will choose.
I think it would be a good idea for us to start by working out what we agree about, because during debates such as this the House sometimes becomes very tribal. It seems to me that we agree that we hate poverty, and that that is true not just of the Opposition but of the two governing parties. We see poverty as a scourge. We come here to promote and support policies that will make people better off and improve their living standards—of course we do—and today’s debate is about how we can achieve that in very straitened and difficult circumstances.
I should have thought it was common ground that we need to ensure that it is more worth while to work. In order to ascertain whether that is common ground, I intervened on the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms)—who was very eloquent—and he said that that was indeed Labour policy as well as Conservative and Liberal Democrat policy. So we agree that we want to get rid of poverty and that we need to make work more worth while. That is where our Ministers are faced with a difficult dilemma. Last year’s benefits uprating occurred at about the peak of the spike in inflation and so benefit recipients got the 5.2% increase whereas low-paid people working alongside them in their local communities got perhaps 1.7%, if they were lucky—that was about the average. Suddenly, in one fell swoop, people were 3.5% worse off in work than out of work because of the normal uprating.
What the right hon. Gentleman has just said is fundamentally untrue. Just because the percentage rise for someone on £71 a week is more than that for someone on £35,000 a year does not mean that they are better off. Will he correct the record on that point?
No, I am talking about people in very similar circumstances—those either in low-income employment or out of work—where the two numbers are much closer together. They are closer together than any of us would like, because we want it to be that much more worth while for people to work. The hon. Gentleman has to accept that, at the lowest income levels, there was a problem because the benefits went up by much more than the wages. What would the best answer be? It would be for all wages to go up more. The second best answer would be for the prices not to go up so much. But we are where we are and we have to work to try to come up with a fair settlement for the future.
The right hon. Gentleman highlights the 5.2% increase last year. I have not yet heard Opposition Members congratulate the Government on that, but I congratulate the Government now. Does he agree that one of the worst things—for decades far too little was done to fix it—was the benefits trap, whereby people discovered that when they started to work part time, they ended up with less money than they had before? I hope that this entire House could agree that that is fundamentally wrong. It has affected some of my constituents and has not yet been fixed sufficiently.
Let me deal with one intervention and then, of course, I will give way to another.
If we can work to try to prevent that kind of problem from happening again, we might make a bit more progress. My right hon. and hon. Friends have a couple of policies that try to do that. First, they are rightly taking many low-paid people out of tax altogether. I believe in tax cuts for everyone. I do not just want tax cuts for the rich; I want tax cuts for those on middle incomes and low incomes, particularly those at the lower end. The idea of the tax cut for the rich is to get more money out of them; all we are trying to do is get back closer to Labour’s very successful 40% rate, which it kept for almost all the time it was in office. I noticed that its 40% rate collected considerably more revenue than the 50% it bequeathed to the incoming Government, and so it was rather foolish to put in a rate that did not work in taking money off the rich. We are trying to get back to the earlier rate.
The right hon. Gentleman clearly did not read the background papers published with the Budget in March, which showed, incontrovertibly, that the amount of money lost by the cut in the top rate of tax from 50% to 45% was £2.5 billion. As he well knows, the only reason why the Government have got cover is because people have been shuffling their income around from one year to another.
The hon. Lady has chosen the wrong Member to accuse of not reading the Budget papers properly; I am normally accused by my right hon. Friends of reading them too closely. If she read on through those Budget papers, she would see that that top rate led to an almost 10% reduction in the amount of top-level income tax coming in, which is a very foolish position to get into when we need all the money we can get. My right hon. and hon. Friends are very sensible to try to correct that, in order to get more money off the rich. We need more money off them and less money off people at the other end of the income scale. The way to take less money off people at the other end of that scale is to take them out of tax altogether, and good progress is being made in that regard.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who has not stayed for the rest of the debate but who wisely said that it was more sensible to let people keep the money they earn at the low income levels rather than taking it off them through an expensive tax system and then giving it back through an expensive benefits system; by definition, they get back less overall, because we have to charge them a handling charge, as the rich will not pay all the money we need—they pay only quite a bit of it—and so we also have to tax the poor in order to give them benefits, and that can be silly.
The problem with using the tax threshold as a means of not taking money away with one hand and giving it back with the other is that it gives to people who do not need as well as to people who do. By contrast, tax credits targeted at lower-income households give to people who need, and the tax credit is tapered away rather than kept at the same level as people rise up the income spectrum.
What a miserable world the hon. Lady lives in. People on £30,000 and £40,000 need more money as well as people on £10,000 and £20,000, and I am here to try to ensure that they get more money. I do not believe that the Government should take all their money; they should be allowed to keep more of it so that they have more to spend, which would create more jobs. I thought that was part of the Opposition’s argument—or it would be, were we having a different debate. They will not use that argument today, because we are debating benefits.
My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench are trying to deal with part of the problem by taking people out of tax altogether and cutting the amount of tax that those at the lower end of the income scale have to pay. That is a very good thing to be doing. They are also about to launch their universal credit in trial systems. The whole purpose of universal credit, as described, is to make it more worth while to work and to deal with the fact that if benefit is taken away too quickly, people face a high rate of tax combined with benefit withdrawal, which is a big disincentive to going to work. It might even get in the way of their going to work, as they might not have enough money for the bus fare, the clothes they need and all the rest of the things one needs when setting oneself back up in a job. That is very important.
The hon. Gentleman shouts “Where is the work?”, and of course we need more work. There are a lot of jobs on offer and we wish people well in applying for and getting them. I accept his implied point: in some parts of the country work is very scarce and we need economic policies that promote it. That is where lower taxes can be extremely helpful, and I urge my colleagues on the Front Bench to do more, if they can, because if more money is circulating in people’s pockets, bank accounts and purses, we will have more spending in the economy, which will help.
That is not my case at all. My case is that the Government inherited an impossible financial position: the public sector was spending and borrowing far too much and the economy had been performing very badly, with a collapse in living standards towards the end of Labour’s period in office that was the biggest that any of us in this House had witnessed in our lifetimes.
My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench are trying desperately to come up with a series of policies that promote growth and restore a greater degree of normality. The Committee must recognise that the model that sustained growth from 1945 through to 2007 was comprehensively broken when Labour broke the banks and nationalised them. Until we sort that mess out, we will be dealing with very unpopular and difficult choices, whoever is in government.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman always reads his economic documents, so why does he disagree with the view expressed by the Chancellor when he came to office in 2010 and by the IMF now that the automatic stabilisers in our economy should operate unimpeded?
If the hon. Gentleman looks again at the numbers in the Budget Red Book, he will see that the automatic stabilisers have been more than functioning. Under this Government, public spending has gone up considerably while borrowing has remained at extremely high levels. The borrowing levels the Government inherited were off the chart compared with those in any previous cycle we have witnessed in the British economy. Levels of public borrowing are still well above the peaks in previous cycles. The hon. Gentleman must understand that the numbers show that plenty of automatic stabilisers are in operation—the question he needs to answer is why they are not working. Of course, they are not working because of the other problems that have been inherited, such as the broken banks, the difficulties with tax rates and the large structural deficit. Those are all part of the problem and we can debate them at another time during a general debate on the economy.
The Government are attempting, through their tax and benefit changes, to tackle the problem of people asking, “Why work?” I have two bits of advice for my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that might be more to the liking of the Labour party. If my right hon. and hon. Friends are going to pursue and sustain the policy of very low benefit increases for the next period, it is important that two other conditions are met. The first is that every action should be taken to get inflation down. If inflation suddenly took off, this would become a much tougher and crueller policy than Ministers have in mind. That would be extremely difficult. So it is in everybody’s interest—not just of those in low-paid work and not just those on benefit, but those people in particular—that more is done to sustain and control price rises.
I hope my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will make sure that their contacts with the Bank of England stress the need to do a better job of controlling price inflation than the Bank has been able to do in recent years, and I hope they will also be looking at reforms in a number of areas, particularly in energy, for example, because it is energy prices above all which have done so much damage to people at all income levels, but especially to people on low incomes and benefit incomes. There are other things, which are not the main subject of this debate, that could be done to tackle high and rising energy prices. This policy will be much easier to sell and to sustain if Ministers can say, “The real cut is very small because we are doing a better job now of controlling price inflation than was the case in the past.”
The second condition picks up on a point that has already been mentioned by the Opposition. The policy will also be much easier to sustain if more jobs are flowing into the economy. I pay tribute to those on the Front Bench for what they have achieved so far. Some 1.2 million new jobs have been created in the economy during their period in office. That is extremely welcome. We need to make sure that more people already settled here and down on their luck get access to those jobs and can take them so that they can enjoy the benefits of higher income in work.
That is true, and it had to be the case because the public sector had no money left, as the previous Chief Secretary reminded us, and it was inevitable that action had to be taken to rein in the public sector. I remember that just before the Labour Government left office, they enacted proposals to halve the deficit over the next Parliament, so members of their Front-Bench team in office were fully aware that they had overdone it and they were recommending pretty unpalatable cuts to their colleagues. They did not specify the cuts, of course, because that would have been even more unpopular, but they told us in general terms that there had to be very big cuts.
If somebody wanted a part-time job, I am delighted that they have now got a part-time job. Quite a lot of people choose to have a part-time job. Their family commitments mean that that is what they can manage and it is a very good thing that we have generated more part-time jobs so that they can have them. To those who seriously want a full-time job—I am sure the hon. Gentleman can find people who would prefer a full-time job and are still in part-time work—I would say it is easier to get that full-time job from their part-time job than from unemployment. It is easier to get work from work. It is easier to get promoted when they are in the company and very difficult to get promoted if they have not joined the company.
It is very encouraging that people in some of our best large enterprises start off in part-time, low-paid, not very glamorous work, and when they show application and interest, they get trained and are then given greater responsibilities, and they can go on to do great things. When I last visited one of my local supermarkets, I met the manager and the deputy manager who had worked their way up from shelf-stacking some years before. That is great and shows that that path can work for people.
The broad-brush principles that my right hon. Friend describes are pretty much unarguable, but the Bill is very specific. It specifies a 1% uprating for two years beyond the coming year. Does he sign up to that inflexible approach? He is talking about keeping inflation down. Does he think that being able to predetermine and know the rate of increase is a wise approach to deal with the problem?
I have already expressed the view that I did not come to Parliament to impose such restrictions on people with very little income, that that is a difficult thing to have to do but that I quite understand why Front Benchers are in that position.
Yes, I will trust Ministers’ judgment today but I am also saying to them that there are those two important conditions. They have to watch the situation because if inflation starts to rise too far, things will be too tough, and it would be wrong not to recognise that. If there is not a sustained increase in the number of jobs, that, too, will make the policy difficult to sustain. I am hoping that the economic policy can kick in with lower price rises and more jobs, which would make the measure a little less unpalatable. However, surely nobody can say that they want to do this—it is not very pleasant—but what else can we do?
The right hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech. However, is not a clear consequence of his argument that it is a serious mistake to be setting now the levels of benefits in two years’ time, when we just do not know what inflation will be in the meantime?
The Government are fighting for credibility with their general finances. They have a series of difficult decisions to make and have decided to make this decision. The Opposition cannot always come here and say that they must get the deficit down but never support anything that makes a contribution towards that. That is where they have great difficulties.
The Opposition have great difficulties today because they are coming here and saying that they do not like the measure, but will not support amendments that would mean that we were definitely going to pay a lot more. They have sufficient maturity to understand that the benefits bill is extremely large and difficult to manage.
I have one final thought to put to Ministers. The British public, who wish to see the benefit bill controlled and brought down, are keen for us to check up on eligibility, which causes more issues than anything else. Most of us feel extremely generous when it comes to eligibility for disabled people and we want the Government to do the best they possibly can, which might not be generous enough.
What we are worried about is extending eligibility too far—through the European Union rules, for example. I hope that that kind of thing will be pursued. I hear that the Prime Minister is now looking at the matter, but I do not think it is right that a large number of people should be able to come into the country and immediately start claiming benefits that other people, who have been settled here for a long time and are working hard, have had to pay into and make contributions towards. I hope that we will get better news and that there will be some kind of contributory principle or settlement before people can get those benefits, so that somebody who has been living here clearly becomes our responsibility after a sensible period.
I am rather pleased that our benefits system is a lot more generous than those afforded in eastern Europe, but I also want to make sure that we do not open ourselves up to paying a large number of benefit bills to people from more or less anywhere in the European Union who come here because they have worked out that we have a generous system compared with theirs. That would seem extremely unfair, very tough on British taxpayers and ultimately self-defeating, because people who were working hard and had talent and enterprise would say, “I can’t afford to pay the tax rates in Britain to pay for benefits for everybody else, so I’ll go somewhere else to do my work.”
My right hon. Friend made an interesting and important point about eligibility. Does he agree that one of the most pernicious legacies of the last Government was that their tendency to hand out, increase and widen the eligibility for welfare payments has meant that, when the payback comes, the most vulnerable people in our society tend to be hardest hit? We are doing everything we can to target benefits at those who need them most. For example, there are 600,000 disability claimants. Increasingly, we know that small groups of people desperately need the benefits but that many receiving them do not.
I quite agree. I would like to see a more generous regime for disabled people, as my hon. Friend rightly says. To pay for that, I have come up with suggestions both on getting more people back into work, which is the best way, and on dealing with the issue of eligibility so that only our own deserving cases get the generous treatment that we rightly expect.
In summary, the policy is not easy. Ministers have to watch to make sure that it does not become unintentionally more penal. We want much more work on the side of promoting jobs and growth because we come here to eliminate poverty, not to make it worse. It is also time for the Opposition to join the serious conversation about how we tackle these obstinate and difficult issues, given that the high-level aims—getting rid of poverty and making it more worth while to work—are, mercifully, shared across the House.
I will speak to amendment 7, which stands in my name. It is an attempt, at least, to neuter what I believe is a cruel and callous Bill by restoring the historic link between benefits and tax credits and the retail prices index.
It is a fiction that benefit levels are too high. Someone who relies on benefits is poor and will be struggling to survive from week to week; if any unexpected costs occur, they will probably have to go without or go into debt. The Institute for Fiscal Studies points out that we do not know at least two important things about the Bill: we do not know what the actual effects of breaking the link with prices will be, because that will depend on future price levels, which exposes the poorest in society to serious inflation risk; and secondly, we do not know the Government’s view on how benefits should be indexed in the longer run, and we ought to.
What are we to make of the Government’s long-term policy intentions? Unfortunately, I think they are clear: to chip away at the welfare state and leave people to fend for themselves, with US-style deprivation for the unsuccessful. It is a scandal to expose poor people to such risk and insecurity, especially at the same time as the most wealthy are set to enjoy a significant tax cut. That is why I have tabled my amendments, which represent the very minimum safety net that must be in place.
I think the answer is probably both of the above. Recently, the RPI has been higher. I would have been happy to look at an amendment—no such amendment exists, unfortunately—that combined the work that the hon. Gentleman’s party has been doing on earnings with my effort to get a link back to the RPI and prices. We should look at whichever is the most generous. I stuck to the RPI link in my amendment because I wanted it to be realistic enough to get more support across the House. I fear that I might have been a little over-ambitious.
It worries me that instead of seeking to restore the link to prices, the official Opposition have not sought to protect people who are seeking work, but appear to have picked out one or two benefits, such as employment and support allowance and maternity benefit, for proper protection. They have ignored, for example, those on jobseeker’s allowance, as long as some sort of workfare system is brought in for people who have been looking for work for two years. Do the Opposition think that it is okay for the link to be broken for JSA recipients in the meantime? The Opposition amendments offer an improvement to a nasty Bill, and for that I support them, but I believe they expose a certain cowardice in not confronting the stereotypes and myths that the Government continue to perpetrate. Why are the Opposition not standing up for unemployed people and restoring the link to RPI? I do not accept that they could not consider that principle today, and it is disappointing that they will not. A link to prices is an absolute minimum, a safety net red line.
Will the hon. Lady confirm that she is advocating a return to a link between all benefits and the retail prices index from now on? In 2012-13, benefits went up by 5.3% and the Office for National Statistics labour statistics show that the pay of all those in work went up on average by 2.1%. What impact does the hon. Lady think that would have over a few years on the morale of people in work? Would it act as an incentive to work, or to retreat back to benefits as fast as possible?
The hon. Gentleman’s intervention shows the different beliefs that he and I have about the great British public. I do not believe that most people have to be pushed into work by cruel incentives; I believe that the vast majority want to work, contribute and feel part of a wider society. That is where he and I differ.
I am with the hon. Lady; I do believe that most people want to work. I am asking her about the impact it will have if somebody off work continually gets double, if not more, the increase that working people get. Surely she understands that there is a link.
The proposition is spurious. First, it happens very rarely; secondly, we ought to look at the actual amounts of money involved. The Government talk glibly about percentages, but the percentage of something very small is still very small. The amounts that we are talking about do not make that much difference. What does make a difference is social solidarity and the sense of people really being in it together. If this Government cared more about making that a reality than just having the rhetoric, we might stand a chance of securing a happier and better-off society.
The hon. Lady would of course also argue that historically benefits have been very low indeed and, in fact, the amount of money that people have to live on is miserably low. I think that the majority of the British public would accept that and accept that we need to raise benefits substantially. That is why it is so important to use a rate that raises benefits by the highest amount, perhaps by RPI or earnings.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman and thank him for his intervention. I think that people do want that to happen, partly because it is what they would want if they themselves fell into difficulties, and it is what they would want for their families and friends, who unfortunately and increasingly are in exactly that position.
I will give way in a moment, but I should like to make a little progress on the other amendments.
The Opposition have supported the public sector pay freeze and the switch from RPI to CPI introduced by the coalition, saying that they did so on a short-term basis to tackle the deficit. The former shadow Pensions Minister, now shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), said that the Opposition supported the switch to CPI indexation as a temporary measure, and in July 2011 she said:
“Making a permanent change from the use of the retail prices index to the consumer prices index with the impact being felt even after the deficit is long gone is an ideologically driven move that we do not support.”––[Official Report, Pensions Public Bill Committee, 14 July 2011; c. 293.]
My contention is that people are suffering now and that is why the link to prices should be restored now. The Opposition seem to have swallowed the Government line that this measure is necessary despite acknowledging that it is ideologically driven. I repeat my disappointment that apparently they will not support my amendment 7.
This is a debate about priorities, not necessarily about affordability. As the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) made very clear during his strong speech on Second Reading, today, prices are increasing and they have been rising faster than earnings in recent years. We are in the grip of a harsh public sector pay freeze imposed by the Government and supported by the Opposition. If the Opposition really believe in making sure that benefits reflect the increase in the price of a pint of milk or a pair of school shoes, or what it really costs to make sure that people can survive without becoming destitute, I ask them again to reconsider whether they might support my amendment.
Does the hon. Lady share my puzzlement that she has tabled an amendment—a principled amendment with which I disagree—suggesting that the RPI measure of inflation should be used, and yet the official Opposition will not support it although they gave a commitment at the Dispatch Box that they wanted inflation uprating? Does she not find that strange?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has encapsulated what I said in my earlier intervention and what I am saying now. Yes, it is strange, and disappointing.
Let me say a few words about RPI and earnings. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) and the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) have tabled amendments on earnings that would improve the Bill, and I support them. However, we have a public sector pay freeze, and earnings growth right now is slow; people are experiencing falling living standards as energy bills and food prices rise faster than income. In the longer term, however, earnings are important. Since the second world war, the UK norm has been for earnings to rise faster than prices, with real wages rising in most years, driving living standards higher.
Let me make a bit more progress.
It is worth remembering that benefits were linked to earnings until 1980, when the Thatcher Government changed the link to prices in order to save money. That was a deliberate and aggressive policy to run down benefit levels. In 1980, unemployment benefits were one fifth of average earnings; today, they are one tenth. Earnings are important in the long term, but in the current context, I worry that focusing on earnings when they are so low, without the link to RPI, risks being a smokescreen for existing Government policy. I worry that without the additional protection of a link to prices, the link to earnings will not protect people from inflation risk over the next three years. People must, at the very minimum, be able to keep up with the rising cost of living. My personal view is that benefits should increase either in line with RPI or in line with average earnings, depending on which is higher, but I deliberately tabled a more modest amendment that would just restore the link to RPI because I wanted to press the Committee to provide that minimum protection in the face of this Bill, and hoped that such an amendment would garner more support.
The hon. Lady stated earlier that a 1% increase in benefits is a very small increase on a very small amount of money. Is she aware that the welfare budget is almost a third of all Government spending and is by no stretch of the imagination a small amount of money?
If the hon. Gentleman made a distinction between the overall benefits bill and pensions, he might find that he had a rather different set of figures before him.
It is not true that the Government are doing this to be fair. The measure is an unnecessary, spiteful and counter-productive attack on the poor. It is unnecessary because it is ludicrous to blame the unemployed and the low-paid for the deficit and to elicit from them the highest price for paying it off when high earners are receiving tax breaks. As the Government well know but conveniently forget, the culprits behind the entire financial crisis were the bankers on their very high incomes, many of whom do very well from over-generous tax relief on pension contributions and will benefit from the tax cut that is being granted to the highest earners with the abolition of the 50p rate. I welcome the Opposition’s amendment on the latter point.
The measure is spiteful because the Government insist on suggesting that it is somehow unfair that benefits have gone up by 20% when they know very well that 20% of very little is very little, and that in cash terms the average annual increase for those on jobseeker’s allowance over the past five years has been just £2.37—that is hardly the life of Riley that Ministers are pretending. Again and again they frame the debate around misleading percentages instead of the reality of hard cash increases that are far lower for people on benefits than for those in work.
The hon. Lady talks about reality. The reality that the country faces is that we are running a huge deficit year on year and have been doing so for some years. Will she say a little about that? Can she say how she proposes to pay for the policy she advocates and how much it would cost?
The hon. Gentleman has asked me a question, so he should let me answer it; I am very happy to do so. We face a number of choices, and the key thing is where we decide that the axe is going to fall. His Government would like the axe to fall on the poorest and most vulnerable; I would prefer that it fell on those with the broadest shoulders. That is the difference between us. It is also important to say that his Government’s policies are draining demand out of the economy and making the deficit worse. If I were in his shoes, I would be looking to see why my own Government’s policies are exacerbating the deficit, not making it better. If we looked for some alternatives, we might find a more positive way forward.
I have let the hon. Gentleman intervene once, and I think that is probably enough.
The policy is also counter-productive. [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) would like to listen to this, because it addresses his point. Such a measure is counter-productive because, first, if money is taken from people who are only just surviving, they will experience more crises that the state will then have to step and pay for; and secondly, if money is put into the pockets of the poorest, they will spend it into the economy and thus address the deficit that we are trying to deal with.
Does the hon. Lady agree, though, that the policies of extremely expensive energy that she promotes are at the root of poverty now, and that if she would reverse her policies and go for cheap energy, we might be able to do something for the people we want to help?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his attempt, but it was a bit feeble. All the evidence from Deutsche bank, the International Energy Agency and many other places tells us that rising fuel bills are a result of rising gas prices, and the percentage extra on people’s fuel bills that is coming from renewable energy, which, sadly, he is not a fan of, is very much smaller. I do not agree with his premise.
If our priority is fairness, we should be seeking savings from those who can afford it, not penalising the poorest and pushing them into ever more precarious misery. Without this very basic link to RPI, what exactly are we saying to people on benefits? We are giving them a message of punishment that says, “You’ve done something wrong. It’s your fault that you don’t have a job and the state is going to make life hard for you.” Frankly, that is despicable. Oxfam says that it is Dickensian and rightly points out that slashing the incomes of those at the bottom is not just cold-hearted but wrong-headed, because it will depress the economy further.
I said earlier that most people want to work, and I could cite very many examples from my own constituency of people who have come to my surgeries who are desperate for work but have been unable to find it. The link to RPI, as I have said, is essential. It is the absolute minimum acceptable. The Government have already taken from the poorest by switching to CPI and now they want to heap even more misery on people who simply cannot absorb it. Amendment 7 seeks to provide the most basic protection for benefits from the accumulative erosion of value that severing the historic link to prices will create. I commend the amendment, and hope to press it to a vote.
Amendment 10 stands in my name and in those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) and my hon. Friends the Members for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech), for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) and for Ceredigion (Mr Williams). Its purpose is to address the oft-repeated key concern of the Secretary of State and the Government—it has been repeated today by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and others—that in certain circumstances and, admittedly, over selected periods, benefits have risen at a rate higher than wages, and that in straitened times such as these, a principle should be established whereby that should not happen and that average wages should be the marker against which future benefit rises are set.
A further weakness in the Government’s proposals, to repeat an earlier intervention of mine on the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), relates to their intention to enshrine in future policy the blunt and inflexible instrument of a 1% rise beyond the next general election—up until 2016—and whether we can foretell with confidence what is likely to happen during that time.
The combined effect of both the statutory instrument and the Bill will, indeed, be for three years. I have no clairvoyant skills whatsoever and would never follow my forecasts on the future of the economy or prices, but the Bill is asking us to forecast what is likely to happen, particularly in relation to prices. In the context of food price volatility, which we know takes place, and of tremendous uncertainty in the energy market and, indeed, other markets, we are being asked to predict what the circumstances are likely to be in 2016, beyond the next general election.
In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) said that large swathes of people are out of work in some parts of the country and in work in other parts. There are also many places, including my own in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, where a lot of people spend their lives going in and out of work because of the seasonality of the area’s economy. Not only are such people moving in and out of work—not of their own choice, but because of their circumstances—but there is also a plethora of zero-hours contracts and of people who exist on the basis of putting together part-time work.
I congratulate the Government on their achievement in rolling out apprenticeships, but the fact is that those apprentices are being paid £2.65 an hour for their apprenticeship and have to do bar work, waitressing and other work at the weekend in order to get themselves up to a living wage. An apprenticeship offers a good opportunity, but we have to acknowledge that, among working people and those who are moving in and out of wages, there is a class or group who are, in effect, on the very margins of survival. They will be significantly affected by the proposal to peg benefits at 1%. Some argue that the Bill is about ensuring that we make work pay and that clause 1 is entirely about out-of-work benefits, but the fact is that a significant number of people—many thousands—who are in work or, indeed, in and out of work will be affected by it. That is the most difficult position.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about those who move from unemployment into temporary work and the complexities involved in re-applying for benefits under the current system. Does he agree that the introduction of universal credit will improve the situation, remove that uncertainty and make it a much bigger incentive for those who are out of work to take temporary work?
I agree with that point and congratulate in particular the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb) on advocating that for many years. He must be pleased. Indeed, I am pleased for him and it is appropriate that that policy is being rolled out. I hope that it will help to iron out the difficulties faced by a lot of people. Having said that, let us see whether it addresses those issues, as I hope it will, when it is rolled out.
If we look back at the principles set out by the Chancellor in the first emergency Budget, we will see that we were clearly told that we were all in it together, that those with the broadest shoulders would bear the greatest burden and that the vulnerable would be protected. Those are the principles against which we must measure the Government. We all have different views on where the lines should be drawn with regard to achieving those objectives, and that is where we get into specifics such as those in the Bill.
It would be a kamikaze mission for me to begin a debate—I am only seven minutes into my speech—by asking my hon. Friend the Minister, for whom I have the highest respect this: what on earth does he know about benefits? He is highly regarded in that sphere. He is respected considerably by people and, indeed, by his political opponents—and rightly so—for what he has achieved. I think we would have ended up with something a great deal worse had he not been in his position.
Before the hon. Gentleman began on his paean of praise for the Minister, I thought he was making a very good case about the situation in west Cornwall and the difficulties faced by people on the margins of the labour market. That being so, when it comes to the vote will he and his colleagues who tabled amendment 10 vote against clause stand part?
I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will make up their own minds on that issue. I do not speak for them, but I have made it clear that I will vote against the Bill as it stands, because I do not think it addresses the fundamental concerns that I have enunciated elsewhere.
To return to congratulating my hon. Friend the Minister on his achievements, my beloved coalition colleagues may not like what I am about to say—[Hon. Members: “Don’t say it!”] Having listened to what has been articulated by those in the Conservative party in recent months, we have to acknowledge what would have happened had my hon. Friend and, indeed, the Liberal Democrats not been in the coalition Government. First, we have to question whether we would have had the increase in the personal tax allowance, on which I congratulate the coalition Government. The Conservatives made it quite clear that they wished not only to freeze benefits altogether but to do so for six years, so we would not even be getting a 1% rise. There would have been a wider impact on pensioners and the disabled, which would have been significant. Child benefit would have been constrained, as well as being cut from families with more than two children.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful contribution. Given what he has said, does he reject the spin of some Government Members who have said that people on benefits have had their income uprated by 20% over a five-year period as opposed to 12.5% for those who work? When we examine the figures in cash terms—the impact on people’s pockets—we see that the uprating has been worth an average of £49 for people in work and only £12 or so for those who rely on benefits.
There has been a lot of selective quotation of statistics, with selective beginnings and ends of the time period within which those comparators are applied. I understood that the purpose of the Bill was as the Secretary of State articulated it when he introduced it—to ensure that benefits would never rise faster than average wages. Our amendment would deal with that.
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that the fiscal problem that the Government face began as a result of the financial crisis? It is therefore entirely logical to consider the matter over the period between the financial crisis beginning in 2008 and the present day.
But when does the crisis end? The figures produced by the Office for Budget Responsibility estimate that in three years’ time, wages will exceed CPI. One has to examine the matter over a much longer period. The Conservatives paid for some posters a couple of weeks ago to make the point that it was unacceptable for benefits to rise faster than wages, and the amendment would deal with that issue.
I said earlier that one big weakness of the Government’s proposal, and the reason why I opposed it, was the inflexibility of the 1% uprating. It takes no account of what may happen to food prices, for example, by 2015-16. It is all very well having a Bill that takes a clairvoyant view that a 1% increase will not press large numbers of working families, as well as out-of-work families, into severe and extreme hardship. However, we have experienced this year in the UK the impact of significant volatility in our climate. There has been significant climate change, which is having an impact on the food baskets of the world, including those in many developing countries and here. We therefore need to ask ourselves whether we can confidently say that there will not be food price spikes such as we saw only a few years ago. I suggest that we may see such spikes again. There is also tremendous concern about the potential volatility of energy prices. The 1% uprating figure is inflexible and somewhat arbitrary, and we cannot say with confidence that we will not need to introduce further primary legislation to revise that figure in 2016.
We must also consider the impact of the 1% uprating on housing. In their emergency Budget, the Government proposed to cut housing benefit from the 50th percentile of rents to the 30th percentile. Whether or not we like the fact that only 30% of the private rental market might be available to people in receipt of housing benefit, rather than half of it, it is essential that the rate is linked to the variation in private sector rents. The 1% uprating will break the link with what is available in the market and instead peg housing benefit back. In my area, and I know in many others, the Government’s attempt to peg it back by cutting the rate to the 30th per- centile of rents has failed to constrain private sector rents, so it has not had the desired impact. Maybe it has in some areas, but certainly not in mine or many others.
The measures that the Government have brought forward in the Bill have been ill thought through, and I fear that we will have to reconsider the figure set out in it next year or the year after. On that basis, we will listen to what the Minister says in response to the debate before we have the opportunity to divide the Committee on the amendment.
It is a great pleasure to follow the thoughtful and useful contribution of the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) and the contributions of other hon. Members.
One thing that has come across in the speeches of Members on both sides of the Chamber is the economic illiteracy of the Government’s policy as part of a strategy for reducing the deficit. As other Members have said, one of the great things about welfare payments is that when people are living on the bread line, the money that they receive is spent in the local economy, often within their own community or on their own estate. They spend it at their local convenience store. They tend to spend it the minute they get it, rather than put it in trust funds, because they are attempting to sustain their life on the bread line.
When money is taken from the poorest in our society and at the same time given to the very wealthiest in our society, as was mentioned earlier, we are taking money away from people who will spend it in the real economy and giving it to people who are much more likely to take it out of the real economy and not spend it. It makes no economic sense, even on the basis that the Government are introducing this measure to reduce the deficit.
As Members on the Government Benches are fond of reminding us, at one point they thought that the original plans of my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) were not paying off the deficit fast enough. We now see, however, that under those plans we were actually paying off the deficit faster than this Government are doing. The fact that the Labour party was going to make tough decisions is reflected in a whole number of ways, and we supported—with tremendous reluctance—the very small uplift in public sector pay. We heard from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) a shopping list of things we should be asking for and ways in which she felt we did not go far enough.
The Labour party recognises that tough choices need to be made, and it agreed to a whole raft of things in all the discussions on welfare. When I go back to my local party, the members ask, “Why are we agreeing with these things?” I say, “Look, it is very difficult. We would always like to make certain different decisions but”—
Let me just answer the point raised by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng). We would always like to make different decisions, but we are not always in a position to do so. There is a raft of things with which we have agreed that we would not have wanted. We have seen, however, from the policies that the hon. Gentleman has so loyally supported time after time, that when we pursue austerity to the extent that he has been happy to support, demand comes out of the economy. Various retail businesses have gone bust and people are losing their jobs. A huge number of people in the public sector who were consumers are now not spending money, and the level of borrowing that the Government predict is higher than the Labour party proposed under its policies.
On the specific issue of whether HMV has gone bust purely as a result of the economic circumstances, no, that is not the case I am making. However, when a raft of retail organisations go into administration, and when we see in many town centres—happily, not in Chesterfield because of the progressive policies of the Labour council—a huge number of empty shop units, it is perhaps time to start considering whether the economic policies pursued by the Government may have some sort of link to the economic success of our businesses.
I am following what my hon. Friend says and I absolutely agree that cuts have to be economically competent. The International Monetary Fund has already warned the Government that the annual cut of £24 billion to benefits and tax credits will reduce economic output by up to £40 billion.
That very important point underlines much of what I am saying. When hon. Members talk about benefits rising faster than earnings, we have to understand that each one of us needs basic things to stay alive. We need to have enough food to eat and put in front of our children for them to survive; we need clothing so that we can go out in the street; and we must be able to afford transport to get to job interviews.
I would like to finish my point. I am glad that my comments have elicited so much excitement and that lots of people want to intervene. There are basic things that we need in order to sustain life, and if someone is on poverty money—the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) said there are 600,000 people in severe poverty—their 1% increase cannot be compared with a school teacher, for example.
Such increases cannot be compared with how a Member of Parliament is able to sustain small increases. There is no comparison between what someone in severe poverty is able to cut and the situation faced by public sector workers, despite their currently being hard pressed, as many will testify.
We have heard a lot of talk about universal credit but we still lack a lot of the detail. Given the record of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the most catastrophic Work programme in history, if I were the hon. Gentleman I would not have much confidence in the success of the policies pursued by the Secretary of State until he has seen what the Government deliver.
My hon. Friend is making a series of interesting points. Does he agree that the insufficient time allowed by the Government to scrutinise these changes—eight days between Second Reading and the remaining stages of the Bill—does not allow us to scrutinise and ask the Government questions about why, for example, they are treating categories of disabled people differently and why they do not recognise that they may be breaching United Nations conventions relating to the rights of children and disabled people?
That is an incredibly powerful point. My hon. Friend probably thinks—as I do—that we are being given so little time to scrutinise those issues because this is an entirely political Bill. It is not an economic Bill or something put together and discussed on the Floor of the House because the law needs to be changed. It is being done for entirely political reasons, and the minute that the Opposition said—to their tremendous credit—that they were going to oppose it, the posters were already up and ready because they had been designed in advance. This was an entirely political manoeuvre that had nothing to do with comments that might be made by the United Nations or any of the details of it.
I want to return to the issue of benefits rising faster than earnings.
I am pleased to see the hon. Gentleman in his place. The past two times that he has been billed to appear he has not actually been present, so now that that he is here I will definitely allow him to intervene. However—perhaps he will reflect on this—the central point of the whole debate seems to be that benefits claimed by someone on £71 a week can be compared with the earnings of a school teacher or a doctor in a hospital, and that a 1% rise is the same to someone on jobseeker’s allowance as to someone working in the public sector. Will the hon. Gentleman at least accept that they are not the same thing?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me intervene and I will come straight to his specific point. It would be interesting if he came to meet some of my constituents who work in the public sector in Gloucester. We have over 20,000 people working in the public sector—as I used to—and most of them are seeing no increase in their salary whatsoever, with a cap at a maximum of 1%. The hon. Gentleman appears to be supporting an increase of 2.2%—more than double what those in work will be getting—for those who are out of work. I would like him to respond to a constituent of mine who wrote to me. She is a retired nurse—
It is almost as though the last two minutes of my speech did not exist. I had answered the hon. Gentleman’s point before he made it and I have no idea why he felt the need to intervene when I had specifically dealt with that issue—[Interruption.] I have already dealt with that point. We just cannot compare what 1% means to someone on £70 a week with what it means to a doctor. People on poverty money and in severe poverty have not got lots of options as to what they can cut back. They cannot decide, “Well, I’m only going to have one holiday this year”, as those whose jobs are more lucrative might be able to do. Interruption.] I have reflected on that point and I think I have answered it at some length.
There is a particular irony in the Chancellor, who was a millionaire the day he was born, railing against the extravagance of those on £71 a week. The debate needs to be put in proper context.
I will take further interventions, but I would like to crack on a bit now.
The 1% increase comes on top of a raft of difficult choices on benefits, including housing benefit cuts, tax credits cuts and council tax benefit cuts, at a time when there is increasing poverty, including severe poverty and child poverty. Specifically, there is an increase in poverty among those in work. That is the context in which this debate is held, and the reason why the Labour party has taken the stance it has. No one should be in any doubt that, in taking that stance, the Labour party recognises that there is tremendous contention about benefits, and that many feel just like the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and his constituent. I recognise that many people in many communities feel that way, and therefore how difficult it was for my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) to take that principled stance.
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend could hear the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) say a second ago from a sedentary position, “What’s your solution?” Surely the Opposition’s solution is to help families such as the 8,600 families in his constituency who receive in-work tax credits. The hon. Member for Gloucester seems silent now.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Perhaps Government Members’ strategy is to follow Mitt Romney, who said that anyone who receives any welfare should be written off because they will never vote for the right-wing party. It did not work particularly well for Mitt Romney, but perhaps that is the electoral strategy of the hon. Member for Gloucester.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in allowing me to intervene a second time, but the answer to him and the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) is that, on the question we are debating, I have not heard their proposal. Does he agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) that the solution is to peg those benefits for ever to the retail prices index, so that people who are out of work can continue to have annual rises three times higher than those who are in work? While the hon. Gentleman is advocating that my public sector workers should continue to lose out relative to people who are on benefits, I am proud that the Conservative party has left 35,000 people with lower tax bills.
The hon. Gentleman was silent on the 8,600 people in his constituency who will be worse off as a result of the vote he will cast tonight, but the Opposition’s proposals are clear in the amendment. I will touch on this in more detail, but one interesting thing is the extent to which the Chancellor, for reasons best known to himself, has chosen to handcuff himself to a level of benefit increase for year after year when he has no idea what the level of inflation will be—the hon. Member for St Ives made that point.
Let me make more progress before I let hon. Members intervene again.
One issue I have raised previously in the context of the Bill is housing benefit changes. Last week, I met Chesterfield borough council officials to discuss the impact of the bedroom tax, which will hit people across Chesterfield in April. The council knows it faces a time bomb as people who cannot afford to pay their rents are told that there is a shortage of smaller properties for them to move to. Many of those people are at the back end of their working careers, and are either not working or in part-time employment. The council is budgeting for a situation in which around a third of them will fall into arrears—their housing-related benefits will be reduced and they will no longer have enough to pay their rents—and the Government are increasing the discretionary payment to allow councils to meet the costs of some who fall into that situation, which is a totally illogical policy. People who have been council house tenants for many years will fall behind, and the Government will give money to councils to bail them out. At the same time, the Government will hit them on housing and council tax benefit, and on tax credits. They are saying, “Those payments have already been cut, but they will now be increased by less than the rate of inflation.”
A thread running through the hon. Gentleman’s speech is how we help the lowest paid. Does he agree that the coalition Government are helping the lowest paid in his constituency, because in April 3,880 of his constituents will be lifted out of income tax altogether, like 3,168 people in my constituency?
I welcome any measure that makes people better off, but the hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong if he thinks those being lifted out of tax are the lowest paid—they are not. Many who are earning less than them will get no benefit from the increase in the tax threshold. The people being lifted out of tax are not the lowest paid, although I recognise that they are on modest incomes.
More than 30,000 people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency have seen their pay go up in recent years by just 10%. They are in work and striving to get by. How can he justify asking them to pay more taxes and provide more money for people on benefits when the latter have had a 20% increase in the same period? Is that not unfair on working people?
One point I have laboured is that hon. Members cannot compare in percentage terms the difference the Bill will make for someone on £70 a week and someone on £35,000 a year. The hon. Gentleman seems to be attempting to make such a comparison, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) related previously—
I will answer the ill-advised point made by the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) before I take another intervention.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead has said, in cash terms—we should bear in mind that we buy food and clothing for our children with cash— people on benefits have had an increase of £12 a week; at the same time, working people have had an increase of £49 a week. It is impossible to make the comparison in simple percentage terms. That is one of the central points of my speech, but I have dwelt on it rather too much. I keep returning to it because hon. Members who intervene seem not to hear it.
I will crack on, because I have not taken a useful intervention from Government Members yet, and other hon. Members want to speak.
Many of the people I meet who face this financial calamity on the horizon have worked most of their lives. The people I meet who have worked for 30 years and then gone on to benefits are overwhelmed not by the generosity of benefits, but by the difficulty of getting by. They believe there must be an alternative benefits system that is incredibly generous—that is the one they read about in the papers—because it is tough to get by on the benefits that they receive.
When we talk about the benefit bill, the most fundamental question we must confront is where the money goes. Most of it goes not into the pockets of benefit recipients, but into the pockets of landlords. The Thatcher Government introduced the right to buy. That was a good thing, but they did not have a corresponding scheme to replace the social housing that was lost, and there was chronic under-investment in the remaining stock.
The Blair Government rightly prioritised the refurbishment of social housing up to the decent homes standard over building new homes, but many Labour Members believe they took too long to take the housing shortage seriously. Although much of that was hidden during the good times, the welcome steps introduced by the Brown Government were too late and too slow to stop the housing crisis from escalating. Whomever we blame for the huge inflation in private rents, the people who claim housing benefit, whether they are working or not, are not to blame.
I will try to plough on if I may, because many hon. Members want to speak, and I sense the Opposition deputy Chief Whip—my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell)—glaring at me with intent.
In a raft of ways, tax credits cuts will hit people on low to middle incomes. By anyone’s definition, they are the thrifty, hard-working strivers that people across the political divide recognise are key to the country’s future prosperity, but they will be badly hit by the Bill.
Once again, women and children will be hit worst of all. The Government’s strivers tax will hit women particularly hard—4.6 million women who receive child tax credit will be hit by the strivers tax, including 2.5 million working women. All those will come together as the perfect storm. The 1% uplift is nothing but a blunt political instrument designed to create a political trap that has nothing to do with a nuanced benefits system, with all its complexities.
The Child Poverty Action Group has said that the 200,000 increase set out in the written answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) should be added to the increase of 800,000 in children in relative income poverty by 2020 that the Institute for Fiscal Studies found in its analysis of the coalition’s welfare cuts. Let us remind ourselves of what the Prime Minister used to say about relative poverty. In 2006, he said:
“I believe that poverty is an economic waste and a moral disgrace. In the past, we used to think of poverty only in absolute terms—meaning straightforward material deprivation. That’s not enough. We need to think of poverty in relative terms, the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted. So I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty.”
That is the manifesto on which Conservative Members were elected, and that was what they used to believe, but that is what they will vote against tonight when they support the Bill and reject the very reasonable amendment moved by my right hon. Friend the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms).
I shall be brief as we are all conscious that we are increasingly up against the clock. I followed the progress of the argument and analysis by the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) with some interest. Had his predecessor in that seat been here tonight, he would most certainly have voted for the Liberal Democrat amendment, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will maintain that proud Chesterfield tradition and join us in the Lobby later this evening.
As one who—like so many of my right hon. and hon. Friends—applauds so many of the initiatives that the coalition has been able to take, specifically in the field of social policy, I think that the input from the Liberal Democrats has been significant, not least from my hon. Friend the Minister of State who will have the arduous task of replying to the very wide diaspora of this debate later this evening. That input includes taking low-paid people out of tax altogether to moving in the direction of universal credit—I do not take the jaundiced view of many as to its prospects. I am delighted that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is in his place, because if we find, a little further down the track, that a little more constructive pressure needs to be placed on the Treasury to make things work that little bit better, he can certainly count on support from these Benches, because we think that the direction of travel on universal credit is very good. However, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) pointed out that the Bill sits at odds, both practically and philosophically, with developments of that type. He used the phrase “a blunt instrument” and I think that is a fair description. Our amendment would maintain a responsible position in relation to the wider issue of the deficit—and deficit reduction policy—in that benefits would not rise at a higher rate than earnings. That is responsible, consistent and a constructive contribution to the debate this evening.
From my time as leader, and indeed from reading the memoirs of previous leaders, I know that no leader of the Liberal Democrats worth his salt would ever dare to predict how every Liberal Democrat was going to vote at any given time. But we hope that the critical mass will be such that it will send a helpful signal to those on the Treasury Bench and give me a sentence or two for my own memoirs, if I ever get round to them.
I do not want to get into detail at this stage in the debate: my objection is more a philosophical and political observation. It is right that a party that can look back to a lineage including Beveridge and Lloyd George should make this reflection—that there is a large measure of political device about the Bill, which emanates in particular from the personage of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, aided and abetted by the Prime Minister. I say that because a tactical judgment has been made by the Conservative—not coalition—high command that this can be a very useful dividing stretch of water to place between themselves and, in particular, the Labour party with a view to the next election.
We are not against the politics of choice, argumentation and the clash of ideas—what is the point of a House of Commons and a parliamentary democracy without that? But the insidious aspect of the Bill is that, in seeking to open up a philosophical divide of that type, it becomes not an issue of political leadership, but of political pandering to some of the fears, insecurities and downright prejudices that can be stoked up in society—the “us and them” mentality and the sense of resentment and envy. When people start playing fast and loose with those factors—and we have seen early examples against the backdrop of this legislation in the last week to 10 days —they are following a very risky strategy indeed.
I was pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister—the leader of my party—spoke out robustly against the initial posters and some of the leaflets that the Conservatives were producing. However, where the temptation of Her Majesty’s Britannic and historic Conservative and Unionist party is concerned about opportunism within the welfare state historically and playing that card to their advantage and to the disadvantage of others, I would take reassurances from them on that this week as assuredly as I would take reassurances on Wednesday night from the Prime Minister about the direction of their European policy. That is the fact of the matter. But if that is the game that we are playing—and I fear it is—the Liberal Democrats should ensure a clear distance between ourselves and the Conservatives, given our political lineage.
My second point, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives said, is that the presence of my hon. Friend the Minister of State—and other colleagues, both in the coalition as Ministers and outside it—has added strength to the philosophical and practical arguments that we seek to bring to social policy. Before the last election, I shared a party platform at one of our conferences with the leader of my party. We were speaking about aspects of social policy, and the point I made to him and to the audience I repeat tonight. We can be tough-minded—indeed much more tough-minded than many an outside commentator ever expected the Liberal Democrats would or could be when the coalition was entered into two and a half years ago—and that has been proven. What we have to remind people of—with a view to the next election—is that our party and our cause is not just about the head, but must also be about the heart. Many people will view this Bill as hard-hearted, and many will remember that when they come to cast their votes. In part, what we are trying to do here is remind that section of our electorate, our membership, our activists, our sympathisers and our supporters whom we want to come back over the second half of this Parliament, that while the head remains rigorous in government, the heart has not been lost in the wider environ that is UK Liberal Democracy.
My final point is one that I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), who has had such excellent and characteristically detailed input to our internal discussions, raised with the Prime Minister only last Wednesday at Prime Minister’s questions. In setting this arbitrary and post-2015 set of legislative strictures on what will happen to benefits uprating, what account had been taken of the difficult art of gazing into the crystal ball where future levels of inflation are concerned, not least where trends in food and energy prices are involved? The answer, frankly, in any fair-minded way, came there none from the Prime Minister to my hon. Friend.
Thinking back to the awful events that the Prime Minister was describing in this House a few hours ago before this debate, if the Ministry of Defence ever committed itself to a course of action without some sense of a contingency there would be great criticism from across the political spectrum. As drafted—which is why the amendment is so important—the Bill will commit the Government, and beyond what can be the lifetime of this Government and this Parliament, to a course of action for which there is no contingency. That is not a social, political or economic blank cheque that those of us who put our name to this amendment, and who will vote for it, wish to extend.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy), who made some telling points about the problems with the Bill.
I rise to speak in support of amendment 12, moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). The proposals to cut the real income of the poorest are ugly and unjust. I am pleased that the Secretary of State is in his place on the Front Bench. He frequently parades his Christian beliefs, so I shall begin by quoting from the Churches Regional Commission report, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”, which states that the switch in indexation
“represents an on-going erosion…effectively ratcheting up poverty long into the future.”
By 2015, the effect of 1% indexation compared with indexation in line with the CPI to a person on JSA or ESA will be a loss of £156 a year; that is a 4% cut in real terms for those least able to afford it. If the Office for Budget Responsibility’s inflation forecast is wrong, the situation could be even worse.
As we consider the Bill we need to look across at all the changes that the Government are making—we cannot look at this measure in isolation. To see the impact it will have on people, we need to look across the board. I now receive a lot of correspondence from constituents on ESA, who are particularly badly hit. I want to tell the House about one person. Her £66 a week rent is paid by housing benefit. In April, her benefit will go up to £71.70. Out of that, she pays £10 a week for electricity, and £6 a week for water rates. Like many of my constituents, she still uses coal for heating, and three bags of coal—just to inform the Minister, because I do not suppose he is up with coal prices—will cost her £19.50 a week. Her return bus fare to the town—she lives in a village—is £4 a week, and her bedroom tax is £9.24 a week. All of that will leave her with £22.96 for food, cleaning, all household goods and clothes. I submit that even the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) could not live on £22.96 a week. If he actually considered the sums of money that ordinary people will be expected to live on, he would understand the outrage we on this side of the House feel at the continuous erosion of the social security net.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way after her passionate outburst. Yes, of course I share her concern about people on not very much money. My issue with the speech made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) was his assumption that we were talking about people earning £35,000 a year. I do not think he understands that the average wage in my constituency is less than £25,000. We are talking about young nurses—people whose salaries are capped and who are seeing people on benefits get significantly larger increases. That is the issue at stake this evening.
I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman evidently does not understand the Bill. He evidently does not understand that people on those low wages will also lose out through the cuts to working tax credits and housing benefit. In fact, the whole point about the Government’s strategic, political mistake is that more people in work will lose out from the Bill than those who do not work. Furthermore—if he will allow me to do a little more arithmetic for him—a person currently on ESA will get a 70p increase in April, but a person earning £25,000 and receiving a 1% increase will get a £5 a week increase. Can he not understand that 70p is quite a lot less than £5?
I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman again, because other Members want to speak.
I want to address the Minister. When, in the previous Parliament, we introduced the Bill that became the Child Poverty Act 2010, he gave a great deal of evidence from the Family Budgeting Unit in York and the people at Loughborough about the minimum income standard—the minimum income guarantee. He said that what the Labour Government were doing was absolutely shameful and that benefits were not high enough. Now, however, we see that he is prepared to cut benefits in a way that we never did. The testimony to the great success of this Government’s benefit policy is the expansion in the number of food banks: in Durham last year, the food bank fed 4,455 people, of whom 1,390 were children. That is utterly shameful. To demonstrate that it is not possible to live on £22.96 a week, I am going to try to do so during the February recess. Neither I nor, I believe, any other hon. Member seriously believes that they could live on £22.96 a week. We have to look at this in context.
The Bill is unjust because it is simply not fair in the treatment of people in work and those out of work, and the treatment of people on high incomes and people on low incomes. When the dole was introduced in 1912, it was approximately a fifth of average earnings, and so it stayed until 1979, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said. By 1989, it was 15.8% of average earnings; by 1997, according to the House of Commons Library, it was 13.2%; and by 2015, it will be 11.1%. It is absolutely clear that the Government are trying to take it back to the very lowest point at the very bottom of the recession, irrespective of the impact on people’s normal standards of living. Everything the Prime Minister has said about those with the broadest shoulders bearing the biggest burden is seen to be utterly empty and fallacious when the Government introduce such a Bill.
There has been an ugly attempt to divide the poor between the “deserving” and the “undeserving”—taking us back to the 19th century—between sheep and goats, between strivers and shirkers, and between with those with their curtains closed and those with their curtains open. In my constituency, if people’s curtains are closed at 9 o’clock in the morning, it is probably because they are on nights and they are trying to catch up with their sleep. The Churches Regional Commission states that
“of all the words to describe those who depend on welfare, “feckless” has to be the one that rankles most.”
This attempt to divide has failed, however, on the factual ground that two thirds of those affected by the Bill are in work. The housing benefit and tax credit changes will affect far more people.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), who unfortunately is no longer present, tried to tell us that these changes will improve work incentives. As the noble Lord Freud said in the other House,
“there is an inevitable trade-off between the level of benefits and incentives to work. Raising benefit levels would undoubtedly hamper the work-incentive”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 October 2011; Vol. 730, c. GC498.]
Obviously, that is setting to one side the fact that in order to work harder the poor must be made poorer, but the rich can be made richer.
Let us look at the impact of the changes and the context. In my constituency, 7,200 people will lose out as a result of the Bill, by an average of £500; that will take £3.5 million out of the local economy. If the International Monetary Fund is correct, the second round effect will be even greater, at £4.5 million, so the net upshot is an £8 million loss to the economy of my constituency. It is no wonder shops are closing and small business are folding. That is absolutely illogical, and it goes against what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said about the need to let the fiscal stabilisers work.
The hon. Lady talks of her concern for the poor, and it is shared by right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches. The problem is that every time her party gets into office, its policies create more of them. Can she explain why the number of adults out of work for more than 24 months doubled in Labour’s last term in office?
Yes, I can. It is absolutely obvious: we were in the middle of a very deep recession, which the hon. Gentleman seems conveniently to have forgotten. Of course the number of unemployed people has gone up, but the previous Labour Government helped all sorts of other people back into work—365,000 lone parents, for example. If he would care to look at a map of where incapacity benefit and ESA claimants live, he will see that it looks like a map charting the industrial revolution in the 18th century. Those benefit costs clearly reflect the overhanging legacy of the decline of heavy industry. It is totally unreasonable and unfair to punish the people who happened to work in heavy industry.
Once again, we come to the issue of unemployment. We in the north-east have the highest rate of unemployment in the entire country—9.9%. We have seven people chasing every job vacancy. Whether the gap between the increase for a person on £25,000 a year and the increase for a person on JSA is £4.30 or £4.20 will make no material difference to people’s capability or willingness to find a job, which is why we need a completely different approach to job creation. My constituents want to go back to work.
No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to make his own speech. Many hon. Members have given way to him in the course of the debate.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has broken another promise he made in 2011. He said:
“I also want to protect… those who, through no fault of their own, have lost jobs and are trying to find work”.—[Official Report, 29 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 802.]
He is patently failing to protect those people. By definition, people on statutory sick pay, statutory maternity pay, statutory paternity pay or statutory adoption pay are not going out to work, but they, too, are seeing their incomes fall, and that is at a time when they have new children coming into the family and need more support.
The hon. Lady talks about the difficult decisions the Government are having to make, but she does not acknowledge the fact that from the time the Government came into office to 2016, the child element of working tax credit will actually go up by £470 in cash terms.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but the point I am trying to make is that we have to look at the cumulative impact of all the changes. If he looks at the tax and benefits micro-simulation model produced by Her Majesty’s Treasury, he will see that everybody in the bottom half of the distribution is a loser, but those people between 50% and 80% in the distribution are gainers. Therefore, he can understand that although the change to child tax credit—we will discuss it under the next group of amendments—might be very welcome, it is not doing the business because of the severity of the Government’s other reductions.
The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of child poverty, and there is one specific question I wish to ask the Minister and that I hope—
Let me ask the question before trying to answer it. We have heard that the IFS has estimated that by 2015 the number of children in relative poverty will increase by 400,000. Furthermore, the Bill will push another 200,000 children into relative poverty. The Minister knows that we had four measures in the Child Poverty Act 2010. What will be the increase over the life of this Parliament in the number of children living in absolute poverty?
I will respond very fully on the issue of child poverty, which a number of hon. Members have raised. I wanted to ask the hon. Lady about the point she made about incapacity benefit. She said that if we look across Britain, we will see that incapacity benefit is highest in all the industrial heartlands. I hesitate to bring her back to the Bill, but is she aware that we are actually proposing to increase the main rate of incapacity benefit fully in line with inflation?
Yes, but the hon. Gentleman knows that his own impact assessment demonstrates that the Government’s claim that they would protect all people with disabilities is not accurate. I am disappointed that he did not answer my question about child poverty. I do not know whether that is because he does not know the answer or because he is ashamed of it. Perhaps he can explain when he winds up the debate.
I want to speak in support of amendment 10, to which I am a signatory. It is important to set the debate in context. In 2010, the Government inherited an economic mess from the previous Government, including a huge budget deficit, which is why difficult decisions have to be taken. It is important to remind the Committee that just before the previous Government left office, for every £3 they raised, they were spending £4, so borrowing was going up and up. It was interesting to listen to the opening remarks of the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). There was a lot of sound and fury, but little actual policy. In fact, Labour’s amendment would replace the 1% in the Bill with a blank space. Labour does not seem to have any policy at all. His remarks seemed to indicate that the policy, whatever it is, would cost a lot. I think that Labour’s policy of borrow and spend is still in place.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider, in terms of what is or is not happening, that this measure is not part of what the Government came into office to do. This measure has been made necessary because they have not managed to reach the position they had anticipated they would reach, and that is because their policies have failed. Had they reached the position they had anticipated reaching, these further reductions in benefits would not be necessary.
Well, we did not hear any policy from the hon. Lady. I can only assume that she still follows the previous Government’s borrow-and-spend policies.
I support amendment 10, rather than the Labour party’s “empty space” policy. Amendment 10 would have benefits increase in line with the increase in average earnings.
The tax increases under this Government have quite rightly fallen most heavily on those with high incomes, who are paying a far higher proportion of their income in tax than under the previous Government—let us take, for example, the increase in capital gains tax. If there were a Liberal Democrat Government and not a coalition Government, the well-off would be paying far more tax—a mansion tax, for example. The Government have also helped people in low-paid jobs by increasing the personal allowance, which I hope will be raised to £10,000 before the end of this Parliament. The work done by the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb) on universal credit will also help people on low incomes. Pensioners have also been protected from the cuts, because of the triple-lock guarantee, and my hon. Friend is introducing the new single-tier pension—another major achievement.
The group of people we are discussing this evening, whose incomes would be cut by clause 1, are those in receipt of working-age benefits, but not disability benefits. Coalition is all about negotiations and reaching compromises. It is important to note what would be happening to welfare benefits if we had a Conservative Government and not a coalition. We know from statements in the public domain that a Conservative Government would propose a benefits freeze, not a 1% increase, and that the cuts would apply to all benefits, not just those listed this evening. Such a freeze would last for several years—not just three years, as under the coalition Government’s policy—and child benefit would be awarded only for the first two children in the household. These are all policies that a Conservative Government would introduce, but which the coalition is not. We also know, as was made evident earlier—certainly from the cheers on the Conservative Benches behind me—that a Conservative Government would reduce the top rate of tax to 40%, not leave it at 45%. Liberal Democrats in government have achieved a great deal in lessening the impact on welfare benefits uprating, compared with a purely Conservative Government.
However, my main concern about the measures in the Bill—this echoes concerns raised by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) and others who have spoken—is that committing the country to a 1% increase for three years now, before we know what inflation will be when the increase comes into effect, could end up being harmful to people on low incomes, because we have absolutely no idea how much world fuel and food prices will rise in those three years. I recognise the strength of the argument that benefits for people out of work should not rise at a higher rate than the earnings of those in work, which is why amendment 10 proposes to increase such benefits by the same percentage as the rise in average earnings over the previous year. Amendment 10 would be a fair compromise between the need to cut the deficit and the need to provide a safety net for those dependent on welfare benefits.
There has been a lot of talk about scroungers and curtains being drawn. I entirely reject such rhetoric. It is important to note that strong sanctions are available for those receiving jobseeker’s allowance. For example, people can lose their jobseeker’s allowance for up to three years if they do not apply for a job that their adviser tells them about, do not accept a suitable job offer, leave a job voluntarily, lose their job because of misconduct or do not take part in a compulsory Work programme. Therefore, sanctions are indeed available.
I represent a very rural constituency. It is important to point out that prices on islands or remote parts of the mainland are higher than in most of the rest of the country, and that people on jobseeker’s allowance in remote areas who are finding it difficult to get a job in the area in which they live are on very low incomes. We should not commit ourselves to only a 1% increase for the next three years, because we do not know what will happen to prices during that time.
Would my hon. Friend acknowledge that if we had applied the logic that he is now advocating over the last five or six years and pegged benefits to wage rate inflation, the people he is talking about—the people he is trying to help—would be far worse off?
A lot depends on where we start. If we are talking about rises matching prices or wages, it all depends on the starting point—if we pick a different starting point, we get a different result.
I was talking about the next three years. We know what the rise in average earnings was last year, so obviously we know what the rise in benefits would be in 2013-14. We do not know what it would be in 2014-15 or 2015-16, but setting the increase to the rise in average earnings, rather than a fixed rate of 1%, would mean that as the economy gradually grew, the level of growth in the economy would be paid to those on benefits, as well as those in work. That is a better approach than having a fixed rate of 1% for three years.
No Government have control over world food and energy prices. At Prime Minister’s questions last week I raised this potential problem when I asked the Prime Minister what contingency plans the Government had for benefit increases, should food and energy prices rise by more than expected. He answered by pointing to the good work being done by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to ensure that energy companies put people on the lowest available tariffs. That will indeed be a big help to people on low incomes, but if energy prices rise by more than expected, the lowest tariff will rise by more than expected too. After I heard the Prime Minister’s answer, I am afraid that I was left to form the conclusion that the Government have no contingency plans for a scenario in which prices rise by more than expected. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies to this debate, he will be able to reassure me on that point. I hope there is a plan B, in case world prices go up by more than expected.
Setting future increases to the increase in average earnings would address the legitimate argument that out-of-work benefits should not rise faster than earnings and would help to cut the deficit. For example, if the CPI figure were used for 2013-14, benefits would increase by 2.2%. If average earnings were used, they would increase by 1.6%, saving half the amount that a 1% increase would save. It is also important to point out that cutting public spending on its own will not eliminate the deficit. We need to grow the economy as well. All the economic research indicates that money put into the pockets of people on low incomes is far more likely to be spent straight away than it would be by those on higher incomes. Not increasing welfare benefits by the rate of inflation will have an impact on shops and other businesses, as well as the recipients themselves.
To sum up, linking benefit increases to average earnings is much fairer all round and avoids committing ourselves to a fixed figure unnecessarily far in advance. I hope that the Committee will support amendment 10, and I hope that you will allow it to be put to a vote, Mr Amess.
This evening’s debate on clause 1 and amendment 12, moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), is important because it speaks to more than the £13 billion increase in the welfare budget caused by this Government’s failure on growth since 2010 or even the chronic lack of jobs, in a still depressed economy, faced by so many hundreds of thousands of people in our country. This debate speaks to the very values of our society.
Are we a country that is content to divide socially instead of coming together—jobless and workers, low-paid and middle earners—to defeat again the social evils of worklessness, low pay, slumping living standards and poverty? Are we a country that is content to see the doubling of food banks under this Government since May 2010, as 1.4 million people in work find themselves needing to resort to credit to help to pay the rent or the mortgage each month? Are we a country that will fall for the cynical “divide and rule” tactics of the Chancellor, which treat people as pawns in a squalid political game, amid a campaign of demonising the poor and turning neighbour against neighbour, when a responsible Government would seek to unite people rather than divide the country? This clause is rotten economics, ruinous for weak economic demand up and down the country and rank politics, from a Government who can relaunch as many times as they like, but who will never rediscover any sense of moral purpose while they engage in this basest of agendas of social division.
The hon. Gentleman mentions unity. Does he agree that if people lead their life on welfare, it is not only bad for our economy and for our society but tremendously bad for those people themselves, hugely reducing their life expectancy and seriously damaging their children’s lives and prospects? It should be discouraged; the best way out of poverty is through work.
On this pleasant occasion, I find that I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Let us hope that that agreement will continue when he contributes to the debate later, and in future debates.
These measures are not pro-growth, as they were included in the analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility in December that further downgraded growth forecasts for this year by 0.8% of gross domestic product. They are not pro-deficit reduction, as unemployment is set to become 340,000 higher than the level predicted by the OBR in 2010, and benefit bills will be £13 billion higher than forecast. They are not pro-equality either, as two thirds of the real-terms cuts introduced by clauses 1 and 2 will hurt women, and three fifths of them will hurt working families.
If the Government believe that they are standing up for fairness in the midst of the longest slump for 140 years, this must be either the most incompetent or the most misguided set of measures since those proposed by the National Government in 1931. On every count, they will increase, not cut, inequality in our country, given that 71% of the households affected are on or below the average income, and that 60% of the total savings from the Bill will come from the poorest third on the income scale. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third. On no count can these measures be described as fair. How on earth can the Government believe that it is right to introduce a 4% real-terms cut in benefits until 2015 while continuing to pay top-rate pension tax relief to top-rate taxpayers at a rate of 50p in the pound? They are doing that while impoverishing the very poorest people at the same time.
Unemployment in my constituency remains consistently high at more than 4,000, or 12% of the working-age population. Although more than two thirds of jobless people experience only a few months out of work at the most, there are more than 1,300 people there who have been out of work for a year or more. Within that group, some 600 people have been out of work for two years or more. If the Government were serious about welfare reform, they would accept that ending the crushing blow of such long-term joblessness, which saps the human spirit and harms long-term job prospects—as the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) pointed out—should be the first duty of a responsible Government. Instead, they have put this ruinous set of measures before us tonight.
I would not endorse that policy because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, that figure includes the transfer of between 200,000 and 250,000 college staff from the public sector to the private sector. I am not going to endorse that figure; he knows that it is not accurate.
Would my hon. Friend like to refer the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) to recent articles—including some in The Guardian, which he would probably discount—that show not only that those jobs were transferred from the public sector to the private sector but that the Government are counting unpaid work in the total of new jobs being created?
Yes indeed, I have seen that report, and it was scandalous. I was somewhat perplexed by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) when he said that people who were in part-time work were satisfied with that situation. The truth is that, as the TUC has established, 3.2 million people in this country are stuck in involuntary part-time work because of weak demand, low growth and low investment in the low-productivity economy that is being presided over by this Government.